The Fall of Berlin 1945, Reviewed by Jonathan


Antony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945 explores the final battles between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as the Red Army advanced towards Berlin. As a military history book, The Fall of Berlin 1945 attempts to reconstruct the battle scenes in its narrative and uses testimony from the soldiers who fought in the battles to portray the brutality of war. It explores the thought process of German and Soviet generals and leaders who were often involved in political conflict. Beevor’s book begins with a quote from Albert Speer, known as Hitler’s architect, after the end of the Second World War: “History always emphasizes terminal events.”[1] Even though Speer might be disappointed that Nazi Germany’s downfall would overshadow its rise, Beevor argues that the fall of Nazi Germany is fascinating due to the large amount of information that it reveals about the regime.[2] Indeed, the downfall of the Third Reich revealed the nature of its politicians and generals. Overarching themes in the book include the murder of civilians or soldiers who were unwilling to fight against the Soviets, the determination of Adolf Hitler to continue his resistance, and the brutality inflicted by Soviet soldiers on German women. Even though The Fall of Berlin 1945 is intended for an audience with a general understanding of the Second World War and is heavily biased against the Red Army’s conduct, it provides a unique and valuable account of civilian and military life in Germany towards the end of the war, using a rich amount of testimony from people who directly experienced the war’s violence.

Although Beevor is primarily concerned with the details of the battles between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army, he does not use a lot of statistics to describe the resources possessed by each side or the casualties of war. Instead, he uses testimony from the survivors of war to portray the violence of warfare as well as the lives of soldiers who were still facing death even as the war was drawing to an end. Up until the fall of Berlin, Nazi Germany continued to use propaganda to convince its people and soldiers the possibility of victory and the necessity to continue fighting.[3] The SS mercilessly executed many people who wanted to surrender or tried to flee from the battleground, but Beevor does not hesitate to point out the hypocrisy in their behavior, noting an incident where two SS women who threatened soldiers to continue attacking completely disappeared at the end of a skirmish.[4] His narrative emphasizes that war was fought by individuals who had their own story to tell and could think for themselves. From Beevor’s point of view, they were not simply pawns sacrificed by generals and politicians of totalitarian regimes for military objectives; their stories help him construct a well-rounded understanding of the battles in eastern Germany and how the mentality of soldiers contributed to the final results.

Politicians and generals, however, were also important characters as they ultimately had the power to decide the course of history. In addition to the strategies drafted by Soviet and German generals, Beevor also analyzes the rivalry between Ivan Konev and Georgy Zhukov and the struggle for power between Heinrich Himmler and Martin Bormann.[5] However, Adolf Hitler received most of the book’s attention as Beevor spends a considerable portion of his book for his narrative on final days of Hitler, which included his determination to remain in Berlin, his declining health, and his death.[6] Notably, Beevor even provides an analysis of Hitler’s sexuality and the possibility of sexual contact between him and Eva Braun.[7] His writing on Hitler is catered to an audience that is curious about the private life of politicians who tried to construct a great image of themselves in history and suppressed their less desired traits from appearing in public. His approach to political figures is similar to his approach to warfare: he is interested in the details that contribute to a general understanding of the person or the event but are usually forgotten by history. His information may be very interesting to an audience who has a general understanding of the end of the Second World War, but information such as Hitler’s sexuality may be superfluous for an academic who is studying military history or the reasons behind the downfall of Nazi Germany.

The violence that the Red Army inflicted on civilians, particularly women, during the war was one of the most controversial subjects in the history of the Second World War and Beevor clearly shows his disdain towards the actions of Soviet soldiers, their indiscrimination towards women (regardless of their profession, ethnicity, nationality, or even age), and the ineffectiveness of officers who were supposed to regulate the behavior of their soldiers.[8] He categorizes the “evolution” of rape into four stages in order to demonstrate the blurring of lines between rape and coercion as women volunteered themselves to Soviet soldiers in order to have food and to avoid gang rape.[9] The categorization also provides a glimpse into the shortage of goods and the fear of violence in Germany after the occupation of Berlin, portraying the horrible consequences of war to the reader. Beevor, however, makes assessments on the psychology of Soviet soldiers without providing evidence to support his claims. He argues that Soviet soldiers involved in rape were “satisfying a sexual need after all their time in the front,” while noting that “undisciplined soldiers without fear of retribution can rapidly revert to a primitive male sexuality.”[10] He blames the prevalence of collective rape on the culture of the Red Army, even claiming that “the practice of collective rape can even become a form of bonding process.”[11] While these assertions attempt to reconstruct the Soviet soldier as a human being brutalized by war and to portray the primitiveness still existing in human nature, they also reflect Beevor’s animosity towards the Soviet Union and his determination to portray the average Soviet soldier in a negative manner. Although he occasionally mentions the kindness of the Red Army towards German civilians, his circumscribed narrative on the Red Army’s behavior implies that Soviet presence in Germany was equated with violence and fear.[12]

