Soviet Writers at War!

Boris Gorbatov

(April 1945)

The author, in Berlin with the conquering Red Army, gloats and taunts Berliners.

It was they--not us--who wanted war. And they got it.
In Berlin, our forces captured a film processing factory. We were inside it. Film was still soaking in vats of developer; on the inspection table lay the latest reel. It was the most recent edition of the newsreel "News of the Week". But it didn't include the most important "news" of this historic week: Soviet troops have burst into Berlin to put an end to the Hitlerites' dark chronicle.

Berlin is surrounded. Grabbed by the throat. Step by step, building to building, our troops are pressing in to the center of the city. Beyond the Spree. To the Reichstag. To the Tiergarten. Buildings, stations, and factories are being taken by force. The city's numerous canals are being crossed like so many watery border lines. Fierce battle rages in the streets and alleyways, in the air, on the ground, and underground--in the Berlin metro.

Berlin is thoroughly destroyed. Giant craters at every step. Burnt stone, torn-up concrete, flattened steel, broken glass. And above it all, clouds of brick dust and smoke.

In the quarters where battle rages, there are, of course, no residents to be seen. Only in some places a timid white flag has been stuck out a window. From the windows, a white flag; but from the attics, volleys of gunfire. But the contradiction here is infrequent. Fascist divisions are still putting up resistance. Senselessly, stubbornly, fiercely. This is the death struggle of a wolf trapped in a pit. But the realization of the futility of struggle has already penetrated the consciousness of many Germans.

We want to see the residents of Berlin. Where are they? Who's been hanging out the white flags?

Women are standing in the basement opening of a large building. Elderly Germans, they look fearfully at us.

"What are you doing here?"

"We're breathing," they answer. "We're breathing air."

There are two Berlins. And we saw this with our own eyes. One is shown on the map; that's this one, the one in which we are now fighting, smashed by American bombs and Russian shells. The other is underground, cavelike Berlin, the one in which the inhabitants of the city have lived for many months, protecting themselves from bombardment. And we visited this Berlin, too.

Basements. Bunkers. Dungeons. Caves. Dark. Damp. Stuffy. Crowded. People like sardines in a can--they sit, hunched over, legs pulled in, leaning on stools, their shoulders pressing against one another. Elderly men and women burghers, young women, children, suckling infants, and ancient grandmothers who, despite it all, still want to live.

"Hitler gave us all this," said restaurant-keeper Willie Westfal, smiling. "He promised us the whole world, and gave us this cave."

The resident of Berlin spent the long hours of the frequent bombardments in these dungeons. Gradually, pillows, mattresses, children's' beds, primus stoves, frying pans and pots migrated here from the upper floors. Feather beds were replaced with narrow plank beds, parquet floors with gray cement, chandeliers with oil lamps. Thus was formed the cave life of the Berlin German.

Several months ago, the Tommys bombed the water-pumping and power supply station in this neighborhood. Light disappeared; there was no gas, no water, no heating.

We are not cruel people, but we must admit that we looked upon the cave life without pity or sympathy. We remember Leningrad under blockade, and Stalingrad.

It was they--not us--who wanted war. And they got it. Now they are beginning to understand what war really is. War has come onto their land. War has made havoc of their lives and their apartments, which had been made comfortable by their fathers and grandfathers, by generations of grabbers and money-grubbers. This cult of the double-size bed, cheap pictures in cherry frames, tapestries, chandeliers. This cult of the kitchen, where "salt", "pepper", and "coffee" are carefully written on white porcelain containers. These suburban dachas with concrete paths, with apple trees in blossom, with baths in the garden, with birds and bunnies.

Having robbed all of Europe, they lived well. They were satisfied while the war was enriching them. They lived in the intoxicating fumes and drug stupor of victories. They called themselves a nation of soldiers. Each apartment has an honored spot where you will see two large photographs. In one of them is the head of the family with his future wife in a wedding gown; in the other, the head of the family is in a soldier's uniform--the Kaiser's, the Reich's, or an S.S. uniform. Photos of parades, inspections, and training exercises are hung in gilded frames. The head of the family is necessarily present in all of them.

They lighted the fires of war. Now, war is burning them--their land, their cities, their dachas and apartments. They have hung out diapers, white sheets, and napkins: We surrender!

The ordinary Berliner--philistine, shopkeeper, worker--really doesn't want the war any more. The war is lost, Hitler's army is crushed, the Russians are in Berlin.

