Berlin – The Downfall 1945 Antony Beevor, Penguin, 2002

You might get the impression from some of my recent posts that all I do is read German history, but it is fair to say that these entries are not entirely representative of my reading habits. Before I get to the book itself, a little gripe – this book’s cover includes the strap line “The Number One Bestseller”. It is amazing how often that line is used – I think it is largely devalued now. No doubt if challenged the publisher could justify it by selecting a very limited period of time, or category, or location. Number one in the non-fiction category on December 11th 2004 in Latvia doesn’t really count.

I am being overly cynical however, because this book is a highly authoritative account of the fall of Berlin. As you might expect, the horror is unrelenting, and while I now know more about this terrible period of history than I could possibly want, I confess the detail has not stuck – there is a long parade of generals with similar sounding names, battles across unknown terrain, without any clear overall picture of the progress of the war – there is simply too much detail for the non-academic reader.

What has stayed with me (as I usually find) are the images. History says that the fall of the Third Reich was a long but inevitable process. Where you start the beginning of the end from is a matter of choice – the Battle of Britain, Pearl Harbour (my choice, because after the USA joined the war there was really only one way it was going to end) D-Day or the end of the Battle of the Bulge, it all pointed to defeat for Germany at the end of the war. A negotiated peace was theoretically possible but the Nazis would never have let it happen. So the crushing of Berlin, principally by the Russians, was always going to be brutal. Despite this, it seems many Berliners tried to continue normal life right up to the end , rather than getting the hell out of there. They did not see the end as inevitable. The ability to deceive oneself despite all the appalling evidence to the contrary is quite chilling. Of course there were also many Berliners who could see what was coming but could do nothing about it.
When it was published I remember the book being controversial because of its focus on the systematic rape of German girls and women by the Red Army. While these accounts are hard to stomach, the context justifies their inclusion, and Beevor makes it clear that he is not taking sides or using this abuse as a justification for anti-Soviet propaganda, a pretty pointless exercise in any event. German atrocities are not the focus of this book but are referenced as part explanation for the brutalities of the Red Army.

This is “popular” history, that is history for the mass market, with half an eye on a TV series, but few concessions have been made to accessibility. It’s not an easy read, for many reasons, and even students of the period could probably find better, more digestible accounts. It is also one of those history texts that provide little in the way of food for thought. Compared to say When Money Dies, which can provide much to think about in the context of today’s society, all this book tells us is that when wars come to a bloody end there is an incalculable price to pay, which I think we knew.