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Berlin: The Downfall 1945 - Saurabh Kumar Shahi - The Sunday Indian
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Thursday, July 19, 2018


Berlin: The Downfall 1945


SAURABH KUMAR SHAHI | Issue Dated: May 10, 2016, New Delhi
Tags : Antony Beevor | Second World War | The Downfall 1945 | Soviet Commanders Zhukov | Rokossovsky | Chuikov | Konev | German Christmas |

Antony Beevor
Edition: Paperback
ISBN: 9780141032399
Pages: 528
price: Rs 1026

In the epilogue to his seminal work on Nazi history, The Rise and Fall of Third Reich, American War Correspondent William L Shirer mentions something extremely important. He had written the book merely a decade and a half after the events of the World War II, and feared that he might not have been truly impartial in his writing. Shirer believed that a decade and a half was too short a time span for anyone to look at World War II in a dispassionate manner befitting of a historian and feared that emotions would get better of any war correspondent or even a hardened historian writing about the event.
His magnum opus reflected some of these genuine concerns. At several places, Shirer let his emotions run ahead of himself and sounded too judgmental as a neutral writer. So what the story became was about one of the most evil regimes the world had seen.

Antony Beevor has the luxury of looking back at the same events several decades later. His body of work, starting from Stalingrad to The Second World War are examples of that. But can we say for sure that his accounts have been totally dispassionate? Well, not quite, critically speaking.

Berlin: The Downfall 1945 is another book in the series of books he has written on the infamous war. I say, another, but I definitely don’t mean just another. In fact, if anything, there has been a scarcity of good books chronicling the finals days of the Reich, especially in and around its epicenter in Berlin. The only worthy book, apart from of course Shirer’s, is Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle. And like Shirer’s, Ryan’s book was also written a decade and a half after the war and naturally suffered from the same lacuna that the former’s suffered. One of them, and probably the most important of them all, was their lack of access to the Soviet archives. Those were Cold War days and no Western historian or journalist would have been welcomed inside the archives in Saint Petersburg or Moscow, or for that matter those in East Germany.  But those final days of the Reich, between 16 April to 2 May 1945, have always fascinated historians and enthusiasts alike.

Berlin: The Downfall 1945 basically blows everything else that came before it out of the water. The book opens in April 1945, as the Red Army was all set to cross the Oder, merely 70 kilometres away from the suburbs of the then Berlin. The Red Army had gathered as many as seven million men on the Eastern Front of the Reich that stretched from the Baltic in the North to the Adriatic in the south. On the Western Front, where Reich’s focus was minimal, the British and American armies were poised to cross the banks of the Rhine, whereas the resurrected French were looking at the Black Forest. But none of the latter fronts were going to see what was reserved for the Eastern Front. The lion’s share of the Third Reich’s army and logistic was against the Soviets. Compared to the Eastern Front, the Western Front was a dinner party.

Soviet Commanders Zhukov, Rokossovsky, Chuikov and Konev were separately given orders to march towards Berlin, and march they did. What happened next is what the book details. The collapse of German Army Group Vistula, led by General Heinrici and the subsequent last stand by Army Group Centre under General Schorner, only delayed what was now inevitable.

Beevor, like in his other books, focuses on details and goriness of the entire expedition, focusing on the rape and atrocities committed by the Red Army troops and its consequences on the female population of Berlin. Typical of Beevor, some of the most intense parts are where he details the pain and suffering of those civilians who were used as cannon fodder by the Third Reich.

“Berliners, gaunt from short rations and stress, had little to celebrate at Christmas in 1944. Much of the capital of the Reich had been reduced to rubble by bombing raids. The Berlin talent for black jokes had turned to gallows humour. The quip of that season was: 'Be practical: give a coffin.' The mood in Germany had changed exactly two years before. Rumours had begun to circulate  General Paulus's Sixth Army had been encircled on the Volga by the Soviets. The Nazis found it hard to admit that the largest formation in the whole of the Wehrmacht was doomed to annihilation in the ruins of Stalingrad and in the frozen steppe outside. To prepare the country for bad news, Joseph Goebbels, the Reichsminister for Propaganda, had announced a 'German Christmas', which in National Socialist terms meant austerity and ideological determination, not candles and pine wreaths and singing Heilige Nacht. By 1944, the traditional roast goose had become a distant memory.”

The book also details the nitty-gritty of the tactical manoeuvres made by the Soviet commanders and their effectiveness. But it also details their failures. The narrative is quite paced at the starting of the offensive. It slows down substantially as the battle reaches Berlin proper. This is where Beevor overwhelms you with his details of pain and goriness. But that is precisely what he wants you to feel.

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Issue Dated: Feb 5, 2017