The Downfall 1945,
by Anthony Beevor
Über die deutsche Übersetzung, sehen Sie hier
German translation, here
Ever since Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle, nearly 40 years ago, the two-week battle for Berlin from 16 April to 2 May 1945 has fascinated historians. In the case of Antony Beevor's magnificent volume, another Ryan comes to mind. For this book is to all previous attempts what the first half hour of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was to all previous war movies: it simply makes them obsolete at a stroke.
The one disappointment in a splendid book is that Beevor does not provide total casualty figures for the battle or the campaign in eastern Germany from January 1945. Some scholars say that German war dead alone for the first four months of 1945 topped one million. Since Soviet casualties were always higher than those of the Nazis, we must be talking several million dead on the Eastern Front in 1945. Here indeed was the Ragnarok, or mythical last battle, that the Wagner-obsessed Hitler fantasised about.
By April 1945, the Red Army was poised on the Oder, 40 miles from Berlin, ready to deal the coup de grâce to the Third Reich. To begin with, there were three Soviet commanders, Zhukov, Rokossovsky and Konev. Stalin soon edged Rokossovsky out, as he did not want a Pole to share the glory, and eventually, he gave supreme command to Zhukov: 2,500,000 Soviet troops confronted one million Germans in Army Group Vistula, led by General Heinrici and Army Group Centre (General Schorner).
Heinrici was the hero of the defence. On 16 April, over 20,000 Russian cannon and rocket batteries opened a barrage of unprecedented power against the outnumbered enemy. Soviet aims were twofold: to take Berlin by 22 April (Lenin's birthday), and to surround the city so that US and British armies could not reach the capital.
But Heinrici balked the attackers by moving his troops back to a second line of defence. The Russians found their task much harder than expected, and it took until 25 April for them to surround Berlin. Within the iron cordon were more than three million civilians. Despite the tales of atrocities filtering in from East Prussia since January, neither Goebbels nor any other Nazi grandee had made any attempt to evacuate a desperate, starving people.
Berlin, defended by a tiny garrison, the Home Guard and teenage Hitler Youth, should have been the object of mopping-up operations only. But so tenaciously did the beleaguered defenders fight, contesting every street and house, that it took the Red Army until 2 May before pincer movements came together in the Tiergarten and they were able to hoist the red flag over the ruins of Hitler's Chancellery.
By then, Hitler and Eva Braun had committed suicide in the bunker, as had Goebbels and his wife Magda, but not before they had poisoned their six children. The last days of the Reich were sordid even by Hitlerian standards. Himmler opened negotiations with the Western powers, thinking to save himself. But Bormann had already won the battle for Hitler's mantle.
Beevor also provides sketches of the Yalta Conference and the RAF's needless destruction of Dresden. These diversions are welcome, for otherwise the reader could be numbed by the catalogue of horrors.
The real victims of the Reich in April 1945 were the German people and, especially, the women. Readers will need a strong stomach to deal with the litany of atrocities. The Red Army, crazy for revenge and drowning in alcohol, cut loose in an orgy of rape. The ravages of Atilla and the conquests of the Mongols cannot hold a candle to it. Beginning in East Prussia in January 1945, reaching a crescendo in the two-week battle for Berlin and continuing after the end of hostilities, rape ran at epidemic levels.
The Red Army's officers had neither the will nor inclination to stop it. During the battle, 130,000 women were raped, 10 per cent of whom committed suicide. In the 1945 campaign in Germany, Beevor establishes, with unimpeachable scholarship, that at least two million women were ravished, many in gang rapes. Soviet soldiers violated all in their path, not just young German girls but women in their 70s, and even Russian prisoners.
There were many moments when I felt physically sick and deeply pessimistic about human nature. Beevor attempts an argument that Stalin had turned the Soviet Union into a repressed society, and that this was the pent-up tsunami that overwhelmed eastern Germany in 1945. I wish all the atrocities could be blamed on Stalin, but I think we are dealing with a much more sinister phenomenon: the heart of darkness that lies at the centre of humanity.
The mass rapes made me conclude that the feminists must be right: all men are rapists, once society's brakes are off. As well as profound shame for my sex, I felt another lesson inculcated by this masterly but shocking book. While I accept that pacifism cannot stop the Hitlers of this world, it is imperative that human beings go to almost any length to avoid war. For it is warfare that cracks the thin ice on which we daily skate, tipping us into chaos beneath. Even if Beevor were not a master historian, with research culled from a score of foreign archives, he would qualify, on this evidence, as an unintentional moralist. Those who do not believe in monsters of the id should read this riveting book, and reflect.
"Humankind," wrote TS Eliot on the brink of the Second World War, "cannot bear very much reality." Most of the time, the bestseller lists for British books confirm the poet's point. This week, for example, you might have expected the amiable fantasy left on his Mac by the late Douglas Adams (The Salmon of Doubt) to be carrying all before it.
Yet on May Day 2002, a violently different sort of work topped the chart at Amazon.co.uk. Berlin: the downfall 1945, by Antony Beevor, recounts, in harrowing detail and with formidable literary skill, the brutal death-throes of Hitler's Reich at the hands of the rampaging Red Army. At some moments, even the strongest-stomached reader will turn away in dismay from from its litany of cruelties. Beevor says he omitted some especially ghastly evidence because he feared lapsing into the "pornography of war".
The apocalyptic struggle for the German capital ended 57 years ago yesterday, with the red flag over the Reichstag, the Führer and his cronies dead in their bunker and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians dead in the flattened city and its region. Stalin's terrible victory, won for him by Marshal Zhukhov and 2,500,000 drunken and starving troops, shaped the Cold War Europe whose fractures still rankle. Mischievous Berliners (never keen on the Nazis) had long known the terminal ordeal they faced. "Be practical," went the joke at Christmas 1944. "Give a coffin."
According to historian Frank McLynn, in today's Independent, Beevor's triumph of evocation does to other battle narratives what the close-up carnage of Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan did to war movies – "it simply makes them obsolete at a stroke." This is Beevor's second knockout blow within his genre. In 1998, Stalingrad told, with similarly atrocious majesty, the story of the house-by-house struggle for the besieged city in 1942-43. When Soviet commanders surveyed the vast field of blood and rubble where Stalingrad once stood, they knew what sort of revenge they would inflict on Berlin.
Beevor's Stalingrad sold half a million copies and won three major prizes. Its author has developed into a literary Angel of Death for the reading public in Britain (and abroad: Stalingrad has had 19 translations). With such fame comes resentment. To some, he counts as an avenging angel. Berlin: the downfall has already achieved notoriety for its estimate (based on fresh research in Russian archives) that the Red Army raped 2 million women on its implacable westward sweep. Of more than 100,000 women raped in the city itself, more than 10,000 later committed suicide. "Berliners remember that because all the windows had been blown in, you could hear the screams every night," the book drily recounts.
The Russian ambassador in London, Grigory Karasin, this week called Beevor's work "a clear case of slander against the people who saved the world from Nazism". Some of this outrage may well be meant for domestic consumption. The Russians know Beevor as a meticulous and resourceful researcher.
Beevor's rare ability to blend strategic vision with gripping tales of savagery or survival owes more to talent than training. Yet it certainly helps that these lacerating accounts of humanity at its most feral come from a writer who has been both an army officer and a novelist. Beevor was born into a family of writers – over six generations – in the first year of peace, 1946. Tanned and dapper, he now looks much younger than 55.
At school at Winchester, he was sickly and bullied. Soft bones meant that he depended on crutches until the age of seven. He failed exams but joined the Army "because I felt I'd got something to prove". So he went to Sandhurst and there encountered John Keegan, the military historian whose book The Face of Battle revitalised a moribund form.
That quest to prove himself led Lieutenant Beevor of the 11th Hussars to the banks of the Elbe in 1968. He commanded a platoon of tanks, virtually barrel-to-barrel with Soviet forces as the Warsaw Pact trundled into Dubcek's liberal Czechoslovakia. This was a rather different sort of 1968 to the hippy saturnalia enjoyed by many of his peers.
After leaving the Hussars, he wrote four hard-to-find novels (with titles such as The Faustian Pact and The Enchantment of Christina von Retzen). They scarcely set the literary world alight. Only then did he turn to military history.
Far from being a wrong turning, these fictional ambitions still make their mark on his style. Many historians are interested in literature, but often treat it as an inert quarry of raw material. Beevor's attention to the writer's shaping spirit inflects the rhythm and colour of his prose. It explains why his accounts strike and linger with a force that equally erudite scholars never match.
His early battle histories did well, but not spectacularly so, in what was seen as a declining field full of ageing buffs. He wrote about the Spanish Civil War; the invasion of Crete in 1941; and a general survey of the British Army. In 1986 he married the daughter of John Julius Norwich, Artemis Cooper (they have two children). In 1994 the couple collaborated on Paris After the Liberation, which dealt heavy blows to the (chiefly Communist) myths of the era.
It was Beevor's editor at Penguin who suggested a study of Stalingrad. She foresaw modest sales of 5,000 or so; an expectation surpassed, literally, a hundredfold. Beevor owes his acclaim above all to his individual gifts, but he also rode a little zephyr of the Zeitgeist. As the veterans' generation of the Second World War began to fade away, so the yarns of old stagers became rare chunks of living history. Much aided by Hollywood and TV, those bands of brothers marched back into the mainstream. Beevor himself visited the set of the Stalingrad epic Enemy at the Gates, and was amused and bemused by the moviemakers' version of hell on the Volga.
Meanwhile, the fall of the Iron Curtain and the reconstruction of Europe shook the mental barriers that separated memories and histories. Both German victimhood and Soviet savagery became discussable at last – at least outside Russia. Beevor understands the Russians' continuing reluctance to face up to their war crimes (which included the mass rape of Russian and Jewish women prisoners after their "liberation"). He points out that Germany only began to confront its guilt after an economic miracle that has not, so far, blessed post-Soviet Russia. While penniless war widows still have to beg on Moscow underground stations, the sustaining myths of the Great Patriotic War will endure.
So it would be wrong to brand Berlin: the downfall as a flesh-creeping catalogue of Slavic atrocities. It pays due attention to real heroism and good discipline on the Soviet side. Often the book is more touching than terrifying. "For Red Army soldiers," it tells us, "their first priority was a shave to make themselves presentable conquerors." Beevor suspects that because so much of his unfamiliar material comes from newly opened Soviet sources, the "dark side" that is revealed there will skew perceptions of the book.
Behind his labours lies a shadowy tale of access to the historical gold hidden deep in the Russian archives. After glasnost, a vast amount of raw but precious paper surfaced in the gloomy stone bureaucracies of Moscow. At first, it was a scholarly free-for-all. A distinguished French historian told Beevor excitedly: "Mon vieux, c'est le vrai Wild West ici!"
Soon, the FSB state security apparatus – a pretty unreconstructed successor to the KGB – brought its own law and order to the stacks. Restrictions on researchers have begun to tighten. The FSB keeps faith with its own traditions by maintaining a close watch on foreign historians and the files they consult. But the feared shutdown hasn't happened yet. As well as 50 interviews with German and Russian survivors, Beevor makes rich use of half a dozen major Russian document collections.
His next book will present the wartime writings of a witness whose voice echoes throughout Berlin: the downfall. This is Vassily Grossman, the remarkable journalist and novelist who wrote the great epic Life and Fate. It was Grossman who reported one of the most terrible of the incidents Beevor cites: a young mother, continuously raped in a barn, who was refused permission to breast-feed the endlessly crying baby by her side.
In order to tolerate such crucifying information, readers package and interpret it according to their beliefs. So far, some reviewers have (in a sad echo of Nazi propaganda) expressed a sort of anti-Russian racial disgust. That is not present in a scrupulously fair book that ends with a final curse on "Hitler's outrageous vanity". Other reactions have looked to the future. For the Europhile Will Hutton, for example, this chronicle of carnage proves the wisdom of political integration in order to "break with history" and its vile conflicts.
That may not be how the author sees it. Beevor is, if anything, a moderate Eurosceptic. He fears that a faster pace of unification will throw up more Le Pens. And he draws a historian's direct line between the clever technocrats of the Vichy regime in France and the undemocratic style of administration still practised in Brussels. Neither has his total immersion in the disasters of war sent him on a pacifist path. At the time of the Kosovo campaign, he welcomed the fact that "the Labour Party has at last started to realise that tyrants do not respond to reason... They respond only to superior military strength".
There speaks the tank commander of the 11th Hussars. But Antony Beevor's books come from the novelist as well: from the compassionate eye that sees the child cowering in the shattered doorway as clearly as the armour driving down the potholed street. What we make of these unbearable realities is our choice. He at least ensures that the memory of these world-defining tragedies returns in our age of trivia – just like the 1,000 corpses that, each year, still surface on the building-sites of unified Berlin.
Born: 14 December 1946, to John Grosvenor Beevor and Carinthia (née Waterfield).
Family: Married Artemis Cooper, daughter of John Julius Norwich, in 1986; they have one son and one daughter.
Education: Winchester College and Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst.
Military career: Officer in the 11th Hussars, 1967-70.
Literary career: Wrote four novels before The Spanish Civil War (1982); Inside the British Army (1990); Crete: the battle and the resistance (1991); Paris After the Liberation, co-written with Artemis Cooper (1994); Stalingrad (1998); Berlin: the downfall 1945 (2002)
Honours: The Runciman Prize; Samuel Johnson prize for non-fiction; Hawthornden Prize; Wolfson prize for history; Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres; Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.
He says: "Reality is almost always better than artifice".
They say: "He is a writer who truly understands the drama and tragedy of great operations" – Sir John Keegan.
Reich and ruin
Beevor's Berlin is as compelling and extraordinary as his Stalingrad
Sunday April 21, 2002
Berlin: The Downfall 1945
Viking £25, pp528
At the beginning of 1945, Allied armies were massing on the borders of prewar Germany, poised for a final assault. In the West, the British and Americans lined the banks of the Rhine; the French stood on the edge of the Black Forest. In the East, the Red Army had accumulated 6.7 million men on a front that stretched from the Baltic to the Adriatic - more than twice the strength of the German-led armies that had invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. By this time, the Wehrmacht was a pathetic remnant of the proud force that had swept through Europe at the beginning of the war, desperately short of equipment, fuel and ammunition - so much so that their artillery pieces were limited to a ration of two shells daily. Almost every German male between 17 and 45 had already been called up. The Nazi regime began to recruit old men and boys, some so young that they couldn't hold their rifles properly and had to be given sweets instead of tobacco. Their tin helmets, too big for their heads, dropped over their eyes.
The German people, fed by Nazi propaganda, feared terrible reprisals for the atrocities their own troops had committed against their enemies in the East. The cry 'Der Ivan Kommt!' filled the population with dread. Millions of civilians fled westwards, often in appalling conditions. Desperate women trying to breastfeed their infants in the piercing cold developed frostbite. For their part, Soviet soldiers were inspired by hatred for all things German. They gang-raped German women, young and old; looted anything they could find, even removing panes of glass and bags of nails to send back home. The Red Army exhumed 65,000 Jewish corpses and had these placed along the roads, with signs every 200 yards: 'Look how the Germans treat Soviet citizens.'
When the Russians attacked in mid-January, German resistance in the East quickly collapsed. Hitler hastened the process by refusing to allow withdrawals and insisting on suicidal counter-attacks. German defences disintegrated. Officers tried to stiffen their men's will to fight by summary executions, but it was hopeless. Those too badly wounded to move were left by the roadside with grenades, for use when the Russians arrived. They were told they would be castrated by women commissars. Less severely wounded soldiers clung to the side of retreating tanks and other vehicles, only to be crushed like roadkill when they fell off.
German opposition was so feeble that Soviet point units were able to advance into Germany 60 to 70km a day. Their exhausted tank drivers frequently fell asleep at the wheel. By the end of January they had reached the Oder, less than 100km from Berlin. There they assembled 2.5 million men, 41,600 guns and 6,250 tanks, 'the greatest concentration of firepower ever amassed'. The capital itself was virtually defenceless. A garrison of 45,000 regular troops was supplemented by 40,000 militia, armed with a miscellany of primitive weapons, many of them more dangerous to the user than to the target. Boys on bicycles were trained to fight Russian tanks.
Stalin was determined that the Red Army should reach Berlin before his Western allies. He encouraged his generals to compete with each other in a scramble to be first into the Reich capital, to the extent that Soviet troops often found themselves coming under fire from their own side. Stalin was of course familiar with Marx's dictum that whoever controls Berlin controls Germany; and whoever controls Germany controls Europe. But he had a more immediate motive: to plunder German stocks of uranium and recruit German scientists associated with their nuclear weapons programme. By now, Stalin's spies had told him that the Anglo-Americans had developed the Bomb. His greatest fear was that they would form a last-minute alliance with the remains of the Wehrmacht and carry on the fight against Bolshevism. Though his suspicions seemed preposterous to the Allies, they were rooted in his own actions. Had not the Soviet Union itself made such a volte-face, in the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939?
In fact the Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, had no intention of robbing the Red Army of its prize. By 11 April, American troops were within 48 hours of Berlin, but they advanced no further. The Americans judged that the political gain was not worth the inevitable casualties, not realising that the German armies were almost desperate to surrender to the Allies rather than risk capture by the Russians. Churchill advocated seizing the capitals of Berlin, Prague and Vienna before they were overrun by the Red Army, but his voice no longer counted.
Berlin itself was already in ruins from Allied bombing. Now Soviet artillery shells began to fall in the streets. The people faced these events with stoicism. When a shell decimated a line of women queuing for food, their ranks closed to fill the gap. The Berlin Philharmonic gave its last performance on 12 April. After the finale - Wagner's Götterdämmerung - departing members of the audience were offered cyanide capsules from baskets held by uniformed Hitler Youth.
The fighting in the city itself was grim and chaotic. The air was acrid with smoke and brick-dust. Military communications broke down, and German officers were forced to telephone private addresses to inquire about enemy movements. Often the calls were answered in Russian. As the Red Army closed in on the city centre, a feeling of disintegration encouraged heavy drinking, suicides and indiscriminate copulation. On 30 April, Hitler committed suicide, having at last married his secret mistress, Eva Braun. The fighting continued to the end, even after the Red Flag flew over the Reichstag in the centre of Berlin.
As in his Stalingrad, Antony Beevor skilfully combines the big picture of the developing strategic situation with a sense of the extraordinary experiences of individuals on the ground. There is not much new in this book, but that does not matter. The strength of Berlin: The Downfall 1945 is an irresistibly compelling narrative, of events so terrible that they still have the power, more than half a century on, to provoke wonder and awe.
Sun 5 May 2002
Berlin: The Downfall 1945 by Anthony Beevor
The Rape of a city
IN APRIL 1945, just days before Hitler crunched a capsule of cyanide in his Berlin bunker, German women across the capital were feverishly comparing notes in the bread queues each morning. "How many times for you last night?" they would tentatively ask each other. These wives, daughters and sisters were the ones who, according to historian Anthony Beevor in his startling history of Berlin during the dwindling days of the Reich, bore the brunt of the Soviets’ revenge. An anonymous woman diarist in Berlin wrote of these experiences transforming her perspective. "I’ve been noticing that not only my feelings, but those of almost all women towards men have changed," she observed. "We are sorry for them... A kind of collective disappointment among women seems to be growing on the surface. The male-dominant Nazi world glorifying the strong man is tottering, and with it the myth ‘man’."
Beevor’s previous book Stalingrad, which was an international bestseller, recounted in equally meticulous detail the appalling toll of the German siege of the Soviets. Beevor, who spent many months reading of rape, torture and starvation, is no stranger to humanity at its worst.
"For six months after writing Stalingrad, every time I saw a plate of food, I could hardly eat, thinking of how much it would have meant to the people I was writing about during the siege," he says. But this studious and charming man, who speaks in a clipped RP accent, was stunned by the scale and brutality of the rapes neatly documented in official Red Army reports. There is a certain irony that Beevor, who was educated at Winchester and Sandhurst and was an officer in the 11th Hussars, should become a historian with a feminist insight. Recently he appeared on Radio Four’s Start the Week, and says he regrets the panel didn’t have more time to thrash out the complexities of rape as an instrument of war. Not the usual line from a former officer.
Beevor began his writing career in the 1980s, producing a novel once he’d resigned his commission after five years in the army. Several more followed before he wrote an account of the Spanish Civil War and another non-fiction examination of the state of Britain’s armed forces, Inside the British Army. Now he argues passionately for anyone who wants to write about the burgeoning field of military history, to understand not only its tactics but its psyche. "It’s hard for us to understand how huge conscript armies work and how emotional they are," says Beevor. "They are terrifyingly emotional and you have to understand that if you are to write about war."
Such insight does not excuse a soldier’s behaviour, but enables us to understand it. And as our conversation turns back to the subject of rape, Beevor points out that even the presence of women soldiers amongst the macho throng of the Red Army made no difference. "Quite a lot of women soldiers found it funny," he says. As if this were not shocking enough, Beevor’s Moscow research revealed Red Army officers and soldiers even raped their own women. "We came across a very detailed report by the deputy chief of the political department of the First Ukrainian Front, which consisted of nearly a million troops, recounting these rapes of young Russian women and girls - often Ukranians who were only 14 or 15 and had been taken off to Germany as slave labourers," says Beevor. "They had been longing for liberation by the Red Army and then were raped by their liberators." His Russian researcher, who also worked with Beevor on Stalingrad, burst into tears when she found this document.
For these women, there was worse to come. The feared NKVD (secret service) rifle regiments on the Second Belorussian Front, east of the fighting in Germany, were told that "deserters, robbers and former prisoners of war were to be treated in the same way as ‘those who betrayed our state’". Women who had managed to stay alive under the Nazi occupation became known as ‘German dolls’ and were thought to have ‘sold themselves to the Germans’ in order to survive. Stalin, fearing prisoners of war or those forced into slave labour in Germany may have been tainted by exposure to enemy propaganda, sent them off to the Gulag after 1945. Many died with their experiences unrecorded, the crimes against them unprosecuted, in the brutal camps of northern Siberia.
Despite the terrible brutality of rape as revenge, many women in Berlin quickly adopted an attitude of bartering sexual favours to prevent gang rape. Beevor says there are even accounts of Red Army soldiers who raped a woman only to appear at her home the next day with food and presents for the children. Unbelievably, relationships grew from such peculiar beginnings. However, for many mothers, this exchange became the rawest act of selfless sacrifice to ensure or better their children’s chances of survival. Beevor found anecdotal evidence too of Red Army officers who kidnapped women from the streets of Berlin and held them as sexual slaves at a deserted gasometer in the city. Few women escaped.
In the final bitter days of the Third Reich, the most distorted version of such Faustian bargains was played out in Hitler’s bunker at the Reich Chancellery. Joseph and Magda Goebbels had already made a pact to commit suicide after murdering their children, rather than fall into enemy hands. Their six children were put in their nightgowns, tucked into bed and given an injection of morphine before Magda crushed an ampoule of poison between her teeth. Hitler, who had just married his mistress Eva Braun, had gone through an identical suicide a few days earlier. ‘Bunker mentality’ hardly begins to describe the madness that seemed to inform the final decisions made by Hitler, whose obsessive identification with the German people meant that he ordered hundreds of young boys and old men into hopeless battles. Outside the capital, civilians were instructed to remain in German cities to be raped and murdered while the Nazi commanders fled to safety.
"There was a form of such total delusion, you get a sense of irresponsibility to such a degree that you cannot distinguish it from a lack of humanity," says Beevor, even now still churning over the reasons for Hitler’s apparent acts of utter madness. "Towards the end, his thinking was that it was right for the German people to die because, without him, they were lost." Bizarrely, other members of Hitler’s government, including Himmler, made overtures to the Allies for a negotiated peace or fought amongst themselves over who would succeed the chancellor. Although Beevor’s description of the final days in the bunker has been told many times, his ability to place this macabre drama within the broad context of Berlin’s fall gives it a startling new dimension. The Russians were encircling the city, the Americans were not far behind and eager to move further east, and the Berliners themselves, who had survived the months of bombing raids, were growing more disillusioned by the day.
Although there is much discussion in Berlin of military tactics, Beevor is among those who are reinventing military history for a new generation of readers. Indeed, Stalingrad won praise from the head of Stalingrad’s veterans association and will be republished this year with endnotes revealing to the Russians that the accounts of the Red Army executing their own men had come from their own archives. But Beevor is unsure how Berlin’s searing account of brutality mixed with glimpses of extraordinary humanity by the Russian troops will be received. "One has to remember the half-century of propaganda in Soviet schools about the heroism of the Red Army," he says, his hand hovering in the air for emphasis, "When a country is economically humiliated, as Russia has been since 1990, you cannot expect it to face up to the past. That may take another generation."
Every sort of assault
Alan Judd reviews Berlin: the Downfall, 1945 by Antony Beevor.
BE grateful that you were not in Poland, the Baltic States, the eastern parts of Germany or Berlin in 1945 when the Russians were coming. If you had been, you would have been grateful you were not born a woman.
Imagine Berlin: the collapse of civil order and infrastructure, including water, food and sewerage; your children hungry and frightened, their father missing or dead; Hitler raving in his bunker, defending this least Nazi and least fortified of cities with imaginary divisions, determined to take all Germany down with him.
Bombed by the Americans every day and the British every night, you feel as shattered as the buildings around you. The city's 85,000 defenders are a demoralised crew of regular troops, SS fanatics as keen to shoot disloyal Germans as the enemy, boys of 14 and First World War veterans, all critically short of equipment, ammunition and fuel.
Approaching you are two-and-a-half million men and 6,250 tanks, a horde you have been encouraged to regard as subhuman, whom your husband probably treated as such, and who now think the same of you and are bent on vengeance. Their bombardment makes your building tremble, though they are still some 40 miles away.
If you survive the firestorm of the front-line troops who blast their way into buildings, enter rooms, tunnels, cellars and bunkers grenade-first and need persuading that your little boy is not in the SS (to be shot on sight), you will fall into the hands of the second-line troops, who are worse. Consolidating rather than fighting, they have time to plunder, particularly wrist-watches, bicycles and alcohol; in the evenings they go woman-hunting. Any woman, any age, any condition.
"They came into the cellar where we were hiding," said one survivor of a town taken before Berlin, "and pointed their weapons at me and the other two women and ordered us into the yard. In the yard twelve soldiers in turn raped me. Other soldiers did the same to my two neighbours. The following night six drunken soldiers broke into our cellar and raped us in front of the children. On 5 February, three soldiers came, and on 6 February eight drunken soldiers also raped and beat us." In Berlin, for many such women, there was not even water to wash with afterwards.
Some two million German women were raped, probably half of them gang-raped. Many died, often by suicide. This continuous mass rape is one of the great themes of Beevor's book. In part it was unofficially encouraged as an act of vengeance on a vile enemy, in part it was tolerated as something regrettable but inevitable, but largely it took place as a result of disorder and looted alcohol.
The Red Army was brutally but not well disciplined, and its officers - those who were not themselves rapists - could not always control their men. Russian women released from German labour camps were as likely to be raped by their saviours as any hausfrau.
This might have unbalanced the book, since it could easily form a subject on its own, but Beevor handles the subject sensitively and wisely, showing that many other things were also true during those final, awful, victorious months. Not only other cruelties and barbarities - mass, arbitrary and accidental killings - but confusions, kindnesses, oddities and humour, the latter reassuringly alive even among Berliners ("Golden Pheasants" was their term for Nazi bigwigs). Many Russian soldiers were also generous, feeding starving civilians and playing with their children.
Beevor brings vividly to life that sprawling, chaotic monster, the Red Army. He illustrates the courage of Soviet peasant soldiers, the wastefulness of their high command, the disgraceful way in which veterans were treated, while showing how the Red Army wouldn't have reached Berlin when they did without American transport, and how we and the Americans could have got there first had it not been for Eisenhower.
Although the story Beevor tells is not new, much of his detail is, and if at times the accumulation feels a bit like that bombardment, it is forgivable. This is a compelling piece of historical description and assessment, the more important because some of Beevor's Russian archival sources may not be available in future.
For all that they were a scratch crew defending the indefensible, some of those doomed German soldiers fought with the tenacious camaraderie of despair. One bridge was held for 48 hours by three nameless men and a machine-gun; overall, it cost the Red Army 78,291 dead and 274,184 wounded to take the city (that's well over three times the current strength of the entire British Army).
It ended after Hitler and his bride, Eva, had killed themselves in their bunker, as did Joseph and Magda Goebbels, having first poisoned their six children. The ladylike Magda played patience for an hour before helping the doctor do it. Meanwhile, not far away in the wrecked Berlin zoo, a keeper mourned his dead gorilla, denying that she was ever fierce. "She just roared loudly," he said. "Humans are much fiercer."
