Prussic acid bath

“Bearing the brunt of Russian hatred, East Prussia suffered the most terrible fate of all the occupied areas. The land was left devastated for several years. Houses were wither burned or stripped down to the most basic fittings. Even light bulbs had been taken by peasant soldiers who had no electricity at home. The farms were dead, with all the livestock slaughtered or taken to Russia. Low-lying ground reverted to swamp. But the fate of the civilians who failed to escape was worst of all. Most women and girls were marched off to the Soviet Union for forced labour ‘in forests, peat bogs and canals for fifteen to sixteen hours a day’. A little over half of them died in the following two years. Of the survivors, just under half had been raped. When they were returned to the Soviet occupied zone of Germany in April 1947, most had to be sent immediately to hospitals because they were suffering from tuberculosis and venereal disease.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945

Getting on with it

“Women in Berlin just wanted to get life back to some semblance of normality. The most common sight in Berlin became the Trümmerfrauen, the ‘rubble women’, forming human chains with buckets to clear smashed buildings and salvage bricks. Many of the German men left in the city were either in hiding or had collapsed with psychosomatic illnesses as soon as the fighting was over. Like most working parties, the women were paid at first in little more than handfuls of potatoes, yet the Berliner sense of humour did not fail. Every district was renamed. Charlottenburg had become ‘Klamottenberg’, which means ‘heap of rubbish’, Steglitz became ‘steht nichts’—‘nothing is standing’—and Lichterfelde became ‘Trichterfelde’—‘the field of craters’. To a large degree this was an outward courage masking resignation and quiet despair. ‘People were living with their fate,’ remarked one young Berliner.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945

Whatever it takes

“The reactions of German women to the experience of rape varied greatly. For many victims, especially protected young girls who had little idea of what was being done to them, the psychological effects could be devastating. Relationships with men became extremely difficult, often for the rest of their lives. Mothers were in general far more concerned about their children, and this priority made them surmount what they had endured. Other women, both young and adult, simply tried to blank out the experience. ‘I must repress a lot in order, to some extent, to be able to live,’ one woman acknowledged, when refusing to talk about the subject.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945

Ploughed and ploughing

“The worst mistake of the German military authorities had been their refusal to destroy alcohol stocks in the path of the Red Army’s advance. The decision was based on the idea that a drunken enemy could not fight. Tragically for the female population however, it was exactly what Red Army soldiers seemed to need to give them the courage to rape . . . . Women soon learned to disappear during the ‘hunting hours’ of the evening. Young daughters were hidden in storage lofts for days on end. . . . Sometimes the greatest danger came from one mother giving away the hiding place of other girls in a desperate bid to save her own daughters. . . . Because all the windows had been blown in, you could hear the screams every night. Estimates from the two main Berlin hospitals ranged from 95,000 to 130,000 rape victims. One doctor deduced that out of approximately 100,000 women raped in Berlin, some 10,000 died as a result, mostly from suicide. The death rate was thought to be much higher among the 1.4 million who had suffered in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia. Altogether at least 2 million German women are thought to have been raped, and a substantial minority, if not a majority, appear to have suffered multiple rape.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945

What we don’t want the girls to know

“Rape has often been defined by writers on the subject as an act of violence which has little to do with sex. But this is a definition from the victim’s perspective. . . . In war, undisciplined soldiers without fear of retribution can rapidly revert to a primitive male sexuality . . . a dark area of male sexuality which can emerge all too easily.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945

Angels of mercy

“Because of the virtual impossibility of obtaining official help, many wounded soldiers and civilians were tended to in the cellars of houses by mothers and girls. This was dangerous, however, because the Russians reacted to the presence of any soldier in a cellar as if the whole place were a defensive position. To avoid this, the women generally stripped the wounded of their uniforms, which they burned, and gave them spare clothes from upstairs. Another danger arose when members of the Volkssturm, on deciding to slip away home just before the Russians arrived, left behind the vast majority of their weapons and ammunition. Women who found any guns wasted no time in disposing of them. Word had got round that the Red Army was liable to execute all the inhabitants in a building where weapons were found.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945

