Correction to This Article
The Outlook review of Roger Moorhouse's book "Berlin at War" misstated the month of Germany's surrender in World War II. Germany surrendered in May 1945, not April 1945.
Jonathan Yardley

Roger Moorhouse's "Berlin at War," reviewed by Jonathan Yardley

By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, October 3, 2010


By Roger Moorhouse

Basic. 432 pp. $29.95

War came to Europe in September 1939 -- a subject addressed in this space two weeks ago -- but six months later its effects were almost wholly invisible in Berlin, the capital of Germany and headquarters of the Nazi leadership. "Berlin in the spring of 1940," Roger Moorhouse writes, "was remarkable primarily for its continued orderliness, cleanness and normality." The German army had rolled over Poland, Norway and Denmark, and the conquest of France was only weeks away. Confidence among the city's citizens ran high, yet underneath were "anxiety and confusion" as well as "seriousness and skepticism," in part because few ordinary Germans really wanted to go back to war only two decades after the end of the last one, in part because memories of that earlier conflict were so strong:

"With every step the German armies took that summer, they were reawakening memories of the First World War. The mention of Verdun or Arras, or any number of towns so bloodily fought over a generation before, sent shivers down German spines and provoked the fear of a similar catastrophe."

That fear was to prove justified in August 1940, when the Royal Air Force began night bombing over Berlin; "although the early raids tended to be rather inconsequential, they nonetheless reminded citizens that they were still at war and gave them a grim warning of things to come." To be sure, "Greater Germany was a reality: it bestrode the continent, its economy was the strongest and its political model was the most dynamic." Yet, "for all the optimism, a profound sense of unease seemed to persist," and it became ever more clear that "the 'lull' of 1940-41 was merely the pause between two battles rather than the end of the war."

There was no doubt of this in June 1941, when Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. It was "the largest military operation in European history: 3.5 million men, supported by nearly 4,000 tanks and over 2,500 aircraft, were advancing along a 2,000-kilometre front, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea," and before long it proved to be one of the most disastrous, "the theatre in which the lion's share of Germany's five million military deaths would occur." As Moorhouse says, "Every household and every family in Berlin would have known somebody who was there." Barbarossa brought the war home to Berlin, and it was only the beginning.

Moorhouse, a British writer for BBC History magazine as well as the author of "Killing Hitler: The Plots, the Assassins, and the Dictator Who Cheated Death" (2006), tells the story of Berlin's war thoroughly and fairly. He focuses as much as possible on ordinary citizens rather than Nazi kingpins and apparatchiks, and he leaves little doubt that this was a war few Berliners had wanted and by which all of them suffered. Probably the groundbreaking book on the subject is Antony Beevor's powerful "The Fall of Berlin: 1945" (2002), but Moorhouse covers a far longer period of time and in that sense is more ambitious, though the few paragraphs he devotes to atrocities committed by Soviet soldiers on German women at the war's end pale in comparison with Beevor's passionate and painfully detailed account.

Still, there is more than enough pain in "Berlin at War" to satisfy all but the most masochistic readers. It tells the story of a civilized and cultured city gradually sinking into the depths of degradation, almost completely helpless before the onslaught of Allied ground troops and bombers as well as the incompetence and greed of the Nazi leadership. From the beginning of the war, residents had to cope with a rationing system that "was infernally complex and inevitably unpopular." Because of it, "Berliners had to queue for almost everything, meaning early mornings, late nights, and long hours standing in line, waiting -- often in vain -- for whatever was at the end of the queue." Of course the predictable soon occurred: "Any political system that seeks to control the supply and pricing of goods will develop a black market, and wartime Germany was no exception. . . . It has been estimated that the black market in Nazi Germany accounted for at least 10 per cent of average household consumption."

Rationing and profiteering, however unpleasant, are privations people can live with. Bombing is something else, and in September 1940 the bombing began in earnest. For a week the RAF pounded the city: "Not only had British aircraft demonstrated their ability to reach the city, but they had shown themselves able to bomb almost at will and take the lives of Berlin's civilians. The myth of the capital's inviolability -- which had been shared by all sections of the city's society -- had been irrevocably shattered." Yes, the city had ample air-raid shelters and "three enormous flak towers," making it "the best defended and best-protected city of the war," but that was hardly enough. Then in March 1943 the RAF delivered "the largest tonnage of high explosives that had yet been dropped in the air war -- a payload of over 900 tons that was twice the amount the Luftwaffe had dropped on London in their largest raids of the Blitz in 1941." One Berliner wrote in her diary:

"The city and all the western and southern suburbs are on fire. The air is smoky, sulphur-yellow. Terrified people are stumbling through the streets with bundles, bags, household goods, tripping over fragments and ruins."

Terrible as that was, the war in the European theater was still more than two years from its conclusion. Between then and the German surrender in April 1945, the city at times was an inferno in which "fear was the defining emotion." Moorhouse continues: "One did not simply 'get used to it'; rather, as many eyewitnesses suggest, it grew with each raid, layered with the gruesome experiences of loved ones or friends, the visions of destroyed buildings, and the memory of lines of corpses laid out for identification. Josepha von Koskull recalled the many horror stories that did the rounds, 'about being buried alive, about charred bodies that were shrunk to the size of small children, and that could be buried in a margarine tub. Often it was said that the impact of a heavy air mine . . . would burst one's lungs bringing death.' " When at last the Red Army entered and the bombing stopped, people venturing out from what remained of their residences were stunned:

"The scene that greeted them on those first excursions was one of unimaginable destruction. Few areas of the capital were untouched by the ravages of war. Entire districts had been rendered uninhabitable; buildings standing like so many broken teeth, with empty, gaping window frames opening into blackened voids where once had been apartments, homes and businesses. The streets in between were pitted with craters and covered by vast fields of rubble, through which makeshift footpaths snaked. Over it all, a pall of smoke and dust hung in the air, covering everything, choking the survivors and twisting and eddying in the cool spring breeze."

Amazingly, the city began coming back to life, with "the famed Trümmerfrauen, or 'rubble women' . . . clearing the ruins, patiently passing buckets of debris down a line, stacking everything that could be reused and disposing of the remainder," though "for all their efforts, it was a process that would take many years to complete." Those years saw the division between East and West Berlin, the Berlin Airlift, the depredations of the East German secret police, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, and at last the city's, and the country's, reunification. Now Berlin has regained its standing as one of the world's great cities. That it started at zero is made all too clear by this excellent book.

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