Interview with Roger Moorhouse, author of Berlin At War

History In An Hour interviews Roger Moorhouse, author of recently published and critically acclaimed Berlin At War: Life And Death In Hitler’s Capital, 1939-45.

First of all, a bit about Roger from his website,http://rogermoorhouse.com: “A fluent German speaker, Moorhouse is a specialist in modern German History, particularly Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. In this capacity, he is a regular contributor to the BBC History Magazine and History Today, a book reviewer for the Independent on Sunday, and is an occasional commentator on television and radio.”

History In An Hour interviews Roger Moorhouse, author of recently published and critically acclaimed Berlin At War: Life And Death In Hitler’s Capital, 1939-45.

First of all, a bit about Roger from his website, http://rogermoorhouse.com: “A fluent German speaker, Moorhouse is a specialist in modern German History, particularly Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. In this capacity, he is a regular contributor to the BBC History Magazine and History Today, a book reviewer for the Independent on Sunday, and is an occasional commentator on television and radio.”

Roger, your latest book, Berlin at War, gives us an idea of what it was like to be an ordinary Berliner during the war.   

I wanted to write something about Berlin, so I was looking for a good angle into its recent history and this just seemed to leap out at me.  Though we know all about the upper echelons of the Nazi State and how the Third Reich functioned, we are actually remarkably ignorant of what everyday life was like under Nazism.  So that was the story that I set out to tell, not in a dry academic way, but so far as was possible using first hand accounts – memoirs, diaries and interviews – to frame my narrative.

The book covers everything from comparatively mundane, everyday issues such as rationing, the blackout and the evacuation, to aspects that were much more specific to life in Nazi Germany, such as the experience of living in a police state, the Holocaust, and the experience of Jews living ‘underground’ in the capital.  It has been a remarkable experience to research and write the book, and I think that as well as being accessible and readable, it makes a genuine contribution to our knowledge of this subject.

Your youngest interviewees for the book must be in their eighties by now. How did you go about finding people willing to talk?

There were quite a few useful sources.  Firstly I benefited enormously from the generosity of friends and colleagues who were willing to pass on names and addresses of people that they had spoken to in this regard.  But most of my eye-witnesses came via a brilliant liaison office in Berlin – called the Zeitzeugenbörse – which exists to put historians, journalists, teachers and film producers in touch with eye-witnesses of whatever period or event is required.

Yet, even with those contacts, it was still difficult as my eye-witnesses were of quite advanced age.  Many of them, of course, were still astonishingly sprightly but I am sad to say that others have passed away in the interim and will not have the satisfaction of seeing the book in print.

But this, I think, only highlights further the necessity of doing the research that I have.  Without it, all those stories, those memories and those reminiscences would have been lost, and would never have entered the historical record.

You write in the introduction of Berlin At War about the “democratisation of history”, hearing it from the ordinary citizen. Is there not a risk that by relying too much on the people who were there that we end up with a very subjective view of history?

It’s true; my approach has been necessarily subjective.  Objectivity is the Holy Grail for any historian, yet the material that we use – even dry archival records – is all subjective.  It is (almost) all the product of one pair of eyes and one brain.  So, whilst it’s vital that the historian remains objective – the material he uses is often very subjective, and necessarily so.

That said – it is clear that much of the material gleaned from the diaries of ordinary Berliners, for instance, is very subjective and unverifiable.  But, here I think the skills of the historian come to the fore – sifting the evidence, and providing context and background so that it fits within a wider narrative.

Did you come across any interviewees who admitted, yes, at the time I thought that Hitler was doing the right thing’?

Of course, all human life is there…  It’s important to realise that Hitler and the Nazis ruled (primarily) by consent, so their popularity ratings were very high in the years up to 1939 and beyond, because they had restored ‘order’ after the chaos of Weimar, they had given people work, and they had restored Germany’s international prestige.  Thereafter, of course, they were less popular – there was precious little enthusiasm for the war in Berlin – and tended to rule more by the expert use of propaganda and – increasingly after 1943-44 – the use of terror and coercion.  But, many of those that I spoke to were at pains to make me understand why Hitler and the Nazis had been so popular.

Beyond that, I heard almost every opinion; from those that found the war a huge adventure, to those that saw it only as a bloody catastrophe…

Did you feel that in talking to you, a relative stranger and a foreigner as well, that for some it was perhaps a cathartic process?

Absolutely.  That was immediately clear.  I heard things from some of my interviewees that I am sure they would not have told even their own children and grandchildren.  I think it was for that very reason, that I was a relative stranger, but also because they knew that I would not judge them, I only wanted to hear their reminiscences and I wouldn’t be emotionally burdened by the experience.  The series of interviews was a fascinating process, actually, and I have some memories from it that will stay with me for a long time.

It was also interesting that what one often got at first seemed to be a prepared, fixed narrative.  This, I suppose, was the story that they had been telling themselves and others for the previous 65 or so years.  But as the interview progressed – and my interviews generally lasted about 3-4 hours – I would try, very gently, to get behind that prepared story, to cross-reference it and question it, to get the interviewee themselves to put it under the microscope.  And, in many cases, one would reach a point where it was clear that they were almost experiencing the war all over again, seeing things in their mind’s eye that had long remained buried and forgotten.  It could be an intensely emotional experience, but a fascinating one.

