The fall of berlin 1945, p.12
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.12

           Antony Beevor

  The crux of the whole conference became apparent that afternoon and on the following day. The discussion began with the immediate post-war period and the treatment of defeated Germany. Victory was estimated to take place at any time from the summer onwards. Roosevelt talked about the European Advisory Commission and future zones of occupation. Stalin made it clear that he wanted Germany to be completely dismembered. Then Roosevelt announced without warning that United States forces would not remain in Europe for more than two years after Germany’s surrender. Churchill was privately appalled. This would only encourage Stalin to be more obdurate, and a war-ravaged Europe might well be too weak to resist Communist unrest.

  Stalin also made clear that he intended to strip German industry as a down payment in kind towards the Soviet Union’s claim for $10 billion in reparations. He did not mention it at the conference, but government commissions composed of Soviet accountants looking very awkward in new colonels’ uniforms were closely following each army in its advance. Their task was ‘the systematic confiscation of German industry and wealth’. In addition, the NKVD group at each army headquarters had a team specialized in opening safes, preferably before a Soviet soldier tried to blast the door off with a captured panzerfaust, destroying everything inside. Stalin was determined to extract every ounce of gold he could.

  The one issue which both Stalin and Churchill felt passionately about was Poland. The debate was not so much over the future frontiers of the country, but over the composition of its government. Churchill declared that a fully independent Poland, the very reason for which Great Britain had gone to war in September 1939, was a question of honour.

  Stalin in his reply referred very obliquely to the secret clauses of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact, which had allowed the Soviet Union to invade and occupy the eastern part of Poland and the Baltic states while the Nazis seized the western half. ‘It is a question of honour,’ Stalin said, standing up, ‘because the Russians have committed many sins against the Poles in the past, and the Soviet government wishes to make amends.’ After this shameless opening, considering the Soviet oppression in Poland already under way, Stalin went to the heart of the matter. ‘It is also a question of security, because Poland presents the gravest of strategic problems for the Soviet Union. Throughout history, Poland has served as a corridor for enemies coming to attack Russia.’ He then argued that to prevent this, Poland had to be strong. ‘That is why the Soviet Union is interested in the creation of a mighty, free and independent Poland. The Polish question is a question of life and death for the Soviet state.’ The flagrant mutual contradiction of the last two sentences was obvious. Although it was never stated openly, the Soviet Union would accept nothing less than a totally subservient Poland as a buffer zone. Neither Churchill nor Roosevelt could fully appreciate the shock of the German invasion in 1941 and Stalin’s determination never to be surprised by another enemy. One could well argue that the origins of the Cold War lay in that traumatic experience.

  Churchill nevertheless realized that he stood no chance when Stalin invoked the necessity of securing the Red Army’s lines of communications in the approaching battle for Berlin. The Soviet leader played his cards very cleverly. The provisional ‘Warsaw government’, as he insisted on calling it – the Americans and British still referred to these NKVD-controlled Communists as the ‘Lublin government’ – was in place and, he claimed, highly popular. As for democracy, he argued, the Polish government in exile in London possessed no more democratic support than De Gaulle enjoyed in France. One cannot know for sure whether Churchill properly decoded the unspoken message: you must not thwart me over Poland, because I have kept the French Communist Party under control. Your lines of communication have not been disturbed by revolutionary activity in France by the Communist-dominated resistance movement.

  To rub in the point about respective spheres of influence, Stalin asked disingenuously how things were in Greece. The Soviet leader, on the basis of the so-called ‘percentage’ agreement of the previous October, apportioning spheres of influence in the Balkans, had undertaken not to cause trouble in Greece and to respect British control there. At Yalta, Stalin appears to have been signalling that both Poland and France should be considered as an extension of the percentage agreement, but the British Prime Minister failed to decipher the text. Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke suspected at the time that there was much that Churchill did not take in.

