The fall of berlin 1945, p.53
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       The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.53

           Antony Beevor

  The most serious anti-Semitic outrage took place in Kiev. At the beginning of September a Jewish NKVD major was attacked in the street ‘by two anti-Semites in military uniform’. They may well have been drunk. The major finally managed to draw his pistol and shot them both. Their funerals rapidly turned into a violent demonstration. The coffins were being carried through the streets when suddenly the procession headed for the recently re-established Jewish market. On that day alone nearly 100 Jews were beaten up. Five of them were killed and another thirty-six were taken to hospital seriously injured. The unrest continued to such an extent that a permanent guard had to be placed on the Jewish market. This time not just ‘hooligans’ were blamed. Even members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Ukraine were described as ‘worthy successors’ of Goebbels. The following year, Grossman and Ehrenburg’s ‘Black Book’ on the Holocaust was removed from circulation by the authorities.

  It is very hard to know how deep Stalin’s anti-Semitism ran or how much it was conditioned by his loathing for Trotsky. Partly as a result of Trotsky’s internationalism, he certainly seemed to see Jews as part of an international network and therefore suspect. ‘Cosmopolitanism’ implied treachery. This reached its peak in the anti-Semitic hysteria whipped up over the ‘Doctor’s Plot’ shortly before his death. Stalin, although a Georgian, had become something of a Russian chauvinist. Rather like other outsiders, such as Napoleon and Hitler, he wrapped himself in the national mantle. In one notorious victory speech on 24 May, he praised the Russians above all ‘the nations of the Soviet Union’ for their ‘clear mind, stamina and firm character’. This was aimed mainly at the southern non-Russian nations, many of whom were brutally deported on his orders, leading to tens of thousands of deaths. Yet Stalin, in contrast to Hitler, was essentially a practitioner of political rather than racial genocide.

  While nothing was to be allowed to detract from the ‘Russian’ triumph, the Party line paid tribute to one man alone: ‘Our great genius and leader of troops, Comrade Stalin, to whom we owe our historic victory.’ Stalin had shamelessly pushed himself to the fore whenever a battle was about to be won, and had disappeared from view during any disaster, especially one of his own making. Commanders always had to acknowledge his wisdom and guiding hand. To take any credit for themselves was extremely dangerous.

  Stalin became suspicious if any Soviet citizen was lauded abroad, and he must have been even more distrustful when Zhukov was praised to the skies in the American and British press. Although Stalin was afraid of Beria’s power, which he was soon to curb, he was even more concerned by the immense popularity of Zhukov and the Red Army. When Eisenhower visited the Soviet Union, Zhukov accompanied him everywhere, even flying with him to Leningrad in Eisenhower’s personal aircraft. Everywhere they went, the two great commanders received a rapturous welcome. Eisenhower later invited Zhukov and his ‘campaign wife’, Lydia Z–ova, to visit the United States, but Stalin summoned his marshal to Moscow immediately to spike this plan. It was clear to him that Zhukov had built a genuine rapport with the Allied commander-in-chief.

  Zhukov, although aware of Beria’s attempts to undermine him, did not realize that the main threat came from Stalin’s jealousy. In the middle of June in Berlin, Zhukov was asked about the death of Hitler at a press conference. He was forced to admit to the world that ‘we have not yet found an identified body’. Around 10 July, Stalin again rang Zhukov to ask him where the body was. To play with Zhukov in this way clearly gave him great pleasure. Zhukov, when he finally discovered the truth twenty years later from Rzhevskaya, still found it hard to accept that Stalin should have humiliated him in this way. ‘I was very close to Stalin,’ he insisted. ‘Stalin saved me. It was Beria and Abakumov who wanted to do away with me.’ Abakumov, the chief of SMERSH, may have been the driving force against Zhukov, but Stalin knew exactly what was going on and approved.

