THE SOUND WAS unlike anything Berliners had heard before, unlike the whistle of falling bombs, or the crack and thud of anti-aircraft fire. Puzzled, the shoppers who were queued up outside Karstadt’s department store on Hermannplatz listened: it was a low keening coming from somewhere off in the distance, but now it rose rapidly to a terrible piercing scream. For an instant the shoppers seemed mesmerized. Then suddenly the lines of people broke and scattered. But it was too late. Artillery shells, the first to reach the city, burst all over the square. Bits of bodies splashed against the boarded-up store front. Men and women lay in the street screaming and writhing in agony. It was exactly 11:30 A.M., Saturday, April 21. Berlin had become the front line.
Shells now began to strike everywhere. Tongues of flame leaped from rooftops all over the center of the city. Bomb-weakened buildings collapsed. Automobiles were up-ended and set afire. The Brandenburg Gate was hit and one cornice crashed down into the street. Shells plowed the Unter den Linden from one end to the other; the Royal Palace, already wrecked, burst into flames again. So did the Reichstag; the girders that had once supported the building’s cupola collapsed and hunks of metal showered down. People ran wildly along the Kurfürstendamn, dropping briefcases and packages, bobbing frantically from doorway to doorway. At the Tiergarten end of the street, a stable of riding horses received a direct hit. The screams of the animals mingled with the cries and shouts of men and women; an instant later the horses stampeded out of the inferno and dashed down the Kurfürstendamm, their manes and tails blazing.
Barrage after barrage pounded the city, systematically and methodically. Correspondent Max Schnetzer of the Swiss paper Der Bund, standing by the Brandenburg Gate, noted that in the center of the government section of the Wilhelmstrasse at least one shell was landing every five seconds. Then there would be a pause of half a minute or a minute and once again the shells would start to fall. From where he stood the newspaperman could see fires shooting up toward the skies from the direction of the Friedrichstrasse Station. “Because the smoke and haze diffuses the light,” he later wrote, “it looks as if the very clouds are on fire.”
The shelling was just as intense in other parts of the city. In Wilmersdorf, Ilse Antz, her mother and sister felt their building shudder. The two girls threw themselves to the floor. Their mother clung to the doorpost, screaming, “My God! My God! My God!” In Neukölln, Dora Janssen watched her husband, a Wehrmacht major, walk down the driveway to his limousine. The major’s batman opened the car door and suddenly was “torn completely to pieces” by a shell. When the dust cleared she saw her husband still standing by the car, his head high but his face distorted with pain. As Frau Janssen ran toward the major, she saw that “one leg of his trousers was soaked in blood which was running over his boot and onto the sidewalk.” Later, as she watched him being carried away on a stretcher, she found a curious emotion competing with her concern for her husband’s safety. She could not help thinking, “How upright he stood in spite of his injury. A real officer!”
Not far away was another officer who had never believed that the Russians could come this close. The fanatical Luftwaffe accountant, Captain Gotthard Carl, who still greeted his family with the Hitler salute, was growing desperate. As the Russians had come closer, Carl’s sartorial splendor had gleamed undiminished; indeed, it had become even more evident. Though she would never dare tell him so, his wife Gerda thought Carl looked ridiculous in his gala dress uniform, complete with gold cufflinks and those rows of meaningless ribbons. These days, too, he was never without his signet ring, on which a swastika was outlined in diamonds.
But Gotthard Carl was fully aware of the turn events were taking. Returning home at noon from his Tempelhof office, he threw up his hand in his usual “Heil Hitler” greeting and then gave his wife some instructions. “Now that the bombardment has begun,” he told her, “you are to go to the cellar and remain there permanently. I want you to sit right opposite the cellar entrance.” Gerda looked at him in amazement; it seemed the least safe place to be. But Gotthard was insistent. “I have heard that in other cities the Russians enter the cellars with flame throwers and most people are burned alive. I want you to sit directly before the cellar door so that you will be killed first. You won’t have to sit and wait your turn.” Then, without another word he clasped his wife’s hands, gave the Nazi salute and walked out of the apartment.
Numbly, Gerda did as she was told. Sitting well ahead of the other occupants and just inside the entrance to the shelter, she prayed steadily as the bombardment raged overhead. For the first time since their marriage she did not include Gotthard in her prayers. In the afternoon, at the time her husband usually arrived home, Gerda, defying his orders, ventured upstairs. Trembling and frightened, she waited awhile, but Gotthard did not return. She never saw him again.
The artillery shelling had begun just as the aerial bombing ended. The last Western air raid on Berlin, the 363rd of the war, was delivered at 9:25 A.M. by elements of the U. S. Eighth Air Force. For forty-four months the Americans and British had pounded “Big B,” as the U.S. fliers called it. Berliners had shaken their fists at the bombers, and they had mourned the deaths of friends and relatives and the destruction of their homes. Yet their anger, like the bombs themselves, had been impersonal, directed at men they would never see. The shelling was different. It came from an enemy who stood outside their doors, who would soon be facing them.
There was another difference, too. Berliners had learned to live with the bombing and to anticipate the almost clocklike regularity of the raids. Most people could tell by the very whistle of a falling bomb approximately where it would land; many had grown so accustomed to the raids that often they did not even bother to seek shelter. Artillery fire was somehow more dangerous. Shells landed suddenly and unexpectedly. The razor-sharp, scythelike shrapnel ripped and cut in every direction, often striking yards away from the initial explosion.
Journalist Hans Wulle-Wahlberg, making his way across Potsdamer Platz as it was raked by shell bursts, saw dead and dying everywhere. It seemed to him that some people had been killed by the blast of air pressure “which had torn out their lungs.” As he dodged the bursts the thought struck him that Berliners, formerly bound together against their common enemy, the bombers, “now had no time to bother about the dead and the wounded. Everyone was too busy trying to save his own skin.”
The merciless shelling had no pattern. It was aimless and incessant. Each day it seemed to increase in intensity. Mortars and the grinding howl of rocket-firing Katushkas soon added to the din. Most people now spent much of their time in cellars, air raid shelters, flak tower bunkers and subway stations. They lost all sense of time. The days blurred amid the fear, confusion and death that was all about them. Berliners who had kept meticulous diaries up to April 21 suddenly got their dates mixed. Many wrote that the Russians were in the center of the city on April 21 or 22, when the Red Army was still fighting in the suburbs. Their terror of the Russians was often intensified by a certain guilty knowledge. Some Germans, at least, knew all about the way German troops had behaved on Soviet soil, and about the terrible and secret atrocities committed by the Third Reich in concentration camps. Over Berlin, as the Russians drew closer, hung a night-marish fear unlike that experienced by any city since the razing of Carthage.
Elfriede Wassermann and her husband Erich had taken shelter in the huge bunker next to the Anhalter railway station. Erich had lost his left leg on the Russian front in 1943, and could walk only with the aid of crutches. He had quickly recognized the sound of the artillery fire for what it was, and had rushed his wife off to the bunker. Elfriede had packed their belongings in two suitcases and two other large bags. Over her own clothes she put on a pair of Erich’s old military pants and, on top of everything, both her woolen and fur coats. Since her husband needed both hands for his crutches, she had strapped one bag on his back, the other across his chest. One of the parcels contained food: some hard-crusted bread, and a few tins of meat and vegetables. In one of her suitcases Elfriede had a large pot of butter.
By the time they reached the Anhalter Station, its bunker was already jammed. Elfriede finally found them a place on one of the stairway landings. A single weak light hung above their heads. In its glow, people could be seen crowding every foot of floor space and every stairway of the building. Conditions in the bunker were unbelievable. The floor above was reserved for wounded, and their screams could be heard night and day. Toilets could not be used because there was no water; excrement was everywhere. The stench was nauseating at first, but after a time Elfriede and Erich no longer noticed it. They passed the hours in a state of complete apathy, hardly talking, unaware of what was happening outside.
Only one thing intruded on their private thoughts: the continuous screaming of children. Many parents had run out of supplies of food and milk. Elfriede saw “three small babies being carried down from the floor above, all of them dead from lack of food.” Next to Elfriede sat a young woman with a 3-month-old infant. At some point during their stay in the bunker, Elfriede noticed that the baby was no longer in the mother’s arms. It was lying on the concrete floor next to Elfriede, dead. The mother seemed dazed. So was Elfriede; she remembers “that I simply saw that the child was dead without being upset in any way.”
On Potsdamerstrasse, the House of Tourist Affairs was being shelled. In the 44-room underground shelter there were more than two thousand people, and Margarete Promeist, who was in charge of the shelter, had her hands full. Besides civilians, two battalions of Volkssturm had recently been moved in because, Margarete was told, “the Russians are getting closer.” Harried and near exhaustion, Margarete had been more than grateful for the telephone call she had received a short time before. A close friend had volunteered to bring her some food. Now, as she moved about the shelter, forty-four wounded civilians were brought down from the street. Margarete hurried over to assist with the casualties. One of them was beyond help—and as she sat quietly beside the dead body of the woman who had come to bring her food, Margarete “envied her quiet and peaceful smile. She, at least, has been spared our via dolorosa.”
While most people were going underground for the duration of the battle, druggist Hans Miede patrolled his beat as air raid warden for the public shelter at Bismarckstrasse 61 in Charlottenburg. As shells exploded all about him, he looked balefully at a poster on the wall of the building opposite the shelter. The text, printed in gigantic letters, read, THE HOUR BEFORE SUNRISE IS THE DARKEST.
For Dr. Rudolf Hückel the sunrise was far away. For weeks now the eminent pathologist had been a source of deep worry to his wife Annemaria. She believed he was headed for a nervous breakdown. Some time earlier he had shown her a cyanide capsule whose deadly potency he had improved upon by the addition of acetic acid. He had told her then that if Berlin’s situation worsened, they would commit suicide. Since then Frau Hückel had seen how “the intensity of the war, its senselessness, and my husband’s rage against Hitler had all gotten the best of him.” Now the limit of Dr. Hückel’s endurance had been reached. After hours of listening to the screaming of shells, the doctor suddenly got up, ran to the open window and yelled out at the top of his voice, “Der Kerl muss umgebracht werden!”—That fellow [Hitler] must be bumped off!
Hitler’s finger stabbed the map. “Steiner! Steiner! Steiner!” he shouted. The Führer had found the answer. SS General Felix Steiner and his troops, he cried, were to attack immediately from their positions in the Eberswalde on the flank of Von Manteuffel’s Third Panzer Army; then they were to head south, cutting off the Russians’ drive on Berlin. Steiner’s attack would close the gap that had opened when the northern flank of Busse’s Ninth Army crumpled. On Hitler’s map it appeared a brilliant move. Zhukov’s drive now looked like an arrowhead, its base on the Oder, its tip pointing directly at Berlin. Along Zhukov’s northern flank was the little flag that said, “Group Steiner.” Hitler was confident once more. Steiner’s attack would re-establish contact between the Third and Ninth armies.
There was only one thing wrong with the Führer’s scheme. Steiner had virtually no men. Earlier, Heinrici had decided to place under Steiner the Ninth Army troops that had been shoved to the north by the Russian drive. Unfortunately, the widespread confusion at the front and the lack of time had made it impossible to gather sufficient forces to make the Group Steiner operational. In effect, there was no Group Steiner. But the name had stuck, and so had the little flag on Hitler’s map.
Now Hitler phoned Steiner. “As I remember the call,” Steiner said, “it reached me between 8:30 and 9 P.M. Hitler’s exact words were: ‘Steiner, are you aware that the Reichsmarschall [Goering] has a private army at Karinhall? This is to be disbanded at once and sent into battle.’ While I was trying to figure out what that was supposed to mean, he continued, ‘Every available man between Berlin and the Baltic Sea up to Stettin and Hamburg is to be drawn into this attack I have ordered.’ When I protested, saying that the troops at my disposal were inexperienced, and when I asked precisely where the attack was to take place, the Führer gave me no answer. He simply hung up. I had no idea where or when or with what I was to attack.”
Steiner called Krebs, explained his situation and told the Chief of OKH that he did not have troops. “Then I recall Hitler cutting in on the conversation. At that moment I was explaining to Krebs that my troops were totally inexperienced and that we had no heavy weapons. Hitler gave me a long lecture and closed with these words, ‘You will see, Steiner. You will see. The Russians will suffer their greatest defeat before the gates of Berlin.’ I told him that I thought the Berlin situation was hopeless. I was completely ignored.”
Shortly thereafter Steiner received the official order to attack. The last paragraphs read:
It is expressly forbidden to fall back to the west. Officers who do not comply unconditionally with this order are to be arrested and shot right away.
You, Steiner, are liable with your head for the execution of this order. The fate of the Reich Capital depends on the success of your mission.
After his conversation with Steiner, Hitler called the Luftwaffe’s Chief of Staff, General Koller. “All Air Force personnel in the northern zone who can be made available are to be placed at the disposal of Steiner and brought to him,” Hitler said, his voice rising. “Any commanding officer who keeps back personnel will forfeit his life within five hours. They must be told of this.” Then he screamed: “You, yourself, will guarantee with your own head that absolutely every man is employed.”
Koller was dumbfounded. It was the first he had heard of Group Steiner. He called General Dethleffsen at OKH and asked, “Where is Steiner? Where should our troops be sent?” Dethleffsen did not know, but promised to find out as quickly as possible.
Throughout this frantic period, one man, Heinrici, knew nothing at all about the scheme. When he finally heard, he called Krebs. “Steiner does not have the strength to make such an attack,” Heinrici said angrily. “I reject the order. I insist on the withdrawal of the Ninth Army. Otherwise, Krebs, the only troop units still in position to defend Hitler and Berlin will be lost. Now, I tell you if this final request is not approved, then I must demand to be released from my post.” Could he, Heinrici suggested, have an appointment with Hitler to discuss the situation? Krebs flatly vetoed the idea. “It’s just not possible,” he said. “The Führer is overworked.”
For the record, Heinrici noted the outcome of the conversation in his personal war diary: “My appeal to the highest officials to bear in mind the responsibilities they bore to the troops was rejected with the words, ‘That responsibility is borne by the Führer.’”
The life of Army Group Vistula was drawing to a close. Heinrici knew that it could last only a few days longer. His career, too, seemed to be running out. The General was well aware that his unbending obstinacy over how to fight his losing battle was considered the worst kind of defeatism by Krebs. Now, without warning, during the night of April 21, Heinrici received word that General Eberhard Kinzel, Vistula’s Chief of Staff, was to be replaced. The man who was to take over his job was Major GeneralThilo von Trotha, one of Hitler’s most ardent disciples. Heinrici believed that Krebs had deliberately put Von Trotha in the post to try to influence his decisions. If so, it was a senseless move. “I know this Von Trotha,” Heinrici told Colonel Eismann. “Maybe he’s intelligent, but he embellishes the facts; he has a kind of flashy optimism. His feet,” the General observed tartly, “are in the air.” When Von Trotha arrived, Heinrici decided, he would isolate him completely and deal only with Eismann. It was a dangerous procedure to adopt with a Hitler favorite, but Heinrici could not concern himself with that now.
Before dawn of the twenty-second, a second announcement reached Heinrici. The Berlin Commandant, General Reymann, telephoned. “I am being replaced,” he told Heinrici. The events that followed Reymann’s removal had some of the qualities of slapstick. His successor was another high-ranking Nazi Party official, a certain Colonel Kaether, a man so obscure that his first name is lost to history. Kaether was immediately promoted to major general, jumping the interim rank of brigadier general. He spent the rest of that day delightedly phoning his friends the news. By nightfall Kaether was a colonel again, having been removed from the post: Hitler himself had decided to take command temporarily.
Meanwhile, the man whose future was to be most closely bound to the city’s last days was getting himself into serious trouble. General Karl Weidling was completely out of communication with any headquarters, including that of his immediate superior, General Busse. Weidling’s 56th Panzer Corps had been so battered and so often encircled by General Katukov’s First Guards Tank Army that he had lost all contact with his colleagues. Rumors were flying that Weidling had deliberately retreated, and Weidling was not on hand to refute them. Hitler had heard these stories. So had Busse. After waiting almost twenty-four hours for news, both men issued orders for Weidling’s immediate arrest and execution.
When the smoke cleared on the outskirts of Bernau, Captain Sergei Golbov saw the first prisoners coming out of their defenses. The fighting here had been murderous. It had taken Chuikov’s troops almost half a day to advance five miles in this sector, fourteen miles northeast of Berlin. Now parts of the town were in flames, but tanks were pushing through, heading southwest for the Berlin districts of Pankow and Weissensee. Golbov sat on his newly confiscated motorcycle watching the prisoners. They were a sorry-looking lot, he thought—“gray-faced, dusty, bodies sagging with fatigue.” Golbov looked about him and was struck by the disparity between the works of man and those of nature. Fruit trees were beginning to bloom. “The blossoms looked like white snowballs, and in the suburbs every little garden had flowers, but then the huge black war machines, the tanks, crawling through the gardens—what a contrast!”
Golbov took out of his tunic pocket a folded copy of the newspaper Red Star, carefully tore off a small strip of the paper, shook some tobacco onto it and rolled a cigarette. Everyone used Red Star paper; it was thinner and seemed to burn better than PravdaorIzvestia. It was as he lit the cigarette that he saw the German major staggering up the road toward him.
“Leave my wife alone!” the man was shouting in Polish. “Leave my wife alone!” Golbov watched, puzzled, as the wild-eyed officer staggered toward him. When the German got closer, Golbov got off his cycle and went toward him. Blood was pouring down the major’s hands.
The German lifted his blood-streaked arms and Golbov saw that he had slashed his wrists. “I’m dying,” the man gasped. “I’ve committed suicide. Look!” He thrust his bleeding hands toward Golbov. “Now! Will you leave my wife alone?”
Golbov stared at him. “You stupid fool,” he said. “I’ve got other things to do than bother your wife.” He called out for the medics, then held the man’s wrists to stanch the flow of blood until the first-aid men arrived. It was probably too late anyway, Golbov thought, as the medics led the major away. “Leave my wife alone! Leave her alone!” the German kept yelling. Golbov leaned back against the motorcycle and relit his cigarette. Goebbels has done his work well, he thought; what do they think we are, monsters?
Bruno Zarzycki, tears staining his face, stood in the street as the liberators he had waited so long to see passed by. The Communist leader in the Neuenhagen-Hoppegarten area, twelve miles east of Berlin, was delighted because now everyone could see what he had known all along: that Goebbels’ propaganda about the Soviets was fabricated of the most vicious lies. Red Army troops, trim and efficient, had entered Neuenhagen and had quickly passed through, heading west for the Berlin districts of Weissensee and Lichtenberg. There had been practically no fighting in the town. Most of the local Nazis had left on April 15. At that time Bruno had told Mayor Otto Schneider, “When I see the first Russians I’m going out to meet them with a white flag. Fighting would be useless.” The Mayor agreed. Only one man had put up a fight: the fanatical Hermann Schuster, head of the party’s social welfare unit. He had barricaded his house and opened fire on the first reconnaissance units. It was a one-sided battle. The Russians had efficiently wiped out Schuster and his house with hand grenades. Bruno and the other members of his Communist cell burned their Volkssturm arm bands and met the Russian troops with a white flag. Bruno was happier than he ever remembered being. He shared all his information with the Soviet troopers and told them that he and his friends were “anti-fascists and always had been.” For Bruno the arrival of Zhukov’s soldiers brought on the miracle cure he had anticipated weeks before: his ulcers disappeared. For the first time, he could eat without nausea or pain.
The cure was to be short-lived. Bruno’s detailed plan for the future socialistic administration of the town, which he confidently offered to the conquerors a few weeks later, was turned down. A Russian official heard him out and then had responded with one word: “Nyet.” On that day—three months after Bruno Zarzycki had watched with pride and wonder the arrival of his idols—the ulcers which he had always called “fascist-inspired” returned, worse than ever.
In the Lehrterstrasse Prison, condemned Corporal Herbert Kosney did not know how much longer his luck would hold. The confirmation of the death sentence pronounced on him by civil authorities was still pending action by a military court. Herbert was living on borrowed time. On the twentieth he had been informed that the military tribunal would hear his case the following day. He knew what its verdict would be, and that he probably would be executed immediately. But the next morning, when he arrived under guard at the courthouse at Plötzensee, the building was empty: everybody had fled to the shelters.
