This is the story of the last 10 months of Nazi Germany, starting with the failure of the Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler and overthrow the government. Kershaw seeks to understand why Nazi Germany unlike almost any other regime, should have fought to the bitter end when it was plain to most outsiders that the Reich was doomed. By this time the Allies had established themselves in Normandy and the Russians were pushing the Eastern front back. Mussolini had been deposed and Rome had fallen. The devastating bomb raids on German cities were destroying civilian morale; the Luftwaffe could offer no significant resistance. The German troops were clearly outnumbered and, despite the incredible efforts of armaments minister Speer, were also massively outgunned. Yet the Germans fought on. Roughly as many Germans died in the last ten months as in the four years previously.
The reasons Kershaw advances are several. He dismisses the idea that it was the Allies unprecedented requirement for unconditional surrender that led to the bitter resistance: many Germans did in fact try to negotiate with the Western allies. However, this uncompromising stance may have hardened Hitler against any possibility of capitulation.
Other possibilities include the fear of the Russians, bolstered by the success of the Nazi propaganda campaign to demonise the Bolsheviks and helped by the Russian predilection (to some extent in revenge for what the Nazis had earlier done to them) for raping, looting, killing and generally terrorising the civilian population of the towns they occupied (only one in three German soldiers captured by the Soviet forces made it back to Germany after the war). Certainly, most of the Reich leadership's discussions around surrender involved the vain hope that they might be able to surrender to the Western Allies and then join forces with them to fight the Russians. This hope continued after Hitler's suicide.
Kerhsaw also considers the possibility that Germans are, simply, obedient to authority. He does not put it as crudely as this but he talks about the cultures of loyalty in both the army and the efficient civil service bureaucracy.
He also points out that many people were simply terrorised into continuing to fight. People who tried to surrender were shot or hanged, sometimes only minutes before the Nazi executioners themselves fled from the approaching enemy forces. He suggests that most of the population wanted to capitulate but that the few who wanted to fight on, for whom their past crimes meant that they had no future after the warm, were those with the power of life and death.
The main reason that Germany fought to the end seems to be because Adolf Hitler created a government that could not disobey him. He was head of government, head of state, commander in chief and head of the Party. He governed for years without a cabinet. When he made a new appointment he would ensure that whoever was appointed had their powers balanced by someone else; blurred responsibilities were endemic. In the end everyone had to check with Adolf. And the people in his inner circle were mutually antagonistic. The only person to whom they were all loyal was himself. In the bunker the day after Hitler's suicide, Goebbels killed himself, his wife and his six children. Goering and Himmler both were dismissed in the final week for attempting to usurp Hitler but both did it by mistake. Speer, who recognised early that the war was lost and attempted to undermine Hitler's scorched earth policies so that the industrialists he worked with would have something to begin again with after defeat, made an incredibly risky flight back to Berlin in the final week to say goodbye. Kesselring refused to surrender Italy until Hitler had died (although hjis second in command did surrender on his behalf).
The proof is that the final surrender came just one week after Hitler's death (and would have come earlier had Eisenhower agreed to any of the requests that Hitler's successor Donitz put to him).
There are haunting images of pointlessness. There are the starving and pathetic concentration camp prisoners, too weak for forced labour, who are force-marched from one camp to another for no obvious reason. There are the efficient bureaucrats in the German civil service who are still shuffling paper as Berlin is surrounded. There is the Donitz regime who discuss the new Reich flag in the two weeks after unconditional surrender and before they are imprisoned by the Allies.
One criticism I would make is that there are two few maps. Towards the end there were many references to Berchtesgaden where the Germans might have made a last stand. It was clearly an important place. It isn't on any provided map; I had to find it using Google.
There are moments when this book is gripping. There is also much scholarship here and this sometimes makes the book drag. But overall this is a fascinating read.
April 2013; 400 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57