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.