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Book Review 272: Berlin: The Downfall 1945

March 18, 2013 - Harry Eagar
BERLIN: The Downfall 1945, by Antony Beevor. 490 pages, illustrated. Penguin paperback

With the exception of one odd blind spot, Antony Beevor's “Berlin” is an outstanding example of second-generation World War II history.

It benefits both from late discoveries (such as the disposition of Hitler's cranium) and time to reflect on the interpretation of events.

Of the events themselves, Beevor has little new to add, although as with the rest of the Eastern war, Americans have been offered very little popular history, compared to the vast stacks of histories and memoirs of the Western Allies' efforts, and the nearly as vast volumes given the Germans' versions.

This is understandable but unfortunate, since 90% of the European war was fought in the East and even more than 90% of the dying happened there.

This is definitely popular history. Beevor, an ex-officer in the Household Cavalry, knows his stuff but intrudes little of it here. There is not even an order of battle below the level of army group (front in Russian), and statistics are little used. He never even gives round numbers of the men and machines involved.

I regard this as a choice, not a flaw, and perhaps a good one. Unlike so many popular military historians, he does not let fascination with technical matters get in the way of telling the story. Those who want numbers can consult the many well-done books by Richard Overy.

The other reason Americans are not offered much about the Battle for Berlin, one of the mightiest of a big war, is that our army did not take part. (Beevor notes that the Red Army assault on Berlin was the biggest military drive in history, involving about twice as many men [and women, too, in the Red Army] as the Germans used to invade Russia.)

And here is where the only substantive criticism I have of Beevor arises. Many people at the time and since, not least Heimrich Himmler, would have preferred to see the Allied armies drive on Berlin. (Himmler deluding himself that the Western Allies and the Germans could then unite against the Bolsheviks.)

American officers, with exception of the in-way-over-his-head Patton, generally were happy to let the Russians do the dying, and they estimated that taking Berlin would cost somebody 100,000 lives.

Beevor doubts this estimate, figuring that there was a moment when the western approaches were lightly defended.

He gives the eventual butcher's bill for the Red Army as 78,291 dead and 274,184 wounded, numbers not all that much lower than America's total for the European and Pacific wars combined.

General Marshall, with Eisenhower agreeing, was disinclined to spend any American lives for a purely political objective. Berlin was not necessary to defeat the German army.

Beevor says repeatedly that the naïve Americans simply failed to understand the value of the political victory, though conceding that Stalin was never going to allow any but the Red Army to take the prize. It's an argument that can be made, but Beevor fails to reference the obvious case of Moscow, which neither Hitler nor Stalin thought so highly of in 1941. While Hitler in 1945 refused to evacuate Berlin, Stalin did start evacuating Moscow in '41 and was prepared to fight on if the capital were lost.

And Hitler also did not think Moscow was a supreme objective, since he turned aside suggestions from his generals to concentrate on it.

(Most historians think the Germans could have taken Moscow by concentrating armor in that assault in October-November. It's possible, but considering the logistical incompetence of both the German army and the Nazi party-state, there's room for plenty of doubt.)

Beevor never does say what political benefits the democracies would have gained by taking Berlin, and it is hard to think of any. The USSR's desire for a defensive cordon of subject states from the Gulf of Riga to the Black Sea was entirely understandable. And the Red Army was there.

The Stalinist-style regimes installed were far weaker, as barriers, than strong states would have been, but that was a miscalculation of the Stalin state. Any conceivable Russian state would have sought similar guarantees, just as the United States would not allow either an occupied nor an independent Hawaii. (And American arguments were based on far, far smaller actual threats.)

Under these circumstances, the clearance of Germans from the regions east of the Oder-Neisse line was a necessary event. Beevor gives full weight to the cruelty that this involved, calling it the largest mass transfer of population in history. Certainly it was the largest in such a short period, perhaps 11 million Germans killed or driven out.

The result was an eastern Europe with the possibility of development as a series of nation-states. This could never have happened with Germans interspersed among the populations in the numbers they were in 1939.

Something not to be found in “Berlin: the Downfall” tends to confirm this interpretation.

There is no evidence in this book, or in any other I know of, that the Red Army soldiers, of any rank, understood the racial motivation of the German invasion. For them, war was an opportunity for plunder (of women as well as tangible goods), and Soviet propaganda did not attempt to make them fight for marxism.

Both Overy and Beevor, for example, note the stunned reaction of the Russians when they finally reached East Prussia, to find that, as one put it, the pigs there lived in better houses than Russians did.

They could not believe that Germans, so rich, would bother to rob poor Russians. And, if it had been put to the Germans that way, possibly the Nazis could not have carried the nation to war. But that was not why Germans fought.


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