Although the surprise Russian bombardment had saved him, the reprieve was only temporary. Kosney had now been told that his trial would take place Monday, the twenty-third. The Russians were Herbert’s last hope. If they did not reach the prison before that date, he would surely die.
Because of the shelling, the prisoners had been moved down into the cellars. Herbert noticed that the guards had suddenly become friendly. There were rumors that some prisoners had already been released and that others might be allowed to leave within the next few hours. Herbert was certain he would be held, but he hoped that his brother Kurt might get out.
Kurt, too, was aware of the rumors, but he knew what Herbert did not—that they were at least partly true. The names of some Jehovah’s Witnesses—convicted conscientious objectors who performed various menial chores in the prison—had been called out, and the men had been given release slips which would permit them to leave the prison. One Witness did not seem to be in much of a hurry to depart, Kurt noticed. The man was sitting at a table in the cellar, carefully cleaning the last morsel of food from his tin plate. “Why aren’t you leaving with the others?” Kurt asked. The man’s explanation was simple. “My home is in the Rhineland, behind the Western Allies’ lines,” he said. “There’s no possibility of getting there. I’m just going to sit tight and stay here until the whole thing is over.”
Kurt looked at the man’s release slip. If the Witness was not going to use it, he knew someone who could. As the prisoner continued eating, Kurt kept him in conversation, moving closer to the yellow paper that signified freedom. After a few more moments of amiable chatting, Kurt managed to slip the paper into his pocket; undetected, he walked off.
Quickly he found Herbert and offered him the precious release order. To his astonishment, Herbert refused it. Because he was condemned to death, the Gestapo would capture him no matter what, Herbert said. Kurt had been imprisoned only as a suspected Communist; he had not been charged with anything. “You’ll have a better chance,” Herbert told his brother. “You go.” Then he added with false enthusiasm, “We’ll all probably get out today, in any case. So you might as well go first.”
A short time later, his bedroll over his shoulder, Kurt Kosney walked into the guard room on the main floor and joined a line of Jehovah’s Witnesses being processed out. One of the guards, an SS sergeant named Bathe who knew Kurt, looked right at him. For one awful moment Kurt expected to be grabbed and hauled back to the cellar. But Bathe turned away. The man behind the desk said, “Next.” Kurt presented his slip. Five minutes later, his official stamped release in hand, Kurt Kosney stood in the street outside the prison. He was a free man. The street was being swept with gunfire and “the air was thick with shrapnel,” but Kurt Kosney hardly noticed. He felt “deliriously happy—as though I had drunk about twenty brandies.”
The Russians were in Zossen. General Rybalko’s Third Guards tankers had captured the High Command headquarters intact, along with a handful of engineers, soldiers and technicians. Everyone else had gone.
Rybalko’s tired, begrimed tankers blinked in amazement at the brilliant lighting in the vast underground rooms. As they wandered through galleries, living quarters and offices, evidences of a speedy exodus were apparent everywhere. Major Boris Polevoi, a political commissar attached to Koniev’s headquarters, saw that the floors were littered with maps and papers. In one room a dressing gown lay on a desk; nearby was a leather case filled with family photographs.
Exchange 500, the huge telephone complex, had been seized undamaged. Men stood on the threshold and gaped at the flickering lights on the consoles, all now unmanned. Large signs, attached to the telephone boards, warned in Schoolbook Russian: “Soldiers! Do not damage this apparatus. It will be valuable to the Red Army.” Polevoi and the other officers speculated that fleeing German workers “had put up the signs in order to save their own necks.”
Among the men captured in the command center had been Hans Beltow, the chief engineer of the complex electrical systems, and now he showed the Russians around Exchange 500. One operator, Beltow explained through Russian women interpreters, had stayed until just before the headquarters was overrun. As wire recorders played out his last conversations, the Russians stood listening in the great immaculate room. During Zossen’s final minutes in German hands, calls had continued to come in from all over the swiftly contracting Reich, and they were all there on the recorders.
“I have an urgent message for Oslo,” a voice said in German.
“Sorry,” said the Zossen operator, “but we’re not transmitting. I’m the last man here.”
“My God, what’s happening … ?”
Another voice: “Attention, attention. I have an urgent message …”
“We aren’t accepting any messages.”
“Is there any contact with Prague? How are they feeling in Berlin?”
“Ivan is almost at the door. I’m closing down now.”
Zossen had fallen. Except for this brief inspection, Koniev’s armies had hardly paused there. One tentacle of tanks was heading for Potsdam; another had already crossed the Nuthe Canal and reached Lichtenrade, south of the Berlin district of Tempelhof. Other tankers pushed on to Teltow and were now crashing through the defenses south of the Teltow Canal. Beyond lay the districts of Zehlendorf and Steglitz.
By nightfall of April 22, Koniev’s armies had cracked Berlin’s southern defenses and had beaten Zhukov into Berlin by more than a full day.
In the Führerbunker the customary military conference began at 3 P.M. In the twelve-year history of the Third Reich, there had never been a day like this. The usual outpourings of optimism were missing. The Oder front had all but crumpled. The Ninth Army was virtually encircled. Its strongest unit, the 56th Panzer Corps, was lost for the moment and could not be found.* Steiner had been unable to attack. Berlin was almost encircled. Commanders were being replaced almost hourly. The Reich was in its death agonies, and the man who had brought it all about now gave up.
Hitler’s announcement climaxed a wild, uncontrolled torrent of abuse in which he denounced his generals, his advisors, his armies and the people of Germany whom he had led to disaster. The end had come, Hitler sputtered; everything was falling apart; he was no longer able to continue; he had decided to remain in Berlin; he intended to take over the defense of the city personally—and at the last moment he meant to shoot himself. General Krebs and the Luftwaffe representative, General Eckhardt Christian, were horror-stricken. To both, Hitler seemed to have suffered a complete breakdown. Jodl alone remained calm, for Hitler had told the Operations chief all of this forty-eight hours before.
Everyone present tried to persuade the almost deranged Führer that all was not lost. He must remain in charge of the Reich, they said, and he must leave Berlin, for it was impossible to control matters from the capital any longer. The man who had held their world together now brutally rejected them. He was remaining in Berlin, Hitler said. The others could go where they pleased. Everyone was thunderstruck. To emphasize that he meant what he said, Hitler stated that he intended to make a public announcement of his presence in Berlin. There and then he dictated a statement to be broadcast immediately. The others managed to persuade him not to release it right away. The announcement would not be made until the next day. Meanwhile, the officers and aides in the bunker called on their colleagues outside the city to bring additional pressure on the Führer. Himmler, Doenitz and even Goering telephoned, pleading, like their comrades, for a change of mind. Hitler would not be dissuaded.
Jodl was called away to the phone. While he was gone Keitel, trying to reason with Hitler, asked to speak to him privately. The conference room was cleared. According to Keitel’s account, he told Hitler that he saw two courses of action still open: to “make an offer of capitulation before Berlin became a battlefield,” or to arrange “for Hitler to fly to Berchtesgaden and from there instantly begin negotiations.” Hitler, according to Keitel, “did not let me get beyond these words. He interrupted and said, ‘I have made this decision already. I shall not leave Berlin. I shall defend the city to the end. Either I win this battle for the Reich’s capital or I shall fall as a symbol of the Reich.’”
Keitel thought this decision was madness. “I must insist,” he told Hitler, “that you leave for Berchtesgaden this very night.” Hitler refused to hear any more. He called back Jodl and, in a private conference with the two officers, “gave us his order that we were to fly to Berchtesgaden and from there take over the reins together with Goering, who was Hitler’s deputy.”
“In seven years,” Keitel protested, “I have never refused to carry out an order from you, hut this one I shall not carry out. You can’t leave the Wehrmacht in the lurch.” Hitler replied, “I am staying here. That is certain.” Then Jodl suggested that Wenck’s army could drive toward Berlin from its positions on the Elbe.* Keitel declared that he would immediately travel to the western front, see General Wenck, “relieve him of all previous commands and order him to march toward Berlin and link up with the Ninth Army.”
At last Hitler had heard a suggestion he could approve. It seemed to Keitel that the proposal brought a “certain relief to Hitler in this absolutely dreadful situation.” Soon after, Keitel left for Wenck’s headquarters.
Some officers who were not at the conference, such as the Luftwaffe’s Chief of Staff, General Karl Koller, were so astonished by the news of the Führer’s collapse that they refused to believe the reports of their own representatives on the scene. Koller rushed to Jodl’s latest headquarters at Krampnitz, five miles northeast of Potsdam, and got a verbatim report. “What you’ve heard is correct,” Jodl told Koller. He also told the Luftwaffe Chief of Staff that Hitler had given up and intended to commit suicide at the last minute. “Hitler said that he could not take part in the fighting for physical reasons and that he would not do so because of the danger of falling into the enemy’s hands, perhaps when he was only wounded. We all tried to dissuade him. Hitler,” Jodl went on, “said he was no longer able to continue and that now it was up to the Reichsmarschall. In answer to a remark that troops would not fight for Goering, the Führer said: ‘What do you mean, fight? There’s not much fighting to be done and when it comes to negotiating, the Reichsmarschall can do that better than I.’” Jodl added that “Hitler said the troops are no longer fighting, the tank barricades in Berlin are open and are no longer being defended.”
In the Führerbunker it was clear by now that Hitler had meant every word he had said. He spent hours selecting documents and papers which were then taken out into the courtyard and burned. Then he sent for Goebbels, Frau Goebbels and their children. They were to stay with him in the bunker until the end. Dr. Werner Naumann, Goebbels’ assistant, had known for some time that “Goebbels felt that the only decent course of conduct in the event of collapse was to fall in battle or commit suicide.” Magda Goebbels, the Reichsminister’s wife, felt the same way. When he heard of the Goebbels’ impending move to the Chancellery, Naumann knew that “they would all die there together.”
Goebbels’ contempt for the “traitorous and unworthy” was almost equal to Hitler’s. The day before the Führer’s outburst, he called his propaganda staff together and said, “The German people have failed. In the east they are running away, in the west they are receiving the enemy with white flags. The German people themselves chose their destiny. I forced no one to be my coworker. Why did you work with me? Now your little throats are going to be cut! But believe me, when we take our leave, earth will tremble.”
By Hitler’s standards it almost seemed that the only loyal Germans were those who now planned suicide and buried themselves in their own tombs. On this very evening, gangs of SS men were searching houses looking for deserters. Punishment was swift. On nearby Alexanderplatz, 16-year-old Eva Knoblauch, a refugee recently arrived in Berlin, saw the body of a young Wehrmacht private hanging from a lamp post. There was a large white card tied to the dead man’s legs. It read: “Traitor. I deserted my people.”
All through this decisive day Heinrici had waited for the news that he felt must come, that Hitler had given permission for the Ninth Army to withdraw. Busse’s force, almost encircled, cut off from the armies on its flanks, was close to annihilation. Yet Krebs had continued to insist that it hold its positions. He had gone even further: he had suggested that some of the Ninth’s forces attempt to fight their way south and link up with Field Marshal Schörner. Busse himself was complicating matters. Heinrici had tried to get him to pull back without orders; Busse refused even to consider withdrawal unless a specific command arrived from the Führer.
At 11 A.M. on April 22, Heinrici warned Krebs that the Ninth would be split into several parts by nightfall. Krebs confidently predicted that Field Marshal Schörner would right the situation by driving north to link up with Busse. Heinrici knew better. “It will take Schörner several days to mount an attack,” he told Krebs. “By then the Ninth will no longer exist.”
Hour by hour the situation grew more desperate, and Heinrici repeatedly urged Krebs to do something. “You nail my forces down,” he stormed, “while you tell me that I must do all I can to avoid the shame of the Führer being encircled in Berlin. Against my will, in spite of my request to be relieved of my duties, I am being prevented from pulling out the only forces that can be used for the protection of the Führer and Berlin.” The Führer’s headquarters was not only making difficulties over Busse; now it was demanding that Von Manteuffel’s Third Army throw Rokossovskii’s forces back across the Oder—an order so impossible to carry out that Heinrici could only gasp when he received it.
At 12:10 P.M. Heinrici warned Krebs: “It is my conviction that this is the last moment to withdraw the Ninth Army.” Two hours later he called again but Krebs had already left for the Führer’s conference. To General Dethleffsen, Heinrici said, “We must have a decision.” At 2:50 Krebs called Heinrici. The Führer had agreed that some of the Ninth Army’s forces could be moved back along the outer northern wing, giving up Frankfurt. Heinrici snorted. It was a half-measure that would do little to improve the situation. He did not point out to Krebs that the city had been held steadily by Colonel Bieler, the man Hitler had decided was “no Gneisenau.” Now Bieler would find it difficult to disengage. In any event, the approval had come too late. The Ninth was encircled.
Nearly two hours later, Krebs again came on the phone. This time he informed Heinrici that at the Führer’s conference it had been decided to turn General Wenck’s Twelfth Army away from its positions on the western front. Wenck would launch an attack toward the east and Berlin, relieving the pressure. It was a surprising announcement; Heinrici commented dryly: “They will be most welcome.” But still no order of complete withdrawal had come for the Ninth. Although they were encircled, Heinrici believed Busse’s troops were still strong enough to begin moving toward the west. Now Krebs’s news of Wenck—whom Heinrici had never even heard of before this moment—offered a new possibility. “The news gave rise to the hope,” Heinrici said later, “that the Ninth could still be rescued from its precarious situation after all.” Heinrici called Busse. “Krebs just told me that the Army Wenck is to turn about and march in your direction,” he said. He instructed Busse to pull out his strongest division, break through the Russians, and head west to meet Wenck. Busse protested that this would lose him the bulk of his strength. Heinrici had had enough. “This is the order for the Ninth Army,” he interrupted in a steely voice. “Pull out one division and get it under way to join with Wenck.” He was finished arguing.
All around the rim of the city a red glow tinged the night sky. Fires pockmarked nearly every district, and the shelling was ceaseless. But in the cellar of the Lehrterstrasse Prison a feeling of jubilance and excitement had been mounting steadily. During the afternoon twenty-one men had been freed. Later, some of the remaining prisoners’ valuables had been returned. According to the guards, the action had been authorized to speed up the processing of releases. At any moment now the prisoners expected to be freed. Some thought they might be home before morning. Even Herbert Kosney now felt that he had beaten the executioner.
A guard came into the cellar. From a list in his hand, he quickly began to read off names. The men listened tensely as each name was called. There was a Communist, a Russian POW and several men whom Kosney recognized as suspects in the Hitler plot of 1944. The guard reeled off the names: “… Haushofer … Schleicher … Munzinger … Sosinow … Kosney … Moll….” Suddenly Herbert realized with a surge of hope that his name had been called
Altogether some sixteen prisoners had been singled out. When they had been counted, the guard led them to the security office. There they waited outside the door as, one after another, each man was called in. When Kosney’s turn came, he saw that there were six SS men in the room, all quite drunk. One of them looked up his name and gave him the personal belongings taken from him at the time of his arrest. They were pitifully few: his army paybook, a pencil and a cigarette lighter. Herbert signed a receipt for his effects and then a form stating that he had been released. One of the SS men told him, “Well, you’ll see your wife pretty soon.”
Back in the cellar the men were told to pack their belongings. Kosney could hardly believe his luck. He packed quickly, carefully folding the good suit his wife had given him on their fourth wedding anniversary. When he had finished, he began to help his fellow prisoner, Haushofer. Among Haushofer’s belongings was some food, including a bottle of wine and a loaf of pumpernickel. Haushofer could not get the bread into his rucksack, so he gave it to Kosney. There was a long wait. Then, after almost an hour and a half, the sixteen men were lined up in a double row and led up the cellar steps, through a door and into a dark hall. Suddenly a door slammed shut behind them and they were left standing in total darkness. Almost immediately a flashlight was switched on. As Herbert’s eyes grew accustomed to the dimness, he saw that the light was hanging from an SS officer’s belt. The man, a lieutenant colonel, was wearing a helmet and he carried a gun. “You are being transferred,” he told the men. “If there are any attempts at escape you will be shot down. Load your things onto the truck outside. We’ll march to the Potsdam railroad station.”
Kosney’s hopes were dashed. For a moment he thought of darting into one of the nearby cells. He was now certain that the Russians would be in the area within a few hours. But even as he considered hiding, he realized that other SS men, carrying machine pistols, were standing all about the room.
The prisoners were herded out into the Lehrterstrasse and marched off in the direction of Invalidenstrasse. It was raining; Herbert turned up his jacket collar and tied a towel he was using as a scarf tighter around his throat. Halfway down the street the men were stopped and searched, and their personal effects, which had been returned to them only a short while earlier, were taken again. The column set off once more, each prisoner flanked by an SS man with a machine pistol on his back and a gun in his hand. As they reached Invalidenstrasse an SS sergeant suggested taking a shortcut through the bombed-out Ulap exhibition hall. They marched through the rubble and entered the ruins of the massive building with its skeletal concrete pillars. Suddenly each prisoner was grabbed by the collar by his SS guard. One group of prisoners went to the left, the other to the right. They were marched right up to the wall of the building and positioned about six to seven feet apart. And then they all knew what was going to happen.
Some prisoners began to plead for their lives. The man next to Kosney began to scream, “Let me live! I haven’t done anything.” At that moment Herbert felt the cold barrel of a pistol touching the back of his neck. Just as the sergeant shouted “Fire,” Herbert turned his head. There was a ragged volley as each SS man fired. Kosney felt a sudden sharp blow. Then he was on the ground. He lay motionless.
Now the lieutenant colonel walked along the line of fallen men, firing an additional shot into the head of each prisoner. When he got to Herbert, he said: “This pig has had enough.” Then he said: “Come on, men. We must hurry. We have more work to do tonight.”
Kosney never knew how long he lay there. After a time, very cautiously, he put his hand up to his neck and cheek. He was bleeding profusely. But his life had been saved in that split second when he turned his head. He found that he could not use his right arm or leg. Crawling, he slowly made his way through the ruins until he reached Invalidenstrasse. Then he got up, found he could walk, tied the towel even more tightly about his wounded throat and slowly, painfully started in the direction of the Charité Hospital. He collapsed several times. Once he was stopped by a group of Hitler Youths; they first demanded his identity papers, but then, seeing that he was badly hurt, they allowed him to pass.
At some point in his journey he took his shoes off because “they felt too heavy.” At another time he encountered heavy artillery fire. How long the walk took he could never remember—the was never more than half conscious—but finally he reached his home off Franseckystrasse. Then, with his last ounce of strength, Herbert Kosney, the only living witness to the Lehrterstrasse Prison massacre, banged again and again on the door. His wife Hedwig opened the door. The man who stood there was unrecognizable. His face was a mass of blood, as was the front of his coat. Horrified, she said, “Who are you?” Just before he collapsed, Kosney managed to say, “I’m Herbert.”*
At 1 A.M. on April 23, the phone rang in the Wiesenburg forest headquarters of General Walther Wenck, commander of the Twelfth Army. The Wehrmacht’s youngest general was still in uniform, dozing in an armchair. His command post, Alte Hölle—Old Hell—about thirty-five miles east of Magdeburg was the former home of a gamekeeper.
Wenck picked up the phone himself. One of his commanders reported that Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel had just passed through the lines, en route to the headquarters. Wenck called his Chief of Staff, Colonel Günther Reichhelm. “We have a visitor coming,” he said. “Keitel.” Wenck had always heartily disliked Hitler’s Chief of Staff. Keitel was the last man in the world he wanted to talk to now.
In the last few weeks Wenck had seen more sorrow, hardship and suffering than he had ever witnessed in battle. As Germany’s boundaries shrank, his area had become a vast refugee encampment. Homeless Germans were everywhere—along the roads, in the fields, villages and forests, sleeping in wagons, tents, broken-down trucks, railway carriages, and in the open. Wenck had turned every habitable building in the area—homes, churches, even village dance halls—into shelters for the refugees. “I felt,” he said later, “like a visiting priest. Every day I went around trying to do what I could for the refugees, in particular the children and the sick. And all the time we wondered how soon the Americans would attack from their bridgeheads across the Elbe.”
