Giles Milton’s Spectacular ‘Checkmate In Berlin’

“During those days he stood still for such disastrous fatuities as Franklin Roosevelt’s impetuous call for unconditional surrender, a rhetorical fillip which in the analysis of some military experts may have cost us the unnecessary death of several hundred thousand men, and which was most certainly responsible for the supine condition of much of Europe at the moment when Stalin’s legions took the nations over.” Those are the words of William F. Buckley in his obituary of Winston Churchill. Though Buckley was clear that “Churchill will be written about” for “as long as heroes are written about,” he wasn’t afraid to point out the very real warts of someone all-too-many view as blemish free.

Buckley’s remembrance of Churchill (I read it in James Rosen’s very excellent 2017 compilation of Buckley obituaries, A Torch Kept Lit, review here) came to mind over and over again while reading Giles Milton’s fascinating 2021 history of the post-WWII shaping of Berlin, Checkmate In Berlin: The Cold War Showdown That Shaped the Modern World. While truly unputdownable, Milton’s book is unrelentingly sad. There’s one horrid story after another about Germany’s most prominent city in the years after the war. Churchill kept coming to mind given the directive issued by higher ups in the Soviet Union’s Red Army that “On German soil there is only one master – the Soviet solder, he is both the judge and the punisher for the torments of his fathers and mothers.” And the Soviets did a lot of punishing that staggers the mind with its cruelty. It seems they couldn’t have done all the damage they did had Europe and Germany not been so wrecked based on the desires of Roosevelt and Churchill.  

While Germany was to be divided up into “three zones of occupation, one each for the victorious allies,” the tragic historical truth is that the Soviets arrived first to do the dividing, and without any supervision. Milton writes that the commands from top Soviet leaders were unambiguous: “Take everything from the Western sector of Berlin. Do you understand? Everything! If you can’t take it, destroy it. But don’t leave anything to the Allies. No machinery, not a bed to sleep on, not even a pot to pee in!” And so the looting began. Mirrors, refrigerators, washing-machines, radio sets, bookcases, art, you name it. What couldn’t be taken was “riddled with bullets.” Marshal Georgy Zhukov sent 83 crates of furniture and other items to his apartment in Moscow and his dacha outside the city. Good people, those Russians.

About what took place, it’s useful to stop here in order to address the sickening, vicious myth that won’t die about war being economically stimulative. To believe just about every economist in existence, absent the government spending that funded the U.S. war effort in the 1940s, recovery from the Great Depression wouldn’t have happened. Economists wear their ignorance in flamboyant, leisure-suit fashion. The simple truth is that government spending is what happens after economic growth, not before. In other words, a growing U.S. economy funded the war effort as opposed to killing, maiming and wealth destruction expanding growth.

Looked at through the prism of Germany, war is the destruction of that which economic growth builds. Worse, war is the destruction of the very human capital without which there is no growth.

To which some conservative pundits (Yuval Levin and Edward Conard come to mind) claim that the world’s supine condition after the fighting of the 1940s left the U.S. the lone economic force in the world, and thus set to boom. They don’t elevate themselves with this 100% false supposition. They forget that productivity is about labor divided, yet by 1945 (per their own analysis) much of the world was too destroyed for Americans to divide work with. And then there’s that thing about “markets.” If you were opening a business in the U.S., would you prefer to be near the consumers of Dallas, TX or Detroit, MI? The question answers itself. War is the definition of economic decline, after which the individuals who comprise what we call an economy are not improved by the impoverishment of others.

Notable is that this horrid outcome that made a bad situation in Germany worse had been engineered months before (in February of 1945) at Yalta, where Franklin D. Roosevelt, Churchill, and Joseph Stalin had gathered to “plan the peace.” The problem was that FDR was very sick. He’d been diagnosed with acute congestive heart failure, and at times was so worn out that Stalin and aides would meet with him while the U.S. president was bed-ridden. In Milton’s words, “Yalta was to be his epitaph.” Would he have been more firm had he been in better condition?

