Berlin at War – Roger Moorhouse

Berlin at War – Roger Moorhouse

Book Review of Berlin at War by Roger Moorhouse 

Berlin at War is another book which describes the experience of “ordinary” Germans during the Second World War, this time focusing on a single city.  There have been a number of books which take this approach, such as Dresden by Frederick Taylor, or Inferno:  The Devastation of Hamburg by Keith Lowe.  Whereas the other two books also describe the history and political situation of the cities, Berlin At War covers the wartime period from 1939 to 1945 only.

What is the fascination of these books?  As someone who loves visiting Germany and is an avid reader of German literature, I find myself fascinated with two things – how “ordinary” people came to be so fascinated with the false promises of Nazism, and also how they coped with the destruction of their dreams and the devastation of their lives that resulted from their infatuation with Adolf Hitler.

Berlin at War is particularly interesting because it presents a “street-level” viewpoint of the terrible events that befell the city.  Roger Moorhouse has gone back to a vast range of primary sources including memoirs, diaries and interviews and the result is that the reader gains a good idea of what it was like to be a resident of the city between 1939 and 1945.  

He interviewed many elderly Berliners over coffee and cake and also used the wealth of published memoirs and unpublished diaries including a vast number which were never (and probably never will be) translated into English.  

Some of the published books were once well-known, but now rather forgotten such as Christabel Bielenburg’s The Past is Myself, or William Shirer’s Berlin Diary and I was pleased to be reminded of what important eye-witness accounts are these and other books.

The amount of material collected was so vast that the only way the author was able to use it sensibly was to build the book around a wide range of themes, each chapter covering topics such as “Faith in the Fuhrer”, “Brutality made stone”, Enemies of the state” and others.  The book is illustrated with maps and photographs which enable the reader to visualise the events described, and a copious index and bibliography is provided.

The opening chapter describes the state of mind of the people as Poland was invaded.  Roger Moorhouse shows that the people of Berlin were far from jubilant as news of the German invasion spread across the news media.  

A seventeen year old school girl wrote,”I remember that we all sat there with these frightfully serious faces.  We were depressed.  We had the feeling that something quite terrible was coming . . . I can still see them before my eyes, how those faces looked”.  In the cinemas, the newsreels were greeted with dead silence, and only a very few members of the audience cried out in approval.  

The British ambassador noted that “the whole atmosphere of Berlin was one of utter gloom and depression” and people clung on to the hope of peace negotiations even after war had been declared by the British, even though the more realistic members of the population were foreseeing imminent catastrophe.

The mood of Berlin recovered rapidly when the German army successfully took Norway, Denmark, France and Belgium but was knocked back again at the news of operation Barbarossa, the attack on Russia. With three million German soldiers crossing the border into Russia, every family was now had a personal involvement in the war and it was impossible to expect an early end to it.

1940 saw an exceptionally hard winter, with temperatures falling below -20°C.  Coal supplies to the city were halted due to the frozen waterways and railways and people began to literally freeze to death. Food rationing bit hard on the people’s diets and even products which were rationed were often in very short supply.  Theft, and the black market flourished, despite the terrible penalties meeted out to those who were caught obtaining illegal goods.  

From now on, there was to be no remittance of the hard times Berliners had begun to experience.  Conditions could only get worse as the Russian campaign failed, and the Allies began to increase the frequency and effectiveness of their bombing raids.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on radio, “The People’s Friend”.  The Nazis had decided early on that radio was to be a key means of propaganda and the government produce a “People’s Receiver” at a low cost subsidised by the government.  

The smaller version of this soon received the nickname, “Goebells’ gob” (Goebells Schnauze).  From 1939 it became illegal to listen to foreign radio broadcasts, punishable by imprisonment, or even death where a listener spread the foreign news he heard to his neighbours.

This must have been one of the most broken Nazi laws because Berliners generally became addicted to tuning into stations like the BBC, even with blankets over their receivers and a watcher posted at the front-door.  

It was estimated that three-quarters of the population listened into foreign broadcasts – with most believing that what they heard from the BBC was more reliable than the German stations.  One spur to encourage Germans to tune in to Russian and British broadcasts was that they read out lists of prisoners of war – often the only way that Germans could find out whether their relatives were dead or alive.

The chapter on the evacuation of Jews, “Into Oblivion” tackles the question of how much Berliners knew about the Holocaust.  Moorhouse points out that the evacuation was conducted in an extremely orderly fashion and non-Jewish residents and the organisation of the early stages was actually conducted by Jews.  

This seems to have enabled non-Jewish Berliners to cast a blind-eye on the evacuations and to not ask too many questions about it.  The censorship of mail meant that news of the elimination of the Jews did not actually get back to families in Berlin, but this very lack of information allowed rumours to flourish.  

Historians today believe that about one third of the German population knew about the mass murder of Jews – but even then it was easy for this information to be dismissed as enemy propaganda. The majority could simply “not conceive of mass killing on the scale of the Holocaust”.

The final chapters of the book are of course terrible to read.  The relentless bombing campaign reduced the city to ruins, and conditions became unbearable for Berlin citizens with many having nervous breakdowns because of the horrendous noise of the bombing and the destruction and death they saw around them.  

The troubles of the survivors were far from over when eventually the war was lost, for it is well known that the Russian invaders raped and robbed with abandon in the early days of their occupation – although they did in fact restore order reasonably quickly and made arrangements to feed the population.

I enjoyed this book greatly, not least because it is so very readable.  This is far from being an academic book, but it is full of information which fills out a picture already well-known with personal stories and anecdotes.  We gain an impression of a people who were reluctant to go to war and had a typical big-city cynicism about their rulers.  

Jokes and satire were rife throughout the war years, although the population was also capable of being rallied to patriotic fervour when news of victories arrived.  It is generally thought that only about a third of the population were supporters of the Nazi regime, and Roger Moorhouse catalogues some of the brave acts of resistance which took place by people called to a level of bravery they did not know they had in them.

Book Details

Title:  Berlin at War

Author Roger Moorhouse

Publication:  Bodley Head (August 2010) Hardback, 448 pages

ISBN: 9780224080712