Jul 2009 Journal

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Berlin - the eye of the storm

Germany in the first months of 1945 experienced a firestorm of violence of almost unparalleled dimensions. Between January 1945 and the end of the war in May 1945, it became the arena for destruction and killing on a vast scale, both on land and from the air. Hitler’s war had come home to Germany in full measure, and its final battles were fought out in the heartland of the Reich, including its capital, Berlin.

In the months after the Red Army launched its massive offensive of 12 January 1945, only halting when it took Berlin, the German army suffered its greatest losses of the war. In January 1945, the number of German fighting men killed was over 450,000, far more than the 185,000 soldiers who died in January 1943, when Stalingrad fell. As Professor Richard Bessel has pointed out in his recently published study, Germany 1945: From War to Peace, this was considerably more than the losses suffered by Britain or the USA during the entire war.

The killing was on a staggering scale: in the following three months, February to April 1945, the monthly toll of German military casualties never fell below 280,000. Though Germany had no hope of winning the war, Hitler’s strategy of resistance to the bitter end led to a grinding campaign of destruction, in which stubborn German resistance was engulfed by the Allies’ overwhelming superiority. The cost was terrible: the Red Army in particular, always prodigal with human lives, suffered enormous losses in its advance into Germany, losses for which its soldiers duly sought vengeance.

The RAF and the USAF intensified their onslaught on Germany’s cities from the air, dropping almost 50 per cent more tons of bombs on Germany in the first three months of 1945 than they had in the whole of 1943. The air raid that destroyed Dresden on 25 February 1945 was replicated all over Germany, with smaller towns like Pforzheim and Würzburg suffering devastating damage. Civilian casualties were enormous and Germany’s entire infrastructure – transport, communications, fuel, gas, electricity, water, food supply – broke down. Huge numbers of civilian casualties also occurred in the East, as several million Germans fled before the advancing Red Army. These disorganised treks in freezing weather cost hundreds of thousands of lives. Civilians suffered terribly as the Red Army fought its way into one German city after another, especially those like Breslau and Königsberg, which the German military leadership had designated as ‘city fortresses’ and forbidden to surrender.

The chaos that engulfed the Reich in its dying months did not spare the Jews, even though the gas chambers in the extermination camps had ceased to operate by 1945. As the camp system broke down, Jews died in thousands on senseless death marches or from hunger, disease and maltreatment in the appalling conditions prevailing in camps like Belsen and Dachau. Of the 700,000 people in camps in January 1945, of whom some 200,000 were Jews, between 200,000 and 350,000 died. Nothing characterises the wanton savagery inherent in the Nazi system more clearly than the way it attempted, almost as a kind of automatic reflex, to continue the genocide of the Jews by makeshift means at a stage when Nazism itself was collapsing.
The Nazi leadership, obsessed with avoiding another November 1918 and the humiliation of surrender, had no strategy to offer than that of fighting on, against hopeless odds and in an utterly desperate situation. The regime now had to make Germans, civilians and soldiers, support a lost war and conduct a pointless resistance against a superior foe, at enormous cost in human suffering and material destruction. This compelled the authorities to employ increasingly ruthless measures against their own citizens: ordinary Germans not hostile to Hitler were now exposed to the Nazi terror, as any signs of unwillingness to prosecute the war to the bitterest of ends were punished drastically, often by summary execution. It was a strategy almost designed to maximise casualties, military and civilian.

The maelstrom of violence visited upon Nazi Germany in 1945 must be seen in the context of the greater violence inflicted by Nazi Germany on the peoples of Europe and on those like the Jews whom it designated as its foes. The violence was the logical end product of Nazi policies and German wartime practices. So this article is intended to convey the dimensions of the killing that occurred on German soil in the war’s final months, not as a plea for sympathy for Germans. It is, admittedly, true that the innocent suffered with the guilty: Richard Bessel cites a seven-year-old boy who saw his grandmother burnt alive in the bombing of Magdeburg and a girl of 13 who was gang-raped by Russians. But when the girl cried out for her mother, a Russian soldier, not untypically, let her go – how many German soldiers showed the same flicker of humanity to young Jewish girls as they despatched them to mass graves or gas chambers?

A memorable account of civilian life and suffering in those apocalyptic months has enjoyed a remarkable second lease of life in recent years. Eine Frau in Berlin (A Woman in Berlin), republished by Eichborn Verlag in 2003, is the diary of an anonymous German woman written in the weeks between 20 April and 22 June 1945 and describes the daily realities of the dying spasms of the Third Reich, the end of the war and the entry of the Red Army into Berlin. It was filmed in 2008. (Perhaps regrettably, the author’s identity has been revealed: she was an otherwise unknown journalist, Marta Hillers, who died in 2001.)

The book was originally published in America in 1954 and was translated into several languages. But the German version appeared only in 1959, and in West Germany the book failed to achieve the status it deserved. This was hardly surprising, given the reluctance of Germans to confront the catastrophic defeat they had endured only a decade earlier, the reduction of their proud capital to rubble, and their humiliation at the hands of Soviet soldiers whom they had been taught to regard as racial inferiors during the Nazi period. Coupled with feelings of guilt about the Nazi past, this made Germans shy away from their memories of the war and its end. It was left to a book by a British author, Antony Beevor’s Berlin: The Downfall, 1945 (2002), to provide a full-scale study of the German capital in 1945.

Among those suppressed memories, none was more sensitive than the treatment of German women by the victorious Soviet troops. Whereas German women like the anonymous author of Eine Frau in Berlin sometimes had the courage to speak out honestly about their experiences of rape, German men who, if present, had been powerless to intervene or, if absent, had been away fighting for a lost and discredited cause, found the blow to their masculine self-image too much to bear. The mass rapes that accompanied the advance of the Soviet forces, though hardly a secret, were rarely discussed openly. As a result, it was only with its republication in 2003 that Eine Frau in Berlin became a bestseller.

The book presents a graphic, factual account of the author’s experiences, and the very objectivity with which it is written gives it a searing honesty and a gripping sincerity. With many of their men captured, dead or fighting elsewhere, Berlin’s womenfolk faced the Soviet advance virtually undefended. The anonymous author does not shrink from describing her own experiences, which after the first few days led her to adopt the expedient of finding a senior Russian officer as a ‘protector’, to save her from the random attentions of marauding troops. She does not indulge in self-pity or parade her victimhood. On the contrary: aware of German responsibility for the war and its atrocities, the author told Kurt Marek, who wrote the afterword to the 1954 edition, that ‘none of the victims can wear their sufferings like a crown of thorns. I for one had the feeling that what happened to me was a balancing of accounts’. In this respect, her book evokes a contrasting reaction to The Reader, which depicted the ‘narcissistic self-absorption’ typical of post-war Germany’s attempt to come to terms with its Nazi past (see my article in the April issue).

The author of Eine Frau in Berlin makes plain how defeat and collapse undermined the subordination of women to men in the militarised, male-dominated society decreed by National Socialist ideology. The impotence of German men in face of the Red Army’s appropriation of their womenfolk leaves her openly scornful of their traditional notions of masculinity. The unwillingness of men like her partner to acknowledge her new-found sense of freedom and independence, common to women who have had to take responsibility for their own lives, disappoints her bitterly. His emotional inability to come to terms with her experiences at the hands of the Russians effectively wrecks their relationship.

The book points to one of the most significant consequences of Nazi Germany’s violent end: the severing of the link between the previously loyal population and the leadership that in the end brought misery, humiliation and death upon it. Nazism, militarism and right-wing extremism have carried little political weight in Germany since.

Anthony Grenville

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