In his impressive new book, the historian Ian Kershaw asks why the Nazi regime opted for national destruction over surrender as the Allies closed in on Germany towards the end of the Second World War.
The End: those most loyal to Hitler doomed Germany
There are no foregone conclusions in war. In June 1944, Hitler's defeat seemed imminent. The Allies had Nazi Germany in a vice, squeezing the Third Reich's forces on two fronts. British and American troops pushed towards the Rhine from France, while the Red Army battered German armies on the vastness of the Eastern Front. But there would be no tidy victory for the Allies - it would be their hopes that would collapse in the summer heat, not the Nazi regime.
The war in Europe would last for nearly another year, as the Nazis held off the three greatest powers on Earth. Germany's defiance was a kind of perverse miracle, even as its tenacity brought ruin and misery on its people, and even more horrors for Jews, slave labourers, POWs and others who fell foul of the regime. Hitler threw everything he had at the forces converging on his borders. Consider that of 5.5 million German troops who were killed in the war, nearly 2.5 million died in its last 10 months alone. Soldiers were hardly alone in their suffering. For civilians, especially in the east, where the invading Soviets used rape and murder to terrorise the population, life was a daily round of fear, privation and weariness.
Vowing to defend Germany from destruction at the hands of its enemies, Hitler ensured its destruction. In his impressive new book, Ian Kershaw grapples with this paradox to explain carefully how Germany fought on and, more importantly, why Germany chose this path. The story he tells is complex, troubling and sometimes incomplete, but he is well equipped for the task. A pioneering historian of Nazi Germany, Kershaw is the author of, among other books, an acclaimed two-volume biography of Hitler. He offers a keen understanding of Hitler's inner circle and the upper levels of the Nazi regime and he takes us deep inside the command structures of the German military and the state machinery that kept Germany going in the final months of Hitler's rule.
Hitler, of course, is at the centre of Kershaw's account, but the reasons for Germany's intransigence cannot simply be reduced to the whims of a deranged dictator hellbent on dragging his country down with him. Kershaw plays down other factors normally assumed to explain Germany's defiance, such as the Allied demand for unconditional surrender. Instead, he stresses the role of those who did Hitler's bidding and carried out his orders.
"His lingering power was sustained only because others upheld it because they were unwilling, or unable to challenge it," Kershaw writes. "The issue stretches, therefore, beyond Hitler's own intractable personality and his unbending adherence to the absurdly polarised dogma of total victory or total downfall. It goes to the very nature of Hitler's rule, and to the structures and mentalities that upheld it, most of all within the power elite."
The End picks up in the aftermath of the failed attempt on Hitler's life in July 1944, which, Kershaw argues, quashed any hopes of a less destructive settlement. (This is a very big "if", one that Kershaw bets on. Had they succeeded, the plotters, led by Claus von Stauffenberg, might have sought an armistice in the west; they would have done no such thing in the east.) Moving to consolidate his hold over German society, Hitler bestowed enormous powers on a quartet of true believers who would prove essential to keeping the war effort going: Martin Bormann, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and Albert Speer. Of all these, Speer was the decisive figure: it was his genius for organising factories and weapons plants, where thousands of slave labourers toiled, that kept Germany afloat in the war's final phase.
Kershaw succeeds most when he focuses on the upper ranks of the Nazi power structure. For men such as Bormann, who had cast his lot with Hitler long ago, it was an all-or-nothing gambit; succeed with Hitler, or perish if he fails. But, as Kershaw notes, their fanaticism would have counted for nothing had the Wehrmacht's generals wavered; they didn't. Not all of them loved Hitler, but craven self-interest and loyalty to country kept the generals in line. For them, von Stauffenberg's plot - he was a decorated war hero - was an outrage, a slur on the army's reputation. Alfred Jodl, chief of the Werchmacht operations staff, told Goebbels that his generals would "ruthlessly hunt down the defeatists, putschists and assassination instigators". Still, being a general in Hitler's armies could not have been easy: the Führer, ever erratic, would demand they carry out suicidal orders. In the east, this would prove especially catastrophic, as entire armies were destroyed by the advancing Soviets.
Kershaw is a careful, exacting scholar, but his argument can be nuanced to the point of convolution. He will present his findings - he has carefully sifted through diaries, letters from the front, minutes and other documents - then cautiously back away from a definitive statement. In one letter he quotes, a wounded grenadier, evacuated from the hell of East Prussia, writes: "On no account will we capitulate! That so much blood as has already been spilt in this freedom fight cannot be in vain. The war can and will end in German victory!" Kershaw bathetically concludes: "How representative such attitudes were is impossible to tell."
Doubtless, many more soldiers were driven by fear and pure instinct. In the kill-or-be-killed charnel house of the eastern front, self-preservation trumped ideology and surrender often meant death. The Red Army showed little mercy for German POWs. Indeed, several hundred thousand German troops died while in Soviet hands. Yet German soldiers also fought tenaciously in the west, where they faced far better treatment if captured by the British or the Americans. Kershaw is at pains to show why ordinary Germans did not try to resist their masters. True, the Nazis unleashed unparalleled checks and terroristic repression on the German people. Any defeatist sentiment could lead to a death sentence. Himmler implored Germans to take a hard line against "shirkers", "cowards" and "weaklings". The army rounded up deserters and sent them back to the front.
But, Kershaw argues, these measures cannot alone explain the behaviour of millions of Germans. Germany continued to function with a ridiculous efficiency. Food shortages, social dislocation, a refugee problem of titanic proportions, Allied bombers; nothing could stop the German civil servant from keeping the forms in order. In December 1944, for instance, a Munich police department put in a request for five cleaning buckets destroyed in an air raid and instituted measures for obtaining periodicals from post offices (most of which had been destroyed).
It is not a slur on Kershaw that he cannot fully explain why Germany chose the path of near-destruction. What historian has been able to? For the German public, Hitler's appeal had long faded by early 1945. Much of the country was in ruins, with worse to come. "This was a riven society where individuals looked more and more to their own narrow interests—acquisition of the necessities of life and, above all else, survival," Kershaw writes. There was little to do but tend to oneself. A dwindling few still held out hope that Hitler would save Germany from its enemies; others believed "wonder weapons", such as the V2 rocket, would keep the Allies at bay.
Kershaw waves "structures and mentalities" around like an explanatory wand, but its powers extend only so far. Germany's elites, especially Hitler's generals, were indispensable as the fight ground on. Hitler's popularity may have evaporated and the Nazi party was generally reviled by the German public, but fighting habits die hard. Whatever the reasons, the war in Germany would end with a bang, not a whimper.
Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and the Financial Times.