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The End: Hitler's Germany, 1944-45

The End: Hitler's Germany, 1944-45
Ian Kershaw
Allen Lane, 592pp, £30

The death of the Third Reich has provided material for historians, writers and film-makers, from The Young Lions in 1958 to Oliver Hirschbiegel's Downfall (2004). The account by Hugh Trevor-Roper, dashed off by 1947, captured the big themes that led to Hitler's downfall, as well as the grubby details of life in the leader's bunker. More recently, Antony Beevor and Max Hastings have combined sweeping narratives with acute insights.

Ian Kershaw's magisterial summing up of the events lacks the drive and drama of those books, but it cannot be bettered for relentless analysis. He asks the big questions. Why did the Wehrmacht fight on against overwhelming odds and despite staggering losses? Why did most Germans obey the regime regardless of the casualties from bombing and botched evacuations? How did the government go on functioning at all? Was there any realistic alternative to immense and prolonged suffering?

Rejecting the usual high-political explanations, such as the Allies' policy of unconditional surrender, which allegedly forced Germany into a corner, Kershaw delves into the "mentalities" of ordinary citizens. His witnesses range from soldiers and generals to housewives and civil servants. He cites hundreds of official documents, interrogations and research conducted by the Allied forces on captured Wehrmacht troops, letters and diaries.

The results are often surprising. Most Germans did not hang on because they were inspired by the Nazi idea of "people's community", or even because they had benefited from the years of plunder in its name. Neither fear of retribution for the well-known crimes of the regime nor the terror it still wielded explains their resilience adequately.

Non-Nazi generals such as Gotthard Hein­rici fought with as much ardour as those who shared Hitler's ideology, such as Ferdinand Schörner. Though some expressed dissent and there was much grumbling about the party, there was never a mass mutiny in the civilian population or in any branch of the armed services. The German people seemed collectively determined to avoid a collapse such as that of October to November 1918. Why?

Although Kershaw sidesteps the military campaigns, he makes the point that the Allies blundered badly in the autumn of 1944 and let Hitler off the hook. Field Marshal Montgomery gifted the German army its last victory through his ill-judged offensive towards the Rhine, which foundered at Arnhem. Dwight D Eisenhower squandered the momentum that followed the rout of the Wehrmacht in France by insisting on a broad advance that dissipated Anglo-American strength and became logistically unsustainable. Even the Russians missed the chance of a knockout blow after their great successes in June and July of 1944.

Consequently, the German people gained breathing space and time to hope for deliverance. Meanwhile, Heinrich Himmler