Play as though your life depends on it

“On the evening of 12 April [1945], the Berlin Philharmonic gave its last performance. Albert Speer, who organized it, had invited Grand Admiral Dönitz and also Hitler’s adjutant, Colonel von Below. The hall was properly lit for the occasion, despite the electricity cuts. ‘The concert took us back to another world,’ wrote Below. The programme included Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, Bruckner’s 8th Symphony—(Speer later claimed that this was his warning signal to the orchestra to escape Berlin immediately after the performance to avoid being drafted into the Volkssturm)—and the finale to Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. Even if Wagner did not bring the audience back to present reality, the moment of escapism did not last long. It is said that, after the performance, the Nazi Party had organized Hitler Youth members to stand in uniform with baskets of cyanide capsules and offer them to members of the audience as they left.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945

Babes in warland

“Berlin’s population in early April [1945] stood at anything between 3 and 3.5 million people, including around 120,000 infants. When General Reymann raised the problem of feeding these children at a meeting in the Reich Chancellery bunker, Hitler stared at him. ‘There are no children of that age left in Berlin,’ he said. Reymann finally understood that his supreme commander had no contact with human reality.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945

The flower of the nation

“The Führer’s response to the onrush of Soviet tank brigades towards Berlin had been to order the establishment of a Panzerjagd Division, but in typical Nazi style, this impressive-sounding organization for destroying tanks failed to live up to its title. It consisted of bicycle companies mainly from the Hitler Youth. Each bicyclist was to carry two panzerfaust anti-tank launchers clamped upright either side of the front wheel and attached to the handlebars. The bicyclist was supposed to be able to dismount in a moment and be ready for action against a T-34 or Stalin tank. Even the Japanese did not expect their kamikazes to ride into battle on a bicycle.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945

Jornada del muerto

“The snow was deep on the roads and eventually most women had to abandon their prams and carry the youngest children. In the icy wind they also found that their thermoses had cooled. There was only one way to feed a hungry infant, but they could not find any shelter in which to breast-feed. All the houses were locked, either abandoned already or owned by people who refused to open their door to anyone. . . . One young wife, in a letter to her mother explaining the death from cold of her own child, also described the fate of other mothers, some crying over a bundle which contained a baby frozen to death, others sitting in the snow, propped against a tree by the side of the road, with older children standing nearby whimpering in fear, not knowing whether their mother was unconscious or dead.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945

Scourged

“Although the Soviet authorities were well aware of the terrible retribution being exacted in East Prussia, they seemed angered, in fact almost offended, to find that German civilians were fleeing. Countryside and town were virtually depopulated. The NKVD chief of the 2nd Belorussian Front reported to G. F. Aleksandrov, the chief ideologist on the central committee, that there were ‘very few Germans left . . . many settlements are completely abandoned.’ He gave examples of villages where half a dozen people remained and small towns with fifteen people or so, almost all over forty-five years of age. The ‘noble fury’ was triggering the largest panic migration in history. Between 12 January and mid-February 1945, almost 8.5 million Germans fled their homes in the eastern provinces of the Reich.” – Antony Beevor, The Fall of Berlin 1945 (ellipsis in original)

Much less write

“The bread ration was now down to under 200 grams a day, and often little more than 100 grams. The horseflesh added to ‘Wassersuppe’ came from local supplies. The carcasses were kept fresh by the cold, but the temperature was so low that meat could not be sliced from them with knives. Only a pioneer saw was strong enough. The combination of cold and starvation meant that soldiers, when not on sentry, just lay in their dugouts, conserving energy. The bunker was a refuge which they could hardly face leaving. Often, their minds went blank because the chilling of their blood slowed down both physical and mental activity. Books had been passed round until they disintegrated or were lost in the mud or snow, but now few had the energy left to read.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

