THE FALL OF BERLIN 1945
By Antony Beevor
As literary fiction, along with much of the rest of our pop culture, continues to move further and further away from realism, there has been a growing trend for non-fiction books to deal with grittier, more intense and extreme subject matter to satisfy the public’s demand for hardcore reality. Recent bestsellers show the limits of human endurance being tested by climbing mountains (Into Thin Air), surviving shipwrecks (In the Heart of the Sea, Batavia’s Graveyard) or being battered by the elements (The Perfect Storm).
The surprising success of Antony Beevor’s account of the fall of Berlin is part of the same phenomenon. We like to think that all war is hell, but, in Michael Ignatieff’s phrase, war today is more likely to be “virtual.” Virtual war, at least for those with the right technology, is more like a video game than the real thing. Western escapades in Kosovo and Afghanistan are bloodless made-for-TV spectator sports (aside from the odd accident where we kill our own troops). Casualties are avoided by a revolution in military technology that allows for precision targeting and risk-free long-distant engagement.
The Fall of Berlin stands in stark contrast to all that. The Eastern Front in the Second World War was total war: a brutal, hate-filled orgy of violence and destruction on a scale that is hard for us to even imagine, a “world of cruelty and horror where any conception of humanity had almost been destroyed by ideology.” The numbers, and the stories behind those numbers, are appalling. It is estimated that 2 million German women were raped during the Soviet advance. Every year around 1,000 bodies from 1945 are still being found on the major battlefields.
The Fall of Berlin will mainly appeal to fans of military history. But while Beevor’s book has all the usual ingredients – battle maps decorated with thrusting arrows and details of troop movements; a narrative that bounces back and forth between the opposing armies; a grounding of the big picture of the campaign in personal anecdotes, military and civilian, drawn from memoirs, diaries and interviews – it is also something more.
Unlike most military histories, there is no climactic moment or hinge of fate. The fall of Berlin was a foregone conclusion. While the fighting was at times fierce, the Germans were basically steamrolled. The only question, after Eisenhower stopped the allies at the Elbe, was which Russian general would get there first, a competition encouraged by Stalin’s devious paranoia.
The campaign itself was criminal on both sides, starting at the very top. The Nazi leadership was on a suicide mission, determined to take the rest of Germany with them into the grave. In their view the “will” of the people had failed. The soviet army was an engine of totalitarianism controlled by a psychopathic chief and an army of secret police. Among the generals on both sides political fanaticism mixed with plain incompetence led to astronomical – and often entirely avoidable – casualties.
Beevor’s starting point is Speer’s remark that history puts too much emphasis on “terminal events.” Beevor challenges this. “Few things,” he remarks, “reveal more about political leaders and their system than the manner of their downfall.” The last days of Hitler and his clique of sycophants, depressingly recounted here, demonstrate that. But Beevor also shows that “terminal events” sow the seeds of the future. The revenge on Nazism became the domination of Eastern Europe by Stalin. The fall of Berlin was both an end and a beginning: a wrenching out of the darkness and into the dark.
Review first published August 10, 2002.