Antony Beevor picks up from where he left his epic “Stalingrad”. With “Berlin” he consolidates his cemented position as one of the premier military historians of any generation. Pulsating, poignant and pertinent, ‘Berlin’ is almost an atonement for the unforgivable follies of man fueled by greed and fashioned by hubris.
After the wily encirclement and the consequent annihilation of Paulus’ Sixth Army at the immortal albeit costly battle of Stalingrad, Stalin’s morale is upbeat. The Soviet victory has adrenaline coursing through the veins of the Great Bear’s armed forces. But they also are driven by a single dangerous objective: vengeance. After seeing their beloved city in ruins, they are bloodthirsty to mete out to Germany the same fate. What better city to target than the very home of the Reichstag and the Recichchancellery where the psychotic Adolf Hitler has holed himself up in a fortified subterranean bunker – Berlin! Learning from past mistakes and bungled strategies, the Red Army regroups itself for one final fateful push towards the heart of the Nazi power centre and the Wermacht seat of command. Paying scant regard to the loss of precious life the devious dictator Stalin unleashes the largest mass of forces ever assembled to rain hell on a nation which had brought untold misery and wanton agony on his country. As city after city falls not before a resisting relentlessly, Berliners await their fate with bated breath and undisguised trepidation.
Beevor’s brilliant resplendence as a chronicler of history finds complete fulfillment as he painstakingly describes each battle, each strategy and each bluster using prose that is chilling bare and thrillingly ineradicable. The Soviet purges aimed at their own countrymen against various ruses such as desertion, conniving with the enemy, contact with foreign legations and fighting alongside Hitler’s troops make for some bone chilling reading. Cossacks, Belorussians, Tartars, Poles, Jewish Germans, Ukranians and partisans are massacred without mercy or quickly dispatched to the climactic hells that are ‘Gulags’ to sweat their lives out in captivity and succumb to hunger, malnutrition and disease. However Beevor deserves his best for the inhuman treatment of German civilians by the marauding Russians. Fearful of the Allies reaching Berlin before his own troops invade the city, a desperate Stalin orders his General par excellence Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov to take the city by any means and at any cost. Sparing no resources, Zhukov drives his troops remorselessly and without pity as wave after wave of Russian soldiers throw themselves upon a feeble but determined opposition bent upon defending their city come hell or high water. When finally the cowardly Fuhrer puts a bullet to his own head thereby ending a chapter of genocide and ethnic cleansing, the straggling German forces are as good as doomed.
When the city is finally breached and taken after a fierce combat that forces the Russians to capture Berlin house by house, street by street and block by block, the sordid face of inhumanity takes over. Bolstered by incendiary propaganda and writings of poets such as Ilya Ehrenberg, the Soviet Army that was all along baying for some German blood gets what it was aspiring for. Falling upon hordes of helpless civilians, the Red Army embarks on a shameful run of loot and plunder. But the most humiliating and spiteful act is reserved by the Soviet military for the people who are wont to defend themselves the least – women. Young and old, fit and frail, women of most ages are jumped upon by the invaders and gang raped. Things reach a nadir when a few relatives of a woman beg the rapists to give their victim a respite so that she can breast feed her baby! What an abominable blotch on mankind!
‘Berlin’ is the culmination of what arguably has to be the most sanguinary phase in armed conflict. It is also a monumental tribute to the 26 million Soviet soldiers who either voluntarily or forcibly laid down their precious lives putting paid to the hopes of a tyrant bent upon world domination. However the most pathetic and unfortunate aspect of this courage was while opposing a tyrant the fearless patriots were at the complete mercy of a tyrant who was in fact ruling them with an iron hand. History will remember the Russian War for what actually it was – a courageous act unrivaled in the annals of human history.
History will also remember Antony Beevor for what he is and has been – a yeoman servant of his professed trade and a master story teller!