Standing at the cross-roads of so many different periods of history, Berlin is a city that I could visit time and time again, and still struggle to scratch the surface of its rich history. Formerly Hitler’s capital during the period of the Third Reich it was home to many of the key Nazi Leaders and their Ministry Organisations. But what was life like for the four to five million or so inhabitants of Berlin during this time? We speak with the excellent historian, Roger Moorhouse about the reality of living under the NSDAP as well as Hitler’s colossal plans to re-design Germany’s capital.
Burnt down in February 1933 and not rebuilt until post 1945, the Reichstag fire arguably symbolised the demise of parliamentary democracy in Germany. But how did this happen and what was the likely cause of the fire that still seems shrouded in mystery to this day?
I think the Reichstag fire is very much the symbol of the demise of German democracy. But we have to resist the temptation to see a hard stop with Hitler’s appointment in 1933, as though Germany was perfectly democratic beforehand and a functioning dictatorship afterwards. This is inaccurate. German democracy had been ailing since 1930, the president had increasingly been ruling by decree, and – we forget perhaps – but Hitler was appointed to a coalition government in January 1933, and his dictatorship was not completed for many months.
One of the most vital steps in that process was the “Reichstag Fire Decree”, which followed hard of the heels of the Reichstag Fire, and suspended key civil liberties, paving the way for the imprisonment of the Nazis’ political opponents, such as the socialists, trades unionists and communists. The Nazis’ political exploitation of the Reichstag Fire was so smooth that many at the time and since have surmised that they must have engineered the fire itself to give themselves the pretext.
We will probably never know for sure – this is a mystery that will run and run I think. But, in the absence of any conclusive evidence either way, I tend to favour cock-up over conspiracy. So, my take on the Reichstag Fire is that the supposed perpetrator – a Dutch communist named Marinus van der Lubbe, who was reportedly caught in the act of setting fires in the Reichstag building – really did set the fires. He really did want to spark a communist revolt against the Nazis. And the Nazis, in turn, brilliantly exploited his foolhardy act to clamp down on the political left.
Some will disagree with this interpretation, of course, but I think it is the most sensible.
How much did the physical landscape and the atmosphere of the city of Berlin change with the fall of the Weimar Republic and the coming to power of the NSDAP in 1933?
The physical landscape did not change much at all with the Nazi “seizure of power”. It was still a few years until the grand building plans began to take shape, with Tempelhof, the Olympic Stadium and Göring’s Air Ministry being among the first to appear – being begun in 1934.
The atmosphere in the city was a rather different matter, and made for the rather more sudden change. Though it took a while for the Nazis to construct their dictatorship and their one-party state, the mere fact that Hitler and his boot boys had been elevated into positions of power in January 1933 was profoundly alarming to many of those on the political left, and of course to many Jews. The persecution of the left and the start of petty persecutions against the Jews – such as the April 1933 boycott – would have confirmed many of their worst fears. Berlin – which had not been a natural constituency for the Nazis – was a worried city after 1933.
The NSDAP was well known for its use of propaganda and orchestration of mass events. 1936 saw Berlin host the XI Olympic Games, which was a massive spectacle and drew the eyes of the world onto the city. But how different was the image projected by the Nazis for the international community to the reality of day-to-day Berlin at this time?
The 1936 Olympics were crucial for the Nazis. Their dictatorship already in place, it provided a golden opportunity not just to project a positive image to the outside world, but also to seduce their own people, with the ‘feel good factor’ of Germany being the focus of the world’s press. After years of being the pariah in Europe, Berlin 1936 was exploited as a spectacular rehabilitation.
The reality behind the gloss was rather less seductive. The piecemeal persecution of the Jews was halted for the duration, and the homeless, prostitutes and petty criminals were cleared off the capital’s streets.
But it wasn’t all eye-wash. For the average German, things were improving – they had work again, they had bread on the table. Order had been restored; the chaos of the years before 1933 – of street brawls and running battles between paramilitaries – had come to an end. For many Berliners – and many Germans – the enthusiasm for the Nazis that they felt in 1936 was very real.
Hitler and Albert Speer developed numerous plans, drawings and models to re-develop Berlin. What did these plans for ‘Germania’ consists of, what were its projected costs and how much of this grand project ever became a reality?
The Germania plan is fascinating. It is one of the most ambitious capital rebuilding plans in history – yet it often gets short shrift from historians, being dismissed as a Nazi pipedream; a flight of fascist fantasy. But, as I show in my book “Berlin at War”, in which I devote a chapter to Germania, the project was not still-born. Though little of it was ever constructed, preparations were made, demolitions were carried out – and most darkly of all – the process of clearing the centre of the city, and particular the Jewish residents, was begun. Germania was never just theoretical.
What was actually built? – well, the bizarre Schwerbelastungskörper to the south of the city centre was a huge concrete block intended to test how the sandy soil of Berlin could handle great weight. It is still there. The Foreign Tourist Office building was completed in its essentials, close to Potsdamer Platz, but was torn down in the 1950s. Then there was the Ernst Reuter Haus, which is the only finished building from Germania still standing today. Also, the road west of the Brandenburg Gate – now Strasse des 17 Juni – was widened and redeveloped for Hitler’s birthday in 1939, as part of Germania. Even the Victory Column was moved by Speer from its original location – outside the Reichstag – to grace the new road.
