This year we will mark 70 years since the end of World War II. It is difficult ethically to weigh loses in one battle over loses in another in a means to declare which conflict was more brutal and severe. However, symbolically the battle for Berlin, which ended on May 2, 1945, was the zenith of Allied efforts to bring Nazi Germany to its knees. The advance to Berlin is rampant with controversy, as Soviet barbarity and inhumanity was well known. Having lost almost 25 million of their own citizens, Soviet forces would stop at nothing to reap revenge on Nazi Germany and its people. The fall of Berlin would take place in April and May of 1945, culminating in the seizure of the Reichstag on May 2 – mere days after Adolf Hitler committed suicide. Upwards of 70,000-90,000 Soviet soldiers would be lost in the battle for Berlin (30,000 in three days of fighting alone), along with countless German defenders; with over 2.5 million Red Army forces, 6,000 tanks and over 40,000 artillery pieces supporting the destruction of Berlin.
Most controversially, estimates of over 100,000 German women being raped in Berlin by advancing Russian soldiers is as aspect of the war that has yet to fully be addressed or analysed. The Russian archives continue to suppress sources that speak to Soviet atrocities in Germany (even though such sources are known to exist), and perhaps we may never know the full extent of loses – both militarily and among the civilian population – to have a complete picture of wartime loses. Needless to say, atrocities were carried out by both opposing forces, but it is newly emerging stories of survivors of the battle for Berlin that have reignited debate around rape and pillage by advancing armies.
In a recent interview, Antony Beevor speaks to his new book: Berlin: The Downfall 1945 and rather candidly of what occurred to German women when Soviet forces entered the city in 1945:
“Calls to avenge the Motherland, violated by the Wehrmacht’s invasion, had given the idea that almost any cruelty would be allowed. Even many young women soldiers and medical staff in the Red Army did not appear to disapprove. “Our soldiers’ behaviour towards Germans, particularly German women, is absolutely correct!” said a 21-year-old from Agranenko’s reconnaissance detachment. A number seemed to find it amusing. Several German women recorded how Soviet servicewomen watched and laughed when they were raped. But some women were deeply shaken by what they witnessed in Germany. Natalya Gesse, a close friend of the scientist Andrei Sakharov, had observed the Red Army in action in 1945 as a Soviet war correspondent. “The Russian soldiers were raping every German female from eight to eighty,” she recounted later. “It was an army of rapists.”
Drink of every variety, including dangerous chemicals seized from laboratories and workshops, was a major factor in the violence. It seems as if Soviet soldiers needed alcoholic courage to attack a woman. But then, all too often, they drank too much and, unable to complete the act, used the bottle instead with appalling effect. A number of victims were mutilated obscenely.
The subject of the Red Army’s mass rapes in Germany has been so repressed in Russia that even today veterans refuse to acknowledge what really happened. The handful prepared to speak openly, however, are totally unrepentant. “They all lifted their skirts for us and lay on the bed,” said the leader of one tank company. He even went on to boast that “two million of our children were born” in Germany.”
World War II was a conflict of epic proportions, and profound loses. Some argue the need and merit of looking back to discover the many truths that still lie in the shadows. It has similarly been argued that we as a people can’t move forward until we look back on what we have done as human beings. Seventy years may have passed since the end of the WWII, but that is by no means sufficient time to fully examine the war and how it continues to shape the world we live today. We must uncover truths – however uncomfortable or nasty – in a means to bring the pieces of our collective story into focus. It is indeed ironic that while Germany has flourished since the end of the Cold War when Soviet troops finally left, it is now Russia that has retreated back into the Cold War mentality and embraced a past greatness that is increasingly revealed to have been built on myths and lies.
For more information on the Battle of Berlin and images and stories from the war, please feel free to consult a selection of sources below.
The Rape of Berlin
Berlin Lies in Ruins 1945
Spiegel Online – Harrowing Memoir: German Woman Writes Ground-Breaking Account of WW2 Rape
Interview with Antony Beevor on his new book: Berlin: The Downfall 1945
BBC – The Battle for Berlin in World War Two
Berline Biennale – Battle of Berlin ’45
Berlin then and now: Photographer recreates photos taken as Soviet troops entered Hitler’s capital in 1945
Berlin at the end of the War, 1945
The last picture of Adolf Hitler, April 30, 1945