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Thinking about Russia’s push into Berlin.

September 14, 2008

With a population of four million people, Berlin rivaled the great cities of the world, a massive urban sprawl built up within only a few  hundred years. A rare city for Europe, Berlin hadn’t existed before the 13th century, when it sprang to life as a small trading post along the banks of the river Spree. It took over 300 years (1380-1700) for the population to climb from 8,000 to 50,000, a rate of increase that pales in comparison with the next 200 years. By 1920, Berlin’s population had grown to four million people. Four million people in an inflationary crisis; four million people struggling to survive; four million people frightened of the constant upheaval that an unstable government brings.

The German people, and those inhabitants of Berlin made a choice in loyalties that was shameful, one that cost millions of people their lives. They made their choice with hesitation, but embraced it with fervor soon there after. Whether one can lay blame on the German people for that choice is arguable, and has been argued time and time again for the past 60 years. On one hand, they saw the edicts and decrees being sent out by the clammy skinned chancellor, the one with a speaking style of an amphetamine injected, obsessive compulsive hate monger. On the other, they had bread and milk and an economy that had miraculously recovered from a decade of devastation. They had seven million reasons to reject their leadership outside their doors, but a few dozen reasons to pledge loyalty in their pantries.

The Russians were twenty years into an idealistic cultural revolution that had shaken free the shackles of serfdom, and embarked upon a utopian quest. On paper, serfdom had been eliminated in the 1860’s, but in practice, like slavery in the United States, it carried on for generations longer. Over twenty three million Russians had been serfs, forced to work for the land owners like they had since the dark ages. The children of these former serfs, and their children as well, still toiled in the fields to pay the rent on their pittance of land, to nobility that held the deeds.

Revolution had wiped these families’ histories clean, no longer were they obligated to at leisure noblemen, and their noblemen’s whip. The air must have felt lighter, being drawn in to start a new era, and millions upon millions of men and women truly believed that Marx and Engels had written a future of freedom and plenitude, if only they followed a few turbulent steps.

The revolution was wearing a bit thin in the late thirties, Lenin was dead, Trotsky had been a hero, then a villain and traitor, then erased from pictures, books, and even lips. That long ago October felt every bit the 20 some odd years separated from their present day, and to many, it must have seemed lifetimes longer. Entire populations had been moved around as if Stalin was a giant, playing a game of chess, and the people were mere pieces to sacrifice, trap, and block his enemies.

By this time, an entire generation had grown up under the autocratic power of the revolutionary government. Men of twenty three had known nothing other than the education the government had provided, nothing but the propaganda put forth to be consumed by the future soldiers who would fight through the streets of Berlin. Maybe mother Russia was a more palatable concept than Stalin’s iron rule, but millions of Russian men and woman would be fighting to protect something as the Reichstag came into view.

Two massive populations, both recently set free from heartache and misery, both looking towards a future that was glorious to behold, were gripped in a bloody struggle for survival. One saw gold plated domes and an empire to last a thousand years, the other a utopia of equality and sustenance, but both needed to contend with the blood before their eyes in the present moments.

The fool hearty concept of lebensraum, and a decade of propaganda fueled atrocities against Slavs as Hitler’s death squads followed the German push, deep into Russia. Villages burnt to the ground, murdered bodies of simple farmers found piled in the ashes of churches, and prisoners of war lined up and shot are the stuff of nightmares, yet the Russian soldiers saw all of this on their way to the German border. Their hatred, if not already provoked from words in the party papers, now grew to murderous levels. Vengeance was on the mind of every Russian soldier.

The German population was frightened as the Russian army came closer to their capital each day. The reports of reprisals must have been terrifying for all those sitting in their homes, waiting day after day for the inevitable to come. The coming months must have looked like a baroque painting of damnation in the mind of a civilian, unmerciful torture and retribution set in a flaming hell of their former glorious city.

On April 19th, 1945, General Georgy Zhukov and his 1st Belorussian front, General Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian front, and General Konev’s 1st Ukrainian front had finally taken the Seelow Heights and the surrounding area, the last defensive lines before Berlin. An army of 100,000 patchwork German troops had been crushed over 4 horrific days of pitched battle, only able to hold out that long due to the determination and brilliance of General Heinrici. Most of the German troops were able to escape, probably permanently affected by the sound of the pounding artillery barrages, and the horrifying whistling bellow of the Katyusha rockets. Although the German casualties were high, around 12,000 men, Zhukov estimated the Russians suffered somewhere in the range of 30,000 dead in those four days alone.

Only 50 miles from the end of the war, the Russian forces were massed for an all out attack, two and a half million troops poised to take Berlin. All the hate and animosity between the Russians and the Germans was being vented with bullets and panzershreks, where each other’s faces did not give one a sense of common humanity, but imminent peril. Stalin had been frustrated with the slow progress of the Seelow Heights push, and intended for a quicker resolution for the war. To this end, Stalin took advantage of the competitive natures inherent in every general officer. The competitiveness of a general is like that of a professional athlete, the trait that drives one to power is also one that creates struggles, constantly monitoring their performance in comparison with those in their own league – in this case generals eyeing generals, seeing who is best fit for the task.

