Berlin, Germany · April 23, 1945

On this date in 1945, with most land commu­ni­ca­tions and elec­tri­cal power lines down, Adolf Hitler broad­cast on Greater German Radio the order to save his belea­guered capital. The order called for Wehr­macht forces opposing the Ameri­cans at the Elbe River to with­draw and move north to rescue Berlin, a city of four million inhab­i­tants, now within range of inces­sant Soviet artil­lery and Katyusha (“Little Katie”) truck-mounted rocket fire. Two days later Hitler assured Gen. Helmuth Weid­ling, newly appointed com­mander of “For­tress Berlin” and a veteran of cam­paigns in Poland, France, and the Soviet Union, that rein­force­ments from Gen. Theodor Busse’s Ninth Army, which basically con­sisted of repeatedly deci­mated and cobbled-together army units, and Gen. Walther Wenck’s recently formed Twelfth Army—90 per­cent of them 17- and 18‑year-old trainees, less than half of whom had wea­pons—would join forces to deliver a crushing blow to the “Jewish-Bolshevik enemy.”

Hitler’s talk was pure fantasy and Wenck and Busse knew that. Only the night before Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the Supreme High Com­mand of the German Armed Forces (OKW), had surprised Wenck at his head­quarters, 50 miles west of Berlin. Keitel told the 43‑year-old Wenck—the youngest man in the Wehr­macht to hold a general’s rank—that he and Busse must “liberate Berlin” by turning all their avail­able forces around and linking them up. “Get the Fuehrer out. Wenck, you’re the only one who can save Germany!” Wenck knew it would be a waste of breath to try to talk sense into the agi­tated and delu­sional Keitel. He and Busse had nowhere near the resources to accom­plish much of any­thing. (Wenck, for example, had not a single tank and almost no anti­aircraft guns against Soviet air­craft. Busse’s Ninth Army had been reduced from its orig­i­nal comple­ment of 200,000 men to 25,000, and none of his vehicles had gas.) In radio­telephone silence and numb resig­na­tion that Hitler’s war had run its course, the two generals gathered up the exhausted frag­ments of their battered and bruised armies and, joining tens of thou­sands of care­worn civil­ians, retreated west­ward across the Elbe River, surrendering to the Americans on May 7, 1945.

Meanwhile, back in the Berlin cauldron, the number of troops from various branches of the armed services avail­able to poor Weid­ling totaled around 80,000, barely enough to man the outer defense peri­meter. More­over about half of the capital’s defenders con­sisted of the untested Volks­sturm people’s mili­tia, city police, a mot­ley, some­times dragooned cadre of dejected teen­agers, impatient Hitler Youths, and the elderly, many of whom—like Gen. Wenck’s boy soldiers—lacked suffi­cient wea­pons, ammu­ni­tion, anti­tank trench-digging tools, and even basic training. The remainder con­sisted of exhausted, filthy, bearded, bloodshot-eyed and demor­alized vete­rans of combat on the East­ern Front. Many of Weidling’s troopers had not even seen their rations of processed cheese and hard bread in a week. Ranged against these make­shift and half-starved formations were over 1.5 mil­lion battle-hardened, well-equipped, and well-fed Soviet soldiers.

On April 26 the capital’s defenders with­drew to with­in a few miles of Hitler’s under­ground bunker. The next day the German defense area shrank to less than 30 sq. miles. Hitler’s bunker was almost within spitting dis­tance of the Soviets. (Actually, 170–250 ft away.) On the night of April 29/30, a fran­tic Hitler, still hoping to be rescued, demanded that Keitel tell him where Armee Wenck was. In his cramped living room hours later Hitler put a bullet through his right temple after biting down on a cya­nide cap­sule. His wife Eva lay slumped on the small blue-and-white couch to his left, a sui­cide too. Above ground nothing remained of their Thousand Year Reich.

There are literally dozens of books that describe the last days of Hitler, his fana­ti­cal, never-say-die cro­nies, and his cap­ital. One of the best I’ve read is Roger Moor­house’s Berlin at War. His book bril­liantly re­counts the trag­e­dy of every­day citi­zens of the his­toric city, who typ­i­cally were no ad­mirers of the Nazis, yet because they lived in the epi­center of Nazism suf­fered every sort of priva­tion and even death, all for the self-delusion of glory and power that char­act­er­ized a de­spicable regime.—Norm Haskett

Scenes of Devastation from the Battle in Berlin, April 23–May 2, 1945

Battle in Berlin: Reichstag building 1945Battle in Berlin: German defender at Brandenburg Gate

Left: Transformed into a fortress, the German Reichs­tag shows the scars of battle. Ini­tially 5,000 strong, the forces defending the Nazi sym­bol of power included naval, SS, and Hitler Youth per­son­nel armed with grenades, pistols, machine guns, and single-shot anti­tank Panzer­fausts. Many defenders held out in the parlia­ment building’s upper floors and cellars. It took hours of vicious room-to-room, often hand-to-hand fighting before Red Army soldiers secured the building. When the defenders called it quits, some 300 disheveled Germans spilled up the cellar steps, hands raised. Close to 200 lay in shattered rooms and halls where they had been killed, and 500 wounded filled the nearby first-aid station.

Right: A dead NCO, in a final act of allegiance, lies close to the muti­lated Branden­burg Gate while smoke rises from the ruins of the near­by Reichs­tag. A Soviet bomber pilot who flew over Berlin at the end of April described how “smoke rose up to the sky like thou­sands of chim­neys.” Normally he would have dropped his pay­load from 13,000 ft, but he had to descend to 5,000 ft to even see a target. Death, devas­ta­tion, and smoke cast a pall over the Reich metropolis that lasted for weeks.

Battle in Berlin: Soviet 203mm howitzerBattle in Berlin: Berlin moonscape

Left: Forty thousand Soviet artillery guns hammered the Nazi capital around the clock, some­times setting entire streets ablaze and creating myriad paths of rubble and ruin over which hung acrid fumes from burning buildings and the stench of burnt flesh and putre­fac­tion. The cali­ber of guns the Soviets brought to bear on Berlin’s neighbor­hoods increased rapidly. Cap­able of firing one shell every two minutes, 203mm howit­zers like this one had a range of 10 miles and a crew of 15. Many civil­ians were killed by artil­lery fire as they cowered in cellars, attics, and other hiding places.

Right: An aerial photo of Berlin shows the legacy of destruc­tion left by the war. By April 1945 much of Berlin, whose total area was almost 350 sq. miles, had become a moon­scape of ruined buildings and cratered streets. A Soviet staff sergeant wrote: “The battles for Berlin were char­ac­terized by par­ti­cular tough­ness and resis­tance on the part of the Germans. . . . The enemy refused to give up an inch of land with­out a fight. . . . On 22 April 1945 our battalion fought fierce street battles inside the city. . . . Every­thing was on fire. We spared nothing, and no ammu­ni­tion, just to advance another few metres.” Quoted in Walter Kempowski, Swansong, p. 281.

Battle in Berlin: Unter den Linden, 1945Battle in Berlin: Clearing debris on a Berlin street

Left: Berlin’s premier street Unter den Linden in 1945 pre­sented a grim con­trast with the street’s pre­war splen­dor. View is to the east.

Right: A Berlin street lined with 19th- and 20th-century apartment blocks is choked with debris. Berliners had learned to clear streets fol­lowing Allied bombing raids in the early days of the war. During the Battle in Berlin (end phase of the Battle of Berlin), streets and side­walks like the one pictured here were turned into rubble-fields and thou­sands of citi­zens were conscripted afterwards to make them passable.

Battle in Berlin 1945: A Cavalcade of Photos from German and Soviet Archives