The Battle of Berlin was the culminating battle of the Eastern Front during the Second World War. In 1945, the Red Army of the Soviet Union made huge sacrifices, seeking to reach and stab the heart of the Nazi Germany. Its delusional leader, Adolf Hitler, ordered Germans to fanatically fight until their bitter end. Witness the final moments of Hitler’s Third Reich, and discover how the battle ended.
This is the second part of a bigger article. Check the first part here.
#1 The battle of Berlin. How was it?
Zhukov’s and Konev’s troops advance was slower than predicted, the wrecked buildings made the fight unbearably slow. The Frontoviki (Red Army veterans), despite the allure of capturing the ‘Lair of the fascist beast’, as they called Berlin, a trophy culminating four years of war, were terrified of dying in the last heartbeats of the conflict.
From the cellars, the Landser (German veteran) surprised the T-34 with their Panzerfausts, while from the windows above, they picked with their rifles the columns of marching infantry. To counter such tactics, the Frontoviki developed some clever ones of his own. Two rows of tanks would form on each side of the street, blasting windows and facades on both sides. While the crews would fasten old bed springs on the hulls of the tanks, so the projectiles of the Panzerfaust would bounce and explode prematurely.
By capturing this German weapon, they would use to blast holes in the buildings, and with sub-machine guns, grenades and flamethrowers, they would go in and clean building after building. Whenever resistance proved too hard to break, the heavy guns 152mm and 203 mm Howitzers, would blast a building to rubble, burying all the defenders and civilians alike.
Ironically, the Red Army suffered most of its casualties of its own hand. Zhukov’s and Konev’s attached air fleets, would accidentally bomb the overlapped 1st Belarussian and 1st Ukrainian fronts, killing their own troops in the process. Like the idiots in online games blowing up their own team with grenades in a packed room.
The Russians were paranoid with the idea of SS units dressing civilian clothes, hidden in the basements amongst civilians, and many times fired upon the bunkers and cellars even when a white flag was hoisted. The Red Army was also implacable against the ‘traitors’ of General Vlasov and the Russian of the ROA (Russian Liberation Army), who fought for the Germans.
#2 The daily life during the battle
During the day the Frontoviki were too busy fighting, but when the night fell, they descended into cellars, stole watches at gun-point, and literally anything that would fit in the parcels, they sent home. Finally they snatched girls to rape them. But to be fair, not everything was raping, killing and looting in the front. The Red Army also provided food to the starving population, and under Berzarin, the new Soviet commander of Berlin, they immediately begun to re-establish essential services.
During the battle the air had become dark, filled with particles of dust of the tumbling buildings, and the black smoke of burning vehicles, fuming and exploding everywhere. Combined with the stink of decomposing bodies under the rubble, it made the air unbreathable. During the night there was a perfect visibility, as the whole city was up in flames, and the thunder of masonry collapsing was often heard.
The French SS units fought especially well, destroying over 50 tanks in their sector, but Zhukov’s front kept pushing them towards the Reichstag, which had been chosen by Stalin as the symbolic goal of the offensive. The soldier who would plant the Soviet flag on top of the Reichstag would be immortalised in history for ever.
#3 The downfall
Between the night of the 28th and the 29th of April, Hitler married Eva Braun, and dictated his will to his secretary, Traudl Junge. Around the same time, the Soviet 150th and 171st rifle divisions crossed the Spree, and began to secure a bridgehead in preparation to storm the Reichstag and the chancellery. The government district counted now with 10.000 defending Germans.
On the 30th of April, 6 am, the first regiments of the 150th rifle division began their final push towards the Reichstag. However, the former German parliament was well defended, and fire from the 88mm guns in the distant Zoo Flak Tower made advance impossible. They waited till the night and resumed their advance. Inside the Reichstag things weren’t precisely easier. The Germans had to be removed room by room, and managed to make an excellent use of the ruins to hide and shoot.
Just as the Red Army gained inch after inch in their race towards the Reichstag roof, unbeknownst to them, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, together with Eva Braun. Afraid of Stalin’s men humiliating his body like Italian partisans did to Mussolini’s, Hitler had left orders for their bodies to be soaked with gallons of petrol, and burned in the garden of the Chancellery.
Death the devil one would thought hell would collapse… But few knew what happened. Communications were disrupted, and Goebbels and the Admiral Dönitz, appointed as Hitler’s successors in the latter’s will, delayed the news of his suicide.