His army was now feeding more than half a million people a day. Trains from all over the Reich had reached this narrow area between the Elbe and Berlin and had been unable to proceed farther. The freight they carried was both a boon and a burden to the Twelfth Army. Every conceivable kind of cargo, from aircraft parts to carloads of butter, had been found on the trains. A few miles away, on the eastern front, Von Manteuffel’s panzers were halted for lack of fuel; Wenck, on the other hand, was almost awash in gasoline. He had reported these surpluses to Berlin, but as yet no arrangements had been made to collect them. Nobody had even acknowledged his reports.
Now as he waited for Keitel, Wenck reflected with some concern that if the OKW Chief of Staff learned of his social work among the refugees he would hardly approve. Under Keitel’s code of soldierly ethics, such actions were simply inconceivable. Wenck heard a car drive up and one of his staff said, “Now watch Keitel play the hero.”
In the full trappings of a field marshal, even to baton, Keitel entered the little house followed by his adjutant and aide. “The arrogance and pomp of Keitel and his group, strutting as though they had just taken Paris,” seemed disgraceful to Wenck, “when every road told its tale of misery and Germany lay defeated.”
Formally Keitel saluted, touching his cap with his field marshal’s baton. Wenck saw immediately that for all his punctilious behavior his visitor was anxious and excited. Keitel’s adjutant produced maps and spread them out; without preamble, Keitel leaned over, tapped Berlin, and said: “We must save the Führer.”
Then, as though he felt he had been too abrupt, Keitel dropped that subject and asked for a briefing on the Twelfth Army’s situation. Wenck did not mention the refugees or the army’s part in caring for them. Instead, he spoke in general terms of the Elbe area. Even when coffee and sandwiches were served, Keitel did not relax. Wenck did little to put his visitor at ease. “The truth was,” he later explained, “that we felt terribly superior. What could Keitel tell us that we did not already know? That the end had come?”
Keitel suddenly stood up and began pacing the room. “Hitler,” he said gravely, “has broken down completely. Worse, he has given up. Because of this situation, you must turn your troops around and drive toward Berlin, together with the Ninth Army of Busse.” Wenck listened quietly as Keitel described the situation. “The battle for Berlin has begun,” he said. “No less than the fate of Germany and Hitler are at stake.” He looked solemnly at Wenck. “It is your duty to attack and save the Führer.” Irrelevantly, Wenck suddenly thought that this was probably the closest Keitel had ever been to the front lines in his life.
Long ago in his dealings with Keitel, Wenck had learned that “if you gave an argument, one of two things happened: you got two hours of blistering talk or you lost your command.” Now he replied automatically, “Of course, Field Marshal, we will do what you order.”
Keitel nodded. “You will attack Berlin from the sector Belzig-Treuenbrietzen,” he said, pointing to two small towns about twelve miles northeast of the Twelfth’s front lines. Wenck knew that this was impossible. Keitel was talking about a plan which was based on forces—men, tanks and divisions—that had long since been destroyed, or had simply never existed. With virtually no tanks or self-propelled guns and with few men, Wenck could not simultaneously hold the line against the Americans at the Elbe and attack toward Berlin to save the Führer. In any case, it would be immensely difficult to attack northeast into Berlin. There were too many lakes and rivers in his path. With the limited forces at his disposal, he could only get into Berlin from the north. He suggested to Keitel that the Twelfth drive on Berlin “north of the lakes, via Nauen and Spandau. I think,” Wenck added, “that I can mount the attack in about two days.” Keitel stood for a moment in silence. Then he told Wenck stonily, “We can’t wait two days.”
Again, Wenck did not argue. He could not waste the time. Quickly he agreed to Keitel’s plan. As the Field Marshal left the headquarters, he turned to Wenck and said, “I wish you complete success.”
When Keitel’s car had driven away, Wenck called together his staff. “Now,” he said, “here’s how we will actually do it. We will drive as close to Berlin as we can, but we will not give up our positions on the Elbe. With our flanks on the river we keep open a channel of escape to the west. It would be nonsense to drive toward Berlin only to be encircled by the Russians. We will try for a link-up with the Ninth Army, and then let’s get out every soldier and civilian who can make it to the west.”
As for Hitler, Wenck said only that “the fate of one person does not matter any more.” While he was giving orders for the attack, it occurred to Wenck that in all the long night’s discussion Keitel had never once mentioned the people of Berlin.
As dawn came up at Magdeburg, three Germans slipped across the Elbe and surrendered to the U.S. 30th Infantry Division. One of them was 57-year-old Lieutenant General Kurt Dittmar, a Wehrmacht officer who had daily broadcast the latest communiqués from the front, and who was known throughout the Reich as the “voice of the German High Command.” With him were his 16-year-old son Eberhard and Major Werner Pluskat, the D-Day veteran whose Magdeburg guns had played an important part in preventing General Simpson’s U. S. Ninth Army from crossing the Elbe.
Dittmar, who was considered the most accurate of all German military broadcasters, had a large following, not only in Germany but among the Allied monitoring staffs. He was immediately taken to the 30th’s headquarters for questioning. He surprised intelligence officers with one piece of information: Hitler, he said firmly, was in Berlin. It was enlightening news to the Allied officers. Up to now no one had been certain of the Führer’s whereabouts.* Most rumors had placed him in the National Redoubt. But Dittmar could not be shaken from his story. The Führer was not only in Berlin, he told his interrogators, but he believed that “Hitler will either be killed there or commit suicide.”
“Tell us about the National Redoubt,” somebody urged. Dittmar looked puzzled. The only thing he knew about a national redoubt, he said, was something he had read in a Swiss newspaper the previous January. He agreed that there were pockets of resistance in the north, “including Norway and Denmark, and one in the south in the Italian Alps. But,” he added, “that is less by intention than by force of circumstance.” As his interrogators pressed him about the redoubt, Dittmar shook his head. “The National Redoubt? It’s a romantic dream. It’s a myth.”
And that is all it was—a chimera. As General Omar Bradley, the Twelfth Army Group commander, was later to write, “the Redoubt existed largely in the imagination of a few fanatical Nazis. It grew into so exaggerated a scheme that I am astonished we could have believed it as innocently as we did. But while it persisted, this legend … shaped our tactical thinking.”
Amid clouds of dust, columns of German tanks hammered through the cobbled streets of Karlshorst, on the outskirts of Berlin’s eastern district of Lichtenberg. Eleanore Krüger, whose Jewish fiancé Joachim Lipschitz was hiding in the cellar of her home, watched in amazement. Where had the tanks come from? Where were they going? Instead of heading into the city, they were dashing south toward Schöneweide, as though fleeing Berlin. Were the Russians right behind? If they were, it would mean freedom at last for Joachim. But why were German troops leaving the city? Were they abandoning it? Retreating?
Eleanore did not know it, but she was watching the lost and battered remnant of General Weidling’s 56th Panzer Corps in the process of restoring contact with the main force. After being pushed back to the very outskirts of the city, Weidling’s men had re-established communications with Busse’s now-encircled Ninth Army in a most roundabout way: the moment they hit the edge of the city they had used the public telephone to call High Command headquarters in Berlin, and they had thereupon been connected by radio with the Ninth. The 56th had immediately received orders to head south of the capital, cut their way through the surrounding ring of Russians, and link up with the Ninth again about fifteen miles from the city in the area of Königswusterhausen and Klein Kienitz. From there they would join the effort to cut off Koniev’s forces.
But first Weidling had some unfinished business to attend to. He had now heard that officers from both Busse’s and Hitler’s headquarters had been sent to bring him in on charges that he had deliberately fled the battlefield, leaving his corps leaderless. Angrily, he ordered his men to push on without him while he headed into the city to confront Krebs.
Some hours later Weidling, having crossed Berlin to the Reichskanzlei, made his way through the basement to the so-called aide-de-camp bunker where Krebs and Burgdorf had their office. They greeted him coolly. “What’s going on?” demanded Weidling. “Tell me why I’m supposed to be shot.” His headquarters, said Weidling sharply, had been located almost on the front line from the moment the battle began: how could anyone say he had fled? Someone mentioned the Olympic Village at Döberitz. The 56th had been nowhere near Döberitz, growled Weidling; to have gone there “would have been the greatest stupidity.” Slowly Krebs and Burgdorf thawed; soon they were promising to clear up matters with the Führer “without delay.”
Weidling then gave the two men a briefing on his situation. He told them that his corps was about to attack south of Berlin—and then, “in passing, I casually added that before leaving I had received a report that Russian tank spearheads had been seen near Rudow.” Rudow lay just beyond the edge of the southeastern district of Neukölln. Krebs immediately saw danger. In that case, he said, the Ninth’s order for the 56th Corps had to be changed: Weidling’s corps would have to stay in Berlin. Then both Krebs and Burgdorf hurried off to see Hitler.
Shortly thereafter Weidling was told that Hitler wanted to see him. The walk to the Führerbunker was a long one, through what Weidling later called an “underground city.” From Krebs’s office he proceeded first along a subterranean tunnel, then through a kitchen and dining room, and finally down a staircase and into the Führer’s personal quarters.
Krebs and Burgdorf introduced him. “Behind a table loaded with maps,” Weidling wrote, “sat the Führer of the Reich. When I entered, he turned his head. I saw a puffy face with feverish eyes. When he tried to stand up, I noticed to my horror that his hands and legs were constantly trembling. He succeeded with great effort in getting up. With a distorted smile he shook hands with me and asked in a hardly audible voice whether we hadn’t met before.” Once before, said Weidling; the Führer had given him a decoration a year earlier. Hitler said: “I do remember the name, but cannot remember the face.” When Hitler sat down, Weidling noticed that even in a sitting position “his left leg kept moving, the knee swinging like a pendulum, only faster.”
Weidling told Hitler what the 56th’s situation was. Then Hitler confirmed Krebs’s instructions that the Corps was to stay in Berlin. The Führer thereupon launched into his plan for the defense of Berlin. He proposed to pull in the armies of Wenck from the west, Busse from the southeast and Group Steiner from the north, and thus, somehow, cut off the Russians. “It was,” wrote Weidling, “with ever-growing astonishment that I listened to the big talk of the Führer.” Only one thing was clear to Weidling: “Short of a miracle, the days until final defeat were numbered.”
That evening the 56th Corps, suffering heavy losses, managed to disengage from the Russians in the south, then pivot and enter Berlin. Twenty-four hours later, to Weidling’s horror, he was named Commandant of the city.
The order from Stalin was numbered 11074. It was addressed to both Zhukov and Koniev; and it divided up the city between them. As of this day, April 23, the order said, the boundary line between the First Belorussian Front and First Ukrainian Front would be “Lübben, thence to Teupitz, Mittenwalde, Mariendorf, Anhalter Station of Berlin.”
Although he could not complain publicly, Koniev was crushed. Zhukov had been given the prize. The boundary line, which ran straight through Berlin, placed Koniev’s forces roughly 150 yards west of the Reichstag—which the Russians had always considered the city’s prize plum, the place where the Soviet flag was to be planted.
Now the city began to die. In most places, water and gas services had stopped. Newspapers began to close down; the last was the Nazis’ own Völkischer Beobachter, which shut up on the twenty-sixth (it was replaced by a Goebbels-inspired four-page paper called Der Panzerbar [The Armored Bear], described as the “Combat Paper for the Defenders of Greater Berlin,” which lasted six days). All transportation within the city was grinding to a halt as streets became impassable, gasoline scarce, and vehicles crippled. Distribution services broke down; there were almost no deliveries of any kind. Refrigeration plants no longer functioned. On April 22, the city’s 100-year-old telegraph office closed down for the first time in its history. The last message it received was from Tokyo; it read: “GOOD LUCK TO YOU ALL.” On the same day, the last plane left Tempelhof Airport, bound for Stockholm with nine passengers aboard, and Berlin’s 1,400 fire companies were ordered to the west.*
And now, with all the police serving in either the army or the Home Guard, the city slowly started to go out of control. People began to plunder. Freight trains stalled in the marshaling yards were broken into in broad daylight. Margarete Promeist, who made an extremely dangerous journey to the rail yards under heavy shelling, came away with a single piece of bacon; “looking back on it,” she said afterward, “I thought this was sheer madness.” Elena Majewski and Vera Ungnad rushed all the way to the railway freight yards in Moabit. They saw people grabbing cases of canned apricots, plums and peaches. There were also sacks of a strange kind of beans, but the girls passed these by. They did not recognize green coffee beans. They got a case of canned goods labeled “Apricots” and when they got home discovered it was applesauce. Both girls had always hated it. Robert Schultze fared even worse: he spent five hours as part of a mob trying to get at some potatoes in a large food store—but by the time his turn came they were all gone.
Storekeepers who would not give supplies away were often forced to do so. Hitler Youth Klaus Küster walked into a store with his aunt and asked for some supplies. When the owner insisted that he had only some cereals left, Küster pulled a gun and demanded food. The shopowner quickly produced an assortment of foodstuffs, literally from under the counter. Küster gathered up as much as he could carry, and he and his scandalized aunt left the store. “You are a godless youth,” his aunt cried when they were outside, “using American gangster methods!” Klaus replied: “Aw, shut up! It’s now a matter of life and death.”
Elfriede Maigatter heard a rumor that the giant Karstadt department store on the Hermannplatz was being looted. She hurried to the store and found it jammed with people. “Everyone was pushing and kicking to get through the doors,” she later reported. “There were no queues any more. There was no sales staff, and nobody seemed to be in charge.” People were just grabbing everything in sight. If it turned out to be something useless they simply dropped it on the floor. In the food department there was a carpet of several inches of sticky mud on the floor, made up of condensed milk, marmalade, noodles, flour, honey—anything that had been overturned or dropped by the mob.”
A few supervisors seemed to be left, for now and then a man would shout, “Get out! Get out! The store is going to be blown up!” Nobody paid any attention to him; it was too obvious a trick. Women were grabbing coats, dresses and shoes in the clothing department. Bedding, linens and blankets were being dragged from shelves by others. In the candy section Elfriede saw a man grab a box of chocolates from a little boy. The child began to cry. Then he yelled, “I’m going to get another one.” And he did.
But at the exit door came the denouement: two supervisors were stopping everyone as they tried to get out with their booty. They were letting people take food, but nothing else. Soon a great pile of merchandise began to grow near the door. People plowed through it, pushing and shoving, trying to force their way past the supervisors. When Elfriede tried to get through with the coat she had taken, one of the store officials grabbed it away from her. “Please let me have it,” she begged. “I’m cold.” He shrugged, took it back off the pile and gave it to her. “Beat it,” he said. And all the time, as the mob pushed and shoved and grabbed everything in sight, someone kept yelling: “Get out! Get out! The store is going to be blown up!”
One witness to the looting at Karstadt’s was Pastor Leckscheidt. His presence on the scene had come about in a surprising way. One of his parishioners had given birth to a stillborn baby and the infant had been cremated. The mother, deeply distressed, wanted the urn containing the ashes properly buried and Leckscheidt had agreed to be present—even though it meant walking several miles, under constant shelling, to the cemetery in Neukölln where the woman wanted her child buried. As they tramped along, the woman carrying the little urn in her shopping bag, they passed by Karstadt’s and saw the mobs looting. His parishioner stared. Suddenly she said, “Wait!” Leckscheidt stood in amazement as “she left my side and disappeared into the store, urn, market bag and all.” Moments later she returned, triumphantly swinging a pair of sturdy boots. Turning to Leckscheidt, she said: “Shall we go?”
On the way back, Leckscheidt was careful to keep her away from Karstadt’s. It was just as well. That afternoon the huge store rocked as explosives tore it apart. The SS, which reportedly had stored 29 million marks’ worth of supplies in the basement, had blown up the emporium to deny the Russians the treasure. A number of women and children were killed in the blast.
In the face of the plunderers many store owners simply gave up. Rather than let their shops get smashed by unruly mobs, they emptied their shelves and gave supplies away without accepting either ration stamps or money. There was another reason: shopkeepers had heard that if the Russians found hoarded food, they burned the shop down. In Neukölln a week before, film projectionist Günther Rosetz, had tried to buy some marmalade at Tengelmann’s grocery store and had been refused. Now Rosetz saw that Tengelmann’s was selling tubs of marmalade, oats, sugar and flour—all at ten marks a pound. In panic the store was giving goods away just to move everything out of the shop. In the Caspary wine shop on the corner of Hindenburgstrasse, Alexander Kelm could hardly believe his eyes: bottles of wine were given away to all comers. The Hitler Youth, Klaus Küster, making another foray through his neighborhood, got two hundred free cigarettes at one place, two bottles of brandy at another. The owner of the liquor shop in his area said: “Here, you might as well drink it up. Hard times are coming.”
Even for looters there was virtually no meat to be had. At first a few butchers had supplies which they doled out to special customers, but soon that, too, was gone. Now, all over Berlin, people started carving up horses, which lay dead in the streets from the shelling. Charlotte Richter and her sister saw people armed with knives cutting up a gray-white horse that had been killed on Breitenbachplatz. “The horse,” Charlotte saw, “had not fallen over on its side, but sort of sat on its haunches, its head still high, eyes wide open. And there were women with carving knives cleaving at its shanks.”
Ruby Borgmann found that she enjoyed brushing her teeth with champagne; it made the toothpaste very foamy. In the luxurious cellar beneath Heinrich Schelle’s fashionable Gruban-Souchay restaurant, Ruby and her husband Eberhard were living an almost exotic existence. Schelle had kept his promise; when the shelling began, he invited the Borgmanns to join him in his resplendent underground quarters. The restaurant’s reserves of silver, crystal and fine china were stored there and Schelle had provided creature comforts as well. The floor was carpeted with Oriental rugs. On either side of the entrance, sleeping accommodations were screened by heavy gray-green draperies. Luxurious overstuffed chairs, a sofa and small tables—each covered with beige and rust-colored linen cloths from the restaurant—were placed about the room. There had been no water for days but there was champagne aplenty. “We drank champagne morning, noon and night,” Ruby remembered. “It flowed like water—the water we didn’t have.”
Food was the real problem. The Borgmanns’ good friend, Pia van Hoeven, who sometimes shared the cellar’s comforts with them, was occasionally able to produce some bread and even a little meat on her visits. Mostly, however, the occupants lived on tuna fish and potatoes. Ruby wondered just how many ways there were to fix these staples. The restaurant’s temperamental French chef, Mopti, had yet to repeat himself, but he could not go on forever. Still, now that there seemed no hope that the Americans would come, the little group had decided to live it up. At any hour they might be dead.
“Papa” Saenger was gone.
Through four years of bombing and through the shelling of the last few days, the 78-year-old World War I veteran had refused to be intimidated. In fact, it had taken all of Erna Saenger’s powers of persuasion to prevent her husband Konrad from going out for his customary meeting with his World War I comrades-in-arms. She had put Papa to work digging a shallow hole in the garden to hide her preserves. Konrad also thought it might be a good idea to hide his old army sword along with the jams and jellies, so the Russians would find no weapons in the house.
But once the work was done, Papa had gone out into the streets despite the pleadings of the entire family. They had found his shrapnel-riddled body in the bushes outside the burning wreckage of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s house, only a short way from home. While shells blanketed the district, the family brought Papa home in a wheelbarrow. As she walked alongside the cart, Erna remembered that during their last conversation she had a slight difference of opinion with Konrad as to which Biblical quotation was more appropriate for the times. Papa maintained that “one can only live by the 90th Psalm, especially the fourth verse: ‘For a thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.’” Erna had disagreed. “Personally,” she told him, “I think that psalm is much too pessimistic. I prefer the 46th: ‘God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.’”
There was not a coffin to be found, and a trip to the cemetery was too dangerous to attempt in any case. Still, they could not keep the body in the warm house. They left it on the porch. Erna found two small pieces of wood and nailed them together for a cross. Gently, she placed the crucifix between her husband’s hands. As she looked down at Papa, she wished she could tell him that he had been right, for the 90th Psalm continued: “We are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.”
