Saturday, 5 May 2012

Book Review - Berlin : the downfall 1945 by Antony Beevor

Berlin : the downfall 1945 by Antony Beevor

London : Penguin Books, 2007      ISBN 9780141032399

From his bestseller Stalingrad, to the work under review here, and others such as D-Day, The Battle for Spain, and his new work The Second World War, Antony Beevor has carved out a very successful niche as the early 21st Century interpreter of the catastrophic events of the mid 20th.

Berlin : the downfall was initially published a few years after Stalingrad, and follows the same (successful) pattern. The reader is lead more or less chronologically through the timespan in the book, where Beevor's exposition is leavened and enlightened by apposite quotation from various sources both high and low. Thankfully Beevor has a keen sense of the apposite, and a finely honed sense of narrative, which make his books compulsive reading, as clear as they can be, while also imparting a large amount of information.

Although this book is about the downfall of Berlin, the first half of the book is taken up with the preliminary battles between the Russians and the Germans, from the Oder-Neisse line, through the Battle of the Seelow Heights, and on to Berlin itself. Beevor brings the political aspect of the situation into perspective early on in the book, with Stalin's desperate desire to gain the prize of the Nazi capital for himself, and Eisenhower's desire to save his troop's lives trumping any desire for what he considered pointless grandstanding.

Many military histories become hard to follow, with names of armies jostling with place names; adding up to an alphabet soup that can confuse even the attentive reader. Beevor mostly manages to avoid this problem, while still giving the reader all the information required to know who was doing what to whom, when.

The absurdity of the Nazi party in collapse is shown, with images of Goring writing to commanders in April 1945 complaining troops were not saluting him correctly, or of Himmler believing that the Allies would see him as someone they could deal with in peace negotiations.

The terror of the average German, whether in the Wehrmacht, the SS, or a civilian, is well described (the members of the SS in particular were right to be terrified of the Russians, as they were generally shot out of hand on capture). While many tried to fool themselves that this tragedy was undeserved, Beevor recounts a chilling quote from an army veteran to a crowd of civilians in a train in Berlin, close to the end "....We have to win this war. We must not lose our courage. If others win the war, and if they do to us only a fraction of what we have done in the occupied territories, there won't be a single German left in a few weeks."

By the end of the battle, there were certainly a lot less Germans and Russians. In their eagerness to be the first to take Berlin, the Russian commanders sent all their armies into the capital, squeezing them together so much that the Russian shelling killed both German and Russian indiscriminately, and Russian armies were firing at each others' positions. The end, when it came, was with a whimper rather than a bang. Once word of Hitler's death spread through Berlin (through Russian leaflets and broadcast), the remaining resistance faltered, with only a few SS groups fighting to the last man. Zhukov, the successful Russian commander, got to take the salute at the victory parade in Moscow, but was rarely seen in public again, as the political hierarchy of the USSR were afraid of his (deserved) popularity - even the truth about Hitler's death was kept from him for twenty years, a final indignity he found hard to swallow.

Even after the end of hostilities there were deaths. Many Russians died from the effects of drinking industrial solvents in lieu of alcohol, and Beevor recounts one tragic case of a German prisoner, released by the Russians after surviving the last SS massacre, being accidentally shot to death by one of his rescuers in the drunken party that followed.

Berlin : the downfall is a magnificent piece of work - meticulously researched, thrillingly told, and destined to be a major work on this period in history for some time to come. While some knowledge of events prior to the final battle for Berlin helps the reader to get more from this book, it is not a requirement, and Berlin will be a valuable resource now that we are entering a period where World War II is becoming "ancient" history (ask any teenager....). Excellent and informative reading.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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