Story of Berlin’s downfall mainly missing in action


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Taking Berlin has very little to do with it — a more suitable title for Martin Dugard’s war book would be Taking the Buyer.

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Taking Berlin has very little to do with it — a more suitable title for Martin Dugard’s war book would be Taking the Buyer.

Dugard’s book about the conquest of the Nazi capital in the Second World War is 330-plus pages, but little more than two pages — that’s right, two pages — are about the battle.

The remaining pages are almost all about other things and other people and other places in that war and beyond it, including the extracurricular love life of a war correspondent married to writer Ernest Hemingway, ad nauseum. At $41 it takes buyers to the cleaners if they expect what’s on the cover to be what’s inside.

The description of the city’s conquest is largely confined to five paragraphs very late in the book. It’s as if Dugard suddenly remembered very near the end what he was, according to the title, supposed to be writing about.

Taking Berlin is not an accident waiting to happen — it already has. It is like IKEA furnishings without the instructions: you can’t assemble the story in your mind if you don’t have the information to guide you there. To borrow a war term: Taking Berlin is MIA.

Bill O’Reilly, the former bombastic political pundit on Fox News, hypes the book right up front: “With the precision of a smart bomb, Martin Dugard puts the reader directly into the campaign to destroy Hitler.” Truth be told, this puttering bomb takes forever to reach its target and even then, it lands with a very insulting thud: the Russians who captured the city are barely mentioned.

As well, Taking Berlin is a dim-witted failure of American bombast that wouldn’t survive Marketing 101 at a community college. U.S. General George Patton’s big head awash with general’s stars is centre stage on the cover. The implication is that he led the battle for Berlin, while the truth is that Patton and his army had nothing to do with it — they were specifically prohibited from taking part in it.

Standing behind Patton on the cover is a much smaller-headed Joseph Stalin. His troops, and his alone, conquered Berlin, and they finally did it by mostly fighting street by street, the kind of warfare that is particularly lethal. Stalin should be the big-headed one; presumably, though, that wouldn’t play as well with U.S. buyers.

Martin Dugard is an established writer living in California. He co-authored Bill O’Reilly’s popular Killing series of books that reportedly sold 10 million copies. That’s what it says on the front flyleaf of Taking Berlin. But on the back flyleaf he’s called the author of the series. He can’t be both.

Dugard most certainly writes well, but there is very little new in Taking Berlin. Others have already written it. The book extends our knowledge about as much as a high-school term paper.

Adding to the frustration, the war maps are all in black and white and therefore it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to track from the arrows who is who.

On page 11 there’s a mention of people in Berlin working a 60-hour week. Holidays are abolished for its 2.8 million residents. On page 270 Stalin meets with his two best generals and tells them to be first into Berlin. On page 286 Soviet marshal Georgi Zhukov “is only 43 miles from Berlin. He has nearly a million men…” It is not until page 301, a few dozen pages before the end, that anything more than a few sentences are said about the attack.

Dugard finally writes: “Berlin is left to the Russians. The atrocities carried out in villages far from the capital are even worse. No woman is safe from rape and the most horrible forms of mutilation. Men fighting to defend their homes are shot, their bodies defiled with bayonets and more bullet holes. The city burns everywhere, fires big and small, grand boulevards reduced to rubble by Russian bombardment. The Soviet flag flies from the bullet-pocked Reichstag, once the seat of German power. Berlin has been taken.”

This book is about selling, not telling.

Barry Craig’s experience with Taking Berlin reminds him of Winston Churchill’s dying words: “I’m bored with it all.”

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