The fall of berlin 1945, p.32
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.32

           Antony Beevor

  The remnants of trainee and officer candidate battalions from the CI Corps found themselves retreating Village by ‘village’ westwards to Bernau, just north of Berlin. Most had lost nearly three-quarters of their strength. They were exhausted, hungry and thoroughly confused. As soon as they halted for a rest, everyone fell heavily asleep and their officers had to kick them awake several times when it was necessary to move on. Nobody knew what was happening on either side or even in front or behind. Radios and field telephones had been abandoned. There was also no hope of re-establishing an effective front line, despite the best efforts of the more experienced officers, who grabbed any stragglers from other units and incorporated them into their own little command.

  General Heinrici’s attention now had to focus on the northern part of the Oder defence line between the Baltic coast and the Hohenzollern Canal at the top end of the Oderbruch. General von Manteuffel, who had been flying in a light reconnaissance aircraft over the forward areas of Rokossovsky’s armies, had no difficulty spotting enemy preparations. The 2nd Belorussian Front faced a formidable task. North of Schwedt, the Oder followed two channels, with marshy ground on either side and in between. That night of 19 April, Rokossovsky reported to Stalin that the offensive would start at first light the next morning, preceded by heavy bombing raids and artillery bombardment.

  Rokossovsky had had the most difficult time of all Front commanders, redeploying his troops from Danzig and the Vistula estuary. This huge logistic problem had prompted Zhukov to warn Stalin on 29 March of what was involved. ‘Well, we’ll have to start the operation without waiting for Rokossovsky’s Front,’ he had replied. ‘If he’s a few days late, that’s not a great trouble.’ Clearly, Stalin had not been worried then. But now that Rokossovsky’s armies might be needed for Berlin, he was much more concerned.


  The Führer’s Last Birthday

  Friday 20 April was the fourth fine day in a row. It was Adolf Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday. A beautiful day on this date used to prompt greetings between strangers in the street about ‘Führer weather’ and the miracle that this implied. Now only the most besotted Nazi could still hint at Hitler’s supernatural power. There were still enough diehards left, however, to attempt to celebrate the event. Nazi flags were raised on ruined buildings and placards proclaimed, ‘Die Kriegsstadt Berlin grüsst den Führer!’

  In the past, a mass of birthday greetings flooded the Reich Chancellery on the Führer’s birthday. Six years earlier, Professor Doctor Lutz Heck of the Berlin Zoological Garden had sent the Führer, ‘with heartiest congratulations’, an ostrich egg weighing 1,230 grams to make scrambled eggs. But in 1945, there were very few letters and parcels, and not just because the postal system had collapsed. The Berlin Zoo was also half-destroyed, with many of the animals starving.

  American and British bomber forces were well aware of the date. Sirens sounded in the morning as massed squadrons approached to greet the Führer’s birthday with a particularly heavy raid. It was almost a double celebration for the USAAF and RAF bomber crews. With Soviet forces approaching Berlin, this was their second-last raid on the capital of the Reich.

  Göring had woken that morning at Karinhall, his country house north of Berlin, to the opening bombardment of Rokossovsky’ offensive. A convoy of Luftwaffe trucks, although desperately needed for more urgent duties, was ready, loaded with his looted treasures. A motorcycle detachment would escort them south. Göring addressed the men briefly and watched them leave. The engineer officer, who had laid the explosives to blow up Karinhall, then escorted the Reichsmarschall over to where the plunger stood ready. Göring had insisted on blowing the place up himself. The explosion blasted vast clouds of dust outwards, then this over-extended monument to vanity collapsed in on itself. Göring, apparently without looking back, walked to his enormous limousine to be driven to Berlin. He needed to be at the Reich Chancellery at noon to congratulate the Führer on his birthday.

  Himmler had returned to the sanatorium at Hohenlychen the night before and ordered champagne at midnight to toast the Führer’s birthday. He had just arranged separate meetings with Count Folke Bernadotte of the Red Cross and Norbert Masur, the representative of the World Jewish Congress, who had been flown secretly into Tempelhof aerodrome earlier in the day. Bernadotte and Masur assumed that he wanted to discuss the possible release of prisoners, but for Himmler, the purpose was to establish a line of communication to the Western Allies. The Reichsführer SS, while still convinced of his own loyalty to Hitler, felt that he alone could replace him. He would become the leader with whom the Western Allies could negotiate. What he had to do was to convince the Jews that the Final Solution was something that both sides needed to put behind them.

