Only a few years ago, anyone willing to cross the Berlin Wall could easily imagine the desperate fighting that took place in the heart of this city in early 1945. Today this same visitor has to look hard and in the right places to see war damage or locate important sites such as Hitler’s underground chancery. Thus, in 2003, as in 1933 or 1943, it is difficult to imagine the terrible fate that befell Berlin in those weeks. It is fitting that Anthony Beevor follows up his widely acclaimed volume on Stalingrad with this story of the equally hard-fought battle for Berlin, one in which the Red Army bled terribly for possession of a symbol rather than a city.
At the time of the Yalta meeting between Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin in early 1945, it appeared that the Red Army would occupy most of Germany and certainly Berlin. Eisenhower was advancing cautiously in the Rhineland, careful not to expose his flanks to a German counterattack, and he anticipated that his forces would not be able to cross the Rhine until the spring floods had subsided. However, when American troops captured the bridge at Remagen and General Patton forced separate crossings of the great river, it quickly became apparent that he could advance into the heart of Germany almost as fast as he could supply his vehicles with gasoline. Germans were eager to surrender to American and British troops because both Goebbels and swiftly spreading rumor were telling them that they had to expect terrible retribution for the Nazi crimes in Russia, while offering hope that wonder weapons would reverse the battlefield situation within days or weeks.
Stalin understood the significance of this development. Therefore, while telling Eisenhower that Soviet forces were being directed toward Saxony (and encouraging the bombing of Dresden as part of this campaign), he gave orders to his marshals Zhukov and Konev to take Berlin immediately, no matter what it cost.
The German army, meanwhile, was completely disorganized. Whatever hope Guderian and his generals had of making effective resistance was spoiled by Hitler, who tied down experienced units and equipment in irrelevant fortresses that were soon far behind Soviet lines and diverted the few available reserves to hopeless offensive operations on scattered fronts; in return, Guderian received phantom armies and untrained, almost unarmed militia (Volksturm) units composed of half-grown children and aged men. Even so, Guderian prepared a strong defensive line along the mud flats of the Oder River, forty miles east of Berlin, where Zhukov’s troops almost bled to death in their desperate and poorly coordinated assaults on the slippery slopes of the Seelow Heights. Guderian lacked reinforcements, fuel, and ammunition, but Hitler blamed this, as every other failure, on cowardice and treason.
Himmler, whose ineffective leadership on the Vistula River line was obscured somewhat by his theatrical performances at conferences with Hitler, demanded harsh punishment for incompetents and defeatists; meanwhile, despite his putative loyalty to the Führer, he was plotting ways to contact the West in order to negotiate a separate peace that would leave him as leader of Germany; the death camps had not yet been discovered, and he was blind to the reaction that civilized people would have when they learned of them. His SS units, used mainly to enforce his decrees against desertion and defeat, were unable and unwilling to fight alongside the regular army (the Wehrmacht).
As American troops reached the Elbe, Stalin increased the pressure on his marshals to capture Berlin quickly (and with it the scientists, equipment, and uranium involved in the German atomic bomb program). Soon Soviet troops were hitting one another with artillery and small arms fire in their frenzied and chaotic rush through the maze of canals and lakes of the metropolitan region; they soon discovered that massive bomb damage had clogged streets and made buildings into small forts.
Berlin itself had very few regular...
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