"The Fall of Berlin 1945" by Antony Beevor

A historian describes Germany's fall to the Soviets in 1945, when civilians suffered the full fury and horror of war.

Published June 11, 2002 10:30PM (EDT)

The ancient Greeks didn't just invent military history, they nearly failed to invent any other kind. From the first great historical Greek text, Xenophon's "The Anabasis" (about Greek mercenaries trapped behind Persian lines and fighting their way to the sea, a narrative that benefited from Xenophon's on-the-spot reporting), to Polybius' account of Rome's war with Hannibal, "The Rise of the Roman Empire," Greek histories are almost about nothing but war. The modern reader is often shocked to discover how little the classical Greeks cared about culture, the arts, economics and social history; to them, the history of war was the history of mankind (either that or they had some pretty commercially minded editors who only cared about cutting to the action).

To the Greeks, of course, war was so important precisely because without a thorough knowledge of it, no people would be around long enough to create all the other trappings of civilization. They made literature out of war because they believed character was fate, a law that applied to nations as well as to individuals. The best military historians in our own time -- John Keegan, for instance, whose "The Face of Battle" put the reader in the uniforms of soldiers across the centuries, or Col. Liddell Hart, who, in his classic "Strategy," coined the term "the indirect method of warfare" -- never lost sight of the fact that real military history has always been about human nature first and strategy and tactics second.

The problem for modern historians is that war has become so expansive and impersonal, and primary accounts of it so politicized, that it's almost impossible to get perspective on the subject. In other words, the human factor is lost. In his best books, such as "The Spanish Civil War" and "Crete: The Battle and the Resistance," British historian Antony Beevor never fails to zero in on the human element. On bigger subjects, he too often leaves us scrambling to assemble the big picture ourselves amidst the swirl and rumble of army groups, divisions, regiments and battalions.

Beevor's "Stalingrad" (1998) is the most meticulously researched and detailed account of the biggest and most important battle of World War II, and perhaps of Western history.

Yet "Stalingrad" suffers in comparison to a less comprehensive volume on the same subject, William Craig's "Enemy At The Gates." While Beevor is overloading our minds with troop movements, Craig was focusing on people. Craig's contribution was to illuminate each advance, retreat, and flanking movement with an individual who lent a human face to each inhuman situation. (For instance, at the very center of the battle, at the very moment when the German advance begins to stall, Craig locates the farm boy sniper from the Urals, Vasiliy Zeitsev, who came to symbolize Russian heroism in the siege. (Craig's text on Zeitsev and the sniper war was to become the basis for the film "Enemy at the Gates.") The battle of Stalingrad was the most Homeric episode in modern warfare, but it was the inspired amateur, not the seasoned professional, whose prose did justice to the story.

The conquest of Berlin is a much less dramatic subject than the battle for Stalingrad; there was no protracted or heroic stance. If anything, German resistance was surprisingly feeble, or as a German prisoner quoted by Beevor phrased it, "Morale is being completely destroyed by warfare on German territory ... we are told to fight to the death, but it is a complete blind alley." There are no real surprises here -- if you didn't know anything about World War II, you could guess from the first couple of chapters that Germany is doomed. And yet, Beevor has wrenched a better book from the fall of Berlin than he was able to from the siege of Stalingrad.

For one thing, the tight focus on the immediate area around Berlin makes it easier for the reader to follow the enormous flow of men and materiel than it was with a book covering the sprawling wastes of Russia. (Stalin concentrated a far greater number of armored vehicles in the attack on Berlin than Hitler used in the initial invasion of the whole Soviet Union.) With the military issue never in doubt, Beevor is able to give more space to the civilian population than he did in his account of the Stalingrad siege. Of course, this leads to wildly ambivalent reactions. Even a Quaker, after reading about the hell on earth created by the Nazis in Soviet Russia, would have a hard time not sympathizing with the Soviet colonel who, pointing to the rubble of Stalingrad, shouted at emaciated German prisoners, "That's how Berlin is going to look!"

The theme, then, of "The Fall of Berlin 1945" is revenge, and on so colossal a scale and with such merciless intensity as to, in the words of Yeats, "make a stone of the heart." Whatever the enormities committed by the German army, the abuse visited on the civilians of Berlin only compounded the horror. "Domination and humiliation permeated most soldiers' treatment of women in East Prussia," writes Beevor. "The victims bore the brunt of revenge for the Wehrmacht crimes during the invasion of the Soviet Union. After the initial fury dissipated, this characteristic of sadistic humiliation became noticeably less marked." But not before, boasted a Russian tank company officer, "Two million of our children were born" in Germany.

If "Stalingrad" left us with lingering images of burnt-out tanks and a deserted city full of frozen corpses in uniforms, the primary images of "The Fall of Berlin 1945" are of endless lines of civilians, overwhelmingly women and children, staggering through the snow and ice like shadow figures. No previous text on the defeat of Germany has been so unsparing in its depiction of the miseries of the Germans themselves. One young mother who had lost her child in the cold wrote to her mother describing the fate of German women "crying over a bundle which contained a baby frozen to death, others sitting in the snow, propped against a tree by the side of the road, with other children standing nearby whimpering in fear, not knowing whether their mother was unconscious or dead." Adds Beevor, "In that cold, it made little difference."

"History," said Albert Speer with lofty bitterness to his American interrogators, "always emphasizes terminal events." And it does, though apparently not in a manner recognized by the Albert Speers of the world. Perhaps he would have been interested in the words of an anonymous German diarist quoted by Beevor: "These are strange times," wrote the woman. "One experiences history in the making, things which one day will fill the history books. But while living through it, everything dissolves into petty worries and fears. History is very tiresome. Tomorrow I'm going to look for nettles and try to find some coal."

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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