Pieter Lawrence

The fall of Berlin

Source: Socialist Standard, September 2002.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Adam Buick
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2016). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit "Marxists Internet Archive" as your source.

Berlin — The Downfall 1945, by Anthony Beevor, Penguin Viking.

For those able to recall the fall of Berlin in April/May 1945, Anthony Beevor's book is a powerful reminder of the horrific events that brought the war in Europe to a close. These final stages of suffering, death and destruction were only relieved by the hope that the war was near its end. At the time our knowledge was limited to what was made available through the press, radio and newsreel, all of which was heavily censored. Since then, the story has been re-told with more information becoming available. Anthony Beevor has had the advantage of access to archive material and, particularly since the fall of the Bolshevik regimes in Russia and East Europe, to the archives of the KGB.

He is able to tell us for example how the Russian campaign to take Berlin was partly shaped by the desperate need of Stalin and his henchmen to get their hands on nuclear materials. From Klaus Fuchs and other spies, Stalin was aware of the Manhattan Project (the American programme to develop the atom bomb). They were also aware of similar though less advanced research in Germany partly at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physics which was situated west of Berlin at Dahlem, designated as part of the post war carve up to be in the American Zone of occupation. The huge numbers of Russian casualties were caused partly by the determination to occupy this research facility. As a result, the NKVD (later the KGB) were able to take possession not just of scientists but "250 kgs of metallic uranium; three tons of uranium oxide; twenty litres of heavy water". This also reminds us that the death and destruction that marked the fall of Berlin was to continue for three more months in the Pacific culminating in the use of even more terrifying weapons, the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

What happened at Dahlem with the arrival of Russian troops who, with their bitter knowledge of the atrocities carried out by German forces in Russia and East Europe, were in a frenzy of hate and revenge, was an accepted part of the Russian advance. At its convent, which was also a maternity clinic and orphanage, "Nuns, young girls, old women, pregnant women and mothers who had just given birth were all raped without pity". Estimates from the two main Berlin hospitals ranged from 95,000 to 130,000 rape victims. One doctor deduced that out of approximately l00,000 women raped in Berlin, some 10,000 died as a result, mostly from suicide. "Altogether at least two million German women are thought to have been raped, and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rape."

According to Anthony Beevor, "Stalin and his marshals paid little regard to the lives of their soldiers. The casualties for the three fronts involved in the Berlin operation were extremely high, with 78,291 killed and 274,184 wounded." The numbers for German forces would have been similar but with many more civilian deaths. For those who lived, conditions became disease ridden and primitive. With the shelling and constant bombing, "Over a million people in the city were without any home at all. They continued to shelter in cellars and air raid shelters. Smoke from cooking fires emerged from what looked like piles of rubble, as women tried to re-create something of a home life amid the ruins." The casualties amongst women were especially high. With the water system damaged many were killed queuing with buckets at the street pumps. One lingering image is of desperate women, shuffling up to fill the gaps in the queues caused by exploding shells.

On the 30 April Hitler and his bride of the previous day, Eva Braun, killed themselves. Just north of Berlin, Ravensbruck, the women's concentration camp was liberated. On the 1 May Goebbels and his wife Magda killed themselves together with their six children, all aged under twelve.

Anthony Beevor makes no attempt to be seriously analytical. He takes the war as given. His book is then a monumental description of its brutal closing events and the interplay of leading personalities, particularly as they acted out the final drama in the mad, hysterical atmosphere of the Fuhrer's bunker. It was in that closely confined underground space that extreme authoritarianism, blind fear and obedience, and a deranged ideology combined to produce a descent into utter self-destruction. As the main actors lost all contact with reality the author describes this descent as the "Fuhrerdammerung," but nothing in Wagner's works could match the real life tragedy.

The absence of analysis in Anthony Beevor's book invites us to think about the causes of this death and destruction and to reflect upon the wider social context in which it happened. One response has been to simply say that Hitler was mad. It is very likely that this was true but it still leaves unexplained the reasons why millions gave him the political support from which developed of one of the most hideously cruel regimes of the 20th century.

The reading of page after page of destruction, rape and killing gives the impression that entire populations had gone collectively mad. This was despite the undoubted ability of all to co-operate in ways that could have enhanced the lives of everyone. Instead of a rational understanding of how we could best serve each other's needs through unity there prevailed the divisive and hateful ideologies of nationalism, leadership and racism. And it was the background of national economic rivalries that allowed these attitudes to fester and grow with such disastrous results.

But what have we learned since then? There is not much to be hopeful about. The huge gap between our mutual interests and the ideas we need to realise them seems to be as wide as ever. As a result, the destruction and the killing continues. One lesson of Anthony Beevor's book is that whilst our ideas remain out of harmony with our need for unity and co-operation we will always remain liable to be manipulated into elevating the miseries of death and destruction over peace, security and the pursuit of happiness.