I think most of us have already made up our minds about the Nazis. On the whole, they aren’t popular. But if you are wavering, have a read of Berlin by Anthony Beevor. I put it down thinking, well I never liked them but I never realised they were that bad. Stalin was desperate to capture Berlin and was prepared to suffer huge casualties to make sure that it was the Red Army that reached the Reichstag first. It was conceivable that a determined thrust by the Western allies might have taken the German capital first. Stalin who was always a bit paranoid suspected that the Germans would fall back to allow the British and the Americans an easy ride. In fact there is no indication that the senior Nazis ever thought along those lines, but it must have occurred to a lot of the lower officials that it would have been about the shrewdest thing the Germans could have done by 1945.
In fact the Nazis tried to defend Berlin for as long as possible. With morale collapsing, the only way they could keep the fight going was to threaten summary death sentences to anyone deserting. This was no idle threat, and many of the losses on the German side in the last days of the war were inflicted on Germans deserters. Hitler and his cabinet were holed up in a bunker in Berlin not tremendously well informed about what was going on. This might have been why some of them thought it was still worth playing politics. Scheming at the upper levels of the Nazi party seems to have reached its peak at just about the moment it really couldn’t make any difference.
The bulk of the book follows Beevor’s trademark approach of telling the stories about the ordinary people caught up in a situation that none of them could ever have anticipated. To be in a city captured by the Red Army was a traumatic experience. The Russians had better reasons than anyone to dislike the country they were invading. Berliners were understandably nervous about what was in store for them. It was as bad as their worst fears.
This book is nearly as good as Stalingrad. It has been written with the same skill and panache. The only reason it isn’t quite as enjoyable as Stalingrad is beyond the control of the author. Stalingrad, despite being such a well known story, has the benefit of the outcome not being inevitable. By the time the Russians got to Berlin there was no way the Reich could hold it. In the end, it was even more lightly defended than might have been expected. The troops were made up of the young and old men of the city, including young boys in their early teens, and rather bizarrely a division made up of Scandinavians and some French sympathisers. The German army was still holding together despite everything but not many of them were in Berlin.
So in the end, the final battle was not much more than a walkover. Despite this, it is still a book you can’t put down. And if you still haven’t made your mind up about the Nazis, definitely worth a read.
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