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TheFinalDaysTheNewYorkTimes

BOOKS

TheFinalDays
ByCARLOD'ESTE SEPT.8,2002

THEFALLOFBERLIN1945
ByAntonyBeevor.
Illustrated.490pp.NewYork:
Viking.$29.95.
THEREwasnomorehellishplaceonearththanBerlininlate1944andthe
earlymonthsof1945.Itspeoplewereslowlystarvingtodeathinhorrificconditions
thatincludedarelentlessbombingcampaignbytheAlliedairforces.Aonceproud
city,Berlinwasdailybeingreducedtosmokingrubble.Evenso,theGerman
penchantforblackhumorwaspainfullyevidentduringtheChristmasseasonof1944
whenBerlinerswereheardtoquip,''Bepractical:giveacoffin.''Beforethewar
endedtherewouldnotbesufficientcoffinsavailabletoburythosekilledinBerlin.
Asthecity'sinhabitantsstruggledmerelytosurviveanotherday,itwasalready
cleartovirtuallyeveryonebutavain,delusionalHitlerthatthewarwasirrevocably
lost.Hitler'srecklessgamblethathecouldsplittheWesternAllieswithamassive
counteroffensiveintheArdennesinDecemberwasalreadyafailure,andwiththe
RedArmypoisedtoopenaseriesoffreshoffensivesintheEast,Germany'sfatewas
allbutsealed.
AttemptsbyhisfieldcommanderstoimposeameasureofrealityuponHitler
wererebuffedbyhisinsistencethatthesituationwasnotasdireastheymadeout.
Tothebitterend,neitherHitlernorthedetestedheadoftheSS,HeinrichHimmler,

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whomhefoolishlyplacedincommandofanarmygroupdefendingtheVistulaRiver
inPoland,believedthegrimestimatesoftheGermanfieldcommanders.Privately,
however,evenHitlerrealizedthewarwaslost,buthescornedanynotionof
surrenderasheresy.''Wemaygodown,''hetoldanaide,''butwewilltakeaworld
withus.''Whatensuedduringthosefinal,awfulmonthsofWorldWarIIinEuropeis
thesubjectofAntonyBeevor'sdramaticaccount,''TheFallofBerlin1945.''
StalinwasobsessedwiththepossibilitythattheAlliesmightsomehowbeatthe
RussianstoBerlin.InJanuary1945theRedArmymassedoverfourmilliontroops
alongtheVistulaforthefinaloffensiveagainstNaziGermany.Atleast8.5million
peoplelivinginEastPrussiatriedtoescapetheimpendingSovietonslaught.Some
managedtohideintheforestsandthosewhocouldfledwestward,hopingtoreach
AlliedlinesbeforefallingintothehandsoftheRussians.Thevastmajoritywerenot
successful.IntheportcityofKnigsberg,forexample,manyweremachinegunned
othersweresimplyrunoverbySoviettanks.Atsea,aRussiansubmarinetorpedoed
thelinerWilhelmGustloffwithalossof5,300ofthe6,600civilianpassengers.One
ofthefirstplacesliberatedbytheRussianswasAuschwitzanditsnearbyP.O.W.
camps.SmallwonderthataBritishP.O.W.exclaimed:''MyGod!I'llforgivethe
Russiansabsolutelyanythingtheydotothiscountry....Absolutelyanything.''
AlthoughtheappallingatrocitiescommittedbytheGermansintheSoviet
Unionmaderetributioninevitable,thebreadthofRussianvengeanceagainstthe
Germanpeopleduringthelastmonthsofthewarwasbothenormousinitsscope
andterribleinitsfury.AfterRedArmysoldierslearnedthatRussianP.O.W.'shad
beenturnedovertotheSSforexecution,theysentaclearmessage:''Theywould
takenoprisoners.''
ThecollectivewrathoftheRussianswentwellbeyondtheactionsofan
unenlightened,sexuallyrepressedsociety,intotheentirelyunchartedsphereofa
masspsychosisofhorrificsavagery.Thiswasmatchedbywhatseemstohavebeena
collectivenationalguiltcomplexthatontheonehand,wasbentonrevenge,andon
theother,soughttoassuageitsculpabilityinaseaofalcoholsohugethatit''gravely
damagedthefightingcapacityoftheRedArmy.''Germancivilians,rangingfrom
veryyounggirlstooldwomen,weregangraped,mutilated,humiliatedandthen
frequentlymurderedbyRedArmysoldiers.Beevor,theauthorofseveralbooksof

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militaryhistory,believesthatasmanyastwomillionGermanwomenwereraped,
manymorethanonce.
Inunsparingdetail,herelatesthisgrimstoryoftheveryworstthatmankindis
capableof,witheachparticipantseeminglybentonoutdoingeveryotherindegree
ofbrutality.''TheRedArmy,''Beevorwrites,''hadmanagedtoconvinceitselfthat
becauseithadassumedthemoralmissiontoliberateEuropefromfascism,itcould
behaveentirelyasitliked,bothpersonallyandpolitically.''MarshalAleksandr
Vasilevsky,whocommandedtheThirdBelarussianFront,wasconsideredonethe
mostintelligentandenlightenedoftheRedArmygenerals.Butwhenaskedwhathe
plannedtodotoreininthelootinganddestructionbyhistroopsevenhereplied,''It
isnowtimeforoursoldierstoissuetheirownjustice.''
Beevor'sgutwrenchingtaleistoldfromtheperspectiveofthosewholived,
foughtandalltoooftendiedinEastPrussiaandBerlin.Hisdescriptionsofthe
experiencesofindividualsoldiersandcivilians,thestreetfightinginBerlinandthe
eventstakingplaceintheHitlerbunkerandtheKremlin,make''TheFallofBerlin
1945''thebestaccountyetwrittenonthedeathknellofHitler'svauntedThousand
YearReich.Whetherpaintingvividandunsparingportraitsofthekeyplayersinthe
Berlindramaorrevealingseeminglyminorbutpoignantdetailsofwhatlifewaslike
forthoseinvolved,Beevorhascreatedhauntingimagesofthewar'sfinaldays.
WithunparalleledaccesstoRussian,GermanandSwedisharchives,alongwith
extensiveresearchinBritishandAmericansources,Beevorhasuncovereda
considerablequantityoffreshmaterial,someofitutterlybizarre.Forexample,he
offersanaccountofhowHitler'sjawboneandcraniumwereparceledoutlikeparty
favorsbetweenthedreadedcounterintelligenceorganizationSmershandthesecret
policeoftheNKVDultimatelytheywerelockedawayinaSovietarchive.Hitler's
remains,burieduntil1970underaSovietArmyparadegroundinMagdeburg,were
finallyexhumedinthedeadofnight,Beevortellsus,anddisposedofbyflushinghis
ashesintothecitysewagesystem.
Intheend,asBeevornotes,itwasalla''senselessslaughterwhichresultedfrom
Hitler'soutrageousvanity.''His''incompetence,thefrenziedrefusaltoacceptreality
andtheinhumanityoftheNaziregimewererevealedalltooclearlyinitspassing.''

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Unfortunately,aspostwareventsinAfricaandtheBalkanshaveshown,mankind
hasnotseenthelastofsuchbrutality.

2016TheNewYorkTimesCompany

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