The Second World War, being the preeminent conflict of our era, has earned its own veil of mythology. Names like Rommel and Patton, Göring and Churchill, are spoken of the way the ancients must have when discussing the exploits of Heracles, Theseus, and Achilles. Dates that have lived in infamy are still occasions for solemn memorials: September 3, 1939. December 7, 1941. June 6, 1944.
And since history is written by the winners, we’re told, the true face of the vanquished can also be covered with a veil. Few words have the power to invoke fear, revulsion, and anger the way “Nazi” does. Germany has spent a long, long time trying to recover from twelve years of madness. As a result of all this myth-writing, we often obscure details to better suit our preferred vision of events. “They were all monsters.” “They were all apathetic.” “None of them knew.” “They knew and did nothing.” Sometimes we make God in our own image. We always give the enemy the face of the devil.
Life for the ordinary, everyday German in the Third Reich is the subject of this history by Roger Moorehouse. It’s a history that I don’t think has truly been attempted in the English language, at least not on this scale or level of detail. As a result, there’s something to be learned on virtually every page.
Moorhouse is not only a professional historian who knows his stuff, he is also a vivid writer. Through memoirs, diaries, letters, and interviews with the few people still alive to tell their stories, he does more than paint their portrait. He brings them to full and immediate life. Read this book and you will be living in the very heart of Nazi Germany from 1939 to 1945. You will be in the crowd at the rallies; you will be awakened in the middle of the night by air raid sirens to dive down to the cellar; you will find the streets you used to walk down a mass of rubble. It will be an eyeopener the way that few of the hundreds of films based on the war have managed to be.
There are stories like a serial killer who used the darkness of the blackout to carry out his crimes, and of children gathering the shrapnel fragments from anti-aircraft guns to trade them like baseball cards. How the plans for the redesigning of Berlin led directly to increased Jewish persecution, and how in the last weeks of the war soldiers would use phone calls to determine if a particular street or suburb had fallen to the Soviets (if someone answered in Russian, that was all you needed to know).
You will meet people like the foreign forced labourers who made up one tenth of Berlin’s population, as well as the Germans who gave them food and what comfort they could. The vast majority of Germans who listened to the BBC radio broadcasts despite the death penalty for doing so. A housewife in a public bunker, now with years of experience to back her up, happily giving a lecture on RAF aerial bombing tactics. And Martin Riesenberger, the rabbi of the Jewish cemetary of Weissensee–ultimately the last of its kind in the city.
These are just a few of the images and characters who make up this extraordinary book.
Towards the end, the Russian soldiers ran rampant through the ruined streets. Most of the time they would loot stores and homes. Some of the more vicious took to raping women of all ages. But one account by a teenaged German boy shows a different side. He and a group of others were being led by enemy soldiers to who-knows-where. The uncertainty and tension of what their future held was broken when suddenly one of the soldiers told them the war was over; they could all go home unharmed. “The immense tension of the last few days gives way inside me,” he writes, “and I am suddenly unable to hold back the tears, tears of relief that the enemy is human after all.”
Yes, they were Nazis. They were ambivalent and apathetic. They were also openly spiteful of Hitler and his agenda. In short, the people of Berlin were more human than anything else. Hopefully this book, and others like it, will contribute to a fuller picture of the war than mythology allows. The more we understand what the people who lived through it experienced, the better chance we have of avoiding the same experience ourselves.