Father Bernhard Happich looked down at the notes for his sermon. The chapel of Haus Dahlem was softly lit by candles, but outside the sky to the east of Wilmersdorf was almost blood red, and the shelling which had awakened the Sisters at three that morning was still going on nearly twelve hours later. Somewhere nearby, glass shattered and a tremendous concussion shook the building. Father Happich heard loud shouts from the street and then the heavy thudding sound of the Czech anti-aircraft gun just across the road from the maternity home and orphanage.
The nuns sitting before him did not stir. As he gazed out at them, he saw that, in keeping with an order from Mother Superior Cunegundes, the women had removed the heavy silver crosses they normally wore. Instead, small, inconspicuous metal crucifixes—so-called Death Crosses—were attached to their habits. The silver ones had been hidden, along with all rings and watches.
Father Happich had made some preparations of his own. In the Dahlem villa where the priest lived, a large box had been packed. In it Father Happich had placed some medical instruments, the contents of the medicine chests, plus drugs, bandages and white sheets contributed by neighbors. Before becoming a priest Father Happich had received a medical degree, and now he was working again at both vocations; each day now he cared for casualties of the shellings, attended to accident victims and treated hysteria and shock. His white medical coat was beginning to see as much wear as his clerical robes.
He looked once more at his little flock of nuns, nurses and lay sisters, said a silent prayer that God would give him the right words, and began.
“Within the near future we expect Soviet occupation,” he said. “Very bad rumors have been spread about the Russians. In part they have proven to be true. But one should not generalize.
“If one of you present here should experience something bad, remember the story of little St. Agnes. She was twelve when she was ordered to worship false gods. She raised her hands to Christ and made the Sign of the Cross and for this her clothes were ripped off and she was tortured before a pagan crowd. Yet this did not daunt her, though the heathens were moved to tears. Her public exposure brought flattery from some and even offers of marriage. But she answered, ‘Christ is my Spouse.’ So the sentence of death was passed. For a moment she stood in prayer and then she was beheaded and the angels bore her swiftly to Paradise.”
Father Happich paused. “You must remember,” he said. “Like St. Agnes, if your body is touched and you do not want it, then your eternal reward in Heaven will be doubled, for you will have worn the crown of the martyr. Therefore, do not feel guilty.” He stopped and then said emphatically: “You are not guilty.”
As he walked back down the aisle, the voices of his congregation sang a recessional. “I need Thy presence every passing hour … what but Thy grace can foil the tempter’s power?” They were the words of the ancient hymn, “Abide with Me.”
At the main switchboard in the long-distance exchange on Winterfeldtstrasse in Schöneberg, the lights were going out one by one as outlying communities were cut off by the Russian attack. Yet, in the exchange itself people were as busy as ever. Rather than go down to the basement shelter, supervisor Elisabeth Milbrand and operator Charlotte Burmester had brought steamer chairs with mattresses and pillows into their office; the two women intended to stick it out on the fifth floor, where the main exchange was located, as long as they could.
Suddenly the loudspeakers in the building blared. In the shelter hospital, Operator Helena Schroeder was overjoyed by what she heard. On the fifth floor, operators Milbrand and Burmester were taking down the news so they could phone it to all areas still connected to the exchange. “Attention! Attention!” said the announcer. “Don’t get restless. General Wenck’s army has joined with the Americans. They are attacking toward Berlin. Hold up your courage! Berlin is not lost!”
They cracked the outer ring of the city’s defenses and gouged their way into the second ring. They crouched behind the T-34 tanks and self-propelled guns and fought up the streets, the roads, the avenues and through the parklands. Leading the way were the battle-toughened assault troops of Koniev’s and Zhukov’s Guards, and with them the leather-capped soldiers of four great tank armies. Behind came line upon line of infantry.
They were a strange soldiery. They came from every republic of the Soviet Union and, apart from the crisp Guards regiments, they varied as much in physical appearance as in battle dress. There were so many different languages and dialects among them that officers often could not communicate with elements of their own troops.* In the ranks were Russians and Belorussians, Ukrainians and Karelians, Georgians and Kazakhs, Armenians and Azerbaijanis, Bashkirs, Mordvinians, Tartars, Irkutsks, Uzbeks, Mongols and Cossacks. Some men wore dark brown uniforms, some wore khaki or gray-green. Others were dressed in dark pants with high-necked blouses; the blouses ranged in color from black to beige. Their headwear was equally varied—leather hoods with bobbing earflaps, fur hats, battered, sweat-stained khaki caps. All of them seemed to carry automatic weapons. They came on horseback, on foot, on motorcycles, in horse-drawn carts and captured vehicles of every sort, and they threw themselves on Berlin.
In the Schöneberg telephone exchange, the voice coming over the loudspeaker commanded: “Everyone pay attention. Discard your party badges, your party books and please take off your uniforms. Throw the stuff into the big sandpile in the yard or go to the engine room where it will be burned.”
Milkman Richard Poganowska stopped his milk cart and gaped as five Russian tanks, surrounded by infantry, rumbled up the street. Poganowska turned his wagon around and drove back to the Domäne Dahlem dairy. There he joined his family in the cellar.
For a time they waited. Suddenly the shelter door was kicked open and Red Army soldiers entered. They looked around silently. Then they left. A short while later some soldiers returned, and Poganowska and the other employees of the dairy were ordered to the administration building. As he waited, he noticed that all the horses were gone but the cows were still there. A Soviet officer, speaking perfect German, ordered the men back to work. They were to care for the animals and milk the cows, he said. Poganowskacould hardly believe it. He had expected a great deal worse.
It was the same in all the outer districts where people were seeing their first Russian troops. The forward elements of the Soviet Army, hard-bitten but scrupulously correct in behavior, were not at all what the terrified citizens had expected.
At 7 P.M. Pia van Hoeven was sitting in the cellarway of her apartment house in Schöneberg, peeling a few potatoes. Nearby, several other women from the house chatted together, their backs to the open shelter door. Suddenly Pia looked up and stared open-mouthed into the muzzles of submachine guns held by two Russian soldiers. “Quietly I raised my arms, knife in one hand, potato in the other,” she remembers. The other women looked at her, turned, and put their hands up, too. To Pia’s surprise, one of the soldiers asked in German, “Soldiers here? Volkssturm? Any guns?” The women shook their heads. “Good Germans,” said the soldier approvingly. They walked in and took the women’s watches, and then they disappeared.
As the night wore on, Pia saw more and more Russians. “They were fighting troops and many spoke German,” she remembered. “But they seemed to be interested only in moving up and getting on with the battle.” Pia and the women in her apartment house decided that all Goebbels’ talk about the rapacious Red Army was just another pack of lies. “If all the Russians behave like this,” Pia told her friends, “then we have nothing to worry about.”
Marianne Bombach felt the same way. She came out of her Wilmersdorf cellar one morning and saw a Russian field kitchen set up just outside her back door. The soldiers, fighting units bivouacked in Schwarze Grund Park, were sharing food and candy with the neighborhood children. Their manners particularly impressed Marianne. They had upended some square garbage cans and were using them as tables. Each was covered with a doily, apparently taken from villas nearby. There they sat in the middle of the field on somebody’s straight-backed chairs eating off the garbage cans. Except for their fraternization with the children, the Russians seemed to be ignoring the civilians. They remained for just a few hours and then moved on.
Dora Janssen and the widow of her husband’s batman were shocked and frightened. After the fatal shelling of the aide and the wounding of Major Janssen, Dora had invited the widow to stay with her. The two defenseless women, their nerves raw from grief and fear, were in the cellar of the Janssens’ building when Dora saw “a huge shadow appear on the wall.” In the shadow’s hands was a gun. To Dora the apparition “appeared like a cannon being held in the paws of a gorilla and the soldier’s head seemed huge and deformed.” She was unable to breathe. The Russian came into view, followed by another, and ordered them out of the cellar. “Now,” Dora thought, “it is going to take place.” The two women were led outdoors, where the Russians handed them brooms and pointed to the debris and broken glass that littered the walk. The women were dumbfounded. Their surprise and relief was so obvious that the Russians broke into laughter.
Other people had more harrowing encounters with the newly arrived front-line troops. Elisabeth Eberhard was almost shot. A social worker employed by Catholic Bishop Konrad von Preysing, Elisabeth had been hiding Jews for years. She was visiting a friend when she met her first two Russians—a young blond officer accompanied by a woman interpreter. Both entered the house heavily armed; the woman carried a submachine gun. The phone rang just as the Russians came in. As Elisabeth’s friend picked it up, the elegant officer grabbed it from her. “You are both traitors,” the interpreter told them, “you have contact with the enemy.” The women were rushed out of the house and into the garden and were backed against the wall. The officer announced that he intended to shoot them. Elisabeth, knees shaking, shouted at him, “We have been waiting for you! We have always been against Hitler! My husband has been in prison as a political offender for twelve years!”
The Red Army woman interpreted. Slowly the officer lowered his gun. He seemed greatly embarrassed. Then he came toward Elisabeth, took her right hand and kissed it. Elisabeth was equal to the Russian’s poise. In as casual a voice as she could muster, she politely inquired, “Will you both join us in a glass of wine?”
The discipline and orderliness of the first troops amazed almost everyone. Druggist Hans Miede noticed that Soviet soldiers “seemed to avoid firing into houses unless they were sure German defenders were hiding there.” Helena Boese, who had lived in dread of the Russians’ arrival, came face to face with a Red Army trooper on her cellar steps. He was “young, handsome and wearing an immaculately clean uniform.” He just looked at her when she came out of the cellar and then, gesturing to indicate good will, gave her a stick with a white handkerchief tied to it as a sign of capitulation. In the same Wilmersdorf area, Ilse Antz, who had always believed that the Berliners were going to be “thrown like fodder to the Russians,” was asleep in the basement of her apartment house when the first Russian entered. She awakened and stared at him in terror, but the young, dark-haired trooper just smiled at her and said in broken German: “Why afraid? Everything all right now. Go to sleep.”
For one group of Berliners the arrival of the Soviet troops produced no terror at all. The Jews had long ago come to terms with fear. Leo Sternfeld, the former Tempelhof businessman forced to work as a garbage collector for the Gestapo, had sweated out every mile of the Russian advance. A half-Jew, he had lived all through the war in anguished suspense, never knowing when he and his family would be sent to a concentration camp. For most of the war, his name had made Sternfeld and his family unwelcome in air raid shelters. But when the shelling began, Leo noticed a remarkable change in his neighbors. “The residents of the house,” he recalled, “almost dragged us into the shelter.”
Sternfeld was overjoyed when he saw the first troops in the Tempelhof district. They were orderly and peaceful, and to Leo they were liberators. The Russian battalion commander asked if they might have a room in Leo’s house to hold a celebration. “You can have anything I’ve got,” Leo told him. He had already lost half his house when the nearby post office had blown up some days before, but there were three rooms left. “You can have the one with the ceiling,” Leo assured the Russian. In return, he, his family and some friends were invited to the party. The Russians arrived, bringing baskets of food and drink. “It seemed to me at one time,” Leo said, “as if the entire Russian Army joined the party.” The Russians drank enormous quantities of vodka. Then, to the accompaniment of an accordion, the battalion commander, an opera star in private life, began to sing. Leo sat enthralled. For the first time in years, he felt free.
Joachim Lipschitz came out of hiding in the Krügers’ cellar in Karlshorst to meet the Red Army troopers. Speaking in the slow, halting Russian he had taught himself in his months underground, he tried to explain who he was and to express his gratitude for liberation. To his amazement the Russians howled with laughter. Slapping him boisterously on the back, they said that they, too, were happy, but they added, choking again with laughter, that he spoke terrible Russian. Joachim didn’t mind. For him and for Eleanore Krüger the long wait was over. They would be the first couple married when the battle ended. As soon as they received their marriage certificate, it would represent, as Eleanore was to put it, “our own personal victory over the Nazis. We had won and nothing could hurt us any more.”*
Everywhere, as areas were overrun, the Jews came out of hiding. Some, however, were still so fearful that they remained in their secret places long after the danger from the Nazis was past. Twenty-year-old Hans Rosenthal was to stay in his six-by five-foot cubicle in Lichtenberg until May—a total of twenty-eight months in hiding. In some areas, Jews were freed and then faced with the prospect of having to go underground again when the Russians were thrown back in temporary but violent and widely scattered counterattacks.
The Weltlingers in Pankow had one of the strangest experiences of all. They were liberated early. The Russian officer who entered their hiding place in the Möhrings’ apartment would always be remembered by Siegmund as “the personification of Michael the archangel.” When he saw them, the officer called out in poor German, “Russki no barbarian. We good to you.” At one time he had been a student in Berlin.
Then suddenly there was a tense moment. The officer and his men searched the entire apartment house—and found six revolvers. To the assembled occupants, the Russian announced that he had found them hidden with discarded uniforms. Everyone was ordered out of the house and lined up against a wall. Siegmund stepped forward and said, “I’m a Jew.” The young officer smiled, shook his head, made a motion as though cutting his throat and said, “No more Jews alive.” Over and over Siegmund repeated that he was a Jew. He looked at the others lined up against the wall. A few weeks earlier, many of these people would have turned him in had they known his whereabouts. Yet Siegmund now said in a clear, loud voice: “These are good people. All of them have sheltered us in this house. I ask you not to harm them. These weapons were thrown away by the Volkssturm.”
His statement saved the lives of all the tenants. Germans and Russians began hugging each other. “We were drunk,” Siegmund said, “with happiness and joy.” The Soviet officer immediately brought food and drink for the Weltlingers and stood anxiously watching them, and urging them to eat. Both Weltlingers nearly became ill from the food because they were not used to anything so rich. “Immediately,” Siegmund said, “people became very kind to us. We were given an empty flat, food and clothing, and for the first time we were able to stand in the fresh air and walk a street.”
But then the Russians were thrown out of the area by an SS attack—and the same residents Weltlinger had saved the day before suddenly became hostile again. “It was,” said Weltlinger, “unbelievable.” The next day the Russians retook the area and once more they were liberated, but by a different Soviet unit—and this time the Russians would not believe that Weltlinger was a Jew. All the men in his building were loaded onto a truck and driven away for questioning. As Siegmund said good-bye to his wife he wondered if all this deprivation, all this hiding was now going to have a senseless end. They were taken to the northeastern suburbs and one by one were questioned in a cellar. Weltlinger was brought into the room and placed beneath a bright light. Sitting in the darkness were some officers at a long table. Once again Weltlinger insisted that he was a Jew who had been in hiding for more than two years. Then a woman’s voice came out of the darkness: “Prove to me you are a Jew.” “How?” She asked him to recite the Hebrew profession of faith.
In the silence of the room Siegmund looked at the shadowy faces sitting in the darkness before him. Then, covering his head with his right hand, his voice filled with emotion, he said one of the most ancient of all prayers, the Sh’mah Yisroël. In Hebrew he slowly intoned :
Hear, O Israel!
The Lord our God,
The Lord is One.
Then the woman spoke again. “Go,” she said. “You are a Jew and a good man.” She, too, was Jewish, she said. The next day Siegmund was reunited with his wife. “No words,” he said, “can describe how we felt when we met again.” Hand in hand, they walked in the sunshine, “free and as happy as children.”
If Mother Superior Cunegundes felt any fear it did not show on her round, peaceful face. The battle was raging all about Haus Dahlem. The building shook every time the tanks fired, and even in the sandbagged cellar the concussion could be felt. But Mother Superior Cunegundes no longer paid any attention to the rattle of the machine guns and the scream of the shells. She was praying in the little dining room now turned into a chapel when the firing lifted; for a moment the noise of battle seemed to fade. Still Mother Superior Cunegundes remained on her knees. One of the Sisters came into the chapel and whispered to the Mother Superior: “The Russians. They are here.”
Mother Superior Cunegundes calmly blessed herself, genuflected, and quickly followed the Sister out of the chapel. The Soviet troops had first approached the home from the rear, through the gardens. They had appeared at the kitchen windows, grinning and pointing their guns at the nuns and lay sisters. Now, ten troopers led by a young lieutenant waited on the Mother Superior. Lena, the cook, a Ukrainian, was hurriedly sent for to act as interpreter. The officer, noted the Mother Superior, “looked very smart, and his behavior was excellent.”
He asked about Haus Dahlem. Mother Superior Cunegundes explained that it was a maternity home, hospital and orphanage. Lena added that there were only “nuns and babies” there. The lieutenant seemed to understand. “Are there any soldiers or weapons here?” he asked. Mother Superior Cunegundes said: “No. Of course not. There is nothing like that in this building.” Some of the soldiers now began to demand watches and jewelry. The lieutenant spoke sharply, and the men pulled back, abashed.
The Mother Superior then told the young officer that Haus Dahlem needed some guarantee of protection because of the children, the expectant mothers and the Sisters. The lieutenant shrugged: he was a fighting man, and all he was interested in was clearing out the enemy and moving up.
As the Russians left the building, some of the soldiers stopped to look at the great statue of St. Michael, “God’s fighting knight against all evil.” They walked around the statue, touching the sculptured folds of the gown and looking up into the face. The lieutenant said good-bye to the Mother Superior. Something seemed to be troubling him. For just a moment he gazed at his men looking at the statue. Then he said to Mother Superior Cunegundes:
“These are good, disciplined and decent soldiers. But I must tell you. The men who are following us, the ones coming up behind, are pigs.”
There was no stopping the tide of the Russian advance. Desperate orders flashed out from the deranged man in the Führer-bunker as the remains of both the Reich and its capital were dissected by the invaders. Commands were superseded by counter-commands.Then counter-commands were canceled and new orders issued. Weidling’s Chief of Staff, Lieutenant Colonel von Dufving, summed it up: “Confusion led to chaos; order led to counterorder; and finally everything led to disorder.”
The German command system had all but collapsed. As the Western Allies and the Russians drew closer together, the OKW, charged with handling the western front, became hopelessly entangled with the OKH, which controlled the eastern front. General Erich Dethleffsen, OKH Assistant Chief of Staff, got a desperate call from the commander of Dresden as Koniev’s tanks, heading west to link up with the Americans, approached the city. He was told to put everything he had on the east bank of the Elbe, which runs through the city. Ten minutes later the OKW ordered the Dresden commander to put his forces on the west bank.
It was the same all over. Communications hardly existed any more. The OKW headquarters, now established in Rheinsberg, about fifty miles northeast of Berlin, was dependent for its communications on a single transmitting antenna attached to a barrage balloon. In Berlin, those of Hitler’s orders that could not be telephoned were radioed via the communications complex in the smaller of the two Zoo flak towers. Luftwaffe Lieutenant Gerda Niedieck, sitting at her teleprinter and deciphering machines in the vast telecommunications room in L Tower, noted that most of Hitler’s messages at this time had one theme: frantic queries for information—usually about armies that no longer existed. Over and over, the radio teletype machines clacked out his messages. “What is Wenck’s position?” “Where is Steiner?” “Where is Wenck?” Sometimes it was just too much for 24-year-old Gerda. Sometimes she just wept silently at her teleprinter as she sent out Hitler’s messages and his threats, and his orders that the dying nation was to fight to the last German.
At last, after six years of war, the headquarters of the OKH and the OKW—whose armies had once been separated by three thousand miles—were pulled together in a unified command. The officials of the combined OKH-OKW were promptly addressed by Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. “Our troops,” he said with great assurance, “are not only willing to fight, they are completely able to fight.” He paced the floor of the new headquarters, under the watchful eyes of General Alfred Jodl, OKW Operations Chief, and General Erich Dethleffsen, OKH Assistant Chief of Staff. Keitel had painted the same bright picture for Hitler on the twenty-fourth, just before the Führer had ordered his top officers to leave the capital so they could conduct operations for the relief of Berlin from outside the city. That had been Dethleffsen’s last visit to the underground world of the Führerbunker. When he arrived he had found utter confusion. There was no guard at the entrance. To his amazement he had found some twenty workers sheltering behind the bunker door: they had been ordered, because of the artillery fire, to “dig a trench from the parking area to the entrance,” but they could not work because of the shelling. As he went down the stairs he found that there were no guards in the anteroom either. No one searched his briefcase or “checked to see if he was carrying weapons.” His impression was one of “complete disintegration.”
