by Tom Goodrich
The hour zero
The long gray column stretched east for mile upon muddy mile. Like a wounded animal searching for a quiet place to die, the line moved slowly, painfully, yet steadily. Limping and dragging, staggering and stumbling, the once-mighty German Wehrmacht was now bound for slavery and death. In a stand-up club and claw fight to the finish, a contest between Adolf Hitler and European nationalism versus Josef Stalin and International Communism, the latter, with the power and weight of the United States and the British Empire behind him, had come off victorious. Now, just as the ragged, starving old men and boys in gray were marching east to oblivion, much of the Europe they were leaving was also passing into its own oblivion; for years to come the once bright and beautiful continent would know little else than darkness, degradation, death, and despair.
Above, black as a funeral, the brooding clouds of dejection and defeat. Below, littering the muddy road to Siberia, tattered bits of burnt clothing, broken strips of boot leather, dirty brown bandages, and puddles of blood, fresh, wet and dark. Ahead, years of back-breaking, mind-killing work in mines, bogs and forests and for almost all, the end—a frozen, unmarked grave. Behind, thousands of dead comrades, thousands of dead friends, thousands of dead family members—men, women, children, pets—buried beneath the rubble of a place that no longer resembled anything of this world. Behind, Berlin, the last battle of the war.
“The capital of the Third Reich is a heap of gaunt, burned-out, flame-seared buildings,” reported one of the first Allied correspondents to reach Berlin. “It is a desert of a hundred thousand dunes made up of brick and powdered masonry… It is impossible to exaggerate in describing the destruction… Downtown Berlin looks like nothing man could have contrived… I did not see a single building where you could have set up a business of even selling apples.”
Others who reached Berlin when the bombs stopped falling were likewise stunned by the almost total destruction. Block after block, mile after mile, as far as eyes could see and as far as legs could walk. There was no end to the ruins, ruins that once were one of the most gorgeous and glittering capitals on earth. But even more staggering to those who first viewed Berlin after the war was the total disbelief that anything calling itself “human” could still exist amid such utter ruin.
“Seeing them you almost hope that they are not human,” admitted a visitor.
But, and almost miraculously, there were humans yet living in Berlin. When the guns finally fell silent on May 8, 1945, these tattered and starved survivors crept from their cracks and caves, trying to flee: a nightmare, they knew not where.
“We clamber over bomb craters,” describes one woman trying to escape. “We squeeze through tangled barbed wire and hastily constructed barricades of furniture. It was with sofas that our army tried to block the Russian advance!… One could laugh if it didn’t rather make one feel like crying.”
Tanks riddled with holes block the way. A pitiful sight, pointing their muzzles toward the sky… Burned-out buildings left and right… Behind a projection in a wall sits an old man. A pipe in his right hand, a lighter in his left . He is sitting in the sun, completely motionless. Why is he sitting so still? Why doesn’t he move at all? A fly is crawling across his face. Green, fat, shiny. Now it crawls into his eyes. The eyes… Oh God have mercy! Something slimy is dripping onto his cheeks…
At last the water tower looms up in the distance. We are at the cemetery. The gate to the mortuary is wide open… Bodies, nothing but bodies. Laid out on the floor. Row after row, body after body. Children are among them, adults and some very old people. Brought here from who knows where. That draws the final line under five years of war. Children filling mortuaries and old men decomposing behind walls.
What had taken the German race over two millennia to build, had taken its enemy a mere handful of years to destroy. When the fighting, finally ended, the Great German Reich, which had been one of the most modern industrial giants in the world, lay totally, thoroughly and almost hopelessly, demolished. Germany, mused an American newsman drifting through the rubble, resembled nothing so much as it resembled “the face of the moon.”
At Germany’s second largest city, Hamburg, what Philip Dark found likewise staggered the senses. It was, thought the soldier, “a city devastated beyond all comprehension. It was more than appalling. As far as the eye could see, square mile after square mile of empty shells of buildings with twisted girders scarecrowed in the air…”
And what Leonard Mosley saw when he reached Hanover epitomized the condition of all German cities at war’s end. Hanover, typed the British reporter, “looked like a wound in the earth rather than a city. As we came nearer, I looked for the familiar signs that I used too know, but… I could not recognize [them] anywhere… The city was a gigantic open sore.”
Just as in Berlin, to the shock and surprise of not only Dark and Mosley, but to the survivors as well, life actually existed among and under the seemingly sterile rock piles. Like cave-dwellers from the beginning of time, men, women and children slept, whispered, suffered, starved, cried, and died below the tons of jagged concrete, broken pipes and twisted metal.
Other than being utterly destroyed, another feature shared by Hanover, Hamburg, Berlin, and every other German city was the nauseating stench that hung over them like a pall. “[E]verywhere,” remembered a witness, “came the putrid smell of decaying flesh to remind the living that thousands of bodies still remained beneath the funeral pyres of rubble.”
“I’d often seen it described as ‘a sweetish smell’—but I find the word ‘sweetish’ imprecise and inadequate,” one survivor scribbled in her diary. “It strikes me not so much a smell as something solid, tangible, something too thick to be inhaled. It takes one’s breath away and repels, thrusts one back, as though with fists.”
By their own tally of firebombing casualties, the British estimated that they had killed upwards of half a million German civilians. That some sources from the Dresden raid alone set the toll there at 300,000—400,000 dead would suggest that the British figures were absurdly and perhaps deliberately—low. Whatever the accurate figure, the facts are that few German families survived the war intact. Those who did not lose a father, a brother, a sister, a mother—or all the above—were by far the exception to the rule. In many towns and villages the dead quite literally outnumbered the living. For some, the hours and days following the final collapse was simply too much. Unwilling to live any longer in a world of death, misery and alien chaos, countless numbers took the ultimate step.
“Thousands of bodies are hanging in the trees in the woods around Berlin and nobody bothers to cut them down,” a German pastor remarked. “Thousands of corpses are carried into the sea by the Oder and Elbe Rivers—one doesn’t notice it any longer.”
Nor did one notice any longer the thousands of black and bloating bodies laying in the German countryside, on farms, in pastures, along fields, by roads, in ditches, the bodies of gray old men and fresh-faced boys of the Volkssturm, or militia, the pathetic last line of defense; disarmed, beaten, then murdered in cold blood by the same American army that murdered the boys at Dachau, murdered as they desperately tried to surrender, to somehow survive a war that was already over.
For Germany, May 8, 1945 became known as “The Hour Zero”—the end of a nightmare and the beginning of a dark, uncertain future. Most assumed, no doubt, that awful though the coming weeks and months would be, the worst was nevertheless behind them. It seemed to these dazed and damaged people that nothing the future had to offer could match what they had suffered through in the past.
But these people were wrong. The worst yet lay ahead. Though most of the shooting and bombing had indeed stopped, the war against Germany would continue unabated, forever if necessary, until the last German was dead. World War II was by far history’s most terrifying war, but what still lay ahead would prove, as Timemagazine later phrased it, “History’s most terrifying peace.”
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Editor’s note:The footnotes have been omitted. Summer 1945is a book that exposes the atrocities committed by the United States in Japan and Germany. If the reader is interested in a book by the same author that focuses on the holocaust perpetrated by the Allies solely in Germany, obtain a copy of Hellstorm, The Death of Nazi Germany: 1944-1947 (sample chapter: here).