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Now in Paperback: Berlin at War

Berlin at War

by Roger Moorhouse

Basic Books, 2012

Roger Moorhouse’s universally acclaimed Berlin at War is now issued as a paperback from Basic Books, chronicling the entire life-cycle of a belligerent nation’s stronghold during times of euphoria, caution, want, and finally utter destruction. Moorhouse fills his history with dozens of first-hand accounts from Berliners who survived the wreck of their city (in his melancholy introduction, he notes that the last generation to remember the war is dying off, some not even living to see his book in print), and their voices add something poignant and irreplaceable to Moorhouse’s prodigious archival research, since this is almost certainly the last major history of the subject that will be able to include these testimonies.

The story those Berliners have to tell is as old as mankind: the fate of a city caught up in war. As Adolf Hitler’s megalomania drew Germany into first a European and then a world war, the ordinary people of Berlin, going to their jobs, enjoying their parks, paying their rents, and living their lives, tried to cling to normality as long as possible, grasping at any hints that things might not be as bad as they’d been in the old days of the First World War:

For those waking to a bright autumn morning the next day, 2 September, it might have been possible to imagine, albeit briefly, that the momentous events of the previous day had been no more than a bizarre dream. That is until the German press wrenched them back into the new reality of military offensives, artillery bombardments, and ‘Polish perfidy.’

It was impossible for the older generations to shake the memory of war, and although Berliners had no idea how much worse things would be this time, Moorhouse relates that they were still deeply ambiguous about the initial wave of Nazi victories:

Indeed, even after the fall of France in late June 1940, the public mood in Berlin was hard to gauge. On the one hand, there was unbridled jubilation, with a number of high-profile parades and processions, and a three-day public holiday to celebrate the fall of Paris. The festivities did not end there. As was customary on public holidays in the Third Reich, flags were ordered to be displayed, and church bells were to be rung.

… and on the other hand, the diaries and letters of those ordinary citizens make it clear that many of those same cheering citizens were also acutely aware of war’s unpredictability, and there was always a vocal minority that condemned Hitler’s regime and everything it stood for. Indeed, assessing the balance between the two viewpoints is Moorhouse’s trickiest task, because a question hangs over any study of Berlin at war, and of course it revolves around the Holocaust: how much did average Berliners know about the atrocities being committed by the Nazis? Whole libraries have been written on either side of the question of ‘German guilt,’ always asking: did the German people turn a blind eye toward what the Nazi government was doing, were they ignorant of it all, or were they more or less actively complicit?

Moorhouse tends to exonerate them, and he lays out a convincing case that not only could average Berliner citizens have few reliable ways of learning about the fate of their Jewish deportees but that there was an even deeper obstacle:

More importantly, however, there was an ‘imagination gap’ with regard to the Holocaust. Most Berliners would have found it hard to believe the grim truth of the Holocaust, even had they known it. And those, on both sides, who had an inkling of what was going on were often unwilling to believe that their darkest suspicions could possibly be true. The idea that an entire race of people could systematically be killed on an industrial scale was beyond the imagination of most people.

Berlin at War returns to this point a few times, stressing with perhaps too much rhetorical ease that the alarmed incomprehension the modern world feels toward the Holocaust was largely true of those earlier generations as well:

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?’

The starvation and destruction found in those concentration camps visited once-prosperous Berlin soon enough; the final chapters of Moorhouse’s book paint a stark portrait of a battered and abandoned city, its people huddled in ruins without power, water, or food, greeting even the end of the fighting (and the eerie silence it produced, commented on by every witness) with wary tension on the morning of 2 May 1945:

What Berliners were waking up to that morning was not peace; it was the absence of war. For all the relief that the fighting was finally over, they were also profoundly uncertain, with little idea of what to expect from their new overlords, and little concept of what new horrors might await them. ‘Was it the end of one nightmare’, one diarist asked, ‘or just the beginning of another one?’

In the end, one of the great captitals of Europe lay in rubble and awaited its fate at the hands of cautious Americans and vengeful Russians. It’s a mark of Moorhouse’s achievement that no matter how grim the story he and his interviewees are telling, you want them to keep telling it even as the tanks roll in. This is first-rate history, as engrossing as it is instructional – it’s a high point even in Basic Books’ already-impressive catalogue.