Much has been written about the suffering that the Nazis inflicted during world war two. But who remembers the two million Germans who died after hostilities ended? Jason Cowley reports on a country reassessing its past
Wednesday March 27, 2002
Every year, in ever-decreasing numbers, people from the former Soviet Union, most of them elderly, make the long journey to Treptower Park in the eastern suburbs of Berlin. There stands a monument to the Soviet dead of the second world war and, in particular, to the estimated 300,000 Soviet troops killed in the battle for Berlin in the spring of 1945, at least 5,000 of whom are buried in the park. The monument is a socialist-realist heroic fantasy: an "unknown soldier", raised on a plinth 36ft above the ground, surveys the flat, monotonous landscape before him. He supports a frightened child in one hand and brandishes a sword in the other, while at his feet is a fractured swastika. The memorial crypt inside the plinth is made from marble removed from Hitler's Reich Chancellery.
In Treptower Park on a cold, snowy morning, I recently met an old woman who told me her brother had been killed in the final weeks of the war defending what she called the "lost city" of Königsberg, the old capital of East Prussia, which today, as Kaliningrad, is in a troubled Russian enclave on the Baltic. She had her own name for the monument in the park: "the site of the unknown rapist", she called it, in recognition of the atrocities visited on German women during the last months of what became, as Hitler prophesied it would, a "war of total annihilation".
Later, I bought a copy of Günter Grass's new novel, In Retrogression, which merges fiction, memoir and reportage to tell the story of what is being called "Germany's Titanic" - the sinking by a Soviet submarine of the cruise liner Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945. There were more than 7,000 people aboard the liner - most of them German refugees escaping from the chaos on the eastern front - when it was hit by three torpedoes in the freezing waters of the Baltic, west of the port of Danzig (now Gdansk). The ship was designed to take a maximum of 2,000 passengers, and it sank rapidly. Grass imagines the final moments of those on board: their panic, their despair, the clamour and the screaming.
That Grass, an icon of the left and lifelong critic of German revisionism, should have returned at this time to such an emotive subject has inspired animated conversation in Germany. After all, it was Grass, during the reunification celebrations of 1990, who said: "Whoever thinks about Germany at this moment should not forget Auschwitz." In Retrogression is being read not only as an elegy for the estimated 6,000 people who died that night in the icy black waters of the Baltic, but as a signifier of what Die Welt is calling the "normalisation of Germany".
This so-called normalisation is a complex and tortuous process but, in essence, what it means is that no understanding of the Nazi period and its long, dislocating aftermath can be complete without acceptance of Germany's own suffering. Nor, without normalisation, is it possible to contextualise nazism, to draw comparisons with, say, Soviet communism and other regimes of historic tyranny. Hitherto, certainly since the leftist rebellions of the 1960s, the emphasis has been on the crimes and unique evil of the Third Reich, on the Holocaust, on German culpability and on rituals of mourning and memory. Which means that the Germans have never allowed themselves to comprehend the full effects of the war on their collective consciousness, their own sense of loss.
There are other signs of normalisation, too, that bespeak a renewed confidence to address the past. The Social Democrat politician Alwin Ziel has suggested, for instance, giving the name "Prussia" to the new state that would emerge from the proposed merger of Berlin and Brandenburg. He is supported by the essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, among others, but has also been widely condemned, though he seeks to resurrect Prussia in name only. Elsewhere, in Bavaria, Edmund Stoiber, the leading rightwing challenger to chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, has been vilified by younger Germans for demanding an apology from the Czech Republic for the postwar expulsion of ethnic Germans from the Sudetenland, a wound that still festers.
"Normalisation means opening up the whole of the history of that period, and that includes what happened in the old GDR, when Germans killed Germans, what happened in Dresden, East Prussia and so on," says Walter Rothschild, a British-born rabbi who is now a leading member of the Jewish community in Berlin. "The Jews have long occupied the role of victim; but it's time, I think, to acknowledge that the Germans were victims too, for Jews to say: 'Yes, we hear your pain, we understand.' It may need the last of the survivors of the camps to die before that can happen. There's still so much of the past to work through, so many psychological traumas, before we can accept the broader perspective."
One of the great unwritten narratives of the second world war concerns the ejection immediately after the war of between 13 and 14 million ethnic Germans from their ancient homelands in Pomerania, East Prussia and Silesia, as the borders of Poland and the Soviet Union were shifted westward. The "ethnic cleansing" of these displaced Germans, as well as those from the Sudetenland, resulted in more than two million deaths and what is still the largest single refugee movement in European history. Yet it remains scarcely known outside Germany. "In the immediate aftermath of the war and revelation of Nazi crimes, there was little sympathy for Germans," writes the Oxford historian Mark Almond in the preface to Ursula Lange's new book East Germany: What Happened to the Silesians in 1945 (Book Guild). "But the passage of time should open our eyes to the great sufferings inflicted on civilians whose only crime was their nationality."
The wait for British eyes to open may not be long - in April, Anthony Beevor publishes Berlin: the Downfall, 1945 (Viking/Penguin), his follow-up to the surprise bestseller Stalingrad. He has produced a narrative of suffering and destruction, in which the gang rape of German women and the slaughter of children as the Soviets rampaged towards Berlin are vividly described. The truth of what happened during the Soviet onslaught against the Germans has long been repressed in Russia, marginalised as the inevitable consequences of war, though privately Soviet veterans joke about "two million of our children being born in Germany" and one former major is quoted by Beevor as saying that "our fellows were so sex-starved that they often raped old women of 60, 70 or even 80 - much to these grandmothers' surprise, if not downright delight". Beevor concentrates, too, on the expulsions from East Prussia: "It was the abrupt and total destruction of a whole region, with its own marked character and culture, emphasised perhaps because it had always been at the extremity of Germany on the Slav frontier."
In the early 1950s, the plight of the German expellees - most of whom were absorbed into the largely agrarian states of Bavaria, Lower Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg - was a source of rightwing revisionist agitation. A political party and a ministry for expellees were established to fight for their cause during a period of deep shock and silence in Germany. The late WG Sebald has written, in Air War and Literature (to be published next year by Hamish Hamilton), of his youthful wanderings through a purgatorial landscape of bomb-ruined cities, and of how so little was spoken and understood about the catastrophe that had unfolded in the German Reich. The Germans were, he said, wilfully blind: when they turned to take a backward view, particularly of the years 1930 to 1950, they were always both "looking and looking away". They could not comprehend the scale of their humiliation and defeat. They wished only to forget.
There's little doubt that a terrible retribution was exacted on Germany at the end of the war, and only now, through the long perspective of suffering, are Germans beginning to understand and accept what happened to them, both as perpetrators and victims. Should we fear German normalisation? In many ways, Britain, with a postwar identity constructed from images of heroic resistance - the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, Churchillian rhetoric - has yet to embark on its own journey of normalisation, a process that would include a final reckoning with our own war crimes: the bombing of Dresden, say, or the closing of our borders to Jewish refugees, or our botched policies in Palestine.
Instead, we remain entombed in the past, enthralled and mesmerised by the figure of Adolf Hitler. Not a week passes, it seems, without a new portrait of the Führer or one of his henchmen being broadcast, or another psychobiography speculating about Hitler's supposed homosexuality, coprophilia or monorchidism being published, as if the truth or otherwise of such things will help us to understand German fascism.
"When I think of Adolf Hitler," wrote the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus, in a celebrated phrase, "nothing occurs to me." Today everything - anything - occurs to us when we think of Hitler, as if we see reflected in the mirror of his life and times an image of our own lost certainty and present confusion. We may no longer know who we are in this country, or where we're heading, but we know that we're not Nazis.
"A little knowledge is a dangerous thing," wrote Pope. No one could accuse modern Berliners of having too little knowledge about the past. Their city, with its shattered churches and sites of dereliction, its Chicago-style glass towers coexisting uneasily with Soviet-era tower blocks, its rebuilt Reichstag and its magnificent new Jewish Museum, is the embodiment of what Mikhail Bakhtin called a "chronotope", a place allowing us to roam through time and space, to see the past in the present. Berlin is at once a mausoleum, a city of ghosts, and a vibrant modern metropolis. It's abnormal, and yet one of the most normal places I've ever visited.
Above all, Berlin
reminds us definitively that without the living presence of the past, a better
future can never be created. If that, in the end, is what normalisation means,
we should welcome it.
Russia's revenge on the
Thursday May 2, 2002
Berlin: The Downfall 1945
by Antony Beevor
Viking 528pp £25
Reviewed by Adam Sisman
At the beginning of 1945 Allied armies were massing on the borders of prewar Germany, poised for a final assault. In the west the British and Americans lined the banks of the Rhine; the French stood on the edge of the Black Forest. In the east the Red Army had accumulated 6.7 million men on a front that stretched from the Baltic to the Adriatic - more than twice the strength of the German-led armies that had invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. By this time the Wehrmacht was a pathetic remnant of the proud force that had swept through Europe at the beginning of the war, desperately short of equipment, fuel and ammunition - so much so that their artillery pieces were limited to a ration of two shells daily. Almost every German male between 17 and 45 had already been called up. The Nazi regime began to recruit old men and boys, some so young that they couldn't hold their rifles properly and had to be given sweets instead of tobacco. Their tin helmets, too big for their heads, dropped over their eyes.
The German people, fed by Nazi propaganda, feared terrible reprisals for the atrocities their own troops had committed against their enemies in the east. The cry "Der Ivan Kommt!" filled the population with dread. Millions of civilians fled westwards, often in appalling conditions. Desperate women trying to breastfeed their infants in the piercing cold developed frostbite. For their part Soviet soldiers were inspired by hatred for all things German. They gang-raped German women, young and old, and looted anything they could find, even removing panes of glass and bags of nails to send back home. The Red Army exhumed 65,000 Jewish corpses and had these placed along the roads, with signs every 200 metres: "Look how the Germans treat Soviet citizens."
When the Russians attacked in mid-January, German resistance in the east quickly collapsed. Hitler hastened the process by refusing to allow withdrawals and insisting on suicidal counter-attacks. German defences disintegrated.
German opposition was so feeble that Soviet point units were able to advance into Germany at 60-70km a day. Their exhausted tank drivers frequently fell asleep at the wheel. By the end of January they had reached the Oder, less than 100km from Berlin. There they assembled 2.5 million men, 41,600 guns and 6,250 tanks, "the greatest concentration of firepower ever amassed". The capital itself was virtually defenceless. Boys on bicycles were trained to fight Russian tanks.
Stalin was determined that the Red Army should reach Berlin before his Western allies. He encouraged his generals to compete with each other in a scramble to be first into the Reich capital, to the extent that Soviet troops often found themselves coming under fire from their own side. Stalin was of course familiar with Marx's dictum that whoever controls Berlin controls Germany, and whoever controls Germany controls Europe. But he had a more immediate motive: to plunder German stocks of uranium and recruit German scientists associated with their nuclear weapons programme. By now Stalin's spies had told him that the Anglo-Americans had developed the Bomb. His greatest fear was that they would form a last-minute alliance with the remains of the Wehrmacht and carry on the fight against Bolshevism.
Berlin itself was already in ruins from Allied bombing. Now Soviet artillery shells began to fall in the streets. The people faced these events with stoicism. When a shell decimated a line of women queuing for food, their ranks closed to fill the gap. The Berlin Philharmonic gave its last performance on April 12. After the finale - Wagner's Götterdämmerung - departing members of the audience were offered cyanide capsules from baskets held by uniformed Hitler Youth.
The fighting in the city itself was grim and chaotic. The air was acrid with smoke and brick-dust. Military communications broke down and German officers were forced to telephone private addresses to inquire about enemy movements. Often the calls were answered in Russian. As the Red Army closed in on the city centre, a feeling of disintegration encouraged heavy drinking, suicides and indiscriminate copulation. On April 30 Hitler committed suicide, having at last married his secret mistress, Eva Braun. The fighting continued to the end, even after the Red Flag flew over the Reichstag in the centre of Berlin.
As in his Stalingrad, Antony Beevor skilfully combines the big picture of the developing strategic situation with a sense of the extraordinary experiences of individuals on the ground. There is not much new in this book, but that does not matter. The strength of Berlin: The Downfall 1945 is an irresistibly compelling narrative, of events so terrible that they still have the power, more than half a century on, to provoke wonder and awe. The Observer
of the devils
BERLIN: THE DOWNFALL, 1945
Viking, £25, pp.528, ISBN:0670886955
On 1 February 1943, as the German Sixth Army surrendered to the Russians after a battle that had created a new nightmare of the horrors of modern warfare, a Soviet colonel gathered some bedraggled, starving German prisoners and, waving at the shattered ruins of Stalingrad, he shouted, ‘That’s how Berlin is going to look.’ That decided Antony Beevor: that after his bestselling Stalingrad he had to write the story of the fall of Berlin. This brilliant storyteller has again delivered history with a thriller’s pace.
On the 1 April 1945, after his return from the Yalta Conference, Stalin summoned Marshals Zhukov and Konev, his two top fighting generals, to his study decorated with the portraits of Lenin and Marx, Suvorov and Kutuzov, revealing his self-image as Bolshevik revolutionary and Russian national leader, and asked them:
‘Well then, who is going to take Berlin: are we or the Allies?’
‘It is we who shall take Berlin,’ replied Konev eager to beat his rival Zhukov. Stalin deliberately arranged the plans so that the marshals would race to reach the Reichstag first. The Russians attacked with vast artillery barrages but this last attack was bungled, Zhukov losing thousands of men on his frontal assault on the Seelow Heights. Stalin encouraged Konev to catch up. Meanwhile at the Führerbunker, Hitler shakily stroked the cheeks of Hitler Youth fighters like an aged paedophile while his mistress Eva Braun moved in to die with him. His halitosis was as ferocious as the German resistance. Beevor’s account of the arrival of ‘the very ladylike’ Magda Goebbels and her five doomed children, who descended the steps ‘like a school crocodile’, is chilling. He has an eye for the terminology of both sides: on the Russian side, the soldiers hate the ‘staff rats’ and envy their ‘campaign wives’ while the Germans despise the ‘golden pheasants’ of the Nazi Party who are soon fleeing the battlefield. As the Red Army advances, the ghoulish nature of the Nazis is revealed: when Danzig falls, the Russians find the Anatomical Medical Institute that manufactures soap and leather from the ‘corpses of citizens of the USSR’ — and they find 89 human heads in the fridges. The concentration camps fall. The Germans are so fanatical that they even create their own kamikaze pilots — the so-called ‘self-sacrifice mission’.
