Berlin is Encircled, the Allies meet at Torgau: 60

On April 25, 1945 “[t]he 1st Belarussian Front [Zhukov] … linked up with the 1st Ukrainian Front [Koniev] troops northwest of Potsdam, having completed the encirclement of Berlin.” The lid on the kessel was slammed closed. The same day, the desperate and hopeless relief attack by III Panzerkorps under Steiner, which Hitler was dreaming would save him, ground to a halt 50 miles from Berlin. The days of successful German offensives were long over.

The final offensive had begun on 16 April. “Zhukov’s 1st Byelorussian Front attacked at 05.00 on the 16th April and Koniev’s 1st Ukrainian Front at 06.15.” Stalin had set the two commanders in a race to Berlin. The Soviets had ten thousand cannon, one for every four meters of front, 6,300 tanks and 8,500 aircraft committed to the attack. Still, because the Soviets had failed to correctly identify the dug-in and camouflaged defensive line along the Seelowe heights, the Germans were able, for a time, to halt the juggernaut. The end was not in doubt, because the Soviets were willing to pay the blood-price to take Berlin street by street, house by house, room by room. The Soviets lost 300,000 men in the battle, roughly what the United States lost in the entire war. Upon winning, the Red Army troops subjected the conquered population to a reign of rape and brutality reminiscent of the Mongols — and similar to what the Germans had inflicted on the Soviet peoples when the boot was on the other foot.

Meanwhile, on the same day, April 25, 1945 American troops from Ninth Army and the Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front famously joined hands at Torgau on the Elbe, 100 miles Southwest of Berlin. Germany was being carved into pieces.

And on April 25 German U-boats sink 5 Allied supply ships in the English Channel.

The Germans did not give up when they were clearly beaten. They kept killing people long after there was any hope of victory. They did not do a rational cost-benefit analysis. They were good at fighting, it was what they knew how to do, and they believed their own racist lies about their supposed superiority. The only way they could be stopped was by battering them to the ground, so that anyone who was conscious would see it was over, so that they were so crushed that they were rendered physically incapable of killing anymore. That is what it took to achieve victory. No half-measures would have worked with these people. That is how it is sometimes.

As to the Soviets, we can and should recognize and respect the extraordinary achievement of the soldiers of the Red Army, without unduly glorifying them, without making excuses for their crimes, and with no illusions about the evil of the regime they served and saved. There is too little recognition of what they accomplished, in the face of a murderous, even psychotic enemy, ruled by a regime almost as bad. We in the West should be grateful that they did so much of the hard work to defeat the Third Reich, a fact the Cold War and a history seen through Western and German eyes did too much to obscure. Recent scholarship, especially that of David M. Glantz (e.g. here and books available on Amazon) and the appearance of memoirs (e.g. here, and this and this) are doing much to change this, to create a more balanced view, and to fill in the details of a vast and too little understood part of the Second World War.

(Sources: Here and here and here and here and here.)

28 thoughts on “Berlin is Encircled, the Allies meet at Torgau: 60”

  1. “No half-measures would have worked with these people.”

    I think you’re being a bit harsh of the Germans – by 45 most of the Army was under 18 or over 40. Most were not Nazi’s.

    They kept fighting because of fear, knowledge of that of what the Russians would do next and most importantly a basic human instinct to fight back.

    So the Germans were not somehow sub human because they failed to follow “rational cost-benefit analysis” any more than the defenders of the Alamo.

  2. Giles, my reference to rational cost benefit analysis was perhaps too flippant. But the leadership, if it had been sane, would have recognized defeat. I don’t criticize the infantryman, probably a teenager or an old guy like me, huddled in a hole with two panzerfaust and a bolt action rifle, with a column of tanks and mounted infantry bearing down on him. By this time he truly was defending his home and his family. And he’d have been shot if he ran away. No. I blame the leadership for not surrendering when they were beaten.

    The Alamo is not an accurate analogy. That was one battle, in the course of a longer war, which the defenders correctly understood would not decide the war. Their defense provided material assistance to the cause of their war, and helped to make the later victory possible. So, their heroism and sacrifice had some point. The defense of Berlin was not in that category. It succeeded in killing hundreds of thousands of people in a cause which did not have a realistic hope of victory.

  3. Great post. Boy, I’d love to coherently blog about the history I read and try to understand.

    I am 7/8 done with Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Fascinating, disturbing.

    But the next book on my list is one you may want to consider – Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate – a novel set around the time of Stalingrad.

