Chilling parallels between Russian army in Berlin 1945 and its invasion of Ukraine today revealed

As the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra took a bow following a last concert for the Nazi regime, boys from the Hitler Youth passed among the audience with wicker baskets filled with cyanide capsules, offering them around.

That evening, April 12, 1945, senior party officials, family and friends at Berlin’s Beethoven Salle had listened to the final aria from Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, The Twilight Of The Gods — knowing this was also the twilight of Hitler’s rule.

The Red Army was powering toward Berlin and fear stalked the city. Russia’s army then, as now, was renowned for its ruthlessness. Who could blame those who availed themselves of those capsules, seeking a painless way out?

The authorities in Berlin turned a blind eye to the trade in cyanide; a discreet request to a sympathetic pharmacist could elicit a small glass phial, secured with a cork.

Urban myth had it that cyanide was painless, the taste of bitter almonds on the tongue leading to a calm, non-violent death. The reality for those who chose to take it was horribly different.

As the chemicals hit the stomach there was a sensation of violent suffocation. The face and flesh would turn a deep, mottled red and agonising cardiac failure would follow.

The whole process could last two to five minutes but must have felt like an eternity.

Yet many still chose to end their lives this way, some encouraged by Nazi propaganda which praised self-sacrifice and insisted there was no honour in surrender; others through exhaustion and fear.

Any period of Berlin’s turbulent history makes for a compelling story, but right now — with the Russians attempting to crush Ukraine — none seems more poignant than those final few weeks of spring 1945, when the Red Army threatened to raze the city.

Berlin was attacked by the Russian Red Army from the East in 1945, (pictured: a damaged Berlin street in 1946)

Ukraine now finds itself in a similar situation, with their cities (Kramatorsk pictured) being heavily bombed by Russia while the population flees

Ukraine now finds itself in a similar situation, with their cities (Kramatorsk pictured) being heavily bombed by Russia while the population flees

Berlin, a fascinating new book by Sinclair McKay, allows us to hear the voices of ordinary Berliners for the first time, drawing on personal accounts collected by the Zeitzeugenbörse — a new bank of evidence created by German academics.

For years after the fall of Berlin, the city’s survivors were reluctant to speak openly about what they endured: in the wake of Nazi atrocities, it was taboo to suggest they were also victims of Hitler’s war.

The book restores the balance, offering up a rich, tragic and terrifying account of a city staring into the abyss.

By the beginning of April 1945, most Berliners were living underground, in basements or U-Bahn stations, emerging only to join food queues. Many were reduced to eating dandelions and stinging nettles.

Truckloads of refugees — in flight from the Red Army — flooded in from the East. As she stood in a queue, actress Hildegard Knef, who became internationally famous after the war, remembered one woman shouting: ‘Clear out, the Russians’ll rape you, beat your brains out. They crucified my husband, nailed him to a door: clear out!’

Some 100,000 civilian dead are believed to have been strewn around the city, buried and unburied, some victims of months of bombing, others killed by their own hand.

Berlin stank of decomposition.

Death was so common that passers-by barely glanced at the corpse of a woman by the river Spree. Her belongings were on a bench: she had presumably sat down next to her handbag and taken the poison. As its effects began, she had fallen helplessly to the ground.

In suburbs where once-smart apartment blocks had been torn open by Soviet shells, a number of residents took what remained of their tattered sheets, bound them to doors and window frames and hanged themselves, their bodies sometimes dangling over the streets below.

Hitler, in his bunker, aimed a gun at his head. His partner Eva Braun, her feet tucked behind her on the sofa, broke open an ampoule of poison. Magda Goebbels, wife of the Fuhrer’s minister of propaganda, infamously killed not only herself but her six children.

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and his partner Eva Braun both committed suicide before the Red Army could capture them

Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and his partner Eva Braun both committed suicide before the Red Army could capture them

On the streets, children were sacrificed to the city’s defence. Dorothea von Schwanenfleugel remembered seeing a boy, slight and small, no older than 12, sitting in a trench beside an anti-tank grenade and was startled to see tears running down his face. She gently asked what he was doing.

He told her he had instructions to wait until a Soviet tank rolled into view then take the grenade, run under the tank and detonate it. He had been persuaded — or forced — to take his own life.

She knew this attack would probably be futile — Russian soldiers would shoot him dead before he reached the tank. But she dared not act on her mother’s instinct and take the boy home with her and hide him.

