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This is a masterpiece of historical writing, a book that compels its readers to reflect anew on the shaping forces of history. Beginning with the siege of Berlin, 1945 provides rich insight into the conflicts, motives, and counter-motives that marked the end of World War II and established the lasting patterns of deceit, uncertainty, and distrust that defined the Cold War.
"Superbly sensitive to the ground-level tragedy and the high-level politics of 194445, the readably fluent Dallas proves integral to understanding both what is known and unknown about the cataclysmic conclusion of the Second World War.”—Booklist (starred review)
"One comes away from reading Gregor Dallas’s eloquent book with a profound sense of the war’s futility, wastefulness, and unintended consequences."—James J. Sheehan, Commonweal
Berlin, Monday, 30 April 1945
* * *
Contrary to legend, a red flag was probably not flying from the roof of the Reichstag on the day Adolf Hitler shot himself. But the order had certainly been issued.
The old Bolshevik practice of 1917 - the bearing of red banners into battle - had only been revived two weeks earlier when the assault on Berlin was launched westwards from the River Oder. The Communist slogans, on the other hand, were by now a habit. They came straight from Stalin's mouth, repetitive, always hammering home the same curse-word, 'Fascist'. Men repeated them like lyrics of a well-known song: 'Under the blows of the Red Army the Fascist Bloc is shattered', 'the Hitler-Fascists are in retreat', 'the heroic efforts of the Red Army and the Soviet People have cleared our Land of the German Fascist Invaders', 'the end of Fascist Germany is at hand'.
It was the banners and slogans that drove two and a half million exhausted soldiers into Berlin. Imagine, they were told, the red flag unfurling above the Reichstag. Imagine it swaying there, what's more, on the First of May, 1945 - the jubilee of the Revolution. Red flags were flown from the tanks, the slogans written on their sides: 'Moscow to Berlin', 'Fifty kilometres to the Den of the Fascist Beast'.
In his headquarters behind the Oder, Marshal Georgi Zhukov kept a large model of Berlin, with wooden miniatures of government buildings, bridges, railway stations, airports, all set in their precise locations. His principal objectives were flagged and numbered. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, for example, was 108; the New Reich Chancellery was 106. His first objective was Number 105, the Reichstag.
'Who is going to be the first to reach the Reichstag?' he had asked his officers on the eve of the offensive. On 30 April, with the battle raging in central Berlin, still no one knew.
Two days earlier, however, the order had gone down the line of V. I. Kutzetsov's Third Shock Army, which had been battering its way through the city's northern working-class districts, to Major General S. N. Perevertkin's 79th Rifle Corps: 'The Corps will assault the River Spree, occupy the Reichstag, raise there the flag of victory and then unite with our troops proceeding from the south.'
That day Perevertkin had taken the district of Moabit; his forward troops were assembling in a customs yard that looked across the stone-built Moltke Bridge, strewn with barbed wire and other obstacles, swept by German machine-gun fire - and just five hundred yards from the Reichstag. 'This present order had for us a special meaning,' Perevertkin later wrote. 'We saw in it the end of this arduous and bloody war.'
Hitler's Third Reich was by now reduced to ten square miles; it took on the form of a crudely crushed lemon, an ellipse some nine miles long and, in parts, not even a mile wide. It followed almost exactly the old east-west line - stretching from the Spandau fortress in the west to a bridge that lay at the far end of the Unter den Linden - around which the Prussian capital had been built. But not much was left now of 'the sandpit of the Holy Roman Empire', as the place had been rudely nicknamed in the eighteenth century. Not much of it, either, resembled Marshal Zhukov's fabulous model. Many of the streets were unrecognizable. The armies followed the waterways, like Roman legions in a primeval forest; only this was First World War fighting, across trenches, barbed wire and rubble; yard by bloody yard. Country campaigning had entered a metropolis the size of Greater London.
