Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Did you know that on March 20 1935 all Berliners were called upon to participate in the first ever complete blackout exercise organised by the Nazi authorities in preparation for the war which they were allegedly not planning?
From 10 PM on the whole city was to vanish as if swallowed by a Black Hole: around 100,000 lamps were switched off, all neon-lights extinguished, all trains (Reichsbahn as well as S-Bahn and elevated U-Bahn) turned off their illumination. Private people as well as offices and venues had to make sure that no light seeped through even the tiniest of cracks, thus betraying the presence of the building and enabling potential attackers to be able to estimate and/or adjust their position in the air during a potential air-raid.
To make sure that everyone knew what was expected of them leaflets and brochures had been distributed among the Berlin population already weeks prior to the event. Every building in the city had a special poster hanging in the staircase instructing its residents (or employees) which steps needed to be followed. People knew exactly what was expected of them and acted accordingly. Many saw the exercise as a pretty ominous, ill-boding event, however, not participating was hardly an option.
Their participation and the end result were meticulously inspected by the authorities: on the morning of the day for which the exercise had been scheduled the Fighter-Squadron “Von Richthofen”, which started from the Döberitz airfield, flew over Berlin to assess the situation. After the blackout’s beginning at 10 PM that night, a Junkers Ju52 (Tante Ju) took off from the Tempelhof Airport (some other sources name Airfield Döberitz again) for her control flight over the suddenly dimmed capital. The results must have been satisfying: the overall result was good and weak points were duly noted.
It all came handy in September 1939 when the Second World War broke out or rather, was started by the Nazis as planned. From the very beginning Berlin and all other big German cities were obliged to follow the total blackout regulations put in place to make the said cities hard targets for nocturnal air-raids.
The side-effects appeared quite soon: crime rates in Berlin soared, with some of the most terrifying felonies being committed in the city at the time. People like Paul Ogorzow, “The Beast from Rummelsburg” or “the S-Bahn Killer”, who attacked 31 women, killing eight of them and raping and/or gravely injuring the rest (he battered them and/or threw them out of the driving trains), could terrorise females travelling alone on dark S-Bahn trains for two years. Interestingly, although perhaps not really surprisingly, the attacks subsided for a short while until mid-1940: earlier that year Goebbels announced a temporary liberalisation of the blackout regulations. The feared Allied air-raids had not begun yet and the threat of criminal elements, with the S-Bahn Killer as the public enemy number one, menacing the city had been more than real.
After the Third Reich’s attack on France and the latter’s surrender, the British air-raids on Germany resumed with gradually growing force – the total blackout was back in Berlin and so was one of the worst serial murderers in the history of European criminology. When finally captured in 1941 Ogorzow – an allegedly friendly father of two, a conscientious railway employee and a faithful member of the NSDAP – admitted that it was the darkness that the blackout offered that made his horrid escapades such as “success”.
But blacked-out Berlin was also dangerous on a regular, everyday-life level: since all streets needed to remain in the dark, walking or driving home after sunset became a real challenge. William Shirer, a US correspondent in Berlin at the time, wrote about his driver getting lost in the crepuscular streets and then being unable to find the way back. On moonless nights walking, while not being allowed to use a torch or any other source of light, meant literally feeling one’s way home.
The situation at railway stations – whether long-distance or local railway – became fraught with particular dangers: even though the edges of the platforms were marked with white paint, falling off the said edges and right onto the tracks was a pretty realistic threat. Life in the darkened city quickly reminded its residents how important a role did street illumination play.
The success of the blackout policy was only partial, too. The Allies found a way around it by using target-marking bombs, which due to the beautifully illuminated patterns they drew in the sky above Berlin got quickly dubbed Weihnachtsbäume (Christmas Trees).
The blackout regulations stayed in place until the end of the Second World War and by then they did not need to be lifted again. The bombed city was left with no power grid to speak of and with hardly any lamps which still could be switched on. The lights of Berlin went out by then anyway.
This story was featured in “Notmsparker’s Berlin Companion” first published in August 2016.
“Notmsparker’s Second Berlin Companion” will be available from April 1, 2018 (pre-orders from March 23) . Both books can be purchased through berlinarium.bigcartel.com.