The so-called “Battle of Berlin” was the last major land battle in the European theater during World War II. It was also more of a campaign to occupy central and eastern Germany than a fight over or inside the poorly defended, sprawling, smoldering wreck of the German metropolis. On one side was the assembled might of the Red Army, driving toward ultimate victory against the once-feared but now only hated and despised Wehrmacht. The defenders arrayed around the capital were made up of broken Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS units. Inside the city Hitler and his commanders assembled about 45,000 Wehrmacht and foreign Waffen SS: Baltic, French, Dutch and other fascist volunteers, fanatics, and opportunists of the “New Order” with no place left to run. They were joined in the frontline by raw boys from the city’s Hitlerjungend, some as young as 12, each armed with a single-shot anti-tank weapon. Another 40,000 Volkssturm were herded to the line, mainly old men of the home guard who fought for the Kaiser in the last war, or invalided soldiers dragged back into the new one for Hitler. Nazi Party officials and other fanatics formed roving death squads to round up any suspected deserter. Any man or boy caught in mufti or behind the lines who could not explain his presence was treated without mercy and summarily hanged for treason: Berlin’s lampposts were adorned with corpses. The approaching Soviet formations had massive superiority in everything, in most cases by a ratio of 10:1 or greater: more air power, artillery, and armor and better trained and more experienced troops.
As the marshals and generals of the Red Army prepared to encircle Berlin, which they and their men called “berlog” or “beast,” the field marshals and generals of the Wehrmacht sank into the worst extremes and criminal excesses of the “catastrophic nationalism” that long engulfed their Führer and themselves. No one in the High Command contradicted Hitler’s final rants or sheer military fantasies about phantom relief armies driving on the city, or his promises of war-winning Wunderwaffen soon-to-arrive and change the course of the war in Germany’s favor. They knew all that to be false, the ravings of a delusional madman who had conquered all of Europe then lost it again inside six years. The men in feldgrau uniforms with red stripes running down their trouser legs instead allowed the protracted and wanton total destruction of Germany, the decimation of its citizens and their own men. Some senior officers ran for cover in the end. Others made vulgar suicide plans; a few carried these out. Most merely waited with fatalistic stoicism for the end of their world and lives, superficially dutiful at their posts but as morally insensible at the end of Hitler’s serial wars of genocidal aggression as they were at the start.
The Red Army paid a bloody price for the honor of delivering Hitler’s capital to Stalin, who ordered the attack accelerated when he met with his Front commanders on April 3. The reason for the shift in gear was almost certainly the Kremlin master’s concern over the rapid progress being made by the Western Allies, as resistance collapsed into small unit action and a few holdout pockets in western Germany. Two huge Fronts launched the final attack on “berlog” on April 16. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front attacked from the south out of Silesia with over half a million men. Zhukov’s massive 1st Belorussian Front struck westward from the Neisse and Oder with over 900,000 men and thousands of tanks and attack aircraft. Rokossovsky’s 2nd Belorussian Front at 480,000 men attacked along the Baltic coast starting on April 18. Rokossovsky tore across Brandenburg and smashed right through immobile 3rd Panzerarmee, which was trying to flee west to surrender to the Anglo-Americans but lacked transport even for that. The three Fronts that closed the ring around Berlin brought to the fight over 6,200 tanks, 7,500 combat aircraft, and 41,000 artillery tubes. Together, they comprised 171 divisions and 21 more mobile corps. Attacking on all sides of the city simultaneously, these vast armies overwhelmed and crushed the last defenders in the outer ring around Berlin. Tactics were crude, frontal, and blunt, especially in Zhukov’s opening assault on the Seelow Heights. Heavy Soviet casualties resulted as the attack initially failed against a layered and effective German defense. The main force defending the city was fragments of Army Group Center-not the original force that invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, but a renamed hodgepodge of units cobbled together and led in futile resistance by a fanatic Nazi. General Ferdinand Schörner was one of Hitler’s’ vaunted “men of will.” He tried to hold the line of the River Neisse, but failed against unstoppable brute force and more skilled Soviet commanders and troops. German 9th Army also fought hard to pull itself westward from the Oder, inflicting heavy casualties on Konev’s lead units. The two main Soviet thrusts, by Konev and Zhukov, linked on April 24 just south of Berlin. Soviet troops entered the outer suburbs two days later.
Army Group Vistula totally collapsed overnight on April 28-29, and the fight for Berlin was effectively over. It had been waged and won outside the city. A few more days of fighting remained as hundreds of thousands of krasnoarmeets moved through broken urban neighborhoods and the rubble of earlier Allied bombing to blast away the last resistance from a few thousand fanatics. Through it all Hitler brooded in his “leader bunker” beneath the rubble, under the Reich Chancellery. In the end even he stopped ordering mirage armies to counterattack this street or district, or to break out from some Baltic envelopment and fight through to Berlin. He instead ordered total demolition of the city and of Germany, of all its infrastructure and facilities, just as he had ordered Warsaw destroyed in 1944. The German nation, Hitler pronounced without a shred of self-awareness or irony, had proven “unworthy” of his greatness and failed the test of his social-Darwinist view of war and history. At last, a Führer order was countermanded: his court architect and minister for armaments and munitions, Albert Speer, finally disobeyed the man he had followed for over a decade into utter moral and physical ruin. Speer secretly called and circulated to stop the wanton destruction of the means of survival for any German who lived past the end of the war. Other top Nazis deserted their Führer in different ways, with several seeking to contact the Western Allies in vain hopes of negotiating a truce. Hitler condemned them all, married his mistress, then killed himself on April 30. That same day Soviet soldiers tore down the Swastika flag from the Reichstag roof and raised their own in its place. Two days later the last resistance inside Berlin ended. The tiny garrison that remained made an offer of surrender. It was accepted, and a formal ceasefire went into effect at 3:00 P. M. Berlin time. The garrison survivors and hundreds of thousands more Germans taken captive outside the city were marched to the east, most into years of captivity and forced labor.
The conquest of eastern Germany and the Battle of Berlin was accompanied by mass rapes and murder of civilians and prisoners by Soviet troops on a scale so vast that there is little doubt it hardened German resistance, and therefore also cost many tens of thousands of krasnoarmeets their lives. Taking Berlin by direct assault to meet Stalin’s advanced schedule cost the Soviets 300,000 casualties, including 78,000 dead. Desperate Germans with Panzerfäuste or Panzerschrecke knocked out over 2,000 Soviet tanks. More than 900 VVS aircraft were also lost, principally to ground fire. Some killed and wounded on the Russian side were soldiers from all-women Red Army regiments. Yet, despite the presence of these female comrades-in-arms among Soviet formations, as the men of the Red Army advanced toward and through Berlin there was mass drunkenness, gang rape, and killing of civilians. More forgivable mass looting was also carried out by Soviet officers, followed by ordinary soldiers who scuttled among the scraps left them as trainloads of loot pulled away to the east. Some historians argue that the biting memory of the vicious behavior of many Red Army soldiers in East Prussia, Berlin, and other German towns and cities was a contributing factor in cementing West German public opinion within NATO after the war. The reverse is certainly true: victory in the Great Fatherland War against Nazi Germany and memory of the terrible crimes of the Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS in the Soviet Union gave the Soviet system a rare legitimacy and genuine popular support it had never previously enjoyed.