In the little hall outside Hitler’s small briefing room “stood empty glasses and half-full bottles.” It seemed to him that “the soldierly principle of remaining calm, and thus preventing a panic situation from developing, had been completely disregarded.” Everyone was nervous and irritable—except the women. “The secretaries, the female personnel … Eva Braun and Frau Goebbels and her children … were amiable and friendly and shamed many of the men by their example.”
Keitel’s report to Hitler had been short. “In rosy words,” Dethleffsen remembered, “he reported on the mood of Wenck’s Twelfth Army and the prospects for the relief of Berlin.” Dethleffsen had found it hard to judge “how much Keitel believed his own words:perhaps his optimism was grounded only in the wish not to burden the Führer.”
But now, before the OKH-OKW leaders, away from Hitler, Keitel was talking in the same vein. As he paced the floor he said: “Our defeats are really due to a lack of courage, a lack of will in the upper and intermediate commands.” It could have been Hitler speaking. Dethleffsen thought that Keitel was a “true student of his master.” And from his glowing report of how Berlin would be relieved, it was “clear that he had not the slightest understanding of the plight of the troops.” Keitel kept talking: everything would be all right; the rapidly closing Russian ring about Berlin would be cracked; the Führer would be saved….
In Bavaria, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering found himself in a preposterous situation: he was under house arrest by SS guards.
His Chief of Staff, General Koller, had flown to Bavaria to see Goering after Hitler’s fateful conference of April 22. On receiving Koller’s report that “Hitler has broken down” and that the Führer had said, “When it comes to negotiating the Reichmarschall can do better than I,” Goering had acted. He had sent the Führer a very carefully worded message. “My Führer,” he wired, “in view of your decision to remain in the fortress of Berlin do you agree that I take over at once the total leadership of the Reich with full freedom of action at home and abroad as your deputy, in accordance with your decree of June 29, 1941? If no reply is received by ten o’clock tonight I shall take it for granted that you have lost your freedom of action, and shall act for the best interests of our country and people….”
Goering received a fast reply—one undoubtedly inspired by his arch rival, the ambitious Martin Bormann. Hitler fired off a message accusing Goering of treason and announced that he would be executed unless he immediately resigned. On the evening of April25, Berlin radio solemnly reported that “Reichsmarschall Goering’s heart condition has now reached an acute state. Therefore he has requested that he be released from command of the Air Force and all the duties connected with it…. The Führer has granted this request….” Goering told his wife, Emmy, that he thought the whole business was ridiculous; that in the end he would have to do the negotiating anyway. She later told Baroness von Schirach that Goering was wondering “what uniform he should wear when he first met Eisenhower.”
While Berlin burned and the Reich died, the one man Hitler never suspected of treachery had already surpassed Goering’s grab for power.
In Washington on the afternoon of April 25, General John Edwin Hull, the U. S. Army’s Acting Chief of Staff for Operations, was called into the Pentagon office of General George C. Marshall, the Chief of Staff. Marshall told him that President Truman was en route from the White House to the Pentagon to talk with Winston Churchill on the scrambler telephone. A German offer to negotiate had been received via Count Folke Bernadotte, head of the Swedish Red Cross. The peace feeler came from no less a person than the man Hitler called Der treue Heinrich—Heinrich Himmler.
Himmler’s secret proposals were supposed to be en route in a coded message from the American Ambassador in Sweden. Marshall told Hull to get the phone room set up and to find out right away from the State Department if the text of the message had arrived. “I phoned Dean Acheson at State,” Hull said, “who told me that he knew nothing about any cable containing Himmler’s proposals. Actually, the message was then coming in to the State Department, but nobody had yet seen it.”
Then President Truman arrived, and at 3:10 P.M. American time he spoke to the Prime Minister from the Pentagon phone room. “When he got on the phone,” recalls Hull, “the President did not even know what the German proposal was.” Churchill, according to Hull, “started off by saying, ‘What do you think of the message?’ The President replied, ‘It is just coming in now.’”
Churchill then read the version which he had received from the British Ambassador to Sweden, Sir Victor Mallet. Himmler, he told Truman, wished to meet with General Eisenhower and capitulate. The SS chief reported that Hitler was desperately ill, that he might even be dead already, and in any case would be within a few days. It was clear that Himmler wished to capitulate—but only to the Western Allies, not to the Russians. “What happens,” Bernadotte had asked Himmler, “if the Western Allies refuse your offer?” Himmler replied: “Then I shall take command on the eastern front and die in battle.” Hull, listening on another phone, then heard Churchill say, “Well, what do you think?”
The new American President, only thirteen days in office, answered without hesitation. “We cannot accept it,” he said. “It would be dishonorable, because we have an agreement with the Russians not to accept a separate peace.”
Churchill promptly agreed. As he was later to put it, “I told him [Truman] that we were convinced the surrender should be unconditional and simultaneous to the three major powers.” When both Churchill and Truman informed Stalin of the Himmler proposal and their response to it, the Generalissimo thanked them both, and in similar replies promised that the Red Army would “maintain its pressure on Berlin in the interests of our common cause.”
Lieutenant Albert Kotzebue of the U. S. 69th Division, sitting in his jeep, saw the farm from far away and he thought it was much too quiet. He got out and moved up ahead of his 26-man patrol so he could approach the house alone.
This whole countryside near the Elbe had been strangely silent. Villages had white flags of surrender flying, but there was no movement; the villagers were staying behind doors. Kotzebue had talked to several burgomasters and it was always the same story: the Russians were coming, and they were sure to be killed and their women raped.
Warily Kotzebue went to the front of the house. The door was half open. He stood to one side and pushed it wide with his rifle. It swung back with a creaking noise, and Kotzebue stared. Sitting around the dining table were the farmer, his wife and their three children. It was a peaceful, homelike scene—except that they were all dead. They must have been terribly afraid, for they had all taken poison.
The rest of the patrol came up, and the Lieutenant jumped back into his jeep. They sped on toward the Elbe, and then, just before they reached the river, Albert Kotzebue made history. In the village of Leckwitz he saw a strange-looking man in an unusual uniform astride a pony. The man swung around in the saddle and looked at Kotzebue. The Lieutenant looked back. Kotzebue and the man on the horse had fought across half a world for this moment. It seemed to Kotzebue that he had met the first Russian.
Someone who spoke Russian questioned the horseman. Yes, he was a Russian, he said. “Where’s his unit?” asked Kotzebue. The man answered curtly, “On the Elbe.” The patrol set out again for the river. The man watched them go. At the river Kotzebue and a few others found a rowboat and crossed to the other bank, using their rifles as oars. As they stepped out of the boat, Kotzebue saw that the shore for hundreds of yards was covered with dead civilians—men, women and children. There were overturned wagons and carts; baggage and clothing were strewn everywhere. There was nothing to indicate how or why the slaughter had occurred. A few moments later the Americans met the first group of Russians. Kotzebue saluted. So did the Soviet soldiers. There was no joyful meeting, no back-slapping or hugging. They just stood there looking at each other. The time was 1:30 P.M. on April 25. The Western and Eastern allies had joined at the little town of Strehla.
At 4:40 P.M. at Torgau on the Elbe, about twenty miles to the north, Lieutenant William D. Robinson, also of the 69th Division, encountered some other Russians. He brought four Soviet soldiers back with him to his headquarters. His meeting would go into history books as the official link-up. In any case, whether at 1:30 or 4:40, Hitler’s Reich had been cut in half by the men of General Hodges’ U. S. First Army and Marshal Koniev’s First Ukrainians. And on this same day—no one seems sure of the exact time—Berlin was encircled.
The entire northern flank of the Ninth Army had collapsed. Totally encircled, the Ninth was being hammered night and day by Russian bombers. The supply situation was critical. The Luftwaffe tried an air drop, but everything went wrong. There were not enough planes for the job and not enough gasoline for the planes—and such drops as were made landed in the wrong places. Yet, despite everything, the Ninth was doggedly battling toward Wenck’s Twelfth Army.
But now Heinrici knew the truth about Wenck: contrary to what Krebs had said, the Twelfth Army had almost no strength. Bitterly he had phoned Krebs and accused him of deliberately giving false information. “It’s a phantom army,” Heinrici raged. “It simply does not have the strength to drive toward the Ninth, join with it and head north to relieve Berlin. There’ll be little left of either army by the time they meet—and you know it!”
Von Manteuffel’s Third Panzer Army was, in effect, all that was left of the Army Group Vistula. Von Manteuffel was holding tenaciously, but the center of his line bulged in ominously. Worse, Zhukov’s tanks, driving along the southern flank, were now in position to swing north and encircle Von Manteuffel. The only force that stood in their way was the rag-tag group of SS General Felix Steiner.
Hitler’s plan for the relief of Berlin called for Steiner to attack southward across the path of the Russians from one side of the city, while the Ninth and Twelfth together drove northward from the other side. Theoretically it was a workable plan. Actually it stood no chance of success. Steiner was one of the drawbacks. “He kept finding all sorts of excuses not to attack,” Heinrici said. “Gradually I got the impression that something was wrong.”
The Vistula commander knew that Steiner did not have sufficient forces to reach Spandau, as Hitler was demanding, but Heinrici wanted the attack to take place just the same. Steiner was at least strong enough to blunt Zhukov’s drive. If he could manage that, he might prevent the Russians from encircling Von Manteuffel’s army. That would give Heinrici the time he needed to withdraw Von Manteuffel’s forces step by step to the Elbe. There was nothing left to do now but try to save his men; the complete collapse of the Reich was clearly inevitable within days. Heinrici kept a map on which he had drawn five north-to-south retreat lines, running from the Oder back to the west. The first was called “Wotan,” the next, “Uecker”; the remainder were numbered. The lines were fifteen to twenty miles apart. Von Manteuffel was now on the Wotan line. The question was how long he could last there.
On the morning of the twenty-fifth, Heinrici visited Von Manteuffel. They walked in the little garden behind Von Manteuffel’s headquarters, and the Third Panzer commander said quietly, “I cannot hold any longer.” His face was set. “Without panzers, without anti-tank guns and with inexperienced troops already out on their feet, how can anybody expect me to hold any longer?”
“How long can you hold?”
Von Manteuffel shook his head.
“Maybe another day.”
Through the smoke of the fires and shell bursts, the leaflets came fluttering down from the plane that flew back and forth over the ravaged city. In Wilmersdorf Charlotte Richter picked one of them up. It read: “Persevere! General Wenck and General Steiner are coming to the aid of Berlin.”
Now it was essential to find out what Steiner was up to. Heinrici found him at the headquarters of the 25th Panzer Grenadier Division at Nassenheide. With Steiner was Jodl. They had already discussed how Steiner’s attack should be made. Now everyone went over it once again. Then Steiner began to talk about the condition of his troops. “Have any of you seen them?” he asked.
Jodl said: “They’re in first-rate condition. Their morale is very good.”
Steiner looked at Jodl in amazement.
Heinrici asked quietly, “Steiner, why aren’t you attacking? Why are you postponing again?”
“It’s very simple,” said Steiner. “I just don’t have the troops. I don’t have the slightest chance of succeeding.”
“What do you have?” asked Heinrici patiently.
Steiner explained that his total forces consisted of six battalions, including some from an SS police division, plus the 5th Panzer Division and the 3rd Navy Division. “The Navy men I can forget about,” said Steiner. “I bet they’re great on ships, but they’ve never been trained for this kind of fighting. I have hardly any artillery, very few panzers and only a few anti-aircraft guns.” He paused. “I’ll tell you what I have: a completely mixed-up heap that will never reach Spandau from Germendorf.”
“Well, Steiner,” said Heinrici coldly, “you have to attack for your Führer.” Steiner glared at him. “He’s your Führer, too!” he yelled.
It was clear to Heinrici, as he and Jodl left, that Steiner had no intention whatever of attacking.
A few hours later the phone rang at the Vistula headquarters in Birkenhain. Heinrici picked it up. It was Von Manteuffel, and he sounded desperate. “I must have your permission to withdraw from Stettin and Schwedt. I cannot hold any longer. If we don’t pull out now we’ll be encircled.”
For just a moment, Heinrici remembered the order issued by Hitler in January to his senior generals. They were “personally responsible to Hitler” and could not withdraw troops or give up positions without notifying Hitler in advance so that he could make the decision. Now Heinrici said: “Retreat. Did you hear me? I said, Retreat. And listen, Manteuffel. Give up the Stettin fortress at the same time.”
In his sheepskin coat and his World War I leggings, he stood by his desk thinking over what he had done. He had been in the army exactly forty years and he knew now that even if he was not shot his career was over. Then he called Colonel Eismann and his Chief of Staff. “Inform the OKW,” he said, “that I have ordered the Third Army to retreat.” He thought for a moment. Then he said, “By the time they get the message it will be too late for them to countermand it.”
He looked at Von Trotha, the earnest Hitlerite, and at his old friend Eismann, and explained exactly what his policy was going to be from now on: never again would he leave troops exposed unnecessarily; he would sooner retreat than throw men’s lives away needlessly. “What’s your opinion?” he asked them. Eismann promptly suggested that the order should be given “to retreat behind the Uecker line, remain at the Mecklenburg lakes and wait for capitulation.” Von Trotha jumped at the word. “It is against the honor of a soldier to even think of capitulation, to even use the word capitulation,” Von Trotha spluttered. “It’s not up to us; it’s up to the OKW to give the orders.”
Heinrici said quietly: “I refuse to carry out these suicidal orders any longer. It is my responsibility on behalf of my troops to refuse these orders, and I intend to do so. It is also my responsibility to account for my actions to the German people.” Then he added, “And above all, Trotha, to God.
“Good night, gentlemen.”
It took Keitel just forty-eight hours to learn that Heinrici had ordered Von Manteuffel to retreat. He saw the withdrawal for himself. Driving through the Third Panzer’s area he was amazed to see troops pulling back everywhere. Furious, he ordered both Heinrici and Von Manteuffel to meet him for a conference at a crossroads near Fürstenberg.
When Von Manteuffel’s Chief of Staff, General Burkhart Müller-Hillebrand, learned of the arrangement he looked startled, then concerned. Why at a crossroads? Why out in the open? He hurried out to find his staff officers.
At the crossroads, when Heinrici and Von Manteuffel got out of their cars they saw that Keitel had already arrived with his entourage. Hitler’s Chief of Staff was a picture of barely contained fury, his face grim, his marshal’s baton pounding again and again into the palm of his gloved hand. Von Manteuffel greeted him. Heinrici saluted. Keitel immediately began to yell. “Why did you give the order to move back? You were told to stay on the Oder! Hitler ordered you to hold! He ordered you not to move!” He pointed at Heinrici. “Yet you! You ordered the retreat!”
Heinrici said nothing. When the outburst had ended, according to Von Manteuffel, “Heinrici very quietly explained the situation and his arguments were completely logical.” Heinrici said: “I tell you, Marshal Keitel, that I cannot hold the Oder with the troops I have. I do not intend to sacrifice their lives. What’s more, we’ll have to retreat even farther back.”
Von Manteuffel then broke in. He tried to explain the tactical situation that had led to the withdrawal. “I regret to tell you,” he concluded, “that General Heinrici is right. I will have to withdraw even farther unless I get reinforcements. I’m here to find out whether I get them or not.”
Keitel exploded. “There are no reserves left!” he shouted. “This is the Führer’s order!” He hit his gloved palm with his baton. “You will hold your positions where they are!” He hit his palm again. “You will turn your army around here and now!”
“Marshal Keitel,” said Heinrici, “as long as I am in command I will not issue that order to Von Manteuffel.”
Von Manteuffel said: “Marshal Keitel, the Third Panzer Army listens to General Hasso von Manteuffel.”
At this point Keitel lost control completely. “He went into such a tantrum,” recalls Von Manteuffel, “that neither Heinrici nor myself could understand what he was saying.” Finally he yelled, “You will have to take the responsibility of this action before history!”
Von Manteuffel suddenly lost his temper. “The Von Manteuffels have worked for Prussia for two hundred years and have always taken the responsibility for their actions. I, Hasso von Manteuffel, gladly accept this responsibility.”
Keitel wheeled on Heinrici. “You are the one!” he said. “You!”
Heinrici turned and, pointing to the road where Von Manteuffel’s troops were retreating, replied: “I can only say, Marshal Keitel, that if you want these men sent back to be shot and killed, why don’t you do it?”
Keitel, it appeared to Von Manteuffel, “seemed to take a threatening step toward Heinrici.” Then he rapped out: “Colonel General Heinrici, as of this moment you are relieved as commander of the Army Group Vistula. You will return to your headquarters and await your successor.”
With that, Keitel stalked away, climbed into his car and drove off.
At that moment General Müller-Hillebrand and his staff came out of the woods. Each man had a machine pistol. “We thought there was going to be a little trouble,” he explained.
Von Manteuffel still thought there might be. He offered to guard Heinrici “until the end,” but Heinrici declined. He saluted the officers and got into his car. After forty years in the army, in the very last hours of the war he had been dismissed in disgrace. He turned up the collar of his old sheepskin coat and told the driver to return to headquarters.
The Russians swarmed in everywhere. District after district fell as the city’s slender defense forces were beaten back. In some places, meagerly armed Home Guardsmen simply turned and ran. Hitler Youths, Home Guards, police and fire units fought side by side, but under different commanders. They fought to hold the same objective, but their orders were often contradictory. Many men, in fact, had no idea who their officers were. The new Berlin Commandant, General Weidling, had spread the few remaining veterans of his battered 56th Panzers through the defense areas to bolster the Volkssturm and Hitler Youths, but it was of little use.
Zehlendorf fell almost instantly. Hitler Youths and Home Guardsmen trying to make a stand before the town hall were annihilated; the mayor hung out a white flag and then committed suicide. In Weissensee, which had been a predominately Communist district before the rise of Hitler, many neighborhoods capitulated immediately, and red flags appeared—many showing tattletale areas where black swastikas had been hastily removed. Pankow held out for two days, Wedding for three. Small pockets of Germans fought tenaciously to the end, but there was no consistent defense anywhere.
Street barricades were smashed like matchwood. Russian tanks, moving fast, blew up buildings rather than send soldiers in after snipers. The Red Army was wasting no time. Some obstacles, like tramcars and rock-filled wagons, were demolished by guns firing at point-blank range. Where more sturdy defenses were encountered, the Russians went around them. In Wilmersdorf and Schöneberg, Soviet troops encountering resistance entered houses on either side of the blocked streets and blasted their way from cellar to cellar with bazookas. Then they emerged behind the Germans and wiped them out.
Phalanxes of artillery razed the central districts yard by yard. As fast as areas were captured, the Russians rushed in the great formations of guns and Stalin Organs used on the Oder and the Neisse. On the Tempelhof and Gatow airports, guns were lined up barrel to barrel. It was the same in the Grünewald, in the Tegel forest, in the parks and open spaces—even in apartment house gardens. Lines of Stalin Organs crowded main thoroughfares, pouring out a continuous stream of phosphorous shells that set whole areas ablaze. “There were so many fires that there was no night,” Home Guardsman Edmund Heckscher remembers. “You could have read a newspaper if you had one.” Dr. Wilhelm Nolte, a chemist pressed into the Fire Protection Service,* saw Soviet artillery-spotting planes directing barrages onto his workers as they tried to put out the fires. Hermann Hellriegel, recently drawn into the Volkssturm, was lifted off his feet by a shell blast and thrown into a nearby crater. To Hellriegel’s horror, he landed on top of three dead soldiers. The 58-year-old Home Guardsman, a former traveling salesman, scrambled out of the hole and sprinted for his home.
As the Russians drove deeper into the city, uniforms and arm bands lay discarded in the streets as Home Guardsmen began to disappear. Some units were deliberately disbanded by their commanders. In the Reichssportfeld’s Olympic Stadium, Volkssturm battalion leader Karl Ritter von Halt called together the survivors of a bitter fight and told them to go home. Half the men were useless anyway; they had been issued Italian ammunition for their German rifles. “Letting them return home was about all there was left to do,” Von Halt said. “It was either that, or throw stones at the Russians.”
