In Berlin, the Russians were preparing to attack the Reichstag. Fighting had continued throughout the night as they struggled to secure the Ministry of the Interior, flushing the Germans out of the vast office complex one room at a time. There was still sporadic shooting on the top floors as dawn broke, but the rest of the building was safely in Russian hands. Cooks in the basement were busily preparing breakfast for the assault troops while their commanders studied the Reichstag through their binoculars and braced themselves for the ordeal ahead.
Germany’s Parliament building was only four hundred yards away, but it might just as well have been on the moon from where they were standing. The intervening ground was a rabbit warren of shell holes, trenches, railway sleepers, overturned trams, barbed wire, and flooded waterways—every kind of obstacle to an advance. The approaches to the Reichstag were heavily defended, and the building itself may have had a thousand troops inside. The Germans weren’t going to give up their Parliament building without a struggle.
But the Russians were determined to fly their flag over its giant dome before nightfall, in good time for next morning’s May Day celebrations in Moscow. The leading units had been equipped with flags specially made for the purpose, Red Banners of Victory with extra large hammer-and-sickle emblems to be planted over “the lair of the Fascist beast.” The units were in competition to see who planted their banner first.
The assault began at 5:00 a.m. with a preliminary bombardment, every available gun pouring fire into the Reichstag at point-blank range. An hour later, the first wave of troops attacked, emerging from cover and charging forward across the rubble. They got fifty yards before being cut down. Others followed and were killed, too. Much of the defending fire came from the Kroll Opera House, across the square from the Reichstag. The Russian commanders decided that they would have to capture the opera house first, before turning their full attention on the Reichstag.
It took them most of the morning, because the nearby buildings had to be secured as well. Reinforcements poured in over the Moltke Bridge, guns and tanks rumbling forward to join the assault. They came under fire from German antiaircraft guns on the giant concrete flak tower near the Zoological Gardens and from other positions in the Tiergarten. The Russians responded in kind, hitting the Tiergarten with a devastating combination of rockets and heavy artillery that blasted everything in its path. The sun was shining and the birds were singing in the trees, but artillery officer Siegfried Knappe remembered only the destruction as the Russian shells rained down around him:
Through the springtime foliage of the Tiergarten the shells burst without interruption, destroying everything in their path. Small-arms fire was everywhere. Blinding sunshine lay over a gruesome scene. On the lawns of the Tiergarten, under mutilated age-old trees, I could recognise artillery pieces, all put out of action by direct hits. The gunners who had not made it were lying around, so mutilated that they were hardly recognisable as human beings. Everywhere in the streets, the dead could be seen amid piles of dust-covered debris. Abandoned shoes lay here and there. I remembered the first combat dead I had seen in France so long ago, and how shocked I had been at the sight. Now my sensibilities were so numb that a corpse was little more than an obstacle to step over. When I stopped to catch my breath or wait for a salvo to pass, I could see in gruesome detail the outlines of a human torso, or part of one, between pieces of brick, rock or concrete.
The firing was so intense that the sun quickly disappeared, blotted out by a rising cloud of smoke and dust. The Russians took the Kroll Opera House by the end of the morning and turned toward the Reichstag in the early afternoon. As with the Ministry of the Interior, every room on every floor was held by a mix of sailors, SS, and Hitler Youth, all determined not to give an inch, if Russian accounts were to be believed. The Germans were supported by Frenchmen, traitors to their country, who had volunteered for the SS’s Charlemagne Legion and had nothing to lose by fighting on. For some at least, it was Bolshevism they were fighting, not just the Russians. They fought for their beliefs, and because they were desperate, and because they would have no future if they surrendered. They also had nowhere left to retreat to, with the Russians already in the Wilhelmstrasse behind them. The defenders of the Reichstag really did have their backs to the wall.
