Ever since Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle, nearly 40 years ago, the two-week battle for Berlin from 16 April to 2 May 1945 has fascinated historians. In the case of Antony Beevor's magnificent volume, another Ryan comes to mind. For this book is to all previous attempts what the first half hour of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan was to all previous war movies: it simply makes them obsolete at a stroke.
The one disappointment in a splendid book is that Beevor does not provide total casualty figures for the battle or the campaign in eastern Germany from January 1945. Some scholars say that German war dead alone for the first four months of 1945 topped one million. Since Soviet casualties were always higher than those of the Nazis, we must be talking several million dead on the Eastern Front in 1945. Here indeed was the Ragnarok, or mythical last battle, that the Wagner-obsessed Hitler fantasised about.
By April 1945, the Red Army was poised on the Oder, 40 miles from Berlin, ready to deal the coup de grâce to the Third Reich. To begin with, there were three Soviet commanders, Zhukov, Rokossovsky and Konev. Stalin soon edged Rokossovsky out, as he did not want a Pole to share the glory, and eventually, he gave supreme command to Zhukov: 2,500,000 Soviet troops confronted one million Germans in Army Group Vistula, led by General Heinrici and Army Group Centre (General Schorner).
Heinrici was the hero of the defence. On 16 April, over 20,000 Russian cannon and rocket batteries opened a barrage of unprecedented power against the outnumbered enemy. Soviet aims were twofold: to take Berlin by 22 April (Lenin's birthday), and to surround the city so that US and British armies could not reach the capital.
But Heinrici balked the attackers by moving his troops back to a second line of defence. The Russians found their task much harder than expected, and it took until 25 April for them to surround Berlin. Within the iron cordon were more than three million civilians. Despite the tales of atrocities filtering in from East Prussia since January, neither Goebbels nor any other Nazi grandee had made any attempt to evacuate a desperate, starving people.
Berlin, defended by a tiny garrison, the Home Guard and teenage Hitler Youth, should have been the object of mopping-up operations only. But so tenaciously did the beleaguered defenders fight, contesting every street and house, that it took the Red Army until 2 May before pincer movements came together in the Tiergarten and they were able to hoist the red flag over the ruins of Hitler's Chancellery.
By then, Hitler and Eva Braun had committed suicide in the bunker, as had Goebbels and his wife Magda, but not before they had poisoned their six children. The last days of the Reich were sordid even by Hitlerian standards. Himmler opened negotiations with the Western powers, thinking to save himself. But Bormann had already won the battle for Hitler's mantle.
Beevor also provides sketches of the Yalta Conference and the RAF's needless destruction of Dresden. These diversions are welcome, for otherwise the reader could be numbed by the catalogue of horrors.
The real victims of the Reich in April 1945 were the German people and, especially, the women. Readers will need a strong stomach to deal with the litany of atrocities. The Red Army, crazy for revenge and drowning in alcohol, cut loose in an orgy of rape. The ravages of Atilla and the conquests of the Mongols cannot hold a candle to it. Beginning in East Prussia in January 1945, reaching a crescendo in the two-week battle for Berlin and continuing after the end of hostilities, rape ran at epidemic levels.
The Red Army's officers had neither the will nor inclination to stop it. During the battle, 130,000 women were raped, 10 per cent of whom committed suicide. In the 1945 campaign in Germany, Beevor establishes, with unimpeachable scholarship, that at least two million women were ravished, many in gang rapes. Soviet soldiers violated all in their path, not just young German girls but women in their 70s, and even Russian prisoners.
There were many moments when I felt physically sick and deeply pessimistic about human nature. Beevor attempts an argument that Stalin had turned the Soviet Union into a repressed society, and that this was the pent-up tsunami that overwhelmed eastern Germany in 1945. I wish all the atrocities could be blamed on Stalin, but I think we are dealing with a much more sinister phenomenon: the heart of darkness that lies at the centre of humanity.
The mass rapes made me conclude that the feminists must be right: all men are rapists, once society's brakes are off. As well as profound shame for my sex, I felt another lesson inculcated by this masterly but shocking book. While I accept that pacifism cannot stop the Hitlers of this world, it is imperative that human beings go to almost any length to avoid war. For it is warfare that cracks the thin ice on which we daily skate, tipping us into chaos beneath. Even if Beevor were not a master historian, with research culled from a score of foreign archives, he would qualify, on this evidence, as an unintentional moralist. Those who do not believe in monsters of the id should read this riveting book, and reflect.Reuse content