“Few things reveal more about political leaders and their systems than the manner of their downfall,” states military historian Beevor (Stalingrad, not reviewed, etc.), a sturdy thesis abundantly supported in his chronicle of the Third Reich’s last days.
Beevor musters a powerful array of evidence: documents, diaries, interviews, books in English, German, and Russian. He begins this riveting account during Christmas 1944. Berlin, experiencing round-the-clock bombing from American and RAF crews, was a city in ruin. Its leaders were hunkered down in bunkers, its people reduced to the most severe austerity. Beevor focuses much of his attention on the Soviets advancing from the east—after all, they were the first to enter the city—but moves easily from their forces to the Allied camps in the west to the Nazis. Along the way, he displays a dazzling command of fact and facility with detail, describing in one incredible sentence the motley Soviet forces advancing in tanks, on horseback, and in Lend-Lease Studebakers and Dodges. Beevor notes that the Soviets were interested not just in defeating but in harshly punishing the Nazis for their ferocious invasion of Russia four years earlier; they wanted, as well, to capture and whisk back to Moscow those German nuclear scientists and rocket experts who might help the USSR close the atomic-bomb gap. Terror was perpetrated by all the war’s participants, the author reminds us. He describes the Danzig Anatomical Medical Institute at which Nazi technicians made soap and leather from human beings, the liberation of Auschwitz, widespread looting and destruction by the advancing Americans, and—in compelling and excruciating detail—the brutal rape of tens of thousands of German women and girls by the Soviets. Nor does he neglect a thoughtful examination of the author of it all, Adolf Hitler, whose mad refusal to surrender cost countless lives on all sides.
Richly detailed, gracefully written: a wrenching reminder that evil wears a human face. (16 maps, 49 b&w illustrations, not seen)