There were not many warm hearts in the Bunker on 20 April when Hitler celebrated his fifty-sixth birthday. To those who attended he presented a picture of a man in the last stages of bodily and mental decay. While the will-power which had exercised so great and enduring an influence on those about him could still be summoned up, while the dull grey-blue eyes, which often now were glazed over with a film of sheer exhaustion, still seemed able to hypnotize, fascinate and compel, the actual physical state of the man was more an object of pity than of fear. The Führer’s shuffling steps, weak handshake, wobbling head, trembling hands and slack left arm were the movements and appearance of a man prematurely senile. Yet his hesitancy and indecisiveness while confirming the completeness of his disintegration were still at odds with the ‘indescribable, flickering glow in his eyes, creating a fearsome and wholly unnatural effect’.
On the following day, 21 April, Hitler was giving orders for making a last stand in Berlin. There was not much time left for, by then, Marshal Zhukov’s armies had got as far as Berlin’s eastern suburbs, while his fellow Marshal, Konev, was nearing Dresden. Nevertheless the Supreme Commander was detailing to Göring’s Chief of Staff, General Koller, an elderly, scrupulous fusspot, exactly which troops would be withdrawn from the north of the city to counter-attack the Russians in the southern suburbs. Every tank, every aircraft that could be mustered, everything and everybody would make an all-out, final, desperate effort to throw back the enemy. Obergruppenführer Steiner of the SS would command the attack. Any commanding officer who did not thrust home would answer for it with his head. It was all in vain. The attack never came off, did not even get under way; withdrawal of units from the north simply allowed the Russians to surge through there and sweep on to the city’s centre. It hardly seemed possible that the military situation could worsen, yet it was just such cold comfort that Hitler was obliged to stomach.
He did not do so lightly. At the military conference the following day, when the facts were presented to him, he completely lost control of himself. One more shrieking, shouting match – a wholly one-sided affair – was duly played out. The Generals and the Staff were then treated to three hours of denunciation. Hitler had been betrayed and deserted. The army had failed him. There was nothing but lies, deceit, cowardly incompetence. It was the end. His great mission, the Third Reich itself, had come to nothing, and indeed nothing was left but for him to stay in Berlin and die. This conference, if conference it could be called, may have left his listeners bewildered and exhausted, yet its effect on Hitler himself was quite different. Decision calmed him. He seemed able to face the future, however limited it might be, serenely. Yet at the very moment of resigning himself to failure and death, he took the unwarranted, unforgivable step of resigning too from that great position which he had so long coveted and relished – command of the German army. He refused to delegate. He gave no orders to his principal military assistants, Field-Marshal Keitel and General Jodl. He simply abdicated all responsibility. From the former position of directing the entire war machine, personally, continuously and arbitrarily, he swung fully about and would have nothing more to do with it. He declared that he would stay in Berlin, lead its defence and then at the last moment shoot himself. His physical state did not allow him to take part in the fight personally and in any case he could not risk falling into enemy hands. It was not until 30 April that Hitler actually shot himself, and by then the Russians were only a few streets away from the Berlin Chancellory and the Bunker. What would have happened if the Western armies had got there first?
On 1 April 1945 Stalin was conferring in Moscow with some of his most senior commanders – Zhukov and Konev, respectively commanding the 1st Belorussian and 1st Ukraine fronts, and Antonov and Shtemenko, both of the General Staff. A telegram was read out with the unexpected information that the Anglo-American command was preparing to launch a drive to capture Berlin, the principal spearhead under Montgomery’s direction. The axis would be north of the Ruhr, the shortest route, and the telegram ended by saying that Allied plans were such that they would certainly reach Berlin before the Red Army. It must be assumed that Stalin had fabricated this telegram or that it was a thoroughly bad piece of intelligence. When the Soviet leader then asked his commanders, ‘Who is going to take Berlin, we or the Allies?’ there was unanimous agreement that it would be themselves. The only question was whether Zhukov’s or Konev’s front would be charged with the task. Stalin then instructed the two commanders to prepare their ideas and two days later gave orders that whichever of the two reached a certain line between the river Neisse and the river Spree first would go on to take Berlin.
