World War II: The Battle for Berlin (April 1945)


Figure 1.--This film still shows German children playing in the rubble of Berlin in 1945 immediately after the war ended in 1945. The boy wears suspender shorts with the common H-bar strap across his chest, a sleeveless sweater, a checked shirt, and knee socks. Both these children look amazingly well dressed considering the terrible privations they must have had to endure during the terrible final battle in Berlin.

The battle for Berlin fought in April 1945 was one of the most horific engagements of World War II. Stalin ordered the Red Army to take Berlin. After the Americans seized the Remagen Bridge and crossed the Rhine, Stalin ordered the time tble speeded up and at the same time lied to Eisenhowser that he was preparing to take the German capital. Losses on both the German and Russian side were enormous. Russian losses were in part due to the fact that Stalin had ordered that Berlin be seized bfore the Americans could reach it. Stalin's ordered resulted in a race to Berlin by Marshall Zukov and Koniev, both wanting the victor's laurels. It has always been wonderd why Stalin was so obsessed with Berlin and was willining to sacrifice so many Red Army soldiers to get to Berlin before the Americans. It has always been felt that it was primarily for the political value, to demonstrate the role of the Red Army in defeating the NAZIs. A British histoian argues that there was another important reason. Beria had learned of the American Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. Stalin as a rsult ordered a top secret Soviet atomic bomb project--Project Boradino. Located at Berlin was the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, the center of the German atomic project. While the Germans were fa behind the Americans, the Russins obrained agreat deal of valuable information an 3 tons of uranium oxide. [Beevor] The Soviet conquest of Berlin proved to be a nightmare for the surviving women, almost all of whom were raped. It is estimated that 2 million German women were raped by Russians at the end of the War. Perhaps 0.2 million of those rapes took place in Berlin. The rapes included children, nuns, old ladies, and even Russian women brought to Germany to work as slave laborers. The Soviets denied the German civilian reports, but Soviet archieves leave no doubt as to what occurred. [Beevor]

Stalin's Orders

The battle for Berlin fought in April 1945 was one of the most horific engagements of World War II. Stalin ordered the Red Army to take Berlin. After the Americans seized the Remagen Bridge and crossed the Rhine, Stalin ordered the time table speeded up and at the same time lied to Eisenhowser that he was preparing to take the German capital.

Fortress Berlin

Hitler as the Red Army pressed west designated fortress cities in which the Wehrmacht was ordered to defend to the death rather than retreat. The result was a series of horific battles and a continuing disiption of of Wehrmacht units. Now with the Soviets closing in on Berlin, Hitler ordered a fight to the death and designated Berlin as the final fortress city. Major General Hellmuth Reymann, commnding the city's defenses calculated that it would take at least 0.2 million experienced and well-armed troops to defend the capital. Hitler ordered Wehrmacht units to the north and west to come to Berlin's defense. The German commanders involved were by this point in the war more interested in moving west so they could surrender to the Western Allies. Berlin was alread in ruins, but not a sea of rubbe. Many building survived, at least in oart. There had been no fire storm as in Hamburg and Dresden. The civilion population that had not fled the city survived in air raid shelters. Berlin by mid April 1945 "had endured approximately 378 air raids reducing large portions to rubble, killing about 30,000 of its citizens, ad redring perhaps as many as a million homeles. Yet the strengh of its construction and broad streetsprevented the sort of total conflagration tht guttefd Hamburg, and while many structures were nomlonger inhabitable the vast majority stillmoffered cover in street fighting., The raids had also encouraged thecevacuation of part ofthe population, as well as building substantial new shelkers .... Clearly, despite Allied air superiority the battle for Berlin woulkd need to be won on the ground--street by street." [Bull]

Eisenhower

After crossing the Rhine andc reducing the Ruhr pocket, the highly mobile American Army could have moved for Berlin. Eisenhower decided not to do so. Historians bebate why. Some maintain he wanted to avoid the casualties. Others say that he was duped by Stalin who assured him that the Red Army was not pressing for Berlin. It should be noted, however, that the occupation zones had already been determined at Yalta. If Eisebhower had pressed toward Berlin, it would not have changed the post-War occupaionn zones.

German Preparations

There were substantial German forces that because of Hitler's refusal to withdraw were not available to fight the final battle--the defense of Berlin. Large numbers of German soldiers were left in Norway and unable to play a role in the defense of the Reich. He also refused o evacuiate the Courland Pocket in Latvia. His final act which ensured that string formations woukld not be available to defend Berlin was ordering two SS Panzer divisions to Hungary in a futile effort to defend Budapest from the advancing Red Army. Thus Hitler not only failed to husband available resorces, but he actually stripped Berlin of its strongest defending units. Such actions in the past had affected the Wehrmacht soldiers and the German people. This time Hitler himself wold bear the consequences of his mismanagement of the War. This mean that the defense of Berlin was left in large measure to the Volkssturm--a force of Hitler Youth boys and old men. One such boy, Armin Lehmann describes his experiences. The Volksstrum set about preparing to meet the Soviets. They built set up barricades and dug trenches to trap tanks. General Reymann had no illusions about the preparations. He is reported to have said, "I only hope that some miracle happens to change our fortunes, or that the War ends before Berlin comes under siege. Otherwise, God help the Berliners!" The Wehrmacht units that Hitler ordered to relieve Berlin either never existed or were not about to march to their death. The defenders had few tanks and little heavy artillery. The Volksstrum did have small arms and Panzer-Shrecks and Panzer-Fausts.