The description of Hitler’s eastern headquarters, the Wolfsschanze, in East Prussia is sent by the NKVD to Stalin with some suggestions on how his own bunkers could be improved. An exhausted Stalin pushes his generals forward as a prematurely senile and crazed Hitler manoeuvres ghostly armies. The Red Army bursts out of its own territory in an orgy of liberation, anger and destruction: Beevor finds the NKVD reports on the mass rapes that soon befall even Russian women. He tells of the indescribable suffering of mass rape — sometimes women face 20 or 30 assailants in repeated sessions — with heartbreaking sympathy. There is soon a special Stalinist euphemism for this: rape is called ‘an immoral event’ and a ‘negative phenomenon’. To escape, women hide in haylofts, disappear in the forests and dot their faces with red to simulate spotted typhus, ‘precautions for survival’ that ‘must have been used in the Thirty Years War’. Some of the most anguishing accounts in here have German girls shouting out the names of their female neighbours as they are raped because they could not understand why they should not be raped too. This selfish despair is very human and understandable at such a terrible moment and it is typical of the subtle sensitivity of this book.
But the soldiers are soon raping not merely Russians but women newly liberated from slave labour camps: Beevor has unearthed a breathtaking document from a political commissar at the front to Georgi Malenkov, one of Stalin’s top henchmen, that reveals Soviet troops arranging huge mass rapes of Russian girls. ‘I waited for the Red Army for days and nights,’ said one, ‘and now our soldiers treat us worse than the Germans did.’ Of course this came from the top since Stalin had decreed that prisoners were almost as good as traitors, but this ‘negative phenomenon’ has been the unspoken and unspeakable secret of Russian historiography. No future accounts of the war will be able to miss it out. When he reveals that Soviet troops raped their own women as well as German, he shatters one of the myths of Soviet history. No wonder the Russian ambassador has complained about this most inconvenient reality even half a century later — it is still dynamite.
Both Stalingrad and Berlin are battles that have been subjects of a legion books — the events of Hitler’s death, for example, are familiar to us in every detail — but many accounts are heartless compendiums of army groups, tanks and clashes that lack the depth of the human experience. This is what Beevor brought to his Stalingrad: the humanity. There we sympathised as much with the German invaders, eating their rats and cats, as we did with our gallant Soviet allies. The military story of the supreme commanders and the NCOs is told as well as those of the ordinary soldiers and the secret policemen — on both sides. In his superb Berlin, Beevor gives us the blood, the death, the fear, the savagery, the moral dilemmas, the massacres, the unforgettably harrowing account of the mass rapes, Hitler, Stalin, Goebbels and Zhukov, Beria and Bormann, the dramas of the Götterdämmerung that was Berlin in April 1945 —but he makes us feel the chaos and the fear as if every drop of blood was our own: that is his gift. It is much more than just a humane account of Berlin; it is compellingly readable, deeply researched, and beautifully written telling of the one of the seminal moral events of our time.
Like Stalingrad, Beevor’s original research and his labours of synthesis are huge. He has trawled newly opened archives, interviewed new witnesses, used the vivid notes of the great Soviet novelist Vasily Grossman, and discovered fascinating things: he finds new evidence that gives another reason why Stalin was so keen to get to Berlin: he wanted the uranium of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute at Dahlem, Germany’s nuclear laboratories, well before Truman revealed the power of the Bomb to him at Potsdam.
As the Russians fought their way towards the Chancellery, Hitler dictated his last testament and then married Eva Braun. While the wedding parties primly sipped champagne and nibbled cakes, Hitler’s secretary went upstairs at 4 a. m. on the 29 April 1945 to find some food for the Goebbels children. There she encountered scenes of frantic depravity on the upper floors of the bunker that shocked her — and demonstrate Beevor’s eye for the wicked and the fascinating:
An erotic fever seemed to have
taken possession of everybody. Everywhere, even on the dentist’s chair, I saw
bodies in lascivious embraces. The women had discarded all modesty and were
freely exposing their private parts.
The SS had been tempting hungry
girls into the bunker with promises of parties and food. As Beevor writes, ‘It
was the apocalypse of totalitarian corruption, with the concrete submarine of
the Reich Chancellery underworld providing an Existentialist theatre set for
Hitler was soon dead and burnt. ‘Now he’s had it,’ Stalin told Zhukov. ‘Pity we couldn’t have taken him alive.’ Beevor’s telling of the killing of the six Goebbels children sums up the tragic horror of this story: ‘Children, don’t be alarmed,’ their mother told them as SS Doctor Kunz gave them each ‘a vaccination’ of morphine and then helped force cyanide ampoules between their jaws. Goebbels himself was soon burning in ‘the last funeral pyre of the Third Reich’. The Russians recognised the body by his unforgettably rodentlike face and by the special boot for his club foot.
Before Zhukov could find it, Hitler’s body was swiftly removed by Stalin’s secret police so that he could conveniently pretend that the Führer might have escaped. Twenty years later, Zhukov was still bitter because Stalin had deceived him about the greatest prize of all. ‘History always emphasises terminal events,’ Speer grumbled to his captors after the downfall, but Beevor’s theme is that nothing exposed the Third Reich for the vast criminal enterprise that it was like its end: ‘The incompetence, the frenzied refusal to accept reality and the inhumanity of the Nazi regime,’ he concludes, ‘were revealed all too clearly in its passing.’
Simon Sebag Montefiore is the author of Prince of Princes: The Life of Potemkin and is now researching Stalin and His Inner Circle.
‘An Act of Blasphemy’
That’s what Russians think of a new account of the fall of Berlin to the Soviet Army in 1945. It is an ugly tale indeed
By William Underhill
May 20 issue — It is early april 1945, and the Red Army has fought its way almost to the gates of Berlin. Defeat is inevitable. In-side the city, the Berlin Phil-harmonic stages a last performance. On the program: Wagner’s Gotterdmmerung, the Twilight of the Gods. As the audience leaves, uniformed members of the Hitler Youth hand out cyanide capsules to any Berliners who prefer death to the apocalyptic horrors ahead.
THEY HAD PLENTY to fear, according to Antony Beevor’s
new account, “Berlin: The Downfall 1945.” ( 490 pages. Penguin. ) Intent on
revenge for Nazi atrocities in the Russian motherland, the invaders were in no
mood to spare the civilian population. At times, warplanes machine-gunned the
columns of refugees that slowed their advance. Looting and random killings were
commonplace. And so was rape. In the closing months of the war and its immediate
aftermath, at least 2 million German women were victims. In Berlin, the figure
may have topped 100,000. According to a doctor cited by Beevor, as many as
10,000 died as a result, mostly by suicide. The last great struggle between
fascism and communism is the stuff of epics: a cautionary story of the
dehumanizing effects of ideology and war at its most awful. But national
sensitivities have complicated the historian’s task. Russians have preferred to
forget the seamy underside of victory; Germans have felt constrained by their
own war record from openly denouncing Russian crimes. Beevor’s account is the
product of a four-year trawl through the archives of both sides and a rich mix
of other firsthand sources. The result is an even-handed appraisal of the facts—and
a compelling narrative. In the two weeks since its publication last month, the
book has sold 70,000 copies, placing it at the top of British best-seller lists.
That may be just the start. Beevor’s previous book, an equally chilling
narrative of the battle for Stalingrad, sold half a million copies worldwide.
By most standards, it’s unlikely best-seller material. Beevor, who spent four cold-war years as an officer in the British Army, is a respected military historian with no taste for the merely sensational. Indeed, to avoid charges of peddling what he calls the “pornography of terror,” he has kept the nastiest details for a separate Web site. His achievement is to match the prosaic accounts of troop deployments with their fearful impact on front-line soldiers and civilians. Even by the standards of the eastern front, the fighting in and around Berlin had a desperate intensity, leaving tens of thousands of German and Russian soldiers dead. When the battle abated, the Red Army turned its attention to the civilians. To be sure, some front-line units heeded orders and showed restraint, but many behaved with indiscriminate brutality. Even Russian and Jewish women, freed from labor or concentration camps, were raped. At one maternity clinic, victims included nuns, pregnant women and mothers who have just given birth. Beevor reckons a “substantial minority” were gang-raped.
The blame lies partly with poor discipline and alcohol. Beevor notes that the Russians were even drinking chemicals plundered from industrial laboratories. But the curious attitude to sex in Stalin’s Russia also played a part. In the regime’s attempt to “deindividualize” the citizen, sexuality was suppressed—only to explode in primitive and violent forms. Yet Beevor’s general conclusion is bleaker still. ”[The mass rapes] tend to suggest that there is a dark area of male sexuality which can emerge all too easily in war where there are no social or disciplinary restraints,” he writes.
It’s a dismal view of humanity that could be
numbing over 490 pages. But Beevor gives plenty of all-too-human detail to
enliven the narrative. To avoid rape, German women dab their faces with red
spots to suggest typhus. Safe behind the line, Goring stretches a map over his
face and falls asleep during one of Hitler’s drawn-out strategy conferences. A
war correspondent asks a Berlin zookeeper whether a gorilla
killed in the bombardment was fierce. “No,” he replies. “She just roared loudly.
Human beings are much fiercer.”
On the strength of Beevor’s research, that’s a fair judgment on both armies. Though much of his account is well known in Germany, he shouldn’t expect a sympathetic readership in Russia. Indeed, post-war generations have grown up with the idea of the Red Army soldier as an emblematic figure of Soviet virtues. Whatever the changes in the political climate, the events of 1945 are still the heroic climax of the “Great Patriotic War.” No wonder the Russian ambassador to London recently condemned the rape allegations as an “act of blasphemy.” Or that the Russian authorities have restricted access to the state archives since the free-for-all that followed the collapse of communism. As Beevor points out, Germany addressed the question of its own guilt only after its postwar economic miracle had taken effect. Russia is still waiting for its miracle.
'The Fall of Berlin 1945' by Antony Beevor
Sunday, May 19, 2002; Page BW02
By Antony Beevor
Viking. 490 pp. $29.95
Conventional histories of the final months of World War II on the European Front focus on Hitler in his bunker and the Allies' larger-than-life political leaders -- Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin -- maneuvering for postwar advantage; on the generals -- Eisenhower, Zhukov, Montgomery, Patton, Bradley -- shaping Allied strategy; and on the soldiers themselves, the Allies racing toward Berlin and the Nazis with their backs against the wall. It is a tale drenched in drama and blood, heroism and cowardice, loyalty and betrayal, and it has been told many times, mostly from a big-picture political and/or military standpoint.
In The Fall of Berlin 1945, Antony Beevor does all this necessary business and does it well, but there is far more to the tale as he tells it than that. Drawing heavily upon contemporary interviews, diaries and unpublished first-hand accounts, he recounts in detail that can only be described as appalling the violence done to civilians, primarily though hardly exclusively by the Red Army. To a degree that more than a few readers will find exceedingly difficult to stomach, The Fall of Berlin 1945 is about sexual violence.
This is not an obligatory, reflexive bow to feminist concerns such as one so often finds in history, sociology and literary criticism as written in American academia, but a cold-eyed, utterly unsentimental correction of and expansion upon the historical record. Beevor, a British historian, has written extensively about military affairs, perhaps most notably in Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-43. Thus he is uniquely situated to write about the fall of Berlin, for as he argues it was the unimaginable suffering inflicted upon Russia by the Nazis before and during Stalingrad that aroused the Russian people -- egged on by Stalin and the inflammatory prose of Ilya Ehrenburg -- to a virulent hatred of all things German and to a bottomless thirst for revenge.
There were many reasons why Stalin wanted to win the race to Berlin against Britain and the United States -- control of the city itself and what was to become the Eastern bloc of the communist empire, not to mention the German supplies of uranium, their research laboratories and their scientists at work on an atomic bomb -- but Stalingrad was at the heart of the matter. "Even though Soviet commanders did not doubt that they would break through," Beevor writes, "they were extremely nervous that the American and British armies might make it to Berlin first. Such an eventuality was seen as worse than a humiliation. Berlin belonged to the Soviet Union by right of suffering as well as by right of conquest."
The Red Army drove toward Berlin in what can only be called a frenzy, impelled by hatred, vengeance, alcohol and testosterone. It labored under a "chaotic lack of discipline, which seems astonishing in a totalitarian state," a condition conducive to the most ghastly excesses, none worse than the individual and gang rape to which German women were subjected:
"The subject has been so repressed in Russia that even today veterans refuse to acknowledge what really happened during the onslaught on German territory. They will admit to hearing of a few excesses, and then dismiss the subject as an inevitable result of war. Only a few are prepared to acknowledge that they witnessed such scenes. The tiny handful prepared to speak openly, however, are totally unrepentant. 'They all lifted their skirts for us and lay on the bed,' said the Komsomol leader in a tank company. He even went on to boast that '2 million of our children were born' in Germany."
The boast is consistent with such statistics as are available. "One doctor deduced that out of approximately 100,000 women raped in Berlin," Beevor writes, "some 10,000 died as a result, mostly from suicide. The death rate was thought to be much higher among the 1.4 million who had suffered in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia. Altogether at least 2 million German women are thought to have been raped, and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rape." Not merely did the soldiers of the Red Army rape German women; they "also raped Ukrainian, Russian and Belorussian women and girls just released from slave labour in Germany," which "completely undermines any attempts at justifying Red Army behaviour on the grounds of revenge for German brutality in the Soviet Union."
Those few Soviet officers who tried to stop the violence found it, in the words of one, "absolutely impossible" to do so. Red Army soldiers "demonstrated an utterly bewildering mixture of irrational violence, drunken lust and spontaneous kindness to children," though far less of the last than of the first two. "Nuns, young girls, old women, pregnant women and mothers who had just given birth were all raped without pity." As they neared and then entered Berlin, "Soviet soldiers treated German women much more as sexual spoils of war than as substitutes for the Wehrmacht on which to vent their rage." Unwittingly, Germany brought it on herself: "The worst mistake of German military authorities had been their refusal to destroy alcohol stocks in the path of the Red Army's advance. This decision was based on the idea that a drunken enemy could not fight. Tragically for the female population, however, it was exactly what Red Army soldiers seemed to need to give them courage to rape as well as to celebrate the end of such a terrible war."
