War stories

Readers respond to an interview about the Six-Day War and Allen Barra's review of "The Fall of Berlin 1945."

By Salon Staff
Published June 14, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

[Read the review of "The Fall of Berlin 1945."]

Although the review is interesting, it makes a few sweeping declarations that are not entirely justified. One is that the fall of Berlin has never been dealt with in such comprehensive detail before.

There are numerous histories of this event, most scholarly works unknown outside academic circles. The story of the city's last days has been the topic of extensive writing, mainly in German.

Readers interested in this subject should also look to a 1956 novelized treatment of the city's fate when the Russians poured in: "Berlin," by Theodor Plievier, originally in German. Panther Books published an English translation in 1969.

I lived as a "guest worker" in Berlin in 1966 during the Wirtschaftswunder, or economic miracle -- the chamber of commerce phrase for the rebuilding of Germany. Everywhere I went the city showed the still-fresh marks of the battle. The shattered, broken-tooth spire of the old central cathedral, the Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedaechtnis-Kirche, towered above an open vestibule still littered with the rubble of the missing parts of the church. A statue of Christ stood in one corner, an upraised hand of love and peace missing two fingers.

The apartment complex where I stayed had been a five-story Gartenhaus with an open atrium garden. The fifth story had been destroyed in the battle, but rather than rebuild that level, builders sealed the former floors of the top-level apartments to create a new roof. At one corner, a stairwell circled skyward to nowhere -- topped with a little orchard of TV antennae.

Most of my friends were either very young college students, as I was, or quite elderly. The city was empty of younger adults, middle-aged persons, and people in their early older years. They were dead or had fled. The older residents resolutely refused to speak of the last days of the war. The young had heard stories at some time but would not discuss the degradation of Berlin.

The fall of Berlin was a great tragedy, no matter how we look at the justice of the events. Plievier's book took me to street corners I remembered quite well, complete with bullet holes and shell gouges in walls. I visualized some of the old women and men I knew living through the events the author related. This was an event of overwhelming magnitude, played out in the small and forgotten lives of individuals.

-- Lange Winckler

Calling the German resistance in Berlin "feeble" is not quite accurate; indeed, the Soviet Union suffered more soldiers killed in taking the city than did Douglas MacArthur in the entire war in the Pacific, from the Philippines to Tokyo Bay. By the end of the war, with Soviet numerical supremacy in tanks, artillery, planes and men anywhere from 10:1 to 30:1, it's hardly surprising that a city defended by less than 30,000 regular soldiers, plus old men and boys, would fall to a well-equipped Red Army of more than a million men.

-- Michael Bennett

Allen Barra replies: I would define resistance by 30,000 against 1 million as a textbook example of feeble ... but the majority of Russian casualties in the campaign were suffered not in Germany itself but Poland.

[Read "Six Days That Shook the World."]

I am not one of the 85 percent of Jewish Israelis who Michael Oren is so proud to be a part of. Reading the interview with him I can't but be amazed at the blind arrogance of John Doe Israeli.

He calls himself an objective historian, and yet he blames the current intifada as the barrier to his getting the Palestinian "voice" in his book. But since book production takes 6-12 months, and I presume a serious piece of academic work takes years of research, he had plenty of time during the good old Oslo years to interview Palestinians, if he had really wanted to. But as is obvious from everything he says, for him, as it is for 85 percent of Jewish Israelis, the Palestinians aren't worthy of consideration.

Of course, in his eyes, they, the Palestinians, are the whole problem. It is not relevant that the Israelis have, over the past 35 years, done everything we can do, to make it crystal clear to the Palestinians that they aren't wanted in our land. We expropriated their homes and farms, we exiled their leaders, we killed their youth, uprooted their trees, humiliated them, and forced them into servitude. And all this before the first intifada, before we even knew what a suicide bomber was. But it is they who don't want peace.

What really gets me is how he compares Israel to America. Israelis love to say how we are the only democracy in the Middle East. Somehow, we forget that there are 3.5 million Palestinians who have no representation at all in our government, and another million non-Jewish Arab Israelis who are legally second-class citizens and whose rights are being restricted more and more. With all due respect to America's problems, Israel has quite a ways to go before it can call itself a Western-style democracy on the American model.

The one thing I agree with Oren about is that the problem is not our leaders. Sharon and Arafat are a reflection of the despair and hatred on both sides, not the cause of it. But to do as Oren does -- to deny the roots of that despair in Israeli arrogance and the tribalism that grew without bounds subsequent to the June war "victory" -- is to perpetuate the problem, not resolve it.

-- Aron Trauring

Finally, Salon shows the Israeli side of the story. Michael Oren is blunt and honest and articulate -- I hope he gets interviewed on NPR and all the other "progressive" outlets. The majority of progressives are ethical and principled; they have just been fed a lot of propaganda for a very long time. Eventually, most people on the left had to acknowledge that Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were tyrants and murderers, not heroic figures. They will have to acknowledge the same about Arafat and the Arab regimes that support him.

-- Judith Weiss

I found the interview with Michael Oren very interesting. But the question I would have liked Suzy Hansen to ask him: If the settlements aren't the issue, why won't the Israeli government clear them out of the occupied territories?

The settlements and the settler-only roads physically divide the West Bank and the Gaza strip into cantons. Oren claims that "according to the Palestinians, this is not the issue"; but according to all Palestinian accounts, it is very much the issue.

I found a 1995 article by Israel Shahak on this topic at the Birzeit University Web site.

-- Jane Carnall

Suzy Hansen repeats an avoidable error -- and/or a popular lie -- with the phrase: "some [Israeli] generals were unhappy that they had not seized all of the West Bank in 1948."

The West Bank, including East Jerusalem, represents the extent of the Arab legion's successful invasion of Israeli/Palestinian territory up to the cease-fire of 1948.

The great lie is the refusal of most of the press and public to acknowledge the status of the West Bank from 1948 to 1967. Was this a "Palestinian homeland"? Not on your life. Jordan occupied the area for nearly two decades without a peep of protest from the Arab world.

In effect, for the Arab world (and its Western apologists) "Palestinian homeland" means any square foot of land in the Middle East upon which Jews live.

The "occupied" West Bank is a fiction.

-- John Coffin

Salon Staff

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