During the first week of April 1945, therefore, we have the spectacle of two Russian Army Group commanders planning how they would take Berlin, while on the Allied side Eisenhower is being pressed by the British to do so and resisting this pressure with the aid of his own countrymen. Bradley, for example, always hostile to and a rival of Montgomery, made the extraordinary estimate, quite unsupported by military considerations, that an advance from the Elbe to Berlin would cost them 100,000 men, which he regarded as too high a price to pay for a ‘prestige objective’. He could not have been unaware that any such drive would be conducted by Montgomery’s Army Group rather than his own, purely because of their respective deployment. He echoed Eisenhower by declaiming that postwar political alignments were less important than destroying what remained of the German army. He eschewed the idea of complicating matters with political foresight and what he called non-military objectives. Yet what are military operations for but to determine political circumstances? And it has always to be borne in mind that the German army and indeed the German people as a whole, given the option, would have infinitely preferred occupation of their country by the Anglo-American armies than the Russians.
Yet Eisenhower received further support from the US Chiefs of Staff. Speaking on their behalf, General Marshall reiterated Bradley’s contention that any political or psychological advantages resulting from the capture of Berlin ahead of the Russians should not override the imperative military consideration of the dismemberment of Germany’s armed forces. In reply Eisenhower, while adhering to the orders he had already given, and insisting that there would be no drive on Berlin until he had joined forces with the Russians, as already agreed, none the less commented:
I am the first to admit that a war is waged in pursuance of political aims, and if the Combined Chiefs of Staff should decide that the Allied effort to take Berlin outweighs military considerations in this theatre, I would cheerfully readjust my plans.
This signal to Marshall was dated 7 April. If the Combined Chiefs of Staff had decided to order Eisenhower to go full steam ahead for Berlin there and then, could he have got there first? On the very next day, 8 April, we find Eisenhower telling Montgomery: ‘If I get an opportunity to capture Berlin cheaply, I will take it.’ He was hardly as good as his word. Even Bradley, finding three days later that his armies had secured a bridgehead over the Elbe at Magdeburg and were only fifty miles from Berlin, admitted: ‘At that time we could probably have pushed on to Berlin had we been willing to take the casualties Berlin would have cost us. Zhukov had not yet crossed the Oder and Berlin now lay about midway between our forces.’
Chester Wilmot was in no doubt. He pointed out that there were no prepared defences to prevent Eisenhower reaching Berlin first, no serious obstacles, ‘nor any resistance that could not be brusquely swept aside by the 60 divisions available for his next offensive’. What is more, there were no logistic objections.
Politically, too, the way was clear for, though the German capital lay in the centre of that area which was to be occupied by the Soviet Union after the war, it had never been suggested that the military forces of one power should not enter the occupation zone of another in pursuit of the common enemy.
Indeed, there had been no discussion between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies, still less an agreement, as to who was to take Berlin. At Yalta the question did not arise. Certainly there was no understanding that the city was to be reserved for the Red Army. Since Yalta the relative freedom of movement by the two converging armies had changed dramatically. Formerly the Allies had been bogged down, the Russians advancing everywhere. Now, in April 1945, the position was reversed: the Red Army halted, Eisenhower’s armies free to advance. Leaving aside for a moment whether these latter armies could have reached Berlin first, if they had attempted to do so from mid-April onwards, would the German commanders in the field – notwithstanding anything the Führer or OKW might have had to say, for their orders were negligible – have allowed the Western armies to have made their way to the capital virtually unopposed? There might have been fanatical and scattered resistance from ill-organized groups, but if a decision of this sort had been left to such men as Guderian, Wenck, Busse, Kesselring, Manteuffel, Speer, Dönitz – even Himmler – the answer would in all likelihood have been yes.
