The Government District included Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, the Ministry of the Interior Building, the Kroll Opera House, and the most important symbol of all, the Reichstag or German Parliament building. Many of these structures were built around a large plaza called the Königsplatz, with the 220-foot Siegessäule (Victory Column) its centerpoint. Even in its battered condition, the Reichstag was an imposing structure, but had not been used since a mysterious fire had raged there in 1933.
The Reichstag had been turned into an Alamo, manned by about 5,000 stubborn defenders. The lower stories had been reinforced with concrete steel rails and all windows and doors had been bricked up and then pierced by loopholes. A water-filled antitank ditch fronted the building, and all the roads leading to the Reichstag and the Königsplatz were mined. With the Reichstag sheltered in the loop of the meandering Spree River, some German 88mm guns in the Königsplatz covered the Moltke Bridge, one of the spans across the Spree.
The Russians crossed over the Moltke Bridge and took the Interior Ministry after some hard fighting. The Russians nicknamed the Interior Ministry “Himmler’s house,” because that is where the headquarters of the Gestapo was located.
On the morning of April 30, Maj. Gen. Perevertkin of the 79th Rifle Corps was given orders to take the Reichstag by storm. This was a great honor, and it is worth noting that the 79th Rifle Corps was part of the 3rd Shock Army—one of the units under Marshal Zhukov, who had bested his rival Konev.
The 79th Rifle Corps’ attacks on the morning of April 30 were in two phases. One at 4:30 am and a second at 11:30 am were repulsed by heavy German small-arms fire. After unleashing an artillery barrage on the building, the Russians surged forward yet again. This time they broke into the Reichstag, but the fighting was not over. The German defenders used everything they had—grenades, pistols, machine guns, and panzerfausts within the shattered rooms and halls. The struggle was bloody and merciless.
German guns became red hot and useless from continued firing. Every room, every foot of ground was fiercely contested. The last defenders, trapped in a basement, held out until May 2. But for all intents and purposes, the Reichstag was taken on April 30. Russian soldiers climbed to the roof and displayed the crimson Communist banner of the Soviet Union. Later, when the flag raising was recreated for newsreel cameras, it became one of the iconic images of World War II. About half the Reichstag defenders were killed, and the rest were taken prisoner.
By this time, however, Adolf Hitler, fearing Russian capture, was dead, having committed suicide on the afternoon of April 30. First he had his dog Blondi poisoned, then he and Eva Braun, whom he had married less than 40 hours earlier in a ceremony in the bunker, closed the door to his quarters. Aides heard a shot and then entered to find their Führer dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head; his bride was sprawled on the sofa next to him. She had taken cyanide. The bodies were carried upstairs to the courtyard of the bunker and set on fire.
Before he died, Hitler had named Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels the new chancellor. Nazi fanatic though he was, even Goebbels recognized that further fighting was pointless. He sent General Krebs, who spoke Russian, to General Chuikov of the Eighth Guards Army at Schluenburgring near Templehof airport to negotiate an end to the fighting.
The meeting took place on May 1 at 4 am. Krebs was authorized to negotiate a ceasefire, truce, or armistice, but the Russians would have none of it—it was unconditional surrender or nothing. Krebs came back empty handed, and he later committed suicide in the bunker. Chuikov had lost patience with all the wrangling. “Pour on the shells,” he ordered. “No more talking.”
By this time, Goebbels was also dead, having killed himself while his wife poisoned their children and took her own life the day after Hitler’s suicide. Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz (who was not in Berlin) was named Reich President, Head of State, and Commander in Chief of the German Armed Forces.
It fell to General Weidling to finally surrender what was left of the German defenders. He was taken to General Chuikov’s headquarters at 6 am on May 2. Once the capitulation was signed, Weidling ordered all remaining German units to “cease resistance forthwith.”
All across Berlin dazed German defenders emerged from the rubble, hands held high. On May 2, 1945, at 3 pm, the battle of Berlin was officially over. Elsewhere in Germany a few pockets of resistance held out. Breslau, for example, did not surrender until May 6.
The Russian guns stopped firing, creating what one historian called “a great enveloping silence.” But the agony of defeat was not yet finished. Around 125,000 Berliners had died during the siege, many by suicide.
Once the shelling had stopped and the Soviets entered Berlin, a great wave of sexual assault swept across the city. Some German women killed themselves after being raped. Other victims—aged 12 to 70—were killed outright, sometimes being shot or having their throats cut after being ravaged by the victors.
One 17-year-old German girl’s experience was typical: “There were eight Russians…. I was incredibly afraid…. They tore the clothes from my body…. I screamed but afterward I had no tears anymore … then I thought how many more are still coming, and then I thought when this is over then there will be a shot in the back of the head.” Somehow she survived the ordeal.
Berlin was a silent, smoldering ruin, its buildings mere hollow shells, its streets filled with craters, debris, and corpses. There were no city services; water, food, and electricity were all but nonexistent.
The victorious Russians had at last gotten their revenge, but at a heavy cost. Between April 16 and May 8 (the official end of the war in Europe), Zhukov and Konev lost 304,887 killed, wounded, and missing—about 10 percent of their combined strength.
The fall of Berlin was also the fall of the Third Reich.
This article by Eric Niderost originally appeared on Warfare History Network.
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Cezary p