Stalin was eager to reach Berlin before the Americans and the British. To take the city, he would first have to penetrate Brandenburg itself, the German province surrounding Berlin.
Stalin hoped that the conquest of Berlin would demonstrate Soviet military might and help lever a favourable negotiating position after the war. In the event, by the spring of 1945 there was little competition for the city. US President Franklin Roosevelt, whose troops were deep in the heart of Germany, was happy to ignore Berlin so long as Nazi Germany was defeated. His main interest was keeping the Soviet Union as an ally in the war against Japan, and as a willing partner in the creation of a stable postwar world order. Roosevelt’s death on 12 April and the accession of Harry S. Truman to the presidency had little impact, and the Red Army was left to capture the city via Brandenburg.
The Seelow HeightsIn mid-April 1945, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, commander of the 1st Belorusian Front, and Ivan Konev, leading the 1st Ukrainian Front, began their offensive campaign against Berlin. Zhukov hoped to advance directly on the city, but had underestimated the obstacle formed by the Seelow Heights, 70km east of Berlin in Brandenburg.
On the morning of 16 April, the 1st Belorusian Front attacked several German positions in the Seelow Heights, but met with little success. The intensity of German defensive fire took the Soviet troops by surprise. To make matters worse, nearly 150 anti-aircraft defence searchlights placed in the Soviet front lines to blind the Germans caused disorientation among Zhukov’s own troops instead. His tanks attempted to scale the Heights but found the incline so steep that the Soviet commanders had to search for alternative routes through, frequently meeting German defensive positions in the process.
After several fruitless days of fighting, Zhukov realized he needed to change course, to go around the Heights and approach Berlin from the north. Konev, meanwhile, swung his forces round after crossing the Neisse to attack Berlin from the south.
The two Russian fronts advanced and surrounded the German Ninth Army under General Theodor Busse, which was positioned in the Spree Forest southeast of Berlin. Busse attempted to break out of the Halbe Pocket – as the encirclement became known – to the west, and join up with Wenck’s Twelfth Army with the intention of surrendering to the Americans rather than the Soviets. While a few thousand Ninth Army soldiers were successful, the rest were killed or captured.
The last days of AprilOn 20 April, Adolf Hitler’s 56th birthday, the Führer awarded medals to members of the Hitler Youth and addressed key members of the Nazi elite for the last time in Berlin. The Soviets would soon take the city, and Hitler finally gave his followers permission to try to steal through their offensive lines.
By 25 April, Soviet troops belonging to the 1st Belorusian Front and the 1st Ukrainian Front met to completely surround Berlin. With the defeat of the Ninth Army, German resistance outside Berlin was over. All that was left was for Zhukov, who had been granted the honour of delivering the coup de grâce, to enter Berlin.
Potsdam ConferenceBetween 17 July and 2 August 1945, the Potsdam Conference was held at Cecilienhof Palace in Potsdam, southwest of Berlin. It was here that the leaders of the dominant Allied victors (Britain, the USA and the Soviet Union) met to discuss the new order in Europe and Germany. The results of the conference were contained in the Potsdam Agreement.
In the summer of 1945, world history was written. To the “Big Three” – Harry S. Truman (who had become president of the USA in April), Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin – was added Clement Attlee, who had just won the British general election and would be replacing Churchill as prime minister. These men came to an agreement about the political principles that would govern Germany during its occupation: decentralization, demilitarization, denazification and democratization. The German-Polish border would be provisionally shifted westwards to the Oder-Neisse Line, but the final boundary would be decided at a later peace conference. The expulsion of German populations from Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary was to be suspended to ensure an orderly transfer.
It was also decided that each occupying power was to take reparations from its designated zone. Additional reparations would be provided to the Soviet Union from the Western sectors.
Seelow Heights Memorial Site and MuseumThe Seelow Heights Museum, built in 1972 and expanded in 1985 with a semicircular entry area, was inspired by Soviet Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s command bunker, which he established on Reitwein Heights and used as a forward command post on 15 and 16 April 1945. The permanent exhibition, presented in both English and German, provides information on the Battle of Seelow Heights, with text, pictures and sound documentation, as well as expert accounts of the events of 1945. It also shows how the battle was incorporated into East German historiography.
Parked in front of the museum are several large military vehicles and artillery pieces. Situated on the plateau above is the Kerbel Memorial, designed in 1945, together with the military cemetery. A Russian Orthodox cross, dedicated in 2003 and restored in 2013, has consciously been placed on an axis leading to the graves of the fallen Soviet soldiers. From this “Place of Rest”, visitors can take in a sweeping view of the Oder Marsh area all the way to Küstrin (Kostrzyn) and the Reitwein Heights. The panorama includes part of the historical battlefield.
Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp Memorial and MuseumThe closest concentration camp to Berlin and the first to be constructed after Himmler became chief of police, Sachsenhausen was opened in the summer of 1936 in Oranienburg. Himmler intended it to serve as a model camp.
Between 1936 and 1945, more than 200,000 people, including 20,000 women, were imprisoned here. The museum was inaugurated in 1961, after Sachsenhausen had been used by the Soviet secret police for its own nefarious purposes. The remnants of buildings and other relics of the camp are augmented by several interesting permanent exhibitions.
Cecilienhof PalaceThis vast mansion was built from 1913–17 in the style of a country manor. It was the last palace to be commissioned by the Hohenzollerns before their fall from grace at the end of World War I; Emperor William II had it built to accommodate his eldest son, Crown Prince William. From 17 July to 2 August 1945, it was used as the venue for the Potsdam Conference.
Halbe Forest CemeteryMore than 40,000 people were killed in the Battle of the Halbe Pocket at the end of April 1945. The bodies of the fallen had to be buried quickly – the first warm days of May were accelerating their decay, and the risk of disease and epidemic was high. The local Soviet occupying authority stipulated that the dead were to be interred immediately and where they lay, be it in mass graves, front gardens or shell craters. As a result, numerous provisional gravesites were cleared in the forests and along pathways, while many single graves were dug in the gardens of local villagers.
In 1951, six years after the battle, a local Protestant minister, Ernst Teichmann, initiated the gathering of bodies buried in and around Halbe into a central cemetery. The result, Halbe Forest Cemetery, is the resting place of 24,000 victims of the Battle of the Halbe Pocket, including soldiers, civilians and Soviet forced labourers. There are also a number of graves holding people killed at the German execution site in Berlin-Tegel and at the Ketschendorf internment camp.
Victims of Political Dictatorships Documentation CentreLocated in a former prison, this documentation centre records the fate of those who were persecuted for political reasons, not only in Nazi Germany but also during the subsequent Soviet occupation and in the East German GDR.
Death March MuseumThis little museum in the Below Forest commemorates the prisoners of Sachsenhausen camp who were forced to march through this area in April 1945 after Himmler ordered the evacuation of the camps. The Reichsführer-SS didn’t want any “human evidence” of the horrifying conditions to fall into the hands of the Allies as they advanced and the camps were liberated.
An estimated 33,000 prisoners were marched in columns towards the Baltic. According to the camp commander, they were destined to be loaded onto ships and sunk at sea. The marchers got as far as Schwerin before their guards deserted them and the Allies found their columns.
Top image: Cecilienhof Palace © iStock