IT IS 47 years since Berlin fell to Soviet forces but, given the Sarajevo horrors emblazoned of late on television screens, the grisliness of the 1945 cataclysm has a horribly topical ring.
Take the lull preceding the final Soviet drive into central Berlin, when civilians poured from their shelters to queue for promised extra rations. Suddenly came the artillery bombardment heralding the climactic Russian assault. 'In Hermannplatz,' write Anthony Read and David Fisher in their new book, 'the queues were particularly thick . . . shells started exploding in their midst. Within seconds, blood and guts and dismembered body parts were splattered everywhere . . . The Kurfurstendamm was a scene of wild panic, as shoppers fled and a herd of horses stampeded from a burning riding stable on the edge of the Tiergarten, their manes and tails aflame.'
Inevitably, dreadful facts abound in The Fall of Berlin. But the book is neither sensationalist in purpose nor needlessly lurid in execution. The atrociousness of war is seen as the handiwork of both sides, although Hitler - manic in his last subterranean defiance of the world - is portrayed as the ultimate agent of evil.
Read and Fisher provide a cogent panorama of the great struggle. They show how Stalin not only misled his Western allies about the timing of his lunge for Berlin, but also whipped up competition between his main commanders to ensure a speedy, and exclusively Soviet capture, of the war's chief prize. Indeed, Stalin emerges from this book as near-omniscient in his mastery of men and events, a judgement bound to be questioned by historians in post-Soviet Russia.
Debatable, too, is the book's very title, which arouses expectations of a story wholly concerned with the battle for the Reich capital. Instead, Read and Fisher start their story with the Berlin Olympics of 1936. For a time thereafter, The Fall of Berlin threatens to become a general history of Germany before and during the Second World War. But with reader impatience mounting, the focus duly settles on the increasing collapse of Berlin under remorseless pulverising by Anglo-American bombers and the inexorable advance of the Soviet armies.
The authorial duo obviously shares the widespread admiration for Berlin that has developed among Germany's former foes in the West since the 1948 blockade.
But, apparently seeking to have their cake and eat it, they depict Berliners under Hitler as quite brazenly anti-Nazi - to the point where one sometimes wonders whether the fervent rallies in the Fuhrer's favour that so often galvanised the city's streets were a mere rent-a- crowd phenomenon. The 'mystical totality of fools', as one non-emigrant German poet privately described his Hitler-adoring compatriots, must have embraced a goodly portion of the population.
Preoccupied with the spectacle of Nazi collapse, Read and Fisher generally attribute the eruptions of ferocious resistance encountered by the Russians to a few Nazi fanatics (often foreigners) or misguided Hitler Youth. Yet at Tempelhof airport, the resistance, according to an awe-struck Wehrmacht officer, was highlighted by 'Silesian girls thirsting for revenge', their bazookas blazing.
The dozen thunderous days culminating in the surrender of Berlin on 2 May are recounted with pace and panache, the book shifting smoothly between an expert narration of the military action, the ordeals of individual civilians and the Wagnerian melodrama stormily unfolding in the Fuhrer's bunker.
The whole is laced with the macabre - a body blown from its tomb into a cemetery tree, a hippo at the zoo dead in its pool 'with the fins of an unexploded shell sticking out of its side'. The Berlin phone system survived it all, allowing one German-speaking Russian to reach Goebbels himself at the height of the battle. 'When and in what direction will you escape from Berlin?' he demanded. 'That question is far too insulting to deserve an answer,' snapped the doomed Propaganda Minister, before hanging up.
The Fall of Berlin ends with odd abruptness. But, with its step-by-step record of the capital's seizure, it merits inclusion in the travel bags of any future visitors to Berlin, as a graphic guidebook for a never-to-be-forgotten city tour.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies