Berlin Embassy by William Russell
I like this book a lot. I’ve read it four or five times. 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 chapters take place in the city of my book take place in Berlin and I needed details.
Another reason I like the book is that William Russell, a thoroughly decent and polite young guy from Mississippi, was in Germany studying German. He had very little money and often could afford only 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.
If you were young and hip and had a little bit of money you lived around the Alexanderplatz. This is a photograph of the “Alex” taken in 1939. What calamity awaited them.
Russell was not important. Didn’t come from an important family. Had no high-level social contacts, had no money and didn’t know anyone important. Yet he happened to be at the epicenter of calamitous events and watched the Nazis hi-jack Germany and set it on the path to war. Just as important, he realized it which is why he kept notes for this book which appeared in 1941 to great acclaim.
Hitler’s new Reichs Channerllory being built in 1938
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 is 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 so the photograph must have been taken after Great Britain and France went to war with Nazi Germany.
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).
The embassy was subsequently demolished.
William Russell later returned to Mississippi. He taught German to many people and encourage young people to learn the language. He died in 2000.
Russell actually worked in the visa department located in the US consulate which was a different building. Above is a photograph of the US Embassy from the German National Archive taken in 1932.