  Stalin did not relax the pressure. He claimed that 212 Soviet soldiers had been killed by Poles. Churchill was forced to agree that attacks on the Red Army by the Polish non-Communist resistance, the Armia Krajowa, were utterly unacceptable. The Prime Minister did not know that the NKVD regiments in charge of rear area security were in most cases the aggressors, arresting any members of the underground and sometimes using torture to force them to reveal other names and the locations of their arms dumps. Roosevelt, clearly too ill and exhausted to intervene, could insist only on free elections in Poland, but that was a pious hope with the machinery entirely in Soviet hands. His chief aide, Harry Hopkins, estimated that Roosevelt had probably not taken in more than half of what was said.

  Stalin was convinced that he had won. As soon as the Soviet delegates felt that there was no further challenge to their control of Poland, they suddenly dropped their opposition to the voting system proposed by the Americans for the United Nations. The other principal American concern, that Stalin would commit himself to the war against Japan within a short time of the defeat of Germany, was achieved at a private meeting on 8 February.

  The Soviet leader was not gracious in victory. When Churchill expressed his fears at another meeting that such a massive change in Poland’s frontiers at Germany’s expense would cause an enormous shift in population, Stalin retorted that it would not be a problem. He spoke triumphantly of the huge wave of German refugees running away from the Red Army.

  On 13 February, two days after the Yalta conference ended, Soviet might was reconfirmed with the fall of Budapest. The end of this terrible battle for the city was marked by an orgy of killing, looting, destruction and rape. Yet Hitler still wanted to counter-attack in Hungary with the Sixth SS Panzer Army. He hoped to smash Marshal Tolbukhin’s 3rd Ukrainian Front, but this was the compulsive gambler throwing on to the table the last few chips left over from the Ardennes.

  That night, the British bombed Dresden. The following morning, which happened to be Ash Wednesday, the US Air Force followed in their path and also attacked several lesser targets. It was intended as a rapid fulfilment of the promise to the Stavka to hinder German troop movements by smashing rail communications. The fact that there were 180 V-bomb rocket attacks on England that week, the highest number so far, did little to soften the planners’ hearts. Dresden, the exquisitely beautiful capital of Saxony, had never been seriously bombed before. Dresdeners used to joke, half-believing it, that Churchill had an aunt living in the city and that was why they had been spared. But the raids on 13 and 14 February were merciless. The effect was in some ways comparable to the Hamburg fire-storm raid. But Dresden’s population was swollen by up to 300,000 refugees from the east. Several trains full of them were stuck in the main station. The tragedy was that instead of troops passing through Dresden to the front, as Soviet military intelligence had asserted, the traffic was civilian and going in the opposite direction.

  Goebbels apparently shook with fury on hearing the news. He wanted to execute as many prisoners of war as the number of civilians killed in the attack. The idea appealed to Hitler. Such an extreme measure would tear up the Geneva Convention in the face of the Western Allies and force his own troops to fight to the end. But General Jodl, supported by Ribbentrop, Field Marshal Keitel and Grand Admiral Dönitz finally persuaded him that such an escalation of terror would turn out worse for Germany. Goebbels nevertheless extracted all he could from this ‘terror attack’. Soldiers with relatives in the city were promised compassionate leave. Hans-Dietrich Genscher remembers some of them returning from their visi
t. They were reluctant to talk about what they had seen.

  On the Western Front, the Americans and the British had not been advancing anything like as rapidly as the Red Army. The battle for the Rhineland, which began during the talks at Yalta, was also slow and deliberate. Eisenhower was in no hurry. He thought that spring floodwater would make the Rhine impassable until the beginning of May. It was to take another six weeks before all Eisenhower’s armies were ready on the west bank of the Rhine. Only the miracle of capturing intact the Rhine bridge at Remagen allowed an acceleration of the programme.

  Eisenhower was deeply irritated by the continuing British criticism of his methodical broad-front strategy. Churchill, Brooke and Field Marshal Montgomery all wanted a reinforced breakthrough to head for Berlin. Their reasons were mainly political. The capture of Berlin before the Red Army arrived would help to restore the balance of power with Stalin. Yet they also felt on military grounds that to seize the capital of the Reich would deal the greatest psychological blow to German resistance and shorten the war. British arguments for the single thrust into the heart of Germany, however, had not been helped by the insufferable Field Marshal Montgomery. At the end of the first week of January, he had tried to take far more credit for the defeat of the German offensive in the Ardennes than was his due. This crass and unpleasant blunder naturally infuriated American generals and deeply embarrassed Churchill. It certainly did not help persuade Eisenhower to allow Montgomery to lead a major push through northern Germany to Berlin.

