The fall of berlin 1945, p.26
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.26

           Antony Beevor

  On 11 April, the Americans reached Magdeburg. The next day they crossed the Elbe south of Dessau. Plans were drawn up on the projection that they could reach Berlin within forty-eight hours. This was not an improbable estimate. There were few SS units left on the western side of the capital.

  On the same day, Germans were shaken by the ferocity of a French government radio station broadcasting from Cologne. ‘Deutschland, dein Lebensraum ist jetzt dein Sterbensraum’ – ‘Germany, your room to live is now your room to die.’ It was the sort of remark which they would have expected of Ilya Ehrenburg.

  Ehrenburg, on that day, published his last and most controversial article of the war in Krasnaya Zvezda. It was entitled ‘Khvatit’ or ‘Enough’. ‘Germany is dying miserably, without pathos or dignity,’ he wrote. ‘Let us remember the pompous parades, the Sportpalast in Berlin, where Hitler used to roar that he was going to conquer the world. Where is he now? In what hole? He has led Germany to a precipice, and now he prefers not to show himself.’ As far as Ehrenburg was concerned, ‘Germany does not exist; there is only a colossal gang.’

  This was the same article in which Ehrenburg bitterly compared German resistance in the east and the surrenders in the west. He evoked ‘the terrible wounds of Russia’ which the Western Allies did not want to know about. He then mentioned the handful of German atrocities in France, such as the massacre of Oradour. ‘There are four such villages in France. And how many are there in Belorussia? Let me remind you about villages in the region of Leningrad…’

  Ehrenburg’s inflammatory rhetoric often did not accord with his own views. In his article, he implicitly condoned looting – ‘Well, German women are losing fur coats and spoons that had been stolen’ – when in Red Army parlance looting often implicitly included rape. Yet he had recently lectured officers at the Frunze military academy, criticizing Red Army looting and destruction in East Prussia and blaming it on the troops’ ‘extremely low’ level of culture. His only reference to rape, however, was to say that Soviet soldiers ‘were not refusing “the compliments” of German women’. Abakumov, the head of SMERSH, reported Ehrenburg’s ‘incorrect opinions’ to Stalin, who regarded them as ‘politically harmful’. This, combined with the similar report on East Prussia by Count von Einsiedel of the NKVD-controlled National Committee for a Free Germany, set in motion a train of events and discussions which triggered a major reappraisal of Soviet policy.

  The tone and content of Ehrenburg’s article on 12 April were no more bloodthirsty than previous diatribes, but to the writer’s shock it was attacked from on high to signal a change in the Party line. An embittered Ehrenburg later recognized that his role as the scourge of the Germans made him the obvious symbolic sacrifice in the circumstances. The Soviet leadership, rather late in the day, had finally realized that the horror inspired by the Red Army’s onslaught on the civilian population was increasing enemy resistance and would complicate the post-war Soviet occupation of Germany. In Ehrenburg’s words, they wanted to undermine the enemy’s will to fight on ‘by promising immunity to the rank and file of those who had carried out Hitler’s orders’.

  On 14 April, Georgy Aleksandrov, the main ideologist on the central committee and the chief of Soviet propaganda, replied in Pravda with an article entitled ‘Comrade Ehrenburg Oversimplifies’. In a conspicuously important piece, which had no doubt been checked by Stalin if not virtually dictated by him, Aleksandrov rejected Ehrenburg’s explanation of rapid surrender in the west and his depiction of Germany as ‘only a colossal gang’. While some German officers ‘fight for the cannibal regime, others throw bombs at Hitler and his clique [the July plotters] or persuade Germans to put down their weapons [General von Seydlitz and the League of German Officers]. The Gestapo hunt for opponents of the regime, and the appeals to Germans to denounce them proved that not all Germans were the same. It was the Nazi government which was desperate to call upon the idea of national unity. The very intensity of the appeals for national unity in fact proved how little unity there was.’ Aleksandrov also quoted Stalin’s remark, ‘Hitlers come and go, but Germany and the German people remain’ – a slogan first coined as early as 23 February 1942 but only really used in 1945.