Soldiers all over the city began to desert. Sergeant Helmut Volk saw no reason to give his life for the Führer. An accountant for the Abwehr, the German intelligence service, Volk had suddenly been given a rifle and put on guard duty in the Grünewald. When he heard that his unit had been ordered to the Reichskanzlei area, Volk set off instead for his home on the Uhlandstrasse. His family was not too happy to see him; his uniform endangered them all. Volk quickly took it off, changed into civilian clothes and hid the uniform in the cellar. He was just in time; the Russians overran the area within the hour.
In the command post near the Frey Bridge, Private Willi Thamm had heard something that made him decide to stay with his unit to the end. A lieutenant came in to report to Thamm’s captain and, over a cup of coffee and a glass of schnapps, remarked: “Just think! The infantrymen everywhere want to desert. Today three went absent without leave on me.” Thamm’s captain looked at him. “What did you do?” he asked. The lieutenant sipped his coffee and said, “I shot them.”
Marauding gangs of SS men, roving the city in search of deserters, were taking justice into their own hands. They were halting nearly everyone in uniform and checking identities and units. Any man suspected of bolting his company was summarily shot, or was hanged from a tree or lamp post as an example to others. Sixteen-year-old Aribert Schulz, a member of the Hitler Youth, reporting to his headquarters in a disused cinema at Spittelmarkt, saw a lanky red-haired SS trooper with a rifle marching a man into the street. Schulz asked what was happening and was told that the man was a Wehrmacht sergeant who had been found wearing civilian clothes. With Schulz following along behind, the SS man marched the sergeant down Leipzigerstrasse. Suddenly he gave the Wehrmacht soldier a violent shove. As the sergeant struggled to keep his balance the SS man shot him in the back.
That night Schulz saw the red-haired SS man again. Along with other boys in his unit, Schulz was standing watch by a barricade when he saw a Soviet T-34 tank coming along Kurstrasse. The tank was slowly turning its turret when it got a direct hit and blew up. The only survivor was immediately captured. In the Russian’s pockets the boys found photographs of key Berlin landmarks. At headquarters the Red Army tanker was interrogated and then turned over to a man with a rifle. It was the same SS man. Again he walked his prisoner outside, but this time he patted the Russian fraternally and motioned for him to go. The Russian grinned and started to leave, and the SS man shot him, too, in the back. It dawned on young Schulz that the lanky marksman was the headquarters’ official executioner.
Everywhere now, Berlin’s defenders were being forced into the ruins of the central districts. To slow down the Russians, 120 of the city’s 248 bridges were blown. So little dynamite was left throughout General Weidling’s command that aviation bombs had to be used instead. Fanatics destroyed additional installations, often without checking into the consequences. SS men blew up a four-mile tunnel running under an arm of the river Spree and the Landwehr Canal. The tunnel happened to be a railway link, and thousands of civilians were sheltering there. As water began to flood into the area, there was a mad scramble along the tracks toward higher ground. The tunnel was not only jammed with standees; four hospital trains of wounded were also there. As Elfriede Wassermann and her husband Erich, who had come down from the Anhalter bunker, tried to push through, Elfriede heard the wounded in the trains screaming, “Get us out! Get us out! We’ll drown!” Nobody stopped. The water was almost up to Elfriede’s waist. Erich, hobbling along on his crutches, was even worse off. Fighting and yelling, people pushed and trampled one another as they tried to get to safety. Elfriede was almost in despair, but Erich kept yelling, “Keep going! Keep going! We’re almost there. We’ll make it.” They did. How many others made it Elfriede never knew.
By April 28 the Russians had closed in on the center of the city. The ring grew tighter and tighter. Desperate battles were being fought along the edges of Charlottenburg, Mitte and Friedrichshain. There was a narrow route still open toward Spandau. Weidling’s few experienced troops were trying to hold that lane open for a last-minute breakout. Casualties were enormous. The streets were littered with dead. Because of the shelling people were unable to get out of the shelters to help friends and relatives who lay wounded nearby; many had been caught when they went to stand in line for water at Berlin’s old-fashioned street pumps. Soldiers were not much better off. Walking wounded who could make it to dressing stations were lucky. Those unable to walk often lay where they fell and bled to death.
Home Guardsman Kurt Bohg, who had lost most of one heel, crawled and hobbled for miles. At last he could go no farther. He lay in a street yelling for help. But the few people who dared risk the shelling to leave their shelters were too busy trying to save their own lives.
Bohg, lying in a gutter, saw a Lutheran nun running from doorway to doorway. “Sister, Sister.” he called. “Can you help me?” The nun stopped. “Can you crawl as far as the congregation house next to the church?” she asked. “It’s just five minutes from here. I’ll help you when I get there.” Somehow he made it. All the doors were open. He crawled into the hallway, then into an anteroom and finally collapsed. When he came to he was lying almost in a spreading pool of blood. Slowly he raised his eyes to see where it was coming from. He looked across the room which led out onto a garden. The door was open: wedged in it, crumpled and looking at him with soft eyes, was a black and white Holstein cow. The animal was bleeding copiously from the mouth. Man and beast stared at each other in dumb compassion.
As the Russians isolated the city’s center. Weidling’s forces were compressed more and more. Supplies ran out. In response to his desperate appeals for air drops, he received six tons of supplies and exactly sixteen panzer rocket-shells.
Incredibly, amid the inferno of the battle, a plane suddenly swept in and landed on the East-West Axis—the broad highway running from the river Havel on the west to the Unter den Linden on the east. It was a small Fieseler Storch, and in it were General Ritter von Greim and a well-known aviatrix named Hanna Reitsch. The plane had been blasted by anti-aircraft fire, and gasoline was pouring from its wing tanks. Von Greim, who was at the controls, had been wounded in the foot just before touching down. Hanna had grabbed the stick and throttle and made a perfect landing. The two fliers had been summoned to the Reichskanzlei by Hitler; when they arrived he promptly made Von Greim a field marshal, replacing the “traitorous” Goering as head of the now nonexistent Luftwaffe.
The Führerbunker was already being shelled, but it was comparatively safe for the time being. One other island of security remained in the center of the city. Rising up from the zoological gardens were the twin flak towers. The 132-foot-high G Tower was jammed with people: nobody knew exactly how many. Dr. Walter Hagedorn, the Luftwaffe physician, estimated that there were as many as thirty thousand—plus troops. There were people sitting or standing on the stairways, landings, on every floor. There was no room to move. Red Cross workers like 19-year-old Ursula Stalla did all they could to alleviate the sufferings of the civilians. She would never forget the sickening combination of odors—“perspiration, smelly clothes, babies’ diapers, all mixed with the smell of disinfectants from the hospital.” After days in the bunker many people were approaching insanity. Some had committed suicide. Two old ladies sitting side by side on the first-floor landing had taken poison at some time, but no one could tell when: because of the jam of people around them they had sat bolt upright in death, apparently for days, before they were noticed.
Dr. Hagedorn had been operating on casualties in his small hospital almost incessantly for five days. His problem was to bury the dead. Men simply could not get out because of the shelling. “In between lulls,” he later recalled, “we tried to take out the bodies and the amputated limbs for burial, but it was almost impossible.” At this moment, with shells smashing the bunker’s impenetrable walls from all sides and shrapnel spraying the steel shutters over the windows, Hagedorn had five hundred dead and fifteen hundred wounded, plus an unknown number of half-demented people. There were also suicides everywhere, but because of the crush they could not even be counted. Still, the doctor remembered, there were people in the bunker saying, “We can stick it out until either Wenck or the Americans get here.”
Below the tower lay the vast wasteland of the zoo. The slaughter among the animals had been horrible. Birds flew in all directions every time a shell landed. The lions had been shot. Rosa the hippo had been killed in her pool by a shell. Schwarz the bird-keeper was in despair; somehow the Abu Markub, the rare stork which had been in his bathroom, had escaped. And now Director Lutz Heck had been ordered by the flak tower commander to destroy the baboon; the animal’s cage had been damaged and there was some danger that the beast might escape.
Heck, rifle in hand, made his way to the monkey cages. The baboon, an old friend, was sitting hunched by the bars of the cage. Heck raised the rifle and put the muzzle close to the animal’s head. The baboon gently pushed it aside. Heck, appalled, again raised the rifle. Again the baboon pushed the muzzle to one side. Heck, sickened and shaken, tried once more. The baboon looked at him dumbly. Then Heck pulled the trigger.
While the battle continued, another savage onslaught was going on. It was grim and personal. The hordes of Russian troops coming up behind the disciplined front-line veterans now demanded the rights due the conquerors: the women of the conquered.
Ursula Köster was sleeping in a Zehlendorf cellar with her parents, her 6-year-old twin daughters, Ingrid and Gisela, and her 7-month-old boy Bernd, when four Russian soldiers beat in the door with their rifle butts. They searched the shelter; finding an empty suitcase, they dumped jars of canned fruits, fountain pens, pencils, watches and Ursula’s wallet into it. One Russian found a bottle of French perfume. He opened it, sniffed, and poured the contents of the bottle on his clothes. A second Russian shoved Ursula’s parents and the children at gunpoint into a smaller room of the cellar. Then, one after another, all four assaulted her.
Around six the following morning the battered Ursula was nursing her baby when two other soldiers came into the cellar. With the baby in her arms, she tried to dodge past and out the doorway. She was too weak. One of the soldiers took the baby from her and put him in his carriage. The second man looked at her and grinned. Both were filthy; their clothes were gritty, and they carried knives in their boots and wore fur caps. One man’s shirttail was hanging out of his pants. Each of them raped her. When they had gone, Ursula grabbed all the blankets she could find, picked up her baby, collected her little girls, and ran into a garden housing complex across the street. There she found a bathtub which had been thrown or blasted out of one of the houses. Turning it upside down, Ursula crawled in with her children.
In Hermsdorf, 18-year-old Juliane Bochnik dived under the sofa at the back of the cellar when she heard the Russians approaching. She heard her father, a linguist who spoke Russian, protesting at the intrusion. The soldiers were demanding to know where Juliane was, and her father was shouting, “I’ll report you to the Commissar!” At gunpoint her father was taken out into the street. Juliane lay very still, hoping the Russians would go away. She had blackened her face and blond hair in order to make herself look older; still, she was not taking any chances. She stayed under the sofa.
In the adjoining cellar were two old people. Suddenly Juliane heard one of them shouting in a terrified voice. “She’s there! There! Under the sofa.” Juliane, dragged from her hiding place, stood quaking with fear. There was some talk among the Russians, then all but one left. “He was a young officer,” she later related, “and, as far as I could tell in the light of his flashlight, rather neat-looking and clean-cut.” He made motions whose meaning was unmistakable. She shrank back; he advanced. Smiling, he “gently but forcefully” began to remove Juliane’s clothes. She struggled. “It was not easy for him,” Juliane remembers. “He had a flashlight in one hand and, with typical Russian mistrust, he was keeping an eye to the rear to guard against a surprise attack.”
Gradually, in spite of her efforts, he disrobed Juliane. She tried to plead, but she couldn’t speak Russian. At last she began crying and fell to her knees, begging to be left alone. The young Russian just looked at her. Juliane stopped crying, got hold of herself and tried another tack; she began talking firmly and politely. “I told him that this was all wrong,” she recalls. “I said people don’t act this way.” The Russian began to look annoyed. Then, with nearly all her clothes removed, the girl broke down again. “I simply don’t love you!” she cried. “There’s no point to this! I simply don’t love you!” Suddenly the Russian said, “Ahhh,” in a disgusted voice and dashed out of the cellar.
The next morning Juliane and another girl fled to a convent run by the Dominican nuns; they were hidden there under the eaves of the roof for the next four weeks. Juliane later learned that her friend Rosie Hoffman and Rosie’s mother, who had sworn to kill themselves if the Russians came, had both been raped. They had taken poison.*
Gerd Buchwald, a teacher, saw that Soviet troops were running wild in his district of Reinickendorf. His apartment was completely ransacked by women soldiers of the Red Army who seemed “to be drawn like a magnet by my wife’s clothes. They took what they wanted and left.” He burned what remained, and took his pistol apart and hid it in the garden. That evening a group of Russian men appeared. They were all drunk. “Frau! Frau!” they shouted at Buchwald. He greeted them with a friendly smile. “I had a two-day growth of beard and unkempt hair, so maybe my story worked because I looked older. I drew myself up, spread my hands and said, ‘Frau kaput.’” Apparently they understood: his wife was dead. While Buchwald stretched on his sofa they looked around, took a pair of his suspenders and then disappeared. After they had left Buchwald bolted the door. Moving the sofa, he helped his wife Elsa from the three- by three-foot hole he had dug in the concrete floor. She spent every night there for the next few weeks.
Dr. Gerhard Jacobi, pastor of the Kaiser Wilhelm Church, hid his wife successfully too. Although in his cellar many women were taken out and raped, he succeeded in hiding his wife by the adroit use of a blanket. He slept on the outside of a narrow chaise longue, his wife lying sideways on the inside. Her feet were at his head. Covered completely by a heavy blanket she was almost invisible.
In Wilmersdorf, Ilse Antz, her younger sister Anneliese, and her mother, who had initially formed favorable impressions of the Red Army, were not bothered for some time. Then one night just before dawn Anneliese was dragged out of the bed she shared with her mother. She was carried screaming upstairs to an apartment, and there she was brutally assaulted by a Soviet officer. When the Russian was finished he stroked her hair and said, “Good German.” He asked her not to tell anyone that a Russian officer had raped her. The next day a soldier appeared with a parcel of food addressed to her.
Shortly thereafter another trooper forced his attentions on Ilse. He entered with a pistol in each hand. “I sat up in bed wondering which one he was going to kill me with, the left or right,” she remembers. In the cold of the cellar, Ilse was wearing several sweaters and ski pants. He pounced on her and began ripping her sweaters off. Then he suddenly said, puzzled, “Are you a German soldier?” Ilse says, “I was not surprised. I was so thin from hunger I hardly looked like a woman.” But the Russian quickly discovered his error. She was raped. As the Red Army man left, he said: “That’s what the Germans did in Russia.” After a time he returned—and, to her amazement, stayed by the side of her bed and protected her for the remainder of the night against other lusting Red soldiers.
After that, the Antz family experienced repeated savagery. At one point they were taken out and placed against a wall to be shot. At another, Ilse was raped again. They began to think about suicide. “Had we had poison, I for one would certainly have taken my life,” Ilse recalls.
As the Russians raped and plundered, suicides took place everywhere. In the Pankow district alone, 215 suicides were recorded within three weeks, most of them women. Fathers Josef Michalke and Alfons Matzker, Jesuits in Charlottenburg’s St. Canisius Church, realized just how far women had been driven by the Russian ferocity when they saw a mother and two children taken from the Havel River. The woman had tied two shopping bags filled full of bricks to her arms and, grasping a baby under each arm, had jumped in.
One of Father Michalke’s parishioners, Hannelore von Cmuda, a 17-year-old girl, was repeatedly raped by a mob of drunken Red Army men; when they were finished they shot the girl three times. Critically injured, but not dead, she was brought around to the parish house in a baby carriage, the only available transportation. Father Michalke was not there at that moment, and the girl had disappeared when he returned. For the next twenty-four hours he searched for Hannelore; finally he found her in St. Hildegard’s Hospital. He administered the last sacraments and sat by her bedside during all the next night, telling her not to worry. Hannelore survived. (A year later, she and her mother were killed by a truck.)
Margarete Promeist was in charge of an air raid shelter. “For two days and two nights,” she recalls, “wave after wave of Russians came into my shelter plundering and raping. Women were killed if they refused. Some were shot and killed anyway. In one room alone I found the bodies of six or seven women, all lying in the position in which they were raped, their heads battered in.” Margarete herself was assaulted, despite her protestations to the young man that “I am much too old for you.” She saw three Russians grab a nurse and hold her while a fourth raped her.
Hitler Youth Klaus Küster, now in civilian clothes, was engaged in conversation by two Soviet officers sitting in a jeep. One of them spoke German, and he was so talkative that Küster screwed up his courage and asked an undiplomatic question. “Is it true,” asked Küster, “that Russian soldiers rape and plunder as the newspapers say?” The officer expansively offered him a pack of cigarettes and said, “I give you my word of honor as an officer that the Soviet soldier will not lay a hand on anyone. All that was written in those papers are lies.”
The next day Küster saw three Russians grab a woman on General-Barby-Strasse and drag her into a hallway. One soldier gestured Küster back with a machine pistol, a second held the screaming woman and the third raped her. Then Küster saw the rapist coming out of the doorway. He was very drunk and tears were streaming down his face. He shouted, “Ja bolshoi swinja.” Küster asked one of the Russians what the phrase meant. The man laughed and said in German: “It means, ‘am a big pig.’”
In a shelter in Kreuzberg where Margareta Probst was staying, a fanatical Nazi named Möller had holed up in a locked room. The Russians learned where he was and tried to break down the door. Möller called out: “Give me a moment. I’ll shoot myself.” Again the Russians tried to force the door. Möller called out: “Wait! The gun has jammed.” Then there was a shot.
During the next few hours the shelter was overrun with Russians looking for girls. Margareta, like many another woman, had tried to make herself as unattractive as possible. She had hidden her long blond hair under a cap, donned dark glasses, smeared her face with iodine and put a large adhesive plaster on her cheek. She was not molested. But plenty of others were. “The girls were simply rounded up and taken to the apartments upstairs,” she recalls. “We could hear their screams all night—the sound even penetrated down to the cellars.” Later an 80-year-old woman told Margareta that two soldiers had stuffed butter into her mouth to muffle her screams while a number of others assaulted her in turn.
Dora Janssen and the widow of her husband’s batman, who earlier had thought they had got off easy, did not do so well now. In their shelter the widow, Inge, was brutally assaulted by a soldier who claimed that his mother had been taken to Berlin by force after German troops attacked Russia, and had never been seen since. Dora was spared; she said she had tuberculosis, and found that the Russians seemed thoroughly afraid of that. But Inge was raped a second time, and injured so badly that she was unable to walk. Dora ran out to the street, found a man who looked like an officer and told him what had happened. He looked at Dora coolly and said, “The Germans were worse than this in Russia. This is simply revenge.”
Elena Majewski, 17, and Vera Ungnad, 19, also saw both the good and the bad sides of the Russians. When the looting and raping began in the Tiergarten area, a young Russian soldier actually slept outside their cellar door to make sure that his fellow countrymen did not come in. The day after he left, seven or eight Red Army men entered the girls’ house and demanded that they attend a party the Russians were giving next door. The girls had no alternative but to accept; in any case, they saw no real reason to be afraid at first. The place where the party was being held turned out to be a bedroom and there were about thirty soldiers in the room, but everything seemed innocuous enough. Beds had been shoved against the wall to make room for a long table on which silver candelabra, linens and glassware had been placed. A young blond officer was playing English records on a phonograph. He smiled at the girls and said, “Eat and drink your fill.” Elena sat down at the table, but Vera suddenly wanted to leave. It was somehow clear that this was not the innocent party it had appeared to be.
She tried to walk out. One soldier after another prevented her, grinning. Then one Russian told her, “With thirty soldiers you kaput; with me you not kaput.” Now there was no doubt in Vera’s mind about the reason for the party. But she agreed to go with the single soldier: one man was better than thirty, if only because it was easier to escape from one. She knew every cranny of the neighborhood; if she could get away they would never find her. But the soldier was taking no chances. He grabbed her by the hair and dragged her, twisting, screaming and clawing, toward an empty room. Somewhere along the way she tore loose and managed to trip him. Then, kicking off her high-heeled shoes for greater speed, she ran barefoot through the backyards over splintered glass and rubble until she came to a ruin in the Putlitzstrasse. There she frantically dug a hole in the dirt, pulled a discarded water pail over her head and resolved to stay there until she died.