The Soviet soldiers were not the only ones to seek carnal release. In Berlin, as the Red Army drew near, young German soldiers became "desperate to lose their virginity" and found willing companions in German girls who "preferred to give themselves to almost any German boy first than to a drunken and probably violent Soviet soldier." As Beevor puts it, "the aphrodisiac effect of mortal danger is hardly an unknown historical phenomenon," a point underscored by the goings-on in the Reich Chancellery, where, an eyewitness reported, "an erotic fever seemed to have taken possession of everybody" and SS officers were "locked in lascivious embraces" with girls they had lured off the street. It was "the apocalypse of totalitarian corruption," Beevor writes, "with the concrete submarine of the Reich Chancellery underworld providing an Existentialist theater set for hell."
Beevor's prose may get a trifle over-ripe there, but the essential point is sound. Not even familiarity with the human degradation described by Jerzy Kosinski in The Painted Bird or in innumerable Holocaust memoirs and histories can fully prepare one for the picture painted by Beevor. It is Bruegel multiplied by Munch, with background music by Shostakovich at his most agonized, rape and carnality compounded many times over by utter indifference to human life -- in their pitiful defense of Berlin, the Nazis employed young boys and old men as "cannon fodder" -- and by the cowardice of "senior Nazi Party officials" who fell over each other "to obtain the necessary authorization to leave Berlin." In April 1945, "over 2,000 passes were signed for the Party 'armchair warriors,' who had always been so ready to condemn the army for retreating."
The city they were so eager to flee had, in only a few months, deteriorated almost unimaginably. The "strange mixture of suppressed hysteria and fatalism" evident in Berlin at Christmas 1944 gave way by April to "febrile exhaustion, terrible foreboding and despair," and later that same month "a sense of nightmare unreality pervaded the city as it awaited its doom." Berliners "now referred to their city as the 'Reichsscheiterhaufen' -- the 'Reich's funeral pyre.' " More than a few clung to their fanatical Nazism, but more and more turned against Hitler and his henchmen.
By war's end, "the most common sight in Berlin became the Trümmerfrauen, the 'rubble women,' forming human chains with buckets to clear smashed buildings and salvage bricks." The city had more than a million homeless. "Smoke from cooking fires emerged from what looked like piles of rubble, as women tried to re-create something like a home-life for their children amid the ruins." The final glory of the Third Reich. •
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.
September 8, 2002
As the city's inhabitants struggled merely to survive another day, it was already clear to virtually everyone but a vain, delusional Hitler that the war was irrevocably lost. Hitler's reckless gamble that he could split the Western Allies with a massive counteroffensive in the Ardennes in December was already a failure, and with the Red Army poised to open a series of fresh offensives in the East, Germany's fate was all but sealed.
Attempts by his field commanders to impose a measure of reality upon Hitler were rebuffed by his insistence that the situation was not as dire as they made out. To the bitter end, neither Hitler nor the detested head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, whom he foolishly placed in command of an army group defending the Vistula River in Poland, believed the grim estimates of the German field commanders. Privately, however, even Hitler realized the war was lost, but he scorned any notion of surrender as heresy. ''We may go down,'' he told an aide, ''but we will take a world with us.'' What ensued during those final, awful months of World War II in Europe is the subject of Antony Beevor's dramatic account, ''The Fall of Berlin 1945.''
Stalin was obsessed with the possibility that the Allies might somehow beat the Russians to Berlin. In January 1945 the Red Army massed over four million troops along the Vistula for the final offensive against Nazi Germany. At least 8.5 million people living in East Prussia tried to escape the impending Soviet onslaught. Some managed to hide in the forests and those who could fled westward, hoping to reach Allied lines before falling into the hands of the Russians. The vast majority were not successful. In the port city of Konigsberg, for example, many were machine-gunned; others were simply run over by Soviet tanks. At sea, a Russian submarine torpedoed the liner Wilhelm Gustloff with a loss of 5,300 of the 6,600 civilian passengers. One of the first places liberated by the Russians was Auschwitz and its nearby P.O.W. camps. Small wonder that a British P.O.W. exclaimed: ''My God! I'll forgive the Russians absolutely anything they do to this country. . . . Absolutely anything.''
Although the appalling atrocities committed by the Germans in the Soviet Union made retribution inevitable, the breadth of Russian vengeance against the German people during the last months of the war was both enormous in its scope and terrible in its fury. After Red Army soldiers learned that Russian P.O.W.'s had been turned over to the SS for execution, they sent a clear message: ''They would take no prisoners.''
The collective wrath of the Russians went well beyond the actions of an unenlightened, sexually repressed society, into the entirely uncharted sphere of a mass psychosis of horrific savagery. This was matched by what seems to have been a collective national guilt complex that on the one hand, was bent on revenge, and on the other, sought to assuage its culpability in a sea of alcohol so huge that it ''gravely damaged the fighting capacity of the Red Army.'' German civilians, ranging from very young girls to old women, were gang raped, mutilated, humiliated and then frequently murdered by Red Army soldiers. Beevor, the author of several books of military history, believes that as many as two million German women were raped, many more than once.
In unsparing detail, he relates this grim story of the very worst that mankind is capable of, with each participant seemingly bent on outdoing every other in degree of brutality. ''The Red Army,'' Beevor writes, ''had managed to convince itself that because it had assumed the moral mission to liberate Europe from fascism, it could behave entirely as it liked, both personally and politically.'' Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky, who commanded the Third Belarussian Front, was considered one the most intelligent and enlightened of the Red Army generals. But when asked what he planned to do to rein in the looting and destruction by his troops even he replied, ''It is now time for our soldiers to issue their own justice.''
Beevor's gut-wrenching tale is told from the perspective of those who lived, fought and all too often died in East Prussia and Berlin. His descriptions of the experiences of individual soldiers and civilians, the street fighting in Berlin and the events taking place in the Hitler bunker and the Kremlin, make ''The Fall of Berlin 1945'' the best account yet written on the death knell of Hitler's vaunted Thousand Year Reich. Whether painting vivid and unsparing portraits of the key players in the Berlin drama or revealing seemingly minor but poignant details of what life was like for those involved, Beevor has created haunting images of the war's final days.
With unparalleled access to Russian, German and Swedish archives, along with extensive research in British and American sources, Beevor has uncovered a considerable quantity of fresh material, some of it utterly bizarre. For example, he offers an account of how Hitler's jawbone and cranium were parceled out like party favors between the dreaded counterintelligence organization Smersh and the secret police of the NKVD; ultimately they were locked away in a Soviet archive. Hitler's remains, buried until 1970 under a Soviet Army parade ground in Magdeburg, were finally exhumed in the dead of night, Beevor tells us, and disposed of by flushing his ashes into the city sewage system.
In the end, as Beevor notes, it was all a ''senseless slaughter which resulted from Hitler's outrageous vanity.'' His ''incompetence, the frenzied refusal to accept reality and the inhumanity of the Nazi regime were revealed all too clearly in its passing.'' Unfortunately, as postwar events in Africa and the Balkans have shown, mankind has not seen the last of such brutality.
Carlo D'Este is the author of ''Patton: A Genius For War'' and ''Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life.''
"The Fall of Berlin 1945" by Antony
A historian describes Germany's fall to the Soviets in 1945, when civilians suffered the full fury and horror of war.
By Allen Barra
June 11, 2002 | The ancient Greeks didn't just invent military history, they nearly failed to invent any other kind. From the first great historical Greek text, Xenophon's "The Anabasis" (about Greek mercenaries trapped behind Persian lines and fighting their way to the sea, a narrative that benefited from Xenophon's on-the-spot reporting), to Polybius' account of Rome's war with Hannibal, "The Rise of the Roman Empire," Greek histories are almost about nothing but war. The modern reader is often shocked to discover how little the classical Greeks cared about culture, the arts, economics and social history; to them, the history of war was the history of mankind (either that or they had some pretty commercially minded editors who only cared about cutting to the action).
To the Greeks, of course, war was so important precisely because without a thorough knowledge of it, no people would be around long enough to create all the other trappings of civilization. They made literature out of war because they believed character was fate, a law that applied to nations as well as to individuals. The best military historians in our own time -- John Keegan, for instance, whose "The Face of Battle" put the reader in the uniforms of soldiers across the centuries, or Col. Liddell Hart, who, in his classic "Strategy," coined the term "the indirect method of warfare" -- never lost sight of the fact that real military history has always been about human nature first and strategy and tactics second.
The problem for modern historians is that war has become so expansive and impersonal, and primary accounts of it so politicized, that it's almost impossible to get perspective on the subject. In other words, the human factor is lost. In his best books, such as "The Spanish Civil War" and "Crete: The Battle and the Resistance," British historian Antony Beevor never fails to zero in on the human element. On bigger subjects, he too often leaves us scrambling to assemble the big picture ourselves amidst the swirl and rumble of army groups, divisions, regiments and battalions.
Beevor's "Stalingrad" (1998) is the most meticulously researched and detailed account of the biggest and most important battle of World War II, and perhaps of Western history.
Yet "Stalingrad" suffers in comparison to a less comprehensive volume on the same subject, William Craig's "Enemy At The Gates." While Beevor is overloading our minds with troop movements, Craig was focusing on people. Craig's contribution was to illuminate each advance, retreat, and flanking movement with an individual who lent a human face to each inhuman situation. (For instance, at the very center of the battle, at the very moment when the German advance begins to stall, Craig locates the farm boy sniper from the Urals, Vasiliy Zeitsev, who came to symbolize Russian heroism in the siege. (Craig's text on Zeitsev and the sniper war was to become the basis for the film "Enemy at the Gates.") The battle of Stalingrad was the most Homeric episode in modern warfare, but it was the inspired amateur, not the seasoned professional, whose prose did justice to the story.
The conquest of Berlin is a much less dramatic subject than the battle for Stalingrad; there was no protracted or heroic stance. If anything, German resistance was surprisingly feeble, or as a German prisoner quoted by Beevor phrased it, "Morale is being completely destroyed by warfare on German territory ... we are told to fight to the death, but it is a complete blind alley." There are no real surprises here -- if you didn't know anything about World War II, you could guess from the first couple of chapters that Germany is doomed. And yet, Beevor has wrenched a better book from the fall of Berlin than he was able to from the siege of Stalingrad.
For one thing, the tight focus on the immediate area around Berlin makes it easier for the reader to follow the enormous flow of men and materiel than it was with a book covering the sprawling wastes of Russia. (Stalin concentrated a far greater number of armored vehicles in the attack on Berlin than Hitler used in the initial invasion of the whole Soviet Union.) With the military issue never in doubt, Beevor is able to give more space to the civilian population than he did in his account of the Stalingrad siege. Of course, this leads to wildly ambivalent reactions. Even a Quaker, after reading about the hell on earth created by the Nazis in Soviet Russia, would have a hard time not sympathizing with the Soviet colonel who, pointing to the rubble of Stalingrad, shouted at emaciated German prisoners, "That's how Berlin is going to look!"
The theme, then, of "The Fall of Berlin 1945" is revenge, and on so colossal a scale and with such merciless intensity as to, in the words of Yeats, "make a stone of the heart." Whatever the enormities committed by the German army, the abuse visited on the civilians of Berlin only compounded the horror. "Domination and humiliation permeated most soldiers' treatment of women in East Prussia," writes Beevor. "The victims bore the brunt of revenge for the Wehrmacht crimes during the invasion of the Soviet Union. After the initial fury dissipated, this characteristic of sadistic humiliation became noticeably less marked." But not before, boasted a Russian tank company officer, "Two million of our children were born" in Germany.
If "Stalingrad" left us with lingering images of burnt-out tanks and a deserted city full of frozen corpses in uniforms, the primary images of "The Fall of Berlin 1945" are of endless lines of civilians, overwhelmingly women and children, staggering through the snow and ice like shadow figures. No previous text on the defeat of Germany has been so unsparing in its depiction of the miseries of the Germans themselves. One young mother who had lost her child in the cold wrote to her mother describing the fate of German women "crying over a bundle which contained a baby frozen to death, others sitting in the snow, propped against a tree by the side of the road, with other children standing nearby whimpering in fear, not knowing whether their mother was unconscious or dead." Adds Beevor, "In that cold, it made little difference."
"History," said Albert Speer with lofty bitterness to his American interrogators, "always emphasizes terminal events." And it does, though apparently not in a manner recognized by the Albert Speers of the world. Perhaps he would have been interested in the words of an anonymous German diarist quoted by Beevor: "These are strange times," wrote the woman. "One experiences history in the making, things which one day will fill the history books. But while living through it, everything dissolves into petty worries and fears. History is very tiresome. Tomorrow I'm going to look for nettles and try to find some coal."
About the writer
Allen Barra is a regular contributor to Salon and author of "Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century," with a foreword by Bob Costas.
Berlin: The Downfall 1945
hide from an army of four million, and you can’t hide it either. By December
1944, the Russians were gathering on the far side of the Vistula in the kind of
has never seen before or since.
The Germans knew exactly what was coming. Heinz Guderian, the Nazi general in charge of the Eastern Front, told Hitler that his intelligence sources estimated the Russians had a superiority of 11 to one in infantry, seven to one in tanks, and 20 to one in planes and artillery. Hitler told him he was talking rubbish. It was preposterous. Under no circumstances were any troops to be switched from the Western Front. It was just an enormous bluff. The Russians wouldn’t invade at all.
Already, right at the start of Antony Beevor’s magisterial account of the end of the Third Reich, here are two of his major themes. On the German side, he shows how the end of the Nazi regime was already implicit within it. Ranting at Guderian’s advice was what a man of destiny like Hitler would do, especially one grown used to such nodding-dog sycophants as generals Jodl and Keitel. From the 56-year-old Führer, now pasty-faced and shaking, to the boy soldiers he sent into battle still in short trousers and with helmets too big for their heads, the blind absolutism of the Nazi regime contained the seeds of its annihilation.
At a time when neo-Nazis look back at this past and find it glorious, Beevor reminds us forcefully of its epic strategic foolishness and hypocrisy. Here was a leader who had set out to smash Bolshevism, but whose actions brought it right into the heart of Europe. Here was a strategist, supposedly of genius, who stuck with the Ardennes offensive long after it had failed, who instead of reinforcing the Eastern Front sent SS panzer troops from the Vistula to Hungary, who let two whole armies stay idle in the Baltics rather than rush them back to defend the Reich, who routinely ordered impossible positions to be needlessly defended. Who, unlike Stalin, never listened to his generals.
And if that was the great leader, what of his closest followers? What did the approaching nemesis reveal about them? Himmler, the heir-apparent determined to act like a real general, followed his leader’s bluster, talking madly of counter-attacks from the comfort of his luxurious special train or his elegantly decorated HQ. Urging Hitler to execute defeatist officers in March 1945, he conveniently took the next few days off with stress before planning his own betrayal.
