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Authors: Roger Moorhouse

Berlin at War (56 page)

As the interrogations implicated an ever-wider circle of conspir -

ators, four subsequent trials were held. No quarter was shown to the

defendants. The most tragic of them all, Sala Kochmann, had tried

to escape the clutches of the Gestapo by jumping from the window

of the police station. Despite breaking her back in the fall, she was

tried and sentenced to death with the others, and was carried to her

execution on a stretcher.12 In all, thirty-three people were executed for

the Lustgarten arson attempt.

The story of the Herbert Baum Group is rightly lauded as one

of the few examples of Jewish resistance against the tyranny of

Nazism. Yet that narrow affiliation does not tell the whole story. It

should not be forgotten, for instance, that not all members of the

Baum Group were Jewish and that they had extensive contacts with

other non-Jewish dissident groupings in the German capital, on which

they relied for material assistance in everything from typing their

enemies of the state


flyers to manufacturing their bombs.13 Seen in this light, the Herbert

Baum Group should also be interpreted as one of the few examples

resistance to Nazism.

Berlin was the focal point of the domestic resistance against the Third

Reich. With its liberal-cosmopolitan character, its large Jewish popu-

lation and its tradition as a bastion of the left, the city had never been

a natural constituency for the Nazis and had consistently returned

below average votes for Hitler. Even as the Nazis made their electoral

breakthrough after 1930, and in some places gained as much as half

of the popular vote, Berlin’s Nazi return never amounted to more

than a third of the total.14 The American diplomat George Kennan

noted that this attitude was still current in 1939: ‘Most of the people’,

he wrote, ‘had nothing to do with the regime . . . The Berliners them-

selves – the simple people, that is – were, of all the major urban or

regional elements among the German population, the least Nazified

in their outlook.’15

The reasons for the city’s comparative resistance to Hitler’s charms

were twofold. Firstly, Berlin’s left-wing heritage was hugely influen-

tial. Its working-class suburbs, such as Wedding and Friedrichshain,

developed very strong socialist and communist affiliations and were

the scene of violent clashes between left and right during the 1920s.

Indeed, when Goebbels was sent as Nazi Party Gauleiter to the capital

in 1927, his mission was described in the Nazi press as that of conquering

‘Red Berlin’.

Alongside this left-wing tradition, Berlin’s position as the German

capital also helped to provide a partial immunisation against Nazi

ideas. As the seat of government, the city was the natural home of

the nation’s elite and attracted a large number of intellectuals, lawyers

and politicians, many of whom opposed the Nazi regime. Their oppos i-

tion was in part political, but it was primarily based on higher ideals;

on a fundamental objection to the regime’s habit of riding roughshod

over established legal and moral principles. As a result of these factors,

Berlin gained a deserved reputation as a hotbed of resistance against

the Nazi regime, with as many as 12,000 individuals involved in organ-

ised opposition.16

Among the most principled and determined opponents of Nazism

in Berlin were the communists. For much of the 1930s the left had


berlin at war

appeared an increasingly moribund force in German politics. Officially

outlawed, riven by internal divisions and persecuted by the regime,

its adherents had in many cases shed their allegiances, or headed into

an embittered ‘internal emigration’, in which they sought desperately

to keep the hostile outside world at bay. Others were seduced by the

Nazi successes of those early years and managed to convince them-

selves that their working-class duty was to support Hitler, aided by a

belief in the ‘socialist’ component of ‘National Socialism’. Yet, there

were many more in Berlin who resisted Hitler’s appeal and remained

ferociously loyal to the political left throughout the Third Reich.

The war did not start well for German communists. Though their

socialist brethren were largely drawn in by the reflexive patriotism

common in wartime, communists faced a more difficult situation.

Hitler’s alliance with Stalin of August 1939 proved profoundly discon-

certing and the sudden shift in propaganda on both sides – from

hatred to mutual admiration – meant that a new round of ideological

compromises and contortions were forced upon the faithful. Some

remained unbowed, however.

One of the most effective proponents of the communist cause in

the capital was Robert Uhrig. Born in Berlin in 1903, Uhrig had been a

communist almost all his life, joining the party in 1920 and forming

workplace cells wherever he worked. First arrested in 1934, he had

been released two years later, but had returned to his old ways, quickly

heading a network of over twenty underground communist cells in

Berlin. By the outbreak of war, he had emerged – alongside the remark-

able Josef ‘Beppo’ Römer – as one of the leaders of the communist

resistance in the German capital.

Römer was of a quite different stamp to Uhrig. Around ten years

older, and born in Munich, Römer’s early career had perfectly mirrored

those of many senior Nazis. Service in the First World War had been

followed by a seamless segue into the right-wing paramilitary Freikorps,

in whose ranks Römer had even participated in the suppression of the

Munich Soviet Republic in 1919 and the crushing of the communist revolt

in the Ruhr the following year. Yet the expected graduation to right-wing

politics did not follow, and in the mid-1920s Römer began moving in the

opposite direction, soon developing close ties to the German Communist

Party (KPD). An embittered opponent of the Nazis right from the outset

of the Third Reich, he spent much of the 1930s in prison.17

Berliners inspect a bomb crater on the East-West Axis late in 1940:

‘The world had lost its former solidity.’

Civilians help with the clear-up after a raid on the northern suburbs in October 1940.

Gestapo Headquarters on


Some of those who passed

through the building

clockwise from left

Communist resistance fighter

Beppo Römer; Otto Weidt,

who saved Jews by employing

them in his factory; Johanna

Solf, who ran a ‘salon’ of

oppositionally minded

Berliners; and Jewish

Stella Goldschlag, who betrayed

hundreds of fugitive Jews

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