Moscow, Soviet Union · January 11, 1945

On this date in 1945 the Germans inter­cepted a Soviet radio trans­mission that omi­nously declared, “Every­thing is ready.” The Soviet offen­sive on the East­ern Front between the Baltic Sea in the north and the Car­pa­thian Moun­tains in the south began the next day with an artil­lery bar­rage that pul­ver­ized Ger­man defenses. The offen­sive devel­oped at breath­taking speed: parts of East Prus­sia were over­whelmed within ten days, and by Janu­ary 26, 1945, the Red Army had reached the Gulf of Dan­zig, thus cutting off East Prus­sia from the rest of the Reich (see map below). Cra­cow (Kra­ków), Poland, the capital of the Nazis’ so-called General Govern­ment, fell on Janu­ary 19, and Warsaw, Poland’s largest city, on Janu­ary 17. On the same day the Soviets reached the east­ern bank of the Oder River above Bres­lau (Wro­claw), the capi­tal of Upper Sile­sia and the second-most pro­duc­tive Ger­man in­dus­trial area after the Ruhr in the west­ern part of Ger­many. Lodz (Łódź), Poland’s second-largest city, was liber­ated after token resis­tance on Janu­ary 19. Just after Janu­ary the Soviets halted 90 miles from Ber­lin to mop up Ger­man Army stragglers, resupply their armies, rest their men and machines, and “tidy up” East Prus­sia. The end of Janu­ary 1945 saw the Nazi war ma­chine suffer its highest-ever monthly total of casu­al­ties—over 450,000—far exceeding the 185,000 who had died in January 1943, the month of the Wehr­macht’s defeat at Stalin­grad (present-day Volgo­grad). Combined Janu­ary and Febru­ary casu­alty figures for the East­ern Front alone ex­ceeded 700,000. Never before had so many Ger­mans been killed (77,000), wounded (334,000), or gone missing (292,000) in so short a time. Adolf Hitler’s New Year mes­sage at the top of the month, in which he as­serted his faith in ulti­mate vic­tory, his “un­shake­able belief that the hour is near in which vic­tory finally will come,” was erased from mem­ory on the morning of Febru­ary 3, 1945, when the Amer­i­cans sent more than 900 bombers to attack the Nazi capital, Berlin, with high-explo­sive and in­cen­diary bombs, de­stroying the govern­ment district, bringing trains and street­cars to a halt, and causing fires to rage every­where. Close to 2,900 people were killed in the air attack, which left more than 100,000 Ber­liners home­less. Despair gripped German citizens as they awaited the end of the Third Reich.

There are literally dozens of books that vividly recreate the extraordinarily bleak atmosphere of Berlin in the months-long run-up to the destruction of the Nazi regime in April 1945. 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

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Soviet March on Nazis’ Reich Capital and Its Destruction, 1945

Soviet advances on Eastern Front, January 1 to May 11, 1945

Above: Soviet advances on the Eastern Front, January 1 to May 11, 1945. The pink portion of the map represents advances to March 30, 1945; green to May 11, 1945.

Reichstag building 1945Berlin Opera House on Unter den Linden

Left: The German Reichstag shows the scars of battle in mid-1945. The Reichstag had not been restored by the Nazis since the 1933 fire that gutted the interior, but the Soviets considered it a prime target in the Battle of Berlin (April 23 to May 2, 1945), and artillery and tank fire each took its toll on the building.

Right: The Staatsoper Unter den Linden (Berlin State Opera) was bombed in early 1941 but reopened in mid-December, only to close again in August 1944 when the Gauleiter of Berlin, Joseph Goebbels (also Propaganda Minister), closed down Berlin and the rest of Germany in the name of “Total War.” The Staatsoper was once again destroyed on February 3, 1945, in a ferocious daylight raid that left much of Berlin’s city center in ruins. However, it was left to Soviet heavy artillery in April 1945 to reduce the capital of Hitler’s Thousand-Year Reich to a mass of rubble.

Berlin moonscapeBerlin streetscape

Left: An aerial photo of Berlin shows the legacy of destruction left by the war. By April 1945 Berlin had become a moonscape of ruined buildings and cratered streets.

Right: A Danish journalist, Paul von Stemann, remembered the end days of Berlin as a time of “dullness, anticipation, fear and continuous bombing. . . The war seemed perpetual. . . The flowers had gone, the books had been burnt, the pictures had been removed, the trees had been broken, there were no birds singing, no dogs barking, no children shrieking . . . there was no laughter and no giggling. . . [The sky] was often effaced by the stinking and greasy carpets of voluminous black smoke.” Quoted in Moorhouse, Berlin at War, pp. 346–47.

Unter den Linden, 1945Clearing 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: Berliners had learned to clear streets following Allied bombing raids in the early days of the war. During the Battle in Berlin, many streets and sidewalks were turned into rubble-fields and thousands of citizens were conscripted afterwards to make them passable.

Homeless Berliners, 1945Two elderly men seated amid street rubble, Berlin, 1945

Above: Homeless Berliners survey their destroyed homes, while two elderly men sitting amid the street rubble may be contemplating their future in post-Nazi Germany.

Burt Lancaster Narrates Account of Soviet Offensive to Liberate Poland, January 1945