One of the first themes to emerge from this engaging, well-written study of Berlin in World War II was the actual lack of enthusiasm for the war shown by the vast majority of its inhabitants. The spectre of defeat from the last war hung heavily over the capital, so that news of the invasion of Poland produced a sense of shocked disbelief while the rumour that peace had been declared in October 1939 led to scenes of delirious rapture, albeit temporary. But as the author points out, Berlin – with its large, traditionally left-wing working-class districts and aggregations of liberal intelligentsia – had ‘never been a natural constituency for the Nazis’. And it was surely no coincidence that few leading Nazis came from the city.
What resistance there was to the regime was typically muted and small-scale, and, with the presence of the Gestapo and its army of informers, usually short lived. Typical acts of rebellion included the defacing of posters, distribution of seditious literature and a refusal to give the stiff-armed ‘German greeting’ favoured by the Nazis. A more productive form of resistance was the help given to the city’s Jewish population. As in the rest of Germany, Nazi persecution of the Jews followed an incremental process: ritual humiliations, then loss of income, food and housing, before the inevitable deportations to the East. To escape this fate, more than 5000 Jews had gone underground by 1943, hiding in disused buildings or taking on assumed Aryan identities. A few did this alone, but most were helped by non-Jews who took great risks in protecting their new ‘guests’.
Although motives for helping Jews were sometimes mixed, most were acts of selfless generosity. They were, unsurprisingly, performed by a select few, with most Berliners keeping their head down and enjoying what pleasure they could. In the early years of the war – despite the black-out and rationing – outside observers commented on the unwarlike nature of the city, with the parks and lakes full of sunbathers in the summer and skaters and skiers in the winter. But, inexorably, the war came to Berlin.
Night raids by the RAF in the autumn of 1940 had given the people a foretaste of what was to come, although it was not until the winter of 1943 that the bombing began in earnest. The following year the RAF was joined by USAAF, with raids going on around the clock. Taken by tonnage of bombs dropped, Berlin was the hardest hit city in Europe, but its wide stone-built avenues helped prevent the conflagrations that devastated the tightly packed conurbations of Hamburg and Dresden. Good civil defence also reduced casualties, so that by the end of the war Berlin’s total death toll for aerial attack was 50,000 – the same number of casualties inflicted on the people of Hamburg during the firestorm attack of July 1943.
But by 1945 Berlin was a city in ruins, and worse was to follow. As the Red Army closed on Berlin in the spring of 1945, its citizens rightly feared retribution for the atrocities committed in the Soviet Union. The Nazi response was characteristically nihilistic. Berliners were encouraged to commit suicide, with cyanide available on request from the health authorities; at a performance of the Berlin Philharmonic boys from the Hitler Youth handed out poison capsules. During April there were 4000 officially reported suicides, although many more went unrecorded. When the Red Army smashed its way into the city, Soviet soldiers went on a rampage of theft and rape, although killing on a mass scale was rare. Once the authorities restored order, the people of Berlin cautiously clambered out of the rubble to rebuild anew.
In such a wide-ranging subject, authorial control can easily be lost, but Moorhouse has successfully integrated the thematic elements of his story within the general chronological narrative. Based on solid research the book vividly recreates what life was like for Berliners during the most cataclysmic episode in the city’s history, and despite the generally grim nature of the subject material it remains an engrossing read.
Bodley Head, 448 pages, £25 (h/b)
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