The Battle of Berlin was the culminating battle of the European theatre during 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 the Germans to fight until their bitter end. Witness the final moments of Hitler’s Third Reich, and discover how the battle ended.
This is the second half of this article. Check the first here.
#1 The battle of Berlin. How was it?
The advance to Berlin of Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian front, and Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front, was slower than predicted, the wrecked buildings making any progress unbearably slow. The Frontoviki (Red Army veterans), despite the allure of capturing the ‘Lair of the fascist beast’, a trophy culminating four years of privations, were terrified of dying in the last heartbeats of the conflict.
From the cellars, the Landser (German veteran) emerged to surprise the T-34 with their Panzerfausts, while from the windows above, they picked the columns of marching infantry. To counter such tactics, the Frontoviki developed some clever ones of their own. Two rows of tanks would form on each side of the street, spraying 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.
After capturing this useful German weapon, the Soviet units would use it to blast holes in the buildings, and with sub-machine guns, grenades and flamethrowers, they went in to clean house after house. Whenever resistance proved too hard to break, the heavy guns 152mm and 203 mm Howitzers, would reduce the strongholds to rubble, burying 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. The Russians were paranoid with the idea of SS units dressing civilian clothes and hidden in the basements amongst civilians. As a consequence the Frontoviki would fire 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 had been recruited and fought for the Germans.
#2 The daily life during the battle
During the day the Frontoviki were too busy tussling but when the night fell some descended into cellars, stole watches at gun-point, and literally anything fitting in a parcel to be sent home. But if these rounds came to be so feared by the civilians, was because young girls were snatched and raped. But to be fair, not everything was raping, killing, and looting in the front. The Red Army also provided food for 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 structures and the black smoke of 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 roof, unbeknownst to them, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker, together with Eva Braun. Afraid of Stalin’s henchmen 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.
Dead the devil one would thought hell would collapse… But few knew what had just 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. After Goebbels’s had 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 furthest advance in the war, now received the capitulation of Berlin?
Be as it may, the Battle of Berlin was over.
#4 Atrocities against civilians
The Red Army’s casualties were not a laughing matter, 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 their desperate search for alcohol, going as far as to replace it with solvent and other chemical liquids when short of it. Ironically, many died intoxicated during the 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, homeless and starving, regarded him in high esteem thanks to his efforts to feed and shelter them. However, indiscipline was rife in the ranks of the Red Army, and looting and mass rape continued despite the enforcement of harsher rules by Zhukov.
There exist 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 suffering multiple rape. Some were ganged raped up to 23 times, and contracted venereal diseases as a result. Many others aborted, their children refused by their husbands when they returned home.
The Frontoviki had few scruples and abuses victims as young as 12 years old. Many women pledged themselves to a single soldier, to avoid multiple gang rape or in order to save their families from retaliation. During the consequent occupation, women also underwent prostitution to get food, 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, some even 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 high command of the Red Army, or from the USSR Communist Party, to curb the rank’s dangerous lust. Antony Beevor’s book, Berlin: The Downfall 1945, has been recently banned in Ukraine, and has received fierce critics in Russia for presenting their servicemen as mass rapists. The rape phenomena was described there as an isolated factor, and stated that Germany didn’t undergo a fraction of the suffering they brought upon the Soviet Union.
Revenge has been often invoked to justify rape. 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 of the Red Army. They were the main force that toppled the Nazi madness but they often behaved unbecomingly, and rather than liberators, they resembled an occupation force that looted and raped everyone and everywhere under the pretext of revenge. For some the ideological, moral, and strategical, capture of Berlin, the death sentence to Hitler’s fanatical world, became a simple matter of collecting war spoils.
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 was divided and supervised by the conquering allies, dreaming of a reunification that would take 45 years. A painful process of denazification awaited. And Berlin, former epicentre of Nazi power, atoning for its sins, wouldn’t be free and whole until 1989.