  In the Soviet capital, the populace hailed Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov as ‘our St George’ – the patron saint of Moscow. After the victory celebrations in Moscow on 9 May – a day of joy and relief, but also many tears – a full parade was planned to commemorate the victory on Red Square. A regiment from each Front would take part, as well as one from the Soviet navy and one from the air force. The banner which had been raised over the Reichstag would be brought back specially. It had become a sacred object already. German flags were also collected and brought back for another purpose.

  Soviet marshals and generals assumed that Stalin would take the parade on 24 June. He was the supreme commander – the Verkhovny – supposedly responsible for the great victory. It was, however, the Russian tradition that a victory parade had to be taken on horseback.

  A week before the parade, Zhukov was summoned to Stalin’s dacha. Stalin asked the former cavalryman from the First World War and the civil war whether he could still manage a horse.

  ‘I still ride from time to time,’ Zhukov replied.

  ‘So what we’ll do is this,’ said Stalin. ‘You will take the parade and Rokossovsky will command it.’

  ‘Thank you for this honour,’ said Zhukov. ‘But wouldn’t it be better if you took the parade? You are the commander-in-chief and it is your privilege to take it.’

  ‘I’m too old to take parades. You are younger. You take it.’ On saying goodbye, he told Zhukov to take the parade on an Arab stallion which Marshal Budyonny would show him.

  The next day, Zhukov went to the central airfield to watch drill rehearsals for the parade. There he met Stalin’s son Vasily, who took him aside. ‘I’m telling you this as a big secret,’ Vasily said to him. ‘Father had himself been preparing to take the victory parade, but a curious incident took place. Three days ago, the horse bolted in the manege because he did not use his spurs very cleverly. Father caught hold of the mane and tried to stay in the saddle, but did not manage and fell. As he fell, he injured his shoulder and head. When he stood up, he spat and said, “Let Zhukov take the parade. He’s an old cavalryman.”’

  ‘And which horse was your father riding?’

  ‘A white Arab stallion, the one on which you are taking the parade. But I beg you not to mention a word of this.’ Zhukov thanked him. In the few days left, he did not waste a single opportunity to get back into the saddle and master the horse.

  On the morning of the parade it was raining steadily. ‘Heaven is weeping for our dead’ was a common remark among Muscovites. The water dripped from the peaks of caps. All soldiers and officers had received new uniforms and medals. At three minutes before ten, Zhukov mounted the Arab stallion near the Spassky Gate of the Kremlin. He could hear the rumble of applause as the leaders of the Party and the Soviet government took their places on Lenin’s mausoleum. As the clock struck the hour, he rode on to Red Square. The bands broke into Glinka’s ‘Slav’sya!’ (‘Glory to you!’) and then fell silent. An equally nervous Rokossovsky kept firm control of his black charger. His words of command were clearly heard. The climax of the parade came when 200 veterans, one after another, marched up to the mausoleum and there, at Stalin’s feet, hurled the Nazi banner which they carried down to the ground. Zhukov, cheered by the crowds on his magnificent Arab charger, had little idea that Abakumov was preparing his downfall.

  Zhukov’s dacha was bugged. A small dinner which he gave there for close friends to celebrate the victory was recorded. Their crime was not to have made the first toast to Comrade Stalin. This led later to the torture and imprisonment of the cavalry commander General Kryukov. His wife, the famous folk-singer Lydia Ruslanova, was sent to the Gulag when she spurned Abakumov’s sinister advances. The commandant of the Gulag camp where she was sent ordered her to sing for him and his officers. She replied that she would sing only if all her comrades, the other zeky, were allowed to be present.

  A week after the victory parade, Marshal Stalin was appointed Generalissimo ‘for outstanding service in the Great Patriotic War’. This was in addition to receiving the medals of Hero of the Soviet Union, the Order
of Lenin and the Order of Victory, a five-pointed platinum star set with 135 diamonds and five large rubies. The celebration banquets and the awards demonstrated a truly Tsarist disregard for the famine in Central Asia.

