Berlin at War: life and death in Hitler’s capital, 1939-45

Remarkably, although there have been many studies in English of how London stood up to the Blitz, Roger Moorhouse’s is the first on the German capital at war. Much of Berlin’s experience mirrors that of London.

There is, for example, a familiar sounding chapter on the evacuation of children to the countryside; and on the blackout, air-raid shelters, and the like.

But to Brits brought up on the image of Berlin as the centre of the Reich at its most fanatical, Moorhouse’s book is an eye-opener. Most ordinary Berliners – with their traditionally cynical, left-wing attitudes – were not even Nazis, let alone fanatical ones. And Berliners certainly hated and feared the war as much as Londoners.

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

As a totalitarian dictatorship, where the merest hint of discontent could mean a one-way ticket to a concentration camp, 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 the capital as ‘Germania’, a giant new city rivalling ancient Rome, or, when mass bombing had scuppered that pipe-dream, it re-housed them in apartments confiscated from the city’s Jews. And while Britons groused and grumbled, or laughed at Lord Haw-Haw’s propaganda on Berlin radio, Germans could be guillotined for merely making defeatist remarks or listening to the BBC.

Despite the formidable defences ensured by German efficiency, the bombers still got through. Moorhouse spares us nothing in his descriptions of the devastation as the once thriving metropolis was reduced to a ruined moonscape populated by starved wraiths living a troglodyte existence. The real wonder is that Germany continued to function as long as it did. And then Armageddon arrived in the shape of Russia’s vengeful, raping, rampaging Red Army.

Living in torment

Awful though the suffering of Berliners was, the tribulations of the regime’s persecuted enemies were far worse. Moorhouse vividly details the denunciations and deportations of Berlin’s Jews that delivered them to a fate worse than death. Less grim 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 an entirely new, non-Jewish identity. The underground 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 stories Moorhouse relates is that of a young woman who was rescued by a total stranger she met 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 woman tortured and threatened into betraying hundreds of her fellow Jews. She was promised that, if she co-operated, her parents would be spared Auschwitz. They were sent there anyway.

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, and choc-full of gripping stories of suffering, endurance, cowardice, and courage.

Review by Nigel Jones

Bodley Head, £25

ISBN 978-0224080712