Into the Darkness : Chapter 18: Mid-Winter Berlin

Into the Darkness : An Uncensored Report from Inside the Third Reich at War 

by Lothrop Stoddard

Stoddard

1940

 

Chapter 18: Mid-Winter Berlin

As the initial weeks of my stay in Germany grew into months, the damp chill of autumn deepened into the damp cold of winter ­ the first winter of the Second Great War. The shortest days of the year drew nigh, and in North Germany they are short indeed. Even at high noon the sun stood low in the heavens ­ a sun that gave scant light or warmth. Often the sun was hidden by clouds. When the cloud­ veil was thick, it was almost like twilight, fading presently into the long winter night with its inevitable blackout.

Slowly yet inexorably, war’s impoverishing grip drew ever tighter, producing cumulative shortage and scarcity. Its constricting presence could be literally felt. Thanks to the efficient rationing system already described, you didn’t notice it much in the bare necessities of life, but it did hit all comforts and luxuries. Here, uncertainties and disappointments were the order of the day, symbolized by that dread word Ausverkauft ­ “sold out.Ausverkauft; how often you saw that sign! It was a mental hazard that dogged your footsteps at every turn. You found a brand of cigarettes that fairly suited your American taste. Forbidden to buy more than one package at a time, you couldn’t lay in a stock. All at once, that brand was no longer on sale anywhere, and you were told that it was off the market ­ permanently ausverkauft. You hit upon a cigar that suited your fancy.

Impossible to buy a box, while your daily ration of five cigars in October dropped to three in December and to two per day when I left Berlin. Also, the chances were that long before then, that brand could be had no more. Suppose a few friends were scheduled to drop into your room for a chat. You went around the corner to buy a bottle of brandy for the occasion. Temporarily ausverkauft. Same with schnapps. All you could buy that day in the liquor line was an imitation vodka, made in Germany. And I may add that in mid­ January, when the cold was at its worst, hard liquors vanished completely from the market.

One of the most annoying aspects of the situation was the deceptive appearance of the stores. They all kept up a good front. The windows were filled with attractive displays. But go in and try to buy any of it! Like as not, you would be told that those were only Muster ­ display ­samples which were not for sale. The shops had been ordered to keep their windows full of goods even when stocks were almost bare, so as to create a prosperous atmosphere that would bolster morale. It was highly instructive to watch how the big department stores found goods to cover their counters. They did, but when you looked closely, you found that much of the stuff on sale consisted of things seldom wanted or of obviously poor quality. Quick “sellers” were chronically short, especially during the Christmas shopping season. I remember going into AWAG, formerly Wertheim’s, Berlin’s biggest department store, to buy a few toys for the children of a family I knew well in Berlin. It was at least a fortnight before Christmas, yet I found that everything I had in mind had long since been sold out.

Now these occurrences were not real hardships. They were merely annoyances. But multiply them many times a day, in conjunction with such matters as scratched ­out dishes on restaurant or hotel menus, shortages of taxicabs, and the constant dread that you might lose or wear out some article of clothing which could not be replaced, and you found yourself in a chronic state of irritation which wore on the nerves. Most of the foreigners I met, with the exception of a few old hands who were thoroughly “salted,” told me that their dispositions were being slowly but surely ruined. This was especially true of Americans,  who were apt to be cross and jumpy after a few months’ stay in Germany.

All this applies particularly to foreigners. We have already pointed out that the Germans, long toughened and hardened by misfortune, are not affected to anything like the same extent. But they, too, felt the grim undertow which was sucking down their living­ standards. No class was exempt. Indeed, war’s leveling process hit the poor less obviously than it did the rich and well­ to ­do. I would go into homes displaying every evidence of wealth and comfort. At first sight, nothing had changed. But those families could no longer entertain much because they could buy only a few luxuries beyond their food ­rations; they could not bring out their fine linen and napery because they had no extra soap to wash them with when soiled; they had to use the subway or walk because their fine motor­cars had been either commandeered by the government or laid up for lack of gasoline. And didn’t they hate this sort of thing! It was in such homes that I heard the bitterest complaints.