  Goebbels, the only leading Nazi planning to stay in Berlin with Hitler until the bitter end, broadcast a birthday speech that morning. He called on all Germans to trust blindly in the Führer, who would lead them out of their difficulties. ‘I wondered whether he was mad,’ wrote Ursula von Kardorff in her diary, ‘Or whether he was playing some sort of cold-blooded trick.’

  Göring, Ribbentrop, Dönitz, Himmler, Kaltenbrunner, Speer, Keitel, Jodl and Krebs were driven to the Reich Chancellery before noon. There, they trooped through the huge rooms faced in polished marble, with doors almost to the ceiling. This quasi-cinematic monument to conspicuous power now looked tawdry in its half-wrecked state, yet it remained deeply sinister.

  Many of the celebrants offering their birthday wishes that day thought that Hitler looked at least twenty years older than he was. They urged their leader to take the road to Bavaria while there was still time. Hitler stated with conviction that the Russians were about to suffer their bloodiest defeat before Berlin. Dönitz, whom Hitler had ordered to take command in the north of Germany, received an affectionate farewell. But Göring, who claimed that he would organize resistance in Bavaria, was treated in a distant manner. Hitler, Speer observed to his American interrogators less than a month later, was ‘disappointed by the cowardice of Goring and the others’. He had always persuaded himself that his close followers were men of courage.

  During the situation conference that day, the main question was how soon the Reich would be cut in two south of Berlin. The territory still unoccupied was diminishing every day. The British were on the Luneburg Heath, heading towards Hamburg. The Americans were on the middle Elbe, on the borders of Czechoslovakia and moving into Bavaria. The French First Army was advancing into southern Germany. To the south-east, the Red Army was west of Vienna and the Allies in Italy were moving north across the Po valley. Again the subject of the Nazi hierarchy abandoning Berlin came up. ‘To the surprise of nearly everyone present,’ Speer stated, ‘Hitler announced that he would stay in Berlin until the last minute and only then fly to the south.’ His entourage was surprised that ‘discussion of evacuation had been general’. After the meeting, the rest of the leadership began to invent ‘all manner of excuses’ to leave Berlin on official business. Himmler, Ribbentrop and Kaltenbrunner departed in different directions. A number of the Reich Chancellery staff were detailed to leave for the Berghof the next day. ‘Führer’s birthday but unfortunately no mood for celebration,’ Bormann noted in his diary. ‘The advance party is ordered to fly to Salzburg.’

  That afternoon, in the ruined Reich Chancellery garden, the Führer worked his way slowly down a line of Hitler Youth, some of whom had received the Iron Cross for attacking Soviet tanks. Hitler could not present any medals himself. To prevent his left arm shaking too obviously, he walked gripping it behind his back with his right hand. For brief moments, he could afford to release it. With what looked like the intensity of the repressed paedophile, he lingered to cup a cheek and tweak an ear, unconscious of his leering smile.

  After receiving members of the close entourage that evening in the tiny sitting room in the bunker, Hitler retired to bed much earlier than usual. Eva Braun led the others up to the Reich Chancellery. With Bormann and Dr Morell among them, it was
a strange and inauspicious group for a party. One of the large round tables designed by Speer was laid with food and drink. They drank champagne and made a pretence of dancing, but there was only one record for the gramophone: ‘Blood-red Roses Tell You of Happiness’. According to Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, there was much hysterical laughter. ‘It was horrible; soon I couldn’t stand it and went back down to bed.’

  The question of evacuation was extremely volatile. On Sunday 15 April Eva Braun had mentioned to Hitler that Dr Karl Brandt, who had been his personal surgeon, was moving his family to Thuringia. To her horror, Hitler exploded with anger, saying that he had chosen a place about to be taken by the Western Allies. That was treachery. Bormann was told to investigate the case and to interview ‘Eva Braun and Dr Stumpfegger’, the devoted SS surgeon who had replaced Brandt. Eva Braun described the affair as ‘a really foul trick’ in a letter to her best friend, Herta Ostermayr. Although physically at the centre of power, she had no understanding of National Socialist reality.

