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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

May 2nd, 1945: Berlin, hour zero

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75 years ago, in the final stages of World War II in Europe, the German city where I was born fell to the Russians: having been encircled by the Red Army since April 21st, Berlin finally capitulated on May 2nd, 1945. The last defenders were not only Germans, but also foreign Waffen-SS volunteers, mostly from Scandinavia, France and the Baltic States. One of the two French holders of the Knight’s Cross, a high German military award, got killed in action on the very last day. There’s also a picture of a Swede in a German uniform, who died the same day trying to escape Berlin in an armored vehicle. Facing imprisonment or even death in their countries of origin for being at the end on the losing side, many of these foreign fighters preferred to die in the last ditch.

As a result of fierce combat, around 180,000 soldiers and 20,000 civilians perished. In the aftermath of the battle, at least 100,000 women were raped by the victors in the devastated capital. Looting was widespread and watches were in high demand, as many members of the Red Army had never seen one. The city was divided into four sectors, including a French one! German military presence was banned for decades, but the Russians soon didn’t care about that policy in their sector. Theoretically, Berliners could be shot on spot if they didn’t carry identification papers…

If you nowadays see pictures taken during 1945, it’s almost a miracle that the metropolis recovered the way it did. Of course, the effects of regular British-American bombing raids, intense street-fighting during the siege, the sudden partition in two halves by the Berlin Wall for 28 years, brutal post-war “urban renewal” both in the East and West, known in German as “Kahlschlagsanierung”, and random demolitions for ideological reasons will always be visible. Nevertheless, the old and new capital is definitely worth a visit. The reconstructed Museum Island is just amazing! For me though, it’s not a place to live!

I’ve always had a very ambiguous relationship with Germany and Berlin in particular, because I left with my parents for Spain as a toddler. The war was very present though, even in Valencia, as my father had been born in 1920. Once in a while, Spaniards of his age would tell him that they had fought in the Blue Division on the Eastern Front. It consisted mostly of Spanish volunteers, and the name derives from the color of the shirts that many members of the Falange, a Fascist-leaning political party, wore under their uniforms in Russia. After returning home, some of them were issued licenses to run government-owned tobacco shops that also had a monopoly on the sale of postage stamps.

A square near the street where my father bought a flat in 1963, located in front of the Valencia harbor, was named after that infantry division for a long time. Besides that, the building where I ended up living for 17 years had replaced older houses destroyed during the Spanish Civil War by the Italians, which together with the Germans supported General Francisco Franco during the conflict. Being the provisional site of the Republican government that had fled Madrid from November 1936 to October 1937, Valencia was often raided. I actually heard another version, in which the Legion Condor, a unit of the German air force also operating in Spain at the time, was in fact responsible for the partial destruction of the neighborhood where I grew up.

My family ended up in Southern Europe for reasons directly related to World War II, though not because my father was a war criminal who wanted to escape prosecution. Not at all! Drafted into the Wehrmacht at the age of 19 in August 1939, he continuously served as wireless operator in Poland, France, Yugoslavia and Russia. He thought that to be a relatively safe duty, but it was hard work as back then the equipment weighted about 20 kilos. He became disabled in 1942 after contracting the polio as an adult, spent two years in a military hospital after being misdiagnosed, and was released in 1944 as a “cripple”, as my mother sometimes called him when she wasn’t in the mood to assist her husband.

My father afterwards couldn’t do any physical work, and the family’s farm in Brandenburg suddenly was located in what became the Soviet occupation zone in post-war Germany. Luckily, from 1948 on he received a little governmental pension. The disease he had contracted during active duty was considered to be equivalent to a serious war injury. Therefore, he took the decision to make a living from languages and later worked as interpreter, translator and teacher. In the 1950s he improved his French in Paris, learned English in London and Spanish in Madrid. He also spent half a year teaching German in Stockholm. When he became senile, once a week he would regret that he hadn’t learned that language also…

After the Berlin Wall came down, it was shocking to see how a chance to nicely fill the “death strip”, the barren land that had divided the two parts of the city, was wasted by constructing mostly ugly, boring and soulless buildings. The 21st architecture around the parliament is even worse, as it all looks the same, and there are even houses with no windows on two sides! Therefore, the vast destruction left behind 75 years ago will always be visible in a way. Just like those emotional scars that will never heal…

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