Book Review: Berlin at War by Roger Moorhouse

As I have said before, my novel takes off in 1945 Berlin. For a reader with an average knowledge of WWII that would bring to mind classic images of destroyed Tiergarten and popular depictions of the mayhem in Central Berlin as the Red Army fought its way to the Reichstag.

The reality is that the war effects varied across Berlin because the city was huge. Here is a comparison of the levels of destruction and civilian casualties for Berlin-Mitte (Central Berlin) and Berlin-Reinickendorf, a northern suburb, immediately after the Battle of Berlin.

Berlin-Mitte             Berlin-Reinickendorf

% of residences destroyed:          over 50%                       19.8%

% of population lost:                          52.6%                            3.8%

Source: Reinickendorf 1945/1946. Die erste Nachkriegszeit  by Ulrike Wahlich, Heimatsmuseum Reinickendorf, 1995

To develop the settings in my story I needed a broader view of the city and its dwellers throughout the whole war. The last months of the war were a mere culmination of the years of the Nazi regime. Each of my Berlin characters, even minor ones, had been shaped by years of life in the city.

This book is a good starter reading for those who want to learn more about wartime Berlin: Berlin at War by Roger Moorhouse.

The book provides a ground-level view of daily life in Berlin: food rationing and foreign loot, press and radio, parades and air raids, popular enthusiasm and individual resistance, war profiting and survival struggle, humor and depression, and much more. Paradoxically, the residents of the Third Reich capital were among weakest Nazi supporters. I am inclined to attribute it to their proximity to the government apparatus and better awareness of the politics in the higher circles. Nevertheless, with the largely conformist attitude of the public, many Berliners eventually became complicit in the Nazi regime.

The author tracks changes in the moods of Berliners throughout the wartime and portrays a wide range of the city denizens: Jews, forced laborers from all over Europe and regular Germans. He draws on personal accounts and diaries to give us the emotional feel of what it was like for different people to live in Berlin.

I found it remarkable that, while the public knowledge of the Nazi concentration camp system was limited, the German populace largely ignored thousands of forced laborers brought into the city. Germans and foreign slaves lived in separate universes, although they walked the same streets and worked side by side in the same factories and institutions. It is truly sad to realize how certain types of popular culture and ideology could breed blindness and conformity. After all, was it so bad to believe that you belonged to the master race and could have the inferior races at your disposal?

Moorhouse’s narration is engaging and vivid, which makes his book an enlightening journey in time for a mainstream reader. It also provokes a lot of thoughts on how social order and ideology can affect a person’s sense of right and wrong.

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6 comments on “Book Review: Berlin at War by Roger Moorhouse

  1. Ruthie says:

    Interesting thoughts… Good luck with your research!

  2. The research is the best part of the process. Thanks!

  3. Willowfaerie says:

    Wow, those are such high statistics. Berlin must have been a nightmare. I’ve been curious to ask you. Do you have relatives who have first hand accounts of the war?

  4. As typical for my generation in the Soviet Union, I’ve got plenty of relatives who lived through the war.

    Sadly, my grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles have already passed away. Some of them were veterans like my great-aunt who took part in the Battle of Stalingrad, some lived in the Nazi-occupied territory or were forced laborers in Germany, or happened to be in the areas near the front like Moscow in 1941-1942.

    A few of my parents’ cousins were in their pre-teens or teens when the war started, and, of course, they have some recollections of it.

  5. Arnika says:

    Berlin is traditionally a working class city. (Our Governing Mayor still calls us “Poor but sexy”) Most labourers were organised in either the socialist or communist party and the nazis had a hard time cowing them/winning them over. The violent and bloody street battles between nazi-supporters and socialists or communists are a thing of legend, especially in the labourer boroughs of Neukoelln, Wedding, Reinickendorf, Kreuzberg, Prenzlauer Berg and Lichtenberg. After taking over, the nazis managed to avoid an uprising of resistance by swiftly arresting and killing/locking away/breaking the leaders.

    As far as I can tell by talking to people of the war generation, they knew as much as they wanted to know. My mother’s parents were aware of everything including KZ’s, my father’s mother preferred to shut her eyes from reality. The general population certainly knew the forced labourers but I think more than a decade of brainwashing had left a majority of people afraid of the cruel Bolshevic, having been taught that people from Eastern Europe/Russia are less intelligent, more animalistic and in general not entirely human as such. After successfully ignoring the cruel treatment and in the end disappearance of their jewish neighbours, I am not surprised that they managed to ignore thousands and thousands of people working alongside them every day.

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