(The following is from my book, Hellstorm–The Death of Nazi Germany, 1944-1947)
On the afternoon of April 24, 1945, Helmuth Weidling, along with an aide, Major Siegfried Knappe, entered Berlin, his automobile escorted by a pair of roaring motorcycles. Due to the chaotic conditions caused by the Russian advance, Weidling’s corp had lost touch with other units and the general hoped to regain contact via the communications center below the Reich Chancellery. What the two officers saw on their short drive through the capital was sobering. Wrote Maj. Knappe:
The city was under fire from heavy artillery, which was probably mounted on a railroad car somewhere thirty or more kilometers away, and there was also some bombing by Russian aircraft. Fortunately, the artillery was not con- centrated; it was scattered all over the city, with a heavy artillery shell landing somewhere in the city every few minutes.
Smoke and dust covered the city. Streetcars were standing disabled in the streets, their electric wires dangling. In the eastern suburbs, many buildings were burning and the civilian population was queuing up in bread lines and in line to get water from any source that was still working. Civilians were everywhere, scurrying from cover to cover because of the artillery shells and bombs. To avoid creating a possible panic, Goebbels had refused to issue orders for civilians to leave the city, even women and children, and now thousands more were fleeing into Berlin from the east. Defending Berlin was obviously going to be a very ugly business, and many civilians were going to die in the fighting.
Arriving at the Reich Chancellery at about 6:00 p.m., we left our car and driver to proceed on foot, taking the motorcycle runners with us. The area around the Reich Chancellery was pitted with deep craters. Fallen trees were scattered about like matchsticks, and the sidewalks were blocked by piles of rubble. The Reich Chancellery was badly damaged, with only shells of walls remaining in some places. The entrance hall ... had been completely destroyed. The only part of the Reich Chancellery that was still usable was the underground bunker system. In the underground garage, we saw several Mercedes-Benzes we had seen Hitler use in parades and political rallies. There was an entrance to the passage to Fuhrer Headquarters in the underground bunker from the garage. SS guards at the entrance saluted Weidling, with his Knight’s Cross and Swords. These first guards were SS unteroffiziers, but the deeper we went toward the bunker, the higher the rank of the guards became. . . .
Fuhrer Headquarters was about three levels down from the garage. We were stopped at many guard posts, even though Weidling was a general with many impressive military decorations, and we were searched by the guards before being admitted to the actual Fuhrer bunker. The SS guards were respectful, but here we were carefully investigated as to who we were, where we came from, and what our business was. We had to show proper identification and surrender our pistols.
Then we finally entered the antechamber to the offices of … General [Hans] Krebs, and … General [Wilhelm] Burgdorf. We were announced, and Burgdorf ’s adjutant . . . came to welcome us. He led us to the next room, where both Krebs and Burgdorf awaited us. . . . They had talked to us only briefly when Krebs said he would announce Weidling’s presence to Hitler and see if Hitler wanted to talk to him. That was surprising, since Weidling had not come to see Hitler and knew of no reason Hitler would want to talk to him.
When Krebs and Burgdorf were out of the room, Weidling said quietly, “Something is wrong. They are behaving strangely.” After about ten minutes, Burgdorf returned and told Weidling that Hitler wanted to see him. I stayed behind, of course….
After about twenty more minutes, Weidling returned and told me that Hitler had ordered us to come into Berlin and take over the eastern and southern fronts of the city.
This news, startling in itself, was soon transcended by what Weidling saw and heard in the bunker. Gone were the days of cool efficiency, the days when the German High Command was a well-oiled machine hitting on all cylinders. As Weidling discovered, shouting, arguments, and finger-pointing was now the order of the day.
“What a difference between the haphazard way things were being done now and the professional way things had been done in 1940 and 1941!” reflected Maj. Knappe.
Weidling, Knappe and other visitors from “above” were also struck by the ghastly atmosphere of the bunker. Sunless, cheerless, cool, and damp, the compound’s pale and lethargic inhabitants haunted the hallways like beings from another world, or, as one inmate admitted, “like zombies.”
“Since 16 January, when Hitler had installed himself in his concrete shelter, we had to spend our time inside the bunker,” revealed one of the chancellor’s personal secretaries, Traudl Junge. “[I]t was our ninety-sixth day spent fifty feet underground, beneath sixteen-feet thick slabs of cement resting on walls some six feet wide at their base.”
More recently, Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, had moved in along with Joseph Goebbels and his large family. Adding to the cramped conditions, the Fuhrer’s top adviser, Martin Bormann, was also ensconced below.
Perhaps most shocking of all to Weidling and other newcomers to the bunker was the appearance of Adolf Hitler himself. As one officer recalled:
[T]hose of us who had known him in the earlier years before the war, when he was a human dynamo often bursting with restless energy, now noted, from about nineteen forty-two on, that he seemed to be aging at least five full years for every calendar year. Near the very end, on the day he celebrated his last birthday, he seemed closer to seventy than to fifty-six. He looked what I would call physically senile.
During that birthday gathering on April 20, scores of officials and Party members from across Germany had arrived “to greet the Fuhrer, to shake his hand and swear their loyalty.” According to Traudl Junge, many of the visitors urged their leader to leave Berlin:
“Mein Fuhrer, the city will soon be surrounded and you will be cut off from the south. There is still time to withdraw to Berchtesgaden from where you can command the southern armies.”
Hitler shook his head, bluntly turning down their suggestions….
“No, I can’t,” he answered. “If I did, I would feel like a lama turning an empty prayer wheel. I must bring about the resolution here in Berlin—or else go under.”
Emboldened by their leader’s decision to go down fighting, others swore allegiance. “We shall never leave him in the lurch, whatever the danger ... ,” Dr. Goebbels vowed. “If history tells of this country that its people never abandoned their leader and that their leader never abandoned his people, that will be victory.”
And now, with his elevation to commander of the capital defenses, Gen. Weidling was being called upon to do the impossible—to keep not only Adolf Hitler and Berlin from “going under,” but to prevent Germany from going down as well. With roughly 15,000 mostly ragged and battle-drained troops to work with, and with perhaps twice that number of poorly armed, poorly trained Volkssturm and Hitler Youth, Weidling was being asked to not only hold off half a million Soviet soldiers, and an equal number of reserves, but defeat and destroy them. Although Hitler had ordered the armies of Generals Walter Wenck and Theodor Busse to break the ring and relieve Berlin, Weidling well knew that this was a phantasm. Far from rescuing the capital, these units would be hard-pressed to prevent their own encirclement and destruction.
As the general and Major Knappe drove through the capital that night to their new headquarters at Templehof Airport, both understood well the hopeless nature of their task. While the inevitable defeat might be postponed for a few days, or weeks at most, nothing could save Berlin from becoming “one huge urban killing ground.”
“[I]t was on this night that the apocalyptic battle for the city of Berlin began in earnest,” Maj. Knappe wrote. “The next day, Russian assault troops fought their way into the suburbs of the city.”
“Berliners!” cried Joseph Goebbels over the radio, “I call on you to fight for your city. Fight with everything you have got, for the sake of your wives and your children, your mothers and parents…. The battle for Berlin must become the signal for the whole nation to rise up in battle.”
Stirred by the summons of Joesph Goebbels, aware that Hitler himself was sharing their fate, thousands of men, women and children responded to the clarion, some riding street cars to the front lines in the suburbs. The speed of the Soviet onslaught and the haphazard nature of the defense created a logistical nightmare. Explained one Volkssturm commander:
I had four hundred men in my battalion, and we were ordered to go into the line in our civilian clothes. I told the local Party leader that I could not accept the responsibility of leading men into battle without uniforms. Just before commit- ment we were given 180 Danish rifles, but no ammunition. We also had four machine-guns and a hundred Panzerfausts. None of the men had received any training in firing a machine-gun, and they were all afraid of handling the anti-tank weapons. Although my men were quite ready to help their country, they refused to go into battle without uniforms and without training. What can a Volkssturm man do with a rifle without ammunition? The men went home; that was the only thing we could do.
Although many defenders were lost for similar reasons, others were determined to help in any way they could. Some women and children built barricades in the streets or dug anti-tank ditches. Old men and boys acted as couriers. Clerks, school teachers, government employees, even artists and musicians, hovered near the front in hopes of picking up weapons and uniforms from the battlefield. While Soviet forces converged upon the city, some of the first hammer-blows were delivered in the southern suburbs along the Teltow Canal. Remembered Russian general, Ivan Konev:
I reached Teltow when the artillery preparation was almost over. Our troops had taken up assault positions and were poised to enter the city; there were tanks, motorized infantry and the artillery that was finishing its work…. The advance detachments began to cross the canal before the end of the artillery preparation. Everything was shaking. The entire locality was wrapped in smoke. Heavy artillery was demolishing the houses on the other side of the canal. Stones, slabs of concrete, fragments of wood and dust were flying into the air. We had over 600 guns per kilometer on a narrow frontage, and they were all pounding the northern bank. . . . The bombers—one flight after another—were also delivering their blows….
