BERLIN AT WAR
By Roger Moorhouse
Basic Books, $29.95 417 pages, illustrated
To write the “biography” of a city of nearly 5 million is a challenging literary task. When the city in question is Berlin, and the time frame that of World War II, the challenge is even greater.
“Berlin at War” is an extensively researched and absorbing account of the city that went from being the host of the 1936 Olympics to being a pile of rubble less than a decade later. Ironically, pleasure-loving Berlin had never been a hotbed of support for Hitler, whose roots were in Bavaria. But there was never any popular uprising against the Fuhrer; such opposition as appeared in Berlin came from failed army coups.
By 1939, Germany had been subjected to six years of Nazi propaganda that affected even sophisticated Berliners. The approved words for a popular Christmas carol became “Silent night, holy night/ All is calm, all is bright./ Adolph Hitler is Germany’s star/ Showing us greatness and glory afar/ Bringing us Germans the might.”
Because Hitler had bluffed the Allies repeatedly over Austria and Czechoslovakia, Berliners were surprised when the German invasion of Poland actually led to war. To their distress, from 1939 on the supply of most food, as well as clothing, footwear, and coal, would be strictly rationed. (Ironically, delicacies such as lobster and champagne were not subject to rationing until well into the war.)
The first in Berlin to feel the effects of war were, predictably, the city’s remaining Jews. They had already been banned from most public places, restricted in travel and employment, and largely isolated from everyday German life. Now, ration cards for Jews specified reduced amounts and permitted their holders to shop only at specified times - often at the end of the day, when most goods were gone.
As the war went on, Jewish property became subject to seizure. Then Jews themselves were targeted for “resettlement,” that is, transport to a labor or death camp. Mr. Moorhouse cites a number of instances in which Berliners assisted runaway Jews, but he notes that these events were exceptional. “For all their bravery and sacrifice,” the author writes, “the number of those who actively helped Berlin Jews was rather small.”
One legend that the author refutes is that of the omniscient Gestapo. Mr. Moorhouse points out that the political police never had more than 800 operatives for all Berlin, and that “Those Berliners who did not break the law, resist the regime or consort with Jews or communists genuinely had little reason to fear arrest and imprisonment.”
But the Gestapo did employ a network of informants to fulfill its mission. Some informants were motivated by ideology, others by ambition or petty spite. In Mr. Moorhouse’s judgment, “Some Berliners would undoubtedly have used the simple expedient of denunciation to rid themselves of a business rival or an adulterous spouse.”
Fear of the Gestapo gave the average Berliner few means to express dissent. One means was graffiti, and anti-Hitler slogans appeared periodically in the German capital. Another was to ignore the Nazi salute. Some Berliners “continued to greet each other with the usual ‘Guten Morgen’ in place of the obligatory ‘Heil Hitler.’ “
For the first three years of the war, Berliners knew little of air raids. The occasional visits from the RAF were largely symbolic - small-scale retaliation for what the Luftwaffe had inflicted on London. The Allies had technological challenges to overcome; British night bombers were so inaccurate that they could scarcely find a target city, while neither the British nor the Americans could provide long-range escorts for their bombers until well into the war.
But by 1943, the Allies were ready. On March 1, a mass raid by the RAF killed 500 Berliners and rendered some 100,000 homeless. Worse was to come; in the end some 30,000 Berliners would die, 10,000 more than in the London blitz.
Most Berliners sought safety in the cellars of their homes. Others went to public shelters, some of which were very strongly built, but all of which were crowded and oppressive. A woman recalled entering a bunker at the Berlin zoo: “It was eerie-a mass of people all running in the dark, with the flak already firing, all making for the entrances which are much too narrow.”
In the Battle of Britain, the predominant mood among Londoners had been a mixture of fear and defiance. In Berlin, fear mingled with disgust - fear of death in a second losing war, and disgust at the Nazi leadership that had brought Germany to such a pass. Whereas Winston Churchill had been highly visible during the Battle of Britain, Hitler remained hunkered down in his own bunker, accessible to only a few top aides.
As 1944 turned into 1945, fear of Allied bombers gave way to fear of the approaching Russians. Even as Soviet shells reached the Berlin suburbs, SS units rounded up and summarily executed anyone who might be a deserter. One diarist wrote, “We are vegetating in a ghost town, without electric light or gas, without water; we are forced to think of personal hygiene as a luxury, and hot meals as abstract concepts.”
There would be no “peace” for Berlin, for the arrival of the Red Army would bring a brutal Soviet occupation and an estimated 4,000 suicides among Berliners. But this reviewer was dry-eyed at the fate of a city that had enjoyed the good years but took no responsibility for the bad.
Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean, Va.