On the early hours of the 1st of May, the Soviet flag was finally raised on the Reichstag. Although it was too dark to take a picture and the scene had to be ‘re-enacted’ for the benefit of the cameramen on the 2nd of May. The picture would become a symbol of the battle. The end of the war was nearer…
The day before, General Weidling had attempted to sign an armistice with Zhukov, but Goebbels refused the demand of unconditional surrender. Once Goebbels’s committed suicide on the night of the 1st of May, the path to total surrender was clear of its last impediment. Berlin’s garrison attempted a massive breakout towards the American lines westwards during the night, but few managed to reach them.
On the morning of the 2nd of May, the Reich’s Chancellery was captured. Weidling offered surrender, and was taken to Chuikov’s 8th Rifle Guards Army. Was it perhaps a sign of divine justice, that the man who had defended Stalingrad, Germany’s deepest advance in the war, now received the capitulation of Berlin? Or just coincidence?
Be as it may, the Battle in Berlin was over.
#4 Atrocities against civilians
The Red Army casualties had been high, despite their overwhelming human and firepower superiority. 78,291 soldiers had lost their life, and 274,184 had been wounded. The natural fear of the Frontoviki of dying so close to the end, didn’t stop them, in their desperation for alcohol, to get wasted with solvent and other chemical liquids. Ironically and sadly, many died intoxicated during the victory celebrations, just when the war was over. Not a very heroic death. But very Russian indeed.
Berzarin’s administration in Berlin was efficient, and the citizens, over a million of them with no home at all, and starving, regarded him in high esteem thanks to his efforts to feed and shelter the population. However, discipline was the Achilles heel of the Red Army, and looting and mass rape continued, despite the enforcement of harsher rules by Zhukov.
There are estimates of 100,000 women raped in Berlin (10.000 died as a result), out of a total of 2 million women raped in Germany during the war, mostly in the Eastern Front. A minority of them suffered multiple rape. Some were ganged raped up to 23 times, and many contracted venereal diseases as a result. Many others aborted, their children refused by their husbands soldiers when they returned home.
The Frontoviki had few scruples and raped victims as young as 12 years old. Many women pledged themselves to a single soldier, to avoid multiple rape, and many resorted to prostitution in order to save their families and husbands from the drunk and unpredictable soldiers. During the consequent occupation, women also underwent prostitution, and their services were paid with cigarettes. The cigarette currency, Zigarettenwährung, was the black market exchange rate in the post-war Germany.
When confronted with rape accusations, even some were perpetrated against liberated Jewish women, the Frontoviki replied calmly: ‘Frau ist Frau’. A woman is a woman.
Even daughters and wives of members of the German communist party were raped, but according to Anthony Beevor, few was done from the chains of command of the Red Army, or from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, to curb their men’s dangerous sexual lust. Antony Beevor’s book, Berlin: The Downfall 1945, has been recently banned in Ukraine, and has received fierce critics in Russia for presenting the Russian soldiers as mass rapists. The rape phenomena was described in Russia as an isolated factor, and stated that Germany didn’t undergo a fraction of the suffering they brought upon the Soviet Union.
Revenge was often invoked to justify rape in Germany. If revenge was truly the main trigger, the fact that liberated Russian, Polish and Jewish women were indiscriminately raped as well, should give a lot to reflect to those defending the sanctity and morality of the Red Army.
The Red Army was the main force that toppled the Nazi madness, but they often behaved unbecomingly, and rather than liberators, they resembled an occupation army that looted and raped under the cloak of revenge. For the Frontoviki, the ideological, moral, and strategical capture of Berlin, the death sentence to Hitler’s fanatical world, became simple a matter of collecting spoils of war.
The final surrender of all the German forces came on the 8th of May (technically the early hours of the 9th of May). The Commander-in-chief of the German High Command (OKW), Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, together with representatives of the Luftwaffe (Air force) and Kriegsmarine (Navy) signed unconditional surrender, in Berlin, in front of the allies, represented by Zhukov and Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Tedder (Eisenhower’s deputy).
Years of reconstruction and a though post-war period awaited for Europe. Pomerania, Silesia and East Prussia permanently detached from Germany. Millions of their ethnic Germans forcefully relocated elsewhere. The remaining country divided and supervised by the conquering allies, awaited for a reunification that would take 45 years. A long process of denazification begun. And Berlin, the former centre of Nazi power, atoning for its sins, wouldn’t be totally free and whole until 1989.