If the SS discovered he had deserted his post, his would become one of the many bodies dangling lifeless from lampposts. If she took him and he was hunted down, she and her own children would be murdered as well.

She gave him some food and walked away. The next day, the boy was gone.

In Ukraine today, we are witness to the horrors of war in real time. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are said to have been deported from the Donbas region to so-called ‘filtration camps’ in Russia.

A recording of a Russian soldier talking to his mother has revealed graphic detail of the tortures inflicted on Ukrainian prisoners, including cutting and stripping back the skin of a victim’s fingers like the petals of a flower.

Ukrainian civilians fleeing their homes to escape bombardment have returned to find their houses trashed and looted for valuables, including perfumes, jewellery, wine and money.

So it was in 1945: Russia’s conscripts were drawn from some of the poorest, most backward regions of the country and could not believe the ‘luxury’ the German population enjoyed compared with the privations at home.

In one instance, Red Army troops reportedly put some potatoes into a lavatory to wash them. They did not know what a flushing toilet was: when they pulled the chain and the potatoes disappeared they accused the apartment’s tenants of ‘sabotage’.

To stop the Russians from getting their hands on both luxuries and simple foodstuffs, Berliners themselves resorted to looting. Hunger had relieved them of their scruples.

An iconic photo 'Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag' (colourised) shows the Red Army having conquered Berlin in April 1945

An iconic photo ‘Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag’ (colourised) shows the Red Army having conquered Berlin in April 1945

One of the most disturbing aspects of the current conflict in Ukraine is the widespread use of sexual violence as a terror tactic. This, too, reflects Berlin in 1945.

In Bucha, a town north of Kyiv, 25 girls and women, aged 14 to 24, were kept in a basement and systematically raped by Russian forces. Investigators working in Ukraine have heard stories of gang-rapes, sexual assaults at gunpoint and rapes committed in front of children.

Berlin’s women, too, were terrified of what would happen when the Russians arrived. Heidi Koch, a teenage member of the League Of German Girls who was helping build walls of rubble to block the Russians’ way, said a member of the SS had reinforced the importance of the work by shouting at her: ‘Do you know what will happen if the Russians get here? They will probably f*** you and shoot you, do you understand?’

A broadcast from the Fuhrer warned that ‘the old men and children will be murdered. Women and maidens will be debased to the level of barrack-room harlots. The rest will be packed off to Siberia.’ In the face of such terror, Hildegard Knef, who had just been signed to a major studio, devised a plan that would be a credit to most screenwriters: she disguised herself as a male soldier to escape the sexual attentions of the Red Army.

Knef was tall and statuesque. In a greatcoat, sweater, trousers and cap she could look and move like a man — but she took the ruse further, joining the Volkstürm, a defence force comprised members of the SS and teenage boys.

At its HQ, she was given ammunition and a target test, then directed to the basement, where she spent the next few hours listening to the incessant, distant artillery, beside a ‘pimply’ 15-year-old boy, armed and frightened, ready to pull the trigger, and an old soldier who had fought at Stalingrad.

Knef was posted to the south-west of the city, where she hid in the ruins of residential buildings, caught up in artillery raids.

The explosions were one thing: the psychological impact of the screaming noise made by the rocket launchers (nick-named Stalin’s Organs) quite another.

The noise had been calculated to make rational thought impossible, a piercing sound that reached into the primitive corners of the brain.

‘The trembling starts in the feet, the shivering, the shaking, creeps up my body, takes hold of my teeth until they chatter, till my face bangs on the stones,’ Knef wrote later.

Actress Hildegard Knef (right) made herself appear as a man so she would avoid the attention of male soldiers in the Red Army

Actress Hildegard Knef (right) made herself appear as a man so she would avoid the attention of male soldiers in the Red Army

The street battles waged by the small platoons of rag-tag Volkstürm fighters briefly held up the progress of Soviet vehicles, but inevitably, the tanks rolled in.

Hiding in a railway shed on a rainy evening, Knef heard ‘dreadful, heart-rending screams, high, thin, shrill’. She knew what it was: Russians had entered a house and had ‘started on the women’.

