The Red Army had much to avenge when it finally reached the frontiers of the Reich in January 1945. Political instructors rammed home the message of Wehrmacht and SS brutality. The result was the most terrifying example of fire and sword ever known, with mass rape, tanks crushing refugee columns under their tracks, pillage and destruction. Hundreds of thousands of women and children froze to death or were massacred because Nazi Party chiefs, refusing to face the reality of defeat, had forbidden the evacuation of civilians until it was too late. Over seven million fled westwards from the terror of the Red Army.
Within the mass, individuals faced a totally arbitrary fate. Some suffered appallingly, others were saved by extraordinary chance. Soviet soldiers could show spontaneous generosity to German women and children as well as cruelty. This moral chaos was the outcome of a titanic conflict between the two greatest potentates in history – a pair of tyrants totally heedless of the lives of their followers. The Nazis sent fourteen-year old boys on bicycles in suicidal attacks against Soviet tanks, and as the Red Army encircled Berlin, SS squads roamed the city, shooting or hanging any man not at his post.
Hitler, half-crazed in his bunker, issued wild orders, determined to bring down the Reich capital and all its inhabitants in the monstrous vanity of a personal Götterdämmerung. Stalin, meanwhile, was prepared to risk any number of his men to seize Berlin before the Western Allies could get there. New documents from a Russian archive show for the first time that the Soviet leader had a particularly powerful motive.
Antony Beevor, making full use of often devastating new material from former Soviet files as well as from German, American, British, French and Swedish archives, has reconstructed the different experiences of those millions caught up in the mad nightmare of the Third Reich’s final collapse. Berlin – The Downfall 1945 is a terrible story of pride, stupidity, fanaticism, revenge and savagery yet it is also one of astonishing human endurance, self-sacrifice and survival against all odds.