The fall of berlin 1945, p.2
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.2

           Antony Beevor

  SHAEF Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force Europe.

  shtraf company or battalion, the Soviet copy of German Straf (penal) units. Disgraced officers, deserters and defaulters were condemned to these penal units, where they were in theory offered the chance to redeem ‘their guilt with their blood’. This meant that they were used for the almost suicidal tasks, such as advancing first through a minefield. Straf units always had an escort ready to shoot any members who disobeyed orders.

  SMERSH the acronym for smert shpionam (death to spies), a name allegedly chosen by Stalin himself for the counter-intelligence organization attached to Red Army units and formations. Until April 1943, when Viktor Abakumov became its chief, it had been known as the ‘special department’ of the NKVD.

  Stavka the Soviet supreme headquarters of the armed forces, directly under Stalin’s control. The chief of staff in 1945 was General Antonov.

  U-Bahn underground railway.

  Verkhovny commander-in-chief, the term which Zhukov and other senior commanders used to refer to Stalin.


  Army Group and Front A German ‘Army Group’ or a Red Army ‘Front’ represented a collection of armies under a single commander-in-chief. Depending on circumstances, strengths could vary enormously – anything from 250,000 to over a million men.

  Army Each German army, usually varying in strength between 40,000 and over 100,000 men, has its name written in full in the text: e.g. Ninth Army or Third Panzer Army. Soviet armies, generally smaller, are written thus: 47th Army or 2nd Guards Tank Army. Most armies usually consisted of two or three corps. A Soviet tank army had in theory 620 tanks and 188 self-propelled assault guns.

  Corps A corps consisted of several divisions, usually between two and four. A Soviet tank corps, however, consisted of three tank brigades of sixty-five tanks each and was closer in size to a full-strength German panzer division.

  Division Divisions varied greatly in size. A Soviet Rifle Division in theory should have mustered 11,780 men, but most had between 3,000 and 7,000 men. German Infantry Divisions were often even more understrength by 1945.

  Brigade This formation, between a regiment and a division, was used more by the US Army and the British than by the Germans and Red Army, both of which had at least two or three regiments to a division. The Red Army, however, had three tank brigades to each tank corps.

  Regiment This consisted of at least two or three battalions, with anything up to 700 men each, but often far fewer.

  Battalion Each battalion consisted of at least three rifle companies – each one theoretically around eighty men strong – as well as support companies, with machine guns, mortars or anti-tank guns, and then transport and supply companies.

  Military rank equivalents between the British Army, the US Army, the German Army and the Waffen SS can be found on in the annexe section to this book.


  ‘History always emphasizes terminal events,’ Albert Speer observed bitterly to his American interrogators just after the end of the war. He hated the idea that the early achievements of Hitler’s regime would be obscured by its final collapse. Yet Speer, like other prominent Nazis, refused to recognize that few things reveal more about political leaders and their systems than the manner of their downfall. This is why the subject of National Socialism’s final defeat is so fascinating, and also so important at a time when teenagers, especially in Germany, are finding much to admire in the Third Reich.

  The Nazis’ enemies had first been able to visualize their moment of vengeance just over two years before. On 1 February 1943, an angry Soviet colonel collared a group of emaciated German prisoners in the rubble of Stalingrad. ‘That’s how Berlin is going to look!’ he yelled, pointing to the ruined buildings all around. When I read those words some six years ago, I sensed immediately what my next book had to be. Among the graffiti preserved on the Reichstag’s walls in Berlin, one can still see the two cities linked by Russians exulting in their revenge, forcing the invaders from their furthest point of eastward advance right back to the heart of the Reich.

  Hitler too remained obsessed with this decisive defeat. In November 1944, as the Red Army was grouping beyond the Reich’s eastern frontiers, he pointed back to Stalingrad. Germany’s reverses had all begun, he said in a major speech, ‘with the breakthrough of Russian armies on the Romanian front on the Don in November 1942’. He blamed his hapless allies, under-armed and ignored on the vulnerable flanks either side of Stalingrad, not his own obsessive refusal to heed the warnings of danger. Hitler had learned nothing and had forgotten nothing.

  That same speech demonstrated with terrible clarity the distorted logic in which the German people had allowed themselves to become ensnared. When published, it was entitled ‘Capitulation Means Annihiation’. He warned that if the Bolshevists won, the fate of the German people was destruction, rape and slavery, with ‘immense columns of men treading their way to the Siberian tundra’.

  Hitler vehemently refused to acknowledge the consequences of his own actions, and the German people realized far too late that they were trapped by a terrifying confusion of cause and effect. Instead of eliminating Bolshevism, as he had claimed, Hitler had brought it to the very heart of Europe. His abominably cruel invasion of Russia had been carried out by a generation of German youth weaned on a demonically clever combination. Goebbels’s propaganda did not simply dehumanize Jews, commissars and the whole Slav people, it made the German people fear and hate them. Hitler, in these gigantic crimes, had managed to manacle the nation to him and the approaching violence of the Red Army was the self-fulfilment of their leader’s prophecy.

  Stalin, while happy to make use of symbols when it suited him, was far more calculating. The Reich’s capital was indeed the ‘culmination of all the operations of our army in this war’, but he had other vital interests. Not least of these was the plan formulated under Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s minister of state security, to strip atomic research establishments in Berlin of all their equipment and uranium before the Americans and British arrived. The work of the Manhattan Project carried out in Los Alamos was already well known in the Kremlin, thanks to the pro-Communist spy, Dr Klaus Fuchs. Soviet science was far behind, and Stalin and Beria were convinced that if they were to seize the German laboratories and scientists in Berlin before the Western Allies got there, then they too could produce an atom bomb like the Americans.

