Gert Jan Kocken

Depictions of Berlin 1933-1945

Depictions of Berlin 1933–1945

Welthauptstadt Germania

Adolf Hitler (1889–1945) considered the industrial towns and cities of Germany unattractive and meaningless. In Mein Kampf (1925–1926), he wrote, “Everything that our modern age has contributed to the civilization of our great cities is absolutely deficient. All our towns are living on the glory and the treasures of the past. If we take away from the Munich of today everything that was created under Ludwig II, we should be horror-stricken to see how meager has been the output of important artistic creations since that time. One might say much the same of Berlin and most of our other great towns. But the following is the essential thing to be noticed: Our great modern cities have no outstanding monuments that dominate the general aspect of the city and could be pointed to as the symbols of a whole epoch. Yet almost every ancient town had a monument erected to its glory.”
Despite his relative youth, by the mid-1930s Albert Speer (1905–1981) had become the preeminent architect of the Third Reich. In 1937 Hitler ordered him to make a plan to rebuild Berlin as the grandiose capital of a Greater Germanic world empire, giving him the title of ‘General Building Inspector for the Reich Capital’.
Whereas Mussolini sought to revive the splendor of Rome’s existing monuments, Speer’s plan for Welthauptstadt Germania meant a drastic revision of the city center. His designs included two new railway stations and a central, five-kilometer-long boulevard running along a North-South axis that would change the overall city plan. An immense triumphal arc inscribed with the names of soldiers fallen in the First World War would mark the south end of the boulevard, while at the north end a plaza of 350,000 square meters was projected. On the northern side of this plaza an enormous domed structure named the Volkshalle (‘People’s hall’) was to be built. Hitler himself provided the first sketches for the Volkshalle, which resembled the Roman Pantheon but was far bigger: the dome would have a diameter of 250 meters, providing enough space for around 180,000 occupants.
On 28 June 1940, Hitler visited Paris along with Speer, Hermann Giesler, General Building Inspector for the reorganization of Munich, and Arno Breker, a sculptor. Accounts of Hitler’s overall impression vary. He praised l’Operá and the exterior of the Panthéon, but told Goebbels that in many ways the city disappointed him and that he considered razing it.
He relented, however, saying to Speer: “When we have finished Berlin, Paris will merely stand in its shadow, so what reason is there to destroy it?” Between 1937 and 1943, many old structures in Berlin were demolished to make space for Speer’s vision of Welthauptstadt Germania, but only small portions were realized.

Judenreine Gebiete

In the night of 9–10 November 1938, civilians and paramilitaries unleashed a series of attacks on Jews throughout Nazi Germany. During the Kristallnacht at least 91 Jews were killed and 30,000 were sent to concentration camps. Many Jewish buildings and businesses were demolished, including hospitals, schools, and more than 1,000 synagogues (fifteen of which were located in Berlin). Hermann Göring, then the second-most powerful man in Germany, decreed that the Jewish community would have to pay to state 1 billion Deutschmark for the repairs, and that Jews would be excluded from the economy starting next year. He wrote: “In any case, we can now start with a clean slate. The radical position has prevailed.”
The Jews still living in Berlin in May 1942 were confronted with a new policy of
the Berlin redevelopment authority: the introduction of judenreine Gebiete (‘Jew- cleansed areas’) in the city. The overhaul of the city and the consequent evacuation of large groups of residents were used as the pretext to clear the capital of Jews. The Jews were not sent or deported from the city at once. Instead, Berlin was cleared of Jews one neighborhood at a time, as evidenced by maps produced by Speer’s office in 1940, which show only a few judenreine Gebiete.
In May 1942 there was an assassination attempt on Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi leader in charge of the Endlösung. In the same month a pro-communist group, which included young Jews, tried to set fire at an anti-bolshevist exhibition in Berlin. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda and Gauleiter (‘regional leader’) of Berlin, exploited the public’s impulse to retaliate and told Hitler that “more radical measures” than “deportation to the east” were needed to deal with the 40,000 Jews that remained in Berlin. Hitler fully agreed, and Goebbels initiated the final deportations. The city was declared completely judenrein on 19 May 1943.
Hitler was very keen to preserve the myth that the Jews were merely resettled in the east. He kept the “terrible secret” from even his closest friends. The Nazi leaders believed the outright murder of the Jews would upset the German people, and therefore tried to suppress rumors of the Holocaust. In the words of Heinrich Himmler, who as Reich Leader of the SS was responsible for the Holocaust, it was “a glorious page in our history that can never be written”.

Bombing Raids

Speer’s plan for Welthauptstadt Germania was delayed and eventually aborted because of the ongoing Second World War, which in a most crude way reshaped Berlin as well. During the war, Berlin was subject to 314 air raids. On 24 August 1940, one day after the Luftwaffe accidentally bombed residential areas of London, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) retaliated with a large air raid on Berlin. Until 1944, the RAF conducted most of the bombing attacks on Berlin, alongside the Soviet Red Air Force and the French Air Force.

