'History always emphasizes terminal events,' Albert Speer observed bitterly to his American interrogators just after the end of the war. He hated the idea that the early achievements of Hitler's regime would be obscured by its final collapse. Yet Speer, like other prominent Nazis, refused to recognize that few things reveal more about political leaders and their systems than the manner of their downfall. This is why the subject of National Socialism's final defeat is so fascinating, and also so important at a time when teenagers, especially in Germany, are finding much to admire in the Third Reich.

The Nazis' enemies had first been able to visualize their moment of vengeance just over two years before. On 1 February 1943, an angry Soviet colonel collared a group of emaciated German prisoners in the rubble of Stalingrad. 'That's how Berlin is going to look!' he yelled, pointing to the ruined buildings all around. When I read those words some six years ago, I sensed immediately what my next book had to be. Among the graffiti preserved on the Reichstag's walls in Berlin, one can still see the two cities linked by Russians exulting in their revenge, forcing the invaders from their furthest point of eastward advance right back to the heart of the Reich.

Hitler too remained obsessed with this decisive defeat. In November 1944, as the Red Army was grouping beyond the Reich's eastern frontiers, he pointed back to Stalingrad. Germany's reverses had all begun, he said in a major speech, 'with the breakthrough of Russian armies on the Romanian front on the Don in November 1942'. He blamed his hapless allies, under-armed and ignored on the vulnerable flanks either side of Stalingrad, not his own obsessive refusal to heed the warnings of danger. Hitler had learned nothing and had forgotten nothing.

That same speech demonstrated with terrible clarity the distorted logic in which the German people had allowed themselves to become ensnared. When published, it was entitled 'Capitulation Means Annihilation'. He warned that if the Bolshevists won, the fate of the German people was destruction, rape and slavery, with 'immense columns of men treading their way to the Siberian tundra'.

Hitler vehemently refused to acknowledge the consequences of his own actions, and the German people realized far too late that they were trapped by a terrifying confusion of cause and effect. Instead of eliminating Bolshevism, as he had claimed, Hitler had brought it to the very heart of Europe. His abominably cruel invasion of Russia had been carried out by a generation of German youth weaned on a demonically clever combination. Goebbels's propaganda did not simply dehumanize Jews, commissars and the whole Slav people, it made the German people fear and hate them. Hitler, in these gigantic crimes, had managed to manacle the nation to him and the approaching violence of the Red Army was the self-fulfilment of their leader's prophecy.

Stalin, while happy to make use of symbols when it suited him, was far more calculating. The Reich's capital was indeed the 'culmination of all the operations of our army in this war', but he had other vital interests. Not least of these was the plan formulated under Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's minister of state security, to strip atomic research establishments in Berlin of all their equipment and uranium before the Americans and British arrived. The work of the Manhattan Project carried out in Los Alamos was already well known in the Kremlin, thanks to the pro-Communist spy, Dr Klaus Fuchs. Soviet science was far behind, and Stalin and Beria were convinced that if they were to seize the German laboratories and scientists in Berlin before the Western Allies got there, then they too could produce an atom bomb like the Americans.

The scale of the human tragedy by the end of the war is beyond the imagination of everyone who did not live through it, but especially of those who have grown up in the demilitarized society of the post-Cold War age. Yet this moment of fate for millions of people still has much to teach us. One important lesson is that one should be extremely wary of any generalization concerning the conduct of individuals. Extremes of human suffering and even degradation can bring out the best as well as the worst in human nature. Human behaviour to a large extent mirrors the utter unpredictability of life or death. Many Soviet troops, especially in frontline formations, unlike those who came behind, often behaved with great kindness to German civilians. In a world of cruelty and horror where any conception of humanity had almost been destroyed by ideology, just a few acts of often unexpected kindness and self-sacrifice lighten what would otherwise be an almost unbearable story.

This book could not possibly have been researched without the help of many people. I am first of all deeply obliged to the directors and staff in numerous archives: Colonel Shuvashin and the staff of the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defence (TsAMO) at Podolsk; Dr Natalya Borisovna Volkova and her staff at the Russian State Archive for Literature and the Arts (RGALI); Dr Vladimir Kuzelenkov and Dr Vladimir Korotaev of the Russian State Military Archive (RGVA); Professor Kyrill Mikhailovich Andersen and Dr Oleg Vladimirovich Naumov at the Russian State Archive for Social-Political History (RGASPI); Dr Manfred Kehrig, Director of the Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, Freiburg, and Frau Weibl; Dr Rolf-Dieter Müller and Hauptmann Luckszat at the MGFA in Potsdam; Professor Dr Eckhart Henning of the Archiv zur Geschichte der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft; Dr Wulf-Ekkehard Lucke at the Landesarchiv-Berlin; Frau Irina Renz of the Bibliothek für Zeitgeschichte in Stuttgart; Dr Lars Ericson and Per Clason at the Krigsarkivet in Stockholm; John E. Taylor, Wilbert Mahoney and Robin Cookson at National Archives II, College Park, Maryland; Dr Jeffrey Clarke at the United States Army Center of Military History.

Bengt von zur Mühlen, the founder of Chronos-Film, has been particularly generous with archival footage and taped interviews of participants. I am also greatly obliged to Gerald Ramm and to Dietmar Arnold of Berliner Unterwelten for their help.

I am truly grateful to all those who aided me so much during my travels with advice, introductions and hospitality: in Russia, Dr Galya and Dr Luba Vinogradova, Professor Anatoly Aleksandrovich Chernobayev, and Simon Smith and Sian Stickings; in Germany, William Durie, Staatssekretar a.D. Karl-Günther and Frau von Hase, and Andrew and Sally Gimson; in the United States, Susan Mary Alsop, Major General and Mrs Charles Vyvyan, Bruce Lee, Mr and Mrs Charles von Luttichau and Martin Blumenson.

It has been a great pleasure for me, as well as extremely useful for the book, to work in partnership with BBC Timewatch. I am deeply grateful to Laurence Rees, whose idea it was, to Dr Tilman Remme, in whose company I have most enjoyably learned a great deal, and to Detlef Siebert, who generously helped so much at an early stage with advice and interviewees. Others who have also provided introductions, information, help and advice include Anne Applebaum, Christopher Arkell, Claudia Bismarck, Leopold Graf von Bismarck, Sir Rodric Braithwaite, Professor Christopher Dandeker, Dr Engel of the Archiv der Freien Universitat, Professor John Erickson, Wolf Gebhardt, Jon Halliday, Nina Lobanov-Rostovsky, Dr Catherine Merridale, Professor Oleg Aleksandrovich Rzheshevsky, Professor Moshe Schein of the New York Methodist Hospital, Karl Schwarz, Simon Sebag-Montefiore, Gia Sulkhanishvili, Dr Galya Vinogradova and Ian Weston-Smith.

This book, quite literally, would never have been possible in the form it takes without the wonderful help I have had from Dr Luba Vinogradova in Russia and Angelica von Hase in Germany. It has been a privilege and a pleasure to work with them. I am also extremely grateful to Sarah Jackson for all her work on photographic research, to Bettina von Hase for supplementary archival research in Germany and to David List in England. Charlotte Salford very kindly translated the documents from the Krigsarkivet in Stockholm for me.

I am profoundly grateful to Professor Michael Burleigh, Professor Norman Davies and Dr Catherine Merridale for reading all or parts of the typescript and making very useful criticisms. Any mistakes which remain are, of course, entirely my responsibility.

I cannot thank Mark Le Fanu and the Society of Authors enough for recovering the websites, and from a cybersquatter. These can now be used to provide an 'author's cut' - a writer's answer to the director's cut - thus making available archival and other material for which there was no room in the published version of the book.

I owe, as always, a huge debt to my agent Andrew Nurnberg and to Eleo Gordon, my editor at Penguin, both of whom pushed an initially reluctant author down this route. Once again my wife, writing partner and editor of first resort, Artemis Cooper, has had to put up with constant absences and many extra burdens. I am eternally grateful.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!