The Moltke Bridge was taken in a bloody local battle, in rain, that lasted through the night of 28/29 April. Supporting Soviet artillery was brought under rocket attack from a German battery located on Potsdamer Platz. The heavy Soviet tanks sent in to push aside the southern barricade were shelled by heavy anti-aircraft guns at the top of the Zoo flaktower in the Tiergarten; all that was left of the tanks was a high pile of metal wreckage blocking the whole bridge: Soviet infantry were sent in - led, according to Perevertkin, by 'Communists and Komsomols'. The Germans blew the bridge with mines; but the explosives proved insufficient for this massive stone structure: by early morning, the 29th, the Russians were fighting at the foot of Gestapo Headquarters, 'Himmler's House', on the north-western corner of Königsplatz. The Reichstag was on the other side of the square: three hundred yards away.
Aerial reconnaissance had revealed the existence of a huge pit filled with water on the north side of Königsplatz. It had been dug a year earlier to divert the Spree as part of a grand architectural scheme for a new Berlin, fit for a Nazi world Reich. Now it was an anti-tank ditch. The cutting for a U-bahn tunnel was used to extend the defence across the middle of the square; this was also filled with water. The whole area was mined. The Reichstag's doors and windows had been bricked up, save the cellar windows which had been converted into virtually impervious gun embrasures. Machine-guns had been placed higher up in the building. Perevertkin's men would have to push south into the Kroll Opera House to stand any chance of taking the Reichstag. Fighting for this objective took another day. By the morning of the 30th the front line lay at the edge of the tank ditch: two hundred yards from the Reichstag.
Perevertkin had, the previous day, brought his headquarters up to 'Himmler's House'. Towering up before his eyes was 'the great grey building of the Reichstag'.
It was the image that obsessed all Russians. As the largest building in the city centre it represented for them the Kremlin of Berlin. But it represented nothing for the Nazis; it had been a burnt-out shell since February 1933, one month after they had seized power - Nazis were not interested in this parliamentary building. Today, the elite of the Nazi Party lived fifty feet underground, beneath the garden of the Old Chancellery, a further five hundred yards south of the Reichstag; the Russians were unaware of Hitler's Bunker.
'Into the den of the Fascist Beast,' they proclaimed, adopting Stalin's slogan. Yet Russians, paradoxically, continued to gaze upwards.
'The flag, where is the flag? Do you see it?' asked Perevertkin desperately on the afternoon of the 30th. Russians were approaching the Reichstag from north, south, east and west. Perevertkin's 79th Rifle Corps was competing with Vasili Chuikov's Eighth Guards Army advancing into the Tiergarten that day; N. I. Berzarin's Fifth Shock Army was pushing up from the Belle-Allianz Platz, while a tank army - the Third Guards - was uncoiling terror up the Kurfürstendamm. Early in the afternoon two groups of fighter pilots flew in low and, at minimum speed, managed to drop several six-yard-wide red silk panels inscribed with the word 'Pobeda' (or 'Victory') on the bent girders that were all that remained of the Reichstag's 'dome'. Perhaps that was why Zhukov reported in an order issued later in the day that 'Units of the Third Shock Army ... having broken the resistance of the enemy, have captured the Reichstag and hoisted our Soviet Flag on it today, 30 April 1945, at 1425 hours.' The news was flashed to Moscow and around the world within instants. A few brave war correspondents and photographers crept in to the heart of the battle, but they saw no flag flying from the Reichstag.
Major General V. M. Shatilov, who commanded a front-line rifle division on Königsplatz, became demented: 'Somehow you have to hoist a flag or pennant, even on the columns at the main entrance. Somehow!' he yelled at his exhausted men.
Three waves of assault were launched - Somme-like - across the open asphalt surface of the square; the first was repelled in a counter-attack by SS guards and a unit of German sailors who had been flown in from Rostock, while the second was shattered under fire from the heavy artillery guns on the top of the Zoo flak-tower. In the meantime, Perevertkin was reinforcing himself at the former Gestapo headquarters with tanks, self-propelled guns, heavy artillery and rocket launchers, the dreaded 'Stalin organs': some 90 barrels in all. Amazingly, the grey granite of the nineteenth-century Reichstag stood impervious to all this. But it was enough to give the troops a foothold on the far side of the tank ditch.
