The fall of berlin 1945, p.39
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.39

           Antony Beevor

  Stalin wanted Berlin surrounded as rapidly as possible with a cordon sanitaire. This meant the urgent occupation of all the territory up to the Elbe which had been allocated as part of the future Soviet zone. Konev’s armies not involved in the attack on Berlin or the fight against the Ninth and Twelfth Armies were pushed westwards. The Elbe was reached during the course of 24 and 25 April at numerous points other than Torgau. Units of the 5th Guards Army, the 32nd Guards Rifle Corps commanded by General Rodimtsev of Stalingrad fame and the 4th Guards Tank Corps also reached the river. General Baranov’s Ist Guards Cavalry Corps went one further. At the special request of Stalin’s cavalry chum Marshal Semyon Budenny, Konev had given him a specific task. Soviet intelligence had heard that the stallions of the Soviet Union’s most important stud farm in the northern Caucasus, shipped back to Germany in 1942, were held west of the Elbe near Riesa. The guards cavalry crossed the river, located them and drove them back. It could have been a border raid across the Rio Grande.

  To satisfy Stalin’s impatience for details on Berlin, General Serov, the NKVD representative with the 1st Belorussian Front, provided an immensely detailed report of conditions in the city. Beria had it on Stalin’s desk on 25 April. Serov observed that the destruction was far worse towards the centre of the city, where many buildings were still blazing from Soviet artillery fire. ‘On the walls of many buildings one frequently sees the word “Pst” [i.e. silence] written in big letters.’ Berliners apparently explained that it was an attempt by the Nazi government to suppress criticism of its military efforts at a time of crisis. Berliners were already asking questions about the new form of government to be established in the city. Yet ‘out of ten Germans asked if they could act as local bürgermeister, not a single one agreed, producing different insignificant excuses,’ he wrote. ‘They seem to be afraid of the consequences and fear to take on the job. It is therefore necessary to select bürgermeisters from among the prisoners of war who come from Berlin held in our camps.’ These, no doubt, were selected anti-fascists who had received the relevant political training.

  ‘Interrogation of captured Volkssturm members revealed an interesting fact. When they were asked why there are no regular soldiers and officers among them, they said that they were afraid of their responsibility for what they had done in Russia. They will therefore surrender to the Americans, while the Volkssturm can surrender to the Bolsheviks because they are guilty of nothing.’ Serov wasted no time putting in place cordons in and around Berlin, using the 105th, 157th and 333rd NKVD Frontier Guards Regiments.

  Serov was perhaps most surprised by the state of Berlin’s defences. ‘No serious permanent defences have been found inside the ten- to fifteen-kilometre zone around Berlin. There are fire-trenches and gun-pits and the motorways are mined in certain sections. There are some trenches just as one comes to the city, but less in fact than any other city taken by the Red Army.’ Interrogations of Volkssturm men revealed how few regular troops there were in the city, how little ammunition there was and how reluctant the Volkssturm was to fight. Serov discovered also that German anti-aircraft defence had almost ceased to function, thus allowing Red Army aviation a clear sweep over the city. All of these observations were naturally kept secret. Soviet propaganda accounts had to emphasize what a formidable foe they faced in Berlin.

  Serov indicated, while avoiding any politically controversial remarks, the reason for continued German resistance. ‘It became clear from interrogating prisoners and civilians that there is still a great fear of the Bolsheviks.’ Beria, with interesting logic, used the need to change ‘the attitude of Red Army troops towards German prisoners and the civilian population’ as the basis for an overhaul of the military administration of civilian affairs. He recommended that, ‘in order to create a normal atmosphere in the rear of the operational Red Army on German territory’, a new deputy Front commander should be appointed for civilian affairs. Needless to say, the deputy Front commander in each case was the resident NKVD chief – Serov for the 1st Belorussian Front, General Meshik for the Ist Ukrainian Front and Tsanava for the 2nd Belorussian Front. It should be a guiding principle ‘that the deputy Front commander is at the same time a representative of the NKVD of the USSR and is responsible to the NKVD of the USSR for the work on removing enemy elements’. He did not need to add the key point. They owed no responsibility to the military chain of command, at a time when both Stalin and Beria were afraid of triumphant generals.

