Antony Beevor showed in his excellent Stalingrad how to clearly and accurately portray the chaos and confusion of a vast and sprawling military engagement without losing sight of the individual experience and harrowing minutiae of enormous human tragedy. In this book, he again succeeds in portraying the staggering scale of the battle for Berlin, but also brings out the astonishing and shocking level of suffering that accompanied it.
Beevor successfully measures the human suffering against the "meat-grinder" mentality of the ideological clash of Stalinism and Nazism. He contrasts the pride and vanity of Hitler and the paranoid totalitarianism of Stalin, the meeting of which was guaranteed to result in terrible casualties as combatants, deluded and indoctrinated by continuous and insidious propaganda, fought desperately for every inch of ground.
Tales of gang rape and wanton destruction by the invading forces, particularly in East Prussia, hit heavy notes in the reading, whilst the knowledge of how deeply the Red Army operated under the prying and intolerant eyes of its Soviet masters is also clearly and compassionately portrayed; the dispassionate NKVD reports of summary execution and Gulag imprisonment of liberated Red Army prisoners for simply having surrendered fills one with anger, particularly as the Red Army had suffered over 9 million casualties by this time.
In his Stalingrad book, Beevor shifted his sympathies initially from the Russians gradually toward the Germans as the tide of battle shifted; in Berlin: The Downfall, Beevor's sympathies throughout remain in favour of the German civilians, and the German Army commanders who acted against the Nazi leadership. I found this slightly distasteful in view of the preceding four years; indeed, Beevor quotes an injured German veteran speaking out on a crowded Berlin train that if the Russians repay Germany a quarter what was done to them, then Germany would cease to exist. But this appears to be in keeping with the underlying political subtext of the book, which seems to be a demonstration of the consequences of political indoctrination of totalitarian regimes, at the expense of stifling humanity.
Beevor succeeds in delivering a hard-hitting, compassionate story of needless suffering, bravery and sacrifice woven beside unspeakable cruelty, revenge and butchery. It is by turns a clear and well-researched historical account of military operations, and a barely-disguised polemic on the evils of political extremism and the dire consequences of totalitarian expansionism.
A multilayered historical account with a heavyweight political subtext. This is a fine book which should be read by all.