At 6 p.m. a third assault was launched. The infantry were led by their regimental and battalion standards. The most important flag of them all was the 150th Rifle Division's 'Red Banner No. 5', with an extra-large hammer-and-sickle emblem, and escorted by hand-picked members of the Communist Party and Komsomols. Some of the soldiers managed to clamber up the front staircase of the Reichstag and, by firing two light mortars horizontally at point-blank range, blasted a small hole in the bricked-up wall of the main entrance; the fighting now spread gradually through the building - down corridors and up stairwells - in total darkness.
'Our corps' red banner journeyed slowly from one floor to another,' wrote Perevertkin. 'And as the sun began to sink, lighting up the horizon with its red rays, two of our soldiers hoisted the Flag of Victory over the burnt-out dome of the Reichstag.'
The researches of the military historian, Tony Le Tissier, suggest this was not entirely true. The fighting in the Reichstag continued long after sunset. In the darkness the soldiers fanned out in every direction. At last, two sergeants of the special banner party, M. V. Yegorov and M. V. Kantaria, groped their way to the back of the building where they fell upon a stairway: it led up to the roof. There they found a statue, shoved their flag in a convenient hole, and retreated. It was 'seventy minutes before dawn', and the start of the May Day celebrations in Moscow.
But Yegorov and Kantaria (conveniently for Stalin, a Russian and a Georgian) were not the first to plant a red flag on the roof. Captain V. N. Makov's gunners had attached their flag to the Goddess of Victory above the front of the building 'some two or three hours before the official party'. And a third party, Sergei E. Sorokin's reconnaissance platoon, are recorded as having put up a flag somewhere on the roof 'ten minutes later'.
So, considering the long April sunsets that occur in these northern latitudes, it is just possible, juggling with the hours, to imagine the last red rays of the sun, as it set below cloud on 30 April 1945, catching in outline a small red flag fluttering above the Reichstag.
* * *
A cold westerly wind was blowing and the skies had been overcast most of the day. Did anyone in Berlin notice?
An anonymous woman diarist queuing for water in a nearby southeastern suburb remarked that the sky was 'hidden by a black wall of smoke'. The centre of the city seemed to be 'smoking and steaming'. Later in the day, surrounded by the howling of the Stalin organs, she caught a glance of a 'sky overcast with blood-red clouds'. 'Because the smoke and haze diffuses the light,' a war correspondent wrote, 'it looks as if the very clouds are on fire.' The sky, said another, was like a burning carpet being beaten above their heads. As a result of trenches, rubble and other obstacles in the streets the Russians in some quarters, like Alexanderplatz or the approaches to the Tiergarten, were having to blast their way through houses and walls. 'Split branches of trees, stone and dust whirl about,' wrote Paul David, employed at the Swedish embassy on the Reichstag battlefront of Königsplatz. 'The sky is no longer to be seen. It reeks of dynamite.' Night and day lost their distinction. A 'greyish-pink glow', was the way the anonymous diarist had described the sky that morning.
The artillery and rockets scribbled fiery traces in the glimmer of cloud. It was on the morning of the 30th that Chuikov's Eighth Guards Army began its final assault on the Landwehr Canal and the Tiergarten. He had brought up heavy artillery and rows of Stalin organs to the very banks of the canal; from the heights of Viktoria Park he fired 250-mm mortars straight into the Anhalt railway station, hardly a mile away. The Germans responded with their own heavy mortars that they had lined up along the length of the Unter den Linden. The anti-aircraft guns on the Zoo tower were lowered to roof level. 'Artillery shells sped over us in a high curve,' wrote the anonymous diarist. Rockets, yowling and screeching, threaded their way in batches through the sky's low vapours, leaving long white trails behind them; they sounded, said one witness, like huge blocks of steel grinding together; they gave off a smell of petrol.
