Book review: Berlin, The Downfall 1945

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Berlin, The Downfall 1945, is Anthony Beevor’s sequel to Stalingrad, his work on the titanic battle and the destruction of the German 6th Army there during the winter of 1942/43. Most historians, professional and amateur, regard Stalingrad as the turning point of the European part of World War Two. The Battle of Berlin, and the decisions leading up to it ended that part of the global conflict.
Beevor’s book is not the first on the subject — and will not be the last. Cornelius Ryan (The Last Battle, London, 1966), Prof John Erickson (The Road to Berlin, London, 1999), Colonel Albert Seaton (The Russo-German War 1941-45, New York, 1972), Hugh Trevor-Roper (The Last Days of Hitler, London, 1995) and Dr Earl Ziemke (The Battle for Berlin: End of the Reich, London, 1969), have all dealt with the subject, as have hundreds of other authors directly or in passing, over the last sixty years. But that’s beside the point. Berlin is eminently readable. Although extensively researched, footnotes and academic language do not intrude — leaving a book that is easy to read. The end of the Cold War also provided access to archives and material previously held as secret, including what happened to the corpses of Adolf and Eva Hitler as well as the Goebbels family.
The battle was frightful in the true sense of the word. Beevor records bestial atrocities on both sides. On the German not just the usually recorded despicable treatment of Jews and other “untermenchen” but also the equally despicable treatment by the civil as well as military authorities of German civilians and soldiers. One officer recorded that his life was a constant pendulum between Knights Cross and Birch cross, between death as a hero or death by drum-head court martial. On the Russian, the sheer wantonness of many Russian troops, their destructiveness that went well beyond the brutal gang rape of any woman encountered by some perpetrators – German, Jewish, Polish or even Soviet “girl” soldiers. It is clear that Russian officers and political staff had little to no control over the illiterate, ill-trained and press-ganged mob that made up the bulk of the late-war fighting and logistics troops. “The hate propaganda had fallen on receptive ears and the degree of loathing for anything German had become truly visceral. ‘Even the trees were enemy,` said a soldier of the 3rd Belorussian Front,” Beevor writes. 
 The Germans by contrast, had total control – and much of it was capricious and martinet-ish. It was an evil time, yet memories fade fast. Christiane Berthiaume, a spokeswoman for the World Food Program in the DR Congo, earlier this month reported that relief workers were finding thousands of women who had suffered “atrocious rapes” during five years of civil war in Congo. “Never before have we found as many victims of rape in conflict situations as we are discovering now,” she said. “Thousands of women who have been atrociously raped are coming to health centers for treatment,” she added. “We strongly fear that it is only the tip of the iceberg,” she told The Associated Press. “These are women and girls from 5 to 80 years old who have been systematically raped a number of times, tortured and shot.” Some have walked 300 kilometers suffering from bad wounds, including bullet holes in their vaginas, burst bladders and broken legs. Many have been rejected by their husbands, others will never be able to have children again and a number are too weak from hunger to be able to withstand an operation, Berthiaume said. Ditto the woman and girl-children of Berlin and the survivors of the death marches west from what were then East Prussia, Silesia and Pomerania. These did not end after the German surrender, where Beevor`s book ends. Last month, prosecutors at Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), their war crimes authority, petitioned a court in Katowice, southern Poland, to order the temporary arrest and extradition from
Israel of Solomon Morel, suspected of committing “crimes against humanity.” The IPN suspected that Morel, a Holocaust survivor, was responsible for the death of some 1,538 ethnic Silesians and Germans held at the nearby Swietochlowice concentration camp between February and November 1945. Morel served as its commandant immediately following the defeat of Nazi Germany. New witness evidence suggested that Morel used both psychological and physical torture against the nearly 6,000 inmates at the camp, including beatings and starvation. He is also alleged to have allowed the spread of deadly infectious diseases in the camp, the German press agency, dpa, reported. “As several historians have emphasised, 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, Beevor says.    
The worst of the battle was that it was avoidable. As the Soviet armies and fronts closed up on the River Oder and the Western Allies were crossing the Rhine it was obvious to all but the mentally unhinged that the war was lost and that the coming slaughter would be even more pointless. South of Berlin, tens of thousands of troops and civilians were walking and fighting their way west through the pine forests of the region. “Many of those who had experienced the horror of the Halbe Kessel developed an anger which did not fade for years. They blamed senior officers for continuing the battle when all was lost. ‘Was it really unquestioning obedience,` wrote one survivor, “or was it cowardice in the face of their responsibility?`”     
Anthony Beevor
Berlin, The Downfall 1945
Penguin Books
London
2003