I remember how vast the city appeared to me. I noted the massive old buildings, in which the district that lay before us abounded, and the density of these buildings; I took note of everything that might complicate our task of capturing Berlin. I also noticed the canals, rivers and streams that crossed Berlin in differ- ent directions…. Such a multiplicity of water obstacles promised additional difficulties. Before us lay a front-line city, besieged and prepared for defense. . . . As I gazed upon Berlin I reflected that its end would spell the end of the war and that the sooner we took the city the sooner the war would be over.
Once in the suburbs, it was not long before Konev and other Russians realized that the war was far from over. Near Oranienburg, a member of the Hitler Youth wrote:
Our leader and the police fetched us from our homes and we had to assemble in the SS barracks…. Then [we] were divided up by our companies and attached to the SS and Volkssturm. We first saw action to the northeast of the town. Most of us were killed by infantry fire, because we had to attack across open fields. Then the fighting in the town; two days of it. In two days and two nights Oranienburg changed hands four times. That finished another part of us. Then the Russians started bombarding the town with Stalin-Organs [i.e., multi-tubed rocket launchers], and when we wanted to finish and go home, we were stopped and made to join the escape across the canal. My platoon leader, who refused, was strung up on the nearest tree ... but then he was already fifteen years old.
Although resistance on the approaches to Berlin was generally light, the further the Soviets advanced, the stiffer the defense became. Increasingly, the Russians resorted to formula tactics. Said one German defender:
[A]ircraft flew over the buildings where resistance was suspected and where they had spotted snipers posted on the roofs, dropping small-caliber bombs, or possibly clusters of hand grenades. Simultaneously the tanks advanced, slowly opening a passage with their fire. Behind the tanks came the infantry, usually about thirty to forty men armed with submachine-guns. Behind the assault troops came other shock troops, who searched the houses to left and right. As soon as a cellar or building had been visited, the assault troops passed on, leaving one or two sentries…. The Russians did their mopping up very cautiously and burnt with petrol all the houses from which they had been fired upon.
As the Soviets pressed forward, they captured several prison camps.
While POWs of other nationalities were set free, Russian inmates were merely handed a rifle and pointed to the front.
On a street in the suburbs, Werner Adamczyk and other nervous artillerymen waited while spotters located targets. As the young German gunner recalled:
I could see a long line of women in front of a grocery store, waiting to be served out of the meager supply of food. Suddenly, we got a firing command. We were to fire three salvos directed less than a kilometer ahead. As our guns went off, the women in line ducked down to the floor…. After the salvos went off, we loaded the last shell and waited….
Then the moment of final destiny arrived. A Russian tank swerved around the corner of one of the streets ahead of us. Its turret was swinging from one side to the other, firing its shells at random. My breathing stopped when I saw one of its shells detonating in the middle of the row of women waiting in line at the grocery store. Several of them fell to the ground; screams of horrible panic and pain filled the air. . . . Some unknown men, maybe from the rest of our infantry, emerged in front of us and fired a “Panzerschreck” at that tank. It was a direct hit. The tank blew up in an inferno of fire. But fragments of it killed some more of the nearby women.
Moments later, our gun barrels down for direct shooting, another tank appeared. Every gun fired its last round. At least two of our shells hit the tank and blew it to pieces.
Young Siegfried Losch found himself sniping from windows with a group of paratroopers convalescing from the Italian front. After escaping the Oder, the seventeen-year-old had briefly considered shed- ding his uniform and blending with civilians. Loyalty to the Fatherland caused him to pause, however, and the ubiquitous Field Police gave him even more reasons to reconsider. Soon, Losch and his comrades found cover near the Olympic Stadium.
There was no real organization. Every little group fought as good as it could. Confusion existed. For instance, there were members of the Volkssturm dressed in brown overcoats and Czechoslovakian helmets. I almost shot one man. He was rather old. I told him to change his uniform, if he wanted to survive. Then there were members of the Adolf Hitler school, a Nazi elite high school. These boys were armed like cowboys. Each one had several pistols. They picked the weapons up from dead soldiers. They were highly motivated. I remember, there was a T-34 tank about 60 yards from our position, firing ever so often along the houses. Suddenly I heard a big bang from the T-34. One of those students had knocked out the tank. He had crawled on the balcony across from us and hiding behind some petunias he shot a bazooka [i.e., Panzerfaust] at the tank....He was maybe 14.
As the incidents above illustrate, and as the Soviets soon discovered, Berlin was a graveyard for tanks. The Panzerfaust, and its more lethal cousin, the Panzershreck, was a simple, yet extremely effective tank-killing device that could be fired with little or no training. Wagons, carts and wheel-barrows loaded with the weapons were constantly resupplying the fronts and doled out like loaves of bread. Additionally, the narrow streets of Berlin, lined with multi-storied stone and brick ruins made perfect canyons for ambush.
General Wilhelm Mohnke describes a tank attack upon one of his positions:
They came on at dawn with tanks and infantry. Their tanks were highly unmaneuverable, blocked by rubble, and were sitting ducks in this classic street-fighting situation. Even young boys and old men, or women, for that matter, armed with bazookas and heroic despair, could get at them from point-blank range, usually under fifty yards, often from a cellar. . . . The Russians had brilliant tank commanders who had learned their business against us out on the steppes and in the open country. Even in city fighting, for example, in Stalingrad or Warsaw, they had never come up against hostile, armed civilians. They realized their mistake only belatedly, after they had lost hundreds of tanks….
After that first frontal assault, they got smarter. They simply pulled back and plastered us with artillery, of which they had a plenitude. They never tried to storm our positions again.
In other sectors as well, Soviet commanders screened their tanks with sheets of iron or bags of cement and held them back until strong points had been obliterated by artillery. A French POW watched a typical operation outside the Schultheiss Brewery:
The roadblock’s defenders were bombarded by heavy mortars set up in some ruined houses nearby. Then the Russians set up a 75 or 105mm gun several hundred metres from the barricade. The Russian gunners were completely exposed and, at the cost of several casualties, succeeded in getting some shots on the target, destroying the barricade and killing a number of Germans.
Then the Soviet infantry, about a hundred strong, charged in screaming, quickly swamped the remaining defenders, opened the barrier and regrouped on the street corner opposite the brewery. German losses were increased by the bitterness of the Soviet soldiers, who seemed to be drugged, and rarely took prisoners. We found numerous German corpses, civilians and soldiers, when we were able to get out of the brewery.
With Berlin surrounded, the Soviets sought to sever the city’s last link with the world by overrunning Templehof Airport. One of those defending the far approaches to the airfield scribbled in his diary:
Russian artillery is firing without let-up…. We need infantry reinforcements, and we get motley emergency units. Behind the lines, civilians are still trying to get away right under the Russian artillery fire, dragging along some miser- able bundle holding all they have left in the world. On and off, some of the wounded try to move to the rear. Most of them stay, though, because they are afraid of being picked up and hanged by flying courts-martial. The Russians burn their way into the houses with flame throwers. The screams of the women and children are terrible….
Afternoon. Our artillery retreats to new positions. They have very little ammunition. The howling and explosions of the Stalin organs, the screaming of the wounded, the roaring of motors, and the rattle of machine guns. Clouds of smoke, and the stench of chlorine and fire. Dead women in the street, killed while trying to get water. But also, here and there, women with bazookas, Silesian girls thirsting for revenge….
8 p.m.: Russian tanks carrying infantry are driving on the airport. Heavy fighting.
April 25: 5:30 a.m. New, massive tank attacks. We are forced to retreat…. Russian drive on the airport becomes irresistible…. Heavy street fighting—many civilian casualties. Dying animals. Women are fleeing from cellar to cellar. We are pushed northwest…. [H]eavy Russian air attacks. Inscriptions on the house walls: “The hour before sunrise is the darkest,” and “We retreat but we are winning.” Deserters, hanged or shot. What we see on this march is unforgettable.
As the ferocious fighting approached the airport’s perimeter, General Weidling realized he could not hold the vital link long. Major Knappe:
During the evening, I entered a room where Weidling was meeting with [two generals]. They were discussing whether to defend Berlin dutifully or whether it would be appropriate to stay here and let the Russians pass by on both sides of us and then break through the Grunewald (woods to the west of the city), escape to the west, and surrender to the Western Allies. If we stayed to defend Berlin it would be necessary to move our headquarters to the center of the city, because within two days at the latest the Russians would be occupying this building. Weidling then made his decision to stay and defend Berlin…. [We] ... decided to move corps headquarters to a big antiaircraft bunker near the Berlin zoo…. The zoo bunker,a heavily fortified place with heavy antiair- craft guns on the roof, would be safe against bombing and artillery…. When we left our headquarters, we had to be careful, because the railroad embankment behind our building was under fire and we had to cross it to get to our kubelwagen [i.e. Jeep] and motorcycle. We crossed it by dashing from cover to cover, finally arriving safely at our vehicles. As we drove through the city, the earth trembled with each exploding artillery shell, and a huge geyser of earth and debris erupted from the ground with each explosion. The noise was deafening, and the heaving of the earth was unsettling. A sliver of shrapnel from an exploding artillery shell finally punctured one of the tires on my kubelwagen.While my driver was changing the tire, a woman watching from a house nearby offered me a cup of tea. She was about forty-five years old and matronly, with worn clothes, bedraggled hair, and a kind face…. Her apartment was in shambles from the artillery blasts. Small knickknacks, little pieces of her life, lay shattered on the floor about her.
