Berlin at War

By Roger Moorhouse, Basic Books.

“Berlin at War” opens by recounting the events of April 20, 1939, Adolf Hitler’s fiftieth birthday—a day characterized by proud celebrations in the German capital, the highlight a five-hour military parade that was the largest peacetime display of military might in history. Roger Moorhouse then jumps forward to September 1 of that same year—the day Germany invaded Poland, an act of aggression that left most Berliners in a state a shock, reports the author. Almost immediately afterwards, blackout regulations were instituted, and rationing of food, clothing, and coal followed shortly thereafter, all of which contributed to a steady decline in the quality of life experienced by residents of Berlin.

Moorhouse goes on to relate in exquisite detail what it was like to live in Berlin between 1939 and 1945, covering what residents felt, how they adapted, and how they survived. The author—who specializes in modern German history—researched the subject extensively, relying on interviews with Berliners who lived through the war, while also drawing on diaries, letters, archives, and mood reports collected by the Nazis. Among other things, the reader learns of the penalties faced by residents who failed to black out their lights at night (fines, jail time, having one’s electricity turned off, being sent to a concentration camp); how the number of accidents involving trains and automobiles rose dramatically during blackouts; and how the city was plagued by a serial killer known as the S-Bahn Murderer.

Even more compelling is Moorhouse’s insight into how residents reacted to RAF air raids, what it was like to be a member of Hitler Youth, and the author’s reckoning of what Berliners knew—and didnt know—about the grim fate of the Jews. “Most Berliners would have found it hard to believe the truth of the Holocaust, even had they known it. And those who had an inkling of what was going on were often unwilling to believe that their darkest suspicions could possibly be true,” he writes.

Most impressive is that Moorhouse has managed to advance our knowledge of WWII, no small feat considering that the conflict has been exhaustively covered from almost every conceivable angle. All in all, “Berlin at War” is the best and most interesting book on Hitler’s Germany since “Hitler” (W.W. Norton), Ian Kershaw’s definitive biography of the Führer.

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