Berlin: life and loss in the city that shaped the century

Covering the period from the end of the Great War to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, this is a well-researched and very detailed book from a well-known author, whose previous similar book Dresden we reviewed in MHM some two years ago.

Preceded by a useful collection of maps – so very often sadly missing in a book of this nature – Berlin’s eight-page preface is probably the most comprehensive that I have ever read, and certainly whets the reader’s appetite for the pages that follow. Bearing a subtitle ‘Every city has history, but Berlin has too much!’, the preface concludes very aptly ‘What the climactic darkness of 1945 teaches is that even as the shadows thickened, there were still Berliner lives and loves and dreams that spoke to the city’s truer soul.’

Throughout the last century, Berlin stood central in a widely turbulent world, but McKay’s story of the German city begins in the darkest of its many dark hours: the second half of World War II, and tells of the haunting lives of those trapped in the capital of the Nazi state as the bombers of the Allies, both RAF and USAAF, dropped their deadly war loads from the skies above.

Anyone who suffers from claustrophobia will find the vivid descriptions of those trapped in the mangled wreckage of once- fine buildings hard to read through. We hear of the power and water shortages, and that, unlike in London with its Underground, the tunnels of the U-Bahn were very shallow and provided little protection. There was a shortage of dedicated bomb-proof shelters throughout the city, the 1940 ‘Bunker Construction Programme for the Capital of the Reich’ having failed to achieve its aims. Despite these horrific circumstances the citizens of Berlin still maintained the keen edge of the city’s well-known humour.

Berlin was full of refugees, the vast majority fleeing westwards from the Red Army, whose troops – at least in some cases – were masters of theft, rape, torture, and murder. Some of this barbarous behaviour was probably as a direct result of revulsion felt after encountering the horrors of concentration camps at sites such as Treblinka and Auschwitz, leaving the Russians wondering about the humanity of each German that they encountered. Only after the fighting ceased did they begin to realise that, deep down, they themselves were no different to the working-class men and women of Germany.

The faltering defence of the city was in the hands of youngsters and the old and infirm (often with war wounds), who were no match for their opposition. The guns on the flak towers were largely ineffective against the bomber streams, and those fighting as infantry were completely outclassed by their opponents. The massive concrete flak towers did, however, provide some form of air-raid shelter for the public.

As Berlin crumbled, a deluded few still saw a German victory as possible through the new wonder weapons promised, but this was not, of course, to be. Tiredness now joined hunger and thirst as the greatest debilitating condition. Meanwhile, even younger boys and girls were called to the colours in a vain attempt to save the city.

Weimar Republic

With Berlin finally still to fall, McKay jumps back to give a vivid description of the 1919 German (or November) Revolution, a post-Great War uprising that saw the replacement of the federal constitutional monarchy with a democratic parliamentary regime, which later became the Weimar Republic. Following these days of major change, the country as a whole, but with Berlin central to all that occurred, was split asunder by the political and often physical differences between the Communists and the Social Democrats, the latter being the forerunners of the Nazi party.

We read of the rise of the Hitler Youth, which was underpinned by a founding myth of youth martyrdom, and of the death by stabbing in the street of two young men distributing right-wing political literature. A publicity coup for the Nazi party! It was in these days that Adolf Hitler and Dr Joseph Goebbels came to public attention, and sowed the seeds of Kristallnacht and then of World War II. The pogrom against the Jews was a major activity of the Nazis, and we read of the horrors it wreaked – as so often in this book, in personal recollections of those victimised, dehumanised, and part of ‘The Final Solution’.

In a chapter entitled ‘The Projection of Dreams’, McKay goes into great detail about the world of the cinema and the effect of the major Nazi-endorsed productions on the population. He tells of Hitler’s desire to watch two private film screenings each evening, but nothing too highbrow or artistic, thus displaying a taste widespread in the community at large.