    This has been recommended to me by a Russian Jew emigre friend of mine – I have read the first two hundred pages and decided to finish Rise and Fall first. But what I have read is remarkable. A series of character sketches and stories that develops into a War and Peace type saga. Very readable. Mostly heartbreaking. The short chapter where I learned the term “brenner” as understood by Nazis is probably the most chilling story I have ever read. (These are the Jews whose job was to bury and burn the corpses of their murdered comrades. Once their task was complete, they were to climb down into the last pit and wait for their bullet.)

    As to Giles’ post – the reality was probably somewhere in between the Germans’ “believing their racial superiority” and “fear” and “human instinct”. It seems that the German military high command lacked any enthusiasm for removing Hitler, even when things started going horribly wrong, (as early as late 1941/1942). Prior to that, everyone soldiers, citizens, Nazis, was thrilled with Hitler’s successes. 2-3 years more of severe German losses should have resulted with a surrender rather than a fight to the death, but Hitler had always ordered his troops to stand their ground “to the last bullet”.

    Who is to blame then? Was there something unique about the German character that led them to this point? Or were Germans and German soldiers like the boiled frog? Lex – would you like to post on this?

    Interesting term from Rise and Fall.. – “German Post Office” used at Nuremberg to refer to individual Nazi’s claims that they had acted as “messengers” in the whole sorry affair, esp when it came to the concentration camps and exterminations.

  4. Almost as bad?

    I’m not so sure I’d say that. I’d say “slightly less threatening to us at that point in time”, but that’s not quite the same thing.

    We came as close as anyone ever has to making an actual deal with the Devil, and the ultimate price of that bargain could have been the extinction or enslavement of the entire human race. We were damn lucky it wasn’t. And anyone who claims that the United States is corrupt, evil, and deserving of everything it gets from hostile foreigners because we made deals with tinpot tyrants in the long twilight struggle against the USSR, while giving a pass to (or even praising to the skies) FDR who allied us with one of the greatest of all of history’s evil empires, is simply not thinking straight.

  5. Ken, I stand by “almost as bad”, as I said here.:

    The Germans were guided by a racist ideology that labelled large ethnic categories of people as “not human”. The acted on this by using millions of people as slave laborers, providing minimal levels of food to so-called subhuman conquered populations like in Poland, by the physical extermination of millions of people as a matter of express government policy. This ideology was indoctrinated into their army by the Party and by most of the younger soldiers having participated in the Hitler Youth and, as Omer Bartov shows, by an ongoing process of indoctrination during the struggle on the Russian front. The idea that regular army troops did not kill Jews or otherwise engage in atrocities has been rebutted at this point. The German army was up to its eyeballs in the genocidal policies of the regime.

    The Soviet troops were led by people with a communist ideology which put “class enemies” in a category of people subject to being killed. It was a smaller category, more malleable, and you could sometimes get out of it. Moreover, the Russian troops came from a poorer country and were less literate, so the depth of indoctrination of these men was not as intense, though I am not so sure of this. Instead, they acted with brutality which was very harsh but not genocidal in character. Snall cheer if you were a German refugee and the Soviet tanks bulldozed you off the road, or a German civilian and you were murdered or raped. But if you must look at the two armies and answer the question “which one behaved worse, which one disgraced itself, its uniforms, its nation the worse of the two” my reading and conversations tells me the answer is: the Germans.

    I also said this about why Hitler was worse even though Stalin killed more people:

    One reason Stalin killed more people was that he was in power longer. Hitler was a risk-taker, Stalin was not. Hitler bet his regime and his life, and lost. If he had defeated Soviet Russia, the Germans would have killed every Jew and every slav in Eastern Europe over a period of years, according to their own public statements. They lost, so they didn’t get to try. I really don’t know which regime was more evil. They are both about as bad as you can ask for.

    As to FDR’s “deal with the Devil”, the Germans are the ones who started conquering their neighbors. They invaded Russia, then they declared war on us and began sinking our shipping. They were behaving very badly. We found ourselves in the same barrel with the Russians whether we liked it or not. I suppose we could have done nothing to help them and risked letting the Germans win. But I think that would have been stupid. We got the better part of the bargain: we expended Jeeps, Airacobras, canned beef, boots, trucks to aid them, and they expended lives. FDR usually got the better part of the deal. Molotov thought so, and he resented it. Too bad. To be brutally simple about it, better that 300,000 Soviet soldiers die to reduce Berlin than that any Americans do. We ended up the strongest power in the world, and we ended up liberating the most valuable parts of Europe and kept the Russians out of them. Not bad for a deal with the devil.

  6. Lex – of course the leadership was to blame but to push the Alamo analogy further, I don’t think that it provided any material assistance to the war effort – it privided solely “moral” remember the Alamo support for later victories. I think the defenders of the Alamo insitinctively knew this.

