The fall of berlin 1945, p.35
The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.35Antony Beevor
Vasily Grossman, who was returning to the 1st Belorussian Front from Moscow, came via Zhukov’s rear headquarters at Landsberg. ‘Children are playing soldiers on a flat roof,’ he wrote in his notebook. ‘This is at the very moment when German imperialism is being finished in Berlin, and here the boys with wooden swords and clubs and long legs, and blond fringes and their hair cut short at the back of the head, are shouting, jumping, leaping and stabbing at one another… It’s eternal. It can never be eliminated from mankind.’ But this pessimistic mood did not last long. He found Brandenburg bathed in sunshine, and was struck by the dachas closer to Berlin. ‘Everything,’ he noted, ‘is covered with flowers, tulips, lilac, apple trees, plum trees. The birds are singing: nature feels no pity for the last days of fascism.’ He watched a column of ex-prisoners of war moving in carts, on foot, limping with the aid of sticks, pushing prams and wheelbarrows. They too displayed improvised national flags. ‘French poilus have managed to keep their pipes,’ he observed.
One of the signs of the fall of fascism was the accelerating breakdown of German propaganda services. On 21 April, the Transocean News Agency fell silent and so did the Reichssender Berlin. The following day, the pro-Nazi Irish nationalists at Irland-Redaktion blamed the British and Americans for reducing Europe to a Soviet zone of influence. It was their penultimate broadcast. The transmitter at Nauen was captured two days later.
More and more Berliners had been taking the risk of listening to the BBC on the wireless and even dared to discuss its news. But power cuts were now creating a more effective censorship of foreign broadcasts than the police state had ever achieved. London had little idea of the great Soviet offensive, but its announcement that Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg concentration camp had been liberated just north of Berlin gave a good idea of Red Army progress and its intention to encircle the city. The indication of the horrors found there was also another reminder of the vengeance which Berlin faced. This did not stop most Berliners from convincing themselves that the concentration camp stories must be enemy propaganda.
Apart from broadcasts heard on battery-operated radios and a few announcements on posters about rations, most news now came by word of mouth. Rumour and fact became even more difficult to disentangle. A sense of nightmare unreality pervaded the city as it awaited its doom on that day of bright spring sunshine and heavy showers. Comparisons with its recent status as the imperial capital of occupied Europe were inescapable. Once grandiose buildings were reduced to mere façades, with the sky visible through the upper windows. And the decline from mechanized military power was underlined by the sight of German soldiers driving hay wagons drawn by small Polish horses.
The constant background of Kazakov’s artillery bombardment set nerves on edge. People found that the phrase ‘the thunder of guns’ was not one of those bombastic clichés of war but an entirely accurate description. The sound rolled and echoed, especially in courtyards behind buildings, just like a storm. Everyone was afraid, but women had most to fear. An anonymous diarist recorded that although women in ration queues discussed every advance of the enemy, there was an unspoken agreement. ‘Not a single woman talked about “it”.’
‘These are strange times,’ she added in the large sales ledger which she used as her diary. ‘One experiences history in the making, things which one day will fill the history books. But while living through it, everything dissolves into petty worries and fears. History is very tiresome. Tomorrow I’m going to look for nettles and try to find some coal.’
Hitler, on the other hand, had by now realized that history was all that was left to him – except that his notion of history was fatally dominated by an obsessive desire for immortality. Unlike Himmler, he did not try to change his image with concessions. If anything, his addiction to bloodshed and destruction intensified. One of the main reasons for his decision to stay on in Berlin was quite simple. The Fall of Berchtesgaden did not have quite the same ring as the Fall of Berlin. Nor did it offer the same spectacular images of smashed monuments and blazing buildings.
During the night of 21 April, Hitler had almost collapsed after ordering the Steiner counter-attack. His doctor, Morell, found him in such low spirits that he suggested an injection to revive him. Hitler went into a frenzy. He was convinced that the generals wanted to drug him with morphine and put him on a plane to Salzburg. It appears that he spent most of his days and nights in the bunker, when not in situation conferences, sitting in his room, lost in thought, often gazing at the portrait of Frederick the Great. It had become his icon.
