Berlin: The Downfall, 1945 
by Antony Beevor.
Viking, 490 pp., £25, April 2002, 0 670 88695 5
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Earlier this year, the Historical Museum in Stockholm housed a haunting exhibition by the artist Hanna Sjöberg. She called it A Clean Sweep Will Be Made (a wartime phrase of Churchill’s about the fate of Germany). Sjöberg had been to the place which was once the old Prussian fortress-city of Küstrin, on the Oder. It lay on the east bank, and since 1945 has been marked on maps as the Polish city of Kostrzyn. But at the time she visited it, a few years ago, the old heart of the town was still uninhabited: a wasteland of rubble and overgrown shell craters. The fighting over Küstrin between February and April 1945 had been so savage – as one of Hitler’s ‘fortress-cities’, it stood directly in the path of the final Soviet offensive towards Berlin – that not even the diligent Poles had rebuilt it. Sjöberg made her installation out of surface scatter she picked up, as if she had been wandering across the site of a Greek colony on the Black Sea: fragments of coffee cups, corroded spoons, an inscription which must once have hung outside a tourism office. Her exhibition spoke of people who must have been ‘just like us’, and yet insisted on the black gulf of time and change which makes the past untouchable.

Berlin itself is the only city I know which generates these gulfs in its own history. Stalin said that ‘Hitlers come and go, but Germany and the German people remain.’ But Berlin also comes and goes. By 1969, those who knew the city before 1939 could not find the way to their old homes. By 1999, those, like me, who had travelled almost daily through the Wall during the 1960s were lost in groves of glass and steel towers. I had often tried to connect the quiet city I knew – the scarred and empty Reichstag, the trees growing through the cupolas of the Gendarmenmarkt churches – with the dying Capital of the Thousand-Year Reich: that frantic metropolis in which diplomats still hurried to briefings on the Wilhelmstrasse and the Reich Chancellery still issued orders as the first Soviet shells were falling. But that apocalyptic place seemed as dead and remote as Küstrin.

Antony Beevor cannot bring that Berlin back to life. But he has constructed a staggering diorama of how it was in those months between the Soviet crossing of the Vistula in January 1945 and the silence that fell in ruined Berlin almost five months later. Readers of Beevor’s Stalingrad will draw comparisons, and it may be that they will find this at once a longer view and a less satisfying work. Stalingrad’s limitation was its astonishing, deliberate lack of historical context; this was the closely retrieved story of a great battle whose prelude, aftermath, politics, historical antecedents, causes and consequences were all pushed to the margins. But of course that was also the book’s strength. Battles do have causes and consequences, and lead to subtle reflections when they are considered years later. But none of that is available to those who take part in them. They and their comrades – and their enemies – are sealed into an experience which has no context and no comparison, a present composed of jokes, terror, trained reactions, insane orders from above, utter exhaustion, the taste of stewed tea, the sound of incoming mortars. Beevor’s Stalingrad was, in that sense, the book of a soldier’s battle.

Berlin could not be like that. It is an account of the final, colossal conflict between the Soviet Union and Hitler’s Germany, ending with the storm of Berlin. As such, it could not be focused down to the story of a battle or even of several battles or offensives. To delimit the politics of those months would have been absurd, given that the Soviet General Staff’s arguments about how, when and whether to go for Berlin were entirely political. And Beevor also knew from the outset that he would be writing not just about the collision between armies but about a human catastrophe which struck the people of Central Europe with the impact of an inrushing comet. The whole understanding and colouring of European culture changed; politics were transformed for half a century; frontiers evaporated; nations were thrown hundreds of miles sideways; cities which had endured for centur-ies flared to ashes; twelve million Germans become homeless fugitives.

