The fall of berlin 1945, p.43
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.43
 

           Antony Beevor

  Hitler had suddenly noticed Hermann Fegelein’s absence early in the afternoon at the situation conference. Bormann, probably from their mutual bragging in the sauna, knew of the apartment in Charlottenburg which he used for his affairs. A group of Hitler’s Gestapo bodyguards were sent to bring him back. They found Fegelein, apparently drunk, with a mistress. His bags, containing money, jewels and false passports, were packed ready for departure. He insisted on ringing the bunker and demanded to speak to his sister-in-law, but Eva Braun, shocked that he too had tried to desert her beloved Führer, refused to intervene. She did not believe him when he claimed that he was only trying to leave to be with Gretl, who was about to give birth. Fegelein was brought back under close arrest. He was held in a locked room in the Reich Chancellery cellar.

  On 28 April, in the middle of the afternoon, Hitler was told of a report on Stockholm radio that Himmler had been in touch with the Allies. The idea that ‘der treue Heinrich’ could be attempting to make a deal seemed ludicrous, yet Hitler had begun to suspect the SS after Steiner’s failure to relieve Berlin. He rang Dönitz, who spoke to Himmler. The Reichsführer SS denied it completely. But that evening, Lorenz, Hitler’s press attaché, arrived with a copy of confirmation of the story from Reuters. All Hitler’s resentments and suspicions exploded. He was white with anger and shock. Fegelein was interrogated, apparently by Gruppenführer Müller, the chief of the Gestapo. He admitted that he had known of Himmler’s approach to Bernadotte. Freytag von Loringhoven saw Fegelein being marched upstairs under heavy SS escort. All badges of rank, his Knight’s Cross and other insignia had been torn from his uniform. Fegelein’s swagger had disappeared. He was executed in the Reich Chancellery garden. Hitler was now convinced that the SS had been seething with plots against him, just like the army the year before.

  Hitler went straight to the bunker room where the newly promoted Marshal Ritter von Greim lay nursing his wounded leg. He ordered him to fly out of Berlin to organize Luftwaffe attacks on the Soviet tanks which had reached the Potsdamerplatz and to ensure that Himmler did not go unpunished. ‘A traitor must never succeed me as Führer,’ he shouted at Greim. ‘You must go out to ensure that he does not!’ No time was wasted. Hanna Reitsch was summoned to help Greim up the concrete staircase on his crutches. An armoured vehicle was waiting to take them to an Arado 96 trainer, specially ordered from outside and now ready for take-off near the Brandenburg Gate. Soviet soldiers from the 3rd Shock Army who had just fought their way into the Tiergarten stared in amazement as the aircraft took off before their eyes. Their immediate fear, on recovering their military reactions, was that Hitler had escaped them. But the rather tardy explosion of anti-aircraft and machine-gun fire failed to find the target. Ritter von Greim and Hanna Reitsch escaped.

  This mouvementé night in the Führer bunker was not over. It held an even greater surprise. Adolf Hitler proceeded to marry the sister-in-law of the man he had just had executed. Goebbels had brought to Hitler’s private sitting room a Herr Walter Wagner, an official of the Gau of Berlin, who had the authority to perform a civil wedding ceremony. Wagner, bemused and overawed by his responsibilities, had come from guard duty in his brown Nazi Party uniform and Volkssturm armband. Hitler was in his usual tunic. Eva Braun wore a long black silk taffeta dress, one which he had often complimented her upon. Its colour was rather suitable in the circumstances. A very nervous Wagner then had to ask both the Führer and Fräulein Braun whether they were of pure Aryan descent and free from hereditary diseases. The proceedings took no more than a couple of minutes under the wartime formula of simple declarations. Then came the signing of the register, with Goebbels and Bormann as witnesses. Eva Braun began to write her usual name, but stopped, scratched out the ‘B’ and corrected the entry to ‘Eva Hitler, geb[orene]. Braun.’ Hitler’s signature was totally illegible, his hand was shaking so much.