The rest of the Nazi upper echelon - the so-called "Golden Pheasants" - were no better. As Berlin’s fall became imminent, some 2,000 of them caught trains to the south. Of those who stayed, Hitler’s No 2, Martin Bormann, and SS General Mohnke ordered the execution of any Germans who failed to stay right to the bitter end. That order cost at least 10,000 lives. In the meantime, its two authors had already brought civilian clothes into the bunker ready for their own escape.
Hitler’s bunker. For those four million Russians on the far side of the Vistula back in December, that was always the main target, whatever lies Stalin told his western allies. He wanted Berlin to fall by 1 May because that would look good on propaganda newsreels. But, as Beevor reveals, there was another bunker whose secrets mattered even more than Hitler’s - the lead-lined "Virus House" at Dahlem in the south-western suburbs of Berlin that contained all of Germany’s atomic secrets. Thanks to his spies, Stalin knew all about America’s new bomb; but until his troops reached Dahlem, he had no uranium with which to make his own.
The Russian race for Berlin’s two bunkers is the second of Beevor’s great themes. Consider, for a moment, the dimensions of this canvas. As the Nazi regime implodes in a final bout of madness, destruction and, yes, occasional sparks of order-defying heroism, those four million men are pouring eastwards.
On the way, the prison camps are liberated. Four million invaders become five million. Sweeping through Poland at up to 70 kilometres a day, slowing down at the German border when the railway gauge changes. In front of them, the refugee columns snaking back towards the shattered heart of an empire that ran, briefly, from the Sahara to the Arctic Circle, the largest panic migration in history: 8.5 million Germans by the end of January 1945, 11 million by March.
The mind balks at such statistics, to say nothing of the estimated two million women raped as the Russians advanced (controversially, Beevor says that this total includes Russian, Belorussian and Ukrainian women liberated from the camps). And if those victims have fallen off the history books, they’re not alone: what of the 1.5 million Russian prisoners of war sent straight to the gulags?
As with his best-selling Stalingrad, Beevor shows the bigger picture - military history and geopolitics - in brilliantly sharp focus, but never at the expense of ignoring the telling details that crystallise the horrors of war: the Nazi boy soldiers given sweets instead of tobacco rations, the choking dust that hung over Berlin long after the last of the 1.8 million shells had been fired at the city, the T-34s too laden with looted booty to turn their turrets.
This is an epic story, epically told: chilling, insightful, analytical, desperately moving. From the past at its worst, Anthony Beevor has fashioned history at its best.
Review by David Robinson
Saturday, 20th April 2002
May 01, 2002
Alistair Horne finds Antony Beevor's Berlin a worthy successor to his majestic Stalingrad
Retribution in Berlin's endgame
Karl Marx once observed: “Whoever possesses Berlin possesses Germany. And whoever controls Germany, controls Europe.” The truth of this dictum was demonstrated all through the half-century of Cold War which followed the Götterdämmerung of 1945; but even more so in its horrendous last days so ably portrayed by Antony Beevor. It was in Berlin that the final destruction of Hitler’s evil “1,000-year Reich” had to take place, and the Second World War in Europe concluded.
Setting aside the advantage gained for the forthcoming Cold War, historically it was only proper that, having borne the main burden of the fight against Germany, Stalin’s Red Army with its hecatombs of casualties should have been permitted to capture it. The endgame began some 2,000 miles east, at Stalingrad on the Volga. There its victor, the ruthless Marshal Chuikov, set forth with his Eighth Guards Army (so named in honour of its decisive role at Stalingrad), his tanks and Central Asian camel troops, on the bitterly contested route that would take him to the Reichstag.
With Chuikov travels Antony Beevor — understanding the wider strategic issues as well as feeling the plight of the simple soldiers of both sides in this mother of all battles, carrying on his back an imposing pack of research as well as compassion. His majestic earlier book, Stalingrad, equips him to be the essential concomitant to write this final act.
It is, as Beevor himself admits, an “almost unbearable story”, lightened only occasionally by flashes of kindness and heroic self-sacrifice. At the end one is left numbed by the sheer scale of misery, almost unimaginable to those who had not lived through it. I can still remember my own horror, as a foreign correspondent several years after the war, at Berlin’s block after city block of rubble piled two stories high. How, one wondered, could anyone have survived this? Worse than the carnage at Stalingrad was the rape, murder and destruction perpetrated by the conquering Russian forces. In new material gained from Russian archives, Beevor paints a horrific picture that has deeply shocked contemporary Russians themselves. According to his figures, some two million German women were raped, 120,000 were hospitalised, while 10,000 died. Even Jewish survivors from the camps were not spared. East Prussia, the first enemy territory reached by the Russians, suffered even more than Berlin; its pre-1945 population of 2.2 million was reduced to 193,000.
Generally the worst offenders were not the first-line combat troops, enjoying the victors’ rights to plunder, but the second-echelon forces that followed up. Then came the NKVD, dealing out further retribution equally upon the prostrate Germans and liberated Soviet PoWs alike. Their crime: they had glimpsed a West quite different from that depicted by Stalinist propaganda, and they could return with tales of the brutal incompetence of Stalin’s conduct of the war. No fewer than than 135,056 Russian soldiers were to end in the Gulags.
What made the battle for Berlin so particularly terrible was the fear of the enemy, and hatred, propagated over many years by rival spin doctors. “We fought from simple fear,” explained one SS survivor; “we fought for ourselves. . . we fought like rats. . .” On the one side was Dr Goebbels’s machine, breeding a visceral hatred of Bolshevism: on the other hand Soviet hacks like Ilya Ehrenburg with a litany of “Kill the German — this is the cry of your Russian earth. . .”
Revenge for the horrors the Wehrmacht had committed in the East was an irresistible motive for pillage and rape.
Beevor, however, paints a much broader picture than just the climacteric battle for Berlin. Building on Trevor-Roper’s classic The Last Days of Hitler, he takes in the grotesque, Wagnerian world of the Führerbunker as the Russians approach, a world of fantasy, of imaginary armies and secret weapons, totally out of touch with reality. There is the doped, ludicrous Goering, asleep during crucial meetings, with a map over his face; Goebbels, reassuring Hitler that the death of Roosevelt was the kind of miracle which saved Frederick the Great, then preparing the murder of his six children. Hitler himself receives an ostrich egg from an adulatory zookeeper on his 56th birthday, while Berliners starve — then prepares his and Eva Braun’s immolation as the SS roister and copulate noisily in the floors above.
In his command bunker, Stalin is seen disastrously bullying his marshals into accepting appalling casualties just so that the capture of the Reichstag could be announced on May Day. (Without Stalin’s interference, Chuikov claimed in his own memoirs, he could have captured Berlin in February, instead of May.) Stalin’s obsessive hatred of the Poles stands out, as well as his deep mistrust, not only of the Allies but of his own generals — to the extent of deceiving his top marshal, Zhukov, as to the true fate of Hitler.
On the Allied side once again it was Churchill who saw most clearly Stalin’s long-term intentions. Eisenhower and the ailing FDR were constantly duped.
If I have one contention with Beevor, however, it is that he is unclear on the background to the Allied refusal to countenance a single, British-led thrust for Berlin. It was not in the remit of the “insufferable” Monty; by 1945 the facts of life were simply that US forces outweighed the British and Canadians by 3-1. So Ike had the casting vote. I also wonder whether the final Soviet casualties are not set too low; in the one operation to capture the Seelow Heights, Zhukov was stated to have lost more than 30,000 killed — yet the overall total campaign losses come out at little more than twice that figure.
Berlin illuminates many corners of the Second World War that have hitherto remained unsung. Not least is the pitiless forest fight southeast of Berlin where the encircled 9th and 12th German Armies sought to break out to the West. Once again one is left with a sense of awe that the defeated Germans could go on fighting to the very last round, hopelessly outnumbered but still inflicting a higher rate of casualties than they suffered. Another little-known fact is that, notable among the last troops to go on fighting for Hitler, were Frenchmen of the fanatically fascist “Charlemagne Division”. Would Le Pen have cried “Bravo”? The day after the shooting ceased in Berlin, out of nowhere orderly German women began sweeping the debris-littered streets. German recovery had begun. Yet, if one wants to comprehend modern-day German reluctance to take part in UN or Nato military operations, it may be helpful to recall what happened in Berlin in 1945 — and to read this worthy successor to Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad.
Johnson’s Russia List , edited by David Johnson
January 27, 2002
Feature: Book on WW II rapes upsets Russia
By Peter Almond
LONDON, Jan. 26 (UPI) -- A forthcoming book about the Red Army's siege of Berlin in 1945 is causing outrage among senior Russian officials. It claims the extent of rape by Soviet soldiers against German women was much greater than previously realized, and included large numbers of Russian and Polish women who were raped even as they were being liberated from German concentration camps.
The book, Berlin -- The Downfall 1945, to be published by Viking in April, is by the acclaimed military historian Anthony Beevor, author of the best-selling and award-winning book Stalingrad. As with his research for that epic 1943 siege Beevor had access to detailed Red Army reports and other documents of the period.
Responding to a full-page report on the book in Thursday's Daily Telegraph, however, Grigory Karasin, ambassador to the Russian Federation in London, called the allegations a disgrace and "a clear case of slander against the people who saved the world from Nazism."
"The article appeared on the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day, which transforms its publication into an act of blasphemy, not only against Russia and my people, but also against all countries and the millions of people who suffered from Nazism," Karasin wrote to the Telegraph.
Author Beevor replied Saturday by paying tribute to the "frequent acts of great kindness to German women and children," and to the "great suffering, courage and sacrifices of the Red Army in the Second World War." But unfortunately, he said, "there is also a much darker side to the story."
Beevor's conclusions are that in response to the vast scale of casualties inflicted on them by the Germans the Soviets responded in kind, and that included rape on a vast scale. It started as soon as the Red Army entered East Prussia and Silesia in 1944, and in many towns and villages every female aged from 10 to 80 was raped.
Rape was condoned or even justified by Stalin and his commanders, and Beevor cites the Soviet leader's retort to a protest from Yugoslav Community Milovan Dijilas about Soviet troops raping Romanian, Croatian and Hungarian women: "Can't he understand it if a soldier has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle?"
Rape against the enemy's women has a long history as an act of war, but in an interview with Bookseller magazine earlier this month Beevor said he was "shaken to the core" to discover that even their own Russian and Polish women and girls liberated from German concentration camps were also violated.
"That completely undermined the notion that the soldiers were using rape as a form of revenge against the Germans," he is quoted as saying. "By the time the Russians reached Berlin, soldiers were regarding women almost as carnal booty; they felt that because they were liberating Europe they could behave as they pleased.
"That is very frightening, because one starts to realize that civilization is terribly superficial and the façade can be stripped away in a very short time."
The details of the Soviet soldiers' behavior, he said, so shocked him that they had forced him to revise his view of human nature.
"Having always in the past slightly pooh-poohed the idea that most men are potential rapists (echoing the famous claim by the American feminist Marilyn French that 'in their relations with women all men are rapists, and that's all they are') I had to come to the conclusion that if there is a lack of army discipline, most men with a weapon, dehumanized by living through two or three years of war, do become potential rapists."
While the war in Europe ended in May, 1945, Beevor says that the ordeal for German women in Soviet occupied areas continued. A "high proportion" of at least 15 million women who lived in the Soviet zone or were expelled from Germany's eastern provinces were raped. About two million women had illegal abortions every year between 1945 and 1948.
One of the legacies of the Soviet occupation of Germany has been that, at least until very recently, East German women of the wartime generation referred to the Red Army war memorial in Berlin as "the Tomb of the Unknown Rapist."
UNITED PRESS INTERNATIONAL
Book Review: The Fall of Berlin
By Martin Walker
UPI Chief International Correspondent
From the Life & Mind Desk
Published 5/28/2002 2:04 PM
Antony Beevor decided that he had to write the history of the fall of Adolf Hitler's capital when he was researching his best-selling book "Stalingrad", on the decisive battle on the Eastern Front. He came upon an account of a Soviet officer confronting some wretched German prisoners of war in the ruins of Stalingrad and shouting at them "That's how Berlin is going to look."
And so it did, thanks to British and American bombers who flattened most of the old Prussian city long before the Red Army got there, to blast its way through Hitler's last flimsy defenses with heavy artillery firing from open sights. But the ruin of Berlin is only a minor part of the grim horror of war that Beevor recounts in "The Fall of Berlin 1945," (Viking Press, 490 pages, $29.95)
Some 8 million German civilians fled from the path of the Red Army's vengeful advance. Strafed by Sturmovik fighter-bombers, crushed under tank tracks, starved or frozen to death in the winter cold, or dead by their own hand after being gang-raped, the German civilians reaped the bloody harvest that Hitler had sown. And even as the Soviet troops were liberating the death camps, others were inflicting new atrocities to repay the Germans for what their troops had done in the pervious three years of war.
The fall of Berlin is an extraordinary tale, a haunting account of one of the most vicious battles of the bloodiest war in history. But it was also the first battle of the Cold War, the victory that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was determined to win in order to stamp his authority upon the post-war Eastern and Central Europe.
The British understood that, and Winston Churchill and the British generals (and the fiery American armored commander Gen. George Patton) repeatedly tried to persuade their American allies to think of the politics of Europe's future and drive on from the Rhine to Berlin. What was left of the German army would have been only too eager to cooperate. And while there might still have been a Cold War, the Iron Curtain might have fallen far to the East, and Prague and Berlin might have been spared Soviet occupation.
It was not to be. Franklin Roosevelt and General Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted on upholding the agreements they have made with Stalin at the Yalta summit conference. Stalin naturally, broke his promises of free and democratic elections in Poland and Eastern Europe. Indeed, the Soviet generals had orders to fire on the British and American allies if necessary to stop them reaching Berlin.
But if American innocence prevented the allied armies from competing in a race to capture Berlin -- and define post-war geography -- the Soviet armies more than made up for it. Stalin set the three army groups of Marshal Koniev in the south, Zhukov in the center and Rokossovsky in the north against one another.
The competition was ferocious. Zhukov's corps commanders pushed their own troops across the line of Koniev's advance, exposing their men to his artillery fire rather than be beaten into Berlin. The Red Army lost almost 80,000 dead and nearly 300,000 wounded in the battle for Berlin -- a casualty list hugely and unnecessarily inflated by their generals' orders to drive on at any cost.
