For over 60 years, the narrative of the last chaotic months of World War II in Europe has been dominated by the Battle of Berlin and the fall of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich in the spring of 1945. The last 100 days of the war against Nazi Germany were full of drama and tragedy for soldiers and civilians on both the Western and Eastern Fronts as the Allied and Soviet armies attacked Hitler’s battered armies. But even as the anti-Nazi coalition was on the verge of certain victory, dissension between the Anglo-American allies and their Soviet counterparts planted the seeds of a new conflict – the Cold War.
Since the 1960s, many authors – including Cornelius Ryan and John Toland – have covered the tumultuous events that led to Hitler’s downfall in books such as “The Last Battle” and “The Last 100 Days.” These books, which are based on eyewitness accounts by military and civilian participants, follow the “you are there” style popularized in Ryan’s classic 1959 book about D-Day, “The Longest Day.”
Because Berlin was the focus of various Cold War crises between 1948 and 1961, most Western accounts of the battle to capture the Reich’s capital delve into Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s controversial decision to stop the Anglo-American armies at the Elbe River and let the Red Army capture the city. And because books reflect the era in which they are created, works such as “The Last Battle” and “The Last 100 Days” seem to suggest that Eisenhower’s decision was ill-considered and tragic.
Antony Beevor’s 2002 work “The Fall of Berlin 1945” (published in Great Britain as “Berlin: The Downfall 1945”) covers much of the same historical ground as Toland’s “The Last 100 Days” and Max Hastings’ “Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-1945.” This excellently researched book describes the apocalyptic campaigns by Josef Stalin’s vengeance-seeking Red Army in East Prussia and western Poland and the eastern part of Germany as it advanced toward Berlin.
In “The Fall of Berlin 1945,” Beevor masterfully describes the most terrifying example of “fire and sword” in human history as Stalin’s armies cross Germany’s frontiers in a frenzy of violence fueled by revenge and hate for the “fascist beasts.” Urged on by incendiary writings and broadcasts by Ilya Ehrenburg and other Soviet propagandists, the Red Army stormed into Germany, ramming T-34 tanks into columns of panic-stricken refugees and committing acts of murder and mass rapes. By the time the Soviets reached the Oder River, seven million German men, women, and children fled westwards from the terror of the Red Army.
The campaigns on both the Eastern and Western fronts were the bloodiest clashes for the German armed forces and the civilian population. Hitler’s mad decisions to hold on to every inch of German soil and his total lack of empathy for the German people were the main cause of this bloodletting, However, Stalin’s determination to capture Berlin at all costs before the Western Allies and his desire for revenge also contributed to the frightful drama of the Third Reich’s violent end.
Beevor did his homework well before he wrote “The Fall of Berlin 1945.” He uses archival material from previously unavailable Soviet archives, as well as documents and official histories in the United States, Germany, France, Great Britain, and Sweden. He also has a good eye for detail and writes in a crisp and vivid style that is both readable and memorable.