Orgy of war 

The civilian price paid by the Third Reich's collapse

Not only are the events described in British military historian Antony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945 uniformly horrifying, the story itself should already be familiar to anyone with the slightest bit of 20th century historical literacy. In January 1945, a resurgent Red Army swarmed through the eastern provinces of the collapsing Third Reich en route to capturing the “lair of the fascist beast” itself: Berlin. Adolf Hitler and his closest advisors, willfully ignoring the massive buildup of Soviet armored forces on the eastern banks of the Vistula River, had failed to re-deploy the armies of the failed German counterattack through the Ardennes the previous December. As a result, forces in the east were under-strength, thin on the ground, and widely scattered across the width of a front that stretched from the Baltic to the Ukraine.

What is also well-known about the period is that soldiers of the Red Army subjected the populace of the Reich’s eastern borders—Prussia, Silesia and Pomerania—to an orgy of looting, rape and murder that rivaled or exceeded the brutality the Nazis had themselves inflicted on Russia and the Ukraine during their 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union and its aftermath. It’s worth repeating at this point that Russian historians have never been able to agree on the number of civilian deaths from the country’s “Great Patriotic War” to the nearest five million. The Red Army alone had suffered some 9 million casualties at the time of the 1945 invasion, and to say that the Soviets were keen to square accounts for past atrocities can hardly begin to explain the horrors that befell the millions of noncombatants still living on the frontiers of the Reich when the avenging Soviets tore through them. Tens of thousands of German civilians died. Hundreds of thousands more were raped, beaten, press-ganged into heavy labor or left to fend for themselves in a wasteland without food or shelter.

Hundreds of books have been written about these last few chapters of the war on the eastern front, and in some ways if you’ve read one you’ve pretty much read, if not all of them, then at least several at one go. And that’s not to discount Beevor’s book. It’s just that every new book on the subject is essentially a retelling of the same old story, with new anecdotes, some interviews, and perhaps a few new archival sources to flesh out the point A to point B trajectory of the inevitable. Readers of military history know full-well how it all ends, so the only new pleasures—if that’s the right word—to be had in reading a new general-interest book like Beevor’s lie in the human details, the strength of analysis, and the writer’s force in telling the story well.

Unfortunately, most of those details are unspeakably horrible, and the literary musculature involved in any attempt to present them in a new light invariably makes for one hell of a depressing nonfiction experience when done well—kind of a no-win situation. On the other hand, one of the most compelling books on the topic of January to May, 1945 is also one of the most clumsy and unevenly written: Götterdämmerung 1945: Germany’s Last Stand in the East, by Russ Schneider. Unflinching in its detail, style-wise it runs all over the place but always comes back to the sensationally lurid. Other books about the Soviet attack are purely strategic in content, rife with descriptions of troop movements and armored clashes but lacking the human element that has to be there to bring the unimaginable scope of the tragedy across to the uninitiated reader.

And then there are books like Beevor’s that land somewhere in between. The Fall of Berlin 1945 presupposes a certain familiarity with the nature of the conflict up until that point, and so, for good or bad, offers little in the way of a historical framework for novices looking to understand why the Soviets of Stalin’s “Noble Fury” were whipped into such a righteous froth of vengeance. However, Beevor doesn’t exactly present a wealth of new information either, and at a certain point a grim realization sinks in: It’s pretty much the same old story, only not as grippingly told as it has been before. The book lacks any sort of sentimental tone, and perhaps for that it fails to capture the hellish Zeitgeist: a helpless civilian population caught between savage intransigence on both sides.

The Fall of Berlin 1945 has already taken some mild criticism for its author’s alleged pro-German bias, but any reasonable consideration of the circumstances should put accusations of partisanship to rest. It’s important to make a distinction between pro-German and pro-Nazi, and Beevor’s account can in no way be construed as pro-Nazi. He paints a very unflattering portrait of the Reich leadership, especially in these waning days of the war, and he also backs up his assertion that not every Soviet front-line soldier was a lawless brigand by providing examples of decent, humane treatment of conquered people.

Beevor’s book can no more be called pro-German than most of the books written about the German invasion of Russia can be criticized as pro-Russian. The Fall of Berlin 1945 is only pro-German by default. Despicable things happened to noncombatants in both invasions; whatever bias seeps around the edges of the historian’s impossible goal of total impartiality should understandably favor the unarmed human targets caught in the middle—in this case, mostly women and children. It’s hypocritical, and possibly even inhumane to ask anything else of a historian. If anything, Beevor should have let more of his sympathy for the victims slip through, rather than leave a handful of mostly indifferent first-person reminiscences to speak for the hundreds of thousands.

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