  The married couple emerged into the anteroom corridor which served as the bunker conference room. Generals and secretaries congratulated them. They then retired to the little sitting room for a wedding breakfast with champagne for the new Frau Hitler, as she now insisted on being called by servants. She had finally been rewarded for her loyalty in a world of betrayal. They were later joined by Bormann, Goebbels and his wife, Magda, and the two remaining secretaries, Gerda Christian and Traudl Junge. Hitler took Traudl Junge away to another room, where he dictated his political and personal testaments. She sat there in nervous excitement, expecting to hear at last a profound explanation of the great sacrifice’s true purpose. But instead a stream of political clichés, delusions and recriminations poured forth. He had never wanted war. It had been forced on him by international Jewish interests. The war, ‘in spite of all setbacks,’ he claimed, ‘will one day go down in history as the most glorious and heroic manifestation of a people’s will to live’.

  Grand Admiral Dönitz, the head of the Kriegsmarine, was appointed Reich President. The Army, the Luftwaffe and the SS had either failed or betrayed him. The loyal Dönitz – ‘Hitlerjunge Quex’ – had emerged in front of schemers. Yet Goebbels was appointed Reich Chancellor, while ‘my most faithful Party comrade, Martin Bormann’ became Party Chancellor as well as executor of his private will. Hitler clearly wanted to continue his policy of divide and rule from beyond the grave, even on the most spectral administration ever assembled. Perhaps the most bizarre appointment was for Gauleiter Karl Hanke to replace Himmler as Reichsführer SS. Hanke, a pre-war lover of Magda Goebbels, was still trapped in Breslau, directing his own provincial performance of enforced suicide on a city. Goebbels, meanwhile, wrote his own will. He believed it his duty – ‘in the delirium of treachery which surrounds the Führer in these most critical days of the war’ – to refuse Hitler’s order to leave Berlin and ‘stay with him unconditionally until death’. One of the copies of Hitler’s testament was sent by a trusted officer to Field Marshal Schörner, the new commander-in-chief of the army. The covering letter from General Burgdorf confirmed that ‘the shattering news of Himmler’s treachery’ was for Hitler the final blow.

  The rather sedate wedding party deep in the bunker was overtaken by much wilder behaviour closer to the surface. When Traudl Junge was finally released from her typing at around 4 a.m. on Sunday 29 April, and the Führer and Frau Hitler retired, she went upstairs to find some food for the Goebbels children. The scenes which she encountered, not far from where the wounded lay in the Reich Chancellery’s underground field hospital, shocked her deeply. ‘An erotic fever seemed to have taken possession of everybody. Everywhere, even on the dentist’s chair, I saw bodies locked in lascivious embraces. The women had discarded all modesty and were freely exposing their private parts.’ SS officers who had been out searching cellars and streets for deserters to hang had also been tempting hungry and impressionable young women back to the Reich Chancellery with promises of parties and inexhaustible supplies of food and champagne. It was the apocalypse of totalitarian corruption, with the concrete submarine of the Reich Chancellery underworld providing an Existentialist theatre set for hell.

  The reality for ordinary Berliners was becoming more terrible by the hour. On 28 April, Soviet troops reached the street of an anonymous woman diarist. ‘I had a queasy sensation in my stomach,’ she wrote. ‘It reminded me of the feeling I used to have as a schoolgirl before taking a maths exam – discomfort and restlessness, and the longing for everything to be over.’ From an upstairs window they watched a Soviet supply column of horse-drawn carts, with foals nuzzling up against their mothers. The street already smelled of horse dung. A field kitchen was set up in the garage opposite. There were no German civilians to be seen at all. ‘Ivans’ were learning to ride bicycles they had found. The sight reassured her. They seemed like big children.

  When she ventured out, one of the first questions she faced was, ‘Do you have a husband?’ She spoke some Russian and was able to parry their ‘clumsy banter’. But then she noticed them exchanging looks and she began to feel afraid. One soldier, who smelle
d of alcohol, followed her when she retreated down into the cellar. There, the other women sat frozen as he walked along unsteadily, flashing his torch into their faces. He persisted in his unsubtle approach and the diarist, as if leading him on, managed to escape the cellar and fled up into the sunshine of the street. Other soldiers came and stripped the civilians in the cellar of their watches, but no violence was offered. In the evening, however, once the soldiers had eaten and drunk, they began their hunt. The diarist was ambushed in the dark by three of them, who began to rape her in turn. When the second one attacked her, he was interrupted by the arrival of three other soldiers, one of them a woman, but they all just laughed at the sight, including the woman.

  Finally back in her own room, she piled all the furniture against the door and retired to bed. As was probably the case for all women in Berlin who were raped at this time, she found the lack of running water in which to wash herself afterwards made things far worse. She had hardly been in bed for long when her barricade was pushed aside. A group of soldiers came in and started eating and drinking in her kitchen. A giant named Petka picked her up when she tried to slip out of the apartment. She begged him not to allow the others to rape her as well and he agreed. Early the next morning, he woke up when the company rooster crowed down in the street. He announced that he must go back on duty, then nearly crushed her fingers in a goodbye handshake, assuring her that he would be back at 7 that evening.

  Many other women also ‘conceded’ to one soldier in the hope of protecting themselves from gang rape. Magda Wieland, a twenty-four-year-old actress, found the arrival of Russian troops in Giesebrechtstrasse, just off the Kürfurstendamm, ‘the most frightening moment of the whole war’. She hid in a huge, ornately carved mahogany cupboard when they burst in. A very young soldier from Central Asia hauled her out. He was so excited at the prospect of a beautiful young blonde that he suffered from premature ejaculation. By sign language, she offered herself to him as a girlfriend if he would protect her from other Russian soldiers. He was clearly thrilled at the idea of having a blonde girlfriend, and went out to boast to his friends, but another soldier arrived and raped her brutally.

  In the cellar, Ellen Goetz, a Jewish friend of Magda’s who had sought shelter there when she escaped from the Lehrterstrasse prison after a heavy bombardment, was also dragged out and raped. When other Germans tried to explain to the Russians that she was Jewish and had been persecuted, they received the terse retort, ‘Frau ist Frau.’ Russian officers arrived later. They themselves behaved very correctly, but they did nothing to control their men.

  Giesebrechtstrasse housed a very mixed section of Berlin life. Hans Gensecke, a well-known journalist, who had been punished for hiding Jews by being made to remove corpses from bombed cellars, also lived at No. 10. So too, on the third floor of the same block, did Kaltenbrunner’s mistress, who entertained him in her apartment decorated with gilded doors and silk upholstered furniture and tapestries, no doubt looted from occupied areas of Europe. Next door, No. 11, had been infamous for the presence of ‘Salon Kitty’, the Nazi brothel for Prominenten. This establishment, with sixteen young prostitutes, had been taken over earlier in the war by Heydrich and Schellenberg. It was run by the intelligence department of the SS to spy on senior officials, Wehrmacht officers and foreign ambassadors and then blackmail them. All the rooms were bugged, and soon after the capture of Berlin, the NKVD apparently examined the technology used with great interest. Next door, on the far side, Colonel General Paul von Hase, the city commandant of Berlin, had lived until his arrest and execution following the July plot.

  With Hitler Youth and SS opening fire at any house which displayed a white flag, civilians found themselves crushed by the violent intransigence of both sides. The smell of decomposing corpses spread from the piles of rubble which had been buildings, and the smell of charred flesh from the blackened skeletons of burnt-out houses. But it was not these terrible scenes as much as three years of propaganda which shaped the attitude of Soviet troops. They saw Berlin as ‘this grey, frightening, gloomy, misanthropic city, this bandit capital’.

  Even German Communists were not spared. In Wedding, a left-wing stronghold until 1933, activists from the Jülicherstrasse went out to congratulate the Soviet officers commanding the unit to occupy their district, showing their Party cards, which they had kept hidden during twelve years of illegality. They volunteered their wives and daughters to help out with washing and cooking, but, according to a French prisoner of war, the unit’s officers raped them ‘that very evening’.

  *

  While the occupants of the Führer bunker were preoccupied with the T-34s and Stalin tanks advancing from the Potsdamerplatz and up the Wilhelmstrasse, Soviet eyes were fixed on the northern side of central Berlin. The 3rd Shock Army angled its advance through Moabit, just north-east of the Spree, to line itself up for an attack on the Reichstag.

  The commander of the 150th Rifle Division, General Shatilov, thought that Goebbels himself was directing the defence of Moabit prison and that they might capture him alive. He described Moabit prison ‘looking at us maliciously with its narrow windows’. (It is striking how Russians saw evil in the very buildings of Berlin, just as they had in German trees on crossing the frontier.) Moabit prison did not appear an easy task to storm. The artillery brought forward a heavy gun, but it attracted frantic firing from within the prison. The very first gun-layer was killed and so was the second, but a breach was soon blasted in the walls.

