BERLIN: The Downfall 1945
by Anthony Beevor
Just before Mothers’ Day, we received a catalogue in our letter box from a major retail chain, containing gift suggestions such as slippers and chocolates. There was also a page headed “Buy Mum a book for Mothers’ Day” which, along with the cookery, travel and light romance, offered this latest Beevor, just released in paperback. How many mums curled up for a good read as a result of this ad, only to find themselves being regaled with accounts of mass rape, I don’t know. Not too many, I hope.
Rape is one of the prominent features of this story, and has received a great deal of attention in reviews and in media interviews with Beevor, who was in Australia recently. About two million German women were raped by Russian soldiers, and about ninety per cent of those who fell pregnant had the child aborted. Beevor told Jon Faine on ABC radio (May 20) that since his book’s publication, the Russians have closed access to the archives he used. Apparently they do not want the legend of the heroic Soviet liberation of Germany from Nazism soiled with accretions of grubby fact.
For decades now, it has been a tenet of feminist dogma that rape has nothing to do with sex, but is always an act of violence. There is an important element of truth in this, but Beevor points out that there were four phases of Russian rape. The first was indeed a brutal counterpart to the killing of German soldiers, an act of revenge for all that Russia had suffered from the Nazi invasion. The second was a form of sexual looting; a reward earned by the rigours of campaigning. The third consisted of sex obtained by the offer of scarce food and cigarettes, and the fourth a form of temporary cohabitation in exchange for protection.
All armies carry with them the likelihood of rape, but in most, it is at least officially forbidden. It is true that some have chosen to wink at it, but rarely has it been practised on the scale carried out by the Red Army. Even the womenfolk of liberated groups, such as Jews and communists, were not spared. Military officers laughed at complaints from female Berliners. Political officers at first ignored it, and then later discouraged it only on pragmatic grounds.
Rape can thus be seen as a metaphor for the Soviet system and an illustration of its founder’s dictum “Who whom?”. The putative “dictatorship of the proletariat” objectifies human beings and capriciously exploits them as means rather than ends. If Russian soldiers raped German women, Stalin, Beria and the communist apparatus raped Russia and any adjacent peoples they could lay their hands on.
In this “might is right” hierarchy, even the Red Army was subservient to the Party. Beevor shows that the highest ranking generals were forced to grovel to the NKVD and SMERSH. This is perhaps most graphically demonstrated by the story of Marshal Zhukov, who was barred from the Fuhrer bunker after its capture by his armies, and was not notified of the discovery of Hitler’s body until 1965.
Political ruthlessness of this nature did not exist amongst the Western allies, who come across as “voices off” in this story. In fact, they seem to have lacked even elementary political realism. Churchill, who had a proud record of anti-communism stretching back to the 1917 Bolshevik putsch (which he had hoped to “strangle at birth”) had some inkling of what Stalin was up to, and urged an American effort to forestall the Soviet seizure of Berlin. On the other hand, Beevor reminds us, Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, and Generals Eisenhower and Marshall, all displayed a mind-boggling naivete regarding Stalin’s character and aims. The accounts of the Yalta conference and the fate of Poland make painful and embarrassing reading even today.
The great challenge for anyone writing about the Soviet role in the war against fascism is to avoid making the USSR into one of the “goodies” because it was on our side. Beevor largely escapes this trap. The conflict between Hitler and Stalin was nothing but a turf war between two gangsters of equivalent turpitude (though at a purely statistical level Stalin killed far more people than Hitler ever did). It is true that the Russian invaders of Nazi Germany fought bravely, but then so did the defenders, especially the Waffen SS contingents.
Naturally the inmates of Nazi death camps overrun by the Red Army were grateful to their liberators. At the same time, it must be borne in mind that the USSR maintained its own gulag throughout the war, and that surviving Russian POWs, contaminated by “cowardice” and contact with the West, were thrown into it on their repatriation.
The USSR even shared anti-Semitism with its Nazi opponent. Beevor describes Jewish soldiers of the Red Army returning to racially inspired violence in their home towns after the war, and Stalin was planning a latter-day pogrom at the time of his death.
The battle for Berlin, and the wider conflict of which it was a culmination, challenge the reader’s tolerance of ambiguity. Consider the following facts.
1.The Red Army was the single greatest factor in the defeat of Nazism.
2.The USSR lost more of its population in absolute numbers than any other participant in WWII, and suffered second only to Poland in proportional terms.
3.The Soviet state was every bit as repressive, and even more murderous, than the Third Reich.
4.The Red Army indulged in a massive and indiscriminate orgy of raping as part of its subjugation of Germany.
As Oscar Wilde said, the truth is rarely pure and never simple.
One of the features of Beevor’s account is the juxtaposition, in Berlin’s death convulsions, of tenacious German discipline with disintegration and sheer insanity.
On the one hand, grandfathers and fourteen-year-olds of the Volksturm hurl themselves against T34 tanks, while hausfraus sweep the footpath outside their rubble caves, or queue for remaining rations, moving forward to close gaps blown in their ranks by Russian shells.
On the other hand, down in their hole under the Reich Chancellery, Hitler rants, marries and suicides; Goebbels and his wife kill their six children and themselves; Himmler imagines that he can do a deal with the allies in which his role in the Holocaust will be overlooked; and lesser Nazi functionaries get drunk and copulate frenziedly.
Beevor has once again displayed his absolute mastery of the craft of popular history, weaving the deliberations of politicians and generals planning grand strategy, with the experience of ordinary civilians and soldiers, on whom those plans impinge.
The final tapestry gives us the big picture of an event marking both the end of one epoch, the Third Reich and WWII, and the commencement of another, the Cold War and ultimate collapse of communism.