For most of the morning of 22 April, Hitler feverishly demanded news of Steiner’s attack from the north. He told General Koller, the Luftwaffe chief of staff, to send up aircraft to see if Steiner’s troops had yet started to move. He contacted Himmler to ask him. The Reichsführer SS had not the slightest idea of what was going on. He and his chameleon eminence Gruppenführer Walter Schellenberg were still preoccupied with the idea of secret overtures to the Western Allies through Count Bernadotte. Himmler just made a guardedly optimistic reply, which Hitler seized upon as fact.
At the midday situation conference, however, Hitler heard for certain that Steiner had not moved. Soviet forces had also broken the perimeter defence ring in the north of the city. He began to scream and yell. The SS was betraying him now as well as the army. This rage was far worse than any of his rows with Guderian. Eventually he collapsed into an armchair, drained and weeping. He said quite openly for the first time that the war was lost. Keitel, Jodl, Krebs and Burgdorf were shaken. Hitler went on to say that because he could not die fighting, because he was too weak, he would simply shoot himself to avoid falling into the hands of the enemy. They tried to persuade him to leave for Berchtesgaden, but he had clearly made up his mind. He ordered Keitel, Jodl and Bormann to leave for the south, but they refused. Anyone else who wanted to go could go, he told them, but he was staying in Berlin to the end. He wanted an announcement made to that effect.
Goebbels was summoned to the Reich Chancellery to help persuade him to leave, but he was the worst choice, since he was already determined to stay himself. He spoke alone with Hitler in his room for some time, trying to calm him down. When Goebbels came out, he told those waiting outside that the Führer had asked him to bring his family into the bunker. It would appear that Goebbels had told Hitler during this conversation that he and his wife, Magda, had already decided to kill their six children and then themselves.
Hitler, to the surprise of his distraught entourage, re-emerged in calmer mood. Jodl had suggested that General Wenck’s Twelfth Army could be turned around from facing the Americans on the Elbe and ordered to relieve Berlin. Hitler seized on this idea. ‘General Field Marshal Keitel,’ wrote Jodl, ‘was ordered to coordinate the actions of the Twelfth Army and the Ninth Army, which was breaking out of its encirclement.’ Keitel offered to leave immediately, but Hitler insisted that he first sat down while servants brought him a meal as well as sandwiches for his journey, and half a bottle of cognac and chocolate as iron rations. Keitel then left for Wenck’s headquarters and Jodl for the new OKW base at Krampnitz, north of Potsdam.
The debate over Hitler’s degree of sanity or madness can never be resolved. But Colonel de Maizière, who was there on that evening of Sunday 22 April and who had observed him closely during numerous situation conferences, was convinced that ‘his mental sickness consisted of a hypertrophic self-identification with the German people’. This may well explain why he felt that the population of Berlin should share his suicide. But he also seemed to experience real pleasure in casualties among his own men as well as those of the enemy. ‘Losses can never be too high!’ he had exclaimed to Field Marshal von Reichenau in 1942, when informed of heavy casualties in the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. ‘They sow the seeds of future glory.’
Operation Seraglio, the evacuation to Berchtesgaden, was accelerated. A party prepared to leave early the next day. Admiral von Puttkammer, Hitler’s naval aide, had been give
Allied intelligence services heard far more extravagant rumours of escape from Berlin. The State Department in Washington, DC, was warned by its embassy in Madrid that ‘the chiefs plan to get to Japan by way of Norway. Heinkel 177s will take them to Norway, and there, already waiting, are planes – probably Vikings – for the non-stop flight to Japan.’ This was no doubt the wishful thinking of Nazis in Spain, who also talked of U-boats being provisioned to take food to Germany and perhaps to bring out Nazi leaders. ‘There exist in Switzerland several hospitals where, under cover of wounds or illness, Germans are hospitalized. In reality these are important personalities to be saved.’ The claim that ‘camouflaged German planes continue to bring in notables [to Spain]’ was, however, much closer to the truth. Pierre Laval, the former prime minister of Vichy France, was among those flown out of Germany to Barcelona in unmarked Junkers transports. Franco felt obliged to return Laval to France, but a number of Nazis obtained sanctuary.