All sense of time vanished. The few diarists who recorded these events, in cellars or in the shambles of their apartments, often got their dates wrong. 'I figure that that day was Sunday. But Sunday is such a civilian word, meaningless at the moment.' How much longer could it last? Where was the front? When would peace be made? 'In the week-long debates that we used to have in January, February and March,' wrote the journalist Margret Boveri, now in a kind of 'no man's land' to the west of the Tiergarten, 'we were even then asking: how long will it last? Several then thought that the workers, whether Communist or not, would rise up and bring things to an end within three days.' 'I suddenly realize how degraded we are, deprived of all rights - prey, dirt,' recorded the anonymous diarist. 'Anxious questions: Where is the front? When will peace be made?' 'We are wading in filth, deep filth. Each minute of life has to be paid for dearly. A storm is raging through us ...'
Conquering Russians might have looked upwards to the skies. But surviving Berliners, degraded and filthy, looked down at their ruin.
There were rooftops to look down from. Buildings still stood in the centre. If any of the soldiers who had been to the top of the Reichstag had taken a glimpse, they would have seen roofs and chimneys, even if most were damaged by bombardment. The dense agglomeration of massive old buildings, apartment blocks and monuments had struck Marshal Ivan S. Konev on 24 April after the First Ukrainian Front had stormed the Teltow Canal and taken the heights of Lankwitz. Konev, seeing the immense metropolis, was appalled at how poorly prepared the Russian armies were; no tank army was going to be able to enter this. The huge Soviet columns of tanks were halted at Berlin's periphery. The city would have to be entered by small infantry detachments; the artillery was dragged in by lorries, tractors, horses, and even dog carts. Tanks went in individually. 'That last nut was hard to crack!' exclaimed Chuikov on the 30th. Though the heavy guns cut out great swathes of rubble, next to these were houses, erect and inhabited.
Berlin siege life started under the roofs, in lofts. Most Russians were unaware of the existence of lofts; their peasant homes had been built without them. Once the front had passed they were the safest place to be. Servants had been housed in lofts. During school holidays, children used to play there, under the sun-warmed timbers. Now they were places for hiding, as long as relatives or friends supplied water and food. When the Allied armies arrived in July, the city's few remaining virgins emerged from Berlin's lofts.
Berliners looked down. Beneath the lofts were the apartments. Margret Boveri had refused to descend to the stinking cellars and shelters, whatever the risk to her life; she wanted to clean up her beautiful home by the Lietzensee. There were holes in the wall that looked straight down on to the street; she filled up her shattered window-panes with cardboard and paper; for the 'nights of bombardment' she would protect her bed with a piano - on which she would play Bach fugues as the shelling continued. She wrote in her diary of her yearning for cleanliness and culture. She worried about her linen. 'What I have here is black,' she recorded on 30 April, 'and my winter linen is at Frau Becker's laundry.' She made her own candles. When not outside with her two water pails (which she would dip into the filthy lake nearby) she would attempt to clean up the rubble and dust in her rooms, though frequently interrupted by the clatter of falling bricks and beams. She noticed that, in contrast to Anglo-American aerial bombing, her vases and other small valuables remained standing under Russian shelling.
Boveri was not alone in her obsession with cleanliness. The anonymous diarist writes how, on the 27th, the day the Russians arrived in her district, she and a widow next door climbed upstairs: 'We started dusting her apartment, wiping, sweeping and scrubbing with our next-to-last bucket of water.' She realized that the activity was not exactly rational. They did it, she thought, 'to escape once more from the future into the tangible past'.
Excerpted from 1945 by GREGOR DALLAS Copyright © 2005 by Gregor Dallas. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 15, 2006
It's a big book. Picture Rise&Fall of 3rd. Riech by Shirer. I would say it's only fair writing, author uses a alot of But's and becauses' in starting sentances. I find that very annoying, but maybe some wouldn't mind. Isn't really about just the last year of The War, - It covers the whole war and the leaders themselves, who were making the war-changing decisions. A good book for people who already have a very good understanding of the whole picture War.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.