Using fresh material from Russian official and private archives, Beevor skillfully takes the reader back and forth from grand strategy at Yalta to the battlefronts on the Oder and the Spree rivers, from Hitler's bunker to the air raid shelters of Berlin and the black humor of the Berliners. As early as December 1944 they were joking that the practical Christmas gift would be a coffin.
With considerable delicacy and understanding Beevor examines the almost unbelievable horror of gang rape and mass rape that was inflicted upon millions of German women - including nuns and nurses and grandmothers as well as captured Russian woman prisoners and concentration camp victims. It is a gruesome story, told judiciously and with dignity. He concludes with accounts from many of women that they faced another postwar trial, to restore some courage and dignity to their own defeated and humiliated menfolk. And by then, Berlin was becoming a different kind of battlefield as the Cold War got under way.
History's great deceiver
Berlin: The Downfall 1945
Anthony Beevor (Viking, £25)
Reviewed by Rachel Polonsky
On 8 May 1945, a week after the Liebestod of Hitler and Eva Braun in their fetid bunker under the Reich Chancellery, a young interpreter from the Soviet counterintelligence organisation, Smersh, spent an awkward evening clutching a cheap, red satin-lined box in one hand as she poured drinks for her carousing commanding officers with the other. The box, which ended hidden in an archive in Moscow, contained the Führer's jaw.
Yelena Rzhevskaya kept a tight hold on her secret for the next 20 years. (Smersh was, after all, an acronym for "death to spies".) When she finally revealed to Marshal Zhukov, the general who had led the victorious Red Army into Berlin, that Stalin, his revered commanderin-chief, had always known of the whereabouts of Hitler's remains, he was shattered. Along with the rest of the world, Zhukov had given the body up for lost.
Zhukov's ignorance is emblematic of our own lack of historical knowledge of the war in the East, a lack which Antony Beevor has done much to overcome. Stalin's mocking
trick with his enemy's corpse is just one of the many novelistic details gleaned from previously unpublished materials that make Beevor's history writing so admirably readable and fresh. Many of his sources were kept from historians for the best part of 50 years by the now more or less dismantled Soviet structures of secrecy, fear, deceit and shame.
Beevor's compelling account tends to favour the drama, colour and pace of historical events over an orderly presentation of the complexities of warfare. Like a television documentary camera, he zooms in on evocative moments, cuts between voices - in the bread queue, the front-line and the bomb-shelter, as well as the innermost chambers of power - and fades out quickly when his analysis risks tedium.
When it comes to the wider geopolitical picture, we are, at times, shortchanged or led astray. Beevor makes much, for example, of another of Stalin's exercises in deceit. As the armies of Marshals Konev and Zhukov - 2.5 million men, 41,600 guns and mortars, 6,250 tanks and 7,500 aircraft - prepared to close fast in a massive onslaught on Berlin from north and south, Stalin told his Western Allies that he planned to send only second-rate forces against the capital, disingenuously assuring them that the city had "lost all its strategic importance".
This particular fib from the great liar would only have been "the greatest April fool in modern history", as Beevor sensationally describes it, if the leaders of the democracies had ever been truly fooled. But much as Stalin loved to betray and deceive those who considered themselves his friends, he did not always pull it off. Churchill grasped all too well the political and psychological importance of Berlin and foresaw its likely fate. The city had, however, already been conceded to the Soviet sphere of influence at the Yalta conference in February 1945.
Moreover, President Roosevelt and General Eisenhower, with a traditional American suspicion of "colo-nial" political ambitions, desired only a quick and complete military victory over Nazi forces in Europe and a three-way Allied settlement of the peace that would enable them to establish the United Nations and finish off Japan. Given the likely cost in casualties of fighting for Berlin, they were content to stop at the Elbe, west of the city. They also mistakenly feared that Hitler planned to stage his Wagnerian Gotterdömmerung in an Austrian mountain redoubt , which would pull their forces into prolonged guerrilla warfare in a kind of Alpine prefiguring of the Tora Bora cave complex.
Though these concerns may seem naïve in the light of the Cold War, it was clear that Berlin was Russia's symbolic prize, the end of the victorious road that led from the ruins of Stalingrad. To put it simply, Stalin did not trick the Allies out of Berlin and its nuclear laboratories; they let him have it.
Beevor's great strength as a war historian is his skill in bringing us close to the human experience of its chaos, in disclosing the many varieties of suffering, cruelty and heroism which the lines and arrows on his (disappointingly perfunctory and one-sided) military maps cannot ever indicate.
The story he tells is dark and shocking. Nazi propaganda had dehumanised the Slavs as Untermenschen and licensed boundless atrocity on the Eastern Front during Operation Barbarossa. When their turn for conquest came, the Red Army, in an avenging rage inflamed by the Soviet propaganda machine, dehumanised the Germans. Beevor unflinchingly emphasises the horrifying extent of the unchecked mass rape of German (and sometimes non-German) women by invading Soviet troops. In publicly raping German women, the Red Army tortured and humiliated the entire nation.
The Second World War brought two ideology-driven tyrannies into mortal conflict. The totalitarian power structures of both Nazism and Stalinism had been consolidated in the 1930s through the deliberate cultivation of cruelty and the defeat of law. For Hitler, conscience was "a Jewish invention, a blemish like circumcision". Morality and justice were held in similar contempt in Marxist-Leninist ideology. One Red Army captain who tried to stop a rampaging group of soldiers in 1945 was accused of "bourgeois humanism".
The thousands of refugees from Berlin who fled west over the Elbe in the last weeks of the war had a well-informed sense that the kind of army that came overland from the East accompanied by a secret-police outfit called "death to spies" made a far more terrible enemy than the democracies who had fire-bombed their city from the air.
A new history of the Battle of Berlin
Recounting the fighting that brought an end to World War II in Europe
By Ray Moseley. Ray Moseley is former chief European
correspondent for the Tribune
June 9, 2002
The Fall of Berlin 1945
By Antony Beavor
Viking, 490 pages, $29.95
There was never any doubt about the outcome of the Battle of Berlin in 1945. The Soviet army had massed 4 million men in Poland for the final assault on Hitler's empire and 2.7 million along a front stretching to the Adriatic Sea. The German armed forces facing them, relentlessly driven back from the gates of Moscow, Leningrad and Stalingrad with staggering losses, were but a shadow of the mighty military machine that had conquered most of Western Europe.
The Luftwaffe had been blasted out of the skies and no longer represented an effective air force. German troops on the ground were short of munitions, and their vehicles were running out of fuel. Much of Berlin itself had been bombarded into rubble by American and British planes, and the city's 3 million residents were consigned to a living hell, desperately short of food, medical facilities and fuel for heating. Boys not old enough to shave and old men who had fought in World War I were enlisted in the city's defense.
Four months after the offensive in the East began, it was all over. Hitler had committed suicide in his bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery in the final days of the battle, and the Red flag flew over the Reichstag by May 2. A few days later the heirs of Nazism surrendered, and the war in Europe was at an end.
The story of the fall of Berlin has been told many times, but possibly never better than in this new book by British military historian Antony Beevor. A former soldier, Beevor is also a superb writer, a diligent researcher and a master of battlefield detail. He is particularly adept at weaving into his narratives the experiences of individual soldiers and civilians that help to bring alive the sounds, smells and sheer horror of warfare.
The prologue to the Battle of Berlin was the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the greatest struggles in the history of human conflict and one that sealed the fate of the Nazis. Beevor vividly recounted the torturous battle for the city, and the Nazi defeat, in the 1998 book "Stalingrad," which established his reputation worldwide.
If his latest book is sometimes marginally less riveting than that earlier one, that is only because the Battle of Berlin lacked the high drama of Stalingrad, where the outcome was long in doubt. Nonetheless, this is an engrossing book that benefits from new material in former Soviet files and from interviews and diary accounts by those who lived through the harrowing days of Berlin's fall.
One of the more bizarre aspects of the story relates to the obsessive fear of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin that the Americans and British might have reached Berlin first. He was not simply more aware than the Americans of the psychological importance of capturing the principal citadel of Nazism. He knew the Americans had developed an atomic bomb, and he was determined that Soviet soldiers should get to Berlin first to strip the city's atomic-research establishments of their equipment and uranium, thereby hastening the day the Soviet Union would become a nuclear power.
This caused Stalin to goad his military commanders into premature and ill-considered actions that led to unnecessary casualties. Soviet units competing to get into Berlin first sometimes even bombarded each other by mistake.
Stalin needn't have worried about his Western allies. As Beevor points out, the Americans had little grasp of the strategic importance of controlling postwar Germany; they simply wanted to get the war in Europe over quickly, with as few casualties as possible, so they could concentrate on defeating Japan. So they were content to let the Soviet Union, which had suffered more than any nation from Hitler's aggression, take all the glory for the capture of Berlin, while millions of Germans desperately sought to reach American lines to surrender.
The American willingness to leave Berlin to the Soviets led to a rift in the alliance with Britain, later compounded when the Americans declined a British request to liberate Prague before the Soviet army arrived. The U.S. Army chief of staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, told Gen. Dwight Eisenhower that he would be " `loath to hazard American lives for purely political purposes.' " So Czechoslovakia became a Soviet satellite state, a political mistake the Americans would regret for almost a half century.
Despite their disadvantages in the battle with the Soviet army, the Germans fought tenaciously for Berlin, not in expectation of victory but in many cases in the belief that a fight to the death was better than coming under the rule of the barbarian Bolshevik hordes from the East. German women would be raped, German men marched off to Siberian camps--or so the Nazi propaganda machine drummed into the German people.
In this the Germans were not mistaken. Their army had committed barbarous acts in the Soviet Union, treating their enemy as subhuman, and the Soviets thirsted for revenge. Their primary victims were German women. Beevor quotes an estimate of at least 2 million German women raped by Soviet soldiers, and many suffered gang rape more than once. Large numbers were infected with venereal diseases. Many committed suicide or underwent abortions.
Soviet soldiers, out of control and frequently drunk, did not confine themselves to the rape of Germans. Large numbers of Soviet and Polish women released from slave-labor camps also fell victim, so revenge was perhaps not the primary motive for these crimes, which are graphically reported throughout the book. Yet Beevor notes that some Soviets displayed unexpected kindness toward their defeated enemy.
The Battle of Berlin was led by Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the heroic defender of Moscow in 1941, and he was often at odds or in competition with Marshal Ivan Konev, a ruthless commander; and with Col. Gen. Vasily Chuikov, the hero of Stalingrad. Beevor's book would have benefited from a more expansive account of the background and personalities of these three figures who played such a prominent role in the battle. It is one of the few deficiencies in an otherwise hugely impressive work of military history.
Berliners, gaunt from short rations and stress, had little to celebrate at Christmas in 1944. Much of the capital of the Reich had been reduced to rubble by bombing raids. The Berlin talent for black jokes had turned to gallows humour. The quip of that unfestive season was: 'Be practical: give a coffin.'
The mood in Germany had changed exactly two years before. Rumours had begun to circulate just before Christmas 1942 that General Paulus's Sixth Army had been encircled on the Volga by the Red Army. The Nazi regime found it hard to admit that the largest formation in the whole of the Wehrmacht was doomed to annihilation in the ruins of Stalingrad and in the frozen steppe outside. To prepare the country for bad news, Joseph Goebbels, the Reichsminister for Propaganda, had announced a 'German Christmas', which in National Socialist terms meant austerity and ideological determination, not candles and pine wreaths and singing Heilige Nacht. By 1944, the traditional roast goose had become a distant memory.
In streets where the façade of a house had collapsed, pictures could still be seen hanging on the walls of what had been a sitting room or bedroom. The actress Hildegard Knef gazed at a piano left exposed on the remnants of a floor. Nobody could get to it, and she wondered how long it would be before it tumbled down to join the rubble below. Messages from families were scrawled on gutted buildings to tell a son returning from the front that they were all right and staying elsewhere. Nazi Party notices warned: 'Looters will be punished with death!'
Air raids were so frequent, with the British by night and the Americans by day, that Berliners felt that they spent more time in cellars and air raid shelters than in their own beds. The lack of sleep contributed to the strange mixture of suppressed hysteria and fatalism. Far fewer people seemed to worry about being denounced to the Gestapo for defeatism, as the rash of jokes indicated. The ubiquitous initials LSR for Luftschutzraum, or air raid shelter, were said to stand for 'Lernt schnell Russisch': 'Learn Russian quickly'. Most Berliners had entirely dropped the 'Heil Hitler!' greeting. When Lothar Loewe, a Hitler Youth who had been away from the city, used it on entering a shop, everyone turned and stared at him. It was the last time he uttered the words when not on duty. Loewe found that the most common greeting had become 'Bleib übrig!' - 'Survive!'.
The humour also reflected the grotesque, sometimes surreal, images of the time. The largest air raid construction in Berlin was the Zoo bunker, a vast ferro-concrete fortress of the totalitarian age, with flak batteries on the roof and huge shelters below, into which crowds of Berliners packed when the sirens sounded. The diarist Ursula von Kardorff described it as 'like a stage-set for the prison scene in Fidelio'. Meanwhile, loving couples embraced on concrete spiral staircases as if taking part in a 'travesty of a fancy-dress ball'.
There was a pervasive atmosphere of impending downfall in personal lives as much as in the nation's existence. People spent their money recklessly, half-assuming that it would soon be worthless. And there were stories, although hard to confirm, of girls and young women coupling with strangers in dark corners around the Zoo station and in the Tiergarten. The desire to dispense with innocence is said to have become even more desperate later as the Red Army approached Berlin.
The air raid shelters themselves, lit with blue lights, could indeed provide a foretaste of claustrophobic hell, as people pushed in, bundled in their warmest clothes and carrying small cardboard suitcases containing sandwiches and thermos. In theory, all basic needs were catered for in the shelters. There was a Sanitätsraum with a nurse, where women could go into labour. Childbirth seemed to be accelerated by the vibrations from bomb explosions, which felt as if they came as much from the centre of the earth as from ground level. The ceilings were painted with luminous paint for the frequent occasions during the air raids when the lights failed, first dimming then flickering off. Water supplies ceased when mains were hit, and the Aborts, or lavatories, soon became disgusting, a real distress for a nation preoccupied with hygiene. Often the lavatories were sealed off by the authorities because there were so many cases of depressed people who, having locked the door, committed suicide.