Beevor’s book has two subjects: the close detail of the fighting (with its beribboned protagonists), but also the fate of the German population in the conquered territories and in Berlin itself. It is the second theme which has made the book into a sensation, above all in Germany. This is because it deals painstakingly with the mass rape of German women by the Red Army. An old estimate by the Berlin hospitals put the figure at 100,000 women, with perhaps ten thousand deaths, mostly suicides. That presumably referred to Greater Berlin. But Beevor accepts that ‘altogether at least two million German women’ were raped, ‘a substantial minority’ suffering multiple or gang rape. As often happens with revelations about the German past, a good many others had written about all this already without provoking uproar. There have been published memoirs and diaries, and the subject has always been accessible in Berlin conversations. It took an American TV soap finally to jolt Germans into tearful admissions about the Jewish Holocaust. In much the same way, Beevor’s account, probably because it emanated from abroad, released a new willingness to confront the subject of rape.

Less notice was taken of Beevor’s effort to organise the rape narrative into phases, and to venture a little way into the dark wood of explanations. Rightly, I think, he dismisses the idea that Soviet hate propaganda and the vengeful war-verse of Ilya Ehrenburg had much to do with it. The hate was there already, and Beevor sees it expressed in the horrible atrocities committed in the first East Prussian villages reached by Soviet troops when they crossed the German frontier. There, gang-rape was accompanied by mutilation and murder; the naked, crucified women found by German counter-attack forces were filmed by the Nazis and stiffened the will to fight on. As the war progressed, however, Beevor identifies a second phase: the sadism grew rarer, and soldiers simply helped themselves to German women with a casual minimum of force, as if they were looting a bottle of cognac or grabbing a civilian’s bicycle. Now the rapist (Frau, komm!) might unpredictably offer his victim an endearment, or a piece of sausage. A third phase, in occupied places where all supply had broken down, replaced the need for guns and violence with the need of starving women to bargain their bodies for food. In a fourth, according to Beevor, women were able to keep their families alive and secure themselves against further rape by setting up ‘occupation wife’ arrangements with individual soldiers or officers.

All this information was available to anyone who went looking for it, but looking was discouraged. Even though Stalinism was abominable, who wanted to tarnish the reputation of the simple Russian soldiers who saved Europe from Hitler? But since the resurgence of gang-rape by irregular troops in Bosnia, attitudes have changed. The world now admits what professional soldiers have known since Roman times – that armed men have a strong inclination to rape ‘enemy’ women – and wants to know why.

Beevor suggests that it is something to do with a male instinct to scatter seed as widely as possible. If true, that does not help much. He is nearer the mark with a reference to ‘bonding’: military gang-rape can be a sort of comforting oath-ritual among men frightened by what they have already done. My own sense (in Beevor’s phase two) is less esoteric: soldiers rape for sex. Frightened men violently force their way into a place which, for a few moments, they can pretend to be the place where they are loved and protected.

But disciplined soldiers should not rape. Living under the second-worst tyranny on earth, shovelled into the furnace like so many tons of coke by their callous commanders, subject to instant arrest and execution by NKVD and Smersh security troops following the front line, these soldiers were anything but cowed. (Anyone who has met both Soviet and American troops on active service will remember that – paradoxically – Red Army men were far more individualistic and spontaneous in their behaviour.) They could be suicidally brave, but they were instinctively disobedient, making their own judgments on which orders to take seriously. Being shot out of hand for raping or looting was a risk plenty of them chose to take. On capturing a German position, they would go for the wristwatches (‘Uri! Uri!’) as swiftly as for the weapons. Anything remotely portable – tools, leather cut off a German sofa, even window glass – would be scrawled with an indelible-pencil address and posted home to Russia. They were drunk much of the time. Their transport columns looked like circus caravans: Primo Levi, after the victory, watched camels towing yellow Berlin buses across the Ural steppe into Asia.

And yet – what soldiers! The old Russian teaching – if you reach a river, cross it and ask questions afterwards – still held good. Small units raced across the Oder ice without artillery support, to seize and hold crucial bridgeheads on the west bank. Many of Marshal Konev’s troops crossed the Neisse under fire by swimming or fording with weapons held over their heads. At the Spree, General Rybalko led his tanks splashing into the water, without waiting for bridging gear. And when the counterblows came – the SS King Tiger tanks bursting through the pine trees and over the Soviet trenches – these men died where they stood.

