The main axis of the Soviet attack was to begin from Marshal Zhukov’s bridgehead on the Oder River at Kustrin, which was due east and pointed directly at Berlin. As circumstances permitted, the two other Fronts, the Second Belorussian and the First Ukrainian, would converge on the city from the northeast and south, respectively. On 16 April, Zhukov’s artillery—with a density of 250 guns per kilometer—commenced the advance.
In keeping with the slow collapse of national command and control inside Berlin, the forces meant to defend the city were unable to formulate any sort of unified plan of defense. The closer the Soviet offensive pressed on Berlin proper, the faster German formations disintegrated. Between the city and the Soviet advance lay the so-called “Army Group Vistula,” nominally composed of the German Third and Ninth Armies, under the command of Colonel-General Gotthard Heinrici. One of the few professional soldiers left who were capable of commanding large formations, Heinrici hoped to keep the coming battle out of the city, but the weight of the Soviet offensive was too great. Heinrici’s main task was to try to control the crash, but even that would prove too much. Within four days of the commencement of the offensive, the Soviets were on the fringes of the city. Within a week, nine Soviet armies were driving directly at the center of Berlin. The Reichstag was their aiming point, and on 30 April, two Soviet rifle divisions secured the above-ground part of the building only after fighting until midnight. Below ground, a much larger collection of Germans still would not surrender, some waiting until the last moment. At 1500 on 2 May, Soviet forces officially ceased firing.
After two weeks of fighting, much of Berlin was demolished but not destroyed, and the distinction is important. None of the standard sources on the battle for Berlin detail precisely how much of the city suffered as a direct result of the battle. If one follows the trace of the Soviets’ advance into the city, the western districts of Spandau, all the way down to Potsdam and perhaps even parts of Charlottenburg, seem to have escaped the maelstrom of battle that hit the city’s center, “sector Z.”
The human destruction can only be guessed at. As usual, noncombatants—that is, civilians unlikely to return fire—were at much greater risk than soldiers after the Dog Fight began. By one estimate, 100,000 civilians died, including 20,000 of heart attacks and 6,000 suicides. Almost all of the latter would have been women who meant either to pre-empt being raped or to punish themselves for having been raped. Where this particular crime was concerned, the conduct of the second and subsequent Soviet echelons added to the Red Army’s already fearsome reputation, but it must be said that their much-criticized behavior was in keeping with ancient military traditions.
The Soviets claim to have destroyed seventy infantry divisions, twelve Panzer divisions, and eleven motorized divisions, in the process taking some 480,000 prisoners. Within the city, Zhukov’s and Koniev’s armies took 134,000 prisoners. Operations against Berlin cost the Soviets 304,887 casualties from 16 April to 8 May. By the most conservative estimate, the battle for Berlin cost half a million casualties in all.
The battle fought for Berlin was as close to total war as the world would come during the twentieth century. The war in Europe was not won in Berlin, nor lost there, nor indeed at any other single place. By 1945, cities alone no longer possessed the power to start and finish wars as they once did, and wars were no longer kept within strict geographical boundaries. During this birth of global war, other cities—many other cities—would suffer as much or more destruction, as many or more casualties, but being a victim of military attack is quite a different matter than being a battleground—and being a great symbolic battleground is even more different. At this remove, the battle for Berlin seems wholly gratuitous, pointless, but that is only the distortion of retrospect affecting our sight. The battle cannot be seen very clearly if one only analyzes costs and benefits. Seen from that perspective, the battle for Berlin evades reason altogether.
A Prussian from a different time would have understood Berlin as an example of what results when reason loses its grip over war. Carl von Clausewitz described “primordial violence, hatred and enmity” as one of three complex engines that by means of constant interaction move war. By April 1945, all other considerations were subordinated to the impulse for revenge, creating a final campaign that was to be conducted without remorse. Stalin gave his two leading marshals little time to conceive how they might take Berlin, and some commentators have complimented how much they achieved in so short a time. But taking Berlin was hardly a great military puzzle. The most difficult part of the planning had more to do with accounting than with great strategy: it entailed the management of large bodies of armed force—bodies that were set for an ultimate convergence at the center of Berlin. There was no point in providing for contingencies because the Wehrmacht was in no condition to do much more than collect where they could and defend. Were it not for the assuaging of vengeance, Berlin might have been beside the point, too, but powerful motives of state were now directly entangling themselves in military operations. These had little to do with Berlin except as a symbol.
General Eisenhower’s approach to the Berlin question was the reasonable one, of course. For him, Germany’s power to resist still lay in the few viable military formations remaining. Once those formations were destroyed, Nazi Germany would be destroyed, regardless of what transpired in Berlin. Nothing in Berlin could change this proposition. This being so, as far as Eisenhower was concerned, there was no reason to carry the battlefield into the city. Of course, not everyone on Eisenhower’s side felt the same way, Winston Churchill and Bernard Montgomery among them. The need for some sort of retribution naturally burned brighter in London than in Washington, but in Moscow it burned white-hot. None of the other Allies had such a claim on vengeance as the Russians, and when they broke into Berlin at the end of April, their uniforms stank with the joy of it.
What then, after all this time, does the battle of Berlin have to teach the modern military professional? As the inherent violence of war escalated in the twentieth century, the robustness of the city seemed to keep pace. If wars were more destructive, cities seemed capable of absorbing more destruction. No city was killed in the Second World War—neither Hamburg nor Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, or Nagasaki. Since 1940, Berlin had been subjected to aerial attack, and yet five years later, only one-third of the city had been destroyed. In the remaining two-thirds, one assumes, city life continued with the requisite degree of cohesion. In early 1945, two and a half million people still lived in Berlin. Even if one assumes that all of the casualties from the battle of Berlin were taken from the resident population of the city, that would still leave two million souls, functioning more or less in concert with one another. Without that concert, Berlin would not have been possible. That the city continued to function reveals the strength of any great city’s human and material superstructure—its cohesion as an urban entity. In the half-century since Berlin was last fought for, great cities of the world have been subjected to all manner of stresses. Not one has collapsed.