  Eisenhower, as supreme commander, continued to insist that it was not his job to look towards the post-war world. His task was to finish the war effectively with as few casualties as possible. He felt that the British were allowing post-war politics to rule military strategy. Eisenhower was genuinely grateful to Stalin for the effort made to advance the date of the January offensive, even if he was unaware of Stalin’s ulterior motive of securing Poland before the Yalta conference.

  United States policy-makers simply did not wish to provoke Stalin in any way. John G. Winant, the United States ambassador in London, when discussing zones of occupation on the European Advisory Commission, even refused to raise the issue of a land corridor to Berlin in case it spoiled his relationship with his Soviet opposite number. The policy of appeasing Stalin came from the top and was widely accepted. Eisenhower’s political adviser, Robert Murphy, had been told by Roosevelt that ‘the most important thing was to persuade the Russians to trust us’. This could not have suited Stalin better. Roosevelt’s claim, ‘I can handle Stalin’, was part of what Robert Murphy acknowledged to be ‘the all-too-prevalent American theory’ that individual friendships can determine national policy. ‘Soviet policy-makers and diplomats never operate on that theory,’ he added. The American longing to be trusted by Stalin blinded them to the question of how far they should trust him. And this was a man whose lack of respect for international law had led him to suggest quite calmly that they should invade Germany via neutral Switzerland, thus ‘outflanking the West Wall’.

  Soviet resentment was based on the fact that the United States and Britain had suffered so little in comparison. Nazi Germany also treated Allied prisoners in a totally different way from Red Army prisoners. A 1st Belorussian Front report on the liberation of a prisoner-of-war camp near Thorn underlined the contrast in fates. The appearance of the Americans, British and French inmates was healthy. ‘They looked more like people on holiday than prisoners of war,’ the report stated, ‘while Soviet prisoners were emaciated, wrapped in blankets.’ Prisoners from the Western Allied countries did not have to work, they were allowed to play football and they received food parcels from the Red Cross. Meanwhile, in the other part of the camp, ‘17,000 Soviet prisoners had been killed or died from starvation or illness. The “special regime” for Soviet prisoners consisted of 300 grams of ersatz bread and 1 litre of soup made from rotten mangelwurzels per day. Healthy prisoners were made to dig trenches, the weak ones were killed or buried alive.’ British prisoners there in Stalag XXA insist that it was far from a holiday camp and that their rations were in fact no better than those given to the Soviet prisoners, but they had been saved from starvation by Red Cross parcels.

  They were guarded by ‘traitors’ from the Red Army, recruited with the promise of better rations. These volunteers treated ‘Soviet prisoners of war with more cruelty than the Germans’. Some of the guards were said to have been Volga Germans. They ordered prisoners to strip and set dogs on them. The Germans had apparently carried out ‘a massive propaganda’ attempt to persuade prisoners to join the ROA, General Vlasov’s army of former Soviet soldiers in Wehrmacht uniform. ‘Many Ukrainians and Uzbeks sold themselves to the Germans,’ stated a prisoner. He was described as an ‘ex-Party member’ and ‘former senior lieutenant’. This was because members of the Red Army were stripped of all status simply for having allowed themselves to be taken prisoner.

  The punishments inflicted on Soviet prisoners included forcing them to do knee-bends for up to seven hours, ‘which completely crippled the victim’. They were also made to run up and down stairs past guards armed with rubber truncheons on every landing. In another camp, wounded officers were placed under cold showers in winter and left to die of hypothermia. Soviet soldiers were subjected to the ‘saw-horse’, the eighteenth-century torture of strapping a prisoner astride a huge trestle. Some were made to run as live targets for shooting practice by SS guards. Another punishment was known as ‘Achtung!’ A Soviet prisoner was made to strip and kneel in the open. Handlers with attack dogs waited on either side. The moment he stopped shouting, ‘Achtung! Achtung! Achtung!’ the dogs were set on him. Dogs were also used when prisoners collapsed after being forced to do ‘sport marches’, goose-stepping in rapid time. It may have been news of these sorts of punishment which inspired similar practices against German prisoners taken by Soviet troops in their recent advances. An escaped British prisoner of war, a fighter pilot, picked up by a unit of the 1st Ukrainian Front and taken along, saw a young SS soldier forced to play a piano for his Russian captors. They made it clear in sign language that he would be executed the moment he stopped. He managed to play for sixteen hours before he collapsed sobbing on the keyboard. They slapped him on the back, then dragged him out and shot him.

