Thursday, 20 February 2014

Berlin - the Downfall 1945.

Berlin – the Downfall 1945.
By Antony Beevor.  Viking, Penguin Books, London 2002. Pages 37 in introduction and 434 in text.

This review was written on June 3rd 2004

This is a horrific account of the capture and destruction of Berlin by the Russians in May 1945.  It seems a well researched if somewhat bitty account and, as seems inevitable in a relatively short account of the war on the Russian front during 1944 and 1945, it can be difficult at times to follow some of the campaign episodes.  There is relatively little reference in the book to the approach by the Western Allies and most of this deals with the American advance.  The capture of Berlin, with the appalling destruction and inhumanity of the campaign as the Russians steamrolled their way into East Prussia and the eastern part of Germany, was prolonged by Hitler’s obsessive belief up to the end that the German’s would eventually win. Hence his refusal to allow a surrender.  It was prolonged by the fierce German resistance, thanks to Hitler’s intransigence and to the leadership vacuum created by his dominance, the extraordinary influence he had over the SS and the Gestapo leaders, and the failure of the German army leadership to influence him.  German fear of the Soviets, the background to their suicidal resistance, resulted from the Nazi propaganda, particularly emanating from Goebbels, that the Germans would be treated with the greatest severity if they were captured by the Russian Army - rape, widespread mass murder and all the horrors of the Russian Gulag - was the constant reminder of the Nazi spokesmen. It would be a repeat of all the cruelties which the German SS and the Gestapo, with the connivance of many of the army leaders, had inflicted on the Poles and Russians during the German/Russian campaign. 

Red Army soldiers place flag on Reichstag 
Like the SS and the Gestapo among the Germans, the Russian Secret Police represented by the NKVD and Smersh exerted a baleful influence because of their infiltration of all branches of the Russian army, leading to politicising of the military and sharing the indifference to international law with their German counterparts.  By 1944 and 1945 the Russian army had become colossal in terms of numbers and in the amount of equipment it possessed.  Stalin showed little concern about the huge losses of Russian soldiers as he continued to urge the Russian commander in chief, Zukoff, and the other generals to capture Berlin before it was reached by the Allies from the West.  Apart from the prestige value of capturing Berlin, which urged Stalin to drive his generals, he was also aware of the research into atomic energy which was centred close to Berlin and which contained, amongst other valuable material, badly needed quantities of uranium which were in short supply in Russia, a shortage which was impeding Russian research aimed at developing the atomic bomb. He was aware of the progress being made in developing the atomic bomb by America, thanks to American spies. He feared the Allies would reach the centre first and thus bring the Russian research to a halt.  

Hitler treated his generals with increasing contempt as the war deteriorated. He attributed the blame for the German losses to the Army and its leaders whilst most of the blame was his as he insisted on directing the German military campaign.  Some of his decisions lead to disastrous results and his total lack of insight into the realities of the war lead to the view by many observers that Hitler was mad by the time he reached the bunker in Berlin. 
An important political aspect of the time was Eisenhower’s lack of insight into European politics and his ignoring the Western countries natural fears of communism.  Eisenhower appeared to do all in his power to please Stalin. His reluctance to alienate him was based on avoiding a possible conflict between the Allies and the Russians as they met in mid-Germany.  His yielding to Stalin’s wishes was a source of great anxiety and, at times, fury to Churchill but perhaps Eisenhowers’ softly, softly approach to Stalin may have avoided a serious clash between Russia and the Allies.  As the war came to an end Stalin was deeply suspicious that the Allies might join the remains of the German army to fight Russia. In fact, there was apparently little conflict between the Allies on the one hand and the Russian’s on the other as the German war came to an end and as the Yalta agreement came into force.

This book reflects my reading of other books on the subject of the Second World War.  The appalling violence, cruelty, loss of life and indifference to international and Christian morality among the Germans and Russians does not auger well for the future of humanity, particularly as we are likely to face increasing political stresses as a result of over-population and the loss of the planet’s sustainability.  Nevertheless, there were many examples of heroic behaviour and of kindness and concern among the Russian soldiers, particularly in relation to women prisoners and the wounded. 

Irish ration book
In my book Improving With Age, I recounted the quiet, peaceful, almost surreal life which we had in Ireland during the war.  We were totally oblivious to the horrors of the German concentration camps and the Russian Front.  Beevor, in his summing up of the origins of the war, stated that Stalin was a practitioner of political genocide while Hitler was a practitioner of racial genocide.  This is a very accurate summary of the behaviour and policies of these two dictators.  Both had the support of their populations and both were sustained to the very end of their careers by a significant group of dedicated and blindly committed adherence.  Beevor believed that Stalin would stop at nothing in terms of lives and political deceit in his ambition to capture Berlin and to claim the primary credit for beating the Germans. This was apparent in his dealing with the Allies,  

This book confirms the appalling treatment the Poles received from the Germans and the Russians.  When I hear people complain of Ireland’s misfortunes during the last five centuries, I think what a haven of peace and security this country was compared to Poland and the other Eastern European countries.  The final Russian invasion of Germany and capture of Berlin took place during the winter of 1944 and the spring of 1945.  The hardship endured by the German and Russian armies during this time as well as the appalling circumstance of the populations of East Germany and Poland are impossible to imagine, at least to those of us in Ireland who were well fed, who knew little about the affairs of the outside world and who were more concerned about such trivia as the shortage of spare parts for our bikes and our ersatz golf balls.  The description of the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing to the West and the suffering under the Russian advance can do little justice to the misery, terror and degradation which these people suffered. 

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