Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Sixty-seven years since the Red Star rose over Berlin

Sixty-seven years ago today, Red Army soldiers hoisted their flag over the Reichstag, signalling an effective end to Hitler's Third Reich.  The city of Berlin lay in ruins; the Wehrmacht, the greatest military organization the world had ever seen, was no more.

While German soldiers to the west, in Bavaria and Westphalia, were surrendering en masse to advancing American, British, and Canadian armies, it was a different story in Prussia.   

"Munich gave up without a fight," a young German man told me in 1999.  He was my guide on a tour of Dachau, the notorious German prison camp where some 35,000 souls perished.  His short black curls, practical, round spectacles and black shirt and trousers gave him a severe appearance, but he was a pacifist and a liberal.  "In Berlin, for some strange reason," he continued, "they fought to the last man." 

The Soviets outnumbered their German adversaries three to one in the final assault on Berlin.  The Wehrmacht had been in full retreat ever since the Soviets had broken out from the Kursk pocket on the faraway Russian steppes nearly two years earlier.  Although to express doubt was an act of treason in dying Germany, it seems unlikely that even the most zealous Wehrmacht soldier could have harbored any illusions in those final days.  And yet, they fought on.  To the last man.

All told, nearly 200,000 persons lost their lives in the battle for Berlin.  In the last push from the Spree River to the Reichstag, a distance of less than a mile, the Red Army suffered 5,000 casualties.  German casualties are unknown, but estimated to be even higher.  When I visited at the end of the century, there were still scars from the savagery that had occurred over 50 years before.

It is impossible to express any judgment on the Battle of Berlin.  It was the result of the thoughts and actions of millions of people, defying any rational explanation.  In terms of scale and sheer savagery, it ranks as one of the most appalling battles in human history.  One could argue that it was the fulfillment of the nihilistic German worldview; the invocation of Ragnarok.

Mankind hasn't grown any more humane in these last 67 years.  We are what we are.  But it would not displease me if I spun out what time remains to me before the next Battle of Berlin occurs.

1 comment:

Dan said...

Mankind HAS grown more humane.  Part of what we are is a species able to change who we are, and we are doing it.  Please read The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker.