May 2, 1945: Berlin falls to Soviet forces.
The next day, General Wilding, the commander of the German troops in Berlin, finally surrendered the entire city to the Soviet army. There was no radio or newspaper, so vans with loudspeakers drove through the streets ordering us to cease all resistance. Suddenly, the shooting and bombing stopped and the unreal silence meant that one ordeal was over for us and another was about to begin. Our nightmare had become a reality. The entire three hundred square miles of what was left of Berlin were now completely under control of the Red Army. The last days of savage house to house fighting and street battles had been a human slaughter, with no prisoners being taken on either side. These final days were hell. Our last remaining and exhausted troops, primarily children and old men, stumbled into imprisonment. We were a city in ruins; almost no house remained intact.
Eyewitness account of the end of the Battle of Berlin
May 1, 1960: The U-2 incident takes place.
By 1955, both the United States and Soviet Union had developed and successfully detonated thermonuclear weapons; the next year, the first Lockheed U-2, an icon of Cold War-era espionage, flew a mission over the Soviet Union in order to gather and deliver intelligence regarding its technological progress. Covert reconnaissance missions conducted throughout the era provided the government detailed photographs that would, hopefully, enable the U.S. to stay ahead of its communist foe.
Meanwhile, Soviet Union-United States relations seemed to be, to some extent, thawing - in late 1959, Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States for the first time with his family (and a strong desire to see Disneyland) and left the country in the hope that some kind of détente might be achieved between the nations. This brief period of good feelings was disrupted by the U-2 incident, in which CIA pilot Francis Gary Powers and his U-2 spy plane were shot down while flying in Soviet airspace. Unaware that both the pilot and his equipment had been recovered by Soviet officials, the U.S. government released a cover story claiming that Powers had been conducting weather tests. The cover story was contradicted by the concrete evidence provided by the Soviet government of American espionage activity, and by Powers’ own confession; Powers, upon returning home (having been traded for a KGB agent), was criticized for failing to self-destruct his aircraft and for failing to commit suicide, although he was ultimately determined to have not divulged any important information to the Soviets and was posthumously awarded the Silver Star in 2012.
Although Eisenhower accepted responsibility for the incident, including the failed cover-up, the U-2 incident caused the collapse of the planned Paris Four Power summit, and any tentative easing of tensions achieved in the previous decade was undone. And in 1962, a U-2 plane captured images in Cuba and initiated a confrontation that would send the two nations closer to nuclear war than ever before.
April 9, 1959: NASA selects the “Mercury Seven”.
Two years after the Soviet Union launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, and the Space Race along with it, NASA chose from an elite pool of candidates America’s first astronauts, now members of a group known collectively as “the Mercury Seven”. The competition between the two nations during the early years of the Space Race moved at breakneck speed - Sputnik was launched in late 1957; the United States launched Explorer 1 three months later in January of 1958; NASA was formed five months after that; and by the end of the year the agency had set up Project Mercury and begun the search process for its first astronauts.
This search process was, initially, fairly general. Candidates had to be male, under six feet and 180 pounds (size was critical in performing human spaceflight), a bachelor’s decree, and flight experience and qualifications. 110 applicants met all these qualifications, and dozens were further eliminated through strenuous physical and mental tests until eighteen remained, and of those eighteen seven men from three branches of the U.S. military were selected to form “Astronaut Group 1”. These seven men were regarded by the public (to whom they were introduced on April 9, 1959) as valiant explorers, models of American values, and the faces of anti-Communism in space.
The seven members of the Mercury Seven were:
- Alan Shepard, the first American to travel into space (and presumably the first to play golf on the surface of the moon, as well)
- Gus Grissom, commander of the first manned Gemini mission, Gemini 3; Grissom was also one of three men to die in the Apollo 1 fire
- Malcolm Carpenter, the second American to orbit the Earth
- John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth
- Wally Schirra, the only one of the seven to fly in Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions
- Gordon Cooper, pilot of the final manned Mercury mission
- Deke Slayton, pilot of the American crew of the joint US-Soviet Apollo-Soyuz Test Project
February 4, 1945: The Yalta Conference opens.