  Brandt was charged next day with defeatism. Axmann was leader of the court and Brandt was condemned to death. But execution of the sentence appears to have been postponed by enemies of Bormann, including Himmler, who had at last realized that Bormann had been blackening his name at court. Brandt escaped execution by the Nazis, but was later sentenced to death by the allies.*

  Brandt, a former intimate of the Obersalzburg circle, wrote a witty paper on the ‘Women around Hitler’ for his American captors at the ‘Ashcan’ interrogation centre. Hitler, he wrote, had never married because he wanted ‘to keep the mystic legend alive in the hearts of the German people that so long as he remained a bachelor, there was always the chance that any one of the millions of German women might possibly attain the high distinction of being at Hitler’s side’. Hitler apparently even spoke of this in front of Eva Braun. In 1934, he had also announced in her presence, ‘The greater the man, the more insignificant should be the woman.’

  Brandt believed that the relationship between the two had an even stronger element of father–daughter than teacher-student. But whether or not he was right about this, one thing was certain. The Führer’s maîtresse sans titre was the opposite of a Pompadour. She never schemed for or against people at the court. Yet after years of having to hide herself away like a servant to preserve the Führer myth of celibacy for Germany, it was hardly surprising that she occasionally tried to play the great lady. According to Brandt, she treated her easily led younger sister, Gretl, whom she had married to Fegelein, ‘almost like a personal maid’.

  The question of Hitler’s sexuality has received a good deal of speculative attention recently. There can, however, be little doubt that he suppressed his homoerotic side in the interests of his image as the virile Führer. This repression explains a good deal of his manic energy and myth-making. Some members of his household insist that he never made love with Eva Braun, but her personal maid is convinced that he did, because she used pills to suppress her menstrual cycle when he arrived at the Berghof. His appalling halitosis towards the end of his life must have made him even less physically attractive than before, but Eva Braun, like several other close female friends, was clearly besotted with him. There is no proof either way, but the passionate kiss which Hitler later bestowed on her when she refused to leave the bunker for the safety of Bavaria weakens the theory that there had never been any form of sexual contact between them.

  Eva Braun, like Hitler himself, had always been fascinated with the glamour of motion pictures. Movies appear to have been a major subject of conversation between them. One of the greatest frustrations of her seclusion must have been her inability to mix at state receptions with the film stars invited by Goebbels to add a touch of sophistication to the usual collection of Nazi wives. Perhaps Eva Braun saw her destiny with Hitler in terms of a cinematic finale. Her last letters are untainted by melodrama and yet she had found a magnificent role – the heroine who, after suffering years of humiliation and neglect in the shadow of the man she loves, is vindicated in an ending where her devotion is finally acknowledged.

  Her furniture had been moved into a room next to Hitler’s in the Reich Chancellery underworld on 15 April, and from then on she slept down there too. ‘She was always immaculately turned out,’ wrote Hitler’s Luftwaffe aide, Nicolaus von Below. ‘She was charming and obliging and she showed no weakness right up to the last moment.’ The threat of being caught alive by Russian soldiers prompted her and Hitler’s secretaries into pistol practice in the ruined courtyard of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They were proud of their prowess and challenged officers in the bunker to a competition.

  ‘We can already hear the gunfire from the front,’ Eva Braun wrote to Herta Ostermayr. ‘My whole life is spent in the bunker. As you can imagine we are terribly short of sleep. But I’m so happy, especially at this moment, at being near him… Yesterday, I telephoned Gretl probably for the last time. From today on, there’s no way of getting through. But I have an unshakeable faith that all will turn out well and he is unusually full of hope.’

  That morning, the ordinary women of Berlin emerged to queue for food after the air raid. The sound of artillery fire in the distance confirmed their fears that this might be their last chance to stock up. The sunshine buoyed up the spirits of many. ‘Suddenly one remembers it’s spring,’ wrote one young woman that afternoon. ‘Through the fire-blackened ruins the scent of lilac comes in waves from ownerless gardens.’