In the noise and confusion, it was difficult to know when exactly the Russians finally reached the Reichstag. Some thought it was about three o’clock; others in a renewed attack, just after dark. The doors and windows had been blocked, which meant that they had to blast their way in with artillery and horizontally aimed mortars and then throw in grenades before storming the building. Casualties on both sides were high as the defenders fought back. Some Russian sergeants apparently pestered their officers for the honor of carrying the red banner into the Reichstag and raising it on the roof. Most knew better than to volunteer. Honor and glory were for the generals and political commissars, not the ordinary soldiers. They just wanted to come out of it alive.
There were propaganda considerations, too, because whoever raised the banner was sure to be made a hero of the Soviet Union. That meant no Chechens, Kalmyks, Crimean Tartars, or anyone else in exile from his homeland. But it could mean a Georgian, if one was available, because Stalin was from Georgia, so the publicity value would be high. The Russians’ political officers had already nominated suitable soldiers for the banner parties. All the chosen ones had to do, as darkness fell, was storm up the stairs and plant their flag on the dome.
But the Germans still stood in the way. According to Russian accounts, perhaps exaggerated for propaganda purposes, the Germans responded with grenades and Panzerfausts as the Russians burst in. The grand stone columns of the Reichstag’s entrance hall were quickly spattered with blood as the casualties mounted. Fire and smoke filled the building. The Russians advanced over the bodies of their own men, lobbing grenades up the stairs and spraying the Germans with submachine-gun fire in the dark. Hundreds of Germans retreated to the basement. The rest withdrew slowly up the broad stairs, firing along the corridors and defending themselves room by room, refusing to give ground as they settled in for a long, hard fight. As with the Ministry of the Interior, it would take all night to winkle them out. Perhaps the following day as well.
But the Russians couldn’t wait that long. Men of the 756th Regiment, carrying Banner of Victory No. 5, forced their way up the stairs and got as far as the second floor before being pinned down by German fire. They managed to unfurl the banner and wave it from a window, though not from the cupola itself. The fighting continued for hours before the Russians tried again. At some point they did reach the roof, although exactly when is open to dispute. It was reported to Moscow that the Soviet flag was flying proudly over the Reichstag in time for May Day, exactly as planned. By some accounts, though, the report was written while the building was still being stormed and then wrongly flashed to headquarters. The only certainty was that the Reichstag was still full of Germans as the night wore on, and they were very far from surrender. On every floor, and in the cellars of the basement, they were still fighting to the death.
The fight was still going on at the Reichstag, even though the red flag now flew from the roof. Choked with dust and smoke, desperate for water, the German defenders were doggedly refusing to give in. The upper stories of the building had been cleared, but the cellars and the dressing station in the basement remained in their hands. It wasn’t until late afternoon that they decided they had had enough and called for a senior Russian officer to come and negotiate. With a coat covering his badges of rank, Lieutenant Berest went forward and introduced himself as a colonel. The Germans laid down their arms soon afterward, emerging nervously from the basement with their hands in the air as they stepped uncertainly into the daylight.
Almost three hundred came out, “smiling like obedient dogs” as they wondered if they were going to be shot. Two hundred had been killed in the fighting, and another five hundred lay wounded in the basement. The German defense of the Reichstag had been stubborn and fanatical, according to the Russians, but a German survivor later claimed that they had greatly exaggerated the fighting for propaganda purposes and he himself had seen very little. Yet some Germans had certainly fought stubbornly, because a handful still refused to surrender and were not finally persuaded to lay down their arms until their own side ordered them to the following day.
But the Reichstag had fallen, to all intents and purposes. So had the Spandau Citadel, a seventeenth-century fortress at the junction of the Havel and Spree rivers. The flak tower in the Zoological Gardens was in the process of surrendering. The only significant building that remained in German hands on the afternoon of May 1 was the Reichs Chancellery. It was an object of even greater interest to the Russians now that they had learned from Krebs that there was an underground bunker in the garden where Adolf Hitler had spent his last days. All eyes were turned in that direction, and all guns were trained on the target as Zhukov’s deadline for a surrender passed and the Russians opened up on the Chancellery with every weapon they had.