  The need for action was justified by the fact that the Americans were already prepared to administer their zone of occupation, while the Soviet Union had done nothing. For your information: on the territory of west Germany, the Allies have established the position of special deputy of commander of Allied troops in charge of civilian affairs. Major General Lucius Clay, who until appointed to this position, was deputy chief of the bureau of mobilizing military resources of the USA.’ Beria was evidently impressed to hear that he would have 3,000 specially trained officers serving under him, ‘with economic and administrative experience’. Their Soviet counterparts, with the emphasis on NKVD control, clearly were to have very different qualifications. The report ended in the usual style: ‘I request a decision. Beria.’


  Fighting in the City

  The civilians to be administered by Beria’s deputies had little idea of the realities of Soviet rule. They also had more urgent preoccupations as the battle was fought out on their streets, in their apartments and even through the cellars in which they sheltered. The only benefit in the early hours of Thursday 26 April was a thunderstorm, with such heavy rain that it put out some of the fires. Strangely enough, that seemed to increase the smell of burning, not diminish it.

  Civilian casualties had been heavy already. Like Napoleonic infantry, the women standing in line for food simply closed ranks after a shellburst decimated a queue. Nobody dared lose their place. Some claimed that women just wiped the blood from their ration cards and stuck it out. ‘There they stand like walls,’ noted a woman diarist, ‘those who not so long ago dashed into bunkers the moment three fighter planes were announced over central Germany.’ Women queued for a handout of butter and dry sausage, while men emerged only to line up for an issue of schnapps. It seemed to be symbolic. Women were concerned with the immediacy of survival while men needed escape from the consequences of their war.

  The failure of mains water meant more dangerous queues. Women waited in line with pails and enamel jugs at their nearest street pump, listening to the constant metallic squeaking from the rusty joint of its handle. They found that they had changed under fire. Swearwords and callous remarks which they would never have uttered before now slipped out quite naturally. ‘Over and over again during these days,’ the same diarist wrote, ‘I’ve been noticing that not only my feelings, but those of almost all women towards men have changed. We are sorry for them, they seem so pathetic and lacking in strength. The weakly sex. A kind of collective disappointment among women seems to be growing under the surface. The male-dominant Nazi world glorifying the strong man is tottering, and with it the myth “man”.’

  The Nazi regime, which had never wanted women to be sullied by war, or indeed anything which interfered with child-rearing, now claimed in its desperation that young women were fighting alongside men. On one of the very few radio stations still on the air, there was an appeal to women and girls: ‘Take up the weapons of wounded and fallen soldiers and take part in the fight. Defend your freedom, your honour and your life!’ Germans who heard this appeal far from Berlin were shocked at this ‘most extreme consequence of total war’. Yet only a very few young women took up weapons. Most were auxiliaries attached to the SS. A handful, however, found themselves caught up in the fighting, through either extraordinary circumstances or an ill-judged rush of romanticism. In order to stay with her lover, Ewald von Demandowsky, the actress Hildegard Knef put on uniform and joined him at Schmargendorf, defending the freight yards with his scratch company.

  In the
cellars of apartment blocks, the different couples from upstairs ate their food avoiding each other’s eyes. It was rather like families in railway compartments on a long journey, consuming picnics in front of each other with a pretence of privacy. Yet when news came through that a barracks nearby had been abandoned, any semblance of civility disappeared. Law-abiding citizens became frenzied looters of the storerooms. It was every man, woman and child for themselves and anything they could grab. Once outside with their boxes, spontaneous bartering began as they eyed each other’s unlawful gains. There was no fixed black-market rate at that time. It depended on caprice or particular need – a loaf of bread for a bottle of schnapps, a torch battery for a block of cheese. Abandoned shops were also plundered. Folk and personal memories from Berlin in the winter of 1918 were strong. This was another generation of ‘hamsters’, storing food for an oncoming catastrophe.

  Starvation, however, was not the main danger. Many were simply not prepared for the shock of Russian revenge, however much propaganda they had heard. ‘We had no idea what was going to happen,’ the Lufthansa secretary Gerda Petersohn remembered. Relatives serving as soldiers on the Eastern Front had never mentioned what had been done to the Soviet population. And even when relentless propaganda made Berlin women aware of the danger of rape, many reassured themselves that although it must be a risk out in the countryside, here in the city it could hardly happen on an extensive scale in front of everybody.

