A little light summer reading

So I’ve been inhaling Antony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin 1945 for the last week. It’s a spectacularly weird blend, this one: half or more by weight an operational history of that last spring of the war – at the operational level, the protagonists tend to be things like this SS Heavy Panzer Division or that Guards Tank Army – leavened by significant, frequently first-person descriptions of the human toll.

This is, as you can imagine, eminently cheery stuff. (I blame Slavin, by the way, who first hipped me to the book, then fled immediately for Corsica.) Where the German civilian population was concerned, that toll was most severe, and in his detailed accounting for the depredations inflicted by the victorious Russians Beevor brings the reader to a place that I warrant most American students of World War II (and most particularly those of us who are Jewish) remain uncomfortable with: heartfelt compassion for the official enemy. I can’t imagine anyone reading about the fate of these ordinary Germans – even understanding and fully accepting that their silence and willed ignorance over the twelve years of the Reich was effective complicity in the worst atrocities of the war – and not having to wrestle with their own feelings of sorrow and horror.

Most prominently, this fate involved the Red Army’s practice of mass rape in the territories it liberated. Now, discussions of rape tend to be almost entirely excluded from historical considerations of war – this one or any other – for the usual variety of predictable reasons: it’s unpleasant to think and write about in detail, it besmirches the honor of the fighting men and units involved (!), it’s “distracting” (!!), or it simply doesn’t register as significant on the author’s radar. In this respect, The Fall of Berlin undeniably supplies a useful corrective to what I have to regard as a shameful and indefensible precedent.

Here’s the truth of what happened as the Red Army advanced toward Berlin, in a single stark sentence: “Nuns, young girls, old women, pregnant women and mothers who had just given birth were all raped without pity.” Navigating between the prudery and prurience that have marred other such accounts, Beevor enunciates just what it is that these attacks involved, and I can assure you that it does not make for comfortable reading; for many victims, suicide was the only conceivable response to the self- and soul-annihilating assault they experienced.

He further makes it clear that although not all Red Army soldiers were rapists (indeed, a number of victims were female soldiers of that same Army), the assaults involved were something close to a matter of official policy, and that in any event Red Army discipline, such as it was, was entirely inadequate to the demands of the situation. The regular Army were nothing short of cavalier in the face of the (female) enemy’s suffering (“‘That? Well, it certainly hasn’t done you any harm,’ said one [Russian] district commandant in Berlin to a group of women who had come to request protection from repeated attacks. ‘Our men are all healthy.'”) while the NKVD was infinitely more interested in rooting out soldiers who might have become exposed to non-approved viewpoints. (The latter, whatever their demonstrated feats of heroism in service to the nation, predictably enough wound up in the Gulag.)

You shouldn’t get the idea, however, that I’m entirely comfortable with everything Beevor has to say here. Oddly, and for whatever reasons of his own, at one point he feels it necessary to sketch out a kind of taxonomy of mass rape: as merely a single, not particularly remarkable component of a broader pattern of total revenge, constituting “understandable” payback for Stalingrad and other German atrocities on the Eastern Front; as a weapon of devastating psychological effectiveness in its own right; and, primarily where rear-echelon soldiers were concerned, an act of all-but-entirely sexual release after the “deprivations” of field life. The entire passage strikes me as invidious.

So the book’s not without faults, but I’d argue that its many strengths more than compensate. There is one final reason, though, that Fall is so uncomfortable to read, and it’s this: the book’s description of the cast of self-serving clowns, ideologues and incompetents that surrounded Hitler in the throes of his Führerdämmerung is impossible to read without hearing the resonances of the present moment. (Indeed, it’s cause for laughter of the very blackest sort to admit that, in the present straits, we don’t even have anyone with the indepence or integrity of a Heinz Guderian to push back against the groupthink lunacy. “You’ve done a heckuva job, Keitie.” Achtung Panzer! indeed.)

And so these are my thoughts as summer draws to a close. If you’ve got the stomach for it, do pick up the Beevor: I guarantee you’ll learn a thing or two, and maybe even find yourself in a place you didn’t expect. I know I’m the better – and, as usual, the sadder – for it.

3 responses to “A little light summer reading”

  1. Michal Migurski says :

    Also worth a read in this vein is the Norman Davies account of my hometown, Microcosm. There’s a lengthy portion about the conquest of the city by the Russians at the end of the war, as painful as I imagine Fall Of Berlin to be.

  2. Enrique Ramirez says :

    You’ve definitely put the nail on the head to a controversial trend in recent World War II scholarship: the identification of German citizens as war victims. A veritable flashpoint was created only a couple of years ago, when German journalist Jörg Friedrich wrote the controversial Der Brand: Deutschland im Bombenkrieg (translated in English as, simply, The Fire) (Michael Sherry completed a similar treatment of the firebombings of Japan in The Rise of American Air Power[1988]). Both books went into excruciating detail of the horrible human toll of the “air war” from 1939-1945. This will be an issue for eons, even when generations more familiar with the catastrophes of the Second World War pass away. I myself struggled with this issue when engaging at my own research. I can think of one solace when writing about World War II from an architectural lens: depicting the built environment as a type of war victim affords one way to glance over the moral complexities you allude to in your post. As you can imagine, this aspect of object-analysis can be especially infuriating … and thankfully, there are ways to move beyond the architecture-as-victim argument and negotiate the complexities you brilliantly described.

    None of the actors in these historical events can ever come out unscathed. As one of my law professors would say: bad cases make bad law. In that case, difficult historical contingencies breed difficult people. Sure, it’s tautological, but it is nevertheless true. One wonders what degree of levity technicians at the MIT RadLab, Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, Edgewood, Dugway should be given when considering their perfecting of the science of bombmaking to a cold, deadly art.

  3. speedbird says :

    Yeah, that’s it exactly. The further out we get historically, the harder it will be for anyone to retrieve what was definitive about each of these acts of mass violence, and to situate them in an appropriate reckoning.

    I despise the sort of simplistic moral relativism that would assert that all these events are equal, overlooking the (to me) very meaningful distinctions as to motivation. By the same token, though, I can’t imagine how one might plug these various acts and actors into any sort of a satisfactory calculus. It seems disrespectfully clinical, something a Robert McNamara might think a good idea.

    Works that I’ve looked to in the past to supply context – Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners spring immediately to mind – are debunked, discredited or found severely wanting, while even the most fiercely rigorous reporters turn out to have occasionally unsavoury agendas.

    So as far as I’m concerned the twentieth century’s various bloodbaths remain incommensurate and incommensurable, forever fixed in what the Buddhists would call “thusness.” I’d argue that, from a human standpoint, this is appropriate, but it sure doesn’t help with comparative analysis.

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