The costs were vast. They were estimated by Speer – optimistically – at 6 billion Reichsmarks, which (suspiciously) was precisely the figure estimated for Jewish wealth in Germany at that time. It is easy to see where the Nazi authorities imagined they would get the money to pay for it all.
How much did Hitler’s notion of competition, survival of the fittest and policy of divide and rule amongst competing departments apply to his architects or did Speer reign supreme?
It is commonly explained that Nazi Germany had a policy of “administrative Darwinism” – the idea of getting departments of the state to compete to do the same task. I hesitate to describe it as Hitler’s policy, however. Hitler was fundamentally a dilettante, I don’t think he thought things through to that extent. Nonetheless, when it came to architects – an area which interested him greatly, and which he tended to keep in his own hands – he did have his favourites, the first being Paul Troost, who died in 1934. After that Speer gradually came to the fore, but the building plans that the Nazis had after 1933 were so vast that it would have been impossible for one man to carry them out, or even oversee them, so there were many architects. Most notably, perhaps, Ernst Segebiel , who did the Air Ministry and Tempelhof, Werner March, who did the Olympic Stadium, and Roderich Fick, who did the Eagle’s Nest.
Speer competed with these architects, naturally, but he had two fundamental advantages. First, from 1937, he was “General Building Inspector” for Berlin, so had huge power over his rivals in that sphere, and second, he very much had Hitler’s ear, and did not hesitate to exploit that contact. So, there are many architects active under the Nazis, but we can safely say that Speer was foremost amongst them.
With the instruments of terror and those orchestrating its direction and operation being located at the very heart of the central government district of Berlin at Prinz Albrecht Straβe and the first concentration camps being erected in 1933, what was life like for the Jewish community, political opposition and other minorities living in Berlin during this period?
Life in peacetime was pretty hard for those in opposition – real or imagined – to the Nazis. They had to reckon with official discrimination and the perpetual threat of arrest. Not surprising, perhaps, that the Jewish population of Berlin halved between 1933 and 1939.
What is perhaps more surprising, however, is how positively many ordinary Germans (and Berliners) came to view the Nazis and Hitler. There was genuine enthusiasm for the regime up to 1939 (and beyond) – we have to remind ourselves that the majority did not live “under the jackboot” and that, if they did not resist, were not socialists, Jews, communists etc – most had little to fear from the Nazi regime. This was very much a consensual dictatorship. The Nazi seduction was very successful.
How much did the ordinary Berliner and people of the German Reich know about the reality of events going on around them on the home and fighting fronts?
As one would imagine, official sources of information during the war in the Third Reich are tightly controlled, with Goebbels pulling the strings for both the radio and print media. So there were few opportunities there for reality to intrude against an extremely effective propaganda machine.
However, there were other sources of information. The rumour mill was ever present, with stories being told about the reality of the fighting at the front, for instance, or of the killing of Jews and others. Such things would be whispered, of course, and many would have doubted their veracity, but the rumour mill was ever present.
You recently wrote an interesting article on Volkswagen and its association with the Third Reich. But what other ‘big businesses’ like Krupp etc. were closely linked to the former Third Reich and how many of those still survive to this day?
There are countless examples. German industrial concerns were tightly connected to the Nazi regime, whether they liked it or not. Ferdinand Porsche, of course, designed the VW Beetle and was closely involved in tank designs, such as the Tiger and Tiger II. BMW made the engines for the Focke-Wulf 190 and the Ju-88. Krupp supplied artillery pieces galore. MAN built Panther tanks. The list goes on.
With the onset of war how much did life change in Berlin? And was the impact of the war in its various forms felt equally throughout Berlin’s society as well as throughout the rest of the Reich?
Essentially this question is answered over some 400 pages in “Berlin at War”! So, the short answer is that readers should get hold of the book!
Of course, life changed in all the most obvious ways with the outbreak of war – rationing is introduced, air raid precautions are practiced and an evacuation programme is rolled out (known as the Kinderlandverschickung or KLV). But there is really not huge deterioration in life for Berliners until about 1943. Then the British bombing gets seriously underway, with the introduction of the Lancaster, and the reality of Germany’s wartime predicament begins to bite – as shown by Goebbels’ infamous “Total War” speech of February 1943. From 1943 onwards, life for Berliners is on a downward spiral.
Life in the capital was very different from that in the countryside, where the risk from bombing was much less and the food situation much less severe. Increasingly the ration allocation – which had been comparatively generous in 1939 – became rather theoretical and shortages became the norm. So many Berliners would travel out to the countryside to barter their possessions for bread, bacon or jam. Their gains would be confiscated if they were caught.
Life was particularly hard for the capital’s remaining Jews – from 1943 all of them fugitives. Capture meant a one-way transport to Auschwitz. Only about 1,500 would survive.
In terms of the rationing and the black-out measures enforced by the German Government in 1939, how were these comparable to their British counterparts experiences?