There had been a definitive border between each general’s forces, necessary to maintain order in a quickly advancing march. Zhukov, the hero general of Stalingrad, who had turned the tables on the Germans there, and Konev, a brilliant commander who had been instrumental in the victory at Kursk, and liberated the Ukraine, were pitted against each other by Stalin’s decision to dissolve the border between their armies, implying that to the one that conquers Berlin, goes the glory and spoils. This politically astute maneuver by Stalin accelerated the passions of the Generals to make themselves in a better position for victory, unfortunately for the Russian soldiers, however, it may have put glory before their own precious lives.

April 20th, 1945 was Hitler’s 56th birthday, a day that Zhukov celebrated by opening fire with an artillery assault on Berlin that would last until Berlin’s capitulation. The Russians claim that this bombardment totaled more total munitions weight than all of the Allied bombs on Berlin throughout the entire war. Considering that approximately 50,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Berlin during World War Two, the thought of more than 100,000,000 pounds of artillery shells raining down upon the city in thirteen days time is gut wrenching, staggering, and quite simply, unfathomable.

While Konev and Zhukov were poised to take Berlin, Rokossovsky and the 2nd Belorussian Front pushed through the north of Germany, eventually reaching Bernard Montgomery’s forces, and thus linking the Allied armies. This left only the two generals and their armies to capture Berlin.

The Germans were ill prepared to defend the city from surrender, but they took measures to cause as much damage to the Russian army as possible. The remaining German army forces in Berlin amounted to approximately 45,000 men from mixed units. General Weilding, the commander of the Berlin Defense Area, had patched together elements of the Waffen SS, Wehrmacht, and supplemented those forces with the 40,000 man Volksstrum, the older men whom had served in World War One, and Hitler Youth. Those men and boys unwilling to take part in the cities defense were summarily executed if caught by roving bands of enforcers, soldiers of the lowest form. The Germans were so desperate for defensive forces, that at the Pichelsdorf bridges, a key route that needed to be open for General Wenck’s now imaginary relief army (thought to exist by Hitler, but, in fact, already crushed) to enter Berlin from the south, was defended by 5,000 children in men’s uniforms. Forty five hundred of these boys became casualties over five days of fighting.

The German defenders set up choke points throughout the city, men and boys armed with panzershreks hid out in cellars of buildings, while machine gunners and snipers held the upper floors, ready to decimate the Russian attack. These tactics worked well at first, yet the over powering Russian force quickly found a way to counter the Germans measures.

Russian tanks, no matter how well made, or how effective used in the field, are a poor tool for urban warfare. The slow, heavily armored tanks became the focus of fire, over the entire battle for Berlin, the Russians lost 2,000 tanks – 500 more than they lost in the Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history. To counter the German tactics, the Russians became ruthless in their advancement, spraying the upper floors of each building with submachine gun fire, and pounding the upper reaches, untargetable by the tanks low elevation barrel, with anti-aircraft guns.

Also used was the over/under assaulting technique by the infantry. Infantry units would advance by rooftop and cellars, creating vertical pincher movements through the multi-story buildings. One group would enter the building through the roof, while another would enter through the cellar, trapping the defenders in the middle floors, and taking the advantage of height away from them. The push through the cellars would have been most difficult, punching hole after hole through cellar walls to advance one heavily defended building at a time. Dropping through roofs must have been less difficult, yet all the more frightening, high above street level, jumping from roof to roof, all the while clearing machine gun nests and snipers that are prepared from hearing the heavily laden foot stomps above head.

The defense of the city was futile, yet the fear the Germans must have felt would be all encompassing, knowing that the Russians wanted revenge, and would not accept an easy surrender. The German civilians paid the heaviest price, accounting for the majority of the 450,000 German casualties in Berlin, many caught in the cross fire, and many more still probably crushed by the artillery’s unrelenting barrage.

The Russians accepted Berlin’s surrender on May 2, 1945, 13 days since the start of the battle for Berlin. During the fighting for the Seelow Heights, and the eventual capture of the city, the Russians paid dearly, fighting broken German units, old men, and brainwashed children, they suffered 360,000 casualties, including some 81,000 dead.

A brutal way to finish the war, the Battle of Berlin wasn’t the last of the fighting, but it saw the end of  Hitler’s disgusting rule and life, and gave the Germans no other reason to hang onto their fanatical defense. It took the lives of too many people, not only from a tactical view, where the causalities were higher than they should have been due to accelerated schedules, but just in terms of reason, when where civilians should be spared the punishment for their leadership’s atrocities. The hurt in Berlin didn’t end on May 2nd, the Russians vented their frustration and anger on the remaining civilian population, over the next several weeks, it’s estimated that 100,000 women, who lived through 50,000 tons of bombs falling on the city, more than that weight in artillery shells over the two weeks prior, were raped. Whether soldier or civilian, the shock and sadness from a battle this vicious and bloody can not have possibly have been healed within the lifetime of those who lived through it.

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