qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

Those who cannot remember the mistakes of the past ...

kharin told me the other day about someone who had a list of the "best 100" books he had read in the previous year. By my calculations, I am lucky to reach double figures for a year. I like to consider myself discerning rather than illiterate.

Be warned, the material in this review is from a single source.

Berlin: The Downfall 1945, by Antony Beevor
Beevor's book is a well-publicised bestseller, and it's certainly true that the Third Reich has generated enough reading to last 1000 years. My father is keen on military history and when younger I tended to steer away from the subject, but in the past few years I have been drawn to the subject, originally inspired I think by the history of Bletchley Park as described in Channel 4's Station X and (more creatively, but no less enjoyably) by the film of Robert Harris' novel, Enigma. During my holiday in Germany in 2002 with kharin, I visited Berlin and Leipzig, and included a trip to Colditz Castle in our itinerary.

The book is very readable, though the material is not easy reading, with abuses on both sides described objectively. It reads like a thriller novel, though everyone already knows the ending and there are no convoluted plot twists. To those already thoroughly familiar with the subject, I doubt there is much new material, but I found the book educational - Stalin's paranoia and desparate desire to get his hands on the Nazi nuclear scientists, their laboratories and materials (which seemed to be the major focus for him in striking out for Berlin specifically); the destructive vengeange of the Red Army as it marched through Prussia and Poland; the Yalta troika, with Roosevelt naïvely mediating between Churchill and Stalin, who were very much in a marriage of convenience; the discovery in Auschwitz and subsequently elsewhere of the reality of the Final Solution; the lack of thought-out American planning for an occupied Germany and a desire to pull out of Europe as soon as possible; Hitler's denial of reality and the tensions in the German military hierarchy; and the chaotic final push by the Red Army into the city itself.

Two particular asides of interest were that the American army was estimated to be only 48 hours from Berlin, but was then diverted towards southern Germany, which makes for an interesting "What if ...?" scenario; and the anonymous comment by a Russian on the German Communists: "German comrades would storm a railway station only if they could first of all buy platform tickets!"

The book has a "cast of thousands", most of whom appear at one place or time and are otherwise entirely insignificant. It reminds me of Shakespeare: "Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player, that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more." Though this adds to the authenticity of the book, it also makes it episodic. Interestingly, the allied political leaders are very much the supporting cast: the main characters in the book are military on the allied side (Zhukov, Chuikov and Konev), and political on the Nazi side (though that is a rather blurred distinction in the regime) - Hitler, Goebbels, Speer, Bormann and Himmler. The German military machine is portrayed largely as ineffectual to resist either the allied forces or the Nazi leadership - though this view is perhaps coloured particularly by the fact that the book's starting point is January 1945.

The book has certainly whetted my appetite for a future reading of either of Beevor's books on Stalingrad or the Spanish Civil War.
Tags: books
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