    But its worth remembering that in World War 1 the Germans surrendered without letting their border be crossed. This was perceived as weak by many Germans and alot no doubt looked back on 1918 and thought “what if we’d continued fighting? – maybe we’d have won, or drawn, or maybe we’d have got a better peace, maybe there’d have been no reparations, no hyperinflation, no mass unemployment no Weimar republic.”

    So not just amongst the High Comand but also amongst the man on the ground, there was a deep feeling that history would not reward an early surrender and they propped this instinct up with delusions that maybe the Russians couldn’t hack the casualties, that maybe the Americans would realize that that the Russians were the real enemey and change sides once they saw what was happening in Berlin, that maybe there really were secret war winning weapons in the pipeline.

    The point is that although the delusions were wrong, maybe the instinct to fight to the end was right in the grand scale of things. The war ended and there were no reparations, no hyperinflation and Germany went on to become a prosperous country, with a sense of guilt for sure, but without the seething bitterness that sealed the end of the First World War and gave birth to the Second.

    As with the Alamo, maybe there was a method to the idiotic instinct to fight to the last?

  7. Giles, Churchill said that a country which surrenders is finished, but that if it fights to the end it may rise again. So there is that to consider. And I don’t dispute your list of reasons the Germans did not give up, which probably appeared compelling at the time. Nor do I dispute that demolishing Germany served the salutary purpose of eliminating any chance of a “stab in the back” myth. (That was the idea of “unconditional surrender” — make the Germans realize they had lost, and convince the Russians that the Western Allies were in it to the finish, so Stalin would not try to cut another deal with Hitler, which was a real fear.)

    Do these reasons make it “right” to have fought the last six months of the war, say? I think not. As early as July, 1944 Rundstedt was asked what the Germans should do about their deteriorating position in Normandy — he famously responded “Do? Make peace, you idiots!” That got him fired. But the smart money was on a German defeat and everybody knew it.

    What does a political leadership whose policies have led to disaster owe to its people? In a parliamentary democracy, the Government would fall and a new government would come in to negotiate a peace treaty. In fact, a parliamentary democracy would be unlikely to embark on the kind of mad risks the Nazis took in the first place. Hitler, however, literally preferred that every man, woman and child in Germany die with him rather than suffer defeat. Human life meant nothing to him, anybody’s.

  8. Giles,

    At the risk of seeming to pile on, the Alamo was a battle. Fighting a particular battle to the bitter end is one thing. Continuing a war one has clearly lost, at enormous cost in human life and suffering is another matter entirely.

    Where does the preponderance of blame for the crushing destruction of Nazi Germany lie; with the Allies who crushed it or with the German leadership who would not surrender?

    BTW, the myth of the Alamo is one of the defenders fighting to the last man. Last I looked into it that wasn’t quite the case in the battle of the Alamo. I believe evidence, or testimony, suggests that the defenders did surrender once there was no longer any hope of holding. The survivors were executed.

  9. I’m out of my depth here, and this is pretty much off topic.

    The Tx historians down the hall say that the conclusion ender wasn’t an official surrender, though 4 or 5 were captured and executed. (And one may have been Davy Crockett.) But they agree it is controversial, Knucklehead. I think you might be right depending upon the interpretation of “capture.”

    OTOH, at Goliad 350 did surrender and were executed (it’s in Whitman’s “Song of Myself”). Santa Ana’s impatience (he didn’t wait for heavy armaments) meant he lost more men than he needed to at the Alamo and his order at Goliad to execute (later) those who had surrendered did make a difference: his officers’ repulsion at his choices shook their loyalty to him. And at the battle of San Jacinto the cries were not just “Remember the Alamo!” but also “Remember Goliad.” These battles increased morale on the losing side and decreased it on the winning one.

  10. I’m not disagree that surrender in 44 was not rational but rather that when I read about Berlin you cant help but feel that there was a desire on both the Russians and Germans to sides to “see it through”. The Eastern Front had been so terrible that both may have felt that a pre emptive peace treaty would have been an insult to what had happened before; the Russians wouldn’t have wanted revenge through reparations, they want blood and rubble and, particularly higher up, even those non nazi Germans felt, out of honor, a need to stick by the bastards they’d cast their lots in with and perhaps they also hoped to atone their guilt through the sufferings of 44 and 45.