  Storm groups dashed across the street and entered the courtyard. Once they were inside, the German garrison surrendered very quickly. The sappers, who had found mines near the entrance, went running in to check for explosives. Their commander remembered the heavy metallic echo as they ran up the iron stairways. Every German who came out with raised arms was closely examined, even those in private’s uniform, in case they. were Goebbels in disguise. Cell doors were thrown open, and the liberated prisoners came out squinting in the sunlight.

  Other objectives cost far heavier casualties in a city where the streets drifted with smoke from indiscriminate shellfire. ‘What a terrible price we are paying for each step to victory,’ observed the editor of the military newspaper Voin Rodiny on a visit to the fighting in Berlin. He was killed almost seconds later by a shell explosion. Deaths so close to the end of such a long and ferocious war seemed doubly poignant. Many were moved by the death of Mikhail Shmonin, a young and greatly admired platoon commander. ‘Follow me!’ he had cried to his sergeant, running towards a building. He had hardly fired three shots when a heavy shell, almost certainly a Soviet one, struck the wall in front of him. The side of the house collapsed and the lieutenant, with ‘pink cheeks, clear complexion and large clear eyes’, was buried under the rubble.

  Even if the Red Army had ‘soon learned what to expect’ in street-and house-fighting in Berlin, with ‘fausters near barricades’ and ‘stone and concrete buildings turned into bunkers’, it began to rely more and more on the 152mm and 203mm heavy howitzers fired at short range over open sights. Only then would the assault teams go in. But the one battleground that Soviet troops avoided if at all possible was subway tunnels and bunkers, of which there were over 1,000 in the greater Berlin area. They were extremely cautious about entering civilian airraid shelters, convinced that German soldiers were hiding ready to ambush them, or emerge to attack them in the rear. As a result, they virtually sealed off any shelters they overran. Civilians who came to the surface were likely to be shot. There are stories, mainly the product of German paranoia, that T-34S were driven into railway tunnels to emerge behind their lines. The only genuine case of an underground tank, however, appears to be that of an unfortunate T-34 driver who failed to spot the entrance of the Alexanderplatz U-Bahn station and charged down the stairs. Stories of light artillery bumped down station stairs, step by step, and manhandled on to the tracks also owe more to folklore than to fact.

  From the Moabit prison, it was only 800 metres down Alt Moabit to the Molt
ke bridge over the Spree. Another 600 metres beyond that stood the Reichstag, which from time to time became visible when the smoke cleared. For the 150th and the 171st Rifle Divisions, it seemed so close now, and yet they had no illusions about the dangers ahead. They knew that many of them would die before they could raise their red banners over the building chosen by Stalin as the symbol of Berlin. Their commanders, to please Comrade Stalin, wanted the building captured in time for it to be announced at the May Day celebrations in Moscow.

  The advance down to the Moltke bridge began on the afternoon of 28 April. The lead battalions from the two divisions left from the same start-line, further emphasizing the race. The bridge ahead was barricaded on both sides. It was mined and protected with barbed wire and covered by machine-gun and artillery fire from both flanks. Shortly before 6 p.m., there was a deafening detonation as the Germans blew the Moltke bridge. When the smoke and dust settled, it became clear that the demolition had not been entirely successful. The bridge sagged, but was certainly passable by infantry.

  Captain Neustroev, the battalion commander, ordered Sergeant Pyatnitsky to take his platoon across in a probing attack. Pyatnitsky and his men dashed over the open space which led to the bridge and managed to shelter behind the Germans’ own barricade. Neustroev then called in artillery support for the crossing. It seems to have taken rather a long time for the artillery observation officers to turn up and organize their batteries, but just as the last light was fading, artillery preparation began. The heavy bombardment at close range smashed the German fire-positions, and the leading infantry platoons dashed across to fight their way into the large buildings on the Kronprinzenufer and Moltke-strasse. By midnight, just as Hitler was marrying Eva Braun, they established a firm bridgehead. During the rest of the night, the bulk of the 150th and 171st Rifle Divisions crossed the Spree.

 
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