At first glance, the city of Berlin bears few scars of the brutal Soviet assault it suffered in 1945. However, at certain moments during NATO’s Exercise ARRCADE BUGLE 14, a chronological journey through the siege which ended the Second World War in Europe, and through the city’s Cold War experience, the history seemed to seep out of the surroundings. Standing on Kustrin Fort and looking westward across the River Oder towards Berlin, as so many thousands of Red Army soldiers must have done with anticipation and apprehension in April 1945. Looking out from the Seelow Heights over the Oder flood plain, across which nearly a million Soviet troops advanced in the last big push of the European war. Standing on the remains of the Humboldthain flak tower in central Berlin, where crew after crew of Hitler Youth manned the guns in defence of what remained of Hitler’s Germany, in the face of certain annihilation by a ferocious Soviet artillery bombardment.
Though certainly of immense historical importance, the Battle for Berlin does not stand as a shining example of strategic brilliance from which modern leaders can learn. It is, at its simplest level, a case of the final death throes of a fanatical regime being violently suppressed by the brute force of an equally tyrannical opponent. Leadership was weak on both sides, with Hitler giving contradictory orders and awaiting salvation in the form of outmanned and outgunned armies, and Stalin playing Russian generals against one another, letting them throw tens of thousands of men into the fray as they competed to enter Berlin and capture the Reichstag building. Effectiveness at the tactical level varied wildly, but this was ultimately of little consequence when both sides were willing to accept such heavy losses.
Having grown up in the bubble of relative peace and security that is post-Cold War Europe, perhaps the most striking thing about the Berlin staff ride was how the historical conflict simultaneously felt so foreign, and yet so familiar. While the idea of total war in Europe now seems like a bad nightmare for many of us, some collective memories are longer than others, and the history of the 1940s now acts as an ideological catalyst for a war in Eastern Europe. While the presentations and discussions with NATO personnel which punctuated the tour highlighted the ways in which warfare at the tactical, operational, and even strategic levels has evolved in the last 70 years, the trip served as a poignant reminder of what can happen when grand strategies collide. Moreover, hearing the news while in Berlin that a civilian airliner had been shot down over Ukraine drove home the point that the Second World War was no more a ‘war to end all wars’ than the First.
Ultimately, the Berlin staff ride was an incredible experience, and an opportunity to study perhaps one of the most comprehensive victories ever achieved in a war of ideology and conquest. While there are few modern parallels, there are still lessons which can and should be learned from the Battle for Berlin, not the least of which is the ultimate, terrible cost of total war between industrialised, fanatical nations.