It is compelling reading. Although I found it very difficult to keep track of which army was attacking where and who was defending against whom (and the maps at the front are frankly inadequate) one cannot miss the broad sweep of the narrative. Using individual and eye-witness accounts, Beevor touches the human horror of war and then multiplies it into an utterly shocking yet believable narrative. This we go from individual accounts of gang rape into the realisation that a staggering 100,000 German women are estimated to have been exposed to these awful experiences. He describes the confusion of troops attacking through forests and he emphasises the futility of sending scarcely pubescent boys into battle. There are scenes of hell as mis-thrown grenades blow a feet off and moments of utter weariness as shell-shocked and exhausted soldiers stumble through mud, falling in front of and being crushed by tanks. There are scarcely credible accounts of women queuing for water: when a shell kills some the others just close ranks a little closer to the front of the queue. There are also moments of pathos: the eighteen year old broadcaster announcing that the Fuhrer is dead in the last broadcast before the aerial is destroyed and others who tried to continue with normal life as bombs exploded around them.
Why did the Nazis fight on? They were massively outnumbered by an a]enemy whose equipment and supplies were better in every way. Often they had insufficient ammunition. They threw into the battle inexperienced and unfit soldiers, often armed with antiquated and useless weapons. They must have known that they were going to lose. At then end they were fighting from building to building and they were dying for no purpose. Why did they not surrender sooner?
Beevor believes that the Battle for Berlin reveals "the incompetence, the frenzied refusal to accept reality and the inhumanity of the Nazi regime." It is difficult to insert a cigarette paper between the inhumanity of Hitler and that of Stalin but these inhumanities often went right down the line to each general who attacked when he knew he would lose many, many men. What doomed the Nazis was probably their incompetence. It seems difficult to brand a regime that ran Germany so successfully for five peaceful years as incompetent but it is difficult to understand how any system that deliberately set up duplicate bureaucracies so that they could compete with one another can possibly be competent. The leadership fought one another at every opportunity, even while hiding in a bunker.
The Nazis were massively inefficient in almost every way. They were especially wasteful of human talent. But they never had anything like the resource potential of the USSR. Invading Soviet Russia and declaring war on the USA were mistakes born of monstrous vanity. And Beevor suggests that the tragedy of fighting to the bitter end had its genesis in Hitler's own vanity. He had no future after the war and he refused to consider the possibility that other people might be better off without him. He delayed his suicide until Berlin was destroyed and Germany devastated.
The Nazi leadership would have been laughable if they had not been so wicked and if they had not caused so much suffering to so many people.
One of the refreshing things about Beevor's book is how he is able to step aside from the faux objectivity of the scholarly historian and condemn wickedness and stupidity when it occurs. He highlights the moral deficiencies of the Nazi regime and many of those who followed them, even if they claimed to be ordinary soldiers or civilians following orders. "The Third Reich, in its death throes, revealed its frenzied rage against both common sense and common humanity."
This is a terrible tale in many ways. At the same time it makes gripping reading. Beevor's narrative, though confusing at times, has moments of genius. In the end it reassures. The Third Reich could not have survived because hatred is doomed to destroy itself. To build you need cooperation, you need to share, and you need trust.
Harrowing but brilliant. September 2013; 431 pages.
Books about war in this blog:
- Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming
- Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: A memoir of a Red Cross worker on the front in the Balkan Wars
- The End by Ian Kershaw: A history of the last few months of Nazi Germany
- All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque: an antiwar novel by a world war one soldier
- Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle: a novel about a Japanese Prisoner of War camp
- The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
- A Detail on the Burma Front: a memoir of a nurse working in Burma during World War Two
- Catch 22: A classic antiwar novel set during world war two