“When will the Russians arrive, Herr Major?” she asked.
“In a matter of hours,” I told her honestly. “A day at most. You will be safest if you stay in your basement.”
Like this helpless woman, females could do little else but sit in their cellars and wait. Unlike bombing raids, which had a certain rhyme and rhythm, death from artillery could come at any moment. Hence, life was now passed almost entirely underground talking . . . and thinking.
“The word ‘Russians’ is no longer mentioned. The lips won’t pronounce it,” confided one thirty-year-old female. While rape was on everyone’s mind, she added, “not a single woman talked about ‘it’.”
A nervous gaiety breaks out. All kinds of stories are making the rounds. Frau W. screeches: “Rather a Russki on the belly than an Ami on the head!” (i.e., American bombers)—a joke not quite fitting her mourning crepe. Fraulein Behn shouts through the cellar:
“Now let’s be frank—I’ll bet there’s not a virgin among us!” No one answers. I find myself wondering…. Probably the janitor’s younger daughter, who is only sixteen and who, ever since her sister’s faux-pas, has been strictly watched. And certainly, if I know anything about the faces of young girls, the eighteen-year-old ... who is sleeping peacefully in the corner.
When those in hiding were finally forced by hunger and thirst to surface, the sights they saw were staggering. Continues the woman above:
Walking south one is aware of approaching the front. The city railroad tun- nel is already blocked. People standing in front of it said that at the other end a soldier in underpants is hanging, a sign saying “Traitor” dangling from his neck. They said he is hanging so low that one can twist his legs. This was reported by someone who saw it himself and had chased away some boys who were amusing themselves twisting the dead man’s legs.
The Berliner Strasse looks fantastic, half torn up and blocked by barricades. Queues in front of the shops, flak roaring overhead. Trucks moving citywards. Filthy mud-covered figures with vacant faces covered in blood-smeared band- ages trudging along between them. In the rear hay carts driven by gray-heads. The barricades guarded by Volksturm men in patched uniforms. Soft-faced children under huge steel helmets, horrifying to hear their high voices. So tiny and thin in their far-too-loose uniforms, they can’t be more than fifteen.
“There are no more streets. Just torn-up ditches filled with rubble between rows of ruins…,” said another hungry scavenger, Ruth Andreas-Friedrich. “We climb across mountains of ruins, rummage through rubble and broken glass, crawl through unknown cellars, tear out other people’s boxes and bags. Shellfire above us. We don’t pay attention. We hardly bother to take cover. A fever has gotten hold of us.”
Rita Kuhn was also searching for food. As the little girl approached her neighborhood bakery, she soon became lost.
I thought I was in another city. Everything looked very, very unfamiliar. The trees had lost all their leaves. And buildings on both sides were . . . little holes, big holes, and just the whole area is devastated. . . . I walked on, and I looked at the trees, and I saw pieces of clothing on the trees. Pretty soon, as I got closer to the bakery there were pieces of human flesh. They were all over, everywhere. On the trees, on the balconies, pieces of clothing, pieces of human flesh….I almost fell over a woman, lying there in the street, dead, with her legs blown off….I came to where I thought the bakery was, and there was just a big hole. Sure enough, that’s where it had hit, and people hadn’t had time to take cover.
Like this unfortunate group, once a source of food or water had been found, little or nothing could drive the desperate people away.
“Whole families take turns standing in line, each member doing a shift of several hours…,” wrote a witness. “With a few beefsteaks and loins of pork in sight, even the shakiest old grandma will hold her ground. There they stand like walls, those who not so long ago dashed into bunkers the moment three fighter planes were announced over Central Germany.”
“Just as we were about to drive past such a line,” noted Major Knappe, “an artillery shell exploded beside the line of women. As the smoke began to clear, I could see that many of the women had been hit. Those women who were unhurt carried the dead, the dying, and the wounded into the entrances of nearby buildings and cared for them—and then again formed their queues so they would not lose their places in line!”
When another direct hit on a food line killed and wounded over a dozen, one viewer was stunned to see victims merely wipe the blood from their ration cards and reform the line. As the sounds of street fighting neared, however, few any longer risked the food and water sorties. Confined to their dark cellars, alone with their thoughts, it was now that dreadful anticipation came crushing down.
We sheltered in the air raid cellar of our house when the fighting came very close…. [W]e heard a series of thundering crashes which came nearer and nearer. One young boy in our cellar was brave enough to look out. He told us that two Russian tanks and a lot of soldiers on foot were coming and that the tanks were firing into the houses as they moved up the street. One tank was firing at the houses on the left. The boy suddenly jumped down from the slit through which he had been looking and almost immediately our house was struck by a shell….
The noise moved past us. The sound of the firing grew less and less loud. We all sat quite still…. Each of us had our own thoughts. Mine were of my husband who was a sailor somewhere…. We all sat silent waiting, wondering and fearful. Very soon the Red Army would be here. Suddenly the door was pushed open and in the doorway was the silhouette of a man. Then another and another. Two pocket torches were switched on and their beam passed from one face to another in the cellar. “Alles Kaput,” shouted one of the silhouettes, “Komm,” and we made our painful way up the shelter stairs and into daylight. There they stood, the soldiers who had come into our cellar, laughing and shouting. “Alles Kaput.” They looked about sixteen years old. The Ivans had arrived.
As their frightened countrymen to the east had earlier discovered, Berliners also soon found that tough and hard as Russian shock troops might be, they were a far cry from the blood-thirsty monsters propaganda and imaginations had sketched them as. “The first troops were friendly and gave us food,” said a teenager. “They had officers with them who spoke German very well and told us to be calm, that everything would be all right.” But also like their eastern brethren, Berliners soon learned that there was a world of difference between the first wave of Soviet soldiers and the second.
“These are good, disciplined and decent soldiers,” one Russian officer explained to a Mother Superior at a maternity hospital. “But I must tell you—the ones coming up behind are pigs.”
With such warnings, some terrified women tried to follow the front, dodging from cellar to cellar, dying from bombs and bullets as they did, but staying just ahead of the horror behind. For most, however, it was too late.
I step out into the dark corridor. Then they got me. Both men had been standing there waiting. I scream, scream. . . . One man seizes me by the wrists and drags me along the corridor. Now the other one also pulls, at the same time gripping my throat with one hand so that I can no longer scream…. I’m already on the ground, my head lying on the lowest cellar stair. I can feel the coldness of the tiles against my back. Something falls from my coat with a tinkling sound. Must be my house keys….One man stands guard at the door upstairs while the other claws at my under- wear, tears my garter belt to shreds and violently, ruthlessly has his way….
When it’s all over and, reeling, I try to get up, the other man hurls himself upon me and with fists and knees forces me back on the floor. Now the first man is standing guard, whispering: “Hurry, hurry... .”
Suddenly I hear loud Russian voices. Someone has opened the door at the top of the staircase, letting in light. Three Russians come in, the third one a woman in uniform. They look at me and laugh. My second attacker, interrupted, has leaped to his feet. They both go off with the others, leaving me lying on the floor. I pull myself up by the banister, gather my things together, and stagger along the wall toward the door of the cellar. . . . My stockings are hanging over my shoes, my hair has fallen wildly over my face, in my hand are the remains of the garter belt.
“What followed was worse than anything we had ever imagined,” recalled nineteen-year-old Juliane Hartman.
One Russian went into the garage and the other headed for the house. Not having the slightest idea of what would happen, I followed the man into the house. First, he locked all of the doors behind him and put the keys in his pocket. I began to feel a bit funny when we got to one of the bedrooms. I wanted to go out on the balcony, but he pointed his gun at me and said, “Frau komm!” We had already heard about a few of the horrible things going on, so I knew one thing for certain and that was “Don’t try to defend yourself.” An upper-middle-class child, I had never been told about the facts of life.
A short time later, Juliane learned much more about the “facts of life” when “an entire horde of Mongolians” stood facing her.
Recounts Ruth Andreas-Friedrich, a German communist:
In the middle of the night I wake up. A flashlight is shining into my face. “Come, woman,” I hear a voice. The smell of cheap liquor assails me…. A hand covers my mouth.
“Good woman ... come,” the voice repeats. A heavy body falls upon me. “No, no,” I gargle, half choked, trying to slip deeper into the pillows. The smell of cheap liquor. Close to my ear panting breath. “O God! ... Dear God!”
Following her own ordeal, Andreas-Friedrich tried to console a young Marxist friend:
She sits huddled on her couch. “One ought to kill oneself,” she moans. “This is no way to live.” She covers her face with her hands and starts to cry. It is terrible to see her swollen eyes, terrible to look at her disfigured features.
