Late April, 1945

I just left Berlin after a predictably absurd May Day. May Day in Kreuzberg is part spring festival (the ancient part of May Day) and part left-wing protest. The protests aren't nearly as rough as they were in the late 80's, but there are still riot police everywhere.

I'll talk about May Day soon enough, but I want to post something about one of the years when nobody celebrated the arrival of spring: 1945.

The Battle in Berlin

You probably don’t want to read about real violence--but fake violence is the driving force behind so much of our entertainment. I’m not just talking about Tarantino’s films or Grand Theft Auto. Harry Potter revolves around an attempted murder and two successful ones.

I’m perplexed by the fact that so many people will pay to see violence acted out in a theater, but turn away when presented with the reality of it. It’s hypocrisy.

I don’t like violence in either form--aped or actual. It’s convenient, reductive, and so fucking unimaginative. But I think it’s important that we don’t forget what the Real Deal looks like, and you can get a good look at it in Berlin.

Even today, there are bullet holes everywhere.

It's one thing to walk through the moonscape of a city that's been bombed. But there's an impersonality that comes with dropping explosives in 500 pound increments from the sky.

Bullets are different. They're personal. They're fired at close range, by one person aiming at another person, rather than a B-17 aiming at a factory.


This is what makes Berlin different for me.

On weekday mornings in Berlin, I can hear the tanks clatter through the streets. They rumble and clank across 73 years. It’s late April, 1945 and the Thousand Year Reich will be dead within a week. The Red Army that grinds away at the bombed out capital contains two and a half million men and women--six times larger than the multi-national force which invaded Iraq in 2003.

The German civilian population is in a state of panic. Berlin is desperately short of food. The electrical grid failed a long time ago. Hand-operated water pumps still work, but you have to avoid being shot or shelled as you scamper across the street with your bucket.  Firesales give way to outright looting.

Knowing the war is all but lost and deeply fearful of Russian retribution, civilians try to escape to the West, hoping to reach American, British, or Canadian lines. The Gestapo, Nazi secret police, and SS fanatics look through the fleeing crowd for deserters.

The German forces are in shambles but old men, young boys, walking wounded, and even the mentally infirm have been ordered to fight. Anyone who refuses is tried for treason, convicted, and executed. All over the city, bodies hang from lamp posts. Dead horses litter the streets.

The Nazi propaganda machine runs on fumes. A single page newspaper promises that new miracle weapons are on the way. Encouraging messages--and then threats--are painted on the sides of houses. Meanwhile, rumors circulate that the alliance between the Russians and the west will break down, that a war will break out between the Americans and the Russians from sheer proximity.

It’s tempting to boil this down to Russians and Germans, but that would short-change history. There are men from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, France, Britain, Hungary, and elsewhere, wearing German uniforms and trying to turn back the Russians. They’re organized into units like the Nordland and Charlemagne divisions. These units will fight just as hard as the Germans. It’s tough to say if they were all true believers in Nazism or just vehement anti-communists, but uniforms are uniforms. There are conscripts from all over Eastern Europe who wear Wermacht uniforms, too.

Meanwhile, Poles, Latvians, Lithuanians, and others have thrown their lot in with the Russians.

And of course, there's the city itself.

Berlin will level the playing field--slightly--between the juggernaut Red Army of 1945 and the withered husk of the Wermacht. Most of Germany’s planes and tanks are either gone or inoperable. The Germans blow holes in some intersections and sink tanks into them to create ad hoc bunkers.

Meanwhile, the USSR’s factories produce an almost unlimited supply of tanks by this point. But the same things which made these weapons so effective in open ground makes them ineffective--and even vulnerable--in the city. Gun barrels can't elevate to target the upper floors of Berlin’s apartment blocks, nor can they aim at the cellars where soldiers wait with rockets.

Within a week, the Nazi empire will be compressed to a single point, and then extinguished. An idea, thrown back from the gates of Moscow. But a lot of people will die first.

I could talk about the battle for days, but I won't. It's something you need to experience for yourself. You need to go there and taste the doom.