Soviet Forces

The Soiviets forces greatly outnumbered the Germans for the climatic battle for Berlin. At the onset of the Wr, the Soviet Union had the world's largest army. As a result of Brbrossa (June-Decembr 1941), the Germans hs so devestatd the Red Army that the Soviet and Axis forces were approaching parity. This changed dramaticlly with the Red Army offensiove before Moscow (December 1941). The Whermcht would nevr recover from the losses in men and material. The Soviets also suffered heavy losses, but the Soviet Union could replace both men and equipment. Abwehr estimtes badly estimate the ability of the Soviet Union to form and bring forward new divisions. And after the German losses in Stlingrad, not only were the war plants moved east coming on line, but American Lend Lease shiopments were reaching really meaningful levels. More losses were sustained in 1943. There would have been minimal losses in North Africa, however, Hitler rushed reinforcemnents to Tunisia, delaying the Allied victory, but turning minor losses into impotant losses (May 1943). Further losses were sustained at Kursk (July 1943). A series of Red Army offensives in 1944 not only revovered lost territiy, but devestaed the Wehrmcht. The greatest was Opperation Bagration that destroyed Army Group Center the most important German formation. And there wee also losses from the West with the Allied landings in Normandy and liberation of France. Hitler's intrangency meant that importat forces were kept in Norway and allowed to be cut off in Latvia (the Courland Pocket) where they could play no roll in the defense of the Reich. Other forces were left behind to form fiortress Cities. The last German reserves of men and material were thriwn into the Bulge Offensive (December 1944). Thus for the climatic battle of Berlin, the Soviets outnumbered the Germans in men (5:1), artillery (15:1), tanks (5:1), and aircraft (3:1).

The Battle

The Red Army deplpyed 1.3 million experienced and well-armed troops to take Berlin. Marshal Zhukov called the battle for Berlin the 'final hour of vengenance'. Stalin ordered the Soviet soldiers to swear an oath on the Soviet flag to fight with 'special zeal for the motherland, the Communist Party and final victory'. The Soviets launched their offensive (April 16). It became a building to bulding struggle. One author wrote that there has never been a city so desperately contested. We are not sure this was the case. Stalingrad might be a a more desperate battle. The Allied air ampaign had alreasdy flattened large reas of the city. The Soviets both drove ito the city, but also encircled it. The encirclement was complete (April 25). There a relatively small regular Whermacht force bolstere with poorly armed fanatical NAZIs, old men, and Hitler Youth boys fought it out with the Soviet troops. [Bahm] Red Army soldiers seizrd the Reichstag raised the Soviet flag (April 30). The Whermact commander, defying Hitler's orders to fight to the death, finally surrendered (May 2).

Hitler's Bunker

Hitler's bomb-proff bunker was built under the Chancellry. Hitler's advisers pleaded with him to leave the Berlin and continue the War from an Alpine redoubt. He refused and decided to stay where he was still in control of the situation. He fantasized over a map table about armies long since destroyed. The ones that still existed were ignoring his orders. When President Roosevelt died (April 12), Goebbels fueled the fantasy that the British and Americans wold make a separate peace. The last photographs of Hitler (newsreel footage) was taken on the occasion of hif his 56th birthday (April 20). Thatmorning he played with Bolndie (his German Shapard). He took his cocaine eyedrops. Then he climbed the steps into the Reich Chancellery courtyard. There he received the NAZI salute from representatives of the cutoff Courland Army, the SS-Division "Berlin", and 20 HJ boys who had erarned the Iron Cross. Hitler muttered a few words to them and patted a few of the younger boys on the cheek. He then disappeared back into the nunker leaving the boys to face Russian tanks. There in the bunker Martina Goebels played solitare after killing her children. He ordered Eva Braun's brother shot for trying to escape. When picked up by the SS, he had a pocket full of jewells. Italian partisans shot Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci and string up their bodies (April 28). Hitler was determined that he not be caught on the run like Mussolini. Hitler finally married his long-time mistress Eva Braun (April 29). On the same day he dictated his last will and testimony to his private secretary, Martin Bormann. He expelled Göring and Himmler from the Party for disloyalty. And he designated Admiral Karl Doenitz as his replacement. (Doenutz was not informed until the next day after Hitler was dead.) The next day with the Soviet sildiers in the nearby Reichstag, Hitler set about commiting suiside (April 30). After testing the cyninide pills on his dog Blondie, he and Braun took cyninide and he shot himself. Martin Borman and the remaining NAZIs gave a farewell salute as the bodies were burned. [Fest] That pitiful scene was a far cry from what Hitler wanted. He had told his associates, "We may go down, but we will take the world down with us."

