Friday, February 04, 2005

BOOK: Antony Beevor, "Berlin: The Downfall 1945"

Antony Beevor: Berlin: The Downfall 1945. Viking, 2002 (0670886955). Penguin, 2003 (0140286969), 2004 (0141017473). xxxvii + 490 pp.

I am not really terribly interested in military history, especially not in its details and technicalities. For example, I am fascinated by the diplomatic and political developments that led to the First World War (Robert Massie's Dreadnought, which focuses on the naval arms race in the decades before WW1, is highly recommended), but I am not in the least interested in the details of the battles and the positions of the front lines during the WW1. Similarly, I am definitely curious to learn more about the history and society of Nazi Germany, and to a lesser extent of the other major belligerents of WW2; but military details of the war leave me completely bored.

Thus I am not really the most suitable reader for a book such as this one, which has a strong focus on military history. There are a lot of detailed statements about the movements of various military units and formations, which I guess is interesting for those who are willing and able to recreate the whole battle in their minds and consequently require all these details to be able to form a complete picture; but I basically tried to get over such passages as quickly as possible and didn't bother to really follow what was being said.

Fortunately, however, the book contains many interesting things even for a reader such as me. You don't have to wade through the military details for too long before encountering something interesting, either some anecdote, a bit of political development, or something showing how the people involved in the events actually experienced them and how their daily life was affected.

The book covers the period from January 1945, when the Red Army had just crossed the pre-war German border and entered East Prussia, up to the end of the war in May 1945. Here are some of the things I found interesting:

The Red Army's treatment of German civillians was often rather harsh; of course, this is in a way not suprising given how much the Soviets have suffered during the German invasion of the Soviet Union. East Prussia, which was the first German region to be occupied by the Red Army, suffered the most (p. 420). Rape and looting, and even plain senseless destruction, were very common. See particularly chs. 3 and 27. Many Soviet soldiers were suprised to see that in Germany even the peasants had a relatively high standard of living, and outraged by the fact that Germany had attacked the Soviet Union even though it clearly had no need to do so (p. 34, 66-7). As for looting, the Russians were particularly obsessed with watches (p. 119, 408).

Hitler never stopped meddling with the military strategy, usually with disastrous results. He often forbade retreat, causing many casualties (or surrenders) that could have been avoided if the units could have retreated at a suitable moment. P. 142, 263.

The Soviets were impressed with the construction of Hitler's Wolfsschanze bunker in East Prussia; pp. 97-8.

Some of the most fanatically determined units fighting on the German side consisted of foreign volunteers, e.g. the SS Charlemagne division (p. 116, 257).

At some point, Himmler was given command over a part of the army. He was good at living in luxury but quite incompetent as a commander (p. 130).

On the uselessness of tank ditches (which the civilians were often forced to dig, despite their exhaustion, hunger, etc.) (p. 133).

One of the reasons why the Soviets wanted so much to reach Berlin before the other allies was that they wanted to seize the German uranium reserves, at least part of which was stored at an institute in Dahlem near Berlin. The Soviet atomic bomb program was suffering due to a lack of uranium at the time (pp. xxxiv, 138-9). They also made efforts to capture German scientists (pp. 324-5, 406). Soviet attempts to expropriate the equipment from German factories and workshops were horribly inefficient, however (p. 407).

They also tried to occupy as much territory in Central Europe as possible, hoping that it would remain under their influence after the war. The Americans, and Eisenhower in particular, were apparently not sufficiently aware of that and didn't make any efforts to stop them. The British couldn't do much without the Americans, either. Pp. 139-40.

Some of the reasons why the Germans defended themselves till the bitter end: their propaganda had led them to believe that miracle weapons would save them in the last minute, or that they might make peace with the USA and UK, who would join them in fighting the Soviet Union; apparently even many senior Nazis didn't realize how impossible such a peace treaty would be; Hitler did realize it, however, but was obsessed with fighting to the end and going out in a blaze of glory: if he couldn't win, he didn't care what happened to Germany and its people (p. 144). Propaganda had also led many Germans to believe that the Soviets would enslave the whole population (p. 415, 418); thus the Germans concentrated on defending themselves from the Soviets, perhaps hoping that in this way the Soviets would occupy less of their territory and the western powers more.

Throughout these last months of the war, the German forces were vastly outnumbered by the Soviets (pp. 6, 147), and often suffered from lack of ammunition (p. 133), fuel, and other supplies.

The Soviet authorities treated Soviet citizens who had spent some time in Germany as prisoners of war or forced labourers with great suspicion (p. 167). During the war, the Soviet authorities allowed some more freedom of speech than before, but resumed their usual repression as soon as the war was over (pp. 422-3).

The Nazis tried to organize groups that would continue guerrilla fighting after the war; however, this organization, called Werwolf, achieved very little (pp. 173-5).

Although the Nazi leaders insisted on defense to the end, forbidding retreat and instituting high punishments for desertion and the like, they also made very sure that they themselves did not get into any danger and escaped in time. P. 261.

Apparently the phone system kept on working during the battle of Berlin, leading to some funny situations (p. 267, 299, 300).

The Berliners apparently had a robust and cynical sense of humour (pp. 410, 416).

Incidentally, the author is a very well known military historian. A few years ago he wrote a book about the battle for Stalingrad, which is much in the same vein as this one about the battle for Berlin. If you liked one of these books you will probably also enjoy the other one.


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