At the rat-haus

“If there was any wood to burn in the small bunker stoves, smoke emerged from little chimney stacks, made from empty food tins rammed together. Duckboards, tables, even bunks as men died, were broken up as fuel. The only substitute for real warmth was a fug, created with packed bodies and tarpaulins, but men still shivered uncontrollably. The comparative heat did little more than stir their lice into activity, and drive them wild with itching. They often slept two to a bunk with a blanket over their heads in a pathetic attempt to share body heat. The rodent population swelled rapidly on a diet of dead horses and humans. Out in the steppe, mice became voracious in their search for food. One soldier reported that mice ‘had eaten two of his frozen toes’ while he was asleep.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

For the good of all

“Over 1,500 factories had been evacuated from the western regions of the Soviet Union to behind the Volga, particularly the Urals, and reassembled by armies of technicians slaving through the winter. Few factories had any heating. Many had no windows at first, or proper roofing. Once the production lines started, they never stopped, unless halted by breakdowns, power failures, or shortages of particular parts. Manpower posed less of a problem. The Soviet authorities simply drafted in new populations of workers. Soviet bureaucracy wasted the time and talents of its civilian people, and squandered their lives in industrial accidents, with as much indifference for the individual as military planners showed towards their soldiers, yet the collective sacrifice—both forced and willing at the same time—represented a terrifyingly impressive achievement.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

Learning their lessons

“Although shelter was the first priority, civilians faced the virtual impossibility of finding food and water. Each time there was a lull in the bombardments, women and children appeared out of holes in the ground to cut slabs of meat off dead horses before homeless dogs and rats stripped the carcass. The chief foragers were children. Younger, smaller and more agile, they presented less of a target. They sneaked down at night to the badly burned grain elevator south of the Tsaritsa, which the Germans had finally captured. There, they often managed to fill bags of satchels with scorched wheat and scamper away, but German sentries, protecting the silos for their own army’s use, shot a number of them. Those who attempted to steal German Army ration tins were also shot on the spot.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

If you can’t crawl, we will carry you

“The medical services in the Red Army were seldom regarded as a high priority by commanders. A seriously wounded soldier was out of the battle, and senior officers were more concerned with replacing him. Yet this attitude did not deter the very bravest figures on the Stalingrad battlefield, who were the medical orderlies, mainly female students or high-school graduates with only the most basic first-aid training. The commander of the 62nd Army’s hundred-strong sanitary company, Zinaida Georgevna Gavrielova, was an eighteen-year-old medical student, who had received the job on the basis of a strong recommendation from the cavalry regiment in which she had just served. Her medical orderlies, few of them much older than herself, had to conquer their terror and crawl forward, often under heavy fire, to reach the wounded. They then dragged them out of the way, until it was safe to carry them on their backs.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

You can’t get a medal for that

“Men fell silent when the vodka was produced, everyone eyeing the bottle. The strain of battle was so great that the ration was never considered enough, and soldiers were prepared to go to desperate lengths to meet their need. Surgical spirit was seldom used for its official purpose. Industrial alcohol and even anti-freeze were drunk after being passed through the activated carbon filter of a gas mask. Many soldiers had thrown their gas masks away during the retreats of the previous year, so those who had held on to them could bargain. The result could be much worse than just a bad headache. Most recovered because they were young and healthy and did not resort to it frequently, but those who tried too often went blind.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

Fate worse than death

“With ill-defined front lines, and a defence in depth of no more than a few hundred yards in places, command posts were almost as vulnerable as forward positions. ‘Shells exploding on top of our command post were a common occurrence,’ wrote Colonel Timofey Naumovich Vishnevsky, the commander of the 62nd Army’s artillery division, to a friend from hospital. ‘When I left the bunker, I could hear sub-machine-gun fire on all sides. Sometimes it seemed as if the Germans were all around us.’ A German tank came right up to the entrance of his bunker and ‘its hull blocked the only way out’. Vishnevsky and his officers had to dig for their lives to escape into the gully on the far side. The colonel was badly wounded. ‘My face is completely disfigured,’ he wrote, ‘and consequently I will now be the lowest form of life in the eyes of women.’ ” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

