Easter – a ‘macabre idyll’ in a ‘grotesque’ Berlin

A bomb crater in front of the Reich Chancellery, Berlin, January 1944.

A bomb crater in front of the Reich Chancellery, Berlin, January 1944.

Listening devices are used to try discover buried victims of bombing, Berlin 1944.

Listening devices are used to try discover buried victims of bombing, Berlin 1944.

In Berlin there were plenty of people who could see which way the war was going. Yet sharing those thoughts with anyone who could not be completely trusted was very dangerous. The suspicious and vengeful Nazi machine would grow ever more paranoid in the last year of the war.

RAF Bomber Command had finished the sustained campaign of heavy bombing of Berlin that had lasted most of the winter, although few in the city could yet guess that the heavy bombing was over. For the remainder of the war the threat of bombing remained – there were constant reminders as the RAF regularly sent Mosquito bombers on minor raids to set off the alarms and maintain the tension.

Ursula von Kardorff, a young journalist working in the city, was particularly well informed about the war situation. Yet she just needed to look around her to reflect on the reality of the war:

Easter in this grotesque city! I sat in brilliant sunshine in the most extraordinary place imaginable, just behind the Reichstag. Before the war they cleared a great open space on which they were going to build Party offices of one kind and another.

Then with the bombing a lake, many feet deep, appeared in a landscape which looks like something from Hieronymus Bosch, flanked by the ruins of the former War Office, whose cellars are now occupied by the police, and by the wrecked houses of the diplomatic quarter, of which only the Swiss Consulate is still standing.

Children play on the lake, although they are forbidden to do so, and have made themselves rafts out of charred planks. A child was almost drowned the other day and was only saved at the last minute by an attaché from the Swiss legation. Flowers grow in the rubble, rank and yellow, but the air is clean and the weeds are green and fish have already settled down in the lake. It is a kind of macabre idyll.

The space in front of the gutted Reichstag is littered with the burned-out wrecks of cars. Practical jokers have propped up the heads of the smashed statues on piles of stones. What with the ruins of the Kroll Opera and the rusty skeletons of the cars, Salvador Dali could sit here and draw from life.

I have been spending the last few evenings with actors and actresses, almost all of them bombed out, who have moved into hotels near the theatre district. As we sat in the Adlon and waited for the warning we passed the time by playing a game called ‘Hollywood’ – a sort of charades. A few people from the Foreign Office joined in. Aribert Wéischer was marvellous as a sphinx, Paul Hartmann was Venus, in furs, and Wilfried Seyffert played an Ancestress. The two Ambessers were quite tireless. There was an unpleasant moment when Minister Clodius pretended to be the Virgin Mary, which everybody guessed at once. I was not the only one to be shocked.

The raids have let up, for the moment, but a wave of new arrests has set in. All the guests at a tea-party given by Fraulein von Thadden were denounced by an informer, including Lagi Solf, her mother and many more.

12th April

I almost wept yesterdaywhen I read that fifty of our best photographers have been commissioned to take pictures of the works of art and buildings, the churches and castles which still survive in Germany. One day those photographs will be the only evidence that these lost treasures ever existed.

See Ursula von Kardorff: Diary of a nightmare: Berlin, 1942-1945.

Charred corpses are removed from the cellars of bombed out buildings in Berlin. 8th April 1944

Charred corpses are removed from the cellars of bombed out buildings in Berlin. 8th April 1944

After the radio again reports approaching aircraft people make for the air raid shelters. April, 1944.

After the radio again reports approaching aircraft people make for the air raid shelters. April, 1944.

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