Books June 2002

The Nazis' Last Stand

World War II's ferocious and surreal conclusion on the Eastern Front

We in the Western world equate the end of World War II with the Ardennes offensive—the Battle of the Bulge. Just before Christmas, 1944, in a thick fog that protected his tanks from Allied aircraft, Hitler gambled by launching a sudden counterattack in eastern Belgium, in difficult country, and brought off a tactical coup. His troops overwhelmed the surprised defenders, and it looked as if he would cut them off and reach the Allies' big supply port at Antwerp. But an American general famously said "Nuts" when called upon to surrender, and the fog lifted. The last German offensive in the West speedily crumbled, and from then on, though there was tough fighting in some places, the British and the Americans were able in many others just to walk forward, accepting the surrender of hundreds of thousands of Germans who were grateful to be giving up to the Western powers and not to the Soviets. Anglo-American captivity was not comfortable, particularly in the first few weeks, but at least the prisoners (in the main) could survive. Soviet captivity was a different matter. Of the 90,000 men who surrendered at Stalingrad in January of 1943, only 6,000 made it back to Germany, more than ten years later. The Soviets were not in a forgiving mood. The Fall of Berlin 1945 makes this very—perhaps excessively—plain.

The final Western land campaign against Nazi Germany may have been something of an anticlimax. But on the Eastern Front the war came to an end apocalyptically, and Antony Beevor, a veteran military historian, has a first-rate subject for his talents. To Central Europeans with a historical sense, it must have seemed as cataclysmic as the Mongol invasions, seven centuries before. Millions of Red Army soldiers, thousands of tanks and aircraft, had lined up on the River Vistula, which bisects Poland from north to south. On January 12, 1945, they struck, with great howls of artillery and multiple-rocket launchers—"Stalin Organs," the Germans called them. Already, the preceding summer, a whole German army group had been ground down by this massive weight, and the local commanders were desperate to be allowed to retreat, to show some flexibility in defense. Hitler, by now madly obstinate, told them that they must hold on; he even had generals shot for treachery and defeatism if they disobeyed. The outcome was foreseeable: the German defense disintegrated. One after another, supposed strong points became engulfed in the Soviet flood, and one after another, Polish cities were liberated—Warsaw, a heap of ruins because the Germans had burned it in revenge for the Polish uprising of August 1944; Kraków, a Renaissance jewel of a town, which survived intact because the Soviets were too quick for any defense to operate. On January 27 came a melancholy capture: Auschwitz. Most of its surviving prisoners had been evacuated by the Nazis in a death march a week or two before, and were now moving, a column of pajama-clad scarecrows, toward concentration camps in Germany. By the time the Red Army had outrun its supply lines and needed to refit its tanks, it stood at the River Oder, at most fifty miles from Berlin.

An argument ensued. Should the army push straight on to Berlin, as its outstanding commander, Marshal G. K. Zhukov, wanted? With this there were problems, which Beevor outlines well. In the first place, Soviet generals were even more given to personal rivalry than Western generals, and some of them were not at all keen for Zhukov—by far, and justly, the best known and best respected of them—to achieve the renown for taking Berlin. Additionally, as ever in wartime, there were powerful arguments for prudence. Even as the German army was clearly on the run, the Soviets feared it. German soldiers remained formidable to the end, and as the Ardennes offensive had shown, they were quite capable of pulling surprises. The Soviets had advanced a long way from the Vistula, but fortified pockets of German troops remained—around Königsberg, the old Prussian capital, and Danzig, at the mouth of the Vistula; at Breslau, in Silesia, and the Hungarian capital, Budapest, where they were desperately withstanding a siege that was to last six weeks and to tie down R. Y. Malinovsky's army group. In Courland, in Latvia, a considerable contingent was still impregnably fortified, and supplied by sea. Suppose that these forces all counterattacked simultaneously, with the "wonder weapons" that the Nazis were supposed to be producing: would this not spell a Soviet disaster? After all, in the early summer of 1942 Stalin had assumed that after his victory at Moscow, when the initial German onslaught had been stopped, the way was open for a grand counterattack. Instead he had run into a trap, and had faced a triple defeat—in Kharkov, in the Crimea, and in Leningrad—that allowed the Germans to attack again, this time across the great plains of southern Russia. Much better, if Stalin did not want to risk a similar humiliation, to concentrate on reducing the pockets one by one. And so into early April the Red Army was kept busy with a kind of grinding, inch-by-inch frontal attack on fortified lines—an attack that no Western general, mindful of the need to keep casualties down, could possibly have ordered.

For the Germans this was by far the worst period of the war. They knew that when the Soviets arrived, there would very likely be an orgy of rape—old women, young girls, whoever. Beevor goes on and on about this. He has interviewed women who remember these horrors. The book has been rather badly received in some Russian quarters, because—at least in the captured cities, where officers could keep order—Red Army soldiers (as opposed to those in their wake, camp followers and former prisoners) were under some sort of control; and in any case, the previous German occupation of a large part of Russia and Ukraine had been distinguished by extraordinary cruelty and pillage. But there is no doubt that rape on a grand scale distinguished the Soviet advance through the countryside; and even before the end of the war Churchill was asking himself how he and the Americans could have let such "barbarians" into Europe. To the Soviets, however, the Germans had been the real barbarians, and Stalin was not going to let them forget it. Not until some days after the end of the war did it all stop—and then only because the Soviets needed at least some German cooperation.

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