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.