One of the gloomiest and most upsetting films ever made — Downfall — evoked the last days of the Third Reich with its relentless images of mangled bodies, suffering children and a frothing, unhinged Adolf Hitler played by Bruno Ganz. In one part of the film, revelers stage an end-of-the-world gala with champagne and glitz as they await their ultimate destruction. The senselessness of that final, vicious spring of 1945 in Berlin, when German soldiers and civilians were made to fight on against the Soviet juggernaut even though there was no chance for salvation, much less victory, epitomizes the perversity of Hitler’s hold on the country.
Images of War: The Fall of Berlin, by Ian Baxter, tells the military side of that story in the popular style of the Images of War series. Brief but informative narrative passages trace the battle through its main stages, punctuating page after page of photographs, many that have never been published before. For readers fascinated with the uniforms and equipment used in the battle, Images of War: The Fall of Berlin is a richly detailed photographic record of the German military in 1945. For the historians among us, the story raises one baffling question: How and why did German armies battle on under such utterly hopeless circumstances? Various weakened, undersupplied formations were trying to maneuver around Berlin in the face of the massive Russian assault. To what end? Nothing could possibly have been achieved. Fanatical indoctrination may have been part of the answer, but it seems more likely that the ubiquitous threat of execution by roving squads of Himmler’s SS was what kept many officers in line and soldiers at their posts. As soon as commanders began to hear that the Führer was dead, they mostly surrendered.
The book ends with a sober accounting of the human cost of this tragic insanity. At least 300,000 soldiers and civilians appear to have perished on both sides. If there is any sense to be made of this final, chilling chapter of the war in Europe, it may be that the Soviet armies actually did have to appear literally on Hitler’s doorstep before he and his ideas would finally die. The tragic irony moving forward is that despite the gigantic sacrifices made in 1945, some of his twisted, racist theories about the proper order of the world appear to have lived on in the brutally misguided minds of various white-nationalist movements around the world today.