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A Contest of Brutality

Saturday, June 1, 2002

Antony Beevor.
The Fall of Berlin 1945.
Viking Press.
512 pages. $29.95

Once a year, aging Red Army veterans who fought in the battle for Berlin gather in that city’s suburb of Treptower Park, where some 5,000 of their comrades are buried. But as Jason Cowley of the Guardian reported, one local refers to it as “the site of the unknown rapist.” No doubt there are others who share this sentiment: During that first year of Soviet occupation in 1945, more than 100,000 women in Berlin were raped. Combined with the German women caught in Pomerania, Silesia, and East Prussia during the mass exodus, the number of rape victims soars to roughly 2 million. Many of them subsequently committed suicide.

It is a subject not often broached in Germany and certainly not in the former Soviet Union. Many veterans of the Red Army have denied such activities as gang rape ever occurred. But with the passage of time, a harsh truth has come to light. And now, the whole story, with both German and Soviet perspectives, can be found in Antony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945. The author first got the idea of a Berlin book while writing his bestselling Stalingrad (Viking Press, 1998). It was during this turning point in 1943 that he read about a Soviet colonel who, in front of German pows, pointed at the surrounding rubble and screamed, “That’s how Berlin is going to look!” That promise could not have been more menacing.

Close to half a million Soviet soldiers were killed during the Stalingrad campaign from September 1942 to February 1943. It was the farthest east the Third Reich would ever extend. Once Soviet forces had encircled Field Marshal Paulus’s Sixth Army—an impressive feat that netted 90,000 German prisoners, including 22 generals—the Reich would forever be in retreat. It is this march, ultimately leading back to Berlin, that Beevor has chronicled. Along the way, he uncovers every possible type of atrocity, committed alike by the Nazis and the Soviets.

But it is the Soviet crimes that seem more disturbing. Perhaps this is because the evil deeds of the Nazi regime have been so well documented over the years. It comes to us as no surprise, for example, that the ss Einsatzgruppen units eradicated whole villages, forced captives to dig mass graves for themselves, and championed ethnic cleansing. (The Nazis murdered 1.5 million Soviet Jews in all.) But the crimes of the Red Army are not a subject of frequent discussion.

While it is widely known that the Soviets did their share of plundering, many will nonetheless be surprised by the extremely precise and often graphic accounts found in Beevor’s book. This is partly because such authors as John Erickson, who wrote the once-definitive Road to Berlin (Westview Press, 1983), and William L. Shirer, who wrote the still-revered Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (Simon & Schuster, 1960), did not have access to all the records in the Soviet archives. But with the collapse of communism, a treasure trove was unveiled — and Antony Beevor took advantage of it, poring through thousands of documents at the Russian State Military Archives and at the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense. Hence, we learn now of what the Russians found at Wolf’s Lair and how the nkvd and smersh (Soviet counterintelligence) safeguarded Hitler’s skull and cremated his already partially cremated remains, flushing the ashes down a sewer in Magdeburg, Germany, in 1970. Beevor also interviewed the survivors, the veterans, the civilians, and former prisoners, and he read their letters from the front.

The end result is a book that reveals a contest of brutality — of which side can outdo the other in terms of killing, human suffering, and a wide variety of sadistic acts. It was a murderous ending to the bitter relationship between fascism and communism. Both sides fought viciously in the streets of Berlin in the 1920s. But together, they helped topple the Weimar Republic. In 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact and found ways to aid each other in their imperial ambitions. Two years later, Hitler would break the agreement, severing the link between the two countries and their peoples — and setting the stage for a showdown between two of the most murderous personalities of the century.

From the moment the Germans invaded the ussr in June 1941, the enemies in the East were referred to as Untermenschen. It is this notion that Russians, Ukrainians, and others were subhuman that served as the underpinning or pretext for mass murder. Interestingly, the incidence of rape was not very high, since many Germans found the thought of sexual relations with subhumans to be wholly unacceptable. The only thing acceptable would be to kill them.

For soldiers in the Red Army, on the other hand, it was all about retribution: The Soviets were shocked when they found out what the Germans had been doing, particularly when they stumbled across Auschwitz and the other death camps. Then they learned that the Wehrmacht had been handing over Russian pows to the ss, whose punishments, according to Beevor, included running as live targets for shooting practice. “Another punishment was known as ‘Achtung!’ A Soviet prisoner was made to strip and kneel in the open. Handlers with attack dogs waited on either side. The moment he stopped shouting, ‘Achtung! Achtung!’ the dogs were set on him.” Equally disturbing were the horrendous medical experiments conducted by the Reich not just at Auschwitz (where 140 Polish boys were killed after being injected with carbolic acid), but also at the notorious Danzig Anatomical Institute, where soap and leather were made from corpses of Soviet citizens.

Soviet propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg pleaded with his comrades to “not count days; do not count miles. Count only the number of Germans you have killed. Kill the German — this is your mother’s prayer. Kill the German — this is the cry of your Russian earth. Do not waver. Do not let up. Kill.” Beevor relates the story of “a young ss soldier forced to play a piano for his Russian captors. They made it clear in sign language that he would be executed the moment he stopped.” The man played for 22 hours, after which he collapsed in tears. The Russians congratulated him and then shot him. It is also no surprise then that rape, under such frenzied circumstances, was allowed to happen. Even young women in the Red Army had no remorse. “Our soldiers’ behavior towards Germans, particularly German women, is absolutely correct!” exclaimed a young female soldier.

