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
Books about war in this blog:
- Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming
- Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: A memoir of a Red Cross worker on the front in the Balkan Wars
- All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque: an antiwar novel by a world war one soldier
- Bridge on the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle: a novel about a Japanese Prisoner of War camp
- The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides
- A Detail on the Burma Front: a memoir of a nurse working in Burma during World War Two
- Berlin by Antony Beevoir: A history of the last few months of the Nazi regime
- Catch 22: A classic antiwar novel set during world war two