Friday 30 March 2007

Every sort of assault

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 28/04/2002

BE grateful that you were not in Poland, the Baltic States, the eastern parts of Germany or Berlin in 1945 when the Russians were coming. If you had been, you would have been grateful you were not born a woman.

Imagine Berlin: the collapse of civil order and infrastructure, including water, food and sewerage; your children hungry and frightened, their father missing or dead; Hitler raving in his bunker, defending this least Nazi and least fortified of cities with imaginary divisions, determined to take all Germany down with him.

Bombed by the Americans every day and the British every night, you feel as shattered as the buildings around you. The city's 85,000 defenders are a demoralised crew of regular troops, SS fanatics as keen to shoot disloyal Germans as the enemy, boys of 14 and First World War veterans, all critically short of equipment, ammunition and fuel.


Approaching you are two-and-a-half million men and 6,250 tanks, a horde you have been encouraged to regard as subhuman, whom your husband probably treated as such, and who now think the same of you and are bent on vengeance. Their bombardment makes your building tremble, though they are still some 40 miles away.

If you survive the firestorm of the front-line troops who blast their way into buildings, enter rooms, tunnels, cellars and bunkers grenade-first and need persuading that your little boy is not in the SS (to be shot on sight), you will fall into the hands of the second-line troops, who are worse. Consolidating rather than fighting, they have time to plunder, particularly wrist-watches, bicycles and alcohol; in the evenings they go woman-hunting. Any woman, any age, any condition.

"They came into the cellar where we were hiding," said one survivor of a town taken before Berlin, "and pointed their weapons at me and the other two women and ordered us into the yard. In the yard twelve soldiers in turn raped me. Other soldiers did the same to my two neighbours. The following night six drunken soldiers broke into our cellar and raped us in front of the children. On 5 February, three soldiers came, and on 6 February eight drunken soldiers also raped and beat us." In Berlin, for many such women, there was not even water to wash with afterwards.

Some two million German women were raped, probably half of them gang-raped. Many died, often by suicide. This continuous mass rape is one of the great themes of Beevor's book. In part it was unofficially encouraged as an act of vengeance on a vile enemy, in part it was tolerated as something regrettable but inevitable, but largely it took place as a result of disorder and looted alcohol.

The Red Army was brutally but not well disciplined, and its officers - those who were not themselves rapists - could not always control their men. Russian women released from German labour camps were as likely to be raped by their saviours as any hausfrau.

This might have unbalanced the book, since it could easily form a subject on its own, but Beevor handles the subject sensitively and wisely, showing that many other things were also true during those final, awful, victorious months. Not only other cruelties and barbarities - mass, arbitrary and accidental killings - but confusions, kindnesses, oddities and humour, the latter reassuringly alive even among Berliners ("Golden Pheasants" was their term for Nazi bigwigs). Many Russian soldiers were also generous, feeding starving civilians and playing with their children.

Beevor brings vividly to life that sprawling, chaotic monster, the Red Army. He illustrates the courage of Soviet peasant soldiers, the wastefulness of their high command, the disgraceful way in which veterans were treated, while showing how the Red Army wouldn't have reached Berlin when they did without American transport, and how we and the Americans could have got there first had it not been for Eisenhower.

Although the story Beevor tells is not new, much of his detail is, and if at times the accumulation feels a bit like that bombardment, it is forgivable. This is a compelling piece of historical description and assessment, the more important because some of Beevor's Russian archival sources may not be available in future.

For all that they were a scratch crew defending the indefensible, some of those doomed German soldiers fought with the tenacious camaraderie of despair. One bridge was held for 48 hours by three nameless men and a machine-gun; overall, it cost the Red Army 78,291 dead and 274,184 wounded to take the city (that's well over three times the current strength of the entire British Army).

It ended after Hitler and his bride, Eva, had killed themselves in their bunker, as did Joseph and Magda Goebbels, having first poisoned their six children. The ladylike Magda played patience for an hour before helping the doctor do it. Meanwhile, not far away in the wrecked Berlin zoo, a keeper mourned his dead gorilla, denying that she was ever fierce. "She just roared loudly," he said. "Humans are much fiercer."

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Berlin: the Downfall, 1945
Antony Beevor
Alan Judd
Date Reviewed
27 April 2002
490pp, Viking, £25
Date Published
- - 2002
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Related links
21 April 2002: Richard Overy reviews Berlin The Downfall

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