The exodus meant that rooms in the bunker and Reich Chancellery were liberated. Major Freytag von Loringhoven, who had moved into the bunker with General Krebs, found that the ventilation system worked well. But in the tiny conference room, with fifteen to twenty people in there, the air became almost unbreathable. Hitler was the only one to sit. The others were almost asleep on their feet. The bombing and shelling began to create cracks in the walls, and dust seeped out into the air. Since smoking was strictly forbidden in the lower Führer bunker, those desperate for a cigarette had to creep up a floor to the upper bunker. Despite these inconveniences, the bunker and the Reich Chancellery cellars were ‘superbly stocked’ with food and alcohol. The generous supplies of drink did not contribute to clear thinking. ‘In the bunker,’ Colonel de Maizière noted, ‘an atmosphere of disintegration reigned. One saw drunkenness and dejection, yet also men of all ranks acting in a frantic manner. Discipline had ceased to exist.’ This dissipation appeared to provide a striking contrast with the Nazi notion of family values when Frau Goebbels arrived, leading her six children. And yet both contained exactly the same currents of sentimentality, self-pity and brutality.
Freytag von Loringhoven was at the bottom of the stairs when he suddenly saw Magda Goebbels descend the concrete stairs, followed by her six children. She looked ‘sehr damenhaff’ – ‘very ladylike’. The six children behind ranged from twelve years old down to five: Helga, Hilde, Helmut, Holde, Hedda and Heide. Their first names, all beginning with the same letter, had not been chosen like a class of warships, but to honour the place in the alphabet marked by the Führer’s name. They descended the stairs like a school crocodile. Their pale faces stood out against their dark coats. Helga, the oldest, looked very sad, but she did not cry. Hitler knew and approved of the decision by Joseph and Magda Goebbels to kill their children before they killed themselves. This proof of total loyalty prompted him to present her with his own gold Nazi Party badge, which he always wore on his tunic. The arrival of the children in the bunker had a momentarily sobering effect. Everyone who saw them enter knew that they would be murdered by their parents as part of a Führerdämmerung.
After his terrible emotional storm in the early afternoon, Hitler rested in his small bunker sitting room with Eva Braun. He summoned his two remaining secretaries, Gerda Christian and Traudl Junge, his Austrian dietician, Constanze Manzialy, and Bormann’s secretary, Elsa Krüger. Hitler told the women that they must prepare to leave for the Berghof like the others. Eva Braun smiled and went to him. ‘You know that I am never going to leave you,’ she said. ‘I will stay by your side.’ He pulled her head down to him and, in front of everybody, kissed her full on the lips. This act astonished all who knew him. Traudl Junge and Gerda Christian said that they would stay too. Hitler looked at them fondly. ‘If only my generals had been as brave as you,’ he said. He dispensed cyanide pills to them as a farewell present.
It was presumably soon after this that Eva Braun went to type a last letter to her best friend, Herta Ostermayr. This was to accompany all her jewels. One of the men about to fly south was waiting to take the package for her. She told Herta in the letter that the jewels were to be distributed according to her will. Their value would help friends and family keep their heads ‘above water’ in the days to come. ‘Forgive me if this is a bit confused,’ she wrote, ‘but I am surrounded by the six children of G[oebbels] and they are not being quiet. What should I say to you? I cannot understand how it should have all come to this, but it is impossible to believe any more in a God.’
The Bombarded City
On 23 April, the Nazi-controlled radio station in Prague claimed that the Führer’s decision to stay in the capital of the Reich gave ‘the battle a European significance’. The same morning, the headline of the newspaper of the 3rd Shock Army read, ‘Motherland Rejoice! We are on the streets of Berlin!’ National Socialism had laid claim to an international cause, while international Communism had become unashamedly patriotic.
