Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
13 September 2011
Review by Robert L. Nelson, The University of Windsor
Berlin at War
By Roger Moorhouse
New York: Basic Books, 2010. Pp. xvi, 432. ISBN 978–0–465–00533–8.
Descriptors: Volume 2011, 20th Century, World War II Print Version

This accessible and interesting social history of the German capital during the Second World War might more accurately be described as an Alltagsgeschichte, or history of everyday life. Good social history goes beyond details to analyze why certain layers of society behaved as they did, what their relationships were within the larger social structures of a given historical context. Moorhouse's book is not such a history. It is instead a well-written narrative, largely chronological, based on memoirs and interviews with the last of the witnesses. It focuses on Berlin, not the war outside the city limits in the rest of Germany. While some will complain that this is myopic, the whole point is to reveal what daily life was like in the city; in such a life, the details of the world outside Berlin were rarely as important as food, shelter, and work. Moorhouse, a longtime collaborator of Norman Davies,[1] works outside academia and writes books for a lay audience. Although such works are often vastly more enjoyable to read than academic treatises, they rarely teach specialists anything new. Berlin at War, however, is both an engaging and an informative, well-researched history.

Moorhouse claims historians of Nazism continue to adopt a "top down" approach to their subject and that "few of the volumes in the ever-burgeoning canon of literature on the Third Reich shed any light on civilian life" (xiv). To redress that imbalance, he has concentrated impressively on primary research—his secondary bibliography runs less than two pages. Social history in general does not sell, and few books on Nazi society are produced for a mass market. By sharp contrast, in the realm of academic history, "civilian life" in National Socialist Germany has been a staple of research for decades. Indeed, a doctoral student today asking to write a top down dissertation on Hitler's decision-making would quickly be advised to study civilian acceptance or rejection of the Führer's program. Fuller reference to such academic work could have strengthened this study of the forces underlying the fascinating events Moorhouse describes. Yet, because he is writing a different kind of history (and perhaps owing to pressure from his publisher to stress the cutting edge character of his work), he ignores the many scholars who have toiled in the fields of academic social history.

Besides walking us through everyday life, Moorhouse shatters some central myths about the Third Reich: for example, that of a "normal life" prevailing in Germany before Joseph Goebbels's "total war" speech in February 1943, a couple weeks after the end of the battle of Stalingrad. It was a central tenet of the Nazi hierarchy that the "costs" of war should not affect German civilians, since only as long as war was "out there" and not a source of personal deprivation would they continue to support Nazi military goals. Thus, only in the immediate post-Stalingrad world was Goebbels forced to tell the German people (or rather, have them ask) to experience sacrifice. But, as Moorhouse shows in intriguing detail, life in Berlin in fact altered irreversibly on 1 September 1939 and the war was present every day thereafter. Changes ranged from the invocation of rationing to the strange world of "blacked out" Berlin—a nocturnal atmosphere of not just bruised shins but an increase in rapes and terrorizing serial killers who faded into the blackness after their deeds. Then, one year into the war (August 1940), the first wave of Allied bombers appeared over Berlin. Bombing is a central theme of this book, and indeed it wrought the most fundamental changes in wartime Berlin. Sightseers in the city today may tour formerly flattened blocks and learn what was there before, what was rebuilt, and what rare structures and districts chance left standing, like lucky and stubborn trees after a forest fire.

Moorhouse's account of Allied strategic bombing begins with the very first bomb stick to fall on Berlin, hitting along the Skalitzerstrasse, which ends at the Oberbaumbrücke in the southeast of the city. Shortly after I started reading this book, I was crossing this bridge and stopped to watch a construction crew dismantling some old moorings on the bank near a bridge pylon. A few days after I read about the first bomb stick, an unexploded Allied airplane bomb was uncovered directly below where I had been lingering on the bridge. Thousands were evacuated, and I returned to Berlin at War with a vivid sense of its relevancy.

One becomes aware when reading of life under relentless air raids of how a city is transformed when its citizens become insomniacs. Going to bed each evening (early if possible), hearing the sirens at midnight, opening the windows and the doors, waking up the kids, heading to the shelter, dozing fitfully through the din of explosions and flak shell casings raining back to earth, returning to bed for an hour or two, then, zombie-like, up and off to another day's work—such imagery conjures up the somnambulist of Dr. Caligari.

Moorhouse overturns other beliefs/myths about everyday life. Writing of what the Germans knew and supported, he both sympathizes with and blames the "innocent" civilians. On the one hand, he argues that, since there were only 800 Gestapo in a city of 4.5 million, the vast majority of Berliners were neither preoccupied with nor driven by fear of these men. On the other hand, he observes, Berliners claimed not to have known about the Holocaust, yet blithely lived among 400,000 forced laborers, mainly from the East.

Moorhouse offers no deep analysis of why people do or do not go along with criminal regimes, but hanging over all the details is the increasing horror of Allied bombing. As for the first "big" raid (March 1943) and the subsequent devastation of the "Battle of Berlin" (November 1943 to January 1944), his sources say that—exactly against the expectations of Bomber Harris and completely in line with the effect of the bombing of England—Berliners developed a stubborn patriotism that allowed otherwise "moral" citizens to look the other way in the face of Nazi crimes:

Moreover, in place of that shrinking political loyalty, other loyalties emerged. The first of these was a default "My country—right or wrong" form of patriotism that would celebrate German successes—even though it might be skeptical of the Nazi regime itself. This attitude was born not only of the common peril that Berliners faced, but also of the loyalty to the large numbers of young men from Berlin—sons, brothers and fathers—who were fighting in Germany's name at the time. As the British had discovered for themselves earlier in the war, when the Luftwaffe was pounding London and other cities, the most likely result of an air offensive is a strengthening, not a weakening, of domestic morale (334).

Apart from such broad conclusions to be gleaned from it, Berlin at War has no central argument. It is not that kind of book. Rather, it is a narrative illuminating the darkness of life in wartime Berlin, and one learns much from the tale. Along with intriguing asides, as on nocturnal serial killers, more extended sections both help us imagine the city and provide quite unexpected and tantalizing insights into the mind of Adolf Hitler. Just west of Hitler's still standing grand airport, Tempelhof, one can see the Schwerbelastungskörper, a 12.65 metric ton, 18 meter-high concrete cylinder built, Moorhouse explains, in 1941 to see how quickly such a structure would sink into Berlin's sandy soil. This experiment was to serve as a feasibility study for the gigantic buildings Hitler envisioned for the capital of his thousand-year Reich. Most intriguing here is Moorhouse's description of the Führer's "theory of ruin value" (concocted and encouraged by Albert Speer,[2] his master-architect): buildings should be designed to stand and function for the next millennium, but also to impress and awe, like the ruins of classical antiquity, for further millennia after the Reich itself was gone. Such particulars, which pervade the book and well convey the deranged tyranny that ordinary Germans lived under for twelve long years, make the ultimate fate of Berlin and Berliners all the more twisted and tragic.

[1] "Roger Moorhouse has been senior researcher and editorial assistant to Professor Norman Davies since 1995, and has worked on many of Professor Davies' recent books, including "The Isles", "Europe: A History", "Rising '44" and "Europe at War". This working relationship culminated in 2002 with the publication, in three languages, of a co-authored study of the history of the city of Wroclaw (Breslau) entitled Microcosm - Portrait of a Central European City"—rogermoorhouse.com.

[2] Inside the Third Reich, trans. R. & C. Winston (1970; rpt. NY: Avon, 1971) 93–94.

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