“Was it really that bad?” I ask.
She looks at me pitifully. “Seven,” she says. “Seven in a row. Like animals....” She is eighteen years old and didn’t know anything about love. Now she knows everything. Over and over again, sixty times. How can you defend yourself?” she says impassively, almost indifferently. “When they pound at the door and fire their guns senselessly. Each night new ones, each night others. The first time when they took me and forced my father to watch, I thought I would die….”
I shudder. For four years Goebbels told us that the Russians would rape us. That they would rape and plunder, murder and pillage.
“Atrocity propaganda!” we said as we waited for the Allied liberators.
A German attorney and his Jewish wife were two more Berliners who had eagerly anticipated the arrival of Soviet troops. According to a witness:
For months the couple had been looking forward to the liberation of Berlin, had spent nights by the radio, listening to foreign broadcasts. Then, when the first Russians forced their way into the cellar and yelled for women, there had been a free-for-all and shooting. A bullet had ricocheted off the wall and hit the lawyer in the hip. His wife had thrown herself on the Russians, imploring their help in German. Whereupon they had dragged her into the passage. There three men had fallen upon her while she kept yelling: “Listen! I’m a Jewess! I’m a Jewess!” By the time the Russians had finished with her, the husband had bled to death.
Because of the close-quarter street fighting, German troops were often unwilling spectators to the horror taking place just beyond. “The nights, when the women in the occupied side streets were raped by Russian soldiers, were awful,” a sixteen-year-old Hitler Youth reminisced. “[T]he screams were horrible. There were terrible scenes.” Added another Landser: “[I]t is just not a pretty sight to see a terrified, naked woman running along a roof top, pursued by a half-dozen soldiers brandishing bayonets, then leaping five or six stories to certain death.”
After witnessing such scenes as the above, resistance—already fierce— soon turned fanatical. Ferocious as the fight became, little or nothing could stave off the inevitable. Nowhere was this fact more painfully clear than in the bunker far below the Reich Chancellery. Traudl Junge:
[A]n acute sense of anxiety had spread throughout the bunker. Outside, it was like the depths of hell. During the daytime the rumble of gunfire never stopped, and explosions that rocked the ground continued all night long…. Imprisoned in the bunker, we tried to get hold of some news about the outcome of the battle. It should have been at its height. Was that the noise of our guns and tanks? Nobody knew….
Hitler went out to the officers who were waiting in the corridor. “Gentlemen,” he said, “the end is approaching. I shall stay in Berlin and I shall kill myself when the moment comes. Any of you who wish to leave may do so. You are all free to go.”
When those present begged him to fly south to the Alps, while there was still time, Hitler merely waved the words aside: “In this city I have had the right to give orders; now I must obey the orders of Fate. Even if I could save myself, I would not do it. The captain goes down with his ship. How can I call on the troops to undertake the decisive battle for Berlin if at the same moment I myself withdraw to safety?”
While some in the bunker still held hope, pinning their last prayer on General Wenck breaking the Russian ring and relieving the capital, Wenck himself suffered no such delusion.
“The idea of fighting through to Berlin . . . was completely absurd,” the general later wrote. “The Army would have taken weeks to recover and gain battle strength. From hour to hour our own position was growing weaker. The Russians now attacked in overwhelming numbers.” Continues Traudl Junge:
By 26 April, we were cut off from the outside world apart from a radio link.... It began to be obvious that we no longer had an army capable of saving us.... The sound of guns was coming closer and closer, but the atmosphere in the bunker remained the same. Hitler was haggard and absent-minded….[H]e was hollow-eyed and paler than ever. He seemed completely to have given up his role as leader. There were no briefing sessions, no more fixed schedules, no maps spread out on the table. Doors stood wide open. Nobody bothered with anything any more. Our single obsession was that the moment of Hitler’s suicide was approaching.
Goebbels ... arrived to discuss with Hitler their plans for a final radio broadcast. The population were to be told that the Fuhrer was staying in the besieged capital and that he would personally take part in the city’s defense. It was a futile hope that this message would give the German people the courage and energy to achieve the impossible: the sad truth was that there were few able-bodied men left, and a large number of youngsters would sacrifice their lives in vain at a time when their Fuhrer had already given up.
Despite the fast-approaching end, details of state continued. After destroying a Soviet tank single-handedly, a stunned and sleepless child was led down to the bunker and introduced to the Fuhrer.
“With a great show of emotion,” noted a bystander, “Hitler pinned an Iron Cross on the puny chest of this little chap, on a mud-spattered coat several sizes too big for him. Then he ran his hand slowly over the boy’s head and sent him back out into the hopeless battle in the streets of Berlin.”
As the circle closed on central Berlin, the combat became increasingly savage. “One of the worst things . . . was that the Russians always had fresh reserves to put into the fighting, so they could rest their troops...,” wrote Maj. Knappe. “[O]ur people had to just keep fighting, hour after hour and day after day, until they were killed or seriously wounded.”
“Gradually we lost all human appearance,” a German soldier recounted. “Our eyes burned and our faces were lined and stained with the dust that surrounded us.”
“The dust from the rubble hung in the air like a thick fog ...,” added General Weidling as he ducked and dodged from door to door to inspect his defenses. “Shells burst all round us. We were covered with bits of broken stones.”
Another weary Landser took time to faithfully record the daily agony:
Continuous attacks throughout the night. The Russians are trying to break through…. Increasing signs of disintegration and despair. . . . Hardly any communications among the combat groups, in as much as none of the active battalions have radio communications any more. Telephone cables are shot through in no time at all. Physical conditions are indescribable. No relief or respite, no regular food and hardly any bread. Nervous breakdowns from the continuous artillery fire. Water has to be obtained from the tunnels and the Spree [River] and then filtered. The not too seriously wounded are hardly taken in anywhere, the civilians being afraid to accept wounded soldiers and officers into their cellars when so many are being hanged as real or presumed deserters and the occupants of the cellars concerned being ruthlessly turfed out as accomplices by the members of the flying courts martial….
Potsdamer Platz is a ruined waste. Masses of wrecked vehicles and shot-up ambulances with the wounded still inside them. Dead everywhere, many of them frightfully mangled by tanks and trucks….
Violent shelling of the city center at dusk with simultaneous attacks on our positions…. Russians heading for Potsdamer Platz pass us in the parallel tunnel.
As this diarist made note, while one battle raged above, another raged below. Not only was Berlin one of the largest cities in the world, it was also one of the most modern and beneath its surface stretched a maze of subway tunnels, pedestrian passageways and huge drainage pipes. With maps in hand, German commanders were quick to seize the initiative ... with devastating results. Admitted a Russian general:
Our troops would capture some center of resistance and think they had finished with it, but the enemy, making use of underground passages, would send reconnaissance groups, as well as individual saboteurs and snipers into our rear. Such groups of submachine-gunners, snipers, grenade throwers and men armed with panzerfausts emerging from the underground communications fired on motor vehicles, tanks and gun crews moving along already captured streets, severed our lines of communication and created tense situations behind our firing lines.
Though terrified by the black labyrinth, Soviet soldiers were compelled to enter them. Alexander Zhamkov and a squad of scouts crept through one subway until they spotted a distant light.
We decided to crawl the rest of the way. There was a niche in the wall ... and a small electric bulb burning. Close by we heard Germans talking, and there was a smell of tobacco smoke and heat-up tinned meat. One of them flashed a torch and pointed it towards us, while the Germans remained in the shadows. We pressed ourselves to the ground and peered ahead. In front, the tunnel was sealed with a brick wall with steel shields set in the middle. We crawled for- ward another few metres. All of a sudden, bullets began to sing. We hid in the niches. After a while, we attacked, throwing hand grenades and firing Panzerfausts, and broke through. Another 200 metres and another wall.
“[T]hat is the worst possible sort of combat,” said an underground fighter. “You see only flashes of fire coming at you: flame throwers and tracer ammunition.”
Nightmarish in its own right, frightened civilians crowding the subway platforms added immeasurably to the horror, as one soldier reveals:
Platforms and waiting rooms resemble an army camp…. Exploding shells shake the tunnel roofs. Chunks of concrete collapse. Smell of powder and clouds of smoke in the tunnels. Hospital trains of the underground municipal railway roll along slowly. Suddenly a surprise. Water pours into our combat headquarters. Screams, weeping, cursing, people fight for the ladders which lead to the surface through the ventilation shafts. The masses pour over the railway sleepers leaving children and wounded behind…. The water rises over a meter before it slowly recedes. The terrible fear and panic lasts for more than an hour. Many drowned. The cause: on somebody’s orders engineers had demolished the sides of the Landwehr Canal … in order to flood the tunnels to block underground enemy advances….
Late afternoon, we move to Potsdam Platz [station]…. Shells penetrate the roof. Heavy losses above, civilians and wounded. Smoke pours through the shell holes…. After one heavy shell explosion … by the station entrance next to the Pschorr brewery, there is a horrible sight: men, women and children are literally plastered to the walls.