Initially, the RAF had restricted itself to military targets, but since the Luftwaffe intentionally bombed civilian areas in Rotterdam and other cities, it had begun
to attack other sites it considered related to the war effort, including civilian industrial structures. As the war progressed, British military command embraced the view (also held by its German counterpart) that destroying the enemy’s capital and terrorizing the working population would yield a decisive political and psychological advantage. It therefore started bombing residential areas as well. This amounted to the Battle of Berlin, a massive bombing campaign launched in November 1943 by Sir Arthur Harris (1892–1984), also known as ‘Bomber Harris’. The attacks killed nearly 4,000, injured 10,000, and made 450,000 homeless. Contrary to Harris’ expectations and despite significant losses on the side of
the RAF, the Battle of Berlin did not end the war nor break the city’s resistance.
In March 1944 the US Air Force began to attack Berlin as well. This forced the declining Luftwaffe into battle. A mass attack on the center of Berlin on 3 February 1945 destroyed two train stations and started a fire that consumed a large portion of the city, including the Reich Chancellery, the neo-baroque palace, and several monuments. During the war, Berlin was subject to a total of 363 air raids.
On the next day, 4 February 1945, United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet General Secretary Joseph
Stalin (also known as the ‘Big Three’) met at the Yalta Conference in the Crimea. Their aim was to plan the reorganization of Europe after the war. Among other things, they settled that the Soviet Union would annex the eastern territories of Poland. In turn, the eastern territories of Germany would be transferred to Poland. The rest of Germany was to be divided into a number of zones occupied by the allies. After drafting several plans, the Big Three decided the United States,
England, and France would each control one of the three zones would eventually merge into West Germany (a later development not planned at the Yalta Conference), while the Soviet Union gained control over the territory that made up the future East Germany. The capital, Berlin, was located in the Soviet-occupied region and split into an American, a British, and a Soviet-occupied zone. The conference ended on 11 February. Two days later, the RAF and the US Air Force destroyed the city center of Dresden and killed between 22,700 and 25,000 people.

The Fall of Berlin

Hitler, who had been living in the Führerbunker below the ruins of the Reich Chancellery since mid-January, was immediately informed of the outcome of the Yalta Conference. He appeared unimpressed. According to him, the Big Three “want to separate the German people from its leaders. I have always said: surrender is not an option. History does not repeat itself”. Around that time, Hitler and Goebbels discussed the defense of Berlin and the possibility of evacuating certain government agencies to Thüringen. Despite the ongoing bombing raids and the advance of the overpowering Red Army, Hitler was determined to stay in Berlin and “to defend the city”.
When it became clear the Red Army would be the first to reach Berlin, Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied armies in Western Europe, decided not to advance to the German capital in order to save lives and avoid a diplomatic tangle. The Red Army, on the other hand, attacked with bombers, fighters, rockets, and artillery as it drew close to Berlin. One Soviet General later noted: “The Western Allies had dropped 65,000 tons of explosives on the city in the course of more than two years, whereas the Red Army had expended 40,000 tons in merely two weeks.”
On 20 April the military commanders in the Führerbunker lost contact with general Helmuth Weidling and his LVI Panzer Corps, which were retreating from positions outside Berlin. They assumed the general had deserted to the Russians, and Hitler ordered him to be executed. Two days later, however, Weidling came the bunker at considerable risk to assure the Führer that he had not deserted. Hitler was so impressed he made Weidling commander of the Berlin Defense Area. Weidling replaced colonel Ernst Kaether, who had held the position for only two days.
In the last week of April, 1.1 million Red Army soldiers encircled Berlin and fought their way into the city. On 30 April the German army controlled only a few zones and had almost ran out of ammunition. That day Hitler told Marin Bormann, head of the Party Chancellery, that he and his companion Eva Braun would commit suicide. Hitler made sure their bodies would be cremated, because he did not want to end up “in some wax museum in Moscow”. They killed themselves around 15.30.
In the evening of 1 May, Hamburg radio announced that Hitler had “fallen at his command post in the Reich Chancery fighting to the last breath against Bolshevism and for Germany”. The next day, however, general Weidling gives his troops (which are still fighting) the following order: “On 30 April 1945, the Führer committed suicide, and thus abandoned those who had sworn loyalty to him. According to the Führer’s order, you German soldiers would have had to go on fighting for Berlin despite the fact that our ammunition has run out and despite the general situation which makes our further resistance meaningless. I order the immediate cessation of resistance.”

Surrender and Peace

On 2 May General Wiedling surrendered to the Soviet General Vasily Chuikov. 92,000–100,000 German soldiers, an estimated 125,000 German citizens, and over 81,000 Soviet soldiers had died in the Battle of Berlin. More than 1 million people in Berlin were homeless. On 7 May in Rheims, France, General Alfred Jodl, the Chief-of-Staff of the German Army Forces High Command, signed the unconditional surrender documents for all German forces. The next day Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and other army representatives in Berlin signed a similar surrender to the Soviets.