The Christmas season was especially revealing. It showed how slim is the margin the German people now has for good cheer. Yuletide is especially dear to German hearts. Even the very poor strain themselves to make a real celebration, particularly for the children. I have already described how the Government did its bit by allowing men to purchase a Christmas necktie and women a pair of stockings without recourse to their clothing cards. Other official relaxations were a slight raising of the food rations, or the month of December, and a special food bonus or Christmas week. This munificent release worked out, per person, at about one­ eighth of a pound of butter, the same amount of Ersatz honey, one extra egg, and a little chocolate cake and candy! Lastly, there was a temporary increase in the sugar ration and permission to buy certain flavoring extracts and spices. Since the regular bread­ flour ration was already ample, German housewives were able to bake their traditional Christmas cakes and marzipan ­ in moderation. Boughten sweets, however, were scarce. There was a cake and candy shop near my hotel, and I noted the daily queue of persons waiting eagerly to enter for the short period in which that shop was open for business. When the daily stock had been sold out, the shop closed for the day.

I did not witness the actual Christmas celebration in Germany, because I spent the holiday season in Hungary. But I was in Berlin until December 22nd, so I saw all the preparations. They were rather pathetic. In the department stores, crowds of shoppers would mill about the counters, looking for Christmas gifts. Most of the stuff on sale was clearly unsuitable for that purpose. Nevertheless, the most unlikely articles were bought, for want of something better. Everybody seemed to have money enough. The trouble was that their Reichsmarks simply couldn’t connect with what they were after. That typifies what goes on in Germany all the time. It’s a sort of reverse inflation. Money doesn’t increase notably in quantity, but what you can buy with it dwindles away.

That is the reason why Germans tend to spend so much on amusements of all kinds. Despite the blackout and curtailed transportation, moving ­picture houses, theaters, and the opera are filled to capacity. The same is true of cafes, bars, and night­ clubs, where Germans throng to drown their sorrows according to their pocket­books in beer, schnapps, or champagne. The Germans today drink much more than they normally do, so the night­life is stridently hilarious. I saw a good deal of drunkenness; and I may add that when the German sets out to do some serious drinking, he makes a good job of it. Seldom does he acquire a fighting jag. Usually he just gets maudlin until he sinks either to the floor or into the gutter, as chance directs.

One of the drawbacks to a big time in Berlin is that you must quit early unless you are near home. Otherwise you will find no return transportation. The subways and most trams stop at 1.00 A.M., and buses retire even earlier, while there are virtually no taxis. I recall one poignant occasion when I forgot the schedule. I emerged from a night­club in a driving rain, three miles from my hotel and with not the faintest idea how to get there on foot. Of course there were no taxis, since a chauffeur whom the police discovers parking or cruising near any resort of pleasure loses his license. The friend who had brought me thither stuck by me as we roamed the wet streets in search of a conveyance. At last a taxicab hove in sight, and my companion brought it to a halt by yelling:

Here’s a foreigner! An American! He has a legal right to ride!

After a hard day’s work, I did not always feel like spending the evening writing in my room. The same was true of other foreign journalists living in downtown hotels or who had night work in downtown offices. Some months before my arrival in Berlin, the Propaganda Ministry had tried to help the foreign press corps by having special privileges extended to a certain restaurant called the Taverne with the idea of making it the evening rendezvous for newspapermen. One could get certain foods like egg dishes, unobtainable elsewhere, while taxis were allowed to stand outside. Also, the place was furnished with a number of regular “Ladies” whom the journalists nicknamed “Himmler’s Gals,” because they were supposed to be Gestapo (political secret police) agents waiting to vamp the unwary and extract information from them. However, the Taverne prostitutes, the high prices and the noise soon got on the nerves of the North European and American correspondents.

The Propaganda Ministry, heeding our complaints, soon found a new place for us which was eminently satisfactory. This was a private dining ­room in the Auslands Club, a really distinguished organization on Leipziger Platz. Here the food was excellent, the service quick, and prices surprisingly moderate, considering what you got for your money. Accordingly, we Americans, together with the best of the North European correspondents,  made our quarters a real club of our own, dining there frequently and spending the evenings in conversation. On dark, cold winter nights, I cannot describe how grateful I was for that snug haven.

In many ways the life of the foreign press corps in Berlin is a hard one, professionally as well as personally. I cannot praise too highly my American colleagues, who do fine work on the most difficult and also the most thankless assignment in Europe today. I have already described the technical side of our professional existence and the generally good relations existing between foreign journalists and the officials with whom they have regularly to do. The only time those relations threatened to become strained was when the Russo­Finnish War broke out. Red Russia’s invasion of Finland raised stormy echoes in the foreign press corps, and the German Government’s attitude in the matter did not tend to calm us. Since this is a good instance of Nazi propaganda methods, towards both foreigners and its own people, it seems worth describing in some detail.

