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.

The Nazis had forbidden anyone to retreat from eastern Germany. To stanch the Soviet invasion they even (grotesquely, as Beevor captures well) organized young boys and old men into a Volkssturm (typically pompous, untranslatable Nazi language; "enraged territorials" is probably close enough). Then, at the last moment, civilians were allowed to flee. In the millions they did—column after column of horses and carts, laden with family valuables, sick old people, children, and pregnant women, plus a few able-bodied men who were trying to keep order. There was panic and death as the civilians were evacuated across the sandy spits of the Frisches Haff and in the Wilhelm Gustloff, which a Soviet sub sank in the freezing Baltic, with the loss of 7,000 lives.

Beevor may have missed an authorial trick or two here, because these treks, as they were called, profoundly marked the consciousness of the German people. He might have referred to Alexander Dohna-Schlobitten's classic Erinnerungen eines alten Ostpreussen (Memoirs of an Old East Prussian). A trek is difficult to describe, in that the same things happen again and again: wheels are lost; snowdrifts prove impassable; a road is unexpectedly blocked by Soviet cavalry; a baby is born prematurely after the mother's nighttime trudge through a blizzard toward the only light for miles around. Dohna-Schlobitten—a prince, with extremely interesting observations on the relations among the old aristocracy, the army, and the Nazis—managed to describe one trek, from deepest eastern Prussia to safety beyond the Elbe, in such a way as to keep the reader absorbed over about a hundred pages. The book was, unsurprisingly, a best seller in Germany, in part because so many Germans had been affected by such events.

When trekkers arrived in the vicinity of Berlin, they would see at night, on the horizon, a huge dull-red light, punctuated by blinding flashes: the Anglo-American bombing of their capital, which in the end reduced much of the place to a lunar landscape. The railway stations of Berlin were crammed with refugees, who spilled over into the underground railway tunnels. Unfortunately, Beevor is too much the military man to spend time on civilian life. That is a pity, because its fantastic incongruities might have varied the pace somewhat. Amid all the chaos the Hotel Adlon was still functioning, its waiters in white gloves and tails serving the diplomatic corps—the Irish minister, the Croat minister (a competent novelist), the Vichy French minister in exile, members of the poor Japanese mission. In the railway tunnels stalwarts of the foreign volunteer SS (including even a few British) strutted their stuff, expecting Soviets any minute to come around the next bend. The Frenchman Louis-Ferdinand Céline managed to evoke this kind of black surrealism with Nord, and the Italian Curzio Malaparte conveyed a similar mixture of ribaldry, evil, and pettiness, with the same gusto, in Kaputt. No German has ever brought off a similar literary feat.

When the Soviets had finally wiped out the pockets (it took them weeks), they assembled their forces on the Oder and readied them for a full-scale strike directly at Berlin. It was the middle of April, and by then Hitler's defenses had been largely neutralized. Since the autumn of 1944 it had been possible for the Americans, especially, to conduct daylight pinpoint bombing raids on fuel installations and transport lines. (The innovation of aluminum-and-wood fighters, light and fuel-efficient, and therefore able to protect heavy bombers on long-range missions, was unmatched elsewhere.) And this advantage in the air was passed along to the ground troops, because the German defenders were almost immobilized for lack of fuel. German-made jet fighters might have worked wonders in the air, but fuel was so short that they had to be towed to the airfields by oxen, and most were destroyed on the ground in Munich. Hitler could rant and rave from his underground headquarters, could stage his daily situation conferences with all the airs of a Napoleon at Austerlitz; but the troops he ordered to do this or that were basically left without the means to move, and thus could not mount a coordinated defense. They could only wait for the Soviets.

And the Soviets arrived, beginning in mid-April. Many others have written on this subject. Cornelius Ryan (The Last Battle) was very good, and the late John Erickson (The Road to Berlin), who has done more for the study of the Soviet military than anyone else, was outstanding. Beevor's specialty here is disentangling the street fighting (as it was in his book Stalingrad). Street fighting, like the treks, is in many ways just the same thing happening again and again. But here we have a sense of the Soviets moving in (the book could do with a proper map of central Berlin) as they fought over those parts of the city that the world would come to know so well in Cold War days—Zoo, Friedrichstrasse, Unter den Linden, Vosstrasse, Siegesallee. The Germans fought to the death rather than surrender. (Beevor offers a very British-army aside when he says that British officers regarded the war as a good fight against a reasonably sporting enemy.) In the midst of it all, in a two-story concrete structure deep beneath the garden of the severely neoclassical Reich Chancellery that Albert Speer had built for him, sat Adolf Hitler.

It is a pity that Beevor lacks a sense of the surreal, because Hitler's end almost gives the word new meaning. The Führer would have liked to perish heroically, by his own hand, in the middle of a twilight of the gods. Instead there was a persistent ridiculousness about his last weeks, and it worked up to a climax. The Russians have still not revealed the goods the Soviet archives must surely have on this; we know some of the story, but not all. Buoyed by some kind of insane determination, Hitler neglected every opportunity to surrender to whichever of the Allies might have received him most sympathetically. The situation conferences went on; the black-clad figures clicked their heels; on occasion Wagner or Bruckner was played. (When Hitler committed suicide, the Reich Chancellery staff, with huge relief, raided the wine cellar and put on jazz records; some staff members were dancing tipsily when the Soviets burst in.)

Meanwhile, battalions gave way, and the Soviets advanced relentlessly until they were fighting on several stories of the old Prussian Finance Ministry, down the street. At that point Hitler staged his wedding, of all things, made polite conversation with the witnesses, and, the next day, gobbled down a vegetarian lunch and shot himself while the bride munched cyanide.

Desperate that his body not be defiled, Hitler had given orders for it to be burned. Seven faithful worthies trudged up the steps of the underground shelter, lugging the corpses of Mr. and Mrs. Hitler in Wehrmacht blankets. The bodies were laid in the garden and drenched with petrol that had been brought from the emergency reserve of the chancellery garage; then matches were lit. But nearby shelling temporarily reduced the oxygen in the air, and the flames went out. One of the group produced the sort of paper spill with which one lights a pipe, and Martin Bormann, Hitler's deputy, applied a match. The spill flew through the air like a paper dart and found enough oxygen to ignite the corpses, and the party returned downstairs. (There they lit cigarettes, the smell of which, through the ventilator shafts, alerted others in the bunker to the Führer's death, because he had been fanatically anti-smoking to the end.)

But the would-be cremators had not realized that cremation requires a draft of air beneath the body. Hitler and Eva Braun burned superficially, and then the flames went out again. The bodies were identified for the Soviets by one of their captives, and autopsies were performed. Then the Soviets mysteriously denied that they had the bodies after all, and suggested that Hitler might have escaped somewhere. Why did they do this? We still do not know. In any event, the Soviets jumbled post-autopsy bits of Hitler's body among the bits and pieces of several other bodies, including possibly his dog's, and the Third Reich ended with, ironically enough, an inefficient cremation. It is a theme for Céline.