For a population of around three million, Berlin did not have enough shelters, so they were usually overcrowded. In the main corridors, seating halls and bunk rooms, the air was foul from overuse and condensation dripped from the ceilings. The complex of shelters under the Gesundbrunner U-Bahn station had been designed to take 1,500 people, yet often more than three times that number packed in. Candles were used to measure the diminishing levels of oxygen. When a candle placed on the floor went out, children were picked up and held at shoulder height. When a candle on a chair went out, then the evacuation of the level began. And if a third candle, positioned at about chin level began to sputter, then the whole bunker was evacuated, however heavy the attack above.
The foreign workers in Berlin, three hundred thousand strong and identifiable by a letter painted on their clothes to denote their country of origin, were simply forbidden entry to underground bunkers and cellars. This was partly an extension of the Nazi policy to stop them mingling intimately with the German race, but the overriding concern of the authorities was to save the lives of Germans. A forced labourer, particularly an 'Ostarbeiter', or eastern worker, most of whom had been rounded up in the Ukraine and Belorussia, was regarded as expendable. Yet many foreign workers, conscripted as well as volunteers, enjoyed a far greater degree of freedom than the unfortunates consigned to camps. Those who worked in armaments factories around the capital, for example, had created their own refuge and Bohemian sub-culture with newssheets and plays in the depths of the Friedrichstrasse station. Their spirits were rising visibly as the Red Army advanced, while those of their exploiters fell. Most Germans looked on foreign workers with trepidation. They saw them as a Trojan Horse garrison ready to attack and revenge themselves as soon as the enemy armies approached the city.
Berliners suffered from an atavistic and visceral fear of the Slav invader from the east, worked up after a dozen years of ideological indoctrination. Fear was easily turned to hate. As the Red Army approached, Goebbels's propaganda harked on again and again about the atrocities at Nemmersdorf, when Red Army troops invaded the south-eastern corner of East Prussia the previous autumn and raped and murdered the inhabitants of this village.
Some people had their own reasons for refusing to take shelter during a bombing raid. A married man who used to visit his mistress regularly in the district of Prenzlauerberg could not go down to the communal cellar because that would have aroused suspicions. One evening, the building received a direct hit, and the luckless adulterer, who had been sitting on a sofa, was buried up to his neck in rubble. After the raid, a boy called Eric Schmidtke and a Czech labourer, whose illegal presence in the cellar had been tolerated, heard his screams of pain, and ran upstairs towards the sound. After he had been dug out and carried off for treatment, the fourteen-year-old Eric then had to go to tell the injured man's wife that her husband had been badly injured in this other woman's flat. She started screaming in anger. The fact that he had been with this woman agitated her far more than his fate. Children in those times received a harsh introduction to the realities of the adult world.
General Günther Blumentritt, like most of those in authority, was convinced that the bombing raids on Germany produced a real 'Volksgenossenschaft', or 'patriotic comradeship'. This may well have been true in 1942 and 1943, but by late 1944 the effect tended to polarise opinion between the hard-liners and the war-weary. Berlin had been the city with the highest proportion of opponents to the Nazi regime, as its voting records before 1933 indicate. But with the exception of a very small and courageous minority, opposition to the Nazis had generally been limited to jibes and grumbles. The majority had been genuinely horrified by the assassination attempt against Hitler on 20 July 1944. And as the Reich's frontiers became threatened both in the east and in the west, they drank in Goebbels's stream of lies that the Fiihrer would unleash new 'wonder weapons' against their enemies, as if he were about to assume the role of a wrathful Jupiter flinging thunderbolts at the ungodly.
A letter written by a wife to her husband in a French prison camp reveals the embattled mentality and the readiness to believe the regime's propaganda. 'I have such faith in our destiny,' she wrote, 'that nothing can shake a confidence which is born from our long history, from our glorious past, as Dr Goebbels says. It's impossible that things turn out differently. We may have reached a very low point at this moment, but we have men who are decisive. The whole country is ready to march, weapons in hand. We have secret weapons which will be used at the chosen moment, and we have above all a Führer whom we can follow with our eyes closed. Don't allow yourself to be beaten down, you must not at any price.'
The Ardennes offensive, launched on 16 December 1944, intoxicated Hitler loyalists with revived morale. The tables had at last turned. Belief in the Fü hrer and in the Wunderwaffen, the miracle weapons such as the V-2, blinded them to reality. Rumours spread that the US First Army had been completely surrounded and taken prisoner due to an anaesthetic gas. They thought that they could hold the world to ransom and take revenge for all that Germany had suffered. Veteran NCOs appear to have been among the most embittered. Paris was about to be recaptured, they told each other with fierce glee. Many regretted that Paris should have been spared from destruction the year before while Berlin was bombed to ruins. They exulted at the idea that history might now be corrected.
The German Army's high command did not share this enthusiasm for the offensive in the west. General staff officers feared that Hitler's strategic coup against the Americans in the Ardennes would weaken the eastern front at a decisive moment. The plan was in any case vastly over-ambitious. The operation was spearheaded by the Sixth SS Panzer Army of Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich and the Fifth Panzer Army of General Hasso von Manteuffel. Yet the lack of fuel made it extremely unlikely that they would ever reach their objective of Antwerp, the western allies' main supply base.
Hitler was fixated by dreams of dramatically reversing the fortunes of war and forcing Roosevelt and Churchill to come to terms. He had decisively rejected any suggestion of overtures to the Soviet Union, partly for the sound reason that Stalin was interested only in the destruction of Nazi Germany, but there was also a fundamental impediment. Hitler suffered from an atrocious personal vanity. He could not be seen to sue for peace when Germany was losing. A victory in the Ardennes was therefore vital for every reason. But American doggedness in defence, especially at Bastogne, and the massive deployment of allied air power once the weather cleared, broke the momentum of attack within a week.
On Christmas Eve, General Heinz Guderian, the chief of the Army supreme command, OKH, drove west in his large Mercedes staff-car to Führer headquarters in the west. After abandoning the Wolfsschanze, or 'Wolf's Lair', in East Prussia on 20 November 1944, Hitler had moved to Berlin for a minor operation to his throat. He had then left the capital on the evening of 10 December in his personal armoured train. His destination was another secret and camouflaged complex in woods near Ziegenberg, less than forty kilometres from Frankfurt-am-Main. Designated the Adlerhorst, or 'Eagle's Eyrie', it was the last of his field headquarters designated by codenames which reeked of puerile fantasy.
Guderian, the great theorist of tank warfare, had known the dangers of such an operation from the start, but he had little say in the matter. Guderian's OKH was responsible for the Eastern Front, even though it was never allowed a free hand. The OKW, the high command of the Wehrmacht (all the armed forces), was responsible for operations outside the Eastern Front. Both organizations were based just south of Berlin in neighbouring underground complexes at Zossen.
Guderian, despite having as quick a temper as Hitler, was very different in outlook. He had little time for an entirely speculative international strategy when the country was under attack from both sides. Instead, he relied on a soldier's instinct for the point of maximum danger. There was no doubt where that lay. His briefcase contained the intelligence analysis of General Reinhard Gehlen, the head of Fremde Heere Ost, the military intelligence department for the Eastern Front. Gehlen calculated that around 12 January the Red Army would launch a massive attack from the line of the river Vistula. His department estimated that the enemy had a superiority of eleven to one in infantry, seven to one in tanks and twenty to one in artillery and also in aviation.
Guderian entered the conference room at the Adlerhorst to find himself facing Hitler and his military staff, and also Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsfuhrer SS who, after the July plot, had also been made commander of the Replacement Army. Every member of Hitler's military staff had been selected for his unquestioning loyalty. Field Marshal Keitel, the chief of staff of the OKW, was famous for his pompous servility to Hitler. Exasperated army officers referred to him either as the 'Reich's garage attendant' or the 'nodding donkey'. Colonel General Jodl, who had a cold, hard face, was far more competent than Keitel, yet he hardly ever opposed the Führer's disastrous attempts to control every battalion. He had very nearly been dismissed in the autumn of 1942 for having dared to contradict his master. General Burgdorf, Hitler's chief military adjutant and chief of the Army personnel department controlling all appointments, had replaced the devoted General Schmundt, mortally wounded by Stauffenberg's bomb at the Wolfsschanze. Burgdorf was the man who had delivered the poison to Field Marshal Rommel, with the ultimatum to commit suicide.
Guderian, using the findings of Gehlen's intelligence department, outlined the Red Army's build-up for a huge offensive in the east. He warned that the attack would take place within three weeks and requested that, since the Ardennes offensive had now ground to a halt, as many divisions as possible should be withdrawn for redeployment on the Vistula front. Hitler stopped him. He declared that such estimates of enemy strength were preposterous. Soviet rifle divisions never had more than 7,000 men each. Their tank corps had hardly any tanks. 'It's the greatest imposture since Ghengis Khan,' he shouted, working himself up. 'Who is responsible for producing all this rubbish?'
Guderian resisted the temptation to reply that it was Hitler himself who talked of German 'armies' when they were the size of a single corps, and of 'infantry divisions' reduced to battalion strength. Instead, he defended Gehlen's figures. To his horror, General Jodl argued that the offensive in the west should continue with further attacks. Since this was exactly what Hitler wanted, Guderian was thwarted. It was even more provoking for him to have to listen at dinner to the verdict of Himmler, who revelled in his new role of military leader. He had recently been made Army Group commander on the upper Rhine in addition to his other appointments. 'You know, my dear Colonel General,' he said to Guderian, 'I don't really believe that the Russians will attack at all. It's all an enormous bluff.’
Guderian had no alternative but to return to OKH headquarters at Zossen. In the meantime, the losses in the west mounted. The Ardennes offensive and its ancillary operations cost 80,000 German casualties. In addition, it had used up a large proportion of Germany's rapidly dwindling fuel reserves. Hitler refused to accept that the Ardennes battle was his equivalent of the Kaiserschlacht, the last great German attack of World War I. He obsessively rejected any parallels with 1918. For him, 1918 symbolised only the revolutionary 'stab-in-the back' which brought down the Kaiser and reduced Germany to a humiliating defeat. Yet Hitler had moments of clarity during those days. 'I know the war is lost,' he said late one evening to Colonel Nicolaus von Below, his Luftwaffe aide. 'The enemy's superiority is too great.' But he continued to lay all the blame on others for the sequence of disasters. They were all 'traitors', especially army officers. He suspected that many more had sympathised with the failed assassins, yet they had been pleased enough to accept medals and decorations from him. 'We will never surrender,' he said. 'We may go down, but we will take a world with us.'
General Guderian, horrified by the new disaster looming on the Vistula, returned to the Adlerhorst at Ziegenberg twice more in rapid succession. To make matters worse, he heard that Hitler, without warning him, was transferring SS panzer troops from the Vistula front to Hungary. Hitler, convinced as usual that only he could see the strategic issues, had suddenly decided to launch a counter-attack there on the grounds that the oilfields must be retaken. In fact he wanted to break through to Budapest, which had been surrounded by the Red Army on Christmas Eve.
Guderian's visit on New Year's Day coincided with the annual procession of the regime's grandees and the chiefs of staff, to transmit in person to the Fü hrer their 'wishes for a successful New Year'. That same morning Operation North Wind, the main subsidiary action to prolong the Ardennes offensive, was launched in Alsace. The day turned out to be a catastrophe for the Luftwaffe. Goering, in a grand gesture of characteristic irresponsibility, committed almost a thousand planes to attack ground targets on the western front. This attempt to impress Hitler led to the final destruction of the Luftwaffe as an effective force. It ensured the allies' total air supremacy.
The Grossdeutsche Rundfunk broadcast Hitler's New Year speech that day. No mention was made of the fighting in the west, which suggested failure there, and surprisingly little was said of the Wunderwaffen. A number of people believed that the speech had been pre-recorded or even faked. Hitler had not been seen in public for so long that wild rumours were circulating. Some asserted that he had gone completely mad and that Goering was in a secret prison because he had tried to escape to Sweden.
Some Berliners, fearful of what the year would bring, had not quite dared to clink glasses when it came to the toast 'prosit Neujahr!' The Goebbels family entertained Colonel Hans-Ulrich Rudel, the Stuka ace and the most decorated officer in the Luftwaffe. They sat down to a dinner of potato soup as a symbol of austerity.
The New Year holiday ended on the morning of 3 January. The German devotion to work and duty remained unquestioned, however improbable the circumstances. Many had little to do in their offices and factories, owing to shortages of raw materials and parts, but they still set out on foot through the rubble or on public transport. Once again, miracles had been achieved repairing the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn tracks, even though few of the carriages had unbroken windows. Factories and offices were also freezing due to smashed windows and so little fuel for heating. Those with colds or flu had to struggle on. There was no point attempting to see a doctor unless you were seriously ill. Almost all the German doctors had been sent to the army. Local surgeries and hospitals depended almost entirely on foreigners. Even Berlin's main teaching hospital, the Charité, included doctors from over half a dozen countries on its staff, including Dutch, Peruvians, Romanians, Ukrainians and Hungarians.
The only industry which appeared to be flourishing was armaments production, directed by Hitler's personal architect and Wunderkind, Albert Speer. On 13 January, Speer gave a presentation to army corps commanders in the camp at Krampnitz just outside Berlin. He emphasised the importance of contact between front commanders and the war industries. Speer, unlike other Nazi ministers, did not insult his audience's intelligence. He disdained euphemisms about the situation and did not shrink from mentioning the 'catastrophic losses' sustained by the Wehrmacht over the last eight months.
The Allied bombing campaign was not the problem, he argued. German industry had produced 218,000 rifles in December alone. This was nearly double the average monthly output achieved in 1941, the year the Wehrmacht had invaded the Soviet Union. The manufacture of automatic weapons had risen by nearly four times and tank production nearly fivefold. In December 1944, they had produced 1,840 armoured vehicles in a single month, over half what they had made in the whole of 1941. This also included far heavier tanks. 'The trickiest problem', he warned them, was the shortage of fuel. Surprisingly, he said little of ammunition reserves. There was little point producing all these weapons if munitions production failed to keep pace.
Speer spoke for over forty minutes, reeling off his statistics with quiet professionalism. He did not rub in the fact that it was the massive defeats on the eastern and western fronts over the last eight months which had reduced the Wehrmacht to such shortages in all types of weapons. He voiced the hope that German factories might reach a production level of 100,000 machine pistols a month by the spring of 1946. The fact that these enterprises relied largely on slave labourers dragooned by the SS was not, of course, mentioned. Speer also failed to remark upon their wastage - thousands of deaths a day. And the territories from which they came were about to diminish further. At that very moment, Soviet armies numbering over four million men were massed in Poland along the river Vistula and just south of the East Prussian border. They were starting the offensive which Hitler had dismissed as an imposture.
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