And, the soldier continues, as if the horror were not already great enough, “Flying courts-martial appear among us.”
Most are very young SS…. Hardly any decorations. They are blind and fanatical. Hopes of relief and the simultaneous fear of the courts-martial revitalize the men again. General [Hans] Mummert bans the reappearance of any flying courts-martial in this defense sector. A division with the most bearers of the Knight’s Cross and the oak leaf cluster does not deserve to be persecuted by such young fellows. Mummert is determined personally to shoot one such court-martial that interfered in his sector.
As noted above, the “chain dogs” were omnipresent, insuring that few would “snap” and run to the rear. “[A]nywhere you went, you saw military police,” a Hitler Youth member stated. “Even when the Russians were already in sight, you could see police a hundred yards farther on, still trying to check people. Whoever didn’t have the right papers or the correct pass was strung up as a deserter.”
Of the one hundred and forty men originally in Lothar Ruhl’s company, only a dozen or so were left. Nevertheless, said the brave seventeen-year-old, “An SS patrol stopped me and asked me what I was doing. Was I a deserter?”
They told me to go along with them and said that all cowards and traitors would be shot. On the way, I saw an officer, stripped of his insignia, hanging from a streetcar underpass. A large sign hung around his neck read, “I am hanging here because I was too much of a coward to face the enemy.” The SS man said, “Do you see that? There’s a deserter hanging already.” I told him that I was no deserter; I was a messenger. He said, “That’s what they all say.” I wound up at an SS assembly point. One of our platoon leaders sat there. He saw me and yelled, “Hey, what are you doing with one of our men?” The answer was, “We picked him up.” The platoon leader asked, “What do you mean ‘picked him up?’ This man is our messenger and I know him very well. Let him go so he can get back to his duties.” They finally let me go.
After one of many small counterattacks, German troops briefly reoccupied a battered neighborhood. Wrote a witness:
People who lived there had put out white flags of surrender. There was this one apartment house with white bed sheets waving from the windows. And the SS came—I’ll never forget this—went into the house, and dragged all of the men out. I don’t know whether these were soldiers dressed in civilian clothing, old men, or what. Anyway, they took them into the middle of the street and shot them.
Two groups largely untroubled by flying courts-martial were the Hitler Youth and Volkssturm. Often living only blocks from where they fought, no military police were necessary to remind these men of the fate awaiting their mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters should they fail. Explained a Russian general:
[T]he mood prevailing in the Volkssturm during the decisive fighting for Berlin may be described as one of hysterical self-sacrifice. Those defenders of the Third Reich, including mere boys, believed themselves to be the personification of the last hope of a miracle…. It is noteworthy that those men armed with panzerfausts usually fought to the end and during that last stage displayed much more fortitude than the German soldiers who had been through the mill and were demoralized by defeat and many years of strain.
Far from passively defending a sector, the old men and boys launched furious, though forlorn, counterattacks. As a consequence, they died by the thousands. When one Hitler Youth unit joined the battle, it was five thousand strong. Five days later only five hundred were left.
As the struggle for Berlin intensified and the carnage increased, doctors and nurses were taxed beyond their limits. Remembered one physician:
[A]mputations were carried out on an old wooden table covered with a mattress. The surgeons operated without gloves, practically without antiseptics, and with instruments hardly boiled. Everything was defective or exhausted. It was impossible to change one’s overalls and even washing one’s hands became a problem. The oil lamps were dead and the last candles consumed. Fortunately we had found two bicycles equipped with electric lights, and the pedals turned by hand provided sufficient illumination for the operating tables.
Moving in dark, smoky rooms, wading over floors awash in blood and body parts, exhausted medical personnel also endured a nonstop barrage of curses, screamed at them in German, Russian, French, Spanish, and Dutch.
“All of us were now living a waking nightmare. We had lost any sense of clock or calendar time ...,” said Ernst-Guenther Schenck, an intern compelled to perform surgery though his field was nutrition.
Minor casualties, the walking wounded, soldiers shot in the hand or the foot, were not even allowed to leave their assigned combat posts. Those dragged to us, or trundled in on stretchers, were usually unconscious…. Many a wounded soldier died, in horrible anguish, on the blood-smeared table as I operated. These were bewildered young men dragooned from half of Europe. I was up to my elbows in entrails, arteries, [and] gore.
Assisting Dr. Schenck was a Catholic nun, who stuffed arms, legs, bones, and intestines into trash cans.
Surprisingly, amid the smoking, flaming hell that was Berlin, another world existed, a world of strange and surreal contrasts. While men and women fought and died on one street, drunken revelers, bent on a final fling, yelled and laughed on an adjacent street. During brief lulls in the almost constant din of battle, shocked Landsers heard jazz and polka music blaring behind them in the German zone, and the screams of rape victims to their front in the Russian zone. Len Carpenter, an English POW who had simply walked away from his prison, found himself wandering through this bizarre landscape, as if in a “coma.”
I remember going out and queuing up for some salt pork in the middle of the fighting and the queue being strafed by a Russian plane, and I remember joining in when the Germans started looting the shops and getting a big tin of jam and a typewriter, of all useless things. I remember the Hitler Youth boys singing as they marched past after driving the Russians out of Herrenstrasse railway station, and I remember the first Russians to arrive—they were Russians who had been fighting on the German side and when they took shelter in the cellar with us I thought, “Just my luck to be caught by the Red Army with this lot in tow.”
When the Red Army did in fact arrive, Carpenter’s “coma,” if anything, worsened.
[W]hen all the guns and shouting had died down I emerged into the streets. From quite a distance away I could hear the shrieks of young girls. A local cobbler who was a Communist went forward to meet the Russians and show them his Party card but all they did was pinch the leather jacket off his back….I had a chit printed in four languages which said I was a British subject, but they weren’t interested, they couldn’t read, they just dropped it on the ground. I went with them on a plundering foray. We broke into a shoe shop with a lovely stock of shoes in it, and we broke into the wine and spirit shops, all sorts of places.
By the last days of April 1945, all of Berlin save the city center was under Russian control. Consequently, almost everything that the capital had to give had fallen to the victors.
I sense a strange, intangible something in the air, evil and menacing. Some of these fellows look past me in a strange way, exchanging glances with each other. One of them, short and yellow and smelling of alcohol, involves me in a conversation, tries to lure me sideways into a courtyard, points at two watches strapped to his hairy wrist, promising to give me one if I….
I retreat into the cellar corridor, sneak across the inner courtyard, think I’ve given him the slip when suddenly there he is, standing beside me, and following me into the cellar.
“[H]e suddenly throws me onto the bed. Shut your eyes, clench your teeth, don’t utter a sound. Only when the underwear is ripped apart with a tearing sound, the teeth grind involuntarily. The last underwear.”
I feel fingers at my mouth, smell the reek of horses and tobacco. I open my eyes. Adroitly the fingers force my jaws apart. Eye looks into eye. Then the man above me slowly lets his spittle dribble into my mouth….Paralysis. Not disgust, just utter coldness. The spine seems to be frozen, icy dizziness encircles the back of the head. I find myself gliding and sinking deep down through the pillows, through the floor….
Once more eye looks into eye. The lips above me open. I see yellow teeth, one front tooth half-broken. Slowly the corners of the mouth rise, tiny wrinkles form round the slit eyes. The man is smiling….
When I got up I felt dizzy and wanted to vomit. My ruined underclothes fell round my feet. I staggered along the passage ... to the bathroom. There I vomited. In the mirror I saw my green face, in the basin what I had vomited. I didn’t dare rinse it as I kept on retching and we had so little water left in the bucket.
After the horror stories from the east, most women in Berlin expected to be raped once or twice ... but not dozens of times.
I felt wretched and sore and crept around like a lame duck. The widow, realizing immediately the reason why, got down her medicine chest from the loft where she had been hiding it. Without a word she handed me a jar containing vaseline, but her eyes were brimming. I too felt weak and was aware of something rising in my throat.
It occurred to me how fortunate I have been until now, how in the past love-making for me has never been a burden, but always a pleasure. I have never been forced, never had to force myself. Whatever it was like, it was good. What makes me so wretched at this moment is not the too-much, it’s the abused body taken against its will, which reacts with pain…. Frigid is what I have remained during all these copulations. It cannot, it must not be different, for I wish to remain dead and unfeeling so long as I have to be prey. As a result I’m glad I feel so sore and sick. And yet there I stood blubbering, with the jar of vaseline in my hand, in front of the equally blubbering widow.
Throughout ravaged Berlin, the victors ruthlessly laid claim to the “spoils of war.”
“They queued up,” whispers his wife, while Elvira just sits there speechless. “They waited for one another to finish…. She thinks there were at least twenty, but of this she isn’t quite sure. She had to take almost all of it herself. The other one was unwell, they let her alone after four times….”
I stare at Elvira. Her swollen mouth hangs from her deathly pale face like a blue plum. “Just let them see,” says the distiller’s wife. And without a word Elvira unbuttons her blouse, opens her chemise, and reveals her breasts covered with bruises and the marks of teeth…. She herself started talking. We could hardly understand a word, her lips are so swollen. “I prayed all the time,” she muttered. “I prayed: Dear God, I thank You for making me drunk….” For even before queuing up, as well as after, the Ivans had forced liquor down the woman’s throat.
