Historic Photographs Provide Snapshot of 1945 Berlin

A new book offers a fascinating insight into life on the streets of the German capital at the end of World War II.

Avner Shapira
Two women walking in postwar Berlin, 1945.
Two women walking in postwar Berlin, 1945.Credit: N.N./ Berliner Verlag
Avner Shapira

The final concert of the Berlin Philharmonic under the rule of the Third Reich took place on April 12, 1945, and included the finale from “Götterdämmerung” (“Twilight of the Gods”), written by Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner. It also constituted a musical reflection of the finale of Nazi Germany, a final note marking the end of a dozen years of dictatorship and six years of war.

Four days later, on April 16, the Battle of Berlin began, with Russian forces taking control of the capital of the Reich within two weeks. It was the largest World War II battle on German soil, and both sides suffered heavy losses. It also spelled the end for Hitler – who committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on April 30 – and of Nazi rule, which concluded with the German surrender at the beginning of May.

In almost no time, music was again being played in Berlin. One melancholy photo from that time shows a Red Army soldier standing among the ruins and playing the violin for a group of other soldiers.

This weekend, the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis is being marked around the world, providing an opportunity to flip through the pages of a new book, “Berlin 1945,” which brings together a selection of rare photos taken in the city during that fateful year – for the most part by Red Army photographers. The volume, which is by Michael Brettin (who wrote the text) and Peter Kroh (who chose the photos), and which was published by Berlinica Publishing of New York, provides a fascinating glimpse into the ruined German capital at that unique, historic moment. This major metropolis had become nothing more than “a heap of rubble near Potsdam,” as Bertolt Brecht called it. But within the ruined buildings, among the Russian soldiers, the broken tanks and the masses of refugees who fled there from Eastern Europe, there were still about 2.5 million people living there – about half its population before the war.

About 180 of the photographs in the book were published in the second half of the 1940s, in newspapers and Soviet and East German publications, but they were forgotten for decades in archives and rediscovered by chance in the late 1990s.

All of the figures appearing in the book were photographed with the end of the fighting, shedding light on the chaos that was prevailing in the city with the Russian conquest. (Months later, forces from the other Allied armies arrived and the city was partitioned into Russian, U.S., British and French sectors.) The book ends with the city’s rise from the ashes and its gradual return to routine. Pictures document the restoration of the public transportation system, the enlistment of the population to clear rubble, and the resident who planted a handwritten sign among what was left of homes that read, “A new building may be built here.”

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