As for Churchill, he seemingly wasn’t the Churchill of old. Whatever one thinks of the most famous British statesmen, he was seemingly unique (in what biographer William Manchester described as his “Alone” period) when it came to seeing the danger of Adolf Hitler’s rise. With Stalin, however, Churchill wasn’t as perceptive. Worse, he seemed to venerate the murderous Soviet leader. Tributing Stalin at Yalta, Churchill gushed that “we regard Marshal Stalin’s life as most precious to the hopes and hearts of us all. There have been many conquerors in history, but few of them have been statesmen, and most of them threw away the fruits of victory in the troubles which followed their wars.” 

The main thing is that Yalta gave the Soviets “first among equals” license to take control in Germany. What followed was yet again horrifying in its cruelty. All of which calls for a digression, or acknowledgement. Your reviewer’s knowledge of World War II is very limited. While aware that the Soviets lost somewhere on the order 20 million in successfully beating the Germans, there’s no pretense when it comes to analyzing Soviet General Alexander Gorbatov’s disdainful treatment of U.S. General Omar Bradley, and Gorbatov “’practically claiming for Russia credit for winning the war singlehanded.’” Right or wrong, in post-war Germany Gorbatov “informed the American troops that ‘the Russians broke the back of the German army at Stalingrad,’ and added that the Red Army ‘would have gone on to victory, with or without American aid.’” In other words, the Soviets had won the war; at least the one in the European theater. True? Again, there’s no pretense of knowledge here to make a statement either way.

Whatever the answer, the Red Army that was massed in Berlin and in Germany more broadly certainly felt that it had won the war, and acted as though it had. Though the Allies were together handling what Churchill described as the “immense task of the organisation of the world,” the Soviets viewed themselves as the chief organizers. A lot of innocent people would suffer this conceit in sickening ways. The excuse for what ensued was that the Germans had similarly treated those they conquered in brutal fashion. War is a sick business, which is hardly an insight.

Here’s how British Lieutenant Colonel Harold Hays described German city Aachen upon arrival in 1945. “We caught our breath in chilled astonishment.” Though Hays “had lived through the London blitz,” and as such knew the destructive ability of the once formidable German Luftwaffe, he went on to say that “all conceptions of the power of aerial bombardment were scattered to the winds as we threaded our way tortuously through the heaps of rubble that once represented the city of Aachen.” Put another way, Germany was destroyed. As Soviet partisan Wolfgang Leonhard described it, the situation outside of Berlin “was like a picture of hell – flaming ruins and starving people shambling about in tattered clothing, dazed German soldiers who seemed to have lost all idea of what was going on.” Readers get the picture? The insight-free speculation here is that none of us have any idea. It’s nauseating to even attempt to contemplate what the people of the WWII era endured.

It’s theoretically easy in retrospect to say that per Buckley, FDR, Churchill et al overdid it in demanding unconditional surrender. No doubt this pursuit wrecked countries and exterminated lives (Allies, Axis, and innocent civilians) far more than the acceptance of something less would have, but accepting something less than full surrender is probably difficult to do in the midst of war.

Whatever the answer, this doesn’t excuse FDR and Churchill’s treatment of the Soviet Union as an ally, and also friend. Even at the time, not all were of the same mind. Colonel Frank “Howlin’ Mad” Howley was ultimately the Commandant of the American sector of Berlin, and he was a skeptic from the beginning. As he so cleverly articulated it, “Here in Berlin we have married the girl before we have courted her. It’s like one of those old-fashioned marriages when the bride and groom practically met each other in bed.” Only to find out the differences extended well beyond language. Once entered into the proverbial marital bed, Howley discovered somewhat uniquely that the Soviets were “liars, swindlers, and cut-throats.” What made this worse was that much to the regret of Howley, American policy was “appeasement of the Russians at any price.” Deputy director of the British military government in Berlin Brigadier Robert “Looney” Hinde described the Russians as a “wholly different people, with a wholly different outlook, traditions, history, and standards, and at a wholly different level of civlisation.” Readers of this remarkable book will quickly see how right both Howley and Hinde were.

Of course, beyond differences it quickly became apparent to Howley who the enemy was. Though he’d “come to Berlin with the idea that the Germans were the enemies,” it “was becoming more evident by the day that it was the Russians who were our enemies.” Why was Howley seemingly alone? One argument could be that to know one’s enemy is to have the ability to think like the enemy. Again, hardly an insight; instead, just an attempt to understand a time in history that was so tragic on so many levels. Howley seemed to share the previous attempt at insight, or understanding? As he saw it, an ability to understand the serpentine nature of the Russians was “beyond the power of any Westerner.”