Bearing in mind now that the Russian offensive across the Oder did not start until 16 April and that five days later the armies of Zhukov’s front reached the outskirts of the city, any Allied attempt to take Berlin would have had to succeed before this. Given that Montgomery’s Army Group, having reached the Elbe during the first weeks of April was then charged with so many tasks – to clear Schleswig-Holstein, take Wismar, Lübeck, Emden, Wilhelmshaven, Cuxhaven and Bremen – that it had to be reinforced by a US Airborne Corps, it would have been impossible for Montgomery’s forces to have got to Berlin before the Russians. On Bradley’s front, however, it was a different story. His elimination of Model’s group of armies in the Ruhr encirclement had been so successful that by 10 April the German soldiers were surrendering en masse. A total of 320,000 were captured with all their weapons and equipment, a significant pointer to what might have happened on the road to Berlin. Bradley had been instructed to seize bridgeheads over the Elbe and be prepared to continue the advance. On 11 April Simpson’s 9th US Army reached the Elbe astride Magdeburg and was across it the following day. On the same day, 12 April, it reached Tangemünde, just over fifty miles from Berlin. Everywhere the US armies were advancing rapidly, and by 15 April Hodges’ 1st Army reached the Mulde and Patton’s 3rd Army had got to Plauen, Hof and Bayreuth. On that very day Simpson proposed to Bradley that his army should expand its Elbe bridgehead and push on in force and with all speed to Berlin: this, it must be noted, on the day before the Red Army’s attack began.
Eisenhower vetoed the suggestion. We may hazard a guess that had Patton been there instead of Simpson he would have pushed on anyway and asked for permission later. That Simpson could have got on seems more or less certain for in the whole of his advance up to the Elbe, his army had suffered very few casualties. Indeed, all that had opposed him – ill-equipped and unpractised divisions of Wenck’s 12th Army, which had no air support at all – had been scattered. Wenck’s own comment on it all was: ‘If the Americans launch a major attack they’ll crack our positions with ease. After all what’s to stop them? There’s nothing between here and Berlin.’ If we assume therefore that on 15 April Simpson had despatched powerful armoured columns down the Autobahn to Berlin, with motorized infantry, artillery and engineers in support, and the Allies’ unchallenged air supremacy to deal with any pockets of resistance, we may suppose that the American armies could have reached and occupied Berlin on 15 and 16 April, so anticipating the arrival of the Russians by several days. Of one thing we may be sure. They would have been welcomed by the Berliners with the most profound relief.
What about Hitler himself? Would he still have committed suicide when the information was brought to him that the American forces were in Berlin? There could presumably be no surrender, conditional or unconditional, while he still lived. Would he still have married Eva Braun, who arrived in the Bunker on 15 April? There would just have been time. Whom would the Führer have nominated as his successor? Would it still have been Dönitz? There are innumerable questions of this sort. But having assumed that Simpson’s 9th Army, rapidly reinforced by elements from the US 1st, 3rd and 15th Armies, did reach, occupy and even extend eastwards beyond Berlin, we may allow ourselves further speculation. Once it was known that Hitler was dead, his nominated successor, provided it were someone like Dönitz, and not Göring, Himmler, Goebbels or Keitel, would have initiated some approach to the Western Allies to negotiate a cessation of hostilities. In view of the proximity of the Red Army, the Western negotiators would have insisted that the Soviet Union be involved in the surrender conditions. There would have to be a newly agreed junction between the two converging armies, possibly the arterial roads to the east of Berlin or the broadly defined eastern outskirts of the city. It must be assumed here too that the Red Army has been ordered not to contest occupation of Berlin.
Who would have been the principal negotiator on behalf of the Western Allies? Eisenhower, as Supreme Allied Commander, might have been a candidate, provided he were furnished with the necessary political guidance from Truman and Churchill. But such delegated authority would have been limited to surrender terms, and would not have changed what had been agreed at Yalta in February. We may be sure that at least three men would have wanted to make their presence known when it came to detailed discussions with Stalin: Truman, Churchill and de Gaulle. One other man would somehow or other have contrived not only to be involved himself, but to ensure a substantial role for the soldiers he commanded: Field-Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery. How he would have longed to organize some sort of victory parade or celebration in Berlin’s Olympic Stadium! If Churchill had been given the chance, he would no doubt have arranged for his quarters to have been at Frederick the Great’s Potsdam palace, Sans Souci, and indeed had there been a Potsdam conference in April 1945, instead of July, with the Western Allies in a far more powerful bargaining position than was in reality the case, Churchill might never have experienced his subsequent disappointment and dismay as to what actually emerged in July, when he was out of power:
The line of the Oder and the Eastern Neisse had already been recognized as the Polish compensation for retiring to the Curzon Line, but the overrunning by the Russian armies of the territory up to and even beyond the Western Neisse was never and never would have been agreed to by any Government of which I was the head . . .