    But anyway – what if the Germans had been rational and sued for peace in 44? The Russians may have asked for all of Germany + reparations. If the other Allies accepted these terms then Germany might have found its self a slave state – which rationalize their fight in 45. Alternatively, without the loses of Berlin, maybe Stalin would have had the energy to keep going and attacked the rest of Europe. Or at least in 44 it’d have been hard for the Allies to claim any thing more than Italy, Greece and France in negotiations. So a surrender in 44 would probably have resulted in a red Europe. It also worth asking whether there have been a Marshall plan if there’d been a surrender in 44

    So I’m not convinced its clear cut that the fight on was entirely irrational for Germany or even, for the West, a bad thing.

    On the fighting to the death when all is lost perhaps the War of the Triple Alliance is a better example – although a Dictator, I understand that Lopez was a fairly benevolent, if weird one – and yet the Paraguans literally fought till they were wiped out when they had no chance of winning from day one. Don’t know what this means though.

  11. Giles, David Glantz referred to the reduction of Berlin as “ceremonial”, which captures much of what you are getting at. It was like a duel, almost formalized. Best of all, our troops weren’t in it. I do not think an earlier surrender would have been good for the West. I think it was a moral imperative for the German leadership. As it was, it went about as well as we could have asked for. Harry Truman famously said after Barbarossa that we should back whoever is losing and switch sides as often as necessary until both sides are all dead. The war’s actual endgame was about as close to that as you could ask for.

    Anyway, this post, like all of mine lately, is less about events of 60 years ago than about brooding on China, and all the people who point out how crazy it would be for them to start a war, and how craziness, miscalculation and perseverance in pointless butchery are all realistic possibilities in international life. It is also about the War on Terrorism, and the fact that some enemies simply have to be annihilated and anything short of annihiliation is not enough. People from generally peaceful and orderly societies like ours flinch at this prospect. But sometimes it really is him or you.

  12. Lex – although the facts are on your side I’m not convinced that wars/battles of annihilation can’t occur between democracies. That no such wars have occurred owes as much to the fact that most of the world long standing democracies fought in the first world war and it was that that had created a lasting effect on their willingness to shed blood. But democracies have come close to fighting Berlin’s before – the confederacy fought on long after the game was up in the civil war and had to be subdued by total war. A democratic France came close in Algiers. And it is entirely conciveable that Germany could have elected to continue the fight against Russia if they’d had a vote in December 44.

    So although the fact that China is definitely capable of a Berlin, given that it takes 2 to tango, I wouldn’t rely on the fact that it is surrounded by democracies to rule out a war of annihilation.

  13. Giles, I think you are misconstruing the “democratic peace” argument. It holds that democracies don’t fight each other. It seems to be a general truth with some exceptions at the margins, such as civil wars and insurrections. No “rule” dealing with historical events is going to be iron-clad. Also, it appears that the more broadly-base the democracy is the less likely it is to fight another democracy. Thus, while Kaiserian Germany had democratic elements, its major decision-makers (the Kaiser, the General Staff) were not subject to any democratic check. Both world wars and the Cold War had all the deeply-rooted democracies on one side, though they had non-democratic allies. The guy who seems to have articulated this best is a writer named Spencer Weart, who wrote a book called Never at War: Why Democracies Will Not Fight One Another. I have only picked at this, but Weart seems to have dealt with this topic in a very systematic fashion. He finds the democratic peace argument to be robust where the two countries are “democracies” which he defines as those allowing at least 2/3 of adult males to participate in political decision-making. He found no instance in which two such states went to war with each other.

  14. I dont think anyones refuted Weart’s argument – but the problem is that the “2/3 of adult males to participate” selection very much restricts the sample to a few countries before 45 and only 20-30 years history for a large section of countries. Maybe big wars only seem to come along every 50 years or so and so it is arguable that the sample is to short to make projections on.

  15. “very much restricts the sample” — of course. Most of the history of the world is warfare. When peace breaks out, that is big news. Peace is rare. And Weart does not restrict himself to big wars. There were city states and Swiss cantons and so forth that meet the criteria for a much longer span of time than you are suggesting, and his 2/3 rule holds consistently. I really do need to read the whole thing.

  16. I like Don Luskin’s anecdote which is something along the lines of “no two countries who both have McDonald’s franchises have ever gone to war with each other.”

  17. Well, it also points out a very pertinent fact. China has McDonalds, too. Importing the trappings of a POLITICALLY developed country may make you look like one, but it won’t make you one. People are often fooled by this. Many people thought Yugoslavia would never descend into a bloodbath because people wore khaki pants and polo shirts and looked like suburban American white people. Oops. Mere surface appearance was deceiving. You need to actually build the modern political institutions and make them work and have a culture develop that can operate them. That is a lot harder to do than to just let McDonalds operate in your country. McDonalds is a moderately accurate marker for political development — so Luskin is not entirely wrong — but regular elections are a much better one.

