World War II: History to Know Before You Visit Berlin
One of my best friends is German, from the eastern side of Germany. We met years ago in New York when she sublet from my flatmate, who went off to India. During one of our first conversations, she was horrified to learn that Americans' knowledge of German history is pretty much limited to the nazis.
Since then, I’ve traveled around Germany and know more about it. It’s a great country to visit and, if you listened to the Postcard Academy podcast's travel guide on Berlin, you heard Chloe Dalrymple’s excellent insider travel recommendations.
As we discussed on the show, historical tourism is very important in Berlin, and so Chloe, a British expat and tour guide, and dove deeper into World War II and the Cold War in a second episode.
Obviously, these are huge topics. I’m currently listening to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich on Audible and that alone is 57 hours long, so we only scratched the surface in our pod discussion. But hopefully this quick and dirty primer will help you get your historical bearings before your trip to Berlin.
World War II was not that long ago. It lasted from 1939-1945 and people who lived through it are still alive. Despite this, last month, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, a survey came out saying
- that 31 percent of Americans — and this goes up to 41 percent for millennials — wrongly believe that only two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust;
- 41 percent of Americans — and 66 percent of millennials — cannot say what Auschwitz was.
- And more than half of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.
In reality, it’s estimated that between 11 million to 17 million people were murdered during the Holocaust — 6 million Jews, the rest political dissidents, people with disabilities, gay people, Roma, Polish and Russian citizens, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other groups.
Believe it or not, before all of this, Berlin was experiencing a sort of liberal Golden Age.
World War 1 financially devastated Germany, which owed the rest of the world reparations for war damage as required by the Treaty of Versailles. However, the Americans agreed to lend Germany money to get out of the hole. This financial injection meant more factories, more jobs, and more people moving to Berlin.
Until 1920, Berlin consisted of the Mitte area. By 1925, Berlin doubled in size to 4 million people. The economy was calming down after the hyperinflation that followed World War I, which had made German money practically worthless, and people were letting loose.
Like in Paris and New York, Berliners enjoyed new artistic, intellectual, and sexual freedom. Women could work and vote and go out at night and party. Gay bars open. Life was grand.
But this did not last. In October 1929, the stock market crash in the U.S. ruined the global economy. The nazis took advantage of the German people's desperation and blamed the financial crisis on the Jews. Adolf Hitler was especially good at provoking hatred and he rose through party ranks to be appointed Chancellor in 1933.
So who was Adolf Hitler? Many people know he was actually born in Austria, and that he was a failed artist.
You might not know that as a young man, he was also lazy and entitled. He dropped out of school and refused to get a job even when his mother was sick.
He moved to Vienna to try and make it as a painter and ate meals at a soup kitchen. I don’t think I have to point out that if anyone else lived this kind of life, Hitler would accuse them of leaching off the system.
He was also obsessed with what he saw as the corruption of young Christian women by — in his words — “repulsive, crooked legged Jew bastards.”
German lawyer and journalist Rudolph Olden, who opposed the nazis, theorised that this had to do with extreme envy on Hitler’s part, who didn’t have a girlfriend in Vienna.
At 24, Hitler left Austria for Germany with no job, and people accused him of evading military service.
Long story short, he gets involved with the nazis, who like his passion, and his ability to captivate an audience. Hitler was a powerful speaker who promised to make Germany great again, and he was especially appealing to the poor and unemployed, as well as young people.
In February 1933, one month into his Chancellorship, there was a fire at the Reichstag, which was parliament, and Hitler blamed the communists. There are theories that the nazis themselves caused the fire to suspend civil rights and arrest political opponents, which they did.
Things are moving so fast. Hitler had only just come to power, yet he and the nazis
- suspended civil rights,
- they jailed and set up special courts for political opponents,
- turned their country into a one-party state,
- created the Gestapo — which was the secret police —
- built concentration camps,
- dissolved trade unions,
- boycotted Jewish businesses,
- censored the media,
- gave Hitler the power to make his own laws without Parliament approval,
- and burned so-called subversive books in huge public bonfires (including works by American writers like Ernest Hemingway and Jack London).
How long do you think it takes to dismantle Democracy?
The nazis achieved all of that within months—without the help of surveillance cameras or social media or much of the technology we use today.
Some media outlets were sympathetic to Hitler because they saw him as someone who’d work to block communism.
In 1933, the UK’s Daily Mail had an editorial that said “Hitler won his majority cleverly, and if he uses it prudently and peacefully, no one here will shed any tears over the disappearance of German democracy.”
The nazis didn’t start out saying they wanted to murder all the jews. Yeah, they blamed Jewish people and minorities for all the problems in the world, but they needed more than that to gain support.
They created something called the ‘Volk community’ — Volk, V-O-L-K — the people’s community. And their guiding principle was that ‘actually, all men are NOT created equal. Only the racially pure Germans could be part of this community and the nazis pledged to help them have a better quality of life. More food. More jobs. The opportunity to own a car.
Volkswagen — which means, the people’s car — was actually founded by the nazis at the request of Hitler. Hugo Boss designed the uniforms for the Hitler Youth. As Chloe mentioned in the Berlin travel guide episode, its hard to find a legacy German brand that wasn’t involved with the nazis in some way.
