Read Berlin at War Online

Authors: Roger Moorhouse

Berlin at War (48 page)

battle of words, in which the whole coach-load of humanity feels called

upon to take part zealously as if their lives depended on the outcome.23

It may be that Smith’s observations were the result of his being a

foreigner, and an American to boot, but he nonetheless made a valid

point about the highly charged and accusatory climate of the times.

He went on:

They never fight; they just threaten ‘
Ich zeige dich an, junger Mann!
’ –

That’s the magic phrase these days: ‘I’ll have you arrested, you impu-

dent young man’, that and ‘I have a friend who’s high up in the Party

will tell you a thing or two!’ They’re like children threatening to ‘call my Dad, who’s bigger than yours.’24

This atmosphere contributed to a veritable epidemic of denunci a-

tions. One high-profile case was that of the cartoonist Erich Ohser, who

worked for the Nazi weekly newspaper
Das Reich
. In 1943, Ohser was

bombed out of his house in the centre of Berlin and moved to the

suburb of Kaulsdorf. There, along with his friend and colleague Erich


berlin at war

Knauf, he was reported by a neighbour for his persistent verbal attacks

on the regime, many of which were made during an alert in an air raid

shelter. In his report to the Gestapo, his denouncer complained that

Ohser’s ‘subversive remarks’ had become ‘very plain and uninhibited’.

Helpfully, he was able to give a verbatim record of some of the most

scandalous comments. ‘Hitler’, Ohser was claimed to have said, was

‘the stupidest man of all time’ and the only solution to ‘his insanity’

was ‘immediate surrender’. Ohser was arrested in March 1944. He

commited suicide in his cell the following month.25

Though Ohser’s case may have been justified, many other denun-

ciations were deliberately malicious. Anna Cohn, for instance, was

denounced to the Gestapo seven times for consorting with Jews.

Though her ex-husband was Jewish, he had been forced to emigrate,

so it is most likely that the complaints stemmed either from vindic-

tive neighbours or from an overzealous
. Each time she was

denounced, she had to report to the local Gestapo office to explain

herself.26 Another Berliner found himself denounced by his stepson

after a family argument. Accused of listening to BBC radio transmis-

sions, he was able to clear his name only after demonstrating in court

that his wireless set was not built to receive foreign broadcasts.27

Faced with with what they perceived to be an omniscient force,

Berliners reacted in a number of ways. For a section of Berlin society fear

of arrest and betrayal was very real, not least as the Gestapo was the

primary agent of the Nazi state in rooting out dissent and oppos ition.

Diarist Ursula von Kardorff spoke for many such dissenters when she

described the Gestapo as ‘the eternal pressure under which we stand’.28

Others reacted with sarcasm, even humour. Howard Smith noted

that some propaganda posters in Berlin, intended to warn of the

dangers of enemy eavesdroppers, had been doctored:

On one I saw, [. . .] warning, ‘Take care with your conversations, the

Enemy is listening’, the paper had been scratched away over the word

enemy until only two little paper S’s remained, so that the legend read:

‘Take care with your conversations, the SS is listening’. Another coloured

placard showed a fine, happy Nordic soldier, talking over a glass of beer

in a tavern to a civilian friend, while near them an evil-looking citizen in

horn-rimmed glasses sat, appearing to read a newspaper, but actually

straining his ear to catch the conversation. The caption ran: ‘Take care

the watchers and the watched


with conversations, for WHO is the third person?’ Some miscreant had

scratched away the big WHO and written in its place, in pencil, ‘Himmler’.29

Berliners also developed some peculiar practices to ensure that their

political indiscretions and questionable liaisons were not betrayed. The

first such tactic was what came to be known as the ‘German glance’,

a nervous look over both shoulders prior to imparting information to

a friend or acquaintance.30 Some went to greater lengths. The resist-

ance circle around Henning von Tresckow would go for walks in the

capital’s parks, where they could more easily avoid the supposed atten-

tions of the Gestapo and its informers. Another group of resisters

would meet in a Berlin swimming pool, on the logical assumption

that any agent tailing them would balk at having to don his swimsuit

and join his targets in the water in order to continue his surveillance.31

But a large proportion of Berliners did nothing, perceiving that they

had little to fear. A recent study has concluded that 83 per cent of Berlin

respondents of wartime vintage claim to have had no fear of arrest by

the Gestapo.32 The logic employed was the same as that echoed by later

generations threatened by the burgeoning surveillance society: if they

had nothing to hide, they had nothing to fear. Those Berliners who did

not break the law, resist the regime or consort with Jews or commun -

ists genuinely had little reason to fear arrest and imprisonment. Their

perception of the Gestapo, therefore, was radically different from that

felt by many of their more oppositionally minded contemporaries, or

indeed by later generations. The assumption that fear of the Gestapo

was a major factor in modulating everyday behaviour and ensuring the

compliance of ordinary Germans is clearly one that needs to be revised.

Yet for all the complacency, the fear and the myth-making, the Gestapo

was certainly no chimera. For those unfortunate enough to fall into

its clutches, it was very real indeed. Those arrested were usually taken

to the Police Headquarters, or
, on Alexanderplatz.

Built in the late 1800s, from the same red brick as the nearby

it was a dark and forbidding place, which was known to Berliners as

Zwingburg am Alex
– ‘the fortress on Alex’ – or simply as ‘Alex’.33

After the Nazis came to power, ‘Alex’ soon became a place into which

people began to disappear.

