Life and Death in Berlin: Discovering the City Through the Zeitzeugenbörse

Posted on August 23, 2022

by Sinclair McKay

These were children who had known only a world of violence. Yet amid the bloodied ruins of Berlin in 1945, apartment blocks and entire streets transformed into canyons of jagged rubble, older women and men moving around blankly as though in fugue states, girls and boys were playing under a warming summer sun.

The occupying soldiers of the Soviet Red Army, who had been moving through the smashed city, subjecting uncountable numbers of women to the most terrible and traumatizing sexual violence, conversely became intensely sentimental around children. One German boy, weeping for his dead father, was astonished when a Red Army soldier presented him with a pair of freshly-looted roller skates. Later, when US soldiers came to the city, some were also bemused to find children enacting Wild West adventures. Their days and nights had been filled with bombing and death; yet their imaginations were still intense and free.

In this sense, the children of Berlin, like their extraordinarily resilient mothers and grandparents, were perfect emblems of the city itself: contrarian, stubborn, and occasionally close to the edge of being ungovernable. Thanks to a brilliant organization set up in recent years called the Zeitzeugenbӧrsecontemporary witness exchangemany of those ordinary Berliners, and their relatives, who lived through those tumultuous times, have come forward to add their voices to an ever-growing historical archive.

As I set out to research my new book about Berlin in the twentieth century, walking the city’s streets and seeing out of the corner of my eye the ghosts of old buildings, this was the aspect about which I most wanted to learn. The lives of the powerful are always amply recorded, but those whose lives were pitched and rocked by their rule are always in danger of being swallowed by the fog. In my curiosity to learn how ordinary Berliners negotiated the violent tides of the twentieth century, the Zeitzeugenbӧrse was one of my first ports of call.

At the center of the book was the infernal retribution of 1945. There are moments in history that stand like lighthouses: the beam turns and illuminates all that came before, and all that came after. Those weeks in April and May when the Nazi regime buckled and collapsed before the vengeful Red Army, and the Fuhrer’s suicide in a squalid bunker seemed to seep out and dissolve the foundations of the city, was one such moment.

That beam, in turning, also throws the older spirit and ethos of Berlin into sharp relief: a city before the shadow of fascism that was cosmopolitan and pioneering and tolerant and artistically innovative. A city of genius architects (Mies Van der Rohe, Walter Gropius), visionary physicists (Albert Einstein, Lise Meitner), a dizzying array of film talent from FW Murnau and Marlene Dietrich to Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder, brilliant essayists and philosophers (Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt).

And then, after the Nazis, in that dusty desert of sexual violence and trauma, a subdued flame of bohemian resistance and ingenuity began to rise high once more, personified by Bertolt Brecht and many others. The influence of Berliners from all walks of lifewas part of what made this city the pulsing heart of the 20th century.

The contrasting darkness of that century also made Berlin central to the world’s anxieties: the stark Nazi spectacles, the international horror at Kristallnacht in 1938, the sadistic persecution of the Jews: and then, after 1945, the paranoid tensions between the world’s newest super-powers, America and Russia, that were focused upon this torn city and its traumatized people. When, in 1961, the East German Communists sealed off the west of the city and began building the Wall, many wondered if this would be the flashpoint for a nuclear war.

The inferno of 1945 was in some ways a vision of doomsday too stark to imagine; and for many years, the people of Berlin, acutely aware of the genocidal horror that had been visited upon their Jewish neighbors from 1941 onwards, took great care not to portray themselves as victims.

The Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Attribution: Thomas Wolf

Yet this silence is now being addressed, with terrific sensitivity and care. The zeitzeugenboerse, run by academics and volunteers, has been collating and curating not only memories but diaries, spanning from the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s to the destabilizing post-war years when the city was rent in two by competing ideologies and then divided by a vast wall that became part of the landscape of the world.

It is through these accounts and stories that we begin to see more clearly the extraordinary endurance and spirit of the city. If you were born in Berlin in the year 1900, and were lucky enough to live into your eighties or nineties, think of all the revolutions you would have lived through.  We see that lighthouse beam reaching back to the First World War, and its traumatic, diseased aftermath: the abortive German Revolution of 1918/19, the vertiginous economic plunges and miseries suffered in the Weimar years; then, the rise of the Nazis, the psychosis of genocide. After 1945, the beam turns, and we see near-famine, black-market desperation, a Blockade in which half the city was convinced it would starve, and then Berlin being rent in two by its occupying powers. There are so many nerve-fraying accounts of Berliners, sensing that the fast-rising Wall would permanently sunder them from family and friends, making desperate efforts in those hot humid nights of 1961 to find the last few unguarded gaps, in the shadows of cemeteries, scrubby parks, riverbanks, before they were closed off forever.

For a large section of the population of Berlin, then, the reality of life from 1933 to 1989 was unremitting totalitarianism: state terror, mass surveillance, violence dispensed at the whim of Party officials either fascist or Communist. And those living in the post-war west of the city were islanders, deep adrift in an ocean of Communist red. Nothing about their lives were normal. And yet ordinary people contrived to find a way through.

For those who lived at the center of the world, every day presented fresh challenges to their view of reality and human nature. Yet amid all this, the Berliners somehow found that line through. The glorious city we see today, which nakedly displays its historic wounds and scars, is the triumph of that perpetually youthful, contrary steadfastness. 

Photo Credit: Liam Bergin

Sinclair McKay is a features writer for The Telegraph and The Mail on Sunday. He is also the acclaimed author of the bestselling The Secret Life of Bletchley Park and The Fire and the Darkness.

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