THE FALL OF BERLIN 1945

By Antony Beevor

Viking. 490 pp. $29.95

Conventional histories of the final months of World War II on the European Front focus on Hitler in his bunker and the Allies' larger-than-life political leaders -- Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin -- maneuvering for postwar advantage; on the generals -- Eisenhower, Zhukov, Montgomery, Patton, Bradley -- shaping Allied strategy; and on the soldiers themselves, the Allies racing toward Berlin and the Nazis with their backs against the wall. It is a tale drenched in drama and blood, heroism and cowardice, loyalty and betrayal, and it has been told many times, mostly from a big-picture political and/or military standpoint.

In The Fall of Berlin 1945, Antony Beevor does all this necessary business and does it well, but there is far more to the tale as he tells it than that. Drawing heavily upon contemporary interviews, diaries and unpublished first-hand accounts, he recounts in detail that can only be described as appalling the violence done to civilians, primarily though hardly exclusively by the Red Army. To a degree that more than a few readers will find exceedingly difficult to stomach, The Fall of Berlin 1945 is about sexual violence.

This is not an obligatory, reflexive bow to feminist concerns such as one so often finds in history, sociology and literary criticism as written in American academia, but a cold-eyed, utterly unsentimental correction of and expansion upon the historical record. Beevor, a British historian, has written extensively about military affairs, perhaps most notably in Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-43. Thus he is uniquely situated to write about the fall of Berlin, for as he argues it was the unimaginable suffering inflicted upon Russia by the Nazis before and during Stalingrad that aroused the Russian people -- egged on by Stalin and the inflammatory prose of Ilya Ehrenburg -- to a virulent hatred of all things German and to a bottomless thirst for revenge.

There were many reasons why Stalin wanted to win the race to Berlin against Britain and the United States -- control of the city itself and what was to become the Eastern bloc of the communist empire, not to mention the German supplies of uranium, their research laboratories and their scientists at work on an atomic bomb -- but Stalingrad was at the heart of the matter. "Even though Soviet commanders did not doubt that they would break through," Beevor writes, "they were extremely nervous that the American and British armies might make it to Berlin first. Such an eventuality was seen as worse than a humiliation. Berlin belonged to the Soviet Union by right of suffering as well as by right of conquest."

The Red Army drove toward Berlin in what can only be called a frenzy, impelled by hatred, vengeance, alcohol and testosterone. It labored under a "chaotic lack of discipline, which seems astonishing in a totalitarian state," a condition conducive to the most ghastly excesses, none worse than the individual and gang rape to which German women were subjected:

"The subject has been so repressed in Russia that even today veterans refuse to acknowledge what really happened during the onslaught on German territory. They will admit to hearing of a few excesses, and then dismiss the subject as an inevitable result of war. Only a few are prepared to acknowledge that they witnessed such scenes. The tiny handful prepared to speak openly, however, are totally unrepentant. 'They all lifted their skirts for us and lay on the bed,' said the Komsomol leader in a tank company. He even went on to boast that '2 million of our children were born' in Germany."

The boast is consistent with such statistics as are available. "One doctor deduced that out of approximately 100,000 women raped in Berlin," Beevor writes, "some 10,000 died as a result, mostly from suicide. The death rate was thought to be much higher among the 1.4 million who had suffered in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia. Altogether at least 2 million German women are thought to have been raped, and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rape." Not merely did the soldiers of the Red Army rape German women; they "also raped Ukrainian, Russian and Belorussian women and girls just released from slave labour in Germany," which "completely undermines any attempts at justifying Red Army behaviour on the grounds of revenge for German brutality in the Soviet Union."

Those few Soviet officers who tried to stop the violence found it, in the words of one, "absolutely impossible" to do so. Red Army soldiers "demonstrated an utterly bewildering mixture of irrational violence, drunken lust and spontaneous kindness to children," though far less of the last than of the first two. "Nuns, young girls, old women, pregnant women and mothers who had just given birth were all raped without pity." As they neared and then entered Berlin, "Soviet soldiers treated German women much more as sexual spoils of war than as substitutes for the Wehrmacht on which to vent their rage." Unwittingly, Germany brought it on herself: "The worst mistake of German military authorities had been their refusal to destroy alcohol stocks in the path of the Red Army's advance. This decision was based on the idea that a drunken enemy could not fight. Tragically for the female population, however, it was exactly what Red Army soldiers seemed to need to give them courage to rape as well as to celebrate the end of such a terrible war."

The Soviet soldiers were not the only ones to seek carnal release. In Berlin, as the Red Army drew near, young German soldiers became "desperate to lose their virginity" and found willing companions in German girls who "preferred to give themselves to almost any German boy first than to a drunken and probably violent Soviet soldier." As Beevor puts it, "the aphrodisiac effect of mortal danger is hardly an unknown historical phenomenon," a point underscored by the goings-on in the Reich Chancellery, where, an eyewitness reported, "an erotic fever seemed to have taken possession of everybody" and SS officers were "locked in lascivious embraces" with girls they had lured off the street. It was "the apocalypse of totalitarian corruption," Beevor writes, "with the concrete submarine of the Reich Chancellery underworld providing an Existentialist theater set for hell."

Beevor's prose may get a trifle over-ripe there, but the essential point is sound. Not even familiarity with the human degradation described by Jerzy Kosinski in The Painted Bird or in innumerable Holocaust memoirs and histories can fully prepare one for the picture painted by Beevor. It is Bruegel multiplied by Munch, with background music by Shostakovich at his most agonized, rape and carnality compounded many times over by utter indifference to human life -- in their pitiful defense of Berlin, the Nazis employed young boys and old men as "cannon fodder" -- and by the cowardice of "senior Nazi Party officials" who fell over each other "to obtain the necessary authorization to leave Berlin." In April 1945, "over 2,000 passes were signed for the Party 'armchair warriors,' who had always been so ready to condemn the army for retreating."

The city they were so eager to flee had, in only a few months, deteriorated almost unimaginably. The "strange mixture of suppressed hysteria and fatalism" evident in Berlin at Christmas 1944 gave way by April to "febrile exhaustion, terrible foreboding and despair," and later that same month "a sense of nightmare unreality pervaded the city as it awaited its doom." Berliners "now referred to their city as the 'Reichsscheiterhaufen' -- the 'Reich's funeral pyre.' " More than a few clung to their fanatical Nazism, but more and more turned against Hitler and his henchmen.

By war's end, "the most common sight in Berlin became the Tru{dier}mmerfrauen, the 'rubble women,' forming human chains with buckets to clear smashed buildings and salvage bricks." The city had more than a million homeless. "Smoke from cooking fires emerged from what looked like piles of rubble, as women tried to re-create something like a home-life for their children amid the ruins." The final glory of the Third Reich. *

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.