  18. Thanks for the comment.

    I said: “Stalin looked on as Hitler’s Germany gulped down ‘the Second Front’ from 1939-41.” My point was that Hitler was taking on countries one-by-one whereas Stalin did practically nothing to prepare. However, he did take time to rape Poland, attack Finland, and take over Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

    France fell in 1940. I understand your point that this was a shock. But what did Stalin do between June 22, 1940 and June 22, 1941? Germany was stronger by orders of magnitude by 1941. Stalin’s actions had, arguably, worsened Russia’s position. The Russians in 1940-41 supplied Germany with materials, and the Germans didn’t even bother paying them (fully).

    It was the sheer depth of Russia, the brutal winter, the resistance by the brave Russians, and the American entry in the war that saved Stalin. Sadly, millions and millions of Russians were killed because the Russian regime didn’t wish to anger or provoke Hitler (by mobilizing the military, for example) between 1940-41.

    All of Europe appeased Hitler in the 1930s. The Russian regime was still appeasing him in the 1940s. Ordinary Russians, not Stalin, paid the horrible price for that. Of course, Stalin started clamoring for a Second Front in 1941, the Front which almost disappeared completely were it not for Churchill and the proud members of the British Empire.

    Slightly Different Topic
    I agree with your comment here:
    “It is also about the War on Terrorism, and the fact that some enemies simply have to be annihilated and anything short of annihiliation is not enough. People from generally peaceful and orderly societies like ours flinch at this prospect. But sometimes it really is him or you.”

    That’s a key difference, for now, between us and them. We have the means but not the will to destroy them. The Islamists have the will but not the means to wipe us out.

  19. Isaac, a few quibbles with your points.

    I don’t think Stalin was appeasing Hitler. Before September 1939, they were acting in concert and dividing Europe between them. They were allies. Between September 1939 and June 1940. Stalin wanted Hitler to attack in the West, where he reasonably figured the “capitalist” powers, i.e. France, Britain and Germany, would get into a war of attrition against each other. Leninist thought said that the capitalist powers must ultimately get into a war over markets, so Stalin saw this war as inevitable, and the Soviets understood Nazi Germany to be merely a virulent version of a late-capitalist state. While the capitalists bled themselves dry in reruns of Verdun and Paschaendale, he could build up his own army and pounce at an opportune time. Once France went down, after June 1940 Stalin desperately tried to live up to the letter of his agreements with Hitler, hoping to hold off the day of the invasion. This was not an entirely rational response, but we know that dictators are typically the least well-informed people in their own countries since everyone is afraid to tell them the truth. Stalin believed what he wanted to believe because the alternative was too horrifying and no one had the stones to just tell him the truth.

    Stalin and his regime survived not only because of the size and frigidity of Russia. Once the shock of the invasion was past, he seems to have gotten his bearings. He became, in a few months, willing to listen to and delegate to his military commanders. Zhukov was willing to pound the table and disagree with Stalin, and Vasilievsky was able to get his way with more quiet but equally firm insistence. Stalin let them try things their way, and as they had some successes, he gave them the scope they needed to fight and win the war. The German generals, with rare exceptions, lacked the guts to risk their lives by disagreeing with Hitler or standing up to him. Guderian tried it with Hitler and got fired, Kesselring argued with Hitler on occasion, ineffectually, and Rundstedt would greet his more crazed instructions with silent, icey disdain. But most of them just said, “jawohl, mein Fuhrer” and complained to their diaries or their wives or each other, but very few took the mortal risk of standing up to Hitler. The Russian senior commanders were ruthless, hardboiled b*stards, no doubt, but overall they were better men than their counterparts. This is all very well covered in Richard Overy’s masterful book Why the Allies Won.

  20. Lex, you boiled down the main point:
    “Once France went down, after June 1940 Stalin desperately tried to live up to the letter of his agreements with Hitler, hoping to hold off the day of the invasion. This was not an entirely rational response, but we know that dictators are typically the least well-informed people in their own countries since everyone is afraid to tell them the truth.”
    I agree completely. It was most certainly not a sensible response but nobody dared to tell him so.

    Later, as you point out, Stalin delegated duties to the generals. The situation in Germany was the opposite; Rommel personally tried to talk some sense into Hitler after Operation Overlord but Hitler told him to get lost. End result: Hitler was commanding phantom divisions in Germany 60 years ago.

    I am currently reading the Second World War by Winston Churchill. I’ll put Richard Overy’s book on my to-read list. Thanks.

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