Yesteray I finished reading Antony Beevor's The Fall of Berlin 1945. I think it took about 6 days for me to go through, which says a lot about Beevor's ability to keep the account moving while describing the multiple viewpoints involved. He shifts fairly effortlessly from the German and Soviet frontlines, to the stavka and the Reichstag, and to the broader international picture (especially Yalta) inasmuch as it related to the fall of Berlin.
The book is less a history, however, than a 400-odd page indictment of all the belligerents. I would defy anyone to read it without a sense of outrage. The Third Reich insisted on prolonging the conflict when it was clear the war was lost, causing utterly needless military and civilian casualties. The Red Army sank the hospital ship MV Goya, killing over 6000 people (p. 188) and the ocean liner MV Wilhelm Gustloff, killing about 7000 people, mainly civilians (p. 51). Its soldiers were tacitly permitted to rape about 2,000,000 (yes, two million) German women (p. 410), in an act which would probably now be regarded as an act of genocide*. And on the Western Front, British and American leaders were almost wilfully blind as to the Soviet Union's plans to absorb parts of Eastern Europe.
It's hard to have much respect for homo sapiens as a species after reading this book, unless you read closely and notice how many people declined to be part of an act of barbarism. And by that, I don't mean that they emulated the self-righteous folkwho, pre-Iraq War, wore badges saying 'not in my name'. I have in mind the members of the German Technische Nothilfe, who took on the work of "air raid rescue, general disaster response, and relief work" and who seem to have continued this work well into 1945 (see p.4).
Poster for Technische Nothilfe
I also have in mind Soviet General Berzarin, the commandant of Berlin, who directed the Red Army's field kitchens to feed German civilians (pp. 392 and 409). Cynical and political and an attempt to win hearts and minds? Almost certainly, but one can't argue that it's better for people to starve when they can eat.
Red Army field kitchen, Berlin, May 1945
Beevor also records that the German Red Cross as well as civilian and Bund deutscher Madel nurses continued to provide care through the worst fighting and after the surrender, and even after mass rape at the hands of the Red Army (pp.224, 314, 387 and 393).
Orphaned and homeless German children being led by a nurse
to the Lichterfelde children's home, Berlin 1945.
Beevor's book leaves very little in the way of excuses: the battle for Berlin was an exercise in criminal barbarity on all sides. But if we look close enough, we can still find men and women who in the jaws of Hell demonstated all that is best in human nature.
* cf Prosecutor v Jean-Paul Akayesu, New York Times, 5 September 1998 (Int'l Crim. Trib. for Rwanda, 1998)