  Moscow radio broadcast Aleksandrov’s article and Krasnaya Zvezda reprinted it. A devastated Ehrenburg found himself in a political limbo. His letter to Stalin appealing against the injustice was never answered. But Ehrenburg probably did not realize that he had been denounced for other criticisms of the Red Army and the inability of officers to control their men. He had reported how when a Soviet general reproved a soldier for cutting a patch of leather from a sofa, saying that it could be used by some family in the Soviet Union, the soldier had retorted, ‘Your wife may get it, but definitely not mine’, and carried on attacking the sofa. Abakumov’s most serious charge, however, was that Ehrenburg had also said to the officers at the Frunze academy, ‘Russians returning from “slavery” look well. Girls are well fed and dressed. Our articles in papers on the enslavement of persons who had been taken to Germany are not convincing.’ If Ehrenburg had not enjoyed such a passionate following in the Red Army, he might easily have disappeared into a Gulag camp.

  At the front, meanwhile, political departments were clearly uneasy about the situation. They reported how some officers supported Ehrenburg and still believed ‘that we should be ruthless with the Germans and those Western Allies who start flirting with the Germans’. The Party line was, however, clear. ‘We are no longer chasing Germans from our country, a situation in which the slogan, “Kill a German whenever you see one”, seemed entirely fair. Instead, the time has now come to punish the enemy correctly for all his evil deeds.’ Yet even though the political officers quoted Stalin’s dictum that ‘Hitlers come and go…’, this did not seem to carry much weight with the soldiers. ‘Many soldiers asked me,’ one political officer reported, ‘if Ehrenburg still continued to write and they told me that they are looking for his articles in every newspaper that they see.’

  The change in policy just before the great offensive came far too late for soldiers imbued with the personal and propaganda hatreds of the last three years. One of the most unintentionally revealing remarks was made by one of Zhukov’s divisional commanders, General Maslov. He described German children crying as they searched desperately for their parents in a blazing town. ‘What was surprising,’ wrote Maslov, ‘was that they were crying in exactly the same way as our children cry.’ Few Soviet soldiers or officers had imagined Germans as human beings. After Nazi propaganda had dehumanized the Slavs into Untermenschen, Soviet revenge propaganda had convinced its citizens that all Germans were ravening beasts.

  The Soviet authorities had another reason for concern at the advance of the Western Allies. They were afraid that the majority of the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies would want to join the Polish forces which owed allegiance to the government in exile in London. On 14 April, Beria passed to Stalin the report from General Serov, the NKVD chief with Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front. ‘In connection with the rapid advance of the Allies on the Western Front,’ Serov wrote, ‘unhealthy moods developed among the soldiers and officers of the Ist Polish Army.’ SMERSH had gone into action, carrying out mass arrests.

  ‘Intelligence organs of the Ist Polish Army,’ he reported, ‘have discovered and taken under control [sic] nearly 2,000 ex-soldiers of the Anders army and members of the Armia Krajowa and soldiers who have close relatives in Anders’s army.’ The ‘hostile attitude’ of these Poles to the Soviet Union was underlined by the fact that they had concealed their real addresses from the Soviet authorities to prevent reprisals against their families. Serov also failed to mention the fact that since 43,000 members of the Polish Communist forces had been transferred straight from Gulag camps, their feelings towards the Soviet Union were unlikely to be entirely fraternal. And in Poland, members of the Armia Krajowa arrested by NKVD troops were given the choice of a labour camp in Siberia or the Communist army – ‘W Sibir ili w Armiju?’

  SMERSH informers had warned their controllers that Polish soldiers were listening regularly to the ‘London radio’. Informers also reported that Polish troops were convinced that ‘Anders’s army is coming to Berlin from the other side with the English army’. ‘When the Polish troops meet up,’ an officer unwittingly told an informer, ‘the majority of our soldiers and officers will pass over to the Anders army. We’ve suffered enough from the Soviets in Siberia.’ ‘After the war, when Germany is finished,’ a battalion chief of staff apparently told another informer, ‘we’ll still be fighting Russia. We have 3 million of Anders’s men with the English.’ ‘They are pushing their “democracy” into our faces,’ said a commander in the 2nd Artillery Brigade. ‘As soon as our troops meet up with Anders’s men, you can say goodbye to the [Soviet-controlled] provisional government. The London government will take power again and Poland will once more be what it was before 1939. England and America will help Poland get rid of the Russians.’ Serov blamed commanders of the Ist Polish Army ‘for not strengthening their political explanatory work’.

  While the American Third and Ninth Armies were charging forward to the Elbe, Field Marshal Model’s Army Group B in the Ruhr pocket was being ground down, largely by air attack. Model was one of the very few army commanders to be trusted completely by Hitler. His fellow generals, however, considered him to be ‘extremely rude and unscrupulous’. Model was known to the troops as ‘der Katastrophengeneral’ because of his habit of turning up in a sector when things were going very badly. The Ruhr, in any case, was Model’s last catastrophe. He refused to fly out. On 21 April, when his troops began to surrender en masse, he shot himself, which was exactly what Hitler expected of his commanders.

  Well before the end, Colonel Günther Reichhelm, the chief operations officer of Army Group B, was flown out of the Ruhr encirclement along with many other key personnel. Out of seventeen aircraft, only three reached Jüterbog, the airfield south of Berlin. Reichhelm was driven to OKH headquarters at Zossen, where he collapsed from exhaustion. He awoke only when Guderian’s former deputy, General Wenck, sat on his bed. Wenck, brought back to operations before he had completely recovered from his car crash during Operation Sonnenwende, had just been appointed the commander-in-chief of the Twelfth Army. Wenck suspected that this new army existed more on paper than in reality, despite its task of holding the line of the Elbe against the Americans.

  ‘You’re coming as my chief of staff,’ Wenck told him. But first of all Reichhelm had to report on the situation of Army Group B in the Ruhr pocket. Jodl ordered him to come to the Reich Chancellery bunker. There he found Hitler with Göring and Grand Admiral Dönitz. He told Hitler that Army Group B had no more ammunition, and its remaining tanks could not move because they had no more fuel. Hitler paused for a long time. ‘Field Marshal Model was my best Field Marshal,’ he said at last. Reichhelm thought that Hitler finally understood that it was all over, but he did not. Hitler said, ‘You are to be chief of staff of the Twelfth Army. You must free yourself from the stupid guidelines of the general staff. You must learn from the Russians, who by sheer willpower overcame the Germans who stood before Moscow.’

  Hitler then went on to say that the German Army must chop down trees in the Harz mountains to stop Patton’s advance and launch a partisan war there. He demanded I:25,000 scale maps, the sort which company commanders used, to prove his point. Jodl tried to disabuse him, but Hitler insisted that he knew the Harz well. Jodl, who was usually very controlled, replied sharply. ‘I do not know the area at all,’ he said, ‘but I know the situation.’ Göring, Reichhelm noticed, had meanwhile gone to sleep in a chair with a map over his face. He wondered whether he was full of drugs. Hitler finally told Reichhelm to join the Twelfth Army, but first he should go via the camp at Döberitz, where he could obtain 200 Volkswagen cross-country Kübelwagen jeeps for the Twelfth Army.

  Reichhelm left with a sense of relief at escaping from a madhouse. At Döberitz he could lay his hands on only a dozen vehicles. Finding Wenck and the headquarters of the Twelfth Army was even harder. Eventually, he found Wenck in the sapper school at Rosslau on the opposite bank of the Elbe from Dessau. To his great pleasure, he saw that the chief operations officer was an old friend, Colonel Baron Hubertus von Humboldt-Dachroeden. Part of the Twelfth Army, he heard, was made up with ‘astonishingly willing young soldiers trained for half a year in officers’ schools’, as well as many NCOs with front experience who had returned from hospital. Both officers greatly admired their army commander. Wenck was young, flexible and a good field commander who ‘could look soldiers in the eye’.

  Although the headquarters was improvised and had few radio sets, they found that they could use the local telephone network, which was still functioning well. The army was better supplied than most thanks to the army ammunition base at Altengrabow and the number of stranded barges and boats in the Havelsee. Wenck refused to follow Hitler’s ‘Nero’ order, and he prevented the destruction of the electricity plant at Golpa, south-east of Dessau, one of the main electricity supply points for Berlin. On Wenck’s orders, the Infantry Division Hutten provided guards to prevent any fanatics from trying to blow it up.