Nothing, it seemed, was a defense against the assaults. “Most of us tried to make ourselves look a lot older than we really were,” said Hedwig Sass, who was in her early forties. “But then the Russians always said, ‘You not old. You young.’ They laughed at us because of the old clothes and eye-glasses we were wearing.” Added another woman: “The younger one, so the mother whispered to me, knowing that the Ivans didn’t like menstruating women, had stuffed herself with cotton. But it didn’t do her any good. Amidst howls and laughter the two rowdies had thrown the cotton all over the kitchen and laid the sixteen-year-old girl on the chaise lounge in the kitchen.”
The same woman continues:
We sit around the kitchen table, everyone hollow-eyed, greenish-white from lack of sleep. We all whisper and breathe uneasily…. In turn we all stare at the bolted, barricaded back door, praying it will hold out…. All of a sudden the sound of steps on the back stairs, and the alien voices which seem so coarse and bestial to our ears. Silence and paralysis settle over the table. We stop chewing and hold our breath. Hands tremble, eyes open wide in horror. Then it’s quiet again beyond the door; the sound of steps has died away. Someone whispers: “If it’s going on like this….”
No one answers. Suddenly the refugee girl from Konigsberg throws herself screaming across the table: “I can’t stand it any longer, I’m going to end it all. . . .” She had to submit to it several times last night, under the roof where she had fled, followed by a gang of pursuers. Her hair hangs over her face; she refuses to eat or drink.
We sit, wait, listen. We can hear firing from a distance. Shots whip down our street.
Like the frantic girl above, many females did indeed choose the ultimate escape. “There is no other talk in the city. No other thought either,” revealed Ruth Andreas-Friedrich. “Suicide is in the air. . . . They are killing themselves by the hundreds.
Those women who did not commit suicide sought out officers, commissars and other powerful men, offering their bodies in hopes of ending the brutal, random assaults.
Compelled by hunger and thirst to leave their holes, Germans were stunned by what they saw in the streets. To many, it was if Berlin had returned to the Dark Ages. Primitive, Asiatic carts, piled high with plunder, stood side by side with American-made tanks and jeeps. Over open fires Kulaks and Tartars roasted whole hogs and oxen on spits. Horses, cattle and sheep, many trailed by their young, filled the streets with a bedlam of sounds.
“The smell of cow-pat and horse dung was everywhere,” one German recalled.
Not all foul odors were so rustic. Ruth Andreas-Friedrich:
We hurry upstairs. An unbearable stench assails us.... Something slimy makes me slip. “They can’t have been sober.” Repulsed, I hold my nose. Andrik stands at the bathroom door. Aghast, he stares at the cause of the stench.
“Buffaloes must have done this,” he stammers, totally overwhelmed, and tries to flush the toilet. There is no water. Nor is there gas, electricity or tele phone. Only chaos. Total and impenetrable chaos.
Dagmar comes back from the cellar. “It’s even worse down there,” she reports and distractedly runs her hands through her hair. “It’s a deluge, I tell you, a real deluge!”
“Shoveling shit” soon became a new preoccupation for many a once-tidy hausfrau. Gagging and retching, the women tried mightily to remove piles of excrement left in living rooms, hallways and kitchens. “They certainly haven’t much restraint, these conquerors,” one disgusted woman wrote. “[T]hey relieve themselves against the walls; puddles of urine lie on the landings and trickle down the staircase. I’m told they behave just the same in the empty apartments placed at their disposal…. In a corner of the back staircase one of them is lying in a puddle of his own making.”
In their dazed, feral condition, many Germans themselves were in no frame of mind to maintain the veneer of civilization. “While looking for a rear entrance,” said a witness, “we run into a woman who, with raised skirt, is quite unashamedly relieving nature in a corner of the yard. Another sight I’ve not seen before in Berlin.”
Like snarling, ravenous wolfpacks, many Berliners swiftly reverted to the law of the jungle. Ruth Andreas-Friedrich:
In front of us a white ox comes trotting around the corner. With gentle eyes and heavy horns…. Frank and Jo look at each other…. In a moment we have surrounded the animal….
Five minutes later it is done. Five minutes later we all act as if we have gone mad. Brandishing kitchen knives, their sleeves rolled up, Frank and Jo are crouching around the dead animal. Blood drips from their hands, blood runs down their arms and trickles in thin lines across the trodden lawn. And suddenly, as if the underworld had spit them out, a noisy crowd gathers around the dead ox. They come creeping out of a hundred cellar holes. Women, men, children. Was it the smell of blood that attracted them? They come running with buckets. With tubs and vats. Screaming and gesticulating they tear pieces of meat from each other’s hands.
“The liver belongs to me,” someone growls.
“The tongue is mine . . . the tongue . . . the tongue!” Five blood-covered fists angrily pull the tongue out of the ox’s throat….
“Ah,” a woman screams, and rushing away from the crowd, she spins around twice and then hastens away. Above her head she waves the ox’s tail.
Records another viewer:
[S]omeone had come rushing into the cellar with the glad tidings that a horse had collapsed outside. In no time the whole cellar tribe was in the street. The animal was still twitching and rolling its eyes when the first bread knives plunged into it—all this of course under fire. Everyone slashed and ripped just where he happened to be. When the philologist’s wife reached out toward some yellowish fat, someone had rapped her over the fingers with the handle of a knife. “You there—you stay where you are!” She had managed nevertheless to cut out a piece of meat weighing six pounds…. [W]e no longer have any sense of shame.
Meanwhile, in the rapidly shrinking pocket that was German Berlin, the death struggle continued. For fear of hitting comrades closing from all sides, Soviet artillerymen now lowered their guns to point-blank range. Nowhere was the fight more intense than in the streets surrounding the heavily fortified flak towers. Recounts a civilian near the Zoo tower:
The barricades . . . were defended by the remnants of Volkssturm units and some youngsters. The Russians had mounted some light guns outside our building to fire at these obstacles. The Russians pushed any men and women that appeared capable of work out of the cellars at gun-point and made them clear the streets of the rubble, scrap metal and steel plates used as anti-tank obstacles, and that without any tools. Many were killed by the fire of German soldiers still holding out.
“[T]he smell of death now permeated everything,” Major Knappe wrote from inside the Zoo bunker. “In addition to human corpses, many of the animals from the zoo had escaped and been killed…. The acrid smell of smoke mingled with the stench of decomposing corpses. Dust from pulverized bricks and plaster rose over the city like a heavy fog. The streets, littered with rubble and pockmarked with huge craters, were deserted.”
Atop the tower itself, anti-aircraft guns were lowered and fired non-stop into the surrounding streets. Even so, admitted a soldier inside the bunker, “Russian pressure . . . cannot be contained much longer. We will have to withdraw again.”
“We experienced the violent shaking when all eight 125mm anti-aircraft guns fired a salvo at the Russians ...,” remembered one Landser inside the Humboldthain flak-tower. “Their artillery fire was particularly fierce against the walls of the bunker since their infantry could not get in. The brave gunners were being killed mercilessly at their posts, and they were nearly all young Flak Auxiliaries, fourteen- to sixteen-year-olds. These brave youngsters continued to serve their guns fearlessly, and several were felled before our eyes.”
Among the thousands of civilians huddled behind the massive walls, one described the atmosphere:
Of the actual fighting I saw nothing but we all heard a lot because the walls were not so thick that they kept out the sounds of shells and bombs bursting against the Flak tower walls. The tower soon became an emergency hospital and we were all expected to help. . . . More and more wounded were brought in and a lot died. Burial parties took the bodies outside and because there were not enough men to dig proper graves the bodies were just put into shell holes and covered with a sprinkling of earth….
There were suicides in the tower, as well. It was a ghastly time and when the shelling began to come really close it was clear that the Russians would soon be at the doors. We all knew what that meant and some of the girls decided not to wait until the Ivans came but to end their lives there and then.
To keep Hitler abreast of the battle, General Weidling and Major Knappe were compelled to spend much of their time moving between headquarters and the Chancellery. Reveals Knappe:
The whole area was in ruins…. Artillery shells exploded continuously, with thundering detonations. When I went outside now, the smoke from the burning city sliced through my nostrils and lungs like a jagged blade edge. The streets were full of both debris and bodies, although the bodies were hardly recognizable as such. The corpses of both soldiers and civilians who had been killed in the shelling and bombing were under debris, and everything was covered with a gray-and-red powder from the destruction of the buildings. The stink of death was suffocating…. [I]nfantry fighting was now everywhere….
When I made the trip to Fuhrer Headquarters now (approximately one kilometer), I had to dart from cover to cover, watching not only for incoming artillery rounds but for rifle and machine-gun fire as well. . . . Some of the SS troops defending the Chancellery were dug in before the building…. [These] one thousand SS troops defending Fuhrer Headquarters—were red-eyed and sleepless, living in a world of fire, smoke, death, and horror.