George Kennan (the “containment” Kennan) agreed with Howley. He was of the view that Stalin had rolled over Churchill and Roosevelt, and had subsequently rolled over Clement Atlee and Harry Truman with his “brilliant, terrifying tactical mastery.” In Milton’s words, as reports from the Potsdam Conference (July of 1945, several months after Yalta) “flooded into Kennan’s in-tray at the embassy on Mokhovaya Street, he was shocked by what he read. Truman, Churchill, and Atlee had been comprehensively outsmarted on every issue.” Kennan wrote of how “I cannot recall any political document the reading of which filled me with a greater sense of depression than the communique to which President Truman set his name at the conclusion of these confused and unreal discussions.” The victims were the German people.

To which some will be excused for saying there was and is no pitying the Germans. Fair enough, in a sense. There are obviously no words to describe the evil that German troops brought to the world. Still, it’s hard not to wonder. Governments start wars. Politicians start wars. Thinking about Ukraine and Russia right now, it’s a statement of the obvious that the typical Russian is suffering mightily now too despite it being the Ukrainians who are the victims of an actual invasion.

At the very least, it’s worth mentioning Milton’s assertion that “Few Berliners were ardent Nazis.” Empirical data support this claim. Milton writes that “in the city elections of 1933, held two months after Hitler became chancellor, the Nazis had won little more than a third of the vote.” In the post-war elections in Berlin that the Soviets spent enormous sums on (propaganda, food, notebooks for kids) with an eye on a sweep for the communist-supported parties, Milton reports that the Berliners gave their alleged benefactors 19.8% of the vote. Something to think about, at least? Again, a lot of questions here from your reviewer who professes little knowledge of the intricacies of this tragic war, or what happened after. Milton’s book was ordered precisely because knowledge of the war and what followed is so slim. Based on greatly limited knowledge, it’s quite simply hard to read Checkmate In Berlin without feeling major sympathy for the German people, and the misery they endured. The tragic anecdotes are endless, and they arguably explain why the communists never won the hearts and minds of the people inside a city in ruins.

Since the Red Army troops were told to take revenge, readers are treated to the horrifying number of 90,000. That’s how many German women “would seek medical assistance as a consequence of rape,” but as Milton goes on to write, the “actual number of assaults was certainly far higher.” Which makes sense. No one needs to be told why many would be too embarrassed or ashamed or traumatized to report this kind violation. Among other Red Army justifications for their treatment of the Germans was that “Victors are not to be judged.” Shameful. On so many levels. Who would do this?

Worse is how it was done. Milton writes of 9-year old German boy Manfred Knopf who watched “in terror as his mother was raped by Red Army soldiers.” What kind of sick person or persons would do this? Or how about 8-year old German boy Hermann Hoecke. Two uniformed Russians knocked on his family’s door only to ask to see Hermann’s father. They left with him. Hoecke recalled that “I waved to father, but he never looked back.” Really, who would do this to an 8-year old? And this is but one story. Knocks on doors from NKVD thugs were the norm, and “Few of those arrested ever returned to tell their story.” All of which makes this book so hard to lay down, but also so hard to read. The stories of brutality and suffering are endless, and no doubt anyone with greater knowledge of WWII will say the stories are tame relative to the brutality experienced by others.

While the above is true, it in no way made the stories from Berlin simple to get through. Milton writes of Berliner Friedrich Luft who “had survived in his cellar by sucking water out of the radiators.” Six out of ten newborns were dying of dysentery. As for those who survived the latter, Berlin had no toilet paper. Berlin also lacked “cats, dogs, or birds, for all had been eaten by starving Berliners.” The daughters of Hinde recalled that upon arrival in Berlin for a visit with their parents, “We couldn’t swim in the river because it was still full of bodies.” Dwight Eisenhower’s deputy Lucius Clay described Berlin as “a city of the dead.”