The “Big Three” Allied leaders of World War II met at the Livadia Palace in Crimea for the second time (after the 1943 Tehran Conference) this time to discuss the reorganization of post-war Europe. By this time, victory in Europe was but three months away, and the Red Army’s offensive thrust into Germany was complete. It had already been decided that Germany would be divided into four zones to be administered by the United States, Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France. Other key issues were negotiated, though not necessarily decided, during that week at Yalta.
Germany would, once again, undergo demilitarization, as well as denazification, a process through which any elements of German National Socialism were removed from society, and certain Nazi leaders would be put on trial for war crimes. Certain boundary lines were set, including the Polish-Soviet border; Poland itself, along with all other liberated European countries, would be open to Democratic elections. This promise was not kept, and, as a result, many in Poland and the Allied nations regarded the outcome of the Yalta Conference as a betrayal of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union; Franklin D. Roosevelt, who died two months after the conference, was criticized for “selling out” to Stalin. Stalin also agreed that the Soviet Union would enter the war against Japan three months after the fall of Germany, and also that it would join the United Nations. Whatever hitches met at or caused by the uncertainty of Yalta and the events surrounding it, the United Nations would, supposedly, be able to deal with any disagreements between the Soviet Union and its allies, or so it was hoped.
Soviet Guerrillas, c. 1942.
Library of Congress
January 27, 1945: Soviet troops liberate Auschwitz concentration camp.
The Auschwitz concentration camp network, which included Auschwitz II-Birkenau, Auschwitz III-Monowitz, and dozens of smaller satellite camps, collectively made up the largest concentration camp run by the Third Reich over the course of the war. The first prisoners arrived at Auschwitz in May of 1940; by 1945 millions of people had passed through - and died - in Auschwitz, with Rudolf Höss estimating a total death toll at 3,000,000 Jews, plus hundreds of thousands of Poles, Roma, prisoners of war, and any other social and political “undesirables”. Because the Nazis destroyed records and many of the camp facilities in an attempt to mask the extent of their crimes as Red Army forces approached, exact numbers are difficult to ascertain, but the generally accepted death toll is around 1.3 million people, who died from gassing, sickness, and starvation.
The original camp, Auschwitz, served a variety of purposes: a prison to hold enemies of the Third Reich/General Government; a steady source of enslaved laborers; a relatively small-scale extermination camp. Medical (in the loosest sense of the word) experimentation was also performed on prisoners at Auschwitz I, including those conducted by the notorious “Angel of Death”, Josef Mengele. Construction began on Auschwitz-Birkenau in late 1941 in preparation for the implementation of the “Final Solution”. Although it was referred to as a prisoner-of-war camp, there was no hiding what purpose this second camp would serve, thanks to the gas chambers and crematoria that made up the tools of Auschwitz-Birkenau’s murder machine. There was even a separate “Gypsy camp” where thousands of Roma and Sinti prisoners were sent to be exterminated.
When liberation by oncoming Soviet forces became imminent (which it seemed by late 1944), orders were sent out to blow up the camp’s facilities, along with orders to exterminate the remainder of its prisoners. The latter orders were never carried out, but evacuations (i.e. death marches) to other camps did take place. Sadly, the only prisoners the 322nd Rifle Division of the Red Army managed to free by the time they arrived on January 27, 1945, were those too sick to walk with the rest. They numbered around 7,500, compared to the 50,000 plus who had been forced on the march. One Russian officer describes the scene of the liberation:
They [the prisoners] began rushing towards us, in a big crowd. They were weeping, embracing us and kissing us. I felt a grievance on behalf of mankind that these fascists had made such a mockery of us. It roused me and all the soldiers to go and quickly destroy them and send them to hell.
A child survivor, only ten years old at the time, describes his own experience:
We ran up to them and they gave us hugs, cookies, and chocolate. Being so alone a hug meant more than anybody could imagine because that replaced the human worth that we were starving for. We were not only starved for food but we were starved for human kindness. And the Soviet Army did provide some of that.
In 1947, Rudolf Höss was hanged near Crematorium I of the original Auschwitz camp.