Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital 1939-45, by Roger Moorhouse, Bodley Head RRP£25, 448 pages
It is hard not to sympathise with the Berliners of the second world war. They were the least fascist of any major German city in the 1930s – “Red” Berlin had long been a thorn in the Nazis’ side, the activist Horst Wessel was killed in one of its suburbs in 1930 – yet they were among the most heavily bombed by the Allies. They provided several of the bravest resisters against Hitler, yet when the Red Army arrived in April 1945 their women had to suffer mass gang-rape. Then, for decades, Berlin was stripped of its capital city status and divided into zones.
Certainly hundreds, even possibly thousands, of books have been written about London and Paris during the war, but very few about Berlin. Yet, as the historian Roger Moorhouse makes clear, there are multifarious superb sources, especially the taped reminiscences of scores of its wartime inhabitants. The author makes extensive use of these, introducing us to searing personal stories that have in many cases never been published before. Few books on the war genuinely increase the sum of our collective knowledge of this exhaustively covered period, but this one does.
There are the classic set-piece scenes, of course: the book opens with two million spectators watching 50,000 troops marching past for Hitler’s 50th-birthday parade on April 20 1939, possibly the largest peacetime display of military might ever seen. After the Reichstag was burnt down in 1934, the German parliament met in the Kroll Opera House, which thereafter became the setting for many of the Führer’s most bloodcurdling speeches. The Allies’ combined bomber offensive concentrated on Berlin in 1943-1945, hoping to demoralise the 4.5m inhabitants of the enemy capital, and, as Moorhouse shows, essentially succeeding. It was the final occupation of Berlin, and the suicide of its most famous inhabitant, that finally brought the war in Europe to an end. So, asks Moorhouse, what was it like to have been an ordinary Berliner during these momentous events?
Berliners were both anxious and unenthusiastic about the outbreak of war in 1939, confirming Nazi fears that the capital – especially its extensive working class districts – could not be relied upon politically. Yet despite this, the Gestapo stationed only 697 agents in Berlin in 1939, which had risen to a mere 787 by 1945, or one agent for every 5,600 Berliners. Control was instead exercised by a vast network of informers, based on the Blockwart (block warden) and Vertrauensmann (person of trust). None the less, 83 per cent of Berliners said after the war that they did not feel they had anything to fear from the Gestapo during it. Needless to say, life could be horrific for the other 17 per cent, particularly gypsies, Jews and those who consorted with them, or anyone caught listening to BBC broadcasts.
Moorhouse is particularly good with the small-arms fire of history, those illuminating details or unknown life-stories that shed light on a phenomenon of Berlin life, such as the sign in the shop window that read: “Goods displayed in this window are absolutely not for sale,” or the problems that Berliners who had sheltered Jews had in disposing of the bodies of those who had died in their care.
Some of the low-life characters who thrived in the blackout and the tyranny even retain the capacity to shock us to this day. Stella Kübler was a blue-eyed, blonde-haired Jewish Berliner born in 1922 who wore the yellow star while working in an armaments factory before she went underground once the Holocaust had got underway. Caught and tortured, she agreed to become a Greifer (Jew-catcher), who handed in her co-religionists for 200 marks each, as well as the promise that her parents would be spared Auschwitz. Given Aryan papers and a hotel room, armed with a good memory for names and addresses and a naturally flirtatious nature, “the blonde poison”, as Jews called her, was employed by the Gestapo to devastating effect. The first person she denounced was her own husband, but then she trawled bars and cafés and parks seeking out Jews and their protectors. In a single weekend she led the Gestapo to 62 Jews and was thought to have been responsible for the deaths of up to 2,000 of them throughout the war. Of course the Gestapo eventually reneged on their agreement and gassed her parents at Auschwitz, but Kübler herself survived the war, only to commit suicide aged 72 in 1994.
One of the most famous urban myths about wartime Berlin – that the animals from the zoo escaped during an RAF bombing raid and roamed around the devastated capital – turns out not to be a myth at all. On November 23 1943, the day after a heavy raid, the Charlottenburg resident Josepha von Koskull saw an “exhausted and distraught feral-looking Alsatian” lolloping towards her, which she was about to feed with a bread roll before two uniformed zookeepers warned her that it was actually an escaped wolf. Another resident, Ursula Gebel, recalled how: “The tanks in the aquarium all ran dry, the crocodiles escaped, but like the snakes they froze in the cold November air.”
The stories of mass rape once the Red Army arrived are utterly gruesome; one Berlin lawyer was shot for trying to protect his Jewish wife from Russian soldiers, and as he lay dying he witnessed her gang-rape. “After one young girl had been raped by three Russian soldiers,” records Moorhouse, “they rummaged through the kitchen of her apartment, and when they found marmalade and coffee substitute, they smeared it into their victim’s hair.” It was understandable that the soldiers of the Wehrmacht did all they could to avoid bestial degradation befalling their Volk, but in vain. Of the 2.1m German soldiers who perished fighting against the USSR, we are told, only 100,000 – fewer than one in 20 – have named graves. Of course the statistics for their Russian and Jewish victims are far worse.
This book is thus not for the faint-hearted, but there are several uplifting moments where human decency prevailed, and Berliners’ black humour also helped see them through. By trawling through the complex, often deeply morally compromised personal stories of many survivors, Moorhouse has produced new insights into the way ordinary Berliners tried to escape the disastrous ill-fortune of living in the belly of the beast.
Andrew Roberts is the author of ‘The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War’ (Penguin)