The world’s biggest country, in a magazine. Since 1956.
Tuesday, January 02, 2001
The end of Hitler's reign began to come into sight on 12 January, 1945, when Soviet troops pushed their way into Central Poland and Germany. The Red Army took Vienna, occupied Hungary, cut off East Prussia and proceeded on into Central Germany. Berlin was surrendered on May 2, 1945, roughly two years after the Nazi defeats at Stalingrad and Kursk.
The retreat of Germany from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was accomplished by a series of methodical Soviet pushes from one natural barrier (namely rivers) to the next. The Soviet goal was to claim or reclaim every bit of ground previously captured by the Nazis. It was no simply task but the systematic thrusts of the Red Army westward eventually proved successful. Step by step they weakened the German army, cut off its supply lines and drove it back to Berlin.
The Red Army strategy was very different from that of the Nazis. The latter preferred to encircle its designated target, eventually strangling it into submission. On the other hand, the Soviets attacked the front line with pushes at any given point. After they poked a hole in the line, the Red Army would position tank divisions to maintain and widen the Soviet hold on that part of the front. Gradually, the Soviets reclaimed the front and pushed the line further and further westward.
Once the front had been moved past the Soviet border, the new goal was to reclaim the Baltics and establish a stronghold in Poland, the Balkans and Hungary. Unlike Hitler, the Soviet Union was not interested in conquering the world or even Europe. Their role in the Patriotic War was the protection of the Soviet borders and to drive and keep out any invaders, namely Hitler. The reason for the acquisition of the Balkans, Baltics, Poland and Hungary was to create a shield against any future invasion attempts. These countries and their people were to serve as a buffer zone between the Soviet Union and Europe.
It is also worth noting that the Soviet push into Germany was for the purpose of having revenge against Hitler. The Soviets had a serious bone to pick with Hitler for Operation Barbarossa (June 22, 1941), the invasion of Russia. Their homeland had been ravaged by Hitler's forces and the Soviets wanted to get to Berlin before the rest of the Allies. They wanted Berlin not to be surrendered to the Allies, rather it be captured by the Red Army.
At the dawn of 1945, the Allied forces were closing in on Berlin from various directions. The Red Army was less than 100 miles from the city by the end of January. Hitler was stubborn and was determined to hold out till the death. He treated Berlin as a fortress that was to be defended at all cost. By April, the Red Army was at hand, ready to face the Volkssturm (home guard) at Berlin. By now, the Volkssturm was comprised mainly of old men and children. Berlin's commander, Major General Hellmuth Reymann, figured that it would take at least 200,000 trained and well equipped troops to hold off the Red Army. The situation was truly desperate for the Germans, but Hitler insisted that a stand be made.
The Volkssturm made attempts to fortify the city and dug trenches designed to trap Soviet tanks. This was all well and good except that Germany did not have the soldiers and equipment in place at Berlin to fight the approaching 1.3 million Red Army troops. Marshal Georgy K. Khukov was in command and made sure that his army was committed to one final battle for the Motherland. The Battle for Berlin seemed to be a foregone conclusion, but it turned out to be a bloody one. Soviet troops outnumbered Germans 5:1. For every German gun there were 15 Soviet ones and the Red Army presented five times more tanks and three times more aircraft than the Germans.
Hitler, by this time, was completely insane. He believed that the British, American and Russian armies would turn on and destroy each other. Hitler continued to call upon armies that had been destroyed by the Allies earlier on in the war and generals who no longer existed. Stalin had some ideas of his own, too. He felt that the army that got to Berlin first and was first to raise their nation's flag would be declared the victor of WWII in Europe and sole taker of the spoils of war. Of course, the Allies (Britain and the U.S.) thought differently. Germany's defeat was to be an Allied victory. As a result, while Stalin was closing in on Berlin, the Allies were grabbing up various Axis controlled strategic and industrial areas which they could claim when Germany was divided up between the Allies.
The Battle for Berlin commenced on April 16, 1945. The night before, Soviet troops were encamped along the Oder and Neisse Rivers outside Berlin. Marshal Georgy K. Zhukov was commander of the Oder Line with Marshal Ivan S. Konev leading the Neisse Line. At dawn on the 16th, the Red Army commenced a half hour of cannon fire which created a heavy smoke screen for their advance on the city. The German commander on the Oder, General Gotthard Heinrici, had pulled his troops back to higher ground and several miles away from the river. This forced the Soviet troops to plow through muddy marshland to get to his stronghold. Zhukov's troops and tanks were mired in mud for two days.
Once in the city, the battle was hand to hand, street by street until the Berlin was finally and officially captured on April 30. The Battle of Berlin was a costly and bloody one with over 300,000 Soviet casualties. The number of German losses is unknown but roughly 480,000 were taken prisoner.
The Soviet flag was raised in Berlin, atop the Reichstag, at 2:25 p.m. on April 30, 1945. On the same day, Hitler killed himself along with Eva Braun, his wife of one day, in his bunker beneath the city. Their bodies were cremated and their ashes buried in the Reich Chancellery garden. Berlin surrendered on May 2. Stalin's single greatest disappointment was that Hitler could not be taken alive. One can only imagine the nature of Hitler's demise at the hands of Stalin.
WWII in Europe was unlike any previous conflict in many ways. Most significant was the creation of two, very defined world superpowers; the United States and the Soviet Union. Control of Eastern Europe went to the Soviets. Western Europe bound together in the form of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), a military and political alliance which then as now was led by the U.S. The purpose of NATO was/is to protect member nations against outside threats. In post-WWII Europe, this threat was the Soviet Union.
Stalin's primary concern at the end of WWII was to make certain that the Soviet Union was never invaded again. The Iron Curtain, as Winston Churchill called it, was created as the buffer zone of fragmented nations between Western Europe and the Soviet border were defined. Stalin really was not a threat to Western Europe as long as no one encroached upon his territory. Stalin's paranoic fear of future attacks and his absolute distrust of the Allied leaders created an even more isolated Russia and marked the onset of the Cold War.
The Patriot War had a profound effect on the Russian people. One out of every three children lost a father. To this day, Russian brides lay their bridal bouquets at the foot of the war memorial of their choice. In the U.S., there is ongoing argument over the location and design of a memorial to Americans who fought and died in WWII. The scene is very different in Russia possibly because their fight was for their own nation and not the defense of allies across the sea.
The Soviet victory and capture of Berlin, etc., was not so much about the destruction of Hitler and fascism as it was about the determination, at any cost, to defend and preserve ones homeland. This has left an indelible mark on the soul of Russia. The fear of invasion and occupation of outside forces is no longer an eminent one. However, it is not hard to see that the fear of outside intervention is strong to this day. Russia will defend and preserve its own security, way of life, land and people. What other nations do, beyond how these actions effect Russia directly, is of little concern. This somewhat isolationist stand is difficult, at best, for the West to understand and accept and often translates into distrust.
Russia is far more open than it was ten years ago. For its own economic benefit, it wants to be a key player and partner with other nations in the industrialized world. For trade and security reasons, Russia has partnered with nations considered unfriendly to the West but sees little reason why this should be a determining factor in economic and defense relations with the latter. The European border is not Russia's only one. It has similar concerns with all of its borders which, as a result, mandate relationships with so called unfriendly nations.
Some say that patriotism and the sense of nationalism is at a low eb in Russia. Whether this is true or not, if threatened in any way, Russia and its people will protect themselves and their culture at any cost as they have done times past.
Photographs courtesy of Funet Russian Archives