This is the story of two great offensives and a finale. As the world still remembers, the Red Army halted at the Vistula in autumn 1944, in order to allow the Nazis to crush the Warsaw Rising but also to build up strength for the last phase of the war. When the Vistula line was stormed in January 1945, there were no fewer than 6.7 million men in the Soviet forces between the Baltic and the Adriatic. Facing the Reich, the centre was led by Marshal Zhukov and his 1st Belorussian Front, with General Rokossovsky and the 2nd Belorussian Front on his right heading for East Prussia and Marshal Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front on his left advancing towards Silesia. Zhukov was the man Stalin considered to be senior; Konev was the general he liked best, because of his ruthlessness and dash; Rokossovsky was the one he mistrusted, because of his Polish ancestry.

When the German front on the Vistula broke, Soviet forces poured westwards and some units reached the Oder – the last natural obstacle before Berlin – within three weeks. But it was not until 16 April, well over two months later, that Zhukov launched his gigantic offensive across the river and into the Seelow Heights beyond. Some of the Soviet commanders thought in early February that there was nothing much to stop them driving across the Oder and on to Berlin, less than sixty miles away. Given the chaos of the German retreat, they were probably right. But Stalin did not want just to reach Berlin. He wanted to encircle it, which meant getting his main forces across the river and deep into central Germany. No doubt he hoped to be the captor of Hitler and his cronies; no doubt – as Beevor says – he was after the uranium oxide stocks at the nuclear research institute in western Berlin. But above all he understood that Berlin, conquered in battle by the Red Army, would be the keystone in the triumphal arch of Soviet power over Central Europe. The other Allies would have to take over their Berlin sectors in due course, but Stalin wanted to be massively and invincibly in possession of the city before the Americans and the British could get there. This is why he lied, so often and so shamelessly, to Allied emissaries about the goal of the Oder offensive. Berlin no longer had military significance, he said, and his thrust would head south-west towards Dresden.

Eisenhower believed him, or at least had no time for the implications of not believing him. Montgomery and Churchill knew well what Stalin was up to, but the decision was not theirs. On 15 April, General William H. Simpson of the US 9th Army was flown back from the Elbe front to meet General Omar Bradley at Wiesbaden. The Russians were still on the wrong side of the Oder; the Seelow Heights offensive did not begin until the next day. Simpson, on the other hand, had actually got across the Elbe and saw nothing much but sixty miles of autobahn between his lead tanks and Berlin. Bradley passed on ‘Ike’s order’: he was to halt. Simpson was ‘dazed’.

Too much shouldn’t be made of this. The notion that the Allies could have reached Berlin first and changed the history of Europe is fantasy; the zones and sectors of occupied Germany and Berlin had already been demarcated and agreed. The next morning, Zhukov unleashed his huge offensive across the Oder against the main surviving formations of the Wehrmacht and SS, supported by a pathetic rabble of Hitler Youth children and Volkssturm civilian conscripts. But the Germans fought cleverly and stubbornly. Zhukov made shocking tactical mistakes which cost thousands of lives, and the Seelow Heights battle, supposed to take one day, lasted three. As the three Fronts converged on Berlin, from north, east and south, rivalry between marshals and sheer muddle slowed the advance. In a secret intelligence despatch to Stalin, Serov of the NKVD reported on 25 April that Berlin no longer had ‘serious permanent defences’ and that the Volkssturm would not fight. But it was another fortnight before Soviet troops hoisted the red flag over the Reichstag and over the Reich Chancellery – a woman did that, Major Anna Nikulina of the 9th Rifle Corps.

