Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital 1939–45

David Stafford reviews a detailed exploration of life in the Nazi capital during the Second World War

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Reviewed by: David Stafford
Author: Roger Moorhouse
Publisher: The Bodley Head
Price (RRP): £25

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Was life in Berlin very different from other big cities in Europe during the Second World War? It was, after all, the nerve centre of Germany so the answer might seem an obvious and resounding ‘yes’.

Yet in many respects life for ordinary citizens resembled that of others elsewhere, at least until the final apocalyptic weeks of April and May 1945.

In this highly impressionistic account Roger Moorhouse paints a sometimes vivid picture of a city at war. Not surprisingly, life during the phoney war period of 1939–40 carried on much as normal except for the blackout.

As in London it was followed by a spate of road and rail accidents and offered an opportunity for criminals that produced a surge in muggings and robberies. It also facilitated the activities of a serial killer who murdered eight women before he was caught and guillotined in the Ploetzensee prison in July 1941.

Rationing, too, became an integral part of daily life, accompanied by a flourishing black market and startling incongruities, also to be found in other cities, such as lobster and champagne remaining on restaurant menus until relatively late in the war. It also caused some hardship, although in the end no one starved to death and conditions were far better than in the previous war just 20 years before. This was true as well for other German cities.

So what was special about Berlin? It was the capital, for a start, and in one of his more interesting chapters the author discusses the role played by two major cemeteries.

The Invaliden, traditionally the burial ground of the Prussian and German military elite, flourished as the war’s death toll mounted with a series of state funerals that reached its apogee with the funeral of Reinhard Heydrich, the Reich protector of Bohemia and Moravia, assassinated by Czech resisters in 1942.

By contrast, the huge Jewish cemetery at Weissensee became largely inactive and deserted following the deportation of the city’s Jews, although its rapidly overgrown grounds became a favourite hiding ground for those who evaded the transports.

Berlin was also, with its liberal and cosmopolitan character and strong working-class districts such as Wedding and Friedrichshain, the focal point of German resistance to the Nazis, whose prewar vote never amounted to much more than 30 per cent of the total.

Not surprisingly the city produced some well-known resistance groups and individuals, as well as one of the most remarkable and successful public demonstrations against the regime, the so-called Rosenstrasse protest of March 1943, when hundreds of mostly Aryan women openly protested for several days without reprisal against the detention of their ‘Mischling’ (half-Jewish) or ‘privileged’ (eg decorated First World War Jewish) husbands.

Overall, however, most Berliners were more intent on survival than on risking their lives resisting the regime.

The dominant image of Berlin at war’s end is that of acres and acres of smoking ruins gutted by bombing. Predictably, as the capital, it attracted the largest tonnage of Allied bombs of any German city.

Yet its wide boulevards and stone buildings safeguarded it against any major firestorms, unlike either Hamburg or Cologne, and its death toll from air attack was low by comparison. On the other hand, it suffered the trauma of the final big battle of the war and the horrors of Red Army occupation: it was not just Hitler who committed suicide in April 1945 but literally thousands of ordinary Berliners.

It seems odd, therefore, that the author should end his account detecting a renewed sense of hope in the city. Things, after all, were to get a lot worse before they got better, such as the Berlin blockade barely three years later. But then that’s another story.

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David Stafford is the author of Endgame 1945 (Abacus, 2008)