  The Red Army advanced into German territory with a turbulent mixture of anger and exultation. ‘Everybody seems to have German harmonicas,’ noted Grossman, ‘a soldier’s instrument because it is the only one possible to play on a rattling vehicle or cart.’ They also mourned their comrades. Yakov Zinovievich Aronov, an artilleryman, was killed near Königsberg on 19 February. Shortly before his death he wrote a typical soldier’s letter home: ‘We are beating and destroying the enemy, who is running back to his lair like a wounded beast. I live very well and I’m alive and I’m healthy. All my thoughts are about beating the enemy and coming home to you all.’ Another of his letters was much more revealing, because it was to a fellow soldier who would understand. ‘I love life so much, I have not yet lived. I am only nineteen. I often see death in front of me and I struggle with it. I fight and so far I am winning. I am an artillery reconnaissance man, and you can imagine what it is like. To make a long story short, I very often correct the fire of my battery and only when shells hit the target, I feel joy.’

  Aronov was killed ‘one foggy Prussian morning’, wrote his closest friend to the dead boy’s sister Irina. The two of them had fought together all the way from Vitebsk to Königsberg. ‘So, Ira, the war has separated many friends and a lot of blood has been shed, but we comrades in arms are taking vengeance on Hitler’s serpents for our brothers and friends, for their blood.’ Aronov’s body was buried by his comrades ‘on the edge of the forest’. Presumably its site was marked like others by a stick with a small bit of red rag tied to it. If refound by the pioneers responsible, it would be replaced by a small wooden plaque. There were too many bodies spread too widely for reburying in cemeteries.

  Red Army soldiers were also m
arked by their encounters with slave workers, attempting to return home. Many were peasant women with knotted headkerchiefs covering their foreheads and wearing improvised puttees for warmth. Captain Agranenko, the dramatist, encountered a cart full of women in East Prussia. He asked who they were. ‘We are Russian. Russian,’ they answered, overjoyed to hear a friendly voice. He shook hands with each one of them. An old woman suddenly began to cry. ‘It is the first time in three years that someone has shaken my hand,’ she explained.

  Agranenko also encountered ‘a beauty from the region of Orel called Tatyana Khilchakova’. She was returning home with a two-month-old baby. In the German camp for slave labourers she had met a Czech and fallen in love with him. They had exchanged marriage vows, but when the Red Army arrived, her Czech had immediately volunteered to fight the Germans. ‘Tatyana does not know his address. He does not know hers. And it is unlikely that the war will ever throw them together again.’ Perhaps, even more unfortunately, she would probably be made to suffer on her return home to Orel for having had relations with a foreigner.

  The chief concern for the Stavka at this time continued to be the wide gap across the ‘Baltic balcony’ between Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and the left flank of Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front. On 6 February, Stalin had rung Zhukov from Yalta. He asked what he was doing. Zhukov replied that he was in a meeting of army commanders to discuss the advance on Berlin from the new Oder bridgeheads. Stalin retorted that he was wasting his time. They should consolidate on the Oder, and then turn north to join up with Rokossovsky.

  Chuikov, the commander of the 8th Guards Army, who appears to have resented Zhukov since Stalingrad, was contemptuous that Zhukov did not argue forcefully for a push on Berlin. The bitter debate continued well into the post-war years. Chuikov argued that a rapid push at the beginning of February would have caught Berlin undefended. But Zhukov and others felt that with exhausted troops and serious supply shortages, to say nothing of the threat of a counter-attack from the north on their exposed right flank, the risk was far too great.

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