Beevor constructs his narrative with interviews, diaries, and unpublished accounts from many people who experienced the war. These sources provided valuable information on the chaos throughout eastern Germany and the strategies used in warfare. Information related to military affairs originated from soldiers and commanders of both the Soviet Union and Germany (including foreigners who also fought on behalf of Nazi Germany).[13] Many German civilians, including women who were raped by Soviet soldiers, also provided accounts of their own experiences in the war.[14] Although Beevor uses a slightly excessive amount of testimony that does not necessarily strengthen his arguments, these sources are crucial for his analysis of German society during the war and their relationship with politicians, officers, and Soviet soldiers. In addition, many of Beevor’s primary source documents originated from Russian and German archives and were complemented by French, American, and Swedish documents that provided some information on the American perspective of the war as well as French and Swedish presence in Germany.[15] Beevor, however, could have reduced the amount of testimony from German civilians and used more American and British documents to expand on his discussion of the Western Front, which is unfortunately very limited. The Western Front was also important for the fall of Berlin, since Stalin was motivated to occupy Berlin before the Western Allies arrived and many Nazi officials wanted to surrender to the USA in order to avoid the brutal treatment that they expected from the Soviet Union.[16]

The Fall of Berlin 1945 is a narrative that successfully portrays civilian and military life in Germany towards the end of the Second World War and provides historians with valuable information on the thought process of Soviet and German soldiers as well as German civilians. Beevor’s introduction emphasizes that “one should be extremely wary of any generalization concerning the conduct of individuals… Human behavior to a large extent mirrors the utter unpredictability of life or death.”[17] To a large extent, he successfully avoids generalizing the behavior of different social groups and uses testimony from many distinct individuals in order to create an overarching understanding of the events happening in eastern Germany. History was ultimately created by the seemingly insignificant people who might be dispensable. Beevor’s work reminds historians that war was conducted by individual soldiers willing to sacrifice their lives and resulted in the suffering of individual civilians. Without these people, politics and warfare would not be able to take place. Despite the fact that Beevor’s work has certain flaws and includes many superfluous details that may not necessarily be valuable to a professional academic, it is a great book for a casual reader who wants to learn more about the reasons behind the downfall of a large nation or for a historian who is seeking for more information about war’s effect on society.

[1] Speer Interrogation, 22 May 1945, 740.0011 EW / 5-145, National Archives II, College Park, Maryland, United States of America, quoted in Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945 (New York: Viking, 2002), xxxiii.

[2] Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945, xxxiii.

[3] Ibid., 133.

[4] Ibid., 123, 336.

[5] Ibid., 42, 165.

[6] Ibid., 58, 153, 359.

[7] Ibid., 253.

[8] Ibid., 326-327.

[9] Ibid., 414.

[10] Ibid., 326.

[11] Ibid., 327.

[12] Ibid., 326.

[13] Ibid., 433-434.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 432-433.

[16] Ibid., 294.

[17] Ibid., xxxv.

One response to “The Fall of Berlin 1945, Reviewed by Jonathan”

  1. David Medcalfe says:

    Johnathan, I commend your review of the Battle of Berlin since it is quite a contentious topic for WWII historians.

    Though I agree with you entirely that Beevor should have provided statistics regarding the order of battle (numbers on each side), this is quite problematic since the Germans were sending all men to the front, ranging from Hitler Youth to Volkssturm (the people’s militia). Consequently, only estimates that cannot even be verified due to the chaos surrounding the battle are the only numbers we have sadly.

    Most importantly though, I want to commend you on challenging Beevor’s portrayal of Soviet soldiers as animalistic. I sense that he is being influenced by Third Reich propaganda, aimed at dehumanizing Soviet soldiers as merely the “Bolshevik Asiatic hordes.” Furthermore, it is very likely his book’s portrayal of the Soviets is influenced by the publication of a diary of a German woman in Berlin at the time, Eine Frau in Berlin, which deals with the horrific crimes committed by the Red Army.

    Lastly, I highly encourage you to read about the war crimes committed by the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS in the Soviet Union beginning with Operation Barbarossa. One must take into account that the war in the east was regarded as a “war of extermination” that differed itself with Germany’s other military campaigns. Furthermore, though it has been poorly documented, the Wehrmacht did commit widespread rape during their campaign in the Soviet Union. The only estimate historians could come up with is that nearly 10 million Soviet women were raped by German soldiers, but the number could potentially be higher since it was poorly documented and soldiers were seldom faced court-martial for such crimes against civilians.

    This is where I truly believe Trouillot would agree, that a “historical narrative” is being propagated by Beevor, wherein he fails to mention how terrible the war crimes committed by the Germans in the east were and how Soviet soldiers witnessed the aftermath as they liberated their own territories. Consequently, Soviet soldiers sought to enact revenge against anyone they could once they entered the Reich and was most notably demonstrated by the Nemmersdorf massacre in East Prussia in 1944.

    If Beevor sought to truly present a truthful historical narrative, he would have explained that Soviet soldiers had just finished fighting an enemy that had invaded their country, massacred and raped their civilians and had destroyed all infrastructure in their retreat from the USSR. The omission of this fact, which I sincerely doubt he is not aware of as a WWII historian, simply explains the horrid conduct of Soviet soldiers in Berlin as a reflection of their “real character” rather than attempting to present the Soviet perspective of enacting revenge upon an enemy that had done the same crimes (if not worse) against their own people.

    However, I am not excusing the conduct and crimes of Soviet soldiers, but we ought to remain wary of historical narratives being presented in this work since Beevor clearly did not reference the mass rape of Soviet women by the Wehrmacht.

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