Berlin defeat: 1945 (Book review)

 The fall of Berlin

berlinBook review by Fred Lane

Beevor, A. (2002) Berlin: The downfall 1945. Penguin Books: London. 490 pp including index and footnotes. $35.00.

Antony Beevor has done it again. On top of his excellent description of the siege of Stalingrad (Naval Officers Club Newsletter 51 pp. 23-4), he now describes in authoritative and entertaining detail the final push that overwhelmed Berlin in 1945.

He reminds us that Hitler’s interference, by disregarding valid intelligence reports and insisting on suicidal tactics, probably helped the Red Army’s thrust on Berlin more than any other single factor. Despite overwhelming repeated independent eyewitness and other evidence of massive troop build-ups on the Vistula and East Prussia fronts around 9 January 1945, Hitler was content to believe his sycophants, like Goebbels, Goering, Himmler, and even Keitel who should have known better, that 8,000 Russian aircraft deployed just behind the front line were mere decoys. Instead of redeploying some 200,000 troops wasting away in Latvia, he left them there to rot and failed to guard against his greatest danger.

Sideshows like the fuel-consuming Ardennes offensive in December 1944 and futile planning to retake Budapest were uppermost in Hitler’s mind during the crucial planning stages of the final Russian offensives. He also placed far too much faith on the new Wunderwaffen “V” weapons. At the same time he seemed oblivious to the effects of mounting pressure from day and night air raids.

Folly and lies

The folly and lies of chocolate soldiers and political expediency begat the seeds of massive disaster.

Beevor traces the downfall of Berlin from the massive Russian assault, planned since October 1944 and unleashed on 12 January 1945. The first attacks were across the Vistula River, south of Warsaw, in conditions favoured by the Red Army: a blinding snowstorm at night. The major German strategy, no retreat, was weak. They did create a new defence force, the Volkssturm, in 1944, and this militia of mainly teenagers and grandfathers was supposed to strengthen resistance and hold back the Red Army. “Some forty Volkssturm battalions raised in Silesia were allocated to defend their eastern and north-eastern frontiers. A few concrete emplacements were built, but since they had no anti-tank weapons, Soviet tank forces went straight through them,” said Beevor (p 41).

On 27 January, the Russians liberated the first and perhaps worst of the German extermination camps, Auschwitz. Of an initial estimate of 4,000,000 prisoners entering the camp, only 3,000 were left, “many too sick to save” (p 44).

Refugees torpedoed: greatest ever loss of life at sea

On 30 January, the greatest ever loss of life at sea to date occurred when a Soviet submarine torpedoed the cruise liner Wilhelm Gustloff. Designed for 2,000 passengers, but with between 6,600 and 9,000 refugees from Gdynia aboard, at least 5,300 and possibly 7,400 of them are estimated to have perished in the icy Baltic Sea. On 16 April another Soviet submarine sank the hospital ship Goya with “nearly 7,000 refugees.” Only 165 people were rescued (p 188).

Hitler made his last broadcast on 30 January, exactly 12 years after the Nazis came to power. “His voice had lost all its strength and sounded completely different,” says Beevor. This did not stop Hitler meddling in army plans and flying into monumental rages whenever he perceived treachery, which seemed to be often. Even though Himmler lacked the training and experience for Wehrmacht command, Hitler put him in charge of the most vital of the German forces, Army Group Vistula. Hitler’s strategy and Himmler’s puerile attempts to follow it sacrificed thousands of lives and precious resources on under-strength counterattacks and futile resistance.

By April, Himmler contracted a bout of timely influenza and he abandoned his post for a sanatorium some 40 kilometres safely to the west of his now exposed army headquarters. General Guderian, Chief of the Army Supreme Command, persuaded him to step down, but Himmler was reluctant to put such a resignation in writing and risk Hitler’s wrath. Nevertheless, he permitted Guderian to tell Hitler of his wishes and let Guderian reorganise his headquarters.

About this time, the Soviets were building up a massive force for their Berlin assault. This involved no less than “2.5 million men, 41,600 guns and mortars, 6250 tanks and self-propelled guns and 7,500 aircraft,” says Beevor (p 147). Simply feeding such a force and supplying it with ammunition is a daunting task. Welding the whole into a cohesive fighting mass required very rare skills.

On the German side, instead of imminent danger uniting everybody under a common goal, senior Nazis conspired for months against one another for aims as disparate as inheriting Hitler’s mantle to organising postwar partisan Werewolf forces. Goering, Goebbels, Borman and Himmler all scrabbled tooth and nail for Führer status in anticipation of Hitler’s demise. Instead of a single Werewolf organisation, a second was set up and even a third proposed by rival Nazi factions. In any event, despite grandiose plans, lack of equipment and training for the very few volunteers and conscripts doomed the idea to failure from the start.

Singleness of purpose problems were not confined to the Germans. There was an undercurrent of machinations, distrust and deceit by the Allies at the highest levels, especially about wartime plans that impinged on postwar politics.

The licentious soldiery

Beevor discusses the effects of alcohol and propaganda (pp 169-70) as root causes of the shocking rape and plunder by the Red Army of German citizens (pp 30-33) and even routine rape of their own nationals deported to Germany and liberated by the Soviet advance (p 110). Is he correct? Perhaps he should go no further than his early observation that while very few Red Army weaknesses remained in 1945, “The worst was the chaotic lack of discipline (due in part) to the terrible attrition among young officers,” (p 13-14).

Cycle stealing
A Red Army soldier attempts to steal a bicycle from a woman in broad daylight.

This alone would seem both necessary and sufficient to account for the atrocities committed by the victorious testosterone-laden troops. A cursory look at history shows how isolated instances occur, but blatant rape and plunder rarely follow victory by well-disciplined and ably led troops. Yet they are an almost invariable corollary when discipline breaks down. This seems to hold true throughout the ages and across all cultures, through tribal skirmishes to multi-nation conflicts.

The big message here, muddied by Beevor’s analysis, is that it might be not so much alcohol and propaganda but simple lack of discipline that causes these excesses.

Propaganda or not, Beevor’s tale of the assault on Berlin and the political manoeuvres of Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill make riveting reading. The book contains many well-documented references, eyewitness reports, maps and photographs. It might be argued that the waging of war is too important to be left to the generals, but the book convincingly demonstrates that the kind of political interference exercised by the Nazi politicians risks disaster.

Reference:

Beevor, A. (1998) Stalingrad. Penguin Books: London.