  The desperation for news meant that a small crowd of people were already waiting at the kiosk when the paper boy arrived. ‘Newspapers’ were now no more than a single piece printed on both sides and they contained far more propaganda than information. The only useful section was the Wehrmacht daily communiqué, which, despite its evasive circumlocutions, indicated by the towns it cited how far the enemy had advanced. The mention of Müncheberg that day, seventeen kilometres west of Seelow on Reichstrasse I, meant that the Russians had definitely broken through.

  For the moment, however, the obsession with food was paramount. Rumours had reached Berlin that their fellow countrymen trapped in Silesia had been reduced to eating roots and grass. The Russians, it was said in the queue at the grocer’s, would starve them too. Priorities became stark. Only things that could be eaten or drunk, or objects that could be bartered for food, were now of any use. And on this day Berliners were supposed to receive ‘crisis rations’, which meant some sausage or bacon, rice, dried peas, beans or lentils, some sugar and a little fat. It was the authorities’ indirect acknowledgement that the city was both besieged and embattled.

  With water, gas and electricity severely interrupted or cut off, Berliners suddenly faced a primitive existence. Already many of them had been reduced to cooking half-rotten potatoes over a tiny fire enclosed by three bricks on the floor of their balcony. Provident housewives began to pack suitcases with essential provisions to carry down to the cellar to survive the battle to come. And this was after eighty-three air raids since the beginning of February. The determined show of normal life, with people still travelling to bomb-blasted offices each day, ceased abruptly.

  Marshal Zhukov recorded that, on that afternoon of 20 April, ‘the long-range artillery of the 79th Rifle Corps of the 3rd Shock Army opened fire on Berlin’. But in fact few people in the city were aware of the fact. Zhukov seemed to have no idea that it was Hitler’s birthday. He was desperate for something to show that he had attacked Berlin before Konev. The guns were firing at extreme range and only the north-eastern suburbs were affected.

  When Zhukov heard for certain of Konev’s tank army advancing on Berlin from the south, he sent on that evening an urgent order to Katukov and Bogdanov, the commanders of the 1st and 2nd Guards Tank Armies. He gave them ‘a historic task: to break into Berlin first and to raise the banner of victory’. They were to send the best brigade from each corps to break through to an outskirt of Berlin by 4 a.m. the next day, and to report at once so that Stalin could be informed imme
diately and it could be announced in the press. In fact, the first of his tank brigades did not reach the outskirts until the evening of 21 April.

  South-east of Berlin, meanwhile, Marshal Konev was whipping on his two tank armies across the Spreewald. His main interest was with the 3rd Guards Tank Army targeted at the southern flank of Berlin. Rybalko’s leading tank corps attempted at midday to rush the town of Baruth, just twenty kilometres south of Zossen, but failed at the first attempt. ‘Comrade Rybalko,’ Konev signalled, ‘you are again moving like a worm. One brigade is fighting while the whole army is stuck. I order you to cross the line Baruth–Luckenwalde via a swamp using several routes in an extended battle order. Inform me on fulfilment.’ The town was taken within two hours.

  Lelyushenko’s 4th Guards Tank Army, further to the south and west, was heading in a roughly parallel line for Jüterbog and then Potsdam. Stalin was still concerned that the Americans might suddenly advance again. The Stavka that day warned Zhukov, Konev and Marshal Rokossovsky of the possibility of encountering the Western Allies and passed on recognition signals. But what neither Konev nor the Stavka seems to have appreciated fully was that his 1st Ukrainian Front advancing from the south-east would run into Busse’s Ninth Army trying to withdraw round the southern side of Berlin. Konev, like Zhukov, had become obsessed with Berlin. That night he dispatched signals to his two tank army commanders: ‘Personal to Comrades Rybalko and Lelyushenko. Order you categorically to break into Berlin tonight. Report execution. Konev.’

  The German retreat from the Seelow Heights during 19 and 20 April left no front line. Exhausted stragglers pulled back as best they could and improvised battle groups fought fierce little engagements wherever they were threatened. Ninth Army headquarters informed Heinrici of their ‘Auffanglinier’ or ‘holding lines’, but they were little more than chinagraph marks on the map – a staff officer’s attempt to impose a semblance of order on chaos.

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