Elena was still at the party. She was uneasy, but she was also hungry. On the table were mounds of caviar, loaves of white bread, chocolate and chunks of beef which the Russians were eating raw. They were also downing water glasses filled with vodka, and getting progressively drunker. Finally Elena saw her chance. She quietly rose from the table and walked out; to her delight no one followed her. But in the next room a fierce-looking soldier with a handlebar moustache grabbed her and dragged her into a small anteroom. He threw her down and ripped open her one-piece coveralls. She fainted. Much later, she came to her senses, pushed the drunk and sleeping man off her and painfully crawled out of the house. Like Vera, Elena hid. In a nearby house she found refuge behind a large cook stove.
Young Rudolf Reschke, the boy who had beheaded the Hitler doll, was on hand to save his mother from molestation. A Russian who tried to drag Frau Reschke off found himself involved in a tug-of-war with Rudolf and his sister Christa. The more the soldier pulled at their mother’s arm, the harder Rudolf and Christa hung onto her skirts, screaming, and crying, “Mummy! Mummy!” The Russian gave up.
Some women saved themselves from rape simply by fighting back so fiercely that the Soviet soldiers stopped trying and looked elsewhere. Jolenta Koch was tricked into entering an empty house by a Russian who led her to believe someone in it was wounded. Inside was another Red Army man who grabbed her and tried to throw her onto a bed. She put up such resistance that both men were glad to see her go.
One of her neighbors, a woman named Schulz, was not so lucky. Mrs. Schulz was raped at gunpoint before the eyes of her helpless husband and 15-year-old son; as soon as the Russians had left, the half-crazed husband shot his wife, his son and himself to death.
At Haus Dahlem, Mother Superior Cunegundes heard that one mother of three small children had been dragged from her family and raped through an entire night. In the morning the woman was released; she rushed back to her youngsters—only to find that her own mother and brother had hanged all three children and then themselves. The woman thereupon slashed her wrists and died.
The nuns at Haus Dahlem were now working steadily around the clock. They had been overwhelmed by refugees, and by Russian bestiality. One Russian, attempting to rape the home’s Ukrainian cook, Lena, was so infuriated when Mother Superior Cunegundes intervened that he pulled out his pistol and fired at her. Fortunately, he was too drunk to shoot straight. Other soldiers entered the maternity wards and, despite all the nuns could do, repeatedly raped pregnant women and those who had recently given birth. “Their screaming,” related one nun, “went on day and night.” In the neighborhood, Mother Superior Cunegundes said, rape victims included women of seventy and little girls of ten and twelve.
She was helpless to prevent the attacks. But she called together the nuns and the other women in the building and reiterated Father Happich’s words to them. “There is also something else,” she continued, “and that is the help of Our Blessed Lord. Despite everything, He keeps St. Michael here. Do not be afraid.” There was no other solace she could give them.
In Wilmersdorf, Allied spy Carl Wiberg and his chief, Hennings Jessen-Schmidt, who had successfully identified themselves to the Russians, were actually talking to a Russian colonel outside Wiberg’s house when another Red Army officer tried to rape Wiberg’s fiancée Inge in the basement. Hearing her screaming, Wiberg rushed inside; neighbors shouted that the man had taken the girl into another room and locked the door. Wiberg and the Russian colonel smashed the door open. Inge’s clothes were torn; the officer’s were undone. The colonel grabbed the other officer and, yelling, “Amerikanski! Amerikanski!” marched him outside, pistol-whipping him unmercifully. Then he stood the officer against a wall to shoot him. Wiberg rushed between the two men and begged the colonel to save the man’s life. “You just can’t shoot a man like this,” he said. The colonel finally relented, and the officer was led off under arrest.
Certainly the most ironic sexual assault of this entire period of rape and plunder occurred in the village of Prieros, just beyond the southern outskirts of the city. The village had been bypassed by Koniev’s advancing troops, and for some time it was not occupied. Finally the soldiers arrived. Among the Germans they found were two women living in a wooden packing case. Else Kloptsch and her friend Hildegard Radusch, “the man of the house,” had almost starved to death waiting for this moment. Hildegard had dedicated her whole life to furthering Marxism: the arrival of the Russians meant the realization of a dream. When the Soviet troops entered the village one of their first acts was the brutal rape of Communist Hildegard Radusch.*
The Russians had gone wild. In the International Red Cross warehouses in Babelsberg near Potsdam, where British prisoners of war worked, drunken and trigger-happy Red Army soldiers destroyed thousands of parcels containing drugs, medical supplies and various dietary foods for sick soldiers. “They came in,” recalls Corporal John Aherne, “went into one of the cellars, saw the huge pile of parcels and just tommy-gunned the lot. Liquids of all sorts poured out of the shattered parcels. It was unbelievable.”
Next to the warehouses were the big UFA film studios. Alexander Korab, a foreign student in Berlin, watched as hundreds of intoxicated soldiers who had broken into the costume department appeared in the streets wearing”all sorts of fantastic costumes, from Spanish doublets with white ruff collars to Napoleonic uniforms and hats, to crinoline skirts. They began to dance in the streets to the accompaniment of accordions, and they fired their guns in the air—all while the battle was still raging.”
Thousands of Red Army troops appeared never to have been in a big city before. They unscrewed light bulbs, and carefully packed them to take home, under the impression that they contained light and could be made to work anywhere. Water faucets were yanked out of walls for the same reason. Bathroom plumbing was a mystery to many; they sometimes used toilets to wash and peel potatoes, but they could find no use at all for bathtubs. Thousands of them were simply thrown out of windows. Since the soldiers didn’t know what bathrooms were for, and couldn’t find outhouses, they left excrement and urine everywhere. Some Russians made an effort: Gerd Buchwald discovered that “about a dozen of my wife’s canning jars were filled with urine, the glass covers neatly screwed back into place.”
In the Schering chemical plant in Charlottenburg, Dr. Georg Henneberg was horror-stricken to find that the Russians had broken into his test laboratories and were playing catch with laboratory eggs that had been infected with typhus bacteria. The frantic Henneberg finally found a Russian colonel who ordered the soldiers out of the building and locked it up.
Amidst all the senseless plundering and brutality the battle still raged. At the center of the fighting, almost forgotten by the hard-pressed defenders and the harassed people, were the Führerbunker and its occupants.
Life in the bunker had taken on an aimless, dreamlike quality. “Those who remained,” Gertrud Junge, Hitler’s secretary, later related, “continually expected some sort of decision, but nothing happened. Maps were spread out on tables, all doors were open, nobody could sleep any more, nobody knew the date or time. Hitler could not bear to be alone; he kept walking up and down through the small rooms and talking with everybody who remained. He spoke of his imminent death and of the end which was coming.
“In the meantime, the Goebbels family had moved into the bunker, and the Goebbels children were playing and singing songs for ‘Uncle Adolf.’”
No one seemed to have any doubt now that Hitler intended to commit suicide; he talked about it often. Everyone also appeared fully aware that Magda and Joseph Goebbels planned to take their lives—and those of their six children, Helga, Holde, Hilde, Heide, Hedda and Helmuth. The only ones who did not seem to know were the children themselves. They told Erwin Jakubek, a waiter in the bunker, that they were going on a long flight out of Berlin. Helga, the eldest, said: “We are going to get an injection to prevent air sickness.”
Frau Goebbels, who had an inflamed tooth, sent for Dr. Helmut Kunz, a dentist working in the big hospital bunker under the Chancellery. He extracted the molar, and afterward she said: “The children must not fall into the hands of the Russians alive. If worse comes to worst and we cannot get out, you will have to help me.”
Eva Braun, hearing of the job Kunz had done on Magda’s teeth, suggested that maybe he could help her with some tooth problems, too. Then, suddenly remembering, she said to him: “Oh, but I’ve forgotten. What’s the sense? In a few hours it will be all over!”
Eva intended to use poison. She displayed a cyanide capsule and said, “It’s so simple—you just bite into this and it’s all over.” Dr. Ludwig Stumpfegger, one of Hitler’s doctors who happened to be present, said, “But how do you know it will work? How do you know there is poison in it?” That startled everybody, and one of the capsules was immediately tried out on Hitler’s dog Blondi. Stumpfegger, said Kunz, broke a capsule in the dog’s mouth with a pair of tongs; the animal died instantly.
The final blow for Hitler was unwittingly delivered on the afternoon of April 29 by a man sitting at a typewriter some eight thousand miles away, in the city of San Francisco. The man was Paul Scott Rankine, a Reuters correspondent who was in the city to cover the founding conference of the United Nations organization. That day he heard from the head of the British Information Services, Jack Winocour—who, in turn, had it straight from British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden—that Himmler had made an offer of surrender to the Western Allies. Rankine sent out the story, and within minutes it was being broadcast all over the world.
It was this story that gave Hitler his first inkling of Himmler’s perfidy. The news reached him during the early evening, while he was holding a conference with Weidling, Krebs, Burgdorf, Goebbels and the latter’s assistant Werner Naumann. According to Weidling’s account, “Naumann was called to the phone and a few moments later returned. He told us that in a broadcast from Radio Stockholm, it had been reported that Reichsführer SS Himmler had begun negotiations with the Anglo-American High Command.”
Hitler tottered to his feet, his face ashen. He “looked at Dr. Goebbels for a long time,” said Weidling, “then he mumbled something in a low voice which no one could understand.” He seemed stupefied. “I saw Hitler later,” Gertrud Junge said. “He was pale, hollow-eyed and looked as if he had lost everything.” He had. “We will certainly have to shed tears this evening,” Eva Braun told Gertrud and another of Hitler’s secretaries.
Himmler’s liaison officer at the Führerbunker, SS Gruppenführer Hermann Fegelein, who was married to Eva Braun’s sister, was immediately suspected of complicity in Himmler’s treason. Fegelein had disappeared from the bunker a few days before; a search had been made, and he had been found at home wearing civilian clothes and preparing to leave Berlin. He had been returned to the bunker and kept under arrest. Now Hitler concluded that Fegelein’s planned departure from Berlin was tied in with Himmler’s defection. According to SS Colonel Otto Günsche, “Fegelein was court-martialed and shot during the night of the twenty-eighth-twenty-ninth. His sister-in-law refused to intercede on his behalf.”
It apparently was clear to Hitler now that the end was near. By dawn he had dictated his personal and political testament, leaving the reins of government in the hands of Admiral Karl Doenitz as President and Joseph Goebbels as Reichschancellor. He also married Eva Braun. “After the ceremony,” recalls Gertrud Junge, “Hitler and his new bride sat for an hour with the Goebbels, Generals Krebs and Burgdorf, Dr. Naumann and Luftwaffe Colonel Nicolaus von Below.” Gertrud Junge stayed with the group for only fifteen minutes, just long enough to “express her best wishes to the newlyweds.” She says that “Hitler talked about the end of National Socialism, which he now thought could not be resurrected easily, and said, ‘Death for me only means freedom from worries and a very difficult life. I have been deceived by my best friends and I have experienced treason.’”
That same day Hitler got more bad news: Mussolini and his mistress had been captured by partisans, executed and hung up by the heels. That night Hitler bade farewell to everyone in the bunker. The following day, with Russian tanks barely half a mile away, he decided that the moment had come. He lunched, with his two secretaries and his vegetarian cook; waiter Erwin Jakubek remembered that the last meal was “spaghetti with a light sauce.” Hitler made more farewells after lunch; to Gertrud Junge he said: “Now it has gone so far, it is finished. Good-bye.” Eva Braun embraced the secretary and said: “Give my greetings to Munich and take my fur coat as a memory—I always liked well-dressed people.” Then they disappeared into their quarters.
Colonel Otto Günsche took up his stand outside the door of the anteroom leading to Hitler’s suite. “It was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do,” he later recalled. “It was about three-thirty or three-forty. I tried to do away with my feelings. I knew that he had to commit suicide. There was no other way out.”
As he waited, there was a brief anticlimax. A distraught Magda Goebbels suddenly came rushing up to him demanding to see the Führer. Günsche, unable to dissuade her, knocked on Hitler’s door. “The Führer was standing in the study. Eva was not in the room, but there was a tap running in the bathroom so I assume she was there. He was very annoyed at me for intruding. I asked him if he wanted to see Frau Goebbels. ‘I don’t want to speak to her any more,’ he said. I left.
“Five minutes later I heard a shot.
“Bormann went in first. Then I followed the valet Linge. Hitler was sitting in a chair. Eva was lying on the couch. She had taken off her shoes and placed them neatly together at one end of the couch. Hitler’s face was covered with blood. There were two guns. One was a Walther PPK. It was Hitler’s. The other was a smaller pistol he always carried in his pocket. Eva wore a blue dress with white collar and cuffs. Her eyes were wide open. There was a strong stench of cyanide. The smell was so strong that I thought my clothes would smell for days—but this may have been my imagination.
“Bormann didn’t say anything, but I immediately went into the conference room where Goebbels, Burgdorf and others that I cannot now remember were sitting. I said, ‘The Führer is dead.’”
A short while later, both bodies were wrapped in blankets and placed in a shallow depression outside the bunker entrance, near an abandoned cement mixer. Gasoline was poured over them and set ablaze. Erich Kempka, Hitler’s chauffeur, found that even after the bodies had been set on fire “we were imprisoned by the very presence of Hitler again.” The bunker’s air intakes picked up the smell of the burning bodies and sucked it into the rooms. “We could not get away from it,” recalled Kempka. “It smelled like burning bacon.”
By nightfall the new Chancellor, Joseph Goebbels, had made his first major decision since assuming office: he had decided to try to negotiate the capitulation of the city—on his own terms. A radio message was sent out on the Soviet frequency, asking for a meeting. Soon afterward the Russians responded; they agreed to accept emissaries, and specified a place where German officers might pass through their lines.
Shortly before midnight, Lieutenant General Hans Krebs and Weidling’s Chief of Staff, Theodor von Dufving (who had just been made a full colonel), crossed through the ruins, accompanied by an interpreter and two soldiers, and entered the Soviet lines. They were met by soldiers who asked to see their credentials and tried to remove their pistols. Krebs, who spoke excellent Russian, said stiffly: “A courageous opponent is allowed to keep his weapons during negotiations.” The Russians, abashed, permitted them to retain their sidearms.
They were taken by car to an apartment house in Tempelhof, and were shown into a small dining room. Its furnishings still showed traces of civilian occupancy—a long table, a large wardrobe against one wall, some chairs, and on another wall a lithograph of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper.” There were also several field telephones in the room. To Krebs and Von Dufving the place seemed filled with senior officers. There were no greetings and the Russians did not introduce themselves. Krebs had no way of knowing, therefore, that the man sitting opposite him was the renowned Colonel General Vasili Ivanovich Chuikov, defender of Stalingrad and commander of the Eighth Guards Army. Nor could he know that the other Russian “officers” consisted of two war correspondents, Chuikov’s aide (who was also his brother-in-law) and two interpreters.* The fact was that Chuikov had been caught by surprise by the sudden request for talks and had not been able to assemble his full staff.
Krebs first asked for a private meeting with the “chief Soviet negotiator.” Chuikov, taking a long Russian cigarette from the box in front of him and lighting it, airily waved at the men sitting around him and said, “This is my staff—this is my war council.”
Krebs continued to object, but he finally gave in. “It is my mission,” he said, “to deliver a message which is extraordinarily important and of a confidential nature. I want you to know that you are the first foreigner to learn that on April 30 Hitler committed suicide.”
That was indeed news to Chuikov, but without batting an eye, he said, “We know that.”
Krebs was astounded. “How could you know?” he asked. “Hitler only committed suicide a few hours ago.” Hitler had married Eva Braun on the twenty-ninth; she too had committed suicide and their bodies had been burned and buried. It had happened, he explained, in the Führerbunker. Once again, Chuikov hid his surprise. Neither he nor anyone else in the Soviet command had had any knowledge of such a place, nor had they ever heard of Eva Braun.
They then got down to hard negotiating. Krebs told Chuikov that Hitler had left a will behind in which he named his successors, and he passed a copy of the will across to the Russian. The problem, he said, was that there could not be a complete surrender because Doenitz, the new President, was not in Berlin. The first step, Krebs suggested, would be a cease-fire or a partial surrender—after which perhaps the Doenitz government might negotiate directly with the Russians. This attempt to split the Allies was flatly rejected by Chuikov after a hasty phone call to Zhukov. (The decision was later confirmed by Moscow.)
The negotiations went on all night. By dawn all that Krebs had gained from the Russians was a single demand: an immediate unconditional surrender of the city, plus the personal surrender of all the occupants of the bunker.
While Krebs remained to argue with Chuikov, Von Dufving made a hazardous journey back through the lines, during which he was shot at by SS troops and pulled to safety by a Russian lieutenant colonel. He finally reached the Führerbunker and there he toldGoebbels that the Russians were insisting on an unconditional capitulation. Goebbels became agitated. “To that I shall never, never agree,” he cried.
With both sides adamant, the talks were broken off. In the bunker there was panic. It seemed now that every Soviet gun in the district had zeroed in on the Reichskanzlei; Von Dufving later speculated that this was the direct result of Krebs’s disclosure of the bunker’s location. For those in the besieged Führerbunker there were now only two alternatives: suicide or a breakout. Immediately everyone began to make plans. They would leave in small groups through the complex of tunnels and bunkers that lay beneath the Reichskanzlei building and grounds. From there they would follow the subway system to the Friedrichstrasse Station, where they hoped to join up with a battle group that would lead them to the north. “Once we broke through the Russian cordon on the north side of the Spree,” Werner Naumann, Goebbels’ assistant, later recalled, “we were sure we could turn safely in any direction.”
Some chose the other alternative.
For the Goebbels family the choice was suicide. Werner Naumann had tried for weeks to dissuade Magda Goebbels, but she remained firm. Now the time had come. At about eight-thirty on May 1, Naumann was talking with Goebbels and his wife when suddenly Magda “got up and went into the children’s rooms. After a short while she returned, white and shaken.” Almost immediately, Goebbels began making his good-byes. “He said a few personal words to me—nothing political or about the future, just good-bye,” Naumann later said. As Goebbels left the bunker he asked his adjutant, Guenther Schwägermann, to burn his and his family’s bodies after death. Then, as Naumann watched, Joseph and Magda Goebbels went slowly up the stairs and into the garden. Goebbels was wearing his cap and gloves. Magda was “shaking so badly she could hardly walk up the stairs.” No one ever saw them alive again.
The children were dead, too, and at the hand of a most improbable killer. “Only one person,” said Naumann, “went into the children’s rooms in the last moments before Joseph and Magda took their own lives—and that was Magda herself.”
Some of those who broke out did not fare much better. A number were killed. Others fell into the hands of the Russians within hours; Hitler’s bodyguard Otto Günsche was to spend twelve years as a Soviet prisoner. Some quickly became casualties—like pilot Hans Baur who, carrying a small painting of Frederick the Great given to him by Hitler, lost a leg from a shell burst and woke up in a Russian hospital without the painting. Others such as Martin Bormann mysteriously disappeared. A few actually got away—or, what was almost as good, fell into the hands of the Anglo-Americans.
Three stayed in the bunker and committed suicide: Hitler’s adjutant, General Burgdorf; the OKH’s Chief of Staff, General Hans Krebs, and SS Captain Franz Schedle of the bunker guards.
And now, with all other authority gone, the full responsibility for the safety of the city, its defenders and its people fell on one man—General Karl Weidling. By now Berlin was a flaming holocaust. Its troops had been pushed back into the very heart of the city. There were tanks along the Unter den Linden and the Wilhelmstrasse. There was fighting all through the Tiergarten area and in the zoo. Russian artillery was bombarding the city from the East-West Axis. Troops were in the subway stations at Alexanderplatz and Friedrichstrasse, and a fierce battle was taking place within the Reichstag. Weidling could see nothing to do but surrender. Still, he felt that he should put it up to his men. He called a meeting of his commanders and explained the situation. “I informed them,” Weidling said, “of the events of the last twenty-four hours and my plans. At the end I left it to every one of them to choose another way out, but they had no other solution. However, those who wanted to try breaking out could do so if they desired.”
