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Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital 1939-45.

Berlin at War

Life and Death in Hitler's Capital 1939-45

Roger Moorhouse

The BodleyHead 448pp 25 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978 02240 80712


Although there have been many studies in English of how Britain in general, and London in particular, stood up to the Blitz, Roger Moorhouse's is the first in English 'on the other side of the hill'. Some of the material, therefore, has a familiar feel: for example, a chapter on the evacuation of children from the Reich's capital.

But, although it is instructive to compare such mirror-image experiences, the big surprise in this book is the difference between the two, rather than the similarities. In 1940 the image of the Nazi enemy in Britain was a terrifying one: a Blitzkrieg of rolling tanks, screaming Stukas and invincible goose-stepping stormtroopers, roared on by a fanatical, Hitler-crazed population at home. Moorhouse's picture, backed by his wide-ranging trawl of contemporary German opinion, is very much at variance with this.

Most ordinary Berliners, with their traditionally cynical, world-weary, left-wing attitudes, were not even Nazis, let alone fanatical ones. (The Nazis, at their 1933 peak, never achieved a majority of votes in Berlin.) Hitler was disappointed by their attitude when war broke out. The streets, far from being full of cheering crowds, mustered a few hundred glum and morose spectators. Remembering the suffering of the First World War, Germans rightly feared an even worse repetition only 20 years later.

As well as diaries and memoirs, Moorhouse uses as source material the 'mood reports' compiled by the regime's own security forces. These, like Mass-Observation in Britain, reported on public opinion via comments overheard by armies of snoopers.

Even during Germany's early military triumphs in Poland and France the reports indicate that opinion in Berlin was at best downbeat, at worst hostile to the war. The first mass disillusionment came when the RAF got to Berlin in 1940 and dropped a few bombs on the city, killing a dozen civilians. Since Goring had personally guaranteed that not a single bomb would fall on Berlin, as far as trust in the regime went, it was never 'glad confident morning' again. Things rapidly went from bad to nightmarish. As Germany lacked a free press, Moorhouse maps the descent into hell by analysing death notices in Berlin newspapers. At first the overwhelming majority of these proudly proclaimed that their sons/fathers/husbands had died fur Fuhrer und Vaterland. But as year succeeded year with no sign of the promised victory, hope ebbed until, by 1944, a mere 12 per cent proclaimed continued faith in the Fuhrer. Such notices were then replaced with a standard anodyne formula.

As a totalitarian dictatorship, Nazi Germany had far more direct control over its cowed citizens than Whitehall. It could move the masses around at will to make way for Hitler's grandiose plans to remodel Berlin as Germania, a giant metropolis to rival ancient Rome; or, when mass bombing had scuppered that pipe-dream, it rehoused them in property confiscated from the city's Jewish community. While Britons groused and grumbled, or laughed at Lord Haw-Haw's propaganda on Berlin radio, Germans could be guillotined for listening to the BBC.

German efficiency ensured that the defences of the capital against the ever-increasing aerial bombardment were better than the makeshift Anderson shelters and Tube tunnels endured by Londoners. Despite its sandy soil Berlin cellars were deeper, bunker walls were thicker and the city was surrounded by batteries of anti-aircraft guns and concrete flak-towers bristling with cannons 'resembling a medieval fortress'. Despite all this, the bombers still got through and Moorhouse spares us nothing in his descriptions of the devastation. The real wonder is that Germany continued to function as long as it did before Armageddon arrived in the shape of the rampaging, raping Red Army.

Awful though the suffering of Berliners was, the tribulations of the regime's persecuted enemies were far worse. Moorhouse vividly details the dispiriting denunciations and deportations of Berlin's Jews. Perhaps less well known are the stories of the so called Tauchers ('Divers') or 'U-boats'; those who plunged underground to live like hunted beasts. These desperate people needed false papers, or an entirely new, non-Jewish identity. Such a life often involved spurning family and friends, living silently in attics, cupboards or even tombs, depending, quite literally, on the 'comfort of strangers'.

Among the harrowing--and occasionally inspiring--stories that Moorhouse relates is that of a young woman who met a German stranger on the street. He saved her life and that of her husband and child by sheltering them and sharing his meagre rations with them for more than two years. Less inspiring is the awful tale of Stella Goldschmidt, a seductive young Jewess tortured and threatened into co-operating with the Gestapo to the extent of betraying hundreds of her fellow Jews. She had been told that if she did this her parents would not be sent to Auschwitz. They were sent there anyway. Against such stories as the Aryan wives of Jews who (uniquely in the Third Reich) noisily demonstrated against their arrests and actually secured their release, Moorhouse has a sickening one of Germans who betrayed their Jewish neighbours for malice or personal gain, or who gathered in groups to gloat and jeer as they were rounded up and deported.

This book, it is fair to say, is not one that restores one's faith in human nature. It is, however, as readable as a first-rate novel, full of gripping stories of suffering, endurance, courage and cowardice. Moorhouse is a clear-eyed, sensible and balanced historian who has substantially added to our knowledge of what happens when a society falls apart.

Nigel Jones is writing a history of the Tower of London.
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Author:Jones, Nigel
Publication:History Today
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2011
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