In 2009 Penguin published the first English translation of Hans Fallada, Alone In Berlin, originally published in Germany in 1947. It encapsulates the fear and paranoia of living in wartime Berlin, and the consequences for those who tried, even in the slightest way, to push against the system. Did the atmosphere of the novel tally with your research?

Fallada’s book is excellent, but we should not forget that it is a novel.  Also, we should not forget that it was written at the instigation of a communist party apparatchik.  The result is that the book is unremittingly dark, with no redeeming characters, and so portrays a rather grim and – I think – bizarre vision of Berlin society during the war.

I personally do not believe that that vision corresponds with the truth.  If one were Jewish, a communist, or if one chose to resist in Nazi Berlin, then there was much to fear.  Yet, for the vast majority, there was little to be afraid of, except being called up for service on the Eastern Front and the threat of enemy bombs.  A recent academic study, indeed, concluded that 83% of Berliners of the wartime generation had no fear of arrest by the Gestapo.

So – historically speaking – I would say that the dark world of Fallada’s novel – full of craven, unsympathetic characters and an all-pervasive climate of fear – is rather wide of the mark.  The truth – as so often is the case – is actually much more complex and much more interesting.

You say on your website (http://rogermoorhouse.com) that you were inspired by the events in Berlin and Germany in 1989. Tell us a bit more. As a 21-year-old at the time, how did the fall of the Berlin Wall inspire you?

Of course, that was before I had started my career as a historian, and before I even went to university, so I could claim no expert knowledge of contemporary events at that time.  But 1989 was still hugely exciting and fascinating for me.  I think it was basically because the world that I had grown up with up until that point – divided Europe, Cold War, divided Germany and so on – was one that we just assumed would go on forever.  One had very little inkling that one would ever experience anything quite so momentous as those revolutions proved to be.

Over that autumn, we literally saw regimes overturned, rulers deposed and heads roll, and I – for one – used to rush home from work to catch the evening news to see what had happened that day.  It was tremendously exciting and one had a feeling that nothing was immutable, nothing was fixed, nothing was permanent, anything was possible …  And it was that sentiment that made me want to go to university and study history.

Twenty-one years on, do you feel that as a city Berlin has finally emerged from the long shadow cast by the Cold War?

It’s a slow process and the city is gradually emerging from the shadow of the Cold War, but there are still parts of it that drag the visitor straight back to the old days – to the GDR and beyond – and therein, I think, lies its appeal.

But the more serious shadows have been inside people’s heads.  It was said at the time that it would take at least a generation for the divisions to heal.  We now have the first generation reaching adulthood in Germany that was born after 1989 – we will have to wait and see if the prognosis was correct.  I hope so.

Had you been to East Germany; and have you visited the East German Museum in current-day Berlin?

I hadn’t, though I had seen the GDR (East Germany) from across the border near Göttingen in the spring of 1989.  There was a sector of the border there where it ran along a river, and there was a bridge that had been demolished, so the Wessis (West Germans) used to park on their side of the bridge and watch the little village on the other side in the GDR – it was quite fascinating.

It’s strange to recount now – but I remember being inordinately interested in the communist world at that time; not through any ideological affinity, just because it was so closed off.  I’m a bit of a contrarian, so if I am told that I can’t do something, then I inevitably want to do it all the more.  So, coincidently, I was planning a trip to the GDR and Czechoslovakia the very autumn that the wall came down.  I ended up going to Poland and the Czech Republic in 1990, and then to the Baltic States in 1991 – and I suppose I haven’t looked back, I am still a regular visitor to the region.

I haven’t visited the East German museum in Berlin as I was concentrating on other things when I was there for research, but I have been to the Stasi Museum in Rostock, which is quite chilling.

There are so many novels written about Berlin during the war. One recent one, by Steven Conte, was called The Zookeeper’s War. What happened to Berlin Zoo during the war?

Like the rest of the city, the Zoo tried to carry on as if the war was not happening, but eventually the war made its presence felt.  It was bombed in November 1943 and many of the animals were killed; others were found wandering in the city and had to be killed or recaptured.  It was even said that there were crocodiles in the city’s canals.  One account that I have in the book is of a woman encountering an escaped wolf in the street.  The upside was that many Berliners ‘enjoyed’ a few weeks of increased rations: Bear-Ham was a favourite…

The Zoo was also the site of one of the three enormous Flak Towers that were built in the city.  These served as the centrepieces of Berlin’s defence in the Soviet assault of 1945, so the Zoo – or its remnants – suffered atrociously yet again.  At the end of the war, there was little of it left.

Your previous book, published in 2006, was Killing Hitler. Tell us honestly, what did you think of Valkyrie, the Hollywood film starring Tom Cruise?