The Government’s basic standpoint was that it sat on the sidelines watching objectively a matter which was not its concern. At first, it did its best to play down the affair. During the diplomatic crisis which preceded the war, and even after fighting had actually started, the Government spokesmen in our daily press conferences refused to take things seriously and foretold a peaceful settlement. German newspapers either tucked brief items in inconspicuous corners or printed nothing at all. Only when the war was well under way did they make even a partial attempt to present the news.

In its attempt to mold German public opinion, it was revealing to see how the official thesis evolved from day to day. First we were told that Soviet Russia sought merely to safeguard its outlet to the Baltic Sea, and that the Finnish Government was very foolish in refusing to grant Moscow’s moderate demands. We were also told that those demands were fully justified by geography, history, strategy, and what ­have­ you. Next came an assertion that Russia was trying to throw off the shackles imposed upon her after the Great War by unjust treaties that constituted an “Eastern Versailles.” If Finland rashly attempted to perpetuate this intolerable Diktat, she must suffer the logical consequences of her folly. The final link in this chain of reasoning brought England into the picture. The newspapers at first hinted and then openly stated that British diplomacy was chiefly, if not entirely, responsible for Finland’s stubborn resistance to Russian pressure.

Well, if you heard only that side, and if you either forgot or didn’t know what had happened in the past, perhaps the German official thesis might have seemed reasonable. Otherwise it sounded pretty thin. When you mentioned the matter to well­informed Germans who weren’t officials, they would shrug deprecatingly and then make a more understandable explanation.

What do you expect us to do?” they would ask. “What can we do, under the circumstances? Here we are in a life ­and­ death struggle with Britain and France. Do you want us to offend Russia and perhaps find ourselves as we were in the last war ­ nipped between two fronts?

So, most Germans seemed inclined to think that their Government was making the best of a bad business. But, in private conversation, intelligent Germans admitted that it was a bad business. And they displayed no love for Soviet Russia, either. Make no mistake about that.

The foreign residents in Berlin were practically solid in their sympathy for Finland and their condemnation of the Soviets. The Americans, especially, were furious. One of the ways in which we gave vent to our feelings was by raising our glasses to the toast: Skoal Finland! whenever we took a drink. We newspapermen were especially fond of doing this in the Kaiserhof bar. You will remember that the Hotel Kaiserhof is the Nazi social stronghold, and at the cocktail hour its bar, a large room with many tables, is apt to be filled with big guns of the Party. We journalists would often slip in there for a drink and a chat after our afternoon press conference at the Propaganda Ministry just across the Wilhelmsplatz from the hotel. We were thus sure of a distinguished audience when we raised our glasses and gave our defiant toast. We had our answer all ready, in case any Nazi remonstrated, by pointing out that the German Government had officially emphasized entire objectivity to the Russo­ Finnish conflict, and that therefore it was no breach of etiquette on our part to show where our sympathies lay. The Nazis must have realized this; because, aside from a few heavy stares, no objection was ever made. Indeed, I imagine that such demonstrations by the press representatives of many neutral nations may have given some of our Nazi hearers a sense of moral isolation which could not have been agreeable.

The most interesting vantage­point from which to watch both official and foreign attitudes was at the daily press conferences at the Foreign Office, which I have already described. Whenever the Finnish question arose, as it often did, the usually cordial atmosphere would grow a bit tense. Of course, impeccable politeness prevailed on both sides. But the press queries were sharply searching, while official answers frequently had an acid flavor.

I certainly didn’t envy the Government spokesman, those days. Usually, he was Dr. Braun von Stumm, an able man, though with a temper of his own. He needed all his ability, for he had to keep a somewhat tortuous official record straight, and dodge or parry questions shot at him by clever, quick­witted men and women on a highly delicate topic. And he visibly showed the strain he was under. As the questions piled in, he would redden, and I could see him squirm, mentally as well as physically. On more than one occasion, those days, he reminded me of the bull in a Spanish corrida, pricked by the barbed darts flung at him by agile banderilleros. When he thought the matter had gone far enough, he was apt to announce brusquely that the Russo­ Finnish topic had been fully covered for the day, and that we should shift our queries to other matters.

One other outstanding aspect of Berlin life should be included in the picture. This was the great cold. On top of an unusually inclement autumn, it started in about mid ­December. From then on, one cold wave after another rolled over us, fresh from the Russian steppes. Morning after morning, it would be below zero, Fahrenheit. With a rise of only a few degrees during the short winter day, the cold hung steady and tightened its grip. Since it was a damp cold, its penetrating quality was far greater than our winter weather.

Those cold waves covered all Europe. I found even lower temperatures in Hungary, though with a drier air, and I watched the mighty Danube river fill with ice floes during the Christmas season until it was frozen solid by New Year’s Day.

The severest blow which the hard winter dealt Europe was an almost complete stoppage of inland water transportation. We in America make comparatively little use of our rivers. Europe, on the contrary, is covered with an interlocking system of navigable rivers and canals on which much of the slow freight is moved by barges. By the turn of the year, that entire system was frozen up, so water­borne freight movements were paralyzed. That threw a prodigious burden on railway lines already overworked or on motor trucks strictly rationed for gasoline.

Nowhere were winter’s blows harder to parry than in Berlin, one of the world’s great metropolitan centers with a population exceeding four million souls. Even in normal times this implies an elaborate supply system, much of it by water. For instance, I was informed that 40 per cent of Berlin’s coal ordinarily comes by barge. The sudden crisis precipitated when the great cold began in mid ­December was rendered all the more serious by the fact that three months’ strict food and fuel rationing had made it impossible for the thrifty and forehanded to lay up any stocks.

Great credit is due the Government for the way it handled the situation. Truly heroic efforts were made, and disaster was averted. Yet widespread suffering was inevitable. Living as I did in one of Berlin’s leading hotels, I personally experienced little of all this. The Adlon continued to be well heated, and I saw no perceptible difference in the quality of my food. But, when I returned to Berlin immediately after New Year’s, I heard sad tales on every hand of ill ­heated houses or apartments and skimpy domestic menus. Even potatoes and cabbages grew scarce, because they froze on the way to market and were spoiled. Train schedules were cut to the bone. When I left Germany at the end of January by that famous flyer, the Berlin­ Rome Express, my journey was full of unpleasant incidents. I felt I was getting out just in time, and what I learned afterwards amply justified my foreboding.

An amusing aspect of the wintry scene was the enormous overshoes issued to policemen on post before public buildings. I presume they were stuffed with felt, straw, or some other cold­ resistant material. Anyhow, the Schupos waddled along their short beats like mammoth ducks, and seemed somewhat self­ conscious when passers­by glanced at their foot­ gear.

Berliners did not wholly lose their proverbial wit and caustic sense of humor. Curses at the weather were often interlarded with jests. The best joke I heard was uttered by the coatroom man at the Auslands Club. When I came there to dine one bitter December night, I gave him my opinion of the weather in the shape of a loud “Brrrh!” Quick as a flash, he replied, with a sly wink:

Yeah. The first export out of Russia!

To tell the truth, I was a bit fed­ up with this wartime Berlin life. Much of my hardest work was still ahead of me, and I had a long time to go before I could get through. I needed a break, and I could think of no better place than Budapest, Hungary; a city of which I have always been fond, and where I have old friends. So, three days before Christmas, I left Berlin for the holidays in a land where I could escape from blackouts, food ­rations, etcetera, at least for a short time.

 
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Chapter 2: Berlin Blackout
Chapter 3: Getting on with the Job
Chapter 4: Junketing Through Germany
Chapter 5: This Detested War
Chapter 6: Vienna and Bratislava
Chapter 7: Iron Rations
Chapter 8: A Berlin Lady Goes to Market
Chapter 9: The Battle of the Land
Chapter 10: The Labor Front
Chapter 11: The Army of the Spade
Chapter 12: Hitler Youth
Chapter 13: Women of the Third Reich
Chapter 14: Behind the Winter­Help
Chapter 15: Socialized Health
Chapter 16: In a Eugenics Court
Chapter 17: I See Hitler
Chapter 18: Mid­Winter Berlin
Chapter 19: Berlin to Budapest
Chapter 20: The Party
Chapter 21: The Totalitarian State
Chapter 22: Closed Doors
Chapter 23: Out of the Shadow
 

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PDF of this post (click to download or view): Into the Darkness – Chap 18
 
 
 
Version History
 
Version 3: Nov 27, 2014 – Added PDF of post.
 
 
 
Version 2: Wed, Feb 5, 2014. Added Chapter links.
Version 1: Published Jan 31 2014.
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