For all its infamy, ‘Alex’ quickly evolved into a mere holding prison


berlin at war

for suspects who were bound for an even more feared location – the

Gestapo headquarters on Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. The Prinz-Albrecht-

Strasse itself was an elegant street in the central, administrative sector

of the German capital. At its western end, it was adorned with a number

of elegant buildings, including the impressive seat of the Prussian legis-

lature and the beautifully ornate Martin Gropius Building, which was

home to the Berlin Museum of Prehistory. At its eastern end, however,

stood two buildings which came to define the dark heart of Nazi

Germany. The first was the former ‘Hotel Prinz Albrecht’, which became

the headquarters of Himmler’s SS. The second – at Prinz-Albrecht-

Strasse 8 – became the national headquarters of the Gestapo.

Originally an Art & Crafts School, Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse 8 had been

constructed in pale sandstone soon after the turn of the century. Spread

over five storeys, with an elegant front staircase and two additional

wings to the rear surrounding a courtyard, it was a typical Wilhelmine

mansion block. When it was taken over by the fledgling Gestapo in

the early 1930s, the building was quickly renovated and remodelled,

with thirty-eight cells being built into the ground floor, and the

remainder being given over to offices and interrogation rooms. It very

swiftly came to epitomise the Nazi ‘terror’.34

For those unfortunates arriving at Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse or at ‘Alex’,

the experience was – initially at least – broadly similar. Typically, they

would have been picked up at dawn. According to most accounts, the

Gestapo never rang a doorbell or gave a polite knock, but tended to

hammer on the door, shouting ‘
Gestapo! Aufmachen!

‘Gestapo! Open up!’ Dressed in plain clothes, perhaps with their trademark long leather

coats and trilby hats, the officers would have introduced themselves

by flashing their warrant discs – a metal oval bearing the Nazi eagle

on one side and the legend
Geheime Staatspolizei
(‘Secret State Police’)

on the other. In accordance with their ‘secret’ role, they were not

required to show any personal identification or give their names.

After a brief exchange, the hapless ‘suspect’ would be informed that

he was under arrest, briefly apprised of the charge against him and

given a few minutes to dress and prepare himself. He would then be

handcuffed and taken away, either in a car, or – if numerous suspects

were being apprehended – in a ‘Green Minna’, the colloquial name for

a ‘Black Maria’. The suspect’s family usually had little idea of his precise

destination beyond the supposition that he had been taken either to

the watchers and the watched


‘Alex’, or to Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse. In many cases, subsequent attempts

to visit those held by the Gestapo were rebuffed, so the first contact

from a loved one might only come once the individual had been sent

to a concentration camp – perhaps some weeks later – at which point

he was permitted to write letters home.

Detention was not necessarily a foregone conclusion. The majority of

Gestapo officers came to the service via the police force, and in spite

of the political pressures under which they operated, they knew how to

sift hard evidence from speculation and hearsay. Moreover, given the

sheer volume of denunciations and complaints that they received, it was

in cumbent upon investigating officers not to waste their limited resources

investigating what were often trivial offences or unfounded suspicions.

The surprising degree of latitude sometimes employed by the

Gestapo is illustrated by the case of the Berlin teenager Anne-Marie

Reuss. Gestapo officers visited her home in the suburb of Steglitz

in the autumn of 1939, after she had been denounced for publicly

singing a song that defamed the head of the Hitler Youth, Baldur

von Schirach. The doggerel verse, which had been doing the rounds

of Catholic oppositional circles, parodied the Hitler Youth anthem

’. The original was a stirring call to German youth to rally

to the Nazi cause whose refrain proclaimed:

Uns’re Fahne flattert uns voran

Our flag flutters before us

In die Zukunft ziehen wir Mann für Mann.
Into the future we go, man for man.

The altered version made less than favourable reference to the rotund

physique of the Hitler Youth leader:

Unser Baldur wackelt uns voran

Our Baldur wobbles before us

Unser Baldur ist ein dicker Mann

Our Baldur is a fatty

Harmless fun, one might imagine, but repeating this verse was not only

defamatory, it was also considered to be spreading anti-Nazi propaganda,

an offence that could be punishable by a stay for ‘re-education’ in

a concentration camp.

When the officers arrived at Anne-Marie’s apartment, she was not at

home and her mother sought to stress her family’s bona fides by pointing

to the portrait of Hitler that hung in the hallway. ‘Look, gentlemen’, she


berlin at war

said, ‘we have a picture of the Führer hanging here.’ The Gestapo men

simply replied that Anne-Marie should be informed of their visit, then

turned on their heels and departed. They did not return.35

Another example demonstrates what might be achieved if one went

into an interview with the Gestapo with a degree of confidence.

Denounced for speaking out in a café, Ruth Andreas-Friedrich was

called to Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse to answer for her actions:

On the principle that attack is the best defence, I expose the assiduous

Party Comrade [who had denounced her] as a contemptible informer,

weave the names of exalted government authorities into my talk, and

juggle big shots, Reich Literature Chamber, complaint to the Press

Authority of the Reich government, keeping them all in the air at once

like Rastelli the juggler. I make such a frightful fuss that the functionary

who is questioning me grows more and more subdued. Finally he

almost begs my pardon. What a wretched subaltern mentality it is,

turning in a flash from bloodhound to rabbit the moment the name

of some superior looms on the horizon!36

While a proportion of denunciations and complaints would end – for

whatever reason – with a single interview such as this, many seem to

have resulted in arrests. There are no statistics available for the number

of denunciations received by the Berlin Gestapo, but one can safely assume

that they ran to many thousands every month. There are, however, some

figures available for Gestapo arrests. In both February and March 1942,

for instance, the Gestapo in Berlin made over one thousand arrests, a

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