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Berlin Turns Red

By 10:40 p.m. on Monday, April 30, 1945, the Soviet flag was flying over the Reichstag, sending a powerful message that the Soviets, and they alone, had captured Berlin. If the Americans and British were going to enter the city, it would be on terms set by Joseph Stalin.

By
Giles Milton
5-minute read
Episode #93

This episode deals with sexual assault. The descriptions of historic events may be triggering for some readers or listeners.

Soviet forces advanced with lightning speed since launching their offensive against Berlin in the third week of April. Two huge army groups were converging on the city from the south and east, while a third was wheeling in from the north.

On Friday, April 20, 1945, Hitler’s 56th birthday, Marshal Zhukov’s one-and-a-half-million-strong army had begun shelling the city center from its positions in the northern suburbs, while Marshal Ivan Konev’s forces were approaching the city’s southern outskirts. The Red Army had soon encircled the German forces that remained in the city, trapping the beleaguered defenders.

When the Russians finally arrived in the city center around April 28, they terrified the civilians who were cowering in their cellars. The door to the cellar in which the Schneider family was hiding was kicked open by a booted foot and, said young Helga Schneider, “We found ourselves face to face with six Russian soldiers, all aiming submachine guns at us.” Two of them had shaven heads, three wore fur caps, and one had black curly hair and a beard that came down over his chest. The soldier with the beard asked peremptorily: “Here soldaty germanskie?”

No one responded; they were too terrified.

Soldaty germanskie?” the soldier repeated, this time with real menace in his voice.

Young Helga’s step-grandfather managed to stammer a reply: “No soldiers here.”

The Soviet infantryman looked furious. He spat out his response. “You lie! If soldaty germanskie here, you kaput!”

'War kaput!' screamed one of them. 'Hitler kaput!' He demanded the watches of everyone in the room. 'You give urri or you kaput!'

The six soldiers pointed their submachine guns at the assembled group. “War kaput!” screamed one of them. “Hitler kaput!” He demanded the watches of everyone in the room. “You give urri or you kaput!”

Everyone handed over their watches, and then the soldiers left.

But shortly afterward, two very different Soviet soldiers burst into the cellar. Drunk and heavily armed, they snarled at the terrified occupants before turning to the two teenage girls, sixteen-year-old Gudrun and fourteen-year-old Erika. “You, Fräulein! You gut! You come with me!”

Gudrun’s mother protested and was kicked in the stomach. Erika’s mother begged to take her daughter’s place and was beaten unconscious.

Young Helga Schneider buried her face in a jacket and opened her eyes only when it was all over and the soldiers had left. Gudrun was carried to a camp bed. “She was trembling, her teeth were chattering, and her eyes were wide and staring.” Erika, feeble from acute tuberculosis, was in an even worse state. She had begun to hemorrhage, and no one was able to stanch the flow of blood. “She gripped her mother’s hand and kissed it. But the kiss stiffened and she died biting her mother’s fingers.”

Even closer to the city center, at the Elisabeth Hospital on Lutzowstrasse, nurse Kaethe Eckstein glanced out the window and saw the muzzle flares of approaching Russian artillery. “There were fearful screams from the rear wing of the hospital. I heard shots and hand grenades going off. I rushed out into the corridor.” The sight was one she would never forget: “Wounded men with their bandages falling from them were dragging themselves along the corridors and crawling on all fours up the stairs, shouting, ‘The Russians are here.’”

Eckstein and her fellow nurses, all nuns, had nowhere to hide. “Most were on their knees praying. Others were running about in terror.” There was to be no escape from the sexual violence now unleashed upon them. “Everywhere there were Russians dragging away nurses or female patients, pulling off their clothes, pouring whisky over them, shooting at the wall.”

Nurse Eckstein managed to escape and hide in the cellar of an adjacent building. When she eventually emerged, the hospital was a smoldering ruin, with iron-framed beds poking through the rubble. “And lying upon them, horribly charred, were the burned bodies of human beings.” Shells had scored a direct hit on the building, setting fire to everything inside. “By the buckles, pistols, and the charred remains of boots, we could tell that the Russians in their madness had been burned to death with the women they had raped."

Soviet generals wanted the red banner of victory raised over the Reichstag, aware that such an image would send a powerful message to the world.

Much of Berlin was in Soviet hands by that last day in April, but the Reichstag itself was still held by enemy troops. This was the greatest prize for every Soviet soldier because it was seen as an emblem of Nazism, even though it had scarcely been used during the twelve years of the Third Reich. Soviet generals wanted the red banner of victory raised over the building, aware that such an image would send a powerful message to the world. The timing of the Reichstag’s capture was also on their minds.

The following morning would be May Day, the Soviet national holiday. To seize the building on such a day would be irresistibly symbolic.

Among those in the vanguard of the attack on the Reichstag was a platoon of war-toughened warriors who included two particularly skilled fighters, Sergeant Zagitov, and Sergeant Mikhail Minin. They had fought together for two years, and they had also vowed to die together. Twenty-three-year-old Minin was particularly turbocharged, a thick-jawed heavyweight who had fought his way from Leningrad to Berlin. Now, he was to lead a desperate charge on the Reichstag.

Dodging intense gunfire, he and Zagitov dived for cover, caught their breath, then made a second dash toward the Reichstag entrance, leaping up the wide granite steps that led to the main doors. It was 10:10 p.m. They were close to their goal.

Their little platoon secured the atrium and then began a fighting advance to the upper floors, with Sergeant Minin in the vanguard. “We threw hand grenades into all the corridors opening onto the stairs and raked everything with machine gun fire.” When they reached the top of the building, they found an attic with a trapdoor. Zagitov shone his torch upward and saw a cargo winch with two massive chains hanging down from the roof. “The links of the giant chain were so big that they could be used as footholds. One by one we started climbing up.” Sergeant Zagitov led the way, with Minin close behind. The latter was clutching the large red flag he had been given by his senior commander.

In the light of an exploding shell, they saw the Goddess of Victory sculpture they had used as a landmark earlier that day.

A few more steps and they reached the dormer window that opened onto the roof. In the light of an exploding shell, they saw the Goddess of Victory sculpture they had used as a landmark earlier that day.

Minin said they should hang their red flag from the sculpture. He tied the flag to a long metal rod and then managed to attach it. It was 10:40 p.m. on Monday, April 30, and the Soviet flag was flying over the Reichstag.

“Comrade General,” they shouted down the wire to their commanding officer, “My lads are the first to hoist the Victory Banner on the Reichstag roof.”

Within a couple of days, the Soviet propaganda machine would flash around the world a photograph of the Red Flag flying from the Reichstag. The message was clear. The Soviets, and they alone, had captured Berlin.

If the Americans and British were going to enter the city, it would be on terms set by Joseph Stalin.

About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.