The Third Reich’s apocalyptic last stand
Germany lost the war long before May 1945. But Hitler refused to surrender, instead dragging the country into the abyss. Although there was a huge imbalance in force between Germans and Soviets, the Nazis maintained surprising advantages in equipment, experience, and tactics.
The Battle of Berlin has few historic parallels. It was 1945, and the Germans had lost the war by the winter of 1942/1943 – if not already by the winter of 1941/1942.
Certainly, once Hitler’s summer/autumn offensive of 1942 had been defeated at Stalingrad, the history of the Second World War in Europe, on all fronts, was essentially one of dogged defence, step-by-step retreat, and slow contraction of the Nazi empire.
The reason was simple enough: the overwhelming industrial superiority of the Allied alliance that had been conjured into being by Hitler’s aggression.
It seems likely that the Soviet Union could eventually have defeated Nazi Germany on its own. Certainly, the US commitment was relatively modest until the campaign in northwest Europe during the last year of the war. The number of German divisions deployed in North Africa and then Italy pales in comparison with the number on the Eastern Front in 1943.
At the beginning of April 1945, the Soviet forces had Berlin in their sights. A force was assembled in the small bridgehead on the west bank of the Oder near Küstrin. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front was preparing to attack the Seelow Heights, the last natural line of defence before the German capital.
Stalin had played on the intense rivalry between Zhukov and Koniev, authorising whoever first broke through the German defences to take the enemy’s capital.
Despite its enormous numerical superiority, the Red Army was suffering acute manpower problems – casualties in the offensives since mid-1943 had been horrendous, possibly totalling more than 4 million dead. In the absence of a cadre of professional senior NCOs, it relied heavily on sketchily trained junior officers to carry out routine training and disciplinary duties. In the infantry, these young officers had an average life expectancy of a few weeks.
In the final months of the war, the Soviet reputation for savagery cost them dearly. In the West, many German troops were only too ready to surrender to British or American forces. All but the most fanatical Nazis knew that, if they picked the right moment to surrender, they would probably survive and be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.
In contrast, Germans on the Eastern Front had no illusions about their far lower chances of having their surrender accepted, and, even if it was, surviving captivity. Lieutenant Pavel Nikiforov, a Soviet reconnaissance officer, noted that: ‘Many Germans seemed to feel that they were going to die anyway, so they might as well die fighting’.
This attitude was strengthened by the fact that, ever since entering Germany, Soviet troops had committed endless atrocities against civilians, urged on by an official campaign of revenge put out by the Soviet press and radio.
It seems likely that Red Army personnel were responsible for raping at least 1.4 million German women.
But the Germans themselves had brought about this outcome, largely because of the bestial behaviour in the countries they occupied. The Resistance was a major factor in the military equation, pinning down German troops and undermining the Third Reich’s mobilisation of resources.
The traditional German elites – political, corporate, and military – knew the war was lost long before the end. In 1918, their forebears had negotiated an armistice and accepted a victor’s peace, in order to save Germany both from invasion, conquest, and possible dismemberment, and to prevent socialist revolution.
This was the rational course after 1942. But the process of Gleichschaltung – ‘streamlining’ or ‘coordination’ – since 1933 had created a Nazi-dominated state backed by a ferocious police terror that had effectively disempowered those traditional elites. They were unable to act.
Instead, Hitler dragged the whole of Germany into the abyss of his own defeat – an act of military madness by a deranged regime.
So how did the Soviet juggernaut put an end to the Nazi tyranny?
This is an extract from a 17-paged special feature on the Battle of Berlin, published in the June/July 2020 issue of Military History Matters.
In our special this time, David Porter analyses the extraordinary battle. He details the imbalance in force, but lays stress on German advantages in equipment, experience, and tactics. Then, he describes the battle itself, drawing out the key features of the apocalyptic end of the Third Reich.
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