Berlin At War

Brian Melican reviews Roger Moorhouse’s excruciatingly detailed account of Berlin during World War 2…

For a comparatively young city, Berlin is by no means short on history. Paris and London may have been founded by the Romans, but the presence of the past in Berlin can be quite overwhelming – primarily, and quite paradoxically, due to the recent nature of this past.

There must be nearly two million people in the city who remember the Wall first hand, and many thousands still who remember what Berlin’s now buzzing streets looked like in the immediate aftermath of some of the heaviest bombing and shelling ever unleashed upon an urban conurbation.

The fascination with the near-graspable aspect of Berlin’s history, with the magnitude of what happened here as against the relative closeness to us of many involved, is what lies at the heart of Roger Moorhouse’s Berlin at War, published in 2011 by Vintage Books.

Moorhouse’s wife’s parents, to whom the book is dedicated, were German and experienced the horrors of the war first hand; and in preparation for this detailed account of the German capital from 1939 to 1945, Moorhouse seized every further opportunity to talk to the ageing, dwindling number of Berliners who saw what happened in and to the city with their own eyes.

Berliners receiving bread rations from a trailer.  Date unknown.
Berliners receiving bread rations from a trailer. Date unknown.

It is on this well of rich and often candid material that the strength of Moorhouse’s book resides. By combining these new personal accounts with both previously published diary material of the day and excerpts from meticulous research in official archives, the author is able to offer us a detailed tour through war-time Berlin that is at once entertaining and enlightening – as engaging as it is exact.

Berlin at War is a small-scale Pointillist counterpart to a broad-canvas Impressionist work with a wider remit or a more theory-driven approach; stepping away from Moorhouse’s picture, the points merge to form the overall image of a city that housed everyone from the most rabid murderers the SS had to offer to apathetic forced labourers, a place of shared experiences and wildly divergent attitudes.

Moorhouse’s methodology breaks down the major themes of the war in Berlin into manageable pieces. By concentrating on just one city, he is able to go into precise geographical detail, a feature which makes the book of particular interest to people who will recognise the names of the city’s districts, parks, and streets; it furnishes the broad brushstrokes of the capital’s wartime history with strong outlines and defines their contours and nuances.

The building of Germania begins in the Tiergarten area of Berlin soon after the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone, Summer 1938. AKG Images
The building of Germania begins in the Tiergarten area of Berlin soon after the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone, Summer 1938. AKG Images

If you’ve ever asked yourself precisely what rationing meant for the average Berliner, for example, this book contains answers for different kinds of Berliner at every stage of the war, as we learn not only how much food was available, but which ingredients and why.

You may be as surprised as I was to learn that, counter-intuitively, food supplies were in some cases worse in early 1940 that later on in the war, due to the unusually harsh, potato-ruining winter and – banally enough if you’re British – an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Saxony.

While Berlin was surrounded by Russian forces in early 1945, however, the food supply was sometimes better: in April of that year, a train-full of potatoes was sat at Lehrter Bahnhof and the enterprising, well-informed Gerda Langosch was able to carry off a sack large enough to last through until the crumbling of the regime.

This kind of micro-detail gives the reader not just one answer to the question “what was it like trying to get food in Berlin during the war?”, but several answers, showing the variety of outcomes and the vicissitudes of fate in all their richness.

The book also contains answers to follow-up questions, such as how persecuted Jewish Germans or maltreated foreign labourers could get their hands on rations.

Jews, for example, were given ration cards (albeit below the daily allowance for other Germans), but were forbidden from shopping until just before the shops closed, meaning that meagre supplies were often gone.

The “vegetable lady of Lichterfelde”, however, used to allow her Jewish customers to hang their bags up outside her shop in the morning, which would be filled with their orders during the day. These orders could then be officially purchased during the allotted half-hour before closing.

Civil air defense workers (Luftschutz) instructing a group of boys at the Kant Gymnasium, in the Berlin-Spandau district during 1937.
Civil air defense workers (Luftschutz) instructing a group of boys at the Kant Gymnasium, in the Berlin-Spandau district during 1937.

Moorhouse’s wealth of detail even offers answers to questions you may never have thought of, like “if there was such a lack of meat, wouldn’t it have been a good idea to eat the animals in the zoo who were killed in bombing raids?”

The author guides us through the hearsay and rumour rife around such issues with aplomb, allowing us insights into the thought patterns of a population with a permanent rumbling in their bellies and nothing more than the platitudes of propaganda to feast on as they turned on the radio before bedtime.In providing such detailed answers, the book also offers solutions to bigger puzzles, such as how the Nazi regime managed to hold on for so long, especially in its hopeless final phase of 1944-45.

What Berlin at War shows is how, despite the difficult supply situation, people were fed, and that despite the air war – in which Berlin was pounded with three times the tonnage dropped on London – the gigantic bunkers of the civil defence system were saving lives, and seen to be doing so.

This meant that civilian morale did not collapse in the way Bomber Command had hoped it would. In one raid on 15th February 1944, for example, Moorhouse tells us that the RAF lost more pilots than the 169 Berlin civilians who were killed. Nevertheless, his narration never fails to document the sufferings of those affected, often while maintaining a hint of the black humour for which Berliners are known:

“Bombing was an experience that was shared by all Berliners, regardless of their racial origins or their social standing; from foreign forced labourers to refugee Jews, from the well-healed, petty aristocrats of Dahlem to the communist tenement-dwellers of Friedrichshain. As one observer noted: ‘The bombs fell indiscriminately on Nazis and anti-Nazis, on women and children and work of art, on dogs and pet canaries.’”

Brandenburg Gate in 1945

By mixing anecdotes like this, reports about specific events, and even memories of widespread jokes of the day with hard fact and official documentation, Roger Moorhouse has produced a rarity in popular history about the Second World War: a book which grasps the bull by the horns and deals with the big questions of Nazi history without overstating or underestimating the power of the ideology and people’s susceptibility to it – and without branding all Germans as sympathisers or subscribing to the unsatisfactory idea of a “convinced core” at the top of the state.

Indeed, Moorhouse offers small, excruciatingly analysed answers to the big, often vague questions. For those of us who are both weary and wary of the unanswerables like “Why didn’t the Germans stand up against Hitler?” and “Why did so many people let their neighbours get carted off by the Gestapo?”, Moorhouse offers page after page of concrete examples showing a full range of reactions to these extraordinary times.

From Otto Weidt, the manager of a brush workshop of Rosenthaler Strasse who fought like a mini-Oscar Schindler for each one his Jewish employees, bribing the authorities where necessary, to those who took in Jews for money and turned them into the Gestapo when they were no longer able to pay, Moorhouse paints a rich, varied, detailed picture of wartime Berlin composed of single events.

Berlin / Brandenburger Tor 1945

There are a few minor quibbles: in a book so full of geography, some maps would have been good (of the air defence system so well described, for example, and of the labour camps and deportation centres in and around the city).

Also, given the author’s (entirely understandable) decision to eschew a strictly chronological structure for a slightly looser thematic approach, a timeline of the events discussed in the city might have been useful, or at least an introduction running through them.

Yet Moorhouse’s skill at imparting nigh-on 400 pages of quotidian detail without getting bogged down or losing sight of the overall historical situation means that Berlin at War remains eminently readable without them, and a great source of information for people wanting concrete answers about a period in history that’s still so close, and yet still so enigmatic.