Confusion and bad staff work may have held the Red Army back. But so did the enemy. Reading Beevor’s account of the German command structure, one of so many which record a hysterical Führer squalling nonsensical orders at his generals, it is hard to explain how armies under such leadership resisted at all. But in fact the forces up against the Red Army in those final months fought bitterly and skilfully to the very end. While Heinrich Himmler posed as commander of the Vistula Army Group in a luxurious special train parked well away from the front, some of his colonels knocked whole armies off balance with expertly delivered flank attacks. The Nazi commissars screamed for ‘fanatical resistance’ and then ran away; the old sergeants and junior officers stuck with their men until there was nothing left but surrender. When there was no fuel left and no cover against Allied aircraft, a handful of heavy tanks were still giving Zhukov grief in central Berlin on the war’s last day.

How these men kept up something like an effective defence under such conditions remains a puzzle. Sometimes they were just fighting for their lives, as in the frightful forest battles south of Berlin as the 9th Army tried to break through to the West and surrender to the Americans. But sometimes they must have been outstandingly well led. Just possibly, a book will one day be written in which Hitler gives some shrewd orders and his overruled generals are not always in the right. This is certainly not Beevor’ s line. The first part of Berlin, especially, follows the account left by General Guderian, who features as the personification of courage and common sense as he stands up to the mad Führer. Probably he was, though all Nazi generals’ memoirs play this number, and one grows suspicious. But Stalin was certainly a far better supremo by this stage of the war. Beevor’s archive hauls show him well aware of strategic reality, well able to balance risk against opportunity and – here he becomes almost likeable – expertly making best use of Zhukov’s doggedness and Konev’s dash without losing the confidence of either.

This book is a narrative, but also an enormous collage of well-selected detail. Some of it is truly startling. I had not realised before that the defenders of the last Nazi perimeter in Berlin, around the ruined chancellery and Hitler’s bunker, were Frenchmen. They were survivors from the Waffen-SS Charlemagne Division, a handful of battle-hardened French Fascists who now took on the full strength of two converging tank armies in a blatantly hopeless struggle. With them, in the remnants of the Nordland Division – also Waffen-SS – were young Danes and Norwegians, still with a few heavy tanks. Hitler and Goebbels were dead, and most remaining German troops had wisely melted away, but the Frenchmen fought on in the wreckage of Gestapo headquarters. They were last seen fighting and dying in a vain attempt to cover the escape of Martin Bormann.

The triumph of Beevor’s collage is his sources. He has used printed memoirs, but he has also come up with quantities of manuscript material – soldiers’ letters home, security reports, officers’ private diaries – from the Russian archives. Two personal narratives stand out. The first is the notebooks of the novelist Vasily Grossman, found by Beevor in the Russian State Archive for Literature. A great writer moving forward with the armies put down unsparingly what he saw and heard: burning towns collapsing on drunken soldiery, raped girls with battered faces, a mighty general joking as he plans the storm of a city, a thousand men beginning the walk into Siberian captivity as their wives, ‘beautiful young women, some of whom are laughing and trying to cheer up their husbands’, walk beside them.

The second unforgettable source is an ‘anonymous diarist’, a young German woman who recorded all her thoughts as well as her experiences. Bombardment, rape, defeat and hunger all fell on her, but something inside her stayed cool and amused. Even before Berlin fell, she noted how women’s feelings about men were changing. ‘We are sorry for them, they seem so pathetic and lacking in strength . . . The male-dominant Nazi world glorifying the strong man is tottering, and with it the myth “man”.’ Soon the Russians were in her street, taking turns to help themselves in her kitchen and rape her in the bedroom. But she and the women around her managed to fortify themselves with grim humour; they noticed, for instance, that the soldiers liked fat women best and therefore grabbed the well-fed Nazi wives first. She wound up as the possession of a cultivated Russian major: a bargain of sex for groceries. And, as she had foreseen, it was the returning German men who fell apart, blubbering about ‘whores’ when they discovered what the women now took almost for granted.

