- James Houser
January 12, 1945 - The Soviet offensive from Warsaw to Berlin
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
I could have written a lot more about this, but I could say that about almost all my posts in January. This was before COVID, and before I knew I'd have hours a day to sit down and write.
January 12, 1945. Just after 4 in the morning, a shockwave of artillery fire spreads across the windswept, snowy lands of Poland. Over two million Soviet soldiers with 4,500 tanks, backed by crushing numbers of artillery and immense air power, launch themselves against the German lines. The last great lunge of World War II in the east has begun, and it will take the Russians to the gates of Berlin.
The war between the Nazis and the Soviets is less prominent in American history books than its importance deserves. It's important enough that I will come back to it several times this year! The Vistula-Oder Offensive, one of the many powerful Soviet attacks that took them from the outskirts of Moscow to Vienna and Berlin, displays more than almost any other battle how colossal the struggle truly was. Two and a quarter million men is the entirety of the modern American army multiplied by five. 4,500 tanks is twice the number of Abrams in active service. And this was a single operation. The losses, too, were staggering.
Of all the places in history to be, for pure horror and devastating brutality, the Eastern Front of World War II is my vote for the worst.
At its height, the Eastern Front between Communism and Fascism spread across a distance of over a thousand miles. Both sides led by the most brutal of dictators - Hitler and Stalin - enlisted their entire nations for total war, and the smaller nations were crushed in the middle. By January 1945, the Soviets had driven the Germans from their territory and were poised to enter Germany itself. Russia, Ukraine and their fellow lands had suffered horrifically under the Nazi occupation, and when they did reach Germany the pent-up rage and thirst for vengeance would be terrible.
Their anger was only stoked by what they found. On January 27, troops of the First Ukrainian Front discovered Auschwitz-Birkenau. Despite German attempts to destroy evidence, the Soviets found more than enough to preserve the truth about the Holocaust. Other camps, too, were liberated, but many not in time - the Nazis force-marched the prisoners deeper into German territory on grueling treks during which many died. Anne Frank's would-be boyfriend, Peter Van Daan, died on one of these.
On January 31, the Soviet spearheads stopped only 43 miles from Berlin. It would take several months to clear resisting sectors of German front, including large concentrations still holding out in major Polish cities and in East Prussia, before the final crushing lurch to Berlin could begin.
On the other side of Germany, of course, the United States was wrapping up the Battle of the Bulge. Stalin had agreed to move the timetable for the Vistula-Oder offensive up to help relieve German pressure on the Allies, hence why it started earlier than the generals wished.
For the future, though, the Vistula-Oder offensive that began on January 12 brought Poland under Soviet control. Liberated from the genocidal German rule, the Poles would find the Soviets better masters - but masters nonetheless. Poland would not be truly free from the yoke of either Nazi or Bolshevik until 1989.
Easily the best book for the Nazi-Soviet War is David M. Glantz's When Titans Clashed: How the Red Army Stopped Hitler (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995). It's a bit scholarly, to be fair, but really hits back at the notion that the Soviets relied on numbers and brute force to win the war. (One of my pet peeves.) For a better focus on the Berlin campaign, a very readable popular account is Antony Beevor's Berlin: The Downfall 1945 (London: Penguin, 2002). Warning: brutal as hell. The Eastern Front was NOT a pretty story.