Antony Beevor decided that he had to write the history of the fall of Adolf Hitler's capital when he was researching his best-selling book "Stalingrad", on the decisive battle on the Eastern Front. He came upon an account of a Soviet officer confronting some wretched German prisoners of war in the ruins of Stalingrad and shouting at them "That's how Berlin is going to look."
And so it did, thanks to British and American bombers who flattened most of the old Prussian city long before the Red Army got there, to blast its way through Hitler's last flimsy defenses with heavy artillery firing from open sights. But the ruin of Berlin is only a minor part of the grim horror of war that Beevor recounts in "The Fall of Berlin 1945," (Viking Press, 490 pages, $29.95)
Some 8 million German civilians fled from the path of the Red Army's vengeful advance. Strafed by Sturmovik fighter-bombers, crushed under tank tracks, starved or frozen to death in the winter cold, or dead by their own hand after being gang-raped, the German civilians reaped the bloody harvest that Hitler had sown. And even as the Soviet troops were liberating the death camps, others were inflicting new atrocities to repay the Germans for what their troops had done in the pervious three years of war.
The fall of Berlin is an extraordinary tale, a haunting account of one of the most vicious battles of the bloodiest war in history. But it was also the first battle of the Cold War, the victory that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was determined to win in order to stamp his authority upon the post-war Eastern and Central Europe.
The British understood that, and Winston Churchill and the British generals (and the fiery American armored commander Gen. George Patton) repeatedly tried to persuade their American allies to think of the politics of Europe's future and drive on from the Rhine to Berlin. What was left of the German army would have been only too eager to cooperate. And while there might still have been a Cold War, the Iron Curtain might have fallen far to the East, and Prague and Berlin might have been spared Soviet occupation.
It was not to be. Franklin Roosevelt and General Dwight D. Eisenhower insisted on upholding the agreements they have made with Stalin at the Yalta summit conference. Stalin naturally, broke his promises of free and democratic elections in Poland and Eastern Europe. Indeed, the Soviet generals had orders to fire on the British and American allies if necessary to stop them reaching Berlin.
But if American innocence prevented the allied armies from competing in a race to capture Berlin -- and define post-war geography -- the Soviet armies more than made up for it. Stalin set the three army groups of Marshal Koniev in the south, Zhukov in the center and Rokossovsky in the north against one another.
The competition was ferocious. Zhukov's corps commanders pushed their own troops across the line of Koniev's advance, exposing their men to his artillery fire rather than be beaten into Berlin. The Red Army lost almost 80,000 dead and nearly 300,000 wounded in the battle for Berlin -- a casualty list hugely and unnecessarily inflated by their generals' orders to drive on at any cost.
Using fresh material from Russian official and private archives, Beevor skillfully takes the reader back and forth from grand strategy at Yalta to the battlefronts on the Oder and the Spree rivers, from Hitler's bunker to the air raid shelters of Berlin and the black humor of the Berliners. As early as December 1944 they were joking that the practical Christmas gift would be a coffin.
With considerable delicacy and understanding Beevor examines the almost unbelievable horror of gang rape and mass rape that was inflicted upon millions of German women - including nuns and nurses and grandmothers as well as captured Russian woman prisoners and concentration camp victims. It is a gruesome story, told judiciously and with dignity. He concludes with accounts from many of women that they faced another postwar trial, to restore some courage and dignity to their own defeated and humiliated menfolk. And by then, Berlin was becoming a different kind of battlefield as the Cold War got under way.