You’d think you know everything about postwar Berlin, but you are wrong. Berlin in the years after 1945 is seen as a city divided among the four Allies—America, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union—but it was the Soviet Army only that conquered Berlin in April and May 1945 and that controlled the whole city for the two months after.
A new book: Berlin 1945. World War II: Pictures from the Aftermath, by Michael Brettin, depicts that largely forgotten history. It is a large-size book with nearly 200 harrowing black-and-white photos, taken by Soviet army photographers such as Mark Redkin and Jewgenij Chaldej (who took the famous pictures of the red flag on the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate), but also by German war photographers in their employ, most notably Otto Donath, who died 1971 in East Berlin.
Some of them are propaganda photos of victory, of Soviet soldiers posing, and Soviet tanks. Others show shelled rubble, destroyed houses, rotting corpses, young soldiers led into captivity in Siberia, lost children, and women who have committed suicide. Some of them were taken against army orders; the Russians wanted to show the world that they were treating the occupied city humanely, so they forbade pictures of mistreated women and children. Other photos might even be fake, such as one of Hitler’s corpse.
The Soviets ruled Berlin for two months before being joined in July 1945 by American, British, and, later, French troops. At that point, the corpses had been buried, the fires quenched, and the Red Cross had set up soup kitchens. The Soviet Military Administration (SMAD) had already licensed Berliner Zeitung, just two weeks after the capitulation of Berlin, followed by the tabloid BZ am Abend on July 15, 1945. The SMAD also had its own army paper, Tägliche Rundschau. All three papers printed these photos. In 1973, Berliner Zeitung and BZ am Abend, joined in Berliner Verlag, moved into a building near Alexanderplatz, taking the photo archive with them. The Tägliche Rundschau’s archive ended up there as well, after the paper ceased publication in 1955.
These photos—many rumpled, stained, scratched, and printed on pulpy, low-quality paper—were stored in drawers on long rows of metal shelving on the second floor. Eventually, they were forgotten. In 1989, the Berlin Wall was torn down, and both newspapers were sold. One day in the late 1990s, Peter Kroh, then photo editor of the BZ am Abend had a look in those drawers. Kroh sifted through thousands of photos, many of them not properly categorized or credited. Nevertheless, Kroh knew that he had found a treasure trove and soon decided to publish them in a book. Berlin nach dem Krieg (Berlin After the War) was published in German in 2005. This book is the English edition, and those pictures are shown for the first time to an American audience.
The accompanying text, which summaries Berlin postwar history in an easy-to-digest fashion has been written by Dr. Michael Brettin, the history editor of Berliner Kurier, who has a Ph.D. in Slavistic studies. It tells an important time in Berlin in a nutshell.