An agitated German woman came running up to our powerful sound station on the front line. She heard a Soviet major addressing German soldiers with a demand that they end their pointless resistance. She shouts out, "Let me speak. I want to talk to them." They give her permission, and she passionately, excitedly shouts into the microphone:

"Soldiers! If my husband or brother can hear me, he should stop fighting immediately. It's not true that the Russians are killing peaceful residents. I'm a German, and I'm telling you this."

We spoke with her and tens of other Berliners. What do they want? To live. To live. Simply, to live. Let there be a quick end to the horror and let order and peace return.

Soviet shells and Anglo-American bombs have filled the air with ozone. Perhaps it's happening slowly, but the intoxication of Hitler is already beginning to dissipate. Bitterness, disappointment, the shame of defeat, hatred for Hitler, who vilely deceived them, and fear for their own lives, for their future--this is what the average German is feeling now.

"Deception! Deception! So many years of deception!" bitterly says old man Emil Mueller, driver of a Berlin omnibus.

Now they curse Hitler. The curse him loudly, fiercely, and in every manner possible. They're not bothered by the nearness of the front line. The battle for Berlin is not yet over; Hitler's soldiers are still bitterly fighting on; they launch counterattacks, sometimes winning back individual buildings. But Emil Mueller and thousands of others already know that, all the same, it's kaput, the end of Hitlerism. They openly curse Hitler and willingly give us their names.

It would be incorrect to imagine all Germans as something united and identical. There is no unity. Some are still resisting, others are raising white flags. Some give themselves up as prisoners, others put on civilian clothes and shoot at us from around a corner. Our major was just killed on the street by a bullet in the back. Who fired the shot? A German. A fascist. But then here comes an old man toward us, raising a clenched fist above his head. His name is Karl Wentsel, and he was just freed from a prison where he was serving a sentence for an attempt to "overthrow the Nazi regime". He shows us his documents. And he, too, is a German.

We are approached by the 16-year-old Harry Hicks.

"I hate Hitler," he says, his eyes flashing. "He destroyed Germany".

This boy is also a German. But other boys, using an underground telephone, inform some of Hitler's officers about the location of our command post. Everything is all mixed up in the German people, in the consciousness and soul of each German. He is shaken, crushed, frightened, agitated. He understands that Hitler's Germany has ended and that a new type of existence is beginning. He wants to know exactly what type of existence. And more than anything, he wants the shooting in Berlin to end quickly and for the victors to issue their orders, informing him of how things will be.

Elza Hogard told us:

"The German is made of flesh, bone, and discipline. The German loves orders."

When the first Soviet military commandants appeared in the conquered regions of Berlin, and the first bright-green declarations of the commandant appeared on the walls and were distributed as leaflets, all of underground Berlin crawled out onto the streets; great crowds of Germans thronged around the declarations. They were shoving one another. They read them and reread them. They told their neighbors about them, discussed them, and again they read:

In connection with the lying assertions of Hitler's propaganda claiming that the Red Army has the extermination of the entire German people as its goal, we clarify: the Red Army has not given itself the task of the destruction or enslavement of the German people. We do not have--and could not have--such idiotic goals...."

They read this with satisfaction.

"We order the population to support the established authority and to unquestioningly obey all instructions from the authorities."

These orders and leaflets had a great calming effect. Order has been established. Now the Germans gather all day long in the commandant's office. They come here for information; they ask what's permitted and what's forbidden. Can they lock their doors? Move from the basements to the upper floors? Engage in buying and selling? They show the commandant various forms, passports, and documents.

Doctors come from the hospital. Stores and bakeries are opening.

The Berlin Germans now know that war criminals will be tried. The Berlin Germans know that Germany must answer for the destruction brought by the fascist military to our country. They know that there will be order. On the streets they see the commandant's patrols with red bands on their sleeves--power; sentries stand guard outside businesses--order; soldiers, tanks and cannon move along the streets--strength. They know that Berlin is encircled, that Szczecin has fallen, and that the English, American, and Russians are on the Elbe. They know also that the outcome of the battle has been decided. Yes, the outcome of the battle has been decided! True, in the center of the city there is fierce and bitter resistance by S.S. cutthroats, Nazi criminals who have nothing more to lose, and the exalted women's battalion of Goebbels. But their hours are numbered. The storming of Hitler's citadel of obscurantism and piracy is nearing its end.

April 1945.

Translated by: Eric Konkol


For more war reporting, visit:
Soviet Writers at War!

Return to:

Address all correspondence to:

© 2012 All rights reserved.