It was OK.  It certainly wasn’t as bad as many had feared it would be.  But curiously, it wasn’t the history that was at fault with the film.  Many in the historical fraternity had expected another mauling of the facts to fit Hollywood fashions and agendas – like the awful ‘U-571’ – but the history in ‘Valkyrie’ was actually pretty sound, and surprisingly it was the storytelling that was at fault.  In addition, I thought Tom Cruise was rather too wooden to play someone with the depth and nuance of character of Stauffenberg.

Nonetheless, I did sell quite a few books on the back of the film, so I probably shouldn’t complain. I don’t think there is much point in getting too snobbish about this sort of thing – some of us moan about the quality of the fare that is offered to the public; dumbing-down here, or over-simplification there, but the fact that many of those viewers were inspired by a film such as ‘Valkyrie’ to go out and read a book about the real story behind it can only be seen as a positive thing.

Was Count Stauffenberg (the Tom Cruise character and leader of the ‘July Bomb Plot’ of 1944) your archetypal ‘good Nazi’?

I am not sure that I would subscribe to the idea of a “good Nazi”, but Stauffenberg is certainly a challenging and ambivalent character.  By his deeds in July 1944, he has morphed into the poster boy for the German resistance and almost the spiritual godfather of the modern democratic Germany.  At first sight, one can appreciate that this was perhaps natural – he seems to be a perfect role-model; the noble resistance fighter, the selfless would-be assassin of a tyrant.

Yet, if one delves a little deeper, then Stauffenberg appears to be much less appealing.  He was an old-fashioned German nationalist, who had fought enthusiastically for Hitler’s Reich and had shared many aspects of the Nazi ‘world-view’, until he had been disillusioned.  Far from making his assassination attempt in the name of democracy and freedom, he was seeking to turn the clock back and turn Germany into, in effect, a military dictatorship.  So, for all his undoubted bravery, we should not kid ourselves that Stauffenberg was somehow one of ‘us’.  He was not.  In his outlook and his political make-up, he was much closer to his target, Hitler, than he is to anyone of a later generation.

Frank Skinner recently wrote that looking for a documentary on TV about Hitler on any given evening was like looking for hay in a haystack! Do you think he has a point – have we become too obsessed?

Well, that is certainly the case on some TV channels!  But others, it seems, have gone the other way – and it seems to be very difficult nowadays to get anything on this subject onto the main terrestrial channels, however innovative or brilliant the material might be.

On a wider point, however, there is something to this – we are a bit obsessed – and that makes for lazy writing and bad film making, as there is always an audience, regardless of the quality.  This is not good, but there are still new stories, novel interpretations and fresh angles there to be found – and there is also much brilliant new history on this subject being produced.  I recently reviewed Tim Snyder’s forthcoming ‘Bloodlands’ and I thought it was fantastic – a perfect example of a new idea, brilliantly executed.  So, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Also, World War Two and the Third Reich were enormous, seismic events.  For all their undoubted horrors, Afghanistan, Iraq, Vietnam and all those other recent conflicts do not come close.  So, Hitler and WW2 cannot and must not be allowed to slip from our collective consciousness.  And if that apparent obsession means that those seismic events are not being forgotten, then it’s a small price to pay.

From Hitler to the world of Twitter and blogging! What do you feel are the main benefits, for you, of maintaining a blog (http://historian-at-large.blogspot.com) and a presence on Twitter (http://twitter.com/roger_moorhouse)?

I am a bit ambivalent about it all, I must say.  I am not a natural show-off, so it does not come terribly easily to do all that “look at me” stuff on the web.  Nonetheless, if I feel that I have something to say on a subject or a news story then I will say it, and my website, blog and twitter are useful outlets in that regard.  But I do wonder sometimes, heretically perhaps, if anyone is actually taking any notice.  We all like to think that we are participating in some enormous conversation – with fellow writers, readers, and the public – but I am not so sure.  Everyone is certainly talking – but is anyone actually listening?

What are you working on now? Do you have any ideas for the next book?

I have – I am still doing the PR work for “Berlin at War” of course, articles, lectures and so on – but I have a few ideas which I will have to work up into a proposal in due course.  Nothing is fixed yet, however, so nothing that I am able to divulge!

If pressed what would you say are your two favourite WWII films? One in English please, and one foreign…

The English language choice has to be “Saving Private Ryan”, which is excellent on so many levels; superb acting, characterisation, realism… I never tire of it.  The foreign language war film is a little bit more difficult and I am tempted to nominate the Russian-language “Come and See”, which is stylistically very strong.

But, for me, the choice would have to be “Downfall”, for its brilliant portrayal of Berlin at the very end of the war.  If I have done anything like as good a job in bringing the city alive in my book, then I will be very happy.

Thank you very much, Roger.

Rupert Colley.

Berlin At War: Life And Death In Hitler’s Capital, 1939-45 by Roger Moorhouse is available from all good bookshops, and, of course, Amazon UK and available on Amazon US from October 5, 2010

Roger Moorhouse online:

http://rogermoorhouse.com

http://historian-at-large.blogspot.com

http://twitter.com/roger_moorhouse