The real time to deal with these issues was . . . when the fronts of the mighty Allies faced each other in the field, and before the Americans, and to a lesser extent, the British, made their vast retirement on a 400-mile front to a depth in some places of 120 miles, thus giving the heart and a great mass of Germany over to the Russians . . .
The heart: what if Churchill had had his way earlier and the Western armies had met the Russians not on the line of the Elbe–Mulde rivers, but on the Oder–Neisse line, with Berlin in their own hands? What then? How different a Potsdam conference might have been. Churchill’s fundamental antipathy towards allowing the Russians to occupy great chunks of Central Europe was that he could see no future for these areas unless it was acceptable to – that is, controlled by – the Soviet Government. And that to him was no future at all. Yet all this apart, the American view, at a time when American counsels carried great weight, was that the Western Allies were committed to a definite line of occupation and that this commitment must be honoured. Churchill, too, was in favour of honouring commitments provided all of them were equally honoured, in other words, provided the Western Allies could be satisfied that the entire European future was being properly settled. At Potsdam in July 1945 American support for such a notion was not to hand. Would the situation have differed if Potsdam had instead taken place in April, with Berlin occupied by American and British forces and the Red Army still some way off to the east? We may be sure that Churchill, still at that point wielding much influence and power, would have moved mountains to reach a satisfactory solution.
As for Berlin itself, there would still have been quadripartite control of the city, but how different might have been its initial occupation. We have to recall that in April 1945 Berlin was kaputt, a bombed ruin of a city, as described by a correspondent of the Red Army, Lieutenant-Colonel Troyanovsky, who saw for himself what happened between 21 and 25 April as the battle raged:
From one end of the horizon to the other stretched houses, gardens, factory buildings, and many churches. Volumes of smoke arose from all quarters and hung like a pall over the city. The German capital was burning. The thunder of the artillery bombardment shook the air, the houses and the ground. And Berlin replied with thousands of shells and bombs. It seemed as though we were confronted not by a town, but by a nightmare of fire and steel. Every house appeared to have been converted into a fortress. There were no squares, but only gun positions for artillery and mine throwers. From house to house and street to street, from one district to another, mowing their way through gun fire and hot steel, went our infantrymen, artillery, sappers and tanks. On 25 April the German capital was completely encircled and cut off from the rest of the country. At the height of the street fighting Berlin was without water, without light, without landing fields, without radio stations. The city ceased to resemble Berlin.
‘How pitiful is their Berlin!’ observed Zhukov.
How pitiful too was the plight of the Berliners, particularly the women. The Red Army ran riot. Rape, looting, burning and murder were rife. Hitler’s very last War Directive of 15 April had made it clear what fate threatened a defeated Germany: ‘While the old men and children will be murdered, the women and girls will be reduced to barrack-room whores.’ Antony Beevor, while doing his research into the fall of Berlin, was shocked by what he discovered about the depravity of the Russian soldiers. This research, says a newspaper report, ‘revealed that the Russians raped hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of Germans; the troops even raped the Russian and Polish women prisoners they freed from German camps. In some towns every female, young and old, was violated.’
The British and Americans would have behaved better. There might have been seduction, even barter, for cigarettes were treasured currency then, but rape would have been rare. When the British did enter Berlin later, they were greeted as liberators rather than conquerors. What must have been the consequence if Berlin had initially been wholly occupied by the Western armies, before its division into the four sectors, British, American, French and Russian? Is it not possible that as soon as the boundaries were made known and before the barriers and barbed wire went up, every Berliner able to do so would have quitted the Russian zone to find refuge in one of the other three? Even as things were, Germans who found themselves in the Soviet-controlled part of the former Third Reich and in East Berlin flocked to the west in their thousands until the Berlin Wall and the boundary minefields deterred such abundant emigration and denied those seeking refuge from the oppressor’s wrong, the whips and scorns of uniformed bullies, the spurns of the unworthy, the insolence of jack-booted officials, the chance to do so.
It had all been brought about by one man, whom Speer called ‘a demonic figure’, whose ‘person determined the fate of a nation. He alone placed it, and kept it, upon the path which has led to this dreadful ending. The nation was spellbound by him as a people has rarely been in the whole of history.’ Was it all by chance?