  The following year, Abakumov’s campaign of obtaining confessions under torture from colleagues of Zhukov led to the marshal’s exile in the provinces, and then at his dacha. Apart from a brief period as defence minister under Khrushchev, he remained in domestic exile until 9 May 1965, the twentieth anniversary of the German surrender to him at Karlshorst. A great banquet was held in the Kremlin in the Palace of Congress. All the guests, including ministers, marshals, generals and ambassadors, rose to their feet when Leonid Brezhnev entered at the head of his retinue. At the back, Zhukov appeared. Brezhnev had invited him at the last moment. The Soviet leader must have rapidly regretted this gesture, because as soon as Zhukov was spotted, applause broke out, then cheering. Chants of ‘Zhukov! Zhukov! Zhukov!’ were accompanied by thumping on the table. Brezhnev was stony-faced.

  Zhukov had to return to his dacha, which was still heavily bugged. Even though officially rehabilitated, he was never to appear again on a major public occasion during the nine years left to him. Yet the cruellest wound of all was the discovery that he had been tricked by Stalin over Hitler’s body.

  While most ordinary Germans were traumatised by the crushing defeat of their country and the destruction of their lives and homes, the political and military leaders of the Third Reich refused to accept responsibility for their actions. American and British interrogators were flabbergasted by senior Wehrmacht officers expressing an injured innocence that the Western Allies should have so misunderstood them. They were prepared to acknowledge ‘mistakes’, but not crimes. Any crimes were committed by the Nazis and the SS.

  In a euphemism surpassing any Stalinist circumlocution, General Blumentritt referred to the Nazis’ anti-Semitism as ‘the mistaken developments since 1933’. ‘Well-known scientists were thus lost,’ he said, ‘much to the detriment of our research, which in consequence declined from 1933 on.’ His train of thought appears to include the idea that if the Nazis had not persecuted the Jews, then scientists like Einstein might have helped them produce better ‘miracle weapons’, perhaps even an atomic bomb to prevent the Bolsheviks overrunning Germany. Blumentritt, through naïve sophistry, often did not realize that he was contradicting his own attempts to distance the Wehrmacht from the Nazis. He maintained that the lack of mutiny in 1945, in contrast to the revolutionary turmoil of 1918, clearly demonstrated what a united society Germany had become under Hitler.

  The interrogation of generals continually talking about the honour of a German officer revealed astonishing distortions of logic. SHAEF’s joint intelligence committee attributed it to ‘a perverted moral sense’. ‘These generals,’ stated a report based on over 300 interviews, ‘approve of every act which “succeeds”. Success is right. What does not succeed is wrong. It was, for example, wrong to persecute the Jews before the war since that set the Anglo-Americans against Germany. It would have been right to postpone the anti-Jewish campaign and begin it after Germany had won the war. It was wrong to bomb England in 1940. If they had refrained, Great Britain, so they believe, would have joined Hitler in the war against Russia. It was wrong to treat Russian and Polish [prisoners of war] like cattle since now they will treat Germans in the same way. It was wrong to declare war against the USA and Russia because they were together stronger than Germany. These are not isolated statements by pro-Nazi generals. They represent the prevalent thoughts among nearly all these men. That it is morally wrong to exterminate a race or massacre prisoners hardly ever occurs to them. The only horror they feel for German crimes is that they themselves may, by some monstrous injustice, be considered by the Allies to be implicated.’

  Even civilians, according to another US Army report, betrayed through their automatic use of propaganda clichés how deeply their thinking had been influenced. They would, for example, instinctively refer to Allied bombing raids as ‘Terrorangrijffe’ (Goebbels’s phrase) and not use the ordinary term of ‘Luftangriffe,’ or air attacks. The report described this as ‘residual Nazism’. Many civilians would talk with self-pity of Germany’s suffering, especially from bombing. They fell resentfully silent when reminded that it was the Luftwaffe which had invented the mass destruction of cities as a shock tactic.

  There was a general evasion of responsibility for what had happened. Members of the Nazi Party claimed that they had been forced to join. Only the leadership was guilty for anything that might have happened. Ordinary Germans were not. They had been ‘belogen und betrogen’ – ‘deceived and betrayed’. Even German generals implied that they too had been victims of Nazism, for if Hitler had not interfered so disastrously in the way that they ran the war, then they would never have been defeated.

  Not content with exculpating themselves, both civilians and generals then tried to persuade their interrogators of the Tightness of Nazi Germany’s view of the world. Civilians could not understand why the United States ever declared war on Germany. When told that in fact it was Germany which had declared war on the United States, they were incredulous. It contradicted their conviction that Germans were the true victims of the war.

  Both officers and civilians tried to lecture their conquerors on the need for the United States and Britain to ally themselves with Germany against the common danger of ‘Bolschewismus’, which they knew only too well. The fact that it was Nazi Germany’s onslaught against the Soviet Union in 1941 which had brought Communism to all of central and south-east Europe – something which all the revolutions between 1917 and 1921 had completely failed to do – remained beyond their understanding. Rather as the minority Bolsheviks had managed to exploit ruthlessly the Russian conditioning to autocracy, so the Nazis had seized upon their own country’s fatal tendency to confuse cause and effect. As several historians have emphasized, the country which had so desired law and order in 1933 ended up with one of the most criminal and irresponsible regimes in history. The result was that its own people, above all the women and children of East Prussia, faced a similar suffering to that which Germany had visited upon the civilians of Poland and the Soviet Union.

  The new line-up in the Cold War allowed many of the old guard from the Third Reich to believe that all they had been guilty of was bad timing. Yet some three decades after the defeat, the combination of a difficult historical debate and Germany’s economic miracle enabled the vast majority of Germans to face up to the nation’s past. No other country with a painful legacy has done so much to recognize the truth.

  The government in Bonn was also extremely vigilant to prevent any shrine to Nazism and its leader. Yet Hitler’s corpse remained on the other side of the Iron Curtain long after the Stalinist campaign of disinformation, suggesting that he might have escaped to the West in the last moments of the battle. In 1970, the Kremlin finally decided to dispose of the body in absolute secrecy. The funeral rites of the Third Reich’s leader were indeed macabre. Hitler’s jaws, kept so carefully in the red box by Rzhevskaya during the victory celebrations in Berlin, had been retained by SMERSH, while the NKVD kept the cranium. These remnants were recently rediscovered in the former Soviet archives. The rest of the body, which had been concealed beneath a Soviet army parade-ground in Magdeburg, was exhumed at night and burned. The ashes were flushed into the town sewage system.

  Hitler’s corpse was not the only one which lacked an identifiable grave. Countless victims of the battle – soldiers on both sides as well as civilians – had been buried by bombs and shells. Each year around 1,000 bodies from 1945 are still being found along the Seelow Heights, in the silent pine forests south of the city and on construction sites in the new capital of a reunited Germany. The senseless slaughter which resulted from Hitler’s outrageous vanity utterly belies Speer’s regret that history should emphasize ‘terminal events’. The incompetence, the frenzied refusal to accept reality and the inhumanity of the Nazi regime were re
vealed all too clearly in its passing.

  1. Hitler Youth during the fighting in Lauban in Silesia, 30 March.

  2. Part of the Grossdeutschland Corps being inspected in an East Prussian forest before the Soviet onslaught of 14 January.

  3. Volkssturm captured in Insterburg, East Prussia, 22 January.

  4. Berliners after a heavy air raid.

  5. A ‘trek’ of German refugees from Silesia fleeing before the Red Army.

  6. Red Army troops march into an East Prussian town, January.

  7. Soviet mechanized troops enter the East Prussian town of Mühlhausen.

  8. Red Army troops occupy Tilsit.

  9. A Soviet self-propelled assault gun breaks into Danzig, 23 March.

  10. A Hitler Youth at a Volkssturm parade taken by Goebbels.

  11. Two German soldiers in the defence of the besieged Silesian capital, Breslau.

  12. SS Panzergrenadiers before a counter-attack in southern Pomerania.

  13. Goebbels decorates a Hitler Youth after the recapture of Lauban, 9 March.

  14. German women and children trying to escape westwards by rail.

  15. Famished refugees collecting beechnuts in a wood near Potsdam.

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