In the bunker beneath the building itself, Ernst-Guenther Schenck was now in his seventh straight day at the operating table. “Casualties were now tumbling in from the fierce street fighting just three blocks away . . . and from the larger battle now raging for the Reichstag . . . ,” said Dr. Schenck. “From time to time, soldiers who were still conscious and could talk, told me of their hopeless battle. The younger ones, many under sixteen, were terrified, bawling.”
Returning to Major Knappe:
To the people at Fuhrer Headquarters, we represented the outside world. Nobody there had left the bunker for several days. They were safe in the bunker, with its many feet of concrete under many feet of earth, but they did not know what was going on outside—that the fighting was only a kilometer away or that the “rescuing” armies had been halted. Hitler and the high command were juggling divisions that no longer existed or were just skeletons of themselves.
Every time I came into the bunker, Martin Bormann especially was eager to know what was happening. He was always there, in the big antechamber in front of Hitler’s office and living quarters. Every time I came in he would insist that I sit down on one of the green leather chairs and have some of his goodies and tell him about the situation on the outside.
The “situation” was always grim, of course, but Bormann, Goebbels, Hitler, and the other bunker dwellers needed accurate information on Russian proximity so that each might prepare for the end in his own fashion. Joining Major Knappe on what proved to be his final trip to the bunker was Gen. Weidling. Knappe continues:
The bunker smelled damp, and the sound of the small engine that ran the exhaust system provided a constant background noise….I saluted, and Hitler walked toward me. As he neared, I was shocked by his appearance. He was stooped, and his left arm was bent and shaking. Half of his face drooped, as if he’d had a stroke, and his facial muscles on that side no longer worked. Both of his hands shook, and one eye was swollen. He looked like a very old man, at least twenty years older than his fifty-six years.
Weidling presented me to Hitler: “Major Knappe, my operations officer.” Hitler shook my hand and said, “Weidling has told me what you are going through. You have been having a bad time of it. Being accustomed to saying “Jawohl, Herr General,” I automatically said “Jawohl, Herr . . .” and then, realizing that this was wrong, I quickly corrected to “Jawohl, mein Fuhrer.” Hitler smiled faintly, and Goebbels smiled broadly—but Weidling frowned because his subordinate had made a social error.
Hitler said goodbye, shook my hand again, and disappeared in the general direction of Goebbels’s quarters. Although his behavior had not been lethargic, his appearance had been pitiful. Hitler was now hardly more than a physical caricature of what he had been. I wondered how it was possible that in only six years, this idol of my whole generation of young people could have become such a human wreck. It occurred to me then that Hitler was still the living symbol of Germany—but Germany as it was now. In the same six years, the flourishing, aspiring country had become a flaming pile of debris and ruin.
One reason Weidling had come in person was to inform Hitler that his men could no longer hold out; permission for a breakout of the garrison was requested. The other reason the general had come was to urge his leader to escape while there was still time. To the first request, permission was granted; to the second, Hitler was firm. Others, including the Fuhrer’s private pilot, Hans Baur, begged Hitler to leave.
“I had at my disposal a prototype six-engine Junkers with a range of over 6000 miles,” Baur reminisced. “We could have gone to any Middle Eastern country well disposed towards the Fuhrer.”
To all the entreaties, however, Hitler’s response was the same: “One must have the courage to face the consequences. Fate wanted it this way.”
Continues the chancellor’s secretary, Traudl Junge:
The bunker shook with the thundering of the Russian artillery bombardment and the air attack. Grenades and bombs exploded without interruption, and that alone was enough to warn us that the enemy would be at the door in a matter of hours. But inside the bunker there was no unusual activity. Most of the country’s leaders were assembled, doing nothing but waiting for the Fuhrer’s ultimate decision. Even Bormann, always energetic in the extreme, and the methodical Goebbels were sitting about without the smallest task to occupy them…. Hopes of victory had been upheld throughout recent days, but nobody held such illusions any longer…. It seemed amazing to me that, despite everything, we still ate and drank, slept and found the energy to speak.
Despite the gloom and despair, many underground—and many above—did much more than eat and sleep. Some, said a witness, “went up the palm tree.” Remembers Dr. Schenck:
[M]any took to drink. Drink in turn relaxed inhibitions, releasing primitive animal instincts…. From time to time I had to leave a patient on the table while I took a five-minute break in the fresh air—to calm my nerves and to steady my scalpel hand…. Many of the same wild, red-eyed women who had fled their Berlin apartments in terror of rape by Red Army soldiers, now threw themselves into the arms, and bed rolls, of the nearest German soldiers they could find. And the soldiers were not unwilling. Still it came as a bit of a shock to me to see a German general chasing some half-naked Blitzmaedel [signalwoman] between and over the cots. The more discreet retired to Dr. Kunz’s dentist chair upstairs in the Chancellery. That chair seemed to have had a special erotic attraction. The wilder women enjoyed being strapped in and made love to in a variety of novel positions…. Another diversion was group sex, but that was usually off in the dark corners.
Returning to Traudl Junge:
As the hours went by, we became completely indifferent to everything. We weren’t even waiting for anything to happen any more. We sat about, exchanging an occasional word and smoking. There was a great sense of fatigue, and I felt a huge emptiness inside me. I found a camp bed in a corner somewhere, lay down on it and slept for an hour. It must have been the middle of the night when I woke up. In the corridors and in the Fuhrer’s apartments there was a great deal of coming and going by busy-looking valets and orderlies. I washed my face in cold water, thinking that it must be the moment for the Fuhrer’s nighttime tea. When I went into his office, he held out his hand to me and asked: “Have you had some rest, my dear?”
Slightly surprised by the question, I replied, “Yes, mein Fuhrer.”
“Good. It won’t be long before I have some dictation for you.”
Later, as Traudl wrote, Hitler spoke:
It is not true that I or anyone else in Germany wanted war back in 1939. It was desired and provoked solely by those international politicians who either come from Jewish stock or are agents of Jewish interests. After all my many offers of disarmament, posterity simply cannot pin any blame for this war on me…. After a struggle of six long years, which in spite of many setbacks will one day be recorded in our history books as the most glorious and valiant manifestation of the nation’s will to live, I cannot abandon this city which is the German capital. Since we no longer have sufficient military forces to withstand enemy attacks on this city . . . it is my desire to share the same fate that millions of other Germans have accepted….The people and the Armed Forces have given their all in this long and hard struggle. The sacrifice has been enormous. But my trust has been misused by many people. . . . It was therefore not granted to me to lead the people to victory…. The efforts and sacrifices of the German people in this war have been so great that I cannot believe that they have been in vain.
At approximately 3:15 p.m., April 30, Adolf Hitler retired to his room, placed a pistol to his head, then squeezed the trigger. Beside him, his newly-wed wife, Eva, also lay dead.
After administering poison to their children, Joseph and Magda Goebbels bid farewell to those remaining in the compound. Wrote one witness who watched as the couple prepared to leave the bunker for their final act in the courtyard above:
Going over to the coatrack in the small room that had served as his study, he donned his hat, his scarf, his long uniform overcoat. Slowly, he drew on his kid gloves, making each finger snug. Then, like a cavalier, he offered his right arm to his wife. They were wordless now. So were we three spectators. Slowly but steadily, leaning a bit toward each other, they headed up the stairs to the courtyard.
Learning of Hitler’s death, many in Berlin now resolved to escape the noose.
“I’ll never forget sitting in a bunker and hearing of Hitler’s end. It was like a whole world collapsing,” explained a sixteen-year-old Hitler Youth. “Adolf Hitler’s death left me with a feeling of emptiness.”
Nonetheless, I remember thinking that my oath was no longer valid, because it had been made to Hitler. . . . So the oath was null and void. Now the trick was to get out of Berlin and avoid falling into the hands of the Russians. . . . Berlin burned: oceans of flames, horrible clouds of smoke. An entire pilgrimage of people began marching out of Berlin. I spotted an SS Tiger tank unit with room in one of the tanks, so they took me along.
“Even to a hardened soldier, [Berlin] was most unreal, phantasmagoric,” said another of those fleeing. “Most of the great city was pitch dark; the moon was hiding; but flares, shell bursts, the burning downtown buildings, all these reflected on a low-lying, blackish-yellow cloud of sulphurlike smoke. . . . We made most excellent moving targets, like dummies in a shooting gallery.”
Young Siegfried Losch, whose war had begun seemingly a lifetime ago on the Oder, also joined the breakout:
The bridge we had to cross was under fire….I noted that a German tank was crossing the bridge and I took advantage of it by running on the opposite side from where the fire was coming. On the other side of the bridge we all gathered and found that no one was lost. As we walked along ... more soldiers joined our group. . . . from all ranks and organizations, i.e. army, SS, air force and uniformed civilians. There was even a two star panzer general among us.
Increasingly, as the Soviets realized what was taking place, the break-out became a massacre.