They’ll slap you silly, you try any of that monkey business

“The armored spearhead of 16th Panzer Division had advanced virtually unopposed across the steppe for nearly twenty-five miles. ‘Around Gumrak,’ the division recorded, ‘enemy resistance became stronger and anti-aircraft guns began firing wildly at our armored vehicles from the north-west corner of Stalingrad.’ This resistance came from the batteries operated by young women volunteers, barely out of high school. Few had fired the guns before, owing to the shortage of ammunition, and none of them had been trained to take on targets on the ground. They had switched targets from the bombers over the city on sighting the panzers, whose crews ‘seemed to think they were on a Sunday promenade’. . . . The anti-aircraft battery crews were astonishingly resilient. According to [one officer], ‘the girls refused to go down into the bunkers.’ One of them, called Masha, is said to have ‘stayed at her post for four days without being relieved . . . . Russian soldiers treat such women with great wariness.’ “ – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

Only the young die good

“Few forces were available to oppose [German] forces in the semi-barren Kalmyk steppe, which Russians from the north thought of as ‘the end of the world.’ Lev Lazarev, who commanded a detachment of marine infantry there, said of the area: ‘It’s not Russia, it’s Asia. It was hard to understand the reason to fight for such territory, yet we all knew that we had to stand or die there.’ With no soldiers available, the Soviet military authorities had turned to the navy. Brigades of sailors were transferred by rail across Siberia from the Far East fleet. Their officers were eighteen-year-old cadets originally from the naval academy in Leningrad . . . . The casualty rate for the young lieutenants would be terrible. Out of Lazarev’s class of twenty-one cadets, only two remained alive the following year.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

Suffer the children . . .

“Throughout the region, the population was mobilized. All available men and women between sixteen and sixty-five—nearly 200,000—were mobilized in ‘workers’ columns’, organized by their district Party committees. As in Moscow the year before, women in kerchiefs and older children were marched out and given long-handled shovels and baskets to dig anti-tank ditches over six feet deep in the sandy earth. . . . Younger schoolchildren, meanwhile, were put to work building earth walls round the petroleum-storage tanks on the banks of the Volga. Supervised by teachers, they carried the earth on wooden stretchers.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

Borscht on the go

“A regiment of night-fighters landing for the first time at a new base to support the Stalingrad Front discovered that their aerodrome was no more than a large field planted with watermelons and surrounded by tomato plants, which the local peasants continued to harvest even while fighters landed and took off.  The regiment’s presence was soon spotted by a Focke-Wulf reconnaissance aircraft, and when strafing Messerschmitts came in just above ground level, the adjacent peasant market was caught in their fire. In an instant the rural scene became one of total chaos, with panic-stricken horses rearing in the shafts of wagons, children screaming, awnings ripped by machine-gun bullets and stallholders killed among their fruits and vegetables. Less damage was done to the night-fighter regiment, which found itself forced to maintain an exhausting schedule of sorties. Often there was no time to eat at the field kitchen by the side of the runway, so ground crew would bring plates out to the aircraft at dispersal and pilots ate in their cockpit.” – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad

Land of blood and honey

“For soldiers of the Sixth Army, the summer of 1942 offered the last idylls of war. In Don Cossack Country, the villages of whitewashed cottages with thatched roofs, surrounded by small cherry orchards, willows and horses in meadows provided an attractive contrast to the usual dilapidation of villages taken over by collective farms. Most of the civilians, who had stayed behind in defiance of Communist evacuation orders, were friendly. Many of the older men had fought the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war. Only the previous spring, just a few weeks before the German invasion, Cossacks had risen up in revolt at Shakhty, north of Rostov, declaring an independent republic. This had been stamped out by NKVD troops with a rapid and predictable brutality. To the surprise of a company commander of the 384th [German] Infantry Division, Cossacks remained friendly even after looting by his soldiers. They handed over eggs, milk, salted cucmber and even a whole ham as a gift. He then arranged to purchase geese for two Reichsmarks a bird. ‘To be honest, people give you everything they have if you treat them correctly,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘I’ve never eaten so much as here. we eat honey with spoons until we’re sick, and in the evening we eat boiled ham.’ “ – Antony Beevor, Stalingrad