The nazis achieved early economic success, and so the majority of Germans went along with them. Eventually, if you did not support them, you’d be branded an ‘enemy of the state’ and publicly humiliated or worse.
The concentration camps were first set up in 1933 as detention centers for enemies of the state, especially communists and socialists and other political prisoners who were against the nazis.
Also, the Sinti and Roma (also known as gypsies), gay people, people with disabilities and so-called asocials—this included people who didn’t work, the homeless, criminals, prostitutes.
These groups were dragged off to concentration camps and forced sterilized, and later straight up murdered as the time went on.
Young people who committed deviant acts such as listening to swing and jazz, which the nazis said was ‘black music,’ were sent away to special camps.
And these camps weren’t just jails or death centers, they were slave labor factories. Prisoners were forced to work on Hitler’s mad scientist idea of tearing down Berlin and rebuilding it as the biggest, and most glorious city on Earth, Germania.
As the nazis conquered other countries, they set up similar camps, forcing people to work as slaves in very poor conditions with barely enough food to keep them alive.
Most prisoners were from other European countries, especially Poland and the Soviet Union. Hitler wanted to wipe Poland off the map. 3 million Soviet prisoners of war died in camps.
According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, there were more than 40,000 camps and incarceration sites from 1933-1945.
It was in 1938 that German Jews were sent en mass to the camps. November 9th and 10th 1938 was the Night of Broken Glass, during which the homes and shops of Jewish people in Germany were broken into, looted, and destroyed while the Gestapo, the secret police, sent 30,000 Jews to concentration camps.
Neighbors reported on each other. Casually participated in looting. And the nazis ramped up their plans for the Final Solution, which was the extermination of all Jewish people in Europe. Extermination meaning murder.
Specific death camps, like Auschwitz, were created in the 1940s as a more efficient way to kill all the Jews in Europe.
Artists and intellectuals, who’d been called anti-German and were fired from their jobs, were leaving Germany. The freedom that gay people enjoyed in the 1920s ended after Hitler became Chancellor. The nazis wanted to grow a master, German race and since gay people weren’t having kids, they weren’t worth having around. A special unit of the Gestapo was set up to find and deport gay people to the camps, where they were forced to wear pink triangles to identify why they were there. All prisoners were identified by a symbol to categorize them as Roma, Jews, gay, communist, or some other group or mix.
In 1939, Hitler ordered the deaths of disabled people because under nazi ideology, those who don’t work shouldn’t be able to eat. The nazis tried to play off these killings as a compassionate act to put people out of their misery. A program called Action T4 resulted in the murder of 70,000 mentally ill and intellectually disabled people. Their families protested and eventually the program was shut down, but the practices continued in secret. An estimated 300,000 patients were killed by the end of the war.
Now, this all sounds insane. But what did the average German think of what was going on? Historian Ulrich Herbert said that “Presumably the regime’s Jewish policy was not popular among the population. But neither was it a subject of primary concern. There was after all much that disposed people to excuse Hitler and his crowd their ‘mistakes’ or ‘excesses’ in other areas.
Given the constant stream of great political events and the improvement of the social and economic lot of most Germans, the regime’s policy towards the Jews seemed an aspect that was marginal and of little importance in the face of the Nazis successes. More than anything else, this indifference and readiness to accept the persecution of the Jews, and to ignore it as unimportant, characterized the attitude of the ‘normal Germans’ toward the Jews in those years.”
If you go to Berlin, the Topography of Terror museum is an absolute must. One of the things they explain is that “the willingness of most Germans to adapt meant that many not merely shared the aims of the nazi leadership but also actively supported them — often at the price of denouncing others to the Gestapo.”
The Gestapo had informants everywhere. They tortured prisoners during interrogations, sent them off to concentration camps, or simply murdered them. They could do whatever they wanted and went after anyone against the nazi regime. They were incredibly organized and hundreds of officers could be mobilized quickly to terrorize a target.
There were some people who resisted, though, and you can learn more about these heroes at the German Resistance Memorial Center, another place you should visit in Berlin.
As children, when we hear about the horrors of the world, we all think that we would have stood up and said something. We would have been braver than these hateful conformists. But would we have been? Looking at the photos of thousands of people with their arms in the air hailing Hitler as he whipped them up into a frenzy, I wonder what I actually would have done.
Would I have crossed my arms in defiance at the risk of being sent to a concentration camp? Would I have stayed in Germany at all? And then we hear about the atrocities committed against the Syrian people, the Rohinga, what’s going on in Yemen. And we say, “Yeah, that’s awful. But what can we do?” And that’s what people all over the world said about what was going on in nazi Germany. After the war, people around the world said they did not know about the concentration camps. But that’s not true. Brave reporters — who were jailed and expelled from Germany for their so-called ‘fake news’ — had been revealing those stories for years.
Fast forward to the end of the war 1945. The Allies, led by Great Britain, the U.S., and the Soviet Union, defeat the Axis alliance, led by Germany, Italy, and Japan. Hitler kills himself. Other high-ranking nazis go into hiding.
As you’ll see if you visit the Topography of Terror museum, that while there were war tribunals to try nazi leaders, most nazis were never punished. Doctors who killed patients continued to practice medicine. Judges kept their jobs. Members of the SS and Gestapo became police were recruited by intelligence services.