Everyone knew that even in war, rape was criminal, but for the Russians, there were no serious sanctions. The Russian novelist Leonid Leonov observed: ‘Our patrols now stride through Berlin and German ladies gaze in their eyes invitingly, ready to begin the payment of “reparations” at once.’ This chilling attitude made rape a form of justice in itself, as if the women of Berlin had to redress the crimes of the Nazi forces in the east. Perhaps that is why some Soviet soldiers had no conscience about the cruelty of public rape: one young woman in a grocery shop was violated on the counter in full view of the street outside.

In desperation, young women rubbed ash in their hair and padded out their clothing to make themselves look old and unattractive.

There were an estimated 1.4 million women in Berlin; the number who were raped in April 1945 is unknowable but there have been estimates of half a million.

The stories recounted in McKay’s book, though, are often more subtle and complex than this frightening figure would suggest:

Jewish fugitive Marie Jalowicz-Simon embraced the first Soviet solder she encountered, so relieved was she to have survived the Nazis: he looked, she recalled, ‘rather shocked’. Nothing untoward happened, but a few days later ‘the Soviet soldiers rampaged through the houses raping women. Naturally, I was among them.

‘I slept in the attic, where I was visited that night by a sturdy, friendly character called Ivan Dedoborez. I didn’t mind too much.

‘Afterwards he wrote a note and left it on my door. This was his fiancée in here, it said, and everyone else was to leave her alone. In fact, after that no one did pester me.’

If Frau Simon appeared to approach the situation with resignation, she also acknowledged the suffering of a neighbour: there was ‘hysterical screaming and screeching’ from her room.

In other, harrowing, cases, women in cellars bargained with soldiers in an effort to spare younger siblings; some victims were thrown into rooms where groups of men were waiting; and others were simply murdered — even butchered — after the rape had taken place.

Sex, for some, was simply a means for survival. Journalist Marta, having been raped, was determined to stop it happening again. ‘I need a wolf who will keep the wolves away from me,’ she wrote. ‘An officer, as high as possible, Kommandant, General, whatever I can get.’ She found such a man: he provided protection for her whole household, as well as little luxuries like wax candles and alcohol.

As the Russians closed in, office worker Mechtild Evers broke into the company safe and took three months’ salary. She headed to Stralsund, a port 100 miles north, where her soldier husband was stationed, then on to Hiddensee, a small island which had been popular with middle-class holidaymakers in the pre-war years.

A lone woman on a hostile road, she eventually made it to Stralsund, where she was briefly — and blissfully — reunited with her husband. She then proceeded alone to Hiddensee, but before long the Soviets overran the whole area.

Her husband was captured and sent to a Soviet PoW camp. Evers was put to work on the mainland, first in a railway goods depot, then on a remote farm with a party of other women. To her horror, she realised that some of their guards were liberated forced labourers — men who had been kidnapped by the Germans in Poland.

Out on the flat, featureless fields, a young woman was grabbed and taken to a ditch, where she fought violently. A gunshot was heard. Evers and the other women — traumatised and terrified — were forced to continue digging beets.

When evening came, they were taken to a barn and locked in. All the women were raped — some, including Evers, several times.

But she survived the war — as did Hildegard Knef.

In Britain, May 8, 1945 brought the jubilant, floodlit celebrations of VE Day. In Berlin, it heralded the return of refugees from the countryside to the city.

Evers was once more on foot, surviving upon the kindness of ‘those in striped concentration camp clothes or Russian soldiers’ uniforms, whose souls the war has not been able to kill, who shared their only piece of bread with me’.

Knef had been briefly taken prisoner but had revealed her true identity and been released. She had not bathed ‘for three months’ and her clothes were seething with lice as she, too, trekked along dusty roads back to Berlin.

If anyone had told these women that within a fortnight the authorities would reopen some of the city’s cinemas, theatres and concert halls, they would have thought it fantasy, but such is the resilience of Berlin, that is what happened.

Knef joined a theatre troupe in the newly-created American sector of Berlin and began performing everything from light revues to Shakespeare, while suffering violent gastric pains from hunger.

For a short while, for players and audience, it was possible to forget the terrible destruction that had brought their city to the brink. But Berlin’s woes were far from over.

As the war gave way to a stand-off between the Soviets and the West, a new drama, a division of the city that would last more than 40 years, was about to begin . . .

  • Berlin: Life And Loss In The City That Shaped The Century by Sinclair McKay is published by Viking at £20. © Sinclair McKay 2022. To order a copy for £18 (offer valid to 01/07/2022; UK P&P free on orders over £20), or call 020 3176 2937.