The desperate condition of the Germans and their subsequent treatment by the Soviets perhaps helps explain why the aforementioned nine-year old Manfred Knopf described American troops as “movie stars compared to Russian soldiers; the way they were dressed, in the way they behaved themselves, [they were] like gentlemen.” More on the deportment of the Americans and British in a bit, but for now how could American and British leaders have been so easily duped? Particularly American leaders leading the country most erect in carriage as this horrid war ended? Did they all lack even a basic sense of the Russian mind, such that they wouldn’t give Stalin everything he wanted at Potsdam, particularly given the “catastrophic state of the newly liberated countries of Western Europe”? Why was Howley seemingly the only American in power to see what was happening? While it’s heartening to read about the arrival of Americans and British as saviors of sorts, it’s depressing to read that their leaders left the murderous Soviets to their own devices for nearly two months.

Just the same, Americans weren’t exactly angels. While much of Berlin was a smoldering ruins, U.S. military officials (and in fairness, British, French and Soviet military officials) routinely “turfed” the owners of the few fanciest apartments and houses still in livable condition so that they could live in comfort in a city full of starving people. Milton reports that Howley’s wife had no less than twelve servants in concert with every food imaginable. Was Howley alone? No chance. Russian generals were notorious for putting on lavish dinners with endless food and vodka, so did their British counterparts, and so did the Americans. Milton cites the sad recollection of an American woman named Lelah Berry, who recalled that the “’sick dog of one of my American friends was put on a milk-sugar-white-bread diet by the veterinarian and eats every day as much sugar as a German child’s entire Christmas bonus.” Call it a lesson. Or one of life’s unrelenting truisms: No matter the utter destitution of their subjects, politicians and those close to politicians will always eat, and eat well. It seems their dogs will too.

American troops similarly used the voluminous sandwiches, cigarettes, nylons and everything else of value (and that they had in abundant supply) to woo starving German women. Readers can fill in the blanks here. It’s a subject that requires greater discussion, and will be written about in the future. For now, though there was thankfully only one documented case of an American soldier committing rape, it’s apparent their ability to feed others who were always near death from a lack of calories was abused. Of the valuable art that could be found in Berlin, Americans were found to have trafficked it globally.

Still, so much of what happened in the past can be taken out of context for reasons of time alone. After that, war and its endless horrors should allow for a little or a lot of allowance for human frailty. Americans were ultimately the good guys in this story. As we know from what became of Eastern Germany, along with all the other countries within Soviet clutches behind the Iron Curtain, communism was a life-sapping, murderous disaster. Thank goodness for the United States.

Of the Germans who perhaps doubted the above, they soon didn’t. With the Red Army encircling Berlin, on June 24, 1948 the Soviets pursued “conquest by starvation” whereby they “tried to murder an entire city to gain political advantage.” The problem for the Soviets was that they couldn’t control the skies. Worse for them, they didn’t factor in the indomitable and innovative spirt of men like Lucius Clay (U.S.), Rex Waite (Great Britain), and Gen. William “Tonnage” Tunner (U.S.) who would achieve what many deemed an “impossible” task of airlifting in sufficient supplies to a city that was rapidly running out of everything.And it wasn’t just food. It was clothes, fuel, everything. When asked if U.S. Air Force planes could transport coal, General Curtis LeMay replied that “The Air Force can deliver anything.”

All of which raises a basic question about planning in general. Without minimizing the herculean achievement of airlifting so much so fast into Berlin, it’s worth pointing out that post-war Berlin reconstruction, control or mere protection was always defined by central plans, of state-run “agencies for food, the economy, and communications.” Milton doesn’t talk markets much in the book (though he does spend some time on increasingly vibrant black markets, including those for all the goods brought to Berlin by the Americans and British), but it would be interesting to ask a trustworthy analyst if Germany’s recovery was delayed by the very efforts extended to aid it. We know the Marshall Plan didn’t revive Germany, simply because it had no parallel effect in England, not to mention that Japan didn’t have one at all. Freedom is the path to economic revival, thus raising the question if the planning of post-war Europe was the problem. The guess here is that it was.

Regardless of what was or wasn’t done, Milton’s history is not meant to be economic as much as it aims to inform readers about what happened not terribly long ago. His history is once again fascinating, but it’s also horrifying. How do we explain why humans can be so cruel to other humans? A read of this brilliant book will cause its readers to contemplate the previous question, and many more for a long time.

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