Review of 'Berlin: The Downfall', Antony Beevor, Penguin £25.00
Antony Beevor's new book, 'Berlin', is a follow up to his bestseller 'Stalingrad'. The book outlines the last apocalyptic months of Hitler's Reich. Germany was all but destroyed under the weight of the Red Army's attack on Berlin. Stalin threw over 2.5 million men, 41,000 guns and more than 6,000 tanks into the campaign to seize the German capital.
As the German army crumbled, Nazi leaders called for 'fanatical' resistance. Old men and boys were mobilised and the SS executed deserters. In the German town of Danzig a 'gallows alley' saw those executed hung with signs saying 'Here I hang because I did not believe in the Führer'. The Russian advance uncovered the true horrors of the death camps in which millions had died. The barbarism of the Nazi regime and the Red Army policy of arming survivors, helped to further brutalise soldiers already suffering under three years of German occupation. Civilians were caught between the horrors of the Nazi regime and the onslaught of the Red Army. Thousands were killed in 'fortress' towns like Königsberg and 7,000 refugees were drowned when the Goya was sunk by a Russian submarine (the greatest maritime disaster of all time).
Beevor looks at the fate of German women in the path of the Russian advance. Mass rape was common. Previously historians have argued that this was a result of the actions of 'second echelon' troops, many just released from POW camps. Beevor argues that although rape was not Red Army policy it was certainly tolerated by Soviet commanders at almost every level. He goes on to argue Soviet propagandists such as Ilya Ehrenburg, who said in one famous article 'Do not count days. Do not count miles. Count only the number of Germans you have killed', had dehumanised Germans in the eyes of Russian soldiers.
While thousands of German troops were sacrificed, Stalin's commandos drove towards Berlin regardless of the cost. More than 300,000 Soviet troops died in the battle for Berlin. Beevor argues that this reckless haste wasn't just about Stalin's fears that the western allies would reach Berlin first. The Red Army was also engaged in a desperate race to seize Nazi nuclear secrets and materials.
Beevors book is part of a huge swathe of literature recently published on the Second World War, such as Richard Overy's 'Russia's War'. Like 'Stalingrad' Beevor's new book is an interesting contribution to the debate (and already another bestseller). However, the lack of a political context to the battles for Berlin could leave many readers wondering why many actions and decisions were taken. Once again Beevor concentrates heavily on the terrors of Stalinism with less concentration on the genocidal Nazi regime and the German army's complete implication, at every level, with the Nazi project. Beevor rightly points to the treatment of Soviet POW's who were armed to fight in the rubble of Berlin, only to face arrest later at the hands of the NKVD for allowing themselves to fall into German hands. He also looks at the beginnings of class and national tensions inside the Red Army.
However, when it comes to dealing with the German military elite he seems to argue that there was a divide between the Nazi leadership and many of Hitler's generals. The struggle of an outnumbered German army on the Seelow heights (the approach to Berlin) or the attempt of German troops to break out to the west (they were desperate to surrender to US or British troops because of the atrocities committed in the USSR) can seem a heroic operation, but the real picture of the relationship between the Nazi military and political apparatus needs to be emphasised. The German generals who fought for Hitler and had helped bring him to power also carried out his policies of genocide in Poland and the USSR. It's not that Beevor ignores these facts, but this second volume has little of the background information the reader may need.