Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital, 1939-45, By Roger Moorhouse

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The Independent Culture

If one enemy bomber reaches the Ruhr," bragged Hermann Goering in 1939, "you can call me Meyer." By 1943, Berliners had given the air-raid sirens that serenaded them nightly the nickname "Meyer's bugle". Such is the gallows humour of civilians in wartime, and Berliners were no exception.

But what was life really like in the dark heart of the Reich? What privations were endured, what compromises made, what principles abandoned? Antony Beevor's Berlin: The Downfall chronicled the city's appalling last months, but to get a feel of life before, readers have had to rely on novels such as Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin and Vicki Baum's populist but powerful Berlin Hotel.

Roger Moorhouse has marshalled an impressive range of primary sources including newspaper reports, official documents, memoirs, diaries and interviews with the dwindling band of survivors to create a gripping panorama of Berlin at war. Within the chronological sweep, he adopts a thematic approach, with chapters devoted to rationing, air-raid defences, radio propaganda, Speer's megalomaniac plans for a "world metropolis", and the surveillance network that extended from the Gestapo down to the legions of informers motivated by greed, fear or spite.

With its cosmopolitan population, metropolitan cynicism and strong pockets of Communist support, Berlin was never a bastion of Nazism. Resistance came from Communists such as Beppo Röhmer and Robert Uhrig; Christians such as the pastor and former U-boat commander Martin Niemöller, and Bernhard Lichtenberg, Provost of St Hedwig's Cathedral, who died in transit to Dachau after exhorting his flock to pray for the camp inmates; apolitical protesters such as Otto and Elise Hampel, whose story formed the basis of Fallada's novel; and conservative anti-Nazis such as Johanna Solf and the Von Stauffenberg circle.

All these men and women were unbelievably courageous. But between the extremes of resistance and fanaticism lay a majority who just attempted to survive. Inevitably, any book of this kind must address how much ordinary Germans knew about the Holocaust. Moorhouse takes a more lenient view than Daniel Goldhagen in Hitler's Willing Executioners, pointing out that even many Jews remained in ignorance. What the average Berliner could not have ignored was the slave labourers – French, Dutch, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian – at work throughout the city.

Most of Berlin's remaining Jews were rounded up by 1943. Demoralised by a decade of persecution, many accepted their fate or committed suicide. A surprising number, possibly 20,000, tore the yellow star from their clothes and, with the aid of papers obtained from forgers, donated by brave and decent neighbours, or taken from the pockets of air-raid victims, assumed a new identity.

These "U-boats", Jews living underground, faced many perils, not least the notorious Greifer ("catcher") Stella Goldschlag. Coerced into informing to save her parents from the camps, she continued even after they had been deported, and may have been responsible for the arrest of hundreds of her fellow Jews.

Moorhouse's meticulous and painstaking research is matched by his narrative verve, wide-ranging sympathy and eye for telling detail. The book would, however, have benefited from more attentive copyediting.

As the rumble of artillery and the howl of Katyusha rockets grew ever nearer, Berlin itself became the front line. Having heard of the Red Army's propensity for brutality and rape, many civilians took refuge in the cyanide dispensed by the authorities; some 4,000 suicides were reported in April 1945; many more went unreported.

The gallows humour survived until the end. On a ruined wall, amid the rubble and the unburied corpses, some joker painted the words of Hitler's 1933 election address: "Give me ten years and you will not recognise Germany any more."

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