A little before one o’clock on the morning of May 2 the Red Army’s 79th Guards Rifle Division picked up a radio message. “Hello, hello,” said the voice. “This is the 56th Panzer Corps. We ask for a cease-fire. At twelve-fifty hours Berlin time we are sending truce negotiators to the Potsdam Bridge. Recognition sign—a white flag. Awaiting reply.”
The Russians replied: “Understand you. Understand you. Am transmitting your request to Chief of Staff.”
On receipt of the message, General Chuikov immediately ordered a cease-fire. At twelve-fifty on May 2, Colonel von Dufving, Weidling’s Chief of Staff, and two other officers arrived at the Potsdam Bridge under the white flag. They were taken to Chuikov’s headquarters. Soon afterward Weidling followed. Later that day powerful loudspeakers all over the city announced the end of hostilities. “Each hour of the conflict,” General Weidling’s order read, “increases the frightful sufferings of the civilian population of Berlin and of our wounded…. I command the immediate cessation of fighting.” Although sporadic firing would continue for days, the battle for Berlin was officially over. People who ventured into the Platz der Republik that afternoon saw the red flag fluttering over the Reichstag. It had been raised even as the fighting was going on at exactly 1:45 P.M. on the thirtieth of April.
Although the Russians knew that the Führerbunker lay beneath the Reichskanzlei, it took them several hours to find it. People were grabbed off the streets and asked to direct the searchers to the place. Gerhard Menzel, a photographer, was one who was asked. He had never heard of the bunker. Still, he went with one group of soldiers to the wrecked Reichskanzlei. In the labyrinth of cellars and passageways Russian engineers led the way with mine detectors. As soon as a room or corridor was cleared, other soldiers collected papers, files and maps. Menzel was suddenly given a pair of binoculars the Russians had found and told to leave. They had arrived at the Führerbunker itself.
The first bodies they found were those of Generals Burgdorf and Krebs. The two officers were in the corridor lounge, sitting before a long table littered with glasses and bottles. Both men had shot themselves, but they were identified by papers found in their uniforms.
Major Boris Polevoi, in one of the first search teams to enter, made a quick inspection of the entire bunker. In a small room with Pullman-type beds fastened to the walls, he found the Goebbels family. The bodies of Joseph and Magda were lying on the floor. “Both bodies had been burned,” Polevoi said, “and only Joseph Goebbels’ face was recognizable.” The Russians later had trouble figuring out how the parents’ bodies came to be there. Presumably someone had brought them back into the bunker after their partial cremation, but the Russians never learned who. The children were also there. “To see the children was horrid,” Major Polevoi said. “The only one who seemed disturbed was the eldest, Helga. She was bruised. All were dead, but the rest were lying there peacefully.”
Soviet doctors immediately examined the youngsters. There were burn marks around their mouths, leading the doctors to believe that the children had been given a sleeping potion and had then been poisoned while they slept by cyanide tablets which had been crushed between their teeth. From Helga’s bruises, the doctors speculated that she had awakened during the poisoning, had struggled, and had had to be held down. As the bodies were carried up to the Reichskanzlei Court of Honor to be photographed and tagged for identification purposes, Polevoi took a last look around the death room. Lying on the floor were the children’s toothbrushes and a squashed tube of toothpaste.
A special team of experts found Hitler’s body almost immediately, buried under a thin layer of earth. A Russian historian, General B. S. Telpuchovskii, felt sure that it was the Führer. “The body was badly charred,” he said, “but the head was intact, though the back was shattered by a bullet. The teeth had been dislodged and were lying alongside the head.”
Then some doubts began to arise. Other bodies were found in the same area and some of them, too, had been burned. “We found the body of a man in uniform whose features resembled Hitler’s,” said Telpuchovskii, “but his socks were darned. We decided that this could not be Hitler because we hardly thought that the Führer of the Reich would wear darned socks. There was also the body of a man who was freshly killed but not burned.”
The matter of the two doubles was further confused when the first body was placed alongside the second, and guards and other German personnel were asked to identify them. They either could not or would not. A few days later Colonel General Vasili Sokolovskii ordered a dental check to be made of each body. Fritz Echtmann and Käthe Heusermann, the dental technicians who had worked in the offices of Hitler’s dentist, Blaschke, were turned up. Echtmann was taken to Finow, near Eberswalde, about twenty-five miles northeast of Berlin. He was asked to draw a sketch of Hitler’s teeth. When he had finished, his interrogators disappeared into another room with the sketch. A short while later they were back. “It fits,” Echtmann was told. Then the Russians showed the technician Hitler’s entire lower jaw and dental bridges.
Käthe Heusermann was picked up on May 7; she immediately identified the jaw and bridges. The work she and Blaschke had performed some months ago was easily recognizable. Käthe was given a bag of food and driven back to Berlin. Two days later she was picked up again and this time taken to the town of Erkner. In a clearing was a row of open graves, the bodies visible in them. “Identify them,” the Russian with her said. Käthe immediately recognized the bodies of Joseph Goebbels and his children. “The girls were all still wearing flannel nightgowns of a printed material with a design of small red roses and blue flowers intertwined,” she said. There was no sign of Magda Goebbels.
Apparently as a consequence of her identification of Hitler’s teeth, Käthe Heusermann spent the next eleven years in a Soviet prison, most of the time in solitary confinement.
What happened to the remains of Hitler’s body? The Russians claim to have cremated it just outside Berlin, but they will not say where. They say that they never found Eva Braun’s body, that it must have been consumed completely by fire, and that any normally identifiable portions must have been destroyed or scattered in the furious bombardment of the government buildings.*
These two sketches, drawn especially for the author in 1963, were made and signed by Käthe Heusermann (right) and Fritz Echtmann, showing how they identified Hitler’s teeth for the Russians. Note the position of the hanging bridge in the upper jaw, marked with a dotted rectangle in Echtmann’s sketch.
On the morning of April 30, as Gotthard Heinrici walked down the corridor of his headquarters before departing for good, a young captain had stepped up to him. “General,” he said, “you don’t know me. I have been working in the Operations Department. Like everyone else, I know that you have been relieved and ordered to report to Plön.”
Heinrici said nothing.
“I beg of you,” said the young captain, “do not hurry getting there.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Heinrici.
“Years ago,” said the captain, “I used to walk behind the regimental band in Schwäbisch Gmünd on Sundays during church parade. You were a major then, sir. I later became well acquainted with the man who was then your adjutant.”
Heinrici said, “Yes—Rommel.”
“Well, sir,” the captain continued, “I hope you will forgive me for saying that I would not like the same fate to overtake you that befell Field Marshal Rommel.”
“What do you mean?” Heinrici asked, looking at him sharply. “Rommel was killed in action.”
The captain replied: “No sir, he was not. He was forced to commit suicide.” Heinrici stared at him. “How do you happen to know this?” he snapped.
“I was Rommel’s aide,” the officer told him. “My name is Hellmuth Lang. I beg of you, drive as slowly as you can to Plön. That way the war will probably be over by the time you get there.”
Heinrici hesitated. Then he shook Lang’s hand. “Thank you,” he said stiffly. “Thank you very much.”
Heinrici walked on down the corridor and out of the building. Drawn up there were the members of his small staff. Someone gave an order and every man came to the salute. Heinrici walked over to each of them. “I want to thank you all,” he said. Captain Heinrich von Bila, the General’s aide, opened the car door. Heinrici got in. Von Bila climbed in beside the driver. “Plön,” he said.
Heinrici leaned over and tapped the chauffeur on the shoulder. “We’re in no great hurry,” he said.
Late the next night Heinrici reached the barracks at Plön. As he entered his room a radio was playing. There was a sudden interruption. After a low roll of drums it was announced that the Führer was dead. The time was 10 P.M., May 1.
Warrant Officer Dixie Deans sat beside his German guard, Charlie Gumbach, listening to the news. It was the best news Dixie had heard for a long time. “… In the battle against Bolshevism, the Führer fought to the last breath before his death,” the announcer solemnly stated. Deans looked around him. He and Gumbach were somewhere east of Lauenburg, sheltering in the cellar of a house just back of the German lines. The whole family was present and the wife was in tears at the news. Deans restrained his own delight. Though the Führer might be dead, the war was not yet over. The German lines were just ahead and Dixie had to get through them. It would not be easy; the firing was heavy.
Everyone settled down in the uncomfortable quarters for the night. Sleep came easily to Deans. He had been cycling for days, trying to get through to the British lines. Now with a bit of luck he might just make it—if he could persuade the next lot of Jerries to let him by. It was the last thing Deans remembered before he fell asleep.
Hours later he awoke with a jolt. There was a tommy gun sticking in his ribs. A voice said, “Okay, chum; on your feet.” Dixie looked up into the face of a tough-looking British 6th Airborne paratrooper. The area had been taken during the night, while they slept. Deans leaped up, overjoyed, and explained who he was. He and Charlie were marched back to company headquarters, then passed along first to division headquarters and then to corps. Finally they were seen by Lieutenant General Evelyn H. Barker, 8th Corps commander.
Deans quickly explained the situation. “There are 12,000 R.A.F. POWs marching toward the lines,” he said urgently. “Our planes are shooting them up!” He showed General Barker where he had left the men. The General looked startled; hastily he reached for the phone—and canceled another air strike scheduled for the same area. “Everything will be all right now,” said General Barker, looking relieved. “We should overrun the area within the next forty-eight hours; you’d better get some rest.”
“No, sir,” Deans said. “I promised Colonel Ostmann that I would return.”
Barker looked at him in amazement. “Isn’t that a bit silly?” he asked. “After all, we will be there in a matter of hours.”
But Deans was insistent. “Well,” said the General, “I’ll give you a car with a Red Cross flag that may get you through. And tell those Jerries that you meet that they might just as well pack it in now.”
Deans saluted. As he passed through the Chief of Staff’s office he looked about him. “Where’s my German guard, Charlie Gumbach?” he asked. Somebody said, “He’s on his way to the POW camp.” Deans was annoyed. “I’m not leaving here without him,” he growled. “I gave my word of honor.” Charlie was quickly returned, and they set off in a captured Mercedes with a Red Cross flag across the hood.
Two days later Dixie Deans marched his men into the British lines, his bagpipers leading the way. Men stood watching as the thin, tired R.A.F. men, heads high, tramped into the British area. Colonel Ostmann and his guards were now taken into custody. Deans and some of his men marched with them to the British POW compound. The two groups faced each other and came to attention. Ostmann stepped forward, and he and Deans saluted. “Good-bye, Colonel Ostmann,” said Deans. “Good-bye, Mr. Deans,” said Ostmann. “I hope we meet again.” Then Deans repeated “Ten-shun!” and Ostmann and his guards marched into the British POW compound. As he passed, Charlie Gumbach waved.
The firing was murderous. It came from every side. Busse was everywhere, yelling at his men. “On your feet! Keep moving! Only a few more miles to go! Wenck is waiting!” Busse was so tired that he did not know what hour or even what day it was. The Ninth had been fighting toward Wenck for what seemed like weeks. There was almost no ammunition left, and there was virtually no artillery, only some mortars. There were few machine guns and almost nothing to fire in them. Everywhere Busse looked he saw men collapsing, unable to move. It took all his strength and that of his officers to keep them going. Complicating matters were the thousands of refugees who had joined the columns. Food was short. There was not even enough for his own men.
Wenck could not be more than a few miles away, but Russian resistance was still stiff. Busse called up his last remaining tank. He had been holding it for this moment. He told Lieutenant General Wolf Hagemann to lead the way out. Hagemann leaped in and told the driver to gun the motor. The tank thrashed forward. They rumbled across a ditch and some rough ground. Suddenly Hagemann saw the Russian troops breaking in front of them. He looked around for something to fire. There was no ammunition for the machine guns, but he grabbed up a shotgun and began pumping shells at the fleeing Russians.
Then he heard fire coming from the other direction—from in back of the Russians. It was Wenck’s men. The link-up came so suddenly that nobody really remembered afterward how it ended. Exhausted men just fell into each other’s arms. Wenck and Busse had joined.
“The men of the Ninth were so tired, so worn out, in such terrible shape, that it was unbelievable,” Wenck remembered. As he stood watching, one man in the midst of the columns broke away and came toward him. Wenck saw a haggard, begrimed, unshaven soldier. Not until the man was almost up to him did Wenck recognize General Theodor Busse. Wordlessly they shook hands, and then Wenck said, “Thank God you’re here.”
On May 7 the two armies were back on the Elbe and more than 100,000 crossed to the west to be taken by the Americans. Of Busse’s original 200,000 men, only 40,000 survived.
The last message from Trans-Ocean, the semi-official German news agency, was in French. It said, “Sauve qui peut”—Let those who are able save themselves. Berliners took the suggestion. There were tanks, troops, baby carriages, automobiles, horse-drawn wagons, personnel carriers, self-propelled guns, men on horseback and thousands of people afoot funneling out of Berlin across the bridges leading to Spandau. The vast exodus had been going on for hours. The surrender might have been signed but shooting was still going on, and all the refugees wanted to do was escape. Occasionally the columns of fleeing Germans were shelled: apparently Russian artillery to the north and south had not yet received the cease-fire.
Young Brigitte Weber set out from Berlin in her father-in-law’s chauffeur-driven car; she was wrapped in her fur coat and she had a basket of heirloom silver at her feet. Then the car got jammed in the Spandau columns, and it took ten and a half hours to travel just a few miles. She finally had to abandon the car and, like thousands of others, trudge west on foot.
The 16-year-old Aribert Schulz was astonished to find himself once again in the presence of the official SS executioner. Schulz was lying next to the red-haired man in a first-aid shelter: the lanky SS gunman had taken a full burst of fire across the stomach; he screamed for sixteen hours before he died.
Again and again, as the great throngs of people filled the roads leading toward the bridges, shells landed among them. Hildegard Panzer, traveling with Captain Kurt Ache, who was helping her with her two children—Wolfgang, nine, and Helga, five—lost the little boy and girl in the crush. She never saw them again. In all, an estimated twenty thousand people were killed and wounded in the mad exodus.
And then at last the shells stopped falling, and the refugees left the sound of gunfire behind. They walked a little farther, to be sure, then they dropped to the ground. Men, women and children slept where they fell—in fields, in ditches, in empty houses, in abandoned vehicles, on the shoulders of the roads, in the roads themselves. They were safe now. The last battle had ended.
“Abu! Abu!” Heinrich Schwarz walked through the terrible devastation of the zoo. There was nothing left now, he thought. The zoo would never be the same again. Dead animals and rubble were everywhere. He walked toward the pool. “Abu! Abu!” he called.
There was a fluttering. At the edge of the empty pool was the rare Abu Markub stork, standing on one leg and looking at Schwarz. He walked through the pool and picked up the bird. “It’s all over, Abu,” said Schwarz. “It’s all over.” He carried the bird away in his arms.
On May 4, Ilse Antz slowly stepped from her Wilmersdorf cellar for the first time in daylight since April 24. The streets were strangely quiet. “At first, unaccustomed to the brightness, I saw nothing but black circles before my eyes. But then I looked around. The sun was shining, and spring had come. The trees were blooming; the air was soft. Even in this tortured and dying town nature was bringing back life. Up to now nothing had touched me; all emotions were dead. But as I looked over at the park, where spring had come, I could not control myself any longer. For the first time since it had all started, I cried.”
THE FALL OF THE CITY
The Russians fight their way into Berlin. At the top, Russian Katushkas—rocket launchers—firing in the city. At bottom, Russian troops shelter behind a Soviet propaganda sign that reads, “Forward, fighters of Stalingrad! Victory is near!” In the background is the German Victory Monument.
The Zoo Bunker. One of the twin flak towers in the zoo, it was the last stronghold to capitulate in Berlin.
before the fighting
Walter Hagedorn, a Luftwaffe doctor, who surrendered the bunker to the Russians.
Gerda Niedieck, teletype operator, who handled Hitler’s last message: “Where is Wenck? Where is Steiner?”
General Krebs outside Chuikov’s HQ on the morning of May 1. This unique photograph from the Soviet Defense Archives appears here for the first time.
The same house twenty years later, discovered by the author following directions given him by Chuikov in Moscow. The house at 2 Schullenburg Ring, Tempelhof, is still owned by the same person, a Mrs. Goebels. “The room was dominated by a lithograph of Leonardo da Vinci’s ’Last Supper,’” recalls Chuikov. It’s still there, but the table,
on which the surrender was signed is now in the library of the nearby Judas Thaddeus Catholic Church.
*In Heinrici’s war diary, in which all telephone conversations were taken down verbatim in shorthand, an astonishing entry appears: “12:30 April 21: Busse to Heinrici: ‘Just got word that 56th Corps last night moved into Olympic Village from Hoppegarten without specific orders. Request arrest …’” No one knows where Busse got his information, but it was wrong: the Olympic Village was at Döberitz on the western side of Berlin. Weidling was fighting on the eastern out-skirts of the city.
** The Eclipse documents he had studied so thoroughly had convinced Jodl that Wenck’s drive east would not be hindered by the Americans who, he was sure, were permanently halted on the Elbe.
*The other fifteen bodies were found three weeks later. Still clutched in the hand of Albrecht Haushofer were some of the sonnets he had written in jail. One line read: “There are times which are guided by madness; And then they are the best heads that one hangs.”
*Apparently there had not been time to circulate Wiberg’s report after its receipt in London.
*Two operations continued without a break: the meteorological records, kept at the station in Potsdam, did not miss a day throughout 1945, and eleven of the city’s seventeen breweries—engaged, by government decree, in “essential” production—continued making beer.
*In Normandy, in 1944, the author remembers being present when two captured soldiers in German uniform posed a strange problem to intelligence interrogaters of the U. S. First Army: nobody could understand their language. Both men were sent to England where it was discovered they were Tibetan shepherds, press-ganged into the Red Army, captured on the eastern front and press-ganged once again into the German Army.
*Joachim Lipschitz was eventually to become one of West Berlin’s most famous officials. As Senator of Internal Affairs in 1955, he was in charge of the city’s police force. He remained an unrelenting foe of the East German Communist regime until his death in 1961.
*Some of the fire engines that had left on the twenty-second returned to the city on the order of Major General Walter Golbach, head of the Fire Department. According to post-war reports, the fire engines were ordered out of Berlin by Goebbels to keep them from falling into Russian hands. Golbach, on hearing that he was to be arrested for rescinding Goebbels’ order, tried to commit suicide and failed. Bleeding from a face wound, he was taken out by SS men and executed.
*✼ They both lived. Prompt action by a doctor saved their lives.
*The Russians do not deny the rapes that occurred during the fall of Berlin, although they tend to be very defensive about them. Soviet historians admit that the troops got out of control, but many of them attribute the worst of the atrocities to vengeance-minded ex-prisoners of war who were released during the Soviet advance to the Oder. In regard to the rapes, the author was told by editor Pavel Troyanoskii of the army newspaper Red Star: “We were naturally not one hundred per cent gentlemen; we had seen too much.” Another Red Star editor said: “War is war, and what we did was nothing in comparison with what the Germans did in Russia.” Milovan Djilas, who was head of the Yugoslav Military Mission to Moscow during the war, says in his book Conversations with Stalinthat he complained to the Soviet dictator about atrocities committed by Red Army troops in Yugoslavia. Stalin replied: “Can’t you understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometers through blood and fire has fun with a woman or takes a trifle?”
*With the two correspondents when Chuikov summoned them to the meeting was a visiting Soviet composer, Matvei Isaakovich Blanter, sent by Stalin to write a symphony commemorating the Berlin victory. The correspondents asked the General what to do with the composer, and Chuikov said, “Bring him along.” But when Blanter arrived he was wearing civilian clothes, and it was clear that he could not be passed off as a Red Army officer. He was hastily shoved into a clothes closet adjoining the meeting room. He stayed there for most of the ensuing conference. Just before the visitors left he fainted from lack of air and fell into the room, to the utter astonishment of the Germans.
*It is the author’s belief that the Russians were not interested in Eva Braun and made no real effort to identify her body. The first confirmation by the Soviets that Hitler was dead was made to the author and to Professor John Erickson by Marshal Vasili Sokolovskii on April 17, 1963, almost eighteen years after the event.