German rationing was initially more generous than the British example, but it covered more items and was infernally complex. Of course, it was very unpopular.
The blackout was extremely closely observed in Nazi Germany – those that failed to black out properly risked being sent to a concentration camp. The main difference here is that the German blackout had to continue to be religiously observed throughout the war, as the risk of bombing in Berlin increased after 1943, while it decreased for London. Both cities blacked out, of course, but in Berlin the necessity was greater, as were the punishments for non compliance.
With 68,000 tonnes of Allied bombs dropped on Hitler’s Capital, Berlin was one of the most bombed cities during the Second World War. What measures were taken to protect and assist the ordinary people of Berlin as well as defend the city? And how did Berliners cope under these extraordinary conditions?
It is interesting to consider the difference here between London and Berlin. In London, there was the Tube, of course, but beyond that, there were Anderson shelters (a tin roof and some sandbags in the garden) and Morrison shelters (a steel cage under the stairs) and that was about it.
Air raid provision in Berlin was vastly superior. Berliners also had a tube system (albeit one that is much shallower than London’s) but they were genuinely taken care of by the Nazi regime. At the outbreak of war, every house with a cellar had to make sure that it was up to scratch, and every new build had to include a cellar-bunker. In addition, the regime built numerous bunkers for the use of the public, the most famous being the Flaktowers in Humboldhain, Friedrichshain and Zoo, each of which was designed to hold 15,000 people.
In addition, care for Berliners once they were bombed out was exemplary; replacement papers would be provided, along with accommodation, even clothing and furniture. In short, the bombing campaign provided the Nazi regime with a tremendous opportunity to show what it could do, to show how well it could take care of its people. And, take care of them it did.
It is ironic that Bomber Harris believed that the Germans would crack if you bombed them hard enough – that the ordinary Berliners would blame their own government for the bombing, rather than the Lancaster crews – and all in spite of the fact that nothing like that had happened during the Blitz over London. It didn’t happen in Berlin either. If anything, the bombing campaign – for all its destruction – actually brought the Nazi regime and the German people closer together.
How often do you still travel to Berlin?
I am a pretty regular visitor to Berlin. I spent a huge amount of time there prior to 2010 when “Berlin at War” was published, and I got to know it very well. It’s my favourite place, I think. It is not really what I would call a beautiful city, but it is most certainly fascinating, with a peculiar layering of history in some places – where you can see Wilhelmine, Nazi, and GDR all in one view. I love Bernauer Strasse, and Treptower Park and Weissensee… All fascinating.
I get to go to the city less often nowadays, but I am still there about 4 or 5 times a year. I also run tours to the city with www.historicaltrips.com – so check out the website and come along!
Your latest book – The Devil’s Alliance – examines the pact between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. What made you want to write about it?
Though I am best known for my work on Nazi Germany, I have long had a secondary interest in Poland and central Europe. And through this I knew that there was a huge disparity between how we see the Nazi-Soviet Pact (essentially as a diplomatic forerunner to war in 1939) and how the Poles see it (as the arrangement that facilitated their nation’s destruction).
For this reason, it was clear to me that the subject of the Nazi-Soviet Pact is one that has been almost completely ignored in the British and western historiography of World War Two – and it really shouldn’t be any more. We tend to view the Nazi-Soviet Pact as a momentary spasm of diplomacy in August 1939, and we forget that the Nazis and the Soviets were effectively allied for 22 months thereafter; they signed 4 economics treaties in that time (the last in January 1941), and Soviet foreign minister Molotov travelled to Nazi Berlin in November 1940 for a new round of talks. There is so much going on between the two, in fact, that it is genuinely hard to fathom why this Great Power relationship has been so comprehensively forgotten. Consequently, I think “The Devils’ Alliance” is a book that will surprise a lot of readers, even those who thought they knew the history of World War Two inside out!
Every historian wants to find a subject that is fundamentally relevant to the grand narrative, and yet has never been satisfactorily investigated. Given the way World War Two has been endlessly assessed and reassessed, finding such uncovered subjects nowadays is like finding hen’s teeth. But, with the Nazi-Soviet Pact, I found one. It’s a fascinating, chilling, sobering story – and I urge you all to read it!
Thank you to Roger for speaking with us in what was a truly riveting snapshot into life in Berlin and Germany during the period of the Third Reich.
Photo Credits: The Reichstag Fire | Focke-Wulf Fw 190 | The Reich Aviation Ministry | Speer’s Model of Germania | Total War Speech | Volksempfänger being distributed | Olympic Flag 1936 | 1936 Olympic Stadium | The Gestapo Headquarters Prinz Albert Street | Aldwych tube station 1940 | Berlin Zoo Flak Tower | Russian War Memorial at Treptow |
The Berlin Flak Tower
Click Here to Watch our first video from Germany’s capital, where we explore the last remaining Flak Tower in Berlin at Humboldthain.
Coming up on Friday on WW2 Nation, we will be giving you the chance to get your hands on a copy of Roger’s latest book, the Devil’s Alliance.
This Month is brought to you in Partnership with our fantastic friends at Battlefield Design.