Importance

It has always been wonderd why Stalin was so obsessed with Berlin and was willining to sacrifice so many Red Army soldiers to get to Berlin before the Americans. It has always been felt that it was primarily for the political value, to demonstrate the role of the Red Army in defeating the NAZIs. A British historian argues that there was another important reason. Beria had learned of the American Manhattan Project to build an atomic bomb. Stalin as a result ordered a top secret Soviet atomic bomb project--Project Boradino. Located at Berlin was the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, the center of the German atomic project. While the Germans were far behind the Americans, the Russins obrained agreat deal of valuable information an 3 tons of uranium oxide. [Beevor]

Red Army Revenge

The Soviet conquest of Berlin proved to be a nightmare for the surviving women. The Red Army with Stalin's permission was let loose on the women of Germany. In an orgy of brutality the Germans got a taste of the barbarity they had unleased upon the Soviet Union. [Anonymous] Almost all of the women of Berlin were raped. This begun even before the Red Army reached the Reich. It did not just occur in Berlin. It is estimated that 2 million German women were raped by Russians at the end of the War. Perhaps 0.2 million of those rapes took place in Berlin. The rapes included children, nuns, old ladies, and even Russian women brought to Germany to work as slave laborers. The Soviets denied the German civilian reports, but Soviet archieves leave no doubt as to what occurred. [Beevor] This is still very contoversial in Russia, as the Great Patriotic War is still considered in an almost religious way by Russians. While Soviet authors were not allowed to mention it, famed war correspondent Vasily Grossman did detail it in his notebooks. Grossman admired and empthized with the Red Army soldiers who defeated the NAZIs. He was apauled, however, by the riotous behavior he observed, especially the raping of girls and women. He wrote of the "horror in the eyes of women and girls". He reports that liberated Soviet slave workers reported being raped to him and even liberated contration camp imates were raped. [Beevor and Vinogravoda]

Losses

Losses on both the German and Russian side were enormous. Some estimates run as high as 0.5 million men. [Fest] Other estimates are substantially lower, but still very high. One respected historian estimates 78,000 men. [Beevor] Russian losses were in part due to the fact that Stalin had ordered that Berlin be seized bfore the Americans could reach it. Stalin's ordered resulted in a race to Berlin by Marshal Zukov and Koniev, both wanting the victor' laurels.

Cold War

Berlin would prove to be ground zero in the Cold War. The Red Army had stormed Berlin in one of the most costly battles in history (April 1945). The city had already been leveled by the Allied strategic bombing campaign. And the battle for the city destroyed much of the rest that was still standing. General Eisenhower directed advancing Allied armies away from Berlin knowing that it would be in the Soviet zone. The Allied occupation zones had already been determined at Yalta. The Yalta Agreement provided, however, for a four power administration of Berlin, despite the fact that it was deep in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany. Such an arrangement would only work among Allies. And it soon became clear that the United States and the Soviet Union were not Allies. The Soviet Behavior in the Komandatura made it impossible to administer the city as whole. The Americans, British, and French coordinated their efforts and the Soviets began running their section separately. Berlin was the one place in the wortld that American and Soviet tanks were muzzel to muzzel. There was, however, no way that the small Allied garrison in Berlin could withstand a Soviet attack. Only the American commitment to Berlin protected the city. That committed was finally tested by the Stalin (1948). The result was the Berlin Air Lift. Although that was only the beginning of the Cold war, it essentially determined the outcome of the struggle. Not only Berlines, but Germans as a whole stopped thinking of the Americans as a conquering enemy who had blasted their cities to bits , but as a steadfast ally in the fight against totalitarian Communism. And somehow Stalin managed to transform Berlin from the symbol of NAZI tyranny to a flickeung symbol of freedom in the middle of the Soviet Empire. Another major step in the Cold War was the Berlin Wall. This was the admission by the East Germans and Soviets that Communism could not compete with free market capitalism. It was also a \massive symbol of Soviet tyranny in steel, concrete, and barbedwire which no amount of propaganda could erase from the European conciousness. Just as the Cold War began in Berlin, the fall of the Berlin Wall was the symbolic conclusion of the struggle.

Sources

Anonymous. A Woman in Berlin (2005). The authoress refused to identify herself. She thus was unable to attract much interest vin her war-time diary. Now that there is more interest in German suffering as well as women's issues it was republished in 2005 and attracted considrable interest.

Bahm, Karl. Belin: The Final Reckoning (2014).

Beevor, Antony and Luba Vinogravoda. A Writer at War: Vassily Grossman with the Red Army, 1941-1945 (Pantheon, 2006), 378p. This is an important document. There are passages from Grossman's notebooks (without the distortions of the Red Star editors along with interperative material written by Beevor.

Beevor, Anthony. The Fall of Berlin 1945.

Bull, Stephen. D-Day to Victory: With the Men and Machines that Won the War (2012), 272p.

Fest, Joachim. Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Day of the Third Reich (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2004).







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Created: May 30, 2004
Last updated: 7:41 PM 4/4/2014