The German desire to emulate Hollywood was almost pathological, but only certain American films were approved for general viewing. McKay tells the humorous story of how screenings of the anti-war film All Quiet on the Western Front were sabotaged by the Nazis, who destroyed equipment, threw stink bombs, and released mice into auditoriums. The production was subsequently banned.

above The victorious Allies parade through Berlin, 12 July 1945. Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery is pictured to the right of Marshal Zhukov, Deputy Supreme Commander in Chief of the Red Army, and other senior Soviet commanders.
The victorious Allies parade through Berlin, 12 July 1945. Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery is pictured to the right of Marshal Zhukov, Deputy Supreme Commander in Chief of the Red Army, and other senior Soviet commanders.

As the pages of the book unfold, we read of the work of now-famous scientists such as Albert Einstein, those involved in the search for the route to the production of the atom bomb, and Wernher von Braun, whose researches led to the V-1 and V-2 ‘Vengeance’ weapons. Later, McKay moves on to such diverse topics as the von Stauffenberg attempt on Hitler’s life, and the aristocracy’s changing lifestyle in the inter-war years and the fate of the stately homes in the days of National Socialism.

Writing on the spring of 1945, the author goes into great detail on the Russian advance on the city – the lair of the fascist beast – and comments succinctly that to conquer a city, with its secret passages and innumerable sniper positions, was much more difficult than sweeping across vast tracts of open countryside. He tells, among almost uncountable other stories, of a concert by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra at which members of the Hitler Youth offered cyanide tablets to the audience.

Isolated enclave

The days leading up to the final fall of Berlin to the Red Army on 2 May 1945 are brilliantly described in great detail, telling not only of the one-sided military battle but also of the effect of the fighting on the civilian population. So, having devoted roughly half of the book to the final days of Berlin as the heart of the Third Reich, McKay then turns to the early post-war days and the Cold War. He describes life in the city under Communist rule and, later, under the control of four nations after the Potsdam Conference.

The city was an isolated enclave in Communist East Germany, with its citizens attempting to adapt to the drab Communist lifestyle and, as time passed by, becoming used to a much lower standard of living than in the West and quietly shedding their former Nazi past. Attempts by the Communist government of Walter Ulbricht to raise living standards failed miserably, save on the housing front.

On 24 June 1948, the Soviets severed all land contacts into the city from the West and the Berlin Air Lift, using both civil and military aircraft flying along three air corridors, was born. This saved the city from starvation, as McKay shows in fascinating detail, and eventually the Soviets admitted defeat and the travel restrictions were lifted on 12 May 1949 – just over a week before the advent of the Federal Republic of (West) Germany.

Hereafter, the differences in lifestyle and living standards between the new republic and the hugely Soviet-influenced German Democratic Republic grew larger and larger. In August 1961, work began on building the infamous Berlin Wall, designed – it was imaginatively said – to stop those from West Berlin entering the Eastern Sector! The minor dramas in the divided city are very well covered. As far as personal freedom went, Erich Honecker – who succeeded Ulbricht from 1971 – was an even harder taskmaster.

The widening gap between the lifestyles of those on either side of the Berlin Wall continued until the crumbling of the Soviet Union and the demolition of the Wall in November 1989, as the Cold War drew to a close and the citizens of East and West were able to intermingle for the first time since 1961. Only nine months later, Germany was reunited. As McKay concludes his work, ‘history never ends; who might guess what form the next revolution to sweep Berlin might take?’.

This is a good read – it is mesmerising in many places – and reveals a vast amount of information from the often-chaotic years of the 20th century, with Sinclair McKay’s way with words making it a pleasure to follow. The 55 illustrations are well chosen and complement the written word.

The book, however, is rather disjointed and occasionally hard to follow. Because it is so very detailed, it is impossible in just 1,500 words to do it credit, but a succinct description would be ‘excellent, but with minor flaws’.


Berlin: life and loss in the city that shaped the century, Sinclair McKay, Penguin Books, hbk (£20), ISBN 978-0241503171.