In an otherwise mean-minded review in Der Spiegel, the historian Joachim Fest complains that Beevor is out of his depth when he tries to generalise about postwar German feelings and politics: this is a fair criticism, and Beevor’s gifts also desert him when he tries to be clever about Hitler’s psyche. The famous last photo showing him pinching the ear of some wretched Volkssturm child does not reveal ‘the intensity of a repressed paedophile’, and the evidence that he ‘suppressed his homoerotic side’ is not up to much. On the other hand, Beevor uses his sources to bring into focus a rather touching picture of Eva Braun, preparing for suicide with her usual kindness and neatness. The new fox-fur would go to Traudl the secretary; the dressmakers’ bills must be burned; her sister could retrieve Eva’s broken diamond watch from the SS, who had found a prisoner to repair it . . .

Near its close, the book summarises the bizarre fate of Hitler’s corpse. There was never any mystery about its discovery, although it suited Stalin to pretend that there was and he kept even Marshal Zhukov in the dark. A Smersh counter-intelligence team smuggled the remains out of the Chancellery garden and had a positive identification from a dentist’s assistant within 48 hours. Yelena Rzhevskaya, a young intelligence officer with a sense of humour, was given charge of Hitler’s upper and lower jaws in a cheap jewellery box lined with red satin. Told she would be shot if she lost it, she was still clutching the box in one hand as she poured booze for the Smersh victory party a few nights later. The jaws stayed with Smersh, while the NKVD got the cranium. Both relics have now turned up in the old Soviet archives. Headless Hitler was hidden under a Soviet parade ground at Magdeburg, until he was secretly dug up, cremated and flushed down the sewers in 1970.

In the end, Antony Beevor’s readers will react like the viewers of all great dioramas (Waterloo, Sevastopol); they will turn away from the far horizons to look again at the fighting a few yards away. I will always remember his evocation of dawn on 16 April 1945, on the Reitwein Spur. The whole 1st Belorussian Front was about to launch the last offensive of the European war against the Seelow Heights. Zhukov himself had come up to General Chuikov’s command post, overlooking the misty Oder valley. In the darkness below them, there was the rattling of pots as men in the trenches were woken and given hot soup. The generals could smell the soup and hear the insect-buzz of field-telephones as each unit contacted its forward positions and artillery observers. A young woman named Margo served the commanders coffee. They climbed up to the camouflaged observation point at three minutes to five. At five o’clock, nine thousand guns and rocket-batteries opened fire. Half an hour later, Zhukov switched on 143 searchlights to blind the German defenders, and ordered the attack to begin.

Almost 80,000 Soviet soldiers did not return from the downfall of Berlin. So many years after war and Cold War, they are still occupying German soil. Many of these skeletons have the remains of a piece of paper folded in their breast pocket as a talisman against death. It bore that poem of Konstantin Simonov’s which every Russian still knows:

Wait for me, and I’ll come back . . .
Only you and I will know
How I survived – It’s just that you knew how to wait
As no other person.

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Vol. 25 No. 3 · 6 February 2003

Primo Levi did not, as Neal Ascherson writes, ‘watch camels towing yellow Berlin buses across the Ural steppe into Asia’ (LRB, 28 November 2002). In The Truce, Levi describes watching, from a camp just south of Minsk, part of the Red Army’s return home by road in the summer of 1945. The flow of disparate motor vehicles and soldiers on foot, many of them shoeless, was gradually replaced by horses of all kinds, ‘all the horses in Germany’, it seemed, driven along by a few girls riding bareback. Levi counted tens of thousands of horses a day, some of them pulling buses with their local Berlin destinations still on them. Other Berlin buses were still going under their own power. Levi and his Italian companions intercepted and ate a few of the horses, without objection from the Russians. Later, on his own way home, he saw a ‘worn out, grey and woolly’ camel at a level crossing in Moldavia, not pulling a bus but loaded with sacks.

Levi also says, in relation to an earlier glimpse of the Red Army repatriating by rail through Poland, that the Army was ‘restless and colourful as travelling acrobats’, whence perhaps Ascherson’s ‘the transport columns looked like circus caravans’; but first, and in the same breath, he says that the ‘extraordinary spectacle of the Red Army going home’ was ‘solemn and choral as a Biblical migration’.

Peter Robb

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