For the civilians of Berlin, ideological causes made little difference any more. Survival was what counted under the bombardment. Worse was to come. General Kazakov was bringing in 600mm siege guns on specially widened tracks along the line leading to the Schlesicher Bahnhof in the east of the city. Each shell weighed half a ton.
Apart from the three flak towers, one of the largest refuges in Berlin was the Anhalter Bahnhof bunker, next to the main station. Built in ferro-concrete, with three storeys above ground and two below, its walls were up to four and a half metres thick. Pine seats and tables had been provided by the authorities, as well as emergency supplies of tinned sardines, but neither lasted long when both fuel and food were in such short supply. The Anhalter bunker’s great advantage was its direct link to the U-Bahn tunnels, even though the trains were not running. People could walk the five kilometres to the Nordbahnhof, without ever being exposed.
The conditions in the bunker became appalling, with up to 12,000 people crammed into 3,600 square metres. The crush was so great that nobody could have reached the lavatory even if it had been open. One woman described how she spent six days on the same step. For hygienic Germans, it was a great ordeal, but with water supplies cut, drinking water was a far higher priority. There was a pump which still worked outside the station, and young women near the entrance took the risk of running with a pail to fetch water. Many were killed, because the station was a prime target for Soviet artillery. But those who made it back alive earned eternal gratitude from those too weak to fetch it for themselves, or they bartered sips for food from those who lacked the courage to run the gauntlet themselves.
At the anti-tank barriers set up at major intersections, the Feldgendarmerie checked papers, ready to arrest and execute any deserters. In cellars, a growing trickle of German officers and soldiers began to appear in civilian clothes. ‘Desertion suddenly seems quite natural, almost creditable,’ a woman diarist noted on that morning of Monday 23 April. She thought of Leonidas’s 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, about whom they had heard so much at school. ‘Maybe here and there 300 German soldiers would behave in the same way: 3 million would not. The greater the crowd, the less the chance for schoolbook heroism. By nature, we women don’t appreciate it much either. We’re sensible, practical, opportunistic. We prefer men alive.’
When she went in search of coal later that morning along the S-Bahn tracks, she found that the tunnel to the south was already blocked against the Russians on the southern rim of the city. She heard from bystanders that a man accused of desertion had been hanged at the other end of the tunnel. Apparently he had been hanged with hi
On her way home she was horrified by the sight of ‘soft-faced children under huge steel helmets… so tiny and thin in uniforms far too large for them’. She wondered why she was so outraged by ‘this abuse of children’, when if they had been just a few years older, she would have been far less upset. She concluded that some rule of nature, which protected the survival of the species, was being broken by throwing immature humans into battle. To take that step was ‘a symptom of madness’.
Perhaps as a side-effect of this law linking death with sexual maturity, the arrival of the enemy at the edge of the city made young soldiers desperate to lose their virginity. Girls, well aware of the high risk of rape, preferred to give themselves to almost any German boy first than to a drunken and probably violent Soviet soldier. In the broadcasting centre of the Grossdeutscher Rundfunk on the Masurenallee, two-thirds of the 500-strong staff were young women – many little more than eighteen. There, in the last week of April, a ‘real feeling of disintegration’ spread, with heavy drinking and indiscriminate copulation amid the stacks of the sound archive. There was also a good deal of sexual activity between people of various ages in unlit cellars and bunkers. The aphrodisiac effect of mortal danger is hardly an unknown historical phenomenon.
A Norwegian journalist, describing the atmosphere in the city, claimed that boys and girls in uniform simply gave in ‘to their impulses’ in ‘a hectic search for pleasure’. But this showed a lack of understanding, especially for the girls facing the prospect of rape. In any case, apart from those coupling round the Zoo bunker and in the Tiergarten’s rhododendron bushes, which were just coming into flower amid the wreckage, many others simply cuddled each other in a desperate need for reassurance.
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