From Stalingrad to Berlin
When I read one particular account of a German officer captured at Stalingrad, I knew what the next book had to be. This officer, along with a group of exhausted survivors from the 297th Infantry Division, were being marched through the streets of Stalingrad - they could manage only a painful shuffle due to frostbite and starvation - when a Russian colonel pointing to the ruins around, yelled: 'That's how Berlin is going to look!'
Russian armies advancing on Germany in 1944 and 1945 measured their advance both from Stalingrad, the furthest point of German advance as well as the perceived turning point of the war, and by the distance still left to 'The Lair of the Fascist Beast' - the capital of the Reich.
The links between the two great battles were intriguing. The 8th Guards Army, the largest of Zhukov's formations attacking Berlin, was the old 62nd Army from Stalingrad. Its brutally effective commander, General Chuikov, who bestirred his officers to greater activity with hard punches, found however, that close-quarter combat in Berlin was rather different from what he had dubbed 'the Stalingrad Academy of Street-Fighting'. the Russians were taken aback by the almost suicidal bravery of fifteen-year-old Hitler Youth armed with Panzerfaust anti-tank launchers.
Hitler, on the other hand, living almost entirely off wild delusion, persuaded himself that Berlin would be a Stalingrad in reverse, with his Ninth and Twelfth Armies cutting off the Russian attackers in a surprise pincer. He refused to acknowledge that they utterly lacked the material, physical, and moral strength to launch any sort of counter-attack. And when the Russians fought their way into the centre of Berlin, they found the Chancellery of the German Reich defended by the Scandinavian SS Nordland Division and the remnants of the French SS Charlemagne. These foreign diehards were among the last to lay down their arms. It was strange to hear of such experiences from the surviving battalion commander in a darkened Parisian apartment: an old man who still receives death threats.
But the Fall of Berlin, even more than the Battle of Stalingrad, is a terrible story of civilian as well as military suffering. The annihilation of East Prussia in January and February 1945 provided an atrocious warning of Russian revenge. German villagers who had not been allowed by the Nazi authorities to flee until it was too late, found themselves treated without mercy. Soviet troops were allowed to rape, loot and destroy virtually at will. When I read in a Moscow archive Beria's reports to Stalin on the mass suicides of East German civilians, it was quite clear that neither man had any intention of curbing their troops. Far more shocking documents were to emerge later in another archive, and I must admit that I am still unable to make up my mind about the real causes of such behaviour, especially when so many Russian soldiers and officers showed genuine kindness for German women and children. Russian troops, especially those liberated from the abominable treatment which they had received in German prisoner of war camps, had much to avenge, but some of their actions almost defy belief as well as logic. The whole debate over 'rape as a weapon of war' s far from straightforward, as I think the book will show.
Several other explosive issues also emerged during the course of research in Moscow archives, but I prefer not to say anything at this stage, partly because I do not want anything to be taken out of context, but also because I need to do more research and double-checking from other directions.
Berlin is a much larger subject, both in size and scope, than Stalingrad was, and to cover the ground in a similar time - three and a half years - is a considerable challenge. There have been many more archives to visit (in France, Britain, Sweden and the United States, as well as of course Russia and Germany) and many more people to interview, both civilians and soldiers. I am quite honestly terrified of the task of turning our mountains of photocopied documents and tape-recordings into a coherent whole, but I hope that if the structure is right, then things will fall into place. The objective is to deliver the manuscript by the end of October 2001 so that the book can come out in May 2002, exactly four years after the publication of Stalingrad.