  The Twelfth Army’s principal task was to prepare for an attack by the American Ninth Army ‘along and either side of the Hanover-Magdeburg autobahn’. The Americans were expected to develop a bridgehead on the east bank of the Elbe and then head for Berlin. The first attack took place sooner than expected. ‘On 12 April, the first contact report arrived of the enemy attempt to cross near Schönebeck and Barby.’ The Scharnhorst Infantry Division attempted to counterattack with a battalion and a few assault guns on the following day. They put up fierce resistance on the first day, but they found the enemy, especially the US Air Force, far too strong.

  Reichhelm realized that if the Americans were to cross the Elbe in force, there was ‘no other possibility but to surrender’. The Twelfth Army could not have continued to fight ‘for more than one or two days’. Humboldt was of exactly the same opinion. The Americans were across the Elbe in a number of places. By Saturday 14 April, SHAEF recorded, ‘the Ninth Army has occupied Wittenberge, 100 kilometres north of Magdeburg. Three battalions of the 83rd Infantry Division have crossed the Elbe at Kameritz to the south-east of Magdeburg.’ The 5th Armored Division, meanwhile, had reached the Elbe on a twenty-five kilometre front around Tangermünde. On 15 April, Wenck’s Twelfth Army mounted a strong counter-attack against the 83rd Infantry Division near Zerbst, but this was repulsed.

  The bridgeheads across the Elbe appeared to present more of a problem to Eisenhower than an opportunity. He spoke to General Bradley, the army group commander, to ask his view about pushing on to Berlin. He wanted to know his view of the casualties they would have to face taking the city. Bradley estimated that it might involve 100,000 casualties (a figure which, he later admitted, was far too high). He then added that it would be a stiff price to pay for a prestige objective when they would have to withdraw again once Germany surrendered. This clearly coincided with Eisenhower’s thoughts, although he claimed later that the ‘future division of Germany did not influence our military plans for the final conquest of the country’.

  Eisenhower was also concerned about his extended lines of communication. The British Second Army was on the edge of Bremen, the US First Army was approaching Leipzig and Patton’s lead units were close to the Czechoslovak border. The distances were so great that forward units had to be supplied by Dakotas. Large numbers of civilians, including prison and concentration camp inmates, also had to be fed. Considerable resources were required. Like many others, Eisenhower was totally unprepared for the full horror of the concentration camps. Seeing such unbelievable suffering at first hand affected many for years afterwards in a liberator’s version of survivor guilt.

  Commanders on the Western Front had little idea of the situation on the Eastern Front. They did not appreciate quite how keen the German Army was to allow the Americans in to Berlin before the Red A
rmy reached it. ‘Soldiers and officers,’ observed Colonel de Maizière of the OKH, ‘believed that it was far better to be beaten by the west. The exhausted Wehrmacht fought to the end purely to leave the Russians as little territory as possible.’ The instincts of Simpson and his formation commanders in the Ninth Army proved much more accurate than those of the Supreme Commander. They estimated that there would be pockets of resistance but that these could be bypassed in a charge to the capital of the Reich, which lay less than 100 kilometres away.

  The 83rd Infantry Division had already set up a bridge capable of taking the 2nd Armored Division’s tanks, and during the night of Saturday 14 April, vehicles crossed in a steady stream. The forces in the bridgehead, which now stretched to Zerbst, started to build up rapidly. The excitement among the American troops was infectious. They longed for their orders to move out. But early on the Sunday morning, 15 April, their army commander, General Simpson, was summoned by General Bradley to his army group headquarters at Wiesbaden. Bradley met Simpson at the airfield. They shook hands as he climbed out of the plane. Bradley, without any preamble, told him that the Ninth Army was to halt on the Elbe. It was not to advance any further in the direction of Berlin.

  ‘Where in the hell did you get this?’ Simpson asked.

  ‘From Ike,’ Bradley answered.

  Simpson, feeling dazed and dejected, flew back to his headquarters, wondering how he was going to tell his commanders and his men.

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