Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital, 1939-45 by Roger Moorhouse

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Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital, 1939-45 by Roger Moorhouse

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Category: History
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: A social history of Berliners during wartime, which draws on the author’s own interviews with people who were there, and published and unpublished first hand accounts.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: August 2011
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0099551898

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Berlin at War is an account of the day to day lives of the ordinary people of Berlin, the then capital of Nazi Germany, during the Second World War. Berlin was heavily bombed throughout much of the war, and suffered greatly as the symbolic target of Allied forces at the end.

A lot of books about London in the Blitz have been published, as have lots of military books about the war and books on the causes and impact of Nazism. However, Roger Moorhouse contends that there are few such books about German social history in wartime, so he has set out to write this book, drawing extensively on primary sources such as wartime private diaries and published observations. He also interviewed many Germans who had lived through the experience.

In the prologue and first chapter, Moorhouse highlights the sharp contrast between the enthusiastic celebration of Hitler’s birthday in April 1939 and the announcement that Germany was at war (with Britain and France) just over 4 months later, on 1 September 1939. Many Berliners felt little enthusiasm for the war – they had lived through the first one – and at first, supporters hoped that he would be able to continue annexing other countries without declaring war. Also, Berlin was never a stronghold of Nazi support. This debunking of a stereotype sets the tone for the book, as Moorhouse tries hard to analyse the reality without falling back on preconceptions.

Other chapters explore a number of themes, some which address more obvious questions and some that I had not thought about much. Chapter 2 on the deadly necessity of darkness caused by blackout regulations is a good example of his approach – he includes the requirements and the possible punishments for breaching it, including public humiliation, fines, a brief stay in a police cell and even, for repeat offenders, the threat of the concentration camp. Compliance was policed by air raid wardens. He cites evidence of people using the cover of darkness for criminality – theft, assault, sex crimes and even murder. His use of sources includes public writing such as William Shirer’s reports, and private diaries which may show more of the psychological effects. Another chapter looks at the impact of rationing and actual shortages of food, fuel and other goods (often even the permitted rations were not actually available).

While I have read some shocking and disturbing stories about the effects of WWII and bombing in Britain, this book suggests that the war took a toll on Berlin and its occupants on a totally different scale.

Compared to London, where children were evacuated early (and many returned), the Kinderlandverschickung (KLV), or programme of 'sending children to the countryside', did not start until the second winter of the war. Such a programme meant an acknowledgement of the impact of bombing on German cities, and that the war was likely to continue for a while. Older children were sent to KLV camps where they slept in dormitories. Children’s education tended to suffer, as while responsibility for how children spent their time was in theory shared between teachers and Hitler Youth representatives, the Hitler Youth had more control in practice. Jewish children, epileptics, bedwetters and others whose background or behaviour was considered undesirable were excluded from the programme.

Moorhouse discusses anti-Semitism in government policy and in Berlin throughout the book – for example, different and smaller rations, eviction from homes, not being offered evacuation, etc. In Germany, the large scale deportation to concentration camps took place in the middle of the war, and some Jews remained living and working in Berlin until early 1943, particularly those of mixed origin, with Aryan relatives and/or spouses. In Against All Odds, he describes the round up of Jewish workers in February 1943, and the extraordinary Rosenstrasse protest by women whose Jewish husbands were being held in a building while their exact racial credentials were checked – extraordinary because there were almost no very large public protests against Nazi policy between 1933 and 1945. In another chapter, Enemies of the State, Moorhouse describes some of the smaller examples of protest and resistance.

The final chapters describe the grim final days of the war, as the Germans faced defeat and the Russians arrived in Berlin.

Berlin at War has been criticised by one reviewer for not analysing the causes of Nazism. However, there are many other history books which try to do that – this is a study of the impact of the war on the civilian population of Germany’s capital city, not the history of how Hitler came to power or the origins of that war.

I am more disappointed that this book doesn’t discuss women in the war much, for example how the outbreak of war changed Nazi policies towards women, their participation in the workforce. Women were clearly involved in everything that is described in the book, and would have presumably been a majority of adult civilians, but not considering women specifically seems a bit strange in a social history of this period. Claudia Koontz’s study of this subject, Mothers in the Fatherland, is sadly out of print and is not included in the bibliography. Many of the authors of his primary sources and his interviewees must have been female.

On the whole, Berlin at War is fascinating and informative, manages to seem scholarly yet accessible, and is well worth reading for anyone with an interest in reading and writing about World War II. Thank you to Vintage Books for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Other accounts of civilian life during WWII include Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain's Finest Hour, May-September 1940 by Paul Addison and Jeremy A Crang, and Our Longest Days: A People's History of the Second World War by Sandra Koa Wing. If you're looking for fiction, we can recommend A War of Flowers by Jane Thynne.

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