Berlin At War –
Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital 1939 – 45
By Roger Moorhouse
Bodley Head – £25.00
Like the city it denotes, Berlin at War: – Life and Death in Hitler’s Capital 1939-45, is as equally invigorating as it is intriguing. Whilst author Roger Moorhouse invariably writes with all the authority and foresight of a natural historian, he does so in such a humanistic manner, that the book in its entirety reads more like a diarist’s account of, as opposed to that of a factual declaration. Thus, making for a read that is both satisfying and compelling.
Rather than concentrating on the repercussions of Adolf Hitler’s ghastly regime, Moorhouse, obviously with the benefit of hindsight, chooses to focus on the philosophical manifestation(s) of wartime Berlin.
By clarifying how the city coped with a thwart ideology, deviously thrust upon it by prime propagandist and original spin-doctor Joseph Goebbels, the author herein sheds a cornucopia of illuminating information on a variety of subjects. From food shortages to the effect of radio, from Hitler’s fiftieth birthday celebrations (at the outset of the book) to the effect of elongated RAF bombing, from crime to foreign labour to cynicism to rape to Berlin’s eventual capitulation to that of the Red Army – it’s all here in relatively black’n’bleak and unquestionable/unforgettable white.
The book is also written in such a way as to be more plausible than many might otherwise feel comfortable with: ‘’I hope the book will demonstrate that we are fundamentally missing the point if we imagine wartime Berliners to be an indoctrinated mass of Nazified automate, sleepwalking into catastrophe. As numerous interviewees made clear to me, Berlin was a city where minorities of active Nazis and active anti-Nazis flanked an ambivalent majority, who were often simply motivated by self-preservation, ambition and fear. In this respect, at least, it strikes me that wartime Berliners had much more in common with ourselves than we would care to concede. ‘’They’ are really not so very different from ‘us.’’’
Again, with the benefit of hindsight, it would be very easy (and inviting) to dispute this. But upon reading Berlin At War and quantifying the inevitable outcome of one’s own survivalist core, one would surely have to readily admit that the above, really isn’t that far off the mark of universal, considered truth.
Commenting on the Holocaust for instance, in chapter eight’s ‘Into Oblivion,’ Moorhouse writes: ‘’ If the world at large found it impossible to believe the truth of the Holocaust, even when provided with incontrovertible proof, Berliners presented with piecemeal evidence, rumour and hearsay were bound to dismiss such talk as enemy propaganda, or perverted fantasy. As Ursula von Kardorff recalled after the war: ‘we were realistic and pessimistic. But Auschwitz?’
Suffice to say, Germany, let alone Berlin’s darkest hour, is painstakingly assessed and re-assessed throughout, of which perhaps the following is among the most reactionary and revelatory.
Continuing on from where the aforementioned Kardorff left off, the author writes: ‘’This reaction was bolstered by a profound belief in the fundamentally ‘civilised’ nature of the German state and society. Not only could the majority simply not conceive of mass killing on the scale of the Holocaust, they could also not see how – legally and administratively – such atrocities could be permitted to occur at all. Germany was a Rechsstaat, a state governed by the rules of law, and even the recent racial legislation had the backing of law and was written into the legal framework. The order confiscating the property of those Jews about to be deported […] cited in its preamble the six pieces of legislation on which the authority was based. Even in Nazi Germany, therefore, the law was paramount; nobody would have believed that it could permit state sponsored mass murder. As one German Jew recalled, his reaction to the rumours of the Holocaust was: ‘That can’t be so… it’s the twentieth century and we’re German.’’’
Such is the contemplative consideration of Berlin at War, that while one enjoys absorbing all the information, one cannot help but come away feeling more than a pang of happiness to be living amid the here and now. And living in Berlin as I do, I’m sure most Berliners would agree. For as good as it is to know (and partially understand) the book’s fraught history, it’s equally as good to set it aside – in full recognition of its austere attributes and poignancy.