That presumably referred to Greater Berlin.
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As often happens with revelations about the German past, a good many others had written about all this already without provoking uproar. There have been published memoirs and diaries, and the subject has always been accessible in Berlin conversations. Rightly, I think, he dismisses the idea that Soviet hate propaganda and the vengeful war-verse of Ilya Ehrenburg had much to do with it. The hate was there already, and Beevor sees it expressed in the horrible atrocities committed in the first East Prussian villages reached by Soviet troops when they crossed the German frontier.
There, gang-rape was accompanied by mutilation and murder; the naked, crucified women found by German counter-attack forces were filmed by the Nazis and stiffened the will to fight on. Now the rapist Frau, komm! A third phase, in occupied places where all supply had broken down, replaced the need for guns and violence with the need of starving women to bargain their bodies for food. All this information was available to anyone who went looking for it, but looking was discouraged.
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Even though Stalinism was abominable, who wanted to tarnish the reputation of the simple Russian soldiers who saved Europe from Hitler? But since the resurgence of gang-rape by irregular troops in Bosnia, attitudes have changed. Beevor suggests that it is something to do with a male instinct to scatter seed as widely as possible. If true, that does not help much. Frightened men violently force their way into a place which, for a few moments, they can pretend to be the place where they are loved and protected.
But disciplined soldiers should not rape. Living under the second-worst tyranny on earth, shovelled into the furnace like so many tons of coke by their callous commanders, subject to instant arrest and execution by NKVD and Smersh security troops following the front line, these soldiers were anything but cowed. Anyone who has met both Soviet and American troops on active service will remember that — paradoxically — Red Army men were far more individualistic and spontaneous in their behaviour. They could be suicidally brave, but they were instinctively disobedient, making their own judgments on which orders to take seriously.
Being shot out of hand for raping or looting was a risk plenty of them chose to take. Anything remotely portable — tools, leather cut off a German sofa, even window glass — would be scrawled with an indelible-pencil address and posted home to Russia. They were drunk much of the time. Their transport columns looked like circus caravans: Primo Levi, after the victory, watched camels towing yellow Berlin buses across the Ural steppe into Asia.
And yet — what soldiers! The old Russian teaching — if you reach a river, cross it and ask questions afterwards — still held good. Small units raced across the Oder ice without artillery support, to seize and hold crucial bridgeheads on the west bank. At the Spree, General Rybalko led his tanks splashing into the water, without waiting for bridging gear. And when the counterblows came — the SS King Tiger tanks bursting through the pine trees and over the Soviet trenches — these men died where they stood. This is the story of two great offensives and a finale.
As the world still remembers, the Red Army halted at the Vistula in autumn , in order to allow the Nazis to crush the Warsaw Rising but also to build up strength for the last phase of the war.
When the Vistula line was stormed in January , there were no fewer than 6. Zhukov was the man Stalin considered to be senior; Konev was the general he liked best, because of his ruthlessness and dash; Rokossovsky was the one he mistrusted, because of his Polish ancestry. When the German front on the Vistula broke, Soviet forces poured westwards and some units reached the Oder — the last natural obstacle before Berlin — within three weeks.
But it was not until 16 April, well over two months later, that Zhukov launched his gigantic offensive across the river and into the Seelow Heights beyond. Some of the Soviet commanders thought in early February that there was nothing much to stop them driving across the Oder and on to Berlin, less than sixty miles away.
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Given the chaos of the German retreat, they were probably right. But Stalin did not want just to reach Berlin. He wanted to encircle it, which meant getting his main forces across the river and deep into central Germany. No doubt he hoped to be the captor of Hitler and his cronies; no doubt — as Beevor says — he was after the uranium oxide stocks at the nuclear research institute in western Berlin. But above all he understood that Berlin, conquered in battle by the Red Army, would be the keystone in the triumphal arch of Soviet power over Central Europe.
The other Allies would have to take over their Berlin sectors in due course, but Stalin wanted to be massively and invincibly in possession of the city before the Americans and the British could get there. This is why he lied, so often and so shamelessly, to Allied emissaries about the goal of the Oder offensive. Berlin no longer had military significance, he said, and his thrust would head south-west towards Dresden. Eisenhower believed him, or at least had no time for the implications of not believing him.
Montgomery and Churchill knew well what Stalin was up to, but the decision was not theirs.
The Fall of Berlin 1945
On 15 April, General William H. The Russians were still on the wrong side of the Oder; the Seelow Heights offensive did not begin until the next day. Simpson, on the other hand, had actually got across the Elbe and saw nothing much but sixty miles of autobahn between his lead tanks and Berlin. The notion that the Allies could have reached Berlin first and changed the history of Europe is fantasy; the zones and sectors of occupied Germany and Berlin had already been demarcated and agreed.
The next morning, Zhukov unleashed his huge offensive across the Oder against the main surviving formations of the Wehrmacht and SS, supported by a pathetic rabble of Hitler Youth children and Volkssturm civilian conscripts. But the Germans fought cleverly and stubbornly.
Zhukov made shocking tactical mistakes which cost thousands of lives, and the Seelow Heights battle, supposed to take one day, lasted three. As the three Fronts converged on Berlin, from north, east and south, rivalry between marshals and sheer muddle slowed the advance.
Berlin: The Downfall: | Antony Beevor | English
But it was another fortnight before Soviet troops hoisted the red flag over the Reichstag and over the Reich Chancellery — a woman did that, Major Anna Nikulina of the 9th Rifle Corps. Confusion and bad staff work may have held the Red Army back. But so did the enemy. But in fact the forces up against the Red Army in those final months fought bitterly and skilfully to the very end.
While battles such as El Alamein and Normandy were being fought, Germany took 80 per cent of its casualties on its Eastern Front. Yet the scale of the West's debt to the people of the Soviet Union is matched only by its ignorance about Russia's war. Many in the West would struggle to name more than one or two Soviet commanders.
For most, Kursk is the name of a doomed submarine, not the largest tank battle ever fought. Almost single-handedly, Antony Beevor is overturning this ignorance. Berlin: The Downfall is a worthy successor. Central to the power of both books is Beevor's use of letters, diaries and notebooks to give voice to the experiences of ordinary people. This gives a human sense to events that, by their scale and horror, would otherwise challenge our understanding.
While Berlin deals overall with the destruction and last days of the Third Reich, it is this use of the personal that makes it compelling reading.
Beevor also covers both the internal and international political developments in the war's final stages, so that the context and imperatives of the battle are properly understood. Beevor's writing is strong and full of movement. The war between Russia and Germany was one of annihilation, where "total war" discarded the distinction between combatant and non-combatant. Entire peoples were targeted for extermination.
Having endured suffering for so long, the Red Army marched into Germany under the slogan: "There will be no pity. They have sown the wind and now they are harvesting the whirlwind. For German women in particular, the behaviour of their fathers, husbands, sons and brothers during the invasion of Russia was to have horrendous consequences.
Beevor estimates that 2million German women were raped. His analysis is detailed and challenging, identifying four distinct phases in the waves of mass rape, the trauma from which is one of the war's lasting legacies.