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Book Forum: History and Society   |    
The Fall of Berlin 1945
WILLIAM EDWIN FANN, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2003;160:2251-2252. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.160.12.2251
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By Antony Beevor. New York, Viking Press (Penguin), 2002, 490 pp., $29.95; $16.00 (paper).

Never did Adolph Hitler prosecute his despicable politics of extermination with a more depraved resolve than during his invasion of the Soviet Union. His fevered hatred of Communism, Stalin, and the entire Slavic Untermensch further inflamed his demonic pursuit of Eastern Lebensraum for his proclaimed 1,000-year Aryan Reich. In this quest Hitler’s armies perpetrated some of the most monstrous atrocities in recorded human history. German military forces marching eastward toward Moscow deliberately destroyed one after another city and town and murdered uncounted thousands of defenseless civilians. The regular German forces were savage enough in their own right, but they were accompanied by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen (Special Forces) and the infamous SS, who were trained and ordered to depopulate the countryside through systematic mass murder (e.g., Babi Yar) and wholesale deportation of hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens to slave labor camps. Eyewitness reports of widespread Nazi atrocities spread quickly throughout the Soviet Union, adding steel to the Russian resolve and a burning thirst for vengeance.

The epic battle of Stalingrad (1) dealt the previously unstoppable Nazi juggernaut its first defeat and turned the direction of the war back toward Germany. As they advanced toward the German border, front-line Soviet troops were kept furious and rapacious by a constant stream of graphic, lurid propaganda depicting Nazi crimes against Russian lands and cities, murdered fathers, enslaved mothers, defiled sisters, and despoiled homes. The Russian propaganda scheme to exaggerate the already horrible Nazi crimes and the everywhere-visible results of the actual German depredations brewed a concoction that intoxicated the Russian army into a frenzy of spoliation, gang rape, murder, and martial sadism unprecedented even in the dreadful annals of Eurasian warfare.

All of this is thoroughly entwined into prize-winning historian Antony Beevor’s chronology of this nightmarish era, but he also takes pains in The Fall of Berlin 1945 to clarify that the individual Russian soldier was often generous and kind to German civilians. Beevor cites personal interviews, diaries, correspondence, and official Russian, German, American, British, French, and Swedish archives in chronicling the lives and experiences of soldiers and civilians trapped in the prolonged horror of Germany’s collapse. Beevor’s masterfully reported details of individual human experience make this work emotionally moving and intellectually compelling without compromising its authority as the definitive history of an extraordinary time.

Chapter 1 begins among Berliners in the Christmas season, 1944. The demolished city had few amenities and only short rations and endless tension to offer is citizens. Overcrowded air raid shelters were off limits to foreign workers, especially the Ostarbeiter, slave workers from the East. Nazi propagandists’ regular reports of atrocities, rape, plunder, and murder by advancing Russian armies increased the citizens’ fears, unsoothed by official claims of fanciful "wonder weapons" to be unleashed against the Reich’s enemies by the Führer. At the front, battle-hardened German troops were battle-weary. The savage retribution exacted by Russian armies became their prime motivator. They no longer fought for Hitler, for Germany, or even for their families but to escape capture and shipment to a certain miserable death in Russian slave labor camps. Nazi officials’ insane refusal to permit evacuation of civilians from the countryside and Berlin left additional millions huddled in the path of oncoming slaughter.

The capture of Berlin was seen by the Allies as the coup de grâce to Nazi Germany and the end of the war in Europe. There was intense international and interarmy competition for the honor of taking the city and establishing the attendant postwar geopolitical advantages. Beevor’s middle chapters follow the movement of armies, strategies of commanders, and the overarching incompetence from above as Stalin and Hitler regularly interfered with their generals’ decisions. As Allied and Russian armies moved in on Berlin, their leadership distinguished itself by lying to one another and maneuvering for individual advantage in "allocating" the city’s seizure. When the Western allies agreed to concede Berlin to the Russians, the paranoid Stalin suspected he was somehow being duped and drove his Generals Chuikov, Konev, and Zhukov even harder toward the prize, sacrificing his troops unnecessarily and escalating the generals’ self-defeating rivalry.

As attacking armies encircled Berlin, the remaining defenders of the city were a cobbling of decimated regular army detachments, SS units, Hitler Jungend (youth) brigades, and Volksturm (World War I veterans) directed from Hitler’s bunker under the Reichstag. Disdainful Wehrmacht officers designated the Jugend and Volksturm as "the ‘casserole’ because they were a mixture of old meat and green vegetables." Nevertheless, these ragtag groups were surprisingly effective as defenders and ambushers on their home ground, reversing the roles played in Stalingrad when the advancing Germans had superior arms and the Russians had superior knowledge of the battlefield. But this time the determined and wily defenders did not win.

Plagued by their internecine competition, poor coordination, and bad communications, Russian forces suffered great casualties through inadvertently shelling, bombing, and shooting each other. None of this altered the ultimate outcome, when after weeks of rooftop, cellar, house-to-house, and street barricade fighting, Chuikov’s army reached the city center and invited negotiations for surrender. German emissary General Hans Krebs’s delegation brought news of Hitler’s suicide, but they either could not or would not meet the surrender deadline set by the Russians. Chuikov ordered a punitive resumption of artillery and rocket bombardment, bringing further devastation on the wretched citizenry.

Detailed communiqués between Allied and Soviet top leadership and the generals in the field add fascinating and enlivening commentary to the narrative. There are first-person accounts of victors and the vanquished—individual Russians and Germans, inviting revealing comparisons of the struggles, suffering, achievements, and heroism that characterized both sides.

Capitulation of the Nazi regime was negotiated by Hitler’s "heirs." When the firing ceased, the once beautiful city was just rubble inhabited by starving, stunned, displaced people. It was a stark and fitting tribute to the vile regime that lately had occupied its halls of power and a sorry end to mankind’s sorriest episode. Beevor’s final chapters critically review events attendant to Russian and Allied consolidation of their occupation. Stalin treated returning Russian veterans as heartlessly as he had treated them in battle. Injured veterans, even amputees, met hostility and even deportation to remote villages. There was almost no medical care provided to them. Soviet archives revealed that Hitler’s corpse was identified quickly but its whereabouts kept secret on pain-of-death orders from Stalin. It was exhumed in secrecy in 1970, cremated, and the ashes dumped in the sewers of Magdeburg.

Beevor’s account is so absorbing that the reader will shudder with empathy for the suffering of the people whose stories are told here. There will be despair at the degradation and inhumanity imposed on a civilian population by an all-consuming war and admiration for the kindnesses shown by human beings to each other under extreme stress. Americans of the 20th and 21st centuries have not yet been subjected to the total war that Europeans twice created for one another. This account should be one more good reason to do all that we can to avoid it. If the reader can derive any such comfort from these revelations, Antony Beevor’s edifying account will have had a perhaps unintended salutary effect.

Beevor A: Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942–1943. New York, Penguin Books, 1999
 
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References

Beevor A: Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege, 1942–1943. New York, Penguin Books, 1999
 
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