 

The sentiments were not limited to the frontoviki. Marshal Vasilevsky of the Third Belorussian Front said, “I don’t give a f—-. It is now time for our soldiers to issue their own justice.” Which they did, rather generously. In some cases, a daughter, mother, and grandmother were raped one after the other. Many were raped multiple times. Meanwhile, other family members were rendered helpless. As one mother was being raped, her 13-year-old son tried to get the Russian off her. The soldier simply turned, shot the boy, and continued his raping. Beevor notes that veterans today will “admit to hearing of a few excesses, and then dismiss the subject as an inevitable result of war.” Others are completely unrepentant. “Two million of our children were born [in Germany],” bragged one tank commander.

Eventually Stalin realized, via nkvd reports, that the “discipline problems” of his troops would make for a difficult occupation of Germany. And so an effort was finally made from the top to convince Germans that the Soviet Union meant them no harm. Of course the change in position had little effect on the ground. After all, the greater pressure facing Soviet generals was the capture of Berlin, which tended to overshadow issues such as the treatment of civilians. Stalin desperately wanted the city, since he was certain that Britain and the United States were negotiating a separate peace with the Nazis (who were themselves hopeful on that score). Reichsführer Himmler, in his delusional state, believed only he could bring peace to Germany as Hitler’s true successor. Himmler, as head of the ss, even arranged meetings with representatives of the Red Cross and the World Jewish Congress. But the Allies had no intention of accepting anything short of unconditional surrender. Still, “[i]t was typical of Himmler’s strange relationship with reality,” says Beevor, “that his immediate preoccupation was whether he should bow to General Eisenhower or shake hands when meeting him.”

The Red Army generals, for their part, were engaged literally in cutthroat competition, all of them eager to remain in Stalin’s good graces. It was a rivalry that Stalin himself strongly encouraged. Marshal Koniev, for example, scored loyalty points for his ruthlessness in the infamous Korsun pocket. On February 17, 1944, retreating Germans just south of Kiev were pummeled first by Koniev’s heavy artillery and then tanks that not only gunned down fleeing soldiers but also ran them over. Those who escaped either the shellfire or the tank-treads were treated to something even worse: the Cossacks. On horseback, writes Beevor, they “cut them down mercilessly with their sabres, apparently hacking even at arms raised in surrender. Some 20,000 Germans died that day.”

The pressure, however, was on Marshal Zhukov. Most everyone, including Stalin, expected him to take charge of the Berlin operation. And his determination proved costly. In capturing the strategic Seelow Heights outside the German capital, Zhukov lost more than 30,000 troops while the Germans lost 12,000. (In the end, 78,291 Red Army soldiers were killed in taking the city.) Also in the race was General Chuikov, famous for his streetfighting in Stalingrad. While some Germans, like the head of armament production Albert Speer, were hoping to keep the fighting in the outskirts of the city, Chuikov and his men were prepared for a battle block by block and house by house.

Which is exactly what it came to. German units, consisting increasingly of 14- and 15-year-olds in the Hitler Youth and 60-year-olds in the Volkssturm, were pushed back into the city center. The Nazis put up especially stubborn resistance at Gestapo headquarters, whose last defenders were actually members of the French ss. The main objective was the Reichstag. The Russians “eventually forced their way through to the main hall, only to discover German defenders firing down at them with panzerfausts [anti-tank weapons] or throwing grenades from the stone balconies. One of the attackers . . . vividly remembers the splattering of blood on the huge stone columns. The casualties were terrible, but the Red Army soldiers . . . began to fight their way up the broad staircases, firing from behind balustrades.”

Other units were desperate to cross the Elbe and surrender to the Americans. Indeed, those who were forced to surrender to the Soviets knew what lay ahead of them: the Siberian gulags (the last German pows were released in 1954). It was a fate shared by civilians as well — not only were men and boys shipped back east to replenish the labor supply, but also women and girls who “were marched off to the Soviet Union for forced labor ‘in forests, peat bogs and canals for fifteen to sixteen hours a day.’ A little over half of them died in the following two years. Of the survivors, just under half had been raped.”

 

There are dozens of such statistics and hundreds of anecdotes in The Fall of Berlin 1945 — too many to relate in one sitting. (One involves commanders in the Führerbunker whose only means of tracking the Soviet advance was by cold-calling numbers in the Berlin phonebook. They would ask the person on a particular street if he could see the Red Army from his window. It was clear they were doomed when they called a number and a Russian voice answered by saying, “Ivan is here.”)

The enormity of human suffering is, in Beevor’s words, “beyond the imagination of everyone who did not live through it, but especially those who have grown up in the demilitarized society of the post-Cold War age.” Antony Beevor has made the best effort yet in distilling the darkest hours of the 20th century. It is a book with which both Germans and Russians will have to deal. For the former, it may be a reaction of relief—that finally they can talk about this other crime, left unspoken for decades. For the latter, the reaction to the book will not be as welcoming. But it is still a part of their tragic history they can no longer deny.