The best books to get a sense of Berlin under the Nazis

The Books I Picked & Why

Berlin Diary, 1934-1941: The Rise of the Third Reich

By William L. Shirer

Book cover of Berlin Diary, 1934-1941: The Rise of the Third Reich

Why this book?

Berlin was at the centre of Nazi Europe and is invariably at the heart of my novels, including Agent in Berlin. I’m fascinated by Berlin and I try to get beyond the obvious aspects of the city and give a sense of what life was like on a daily basis.  I have chosen this book by William Shirer, an American journalist based in the city from 1934 and who only left after Pearl Harbor. The book combines the sharp observations of a journalist with an eye for fascinating detail, such as the nuanced wording of the death notices of soldiers and the impact of rationing on the population.


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The Last Jews in Berlin

By Leonard Gross

Book cover of The Last Jews in Berlin

Why this book?

When the Nazis came to power in 1933 the Jewish population of Berlin was 160,000. By the start of the war, it had fallen to 80,000 due to people emigrating. By late 1943 almost the entire Jewish population of Berlin had been deported to the death camps, but around 4,000 remained in the city, living in hiding, with false identities, underground, and in constant fear. This book was first published in 1982 and is a remarkable account of how some of these people survived (though the majority of those who went underground were eventually caught and murdered).  The book reads like a thriller and is also a tribute to the many non-Jews who risked their lives to help save those of others.


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Alone in Berlin

By Hans Fallada

Book cover of Alone in Berlin

Why this book?

This book was originally published (in German) in 1947, shortly before the death of the author. Fallada was a well-known German writer and an anti-Nazi who somehow survived the war in Berlin, despite being imprisoned during it. This is a work of fiction, though one based on the true story of a working-class couple in Berlin who begin a campaign of low-level resistance against the Nazi regime after hearing of the death of their only son while fighting in France.  The book gives a real sense of Berlin at war and of the lives of ordinary people during it.  The writing style is quite unusual – large sections are in the present tense – but that helps to convey the atmosphere of Berlin during the war.


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Berlin: The Downfall 1945

By Antony Beevor

Book cover of Berlin: The Downfall 1945

Why this book?

Antony Beevor is arguably our pre-eminent military historian and like another of his books, Stalingrad, this is the gripping story of one of the key battles of the Second World War, that of the Red Army capturing Berlin. Beevor manages to avoid excessive military detail but does include enough to provide a detailed account of Marshal Zhukov’s skilled capture of the Nazi capital. At the same time, the book provides an insight into the drama of Berlin in its last days under the Nazis and also describes the horrors which occurred as the Red Army wreaked its revenge once it had captured the city.


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Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital, 1939-45

By Roger Moorhouse

Book cover of Berlin at War: Life and Death in Hitler's Capital, 1939-45

Why this book?

This is another book that manages to paint a picture of what life was like in Berlin during the war.  Roger Moorhouse tells some fascinating stories, such as that of Paul Ogorzow, the so-called S-Bahn Murderer. The fact that a serial killer was operating around Berlin’s railway system was a dilemma for the authorities who tried and failed to lay the blame on either Jews or Poles. Ogorzow was eventually captured convicted of the murder of eight women and of attacking thirty-seven more during 1940 and 1941. The fact he was a Nazi Party member was a deep embarrassment and didn’t help him: he was executed just days after his conviction.


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