Underfoot are the bodies of those who had not made it as far as the bridge. Sad their luck; let’s hope ours is better for in a minute or two it will be our turn to race across. Every man on our lorry is firing his weapon; machine-gun, machine pistol or rifle. We roll onto the bridge roadway. The lorry picks up speed and races across the open space. It is not a straight drive but a sort of obstacle race, swerving to avoid the trucks, tanks and cars which are lying wrecked and burning on the bridge roadway. There is a sickening feeling as we bump over bodies lying stretched out, hundreds of them all along the length.
Although most such groups quickly came to grief, a surprising number, by bluff, courage and sheer determination, did succeed in breaking through the ring. Once clear of the flaming capital, the ragged, bleeding columns struck west, hoping to reach the British and Americans.
Meanwhile, despite the death of their leaders and the collapse of organized resistance, the hopeless fight for Berlin continued, especially among the elite SS. “Bolshevism meant the end of life ...,” one young German said simply. “[T]hat’s the reason for the terribly bitter fight in Berlin, which wasn’t only street to street, but house to house, room to room, and floor to floor…. [E]very single brick was bitterly fought over.”
Rather than surrender and be murdered, most SS were determined to die fighting. Of the three hundred members in one French battalion who began the Battle of Berlin, only thirty were still standing. As much might be said for the Balts, Letts, Danes, Dutch, Spanish, Swiss, and other SS units.
“[They are] still fighting like tigers,” reported a Russian general to his commander, Marshal Georgi Zhukov, who was hoping to present the German capital as a May Day prize to Stalin.
“We all wanted to finish it off by the May 1 holiday to give our people something extra to celebrate,” explained an exasperated Zhukov, “but the enemy, in his agony, continued to cling to every building, every cellar, floor and roof. The Soviet forces inched forward, block by block, building by building.”
Finally, on the afternoon of May 2, General Weidling formally surrendered the city. While most obeyed their commander and laid down their arms, many refused to submit. Remembered Lothar Ruhl:
Now and again, we heard shots . . . so I asked who was doing the shooting. I was told, “Come around to the back, the SS are shooting themselves.” I said, “I don’t want to see it.” But I was told, “You have to watch.” People were actually standing around shooting themselves. Mostly, they were not German SS men; they were foreigners, some West Europeans and some East Europeans. The group included a number of French and Walloons.
“When the Russians [finally] rounded us up,” Ruhl continues, “we were divided into different march columns. . . . The Russians didn’t select anyone in particular; they just said, ‘You go here, you go there, and these men go sit in the square’…. No one was allowed to stand up. If anyone tried, the Russians immediately fired live ammunition at head level.”
“We prisoners,” said another weary Landser, “waiting as soldiers always have to wait, sat in the exhausted daze that the end of a battle brings. There was such a depression that we hardly talked, but dozed off into light sleep or smoked, waiting to know what was our fate.”
That “fate,” as rumors had already hinted, was in fact contained in one chilling word—Siberia. Even so, many surviving soldiers quietly counted their blessings. Johannes Hentschel:
I had begun to console myself. I was alive. Now, as we were herded out of the Reich Chancellery … where a truck was waiting to haul us away, destination unknown but suspected, we looked up and saw a very grim sight. Dangling bodies of some six or seven German soldiers were suspended from lamp-posts. They had been hanged. Each had a crude German placard pinned or tied to his limp body—traitor, deserter, coward, enemy of his people.
They were all so young. The oldest may have been twenty, the others in their mid-teens. Half of them wore Volkssturm armbands or Hitler-jungend uniforms. As we were shoved aboard our truck, prodded in the buttocks by bayonets, I saw that I could almost reach out and touch one of those lifeless boys. He looked sixteen perhaps. His wild, bulging, porcelain blue eyeballs stared down at me blankly, blinkless. I shuddered, looked away.
Another soldier leaving Berlin for slavery was Wilhelm Mohnke. As the general and thousands of other dispirited captives marched east on the roads, they were stunned by what they saw.
There was very little traffic moving in the same direction we were. But coming toward us now, column after column, endlessly, the Red Army support units. I say columns, but they resembled more a horde, a cavalcade scene from a Russian film. Asia on this day was moving into the middle of Europe, a strange and exotic panorama. There were now countless panya wagons, drawn by horse or pony, with singing soldiery perched high on bales of straw. Many of them had clothed themselves in all kinds of unusual civilian dress, including costumes that must have come from ransacked theater and opera wardrobes. . . . Those who noticed that we were Germans shook their brown fists and fired angry volleys into the air…. Then came whole units of women soldiers, much better disciplined, marching on foot. . . . Finally came the Tross, or quartermaster elements. These resembled units right out of the Thirty Years’ War.
Behind the east-bound German prisoners, roughly 20,000 dead comrades lay buried beneath the rubble of a place that no longer resembled anything of this world. “The capital of the Third Reich is a heap of gaunt, burned-out, flame-seared buildings,” reported one of the first American correspondents to reach Berlin. “It is a desert of a hundred thousand dunes made up of brick and powdered masonry. Over this hangs the pungent stench of death…. It is impossible to exaggerate in describing the destruction…. Downtown Berlin looks like nothing man could have contrived. Riding down the famous Frankfurter Allee, I did not see a single building where you could have set up a business of even selling apples.”
Added a German visitor later:
The first impression in Berlin, which overpowers you and makes your heart beat faster, is that anything human among these indescribable ruins must exist in an unknown form. There remains nothing human about it. The water is polluted, it smells of corpses, you see the most extraordinary shapes of ruins and more ruins and still more ruins; houses, streets, districts in ruins. All people in civilian clothes among these mountains of ruins appear merely to deepen the nightmare. Seeing them you almost hope that they are not human.
But, and almost miraculously, there were humans yet living in Berlin. When the guns finally fell silent, these dazed survivors spilled from their cracks and caves, trying to flee a nightmare, they knew not where. “Crowds of people were laboriously trying to make their way through the rubble,” Traudl Junge noted. “Old and young, women and children, and a few men carrying small packs, pushing rusty carts or prams full of assorted belongings. The Russian soldiers did not seem to be paying much attention to these desperate human beings.”
We clamber over bomb craters. We squeeze through tangled barbed wire and hastily constructed barricades of furniture. It was with sofas that our army tried to block the Russian advance! With oil cloth sofas, wing chairs and broken armoires. One could laugh if it didn’t rather make one feel like crying.
Tanks riddled with holes block the way. A pitiful sight, pointing their muzzles toward the sky. A fatality comes from them. Sweet, heavy, oppressive. . . . Burned-out buildings left and right. God be with us, if it goes on this way. Silently we keep walking. The weight of our luggage is crushing us. . . .
Behind a projection in a wall sits an old man. A pipe in his right hand, a lighter in his left. He is sitting in the sun, completely motionless. Why is he sitting so still? Why doesn’t he move at all? A fly is crawling across his face. Green, fat, shiny. Now it crawls into his eyes. The eyes . . . Oh God have mercy! Something slimy is dripping onto his cheeks….
At last the water tower looms up in the distance. We are at the cemetery. The gate to the mortuary is wide open. Again that sweet, oppressive smell…. Bodies, nothing but bodies. Laid out on the floor. Row after row, body after body. Children are among them, adults and some very old people. Brought here from who knows where. That draws the final line under five years of war. Children filling mortuaries and old men decomposing behind walls.
While stunned survivors drifted among the ruins like ghosts in a graveyard—or stood for hours in the interminable water lines—the conquerors celebrated in an orgy of drink, rape, music, and song.
“A rosy-cheeked Russian is walking up and down our line, playing an accordion,” said one broken woman who had been raped dozens of times. “‘Gitler kaputt, Goebbels kaputt, Stalin goot!’ he shouts at us. Then he laughs, yells a curse, bangs a comrade on the shoulder and, pointing at him, shouts in Russian . . . ‘Look at this one! This is a Russian soldier, who has marched all the way from Moscow to Berlin!’ They are bursting out of their pants with the pride of conquerors. It is evidently a surprise to themselves that they have gotten this far.”
Although he had failed to present the German capital to Stalin as a May Day gift, and although the cost of taking Berlin had been enormous—well over 300,000 casualties—Marshal Zhukov was exuberant as well.
What a stream of thoughts raced through my mind at that joyous moment! I relived the crucial Battle for Moscow, where our troops had stood fast unto death, envisioned Stalingrad in ruins but unconquered, the glorious city of Leningrad holding out through its long blockade of hunger, the thousands of devastated villages and towns, the sacrifices of millions of Soviet people who had survived all those years, the celebration of the victory of the Kursk salient—and now, finally, the goal for which our nation had endured its great sufferings: the complete crushing of Nazi Germany, the smashing of Fascism, the triumph of our just cause.
No one was more quietly elated or deeply relieved, however, than Josef Stalin. And none more clearly perceived the great political and post-war prize that had been gained than the communist dictator.
“Stalin said,” remembered Gen. Nikita Khrushchev, “that if it hadn’t been for [U.S. Gen. Dwight] Eisenhower, we wouldn’t have succeeded in capturing Berlin.”