Berlin: the Downfall 1945
After Stalingrad, it was probably inevitable that Antony Beevor would go on to write the story of the battle of Berlin as well. The battle of Stalingrad was the beginning of the end for the Third Reich; the battle for Berlin was its death struggle. With the fall of Berlin the Thousand Year Reich died; with the surrender of the Sixth Army its death was foretold.
Berlin: the Downfall 1945 was published four years after Stalingrad. In that time, Stalingrad won the first Samuel Johnson Prize, the Wolfson Prize for History and the Hawthornden Prize for Literature in 1999, which must've racked up the pressure on Beevor to deliver a work of similar quality something fierce. Fortunately, Berlin: the Downfall 1945 does not disappoint. The same qualities Beevor put in his previous book are on full display here as well.
As with the battle for Stalingrad, Beevor puts the battle for Berlin in context by starting his narrative with the beginning of the campaign of which Berlin was the crowning piece, the Russian winter offensive of 1945. This offensive started when the Germans were still in possesion of Warsaw and most of west Poland and is extensively treated in another excellent book, Christopher Duffy's Red Storm on the Reich. Beevor goes into less detail than Duffy, but provides enough to get a good overview of the campaign from. unlike Duffy, Beevor also pays a lot of attention to the Western Allies' offensive into Germany: whereas for most of the war the Eastern and Western could be treated independently, by the time of the Battle of Berlin, they were in artillery range of each other.
At the same time, postwar political considerations made their influence felt. Stalin was determined that Russian troops should conquer Berlin and was suspicious of the US/UK intents. Not without reasons, as at least some US/UK commanders (Montgomery, Patton) would've loved to get to Berlin before the Russians. For Stalin, there was the constant worry that the Western allies would sell him out and make common cause with the Germans against him. To make sure Zhukov and Konev, his commanders, would do their utmost, Stalin made sure to stoke the rivalry between them.
At the German side, the usual Hitlerian incompetence made sure that the defence of the city would be fierce but inadequate, with several German commanders unsure of whether the city should be defended at all, even deliberately sabotaging defence efforts in some cases. Any but the most fanatical nazis knew the war was over and for most of the Wehrmacht and even the SS it was now a case of rescuing as many Germans as possible from the Russian revenge.
Beevor does not shy away from discussing this revenge and its effects in detail. It has been long known that the Red Army went on an orgy of rape, murder and pillage when it hit Germany, but it has long been a taboo to discuss the extent to which this went on. From the Russian point of view, anything that damaged the Red Army's heroic image was only so much fascist (and later Cold War) propaganda and in the first postwar years the Western Allies were in no hurry to attack the Russians on this either.Finally, the Germans themselves were in no position to complain; they'd done much worse throughout the war and if it was mostly innocent women that this revenge was visited upon, few people cared.
In general, Beevor once again, as he did in Stalingrad, puts the military campaign in context, by showing how common soldiers, both German and Russian, as well as the inhabitants of Berlin, experienced these events. It is this what makes Berlin: the Downfall 1945 so much more than just another military book.
Webpage created 19-11-2005, last updated 19-12-2005