  Gerda, the nineteen-year-old who had brought back the Luftwaffe malt tablets from the looted railway wagon in Neukölln, saw a certain amount of another girl of her age who lived in the same building. She was called Carmen and had been a member of the Bund deutscher Mädel, the female equivalent of the Hitler Youth. Carmen had pin-up posters of Luftwaffe fighter aces on her bedroom wall and had wept copiously when Molders, the most famous of them all, had been killed.

  On the night of 25 April, as the Red Army advanced into Neukölln, it was unusually quiet. The inhabitants of the building were sheltering in the cellar. They then felt the vibration from a tank coming down their street. Soon afterwards, a draught of fresh air which made the candles flicker told them that the door had been opened. The first Russian word they heard was ‘Stoi!’ A soldier from Central Asia armed with a sub-machine gun came in and took their rings, watches and jewellery. Gerda’s mother had hidden Gerda under a pile of laundry. Another young soldier came in later and indicated to Gerda’s sister that he wanted her to come with him, but she put her child on her lap and looked down. The soldier told a man in the cellar to tell her to do as she was told, but the man pretended not to understand. The soldier wanted to take her into a little room adjacent to the cellar. He kept pointing, but she kept the baby on her lap and did not move. The baffled young soldier lost his nerve and left abruptly.

  When the morning of 26 April came, they emerged to find that they had got off very lightly. They heard terrible stories of what had happened during the night. A butcher’s daughter aged fourteen had been shot when she resisted. Gerda’s sister-in-law, who lived a short distance away, had been gang-raped by soldiers and the whole family had decided to hang themselves. The parents died, but Gerda’s sister-in-law was cut down by a neighbour and brought to the Petersohn apartment. They all saw the rope marks round her neck. The young woman was beside herself when she recognized her surroundings and realized that her parents had died and she had been saved.

  The next night, the families in the house decided to avoid the cellar. They would all pack into one sitting room to find safety in numbers. Over twenty women and children assembled there. Frau Petersohn grabbed the chance to hide Gerda, her other daughter and her daughter-in-law under a table with a long cloth reaching almost to the floor. It was not long before Gerda heard Russian voices and then saw Red Army boots so close to the table that she could have reached out to touch them. The soldiers dragged three young women from the room. One of them was Carmen. Gerda heard her screams. She felt so strange because Carmen was screaming her name and she did not know why. The screams eventually dissolved into sobbing.

  While the soldiers were still occupied with their victims, Frau Petersohn made up her mind. ‘They’ll be back,’ she murmured to the three of them under the table. She told them to follow her and led them rapidly upstairs to the bomb-damaged top floor, where an old woman still lived. Gerda spent the night huddled on the balcony, determined to jump to her death if the Russians came for them. But their immediate worry was how to keep her sister’s baby from crying. Gerda suddenly remembered the Luftwaffe malt tablets. Whenever the baby became restless, they slipped a malt tablet in her mouth. When dawn came, they saw that the baby’s face was smeared with brown, but the tactic had worked.

  Mornings were safe, with Soviet soldiers either sleeping off their debauches or returned to the fighting, so they crept back down to their own apartment. There, in a grotesque version of Goldilocks, they found that their beds had been used by the soldiers for their activities. The sisters also discovered their brother’s Wehrmacht uniform laid out carefully on the floor and defecated upon.

  Gerda sought out Carmen to try to offer some sort of sympathy, but also in the hope of discovering why she had screamed out her name again and again. The moment Carmen set eyes on her, Gerda saw a bitter hostility. Carmen’s attitude immediately became clear. ‘Why me and why not you?’ That was why she had yelled her name. The two never spoke to each other again.

  Although there appears to have been a fairly general pattern, the course of events when Soviet troops arrived was never predictable. In another district, frightened civilians heard a bang on the door of their bunker after the sound of fighting died away. Then a Red Army soldier armed with a sub-machine gun entered. ‘Tag, Russki!’ he greeted them cheerily, and went away without even taking their watches. Another lot of soldiers two hours later were more aggressive. They grabbed Klaus Boeseler, a fourteen-year-old boy who was just over six foot one and had blond hair. ‘Du SS!’ one of them shouted. It was more of a statement than a question. They seemed so determined to execute him that he was terrified. But the others in the cellar eventually managed to persuade the soldiers by sign language that he was in fact a schoolboy.

  As a very tall boy, Boeseler was hungry the whole time. He had no compunction about slicing up a horse killed by a shell to take the meat home for his mother to preserve in vinegar. Soviet soldiers were amazed and impressed by the speed with which city-bred Berliners, who were not ‘kulaks and landowners’, managed to strip a dead horse to the bone. Sensing the Russian fondness for children, Boeseler took his three-year-old sister to visit a bivouac of Soviet soldiers nearby. The soldiers gave them a loaf, then added a slab of butter. The next day, they were given soup. But then he heard of cases of gang rape in the neighbourhood, so Boeseler hid his mother and a neighbour in the coal cellar for three days.

  German standards of cleanliness suffered badly. Their clothes and skin felt impregnated with the dust from plaster and pulverized masonry, and there was no water to waste on washing. In fact, prudent Berliners had been boiling water to put in preserving jars, knowing that reliable drinking water would be the greatest need in the days ahead.

  The few unevacuated hospitals which had remained in Berlin were so inundated with casualties that most newcomers were turned away. The situation was made even worse by the fact that wards were limited to the cellars. In the days of bombing, staff had been able to get the patients downstairs when the sirens went, but with constant artillery fire, there was no warning. One woman who went to offer her services saw chaos and ‘wax-like faces wreathed in blood-stained bandages’. A French surgeon operating on fellow prisoners of war described how they had to work in a cellar on a wooden table, ‘almost without antiseptic and with the instruments scarcely boiled’. There was no water to wash their surgical clothes and lighting depended on two bicycles with dynamos.

  Because of the virtual impossibility of obtaining official help, many wounded soldiers and civilians were tended in the cell
ars of houses by mothers and girls. This was dangerous, however, because the Russians reacted to the presence of any soldier in a cellar as if the whole place were a defensive position. To avoid this, the women usually stripped the wounded of their uniforms, which they burned, and gave them spare clothes from upstairs. Another danger arose when members of the Volkssturm, on deciding to slip away home just before the Russians arrived, left behind the vast majority of their weapons and ammunition. Women who found any guns wasted no time in disposing of them. Word had got round that the Red Army was liable to execute all the inhabitants in a building where weapons were found.

  The parish pump was once again the main place for exchanging information. Official news was unreliable. The Panzerbär, a news-sheet called the ‘armoured bear’ after the symbol of Berlin, claimed that towns such as Oranienburg had been retaken. Goebbels’s propaganda ministry, or the ‘Promi’ as Berliners called it, was reduced to distributing handbills now that the radio transmitters were in enemy hands. ‘Berliner! Hold on. Wenck’s army is marching to our relief. Just a few more days and Berlin will be free again.’ With several Soviet armies approaching the centre of the city, fewer and fewer people were convinced by the notion of Berlin being freed by a single German army. Many, however, still clung to the idea of the Americans riding to their rescue, even though Stalin’s encirclement of the city had put paid to any hope of that.

  Colonel Sebelev, an engineer attached to the 2nd Guards Tank Army in Siemensstadt, in the north-west of the city, took a moment to write to his family. ‘At the moment I am sitting with my officers on the fifth floor of a building, writing orders to units. Signallers and runners come and go constantly. We are moving towards the centre of Berlin. Gunfire, fires and smoke everywhere. Soldiers run from one building to another and creep through the courtyards carefully. Germans were shooting at our tanks from windows and doors, but General Bogdanov’s tankists adopted a clever tactic. They are moving not in the middle of the streets, but on the pavements, and some of them are shooting with cannons and machine guns at the right side of the street and others at the left side and Germans are running away from windows and doors. In the courtyards of the houses the soldiers from the support services are handing out food from vehicles to the city’s population, which is starving. The Germans have a starved and long-suffering look. Berlin is not a beautiful city, narrow streets, barricades everywhere, broken trams and vehicles. The houses are empty because everybody is in the basements. We all are happy here to know that you are already sowing grain. How happy I would be if I could sow potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, pumpkins and so forth. Goodbye, kisses and hugs. Your Pyotr.’

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