Accomplished and immanently successful, Anthony Beevor turned his attention to the end of World War Two in Europe here, with a complete overview of the Eastern Front campaigns of 1945, culminating in the brutal Battle for Berlin and the final destruction of the Third Reich. In his previous book Stalingrad, he noted Russian soldiers taunting German prisoners with claims that Berlin would one day mirror the city that bore the name of the USSR’s leader. This is the story of how that came to be.
When it comes to history, I think it can be said that we have a certain grim fascination with the fall of empires. The glory days get their due if course, but we are equally or more enthralled with tales of defeat, of last stands, of the death of a dynasty. We have made massive events out of things like the Sack of Rome in 410, the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Hundred Days of 1815, the Saigon offensive of 1973. There is a certain macabre interest in that kind of historical story, of the chaos, anarchy and most especially desperation of such final days. There is a great deal of humanity, different facets both positive and negative, to be found in such events, which is probably why we are so drawn to them.
The fall of Berlin in April of 1945, the culmination of the most brutal war in European and world history, is the most obvious example of such an event. It was a vicious battle between two dictatorships and totalitarian ideologies, the suicide of the Nazi regime, and the crafting point for much of what happened in central Europe for the following 60 years.
Anthony Beevor set himself the immense task of not only writing the most comprehensive account of this battle to date, but also including the preliminary operations in East Prussia and the Seelow Heights going as far back as 1944 and doing it all without betraying the personal element in the entire affair. A natural sequel to his similar, but slightly inferior, work on Stalingrad, Berlin: The Downfall is Beevor’s great work.
There is a reason that Beevor is such a popular and well-read author, while retaining a high academic regard. It can be difficult to balance the scholarly with the commercial, and most historians cannot do both to the right degree.
But Beevor can, and does. He has a remarkable talent for offering thoughts, analysis and effective conclusions on the large scale things, the army movements, the campaigns, the political decisions, doing all of that in a clear and coherent manner for the layman, while tying it very much into the personal. Under his watch and hand, people like Georgy Zhukov and Adolph Hitler are as real and believable as the lowliest soldier of the Red Army or the Whermacht, and Beevor makes sure that each gets his due time. Beevor offers an examination of all these figures, their hopes, dreams, aims and ambitions, the pressures they were under, the delusions they held, and gives every source the same treatment. Beevor, to use the old cliché, makes them “come to life” on the page, instilling in the reader a greater understanding of just what happened in the events that revolved around these figures. It is good to treat them in this fashion, as it allows the reader to break out of simplistic and illogical depictions focusing on “good” and “bad guys”.
As Zhukov struggles to break through the Seelow Heights, to can feel the pressure on him from Stalin, and the reckless disregard of lives and equipment that followed, all part of a diabolical “divide and rule” method of commanding from “the boss” in Moscow. As Hitler orders fictional units around in his bunker, you can feel the tension, the crazy sense of moral abandonment, the sort of thing that was captured so well on film in Der Untergang, a movie that I’m sure took a great deal of inspiration from Beevor (and others). As so many German woman come face to face with the horrors of mass rape, you can feel the desperation, the fear, and the unrepentant sexual energy of the advancing Red Army, unleashed in an orgy of violence and unacknowledged assault on any woman unlucky enough to find herself in their path.
Beevor’s focus on the mass rape committed by the Red Army is repeated, but only because it is an event that has not received, prior to the publication of this book, the right amount of academic attention. This searing portrayal of sexual violence, committed wholesale and all but encouraged by the Red Army and Soviet Union leadership has made Berlin: The Downfall an unpopular book in some Russian circles, but it is one of its key successes, in shining a harsh light on this sordid aspect of the Red Army drive through Eastern Europe and Germany.
As the battle is joined in the capital, as every street, building, cellar and pile of rubble becomes a battleground, you can feel the anger, the drive and the determination, to end the war, to defeat the enemy, and, in so many cases, to simply get out of the whole affair alive, so close to the end. The huge amount of research is obvious from the substantial use of so many personal testimonies from all sides and aspects of the conflict.
Such a method makes for a far grander, and at the same time overwhelming story. This is a desperately sad tale of a society self-destructing under the weight of the most vicious kind of assault. Beevor does well at walking the line of judgement, and successfully creates an aura of some sympathy around the common German civilian, especially the women, who faced the brunt of a Red Army assault that was, at times, little more than slightly organised plundering, while refusing to veer away from the crimes of the overall Nazi hierarchy, just as callous and disregarding of common decency and morality for their own people at the end as they were for their numerous wartime victims.
In Stalingrad Beevor managed to craft a re-telling that shifted sympathy from the Russians to the Germans, though always with a focus on the suffering of the common solder over the Fuhrer or the Chief “Comrade”. A similar practise is followed here. Beevor draws a line between the “normal” German civilian and the Nazi’s, the “Golden Pheasants”, who were as despised by their own people at the end as the Russians were, and he makes his case well enough, on the nature of totalitarian regimes and what they do to the societies they control, though such thoughts will not be to everyone’s tastes.
The Red Army soldiers are victims themselves, of an unrelentingly cruel leadership structure that tolerates no weakness, or the slightest sign of disobedience and subversion – the very last chapter is dedicated to the woes that people like Zhukov went through after the war ended at the hands of the Soviet higher-ups. This was a pitiless war, as both sides treated their own fighting men (and women) with a contempt that is startling to readers of the modern west. In a clash between fascism and communism, where one is being destroyed utterly, Beevor manages to record the tragedy that unfolds, and the chilling effect it had on so many, chewed up and spat out by the meat grinder. German civilians shot for “cowardice”, the NKVD squads that persecuted “liberated” Soviet PoWs, the Hitler Youth thrown into battle with a Panzerfaust and nothing else, the celebrating Russian soldiers so eager for alcohol at the wars conclusion that they drank paint thinner and died horribly, they all spring from, Beevor’s pen and stayed lodged firmly in the mind of the reader.
But what did Beevor’s book teach me about war? It taught me that war is, at its heart, an ugly, ugly thing, where it is all too easy to give in to the baser emotions and drives, and all too easy to cover them up under a mask of righteousness and revenge. It taught me about the perils of dictatorships, ones as firmly entrenched as the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany anyway, and what they are capable of doing to themselves and others when they go to war. It taught me that civilians are a factor in wartime, both as an aid and a hindrance to their state, and as a target for the enemy – and, all too often, their own leaders. It taught me that popular commercial history can still be of incredibly high value academically.
But more than anything it simply taught me about this defining battle of European history, that ended its most destructive war and then ushered in a new one. Berlin in 1945 is such a tragic tale and here it is told in the most evocative and relatable manner possible, with the proper time given to most aspects of the fighting and the personalities who undertook that fighting. Simply put, it is the best “battle study” I have ever read and should be used as the template for any subsequent attempt to write about such a campaign.