In the last months of World War II, as Nazi Germany began to collapse, the capture of Berlin had become the ultimate political and military prize. For the Allies – Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union – it was an opportunity to take the symbolic seat of Hitler’s expansionist and genocidal regime.
But there was another goal. Although much of Germany’s advanced research and development around atomic weapons has been diverted to points outside the city at this point, many of the country’s leading scientific minds have remained in or around the capital. Harnessing their expertise could be the key to future world domination – something the Americans and Soviets were eager to capture.
Who would be the winner and at what price? As the war ended in early 1945, British and American forces began to approach Berlin from the west, while Russia approached the east. The difficult Allied partnership was becoming increasingly strained: it was not just a race for the city, as much as for the top leadership of the post-war world order to come. Two powerful nations were on the verge of becoming opposing superpowers – whose ability to “drop the great” increased the stakes for humanity.
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Eisenhower decides to give up Berlin
A year earlier, in early 1944, American General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force, had bet on the idea of capturing the German capital: “Berlin is the main prize,” he wrote to his British counterpart. , Marshal Bernard Montgomery. “There is no doubt, in my mind, that we should focus all of our energies and resources on a rapid push towards Berlin.” But at the end of 1944, the rapid progress of the USSR began to call this objective into question. In early 1945, the Red Army was barely 40 miles from Berlin. The American-British forces, repulsed by the Battle of the Bulge, had not yet crossed the Rhine.
At the end of March, even as the British and American forces were approaching, Eisenhower telegramed the first Soviet Joseph Stalin to say that Berlin was no longer the objective and that the Americans would keep the leg of the Elbe. Stalin seemed to agree – but ordered a massive Soviet offensive to capture the city on April 16, just three days later.
But by contacting Stalin directly, without first consulting the other two “big three” Allied political leaders, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Eisenhower had angered the British leader. In a series of telegrams in late March, Churchill vehemently opposed Eisenhower’s decision and urged him to continue.
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They had good reason to prevent the Soviet army from reaching Berlin first. Given Stalin’s interest in expanding his sphere of Communist influence in Europe, it was likely that his armies would secure Vienna and, from there, all of Austria. Churchill was also concerned about the political ramifications – in particular, of how Russia would perceive its role in the war effort if it captured Berlin, and what it might mean for their future transactions. And to top it all, he was irritated that the British army had been relegated “to an unexpectedly restricted sphere”.
Churchill reiterated this point to Roosevelt, writing: “If [the Soviets] also take Berlin, won’t the impression that they were the main contributor to our common victory be improperly imprinted on their minds? ”
Roosevelt died of a brain hemorrhage less than two weeks later. And Eisenhower, who had kept his options open even after Stalin’s telegram, finally decided that beating Russia to the finish line was just too expensive. General Omar Bradley had warned that it could cost the U.S. military more than 100,000 U.S. lives to travel to Berlin – a price Eisenhower was unwilling to pay for territory he would ultimately have to cede to Soviets, in post-war terms. occupation already established by the Big Three at the Yalta Conference months earlier. Berlin saw it as more prestige than strategic.
Years later, speaking to British journalist Alistair Clarke in the late 1960s, Eisenhower justified his decision – one of many historians considered the most controversial of his career. With Germany already divided into two occupation zones, “there was no possibility of the Western Allies capturing Berlin and staying there,” he said. The American army should have retreated 125 miles in its own area as soon as the fighting was over. “When my final plans were published, we were about 200 miles west of Berlin. The Russians, ready to attack, were 30 miles east of Berlin off the coast but with a beachhead already west of the Oder, “he said. “It made no sense to both try to throw forces towards Berlin and merge – two armies who couldn’t speak the same language, couldn’t even communicate with each other. It would have been a terrible mess . “
The race for nuclear assets
Allowing the Russians a first visit to Berlin, however, had other costs. Since September 1943, the Alsos mission, the most secret in the United States, has worked hard to discover the German nuclear energy project and find its facilities and brain. Scientists there discovered nuclear fission in 1938 and were storing uranium and other nuclear raw materials in anticipation of an A-bomb strike. American forces had already arrested key Italian scientists after the fall of Rome. After arriving in Berlin, the Russians would be in a privileged position to do the same in Germany.
Adolf Hitler had fortified Berlin to the best of his ability, declaring him Festung, or fortress, in February 1945. The German defenses turned out to be so stubborn, in fact, that Russian troops would take nine days to enter the city on April 24. On April 30, Hitler, hiding in his private bunker at the back of the Reich Chancellery, committed suicide. the Germans defending Berlin surrendered to the Soviets, although fighting between German units and the Red Army continued to smolder in the city’s suburbs.
A few days before the official capture of Berlin, a great Soviet general, who was also a chemist, arrived in an armored vehicle at the castle of Baron Manfred von Ardenne, a prominent applied physicist and inventor who had designed Hitler’s radio system. He gave von Ardenne a letter of protection, or “schutzbrief” – an opening to a formal request, a few days later, to continue his research on the separation of isotopes in the USSR. Von Ardenne, as well as several of his peers, jumped at the opportunity.
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Others, like the great scientist Wernher von Braun, who was hiding in Austria, chose to surrender to the American forces. “We knew we had created a new means of warfare, and the question of which nation, which victorious nation we were willing to entrust with this original idea was a moral decision more than anything else,” he told the press. “We felt that only the delivery of such a weapon to people guided by the Bible could guarantee the world such assurance.”
In the months that followed, thousands of German scientists, engineers and technicians would be assembled and recruited by these two parties. Thanks to Operation Paperclip in America, more than 1,600 German scientists were resettled in the United States between 1945 and 1959. The USSR, on the other hand, had its own plan: Operation Osoaviakhim, as it was called , resulted in the deportation and forced recruitment of more than 2,200 German specialists in a single night in October 1946.
In the United States and the USSR, these thinkers would be put to work to develop terrifying weapons of the kind the world had never seen before, marking the start of the Cold War in half a century.