  The scale of the human tragedy by the end of the war is beyond the imagination of everyone who did not live through it, but especially of those who have grown up in the demilitarized society of the post-Cold War age. Yet this moment of fate for millions of people still has much to teach us. One important lesson is that one should be extremely wary of any generalization concerning the conduct of individuals. Extremes of human suffering and even degradation can bring out the best as well as the worst in human nature. Human behaviour to a large extent mirrors the utter unpredictability of life or death. Many Soviet troops, especially in frontline formations, unlike those who came behind, often behaved with great kindness to German civilians. In a world of cruelty and horror where any conception of humanity had almost been destroyed by ideology, just a few acts of often unexpected kindness and self-sacrifice lighten what would otherwise be an almost unbearable story.

  This book could not possibly have been researched without the help of many people. I am first of all deeply obliged to the directors and staff in numerous archives: Colonel Shuvashin and the staff of the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defence (TsAMO) at Podolsk; Dr Natalya Borisovna Volkova and her staff at the Russian State Archive for Literature and the Arts (RGALI); Dr Vladimir Kuzelenkov and Dr Vladimir Korotaev of the Russian State Military Archive (RGVA); Professor Kyrill Mikhailovich Andersen and Dr Oleg Vladimirovich Naumov at the Russian State Archive for Social-Political History (RGASPI); Dr Manfred Kehrig, Director of the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, Freiburg, and Frau Weibl; Dr Rolf-Dieter Müller and Hauptmann Lu
ckszat at the MGFA in Potsdam; Professor Dr Eckhart Henning of the Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft; Dr Wulf-Ekkehard Lucke at the Landesarchiv-Berlin; Frau Irina Renz of the Bibliothek für Zeit-geschichte in Stuttgart; Dr Lars Ericson and Per Clason at the Krigsarkivet in Stockholm; John E. Taylor, Wilbert Mahoney and Robin Cookson at National Archives II, College Park, Maryland; Dr Jeffrey Clarke at the United States Army Center of Military History.

  Bengt von zur Mühlen, the founder of Chronos-Film, has been particularly generous with archival footage and taped interviews of participants. I am also greatly obliged to Gerald Ramm and to Dietmar Arnold of Berliner Unterwelten for their help.

  I am truly grateful to all those who aided me so much during my travels with advice, introductions and hospitality: in Russia, Dr Galya and Dr Luba Vinogradova, Professor Anatoly Aleksandrovich Chernobayev, and Simon Smith and Sian Stickings; in Germany, William Durie, Staatssekretar a.D. Karl-Günther and Frau von Hase, and Andrew and Sally Gimson; in the United States, Susan Mary Alsop, Major General and Mrs Charles Vyvyan, Bruce Lee, Mr and Mrs Charles von Luttichau and Martin Blumenson.

  It has been a great pleasure for me, as well as extremely useful for the book, to work in partnership with BBC Timewatch. I am deeply grateful to Laurence Rees, whose idea it was, to Dr Tilman Remme, in whose company I have most enjoyably learned a great deal, and to Detlef Siebert, who generously helped so much at an early stage with advice and interviewees. Others who have also provided introductions, information, help and advice include Anne Applebaum, Christopher Arkell, Claudia Bismarck, Leopold Graf von Bismarck, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, Professor Christopher Dandeker, Dr Engel of the Archiv der Freien Universitat, Professor John Erickson, Wolf Gebhardt, Jon Halliday, Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky, Dr Catherine Merridale, Professor Oleg Aleksandrovich Rzheshevsky, Professor Moshe Schein of the New York Methodist Hospital, Karl Schwarz, Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Gia Sulkhanishvili, Dr Galya Vinogradova and Ian Weston-Smith.

  This book, quite literally, would never have been possible in the form it takes without the wonderful help I have had from Dr Luba Vinogradova in Russia and Angelica von Hase in Germany. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to work with them. I am also extremely grateful to Sarah Jackson for all her work on photographic research, to Bettina von Hase for supplementary archival research in Germany and to David List in England. Charlotte Salford very kindly translated the documents from the Krigsarkivet in Stockholm for me.

  I am profoundly grateful to Professor Michael Burleigh, Professor Norman Davies and Dr Catherine Merridale for reading all or parts of the typescript and making very useful criticisms. Tony Le Tissier was also most generous in his detailed observations. Any mistakes which remain are, of course, entirely my responsibility.

  I cannot thank Mark Le Fanu and the Society of Authors enough for recovering the websites, and from a cybersquatter. These can now be used to provide an ‘author’s cut’ – a writer’s answer to the director’s cut – thus making available archival and other material for which there was no room in the published version of the book.

  I owe, as always, a huge debt to my agent Andrew Nurnberg and to Eleo Gordon, my editor at Penguin, both of whom pushed an initially reluctant author down this route. Once again my wife, writing partner and editor of first resort, Artemis Cooper, has had to put up with constant absences and many extra burdens. I am eternally grateful.


  Berlin in the New Year

  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 and Enlightenment, had announced a ‘German Christmas’, which in National Socialist terms meant austerity and ideological determination, not candles and pine wreathes and singing ‘Stille Nacht, 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 Russisc’: ‘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 Aborte, 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 3 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 over-use and condensation dripped from the ceilings. The complex of shelters under the Gesundbrunnen 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, 300,000 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 subculture 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. 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 had invaded the south-eastern corner of East Prussia the previous autumn and raped and murdered 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 Erich 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 Erich 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.

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