Book: The Fall of Berlin 1945 by Antony Beevor

Another brilliant book of military history by this author

Antony Beevor
The Fall of Berlin 1945
Penguin, 2002
ISBN: 0-14-200280-1
431 pages (main text)

I have had occasion to say twice before (1, 2) that Antony Beevor is a brilliant military historian whose particular genius consists of making an astonishing and fascinating wealth of detail sustain a historical narrative that is virtually novelistic in its drama and readability. Not surprisingly, he carries that off also in The Fall of Berlin 1945.

As the narrative gets going, it's Christmas of 1944, the German counteroffensive through the Ardennes forest in the west (the Battle of the Bulge) is already out of momentum and the Soviet army having, at huge cost, retaken the land lost in 1940, is now in a position to threaten Germany. Hitler receives intelligence that, around the middle of January, the Soviet army is likely to launch a massive offensive from around the Vistula river (which roughly bisects modern Poland from north to south) and that the Soviet army now has considerable advantages over the German army in men and materiel. That intelligence would turn out out to be correct but Hitler ignored it.

Politics enters this story in a way that it doesn't enter Mr Beevor's books that I have written about earlier. For example, one of Stalin's reasons for insisting that his generals press on toward Berlin so brutally is that he had an eye toward the the post-war division of Europe that the Americans, who hadn't thought about it much and just wanted to go home, did not. Naturally, the politics is a bit less dramatic than the other parts of the story, but Mr Beevor writes about it about as interestingly as anyone could and the story would be incomplete without it.

The outline of the story will be known to anyone who has, um, read the book's title. There was no way that the Germans could have stopped the Soviet advance. Berlin was encircled by April 24th. The western allies played no part. Their armies were still 300 miles away. But, as with all good history, knowing how it comes out doesn't make the story less interesting.

The strongest impression from the story is of the brutality. You might expect the soldiers to be brutal to their enemy. You might, in theory, understand without condoning the Soviet soldiers' brutality toward German civilians in response to Soviet citizens' earlier treatment at the hands of German soldiers. (Though what transpires is beyond shocking and impossible to justify.) But these soldiers were even brutal toward their own side. Field Marshal Ferdinand Schörner's motto was "Strength Through Fear". He wanted his soldiers to be more afraid of him than of the enemy. Soviet prisoners who were liberated from German camps were viewed with great suspicion even if they had been wounded before being captured. So were Soviet civilians, often women, taken by Germans as slave laborers. Conditions for them were often hardly better after their liberation. The brutality continues even to Goebbels and his wife, Magda, murdering their six children before committing suicide in Hitler's bunker on the night before the Reich Chancellery fell..

This book is a brilliant and stomach-churning history of the end of a tragedy on a continental scale.

Posted: Wed - April 21, 2010 at 09:00 PM   Main   Category: