Berlin Embassy by William Russell

Berlin Embassy by William Russell (Three Stars)

I like this book. Part of the reason is the detail on everyday life in Berlin during the years 1939, 1940, and 1941. When I was researching my first novel, An Honorable German, I read this book on Berlin, among many others, because several of my chapters take place in the city. Another reason I like the book is that William Russell was a young guy who had been in Germany studying German. He had very little money and sometimes only ate one meal a day. Finally he got taken on as a part-time (later full time) clerk at the American Embassy, one of the reasons being his fluency in German. That fascinates me because here is a guy who was not from an important family, didn’t have any high level social contacts, didn’t know anyone important but just happened to be at the epicenter of the history of the time. Just as important, he realized it which is why he kept notes for this book which first appeared to great acclaim in 1941.

Russell has an eye for detail including everyday exchanges he had with people he saw each day such as the Portierfrau for his apartment house. “The postman told me today that you forgot to pay your radio tax last month.” In Nazi Germany, if you owned a radio you had to pay two marks a month, or .80 cents, to listen since it was public radio, so to speak, and without commercials. “Tell the postman that I don’t listen to German stations,” Russell said, “Tell him I consider London more accurate.” The Portierfrau laughed, somewhat uneasily.

Germans were forbidden to listen to foreign radio although a huge portion of them listened to the German Service of the BBC to get accurate news. The author speculates that based on his observations 60% to 70% of Germans listened to foreign radio, which are in line with the figures from post war surveys. Russell also tells us: “Old fashioned headphones, which could be used for extra private listening, were sold out in every German radio shop during the first week of the war.”

The US Embassy in 1939 is on the left in this picture. USA is printed on the roof in an attempt to minimize damage from accidental aerial bombings. The Brandenburg Gate is to the right. Damage sustained by the Embassy during the Battle of Berlin and from aerial bombings proved to be extensive partially as a result of being located so close to Hitler’s bunker (which was a block farther south of the embassy which is to the left in this picture).

[Image courtesy of Wikimedia.]

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/

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