There is no end in sight to the British preoccupation with the Second World War. It is still the stuff of successful novels and films - Fatherland, Charlotte Gray, Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Atonement. Documentaries about the Hitler years are a staple part of television schedules. Commentators are quick to attribute this to the nostalgic British thirst for replays of our finest hour, and it may well be that the endless presentation of the conflict as a heroic triumph (though justified) obscures the extent to which it was also a bitter catastrophe. But perhaps we don't need these psycho-social explanations: on the most immediate level, the war is an infallibly gripping story - it would be surprising if we weren't hooked by such incredible and appalling events.
In any case, we often do not know as much as we think we do. Details of the four-year struggle on Germany's eastern front, for instance - a war of almost limitless atrocity - were effectively buried by the victorious Soviet empire. It is taking a new generation of historians to fill in the gaps. Antony Beevor's award- winning book Stalingrad dug out human drama from the once inaccessible archive and wove it into a riveting tale of awesome brutality. Now, in Berlin (he is a connoisseur of doomed cities), Beevor offers us an equally dreadful picture of the European war's savage last gasp. Even composed readers might find themselves turning the pages with open mouths. It is like watching two huge monsters grappling in the snow. The sadistic excesses of Nazi Germany in its conquered lands is well known; but it was matched by the much less well documented and equally unspeakable Soviet war machine. "There will be no pity," said the slogan. There was none. Nor is there any way to overstate the agonies visited on the stricken civilians - in Poland and East Prussia - who were trapped in the totalitarian mincer. Of the 2.2 million people in East Prussia when war broke out, just 193,000 were alive when it finally ended.
It says much for the barrage of incident in Beevor's account that he can save this ferocious fact for the penultimate page. By then, we are numb and unsurprised, having been led through a landscape gruesomely spattered with violence, despair and (on the diplomatic level) deceit. Stalin's indifference to suffering (he shared with Hitler a belief that a wanton disdain for other people's lives was a mark of true greatness) allowed him to outwit an aged Roosevelt and a drained Churchill. He was determined that the Red Army should be the one to "liberate" Berlin, partly as a matter of sheer vengeance (his men deserved the chance to get their own back); partly to secure his postwar empire; but also, and not least, because the city contained two priceless pieces of loot: the Reich's fabled gold reserve (which was a chimera) and the advanced nuclear programme and uranium supply in Potsdam. Right up until Berlin was attacked, Stalin continued to insist (in what Beevor calls "the greatest April Fool in modern history") that he had no plans to seize it.
The Red Army went about things in its own unbelievably depraved way: raping the women of Poland and Germany (young, old, nuns, orphans - none was safe); tearing watches, jewels and anything else of value from the land they overran; destroying and burning everything they could not pocket. Rarely has a defeated people been so epically abused. Beevor recites his case histories with coolness and a sober lack of sentiment, exploring the systematic rape of German women, in particular, with shocking candour. Two million of them were gang-raped by furious, lice-ridden and drunk Soviet troops (in a sombre oversight, the retreating Germans deliberately left a large supply of alcohol, hoping it might diminish the fighting strength of the invaders). Some Russians would later joke that they had left two million Russian children behind them in Germany. It was partly symbolic, partly a celebratory act; but mainly it was a function of the brutalising misery the soldiers themselves had suffered. The eastern front claimed nine million Soviet lives, and the soldiers knew that if they took a step back they would be shot as deserters. The army bearing down on Berlin was driven by savage and historic hatred. Sensitivity, scruple, restraint - these were as rare as clean water. Most of all, the Russians were enraged by the orderliness and plenty they found in Germany. It was luxury beyond their ken. They could not comprehend why such prosperous people had bothered to provoke all this misery in the first place.
Beevor slides with nimble clarity between descriptions of the farcical commotions in Hitler's senile inner court and accounts of the political manoeuvres in the allied high command (Churchill wanted to "shake hands with the Russians" as far east as possible; Roosevelt was happy to let the commies do the hard work, and refused to let postwar considerations influence military tactics). If Beevor's narration of events in the field is confusing, it is no more so than the events themselves. The Soviet advance was as clumsy as it was unstoppable; the German retreat was as resolute as it was rudderless. As the end approached, the Nazis, knowing that surrender meant death, even sent anti-tank bicycles against the armoured advance.
Eventually, the Red Army drove near enough to toss 1.8 million shells into Berlin. Beevor is at his best when narrating the nonplussed reactions of the complacent and astonished citizens. They had been urged to dread "Ivan" but were utterly unprepared for the ferocity with which he descended. There is a shocking moment when a soldier addresses a crowded train. "We have to win this war," he shouts. "We must not lose our courage. If others win, and do to us only a fraction of what we have done in the occupied territories, there won't be a single German left." It is a piercing glimpse into the dark horror that was about to crash upon them.
It is probably true that Germany reaped no more than it sowed; but, as always, the people who reaped were not the ones who had done the sowing. The guilty men were busy fixing their own escape, or assassinating their children (like Goebbels) before crunching on cyanide pills. Optimists were learning English; pessimists tried to pick up Russian; and the powers-that-were collapsed in a frenzy of killing. In obedience to Hitler's own morbid desire for a Wagnerian climax, they executed deserters and prisoners, and threw weaponless children and old men into the path of the tanks. At the eleventh hour, they confiscated all white handkerchiefs, in case anybody waved one. To delay the Russian advance, the SS flooded Berlin's U-Bahn tunnels, killing the Berliners huddled there for shelter. And the rapes . . . One woman pleads with the soldiers to pause so she can feed her baby; another begs an officer to restrain his men, but he merely beats her and joins in. It goes on and on. It was and is an obscene story, scarcely believable even when you know it to be true, and it is a genuinely frightening portrait of the bestial depths to which life can and did sink.
Beevor has done it more than justice. He wisely does not attempt to compete with his dreadful raw material, so his book is a powerful anthology of anguished utterances. Anyone who thinks they have had a bellyful of war stories had better think again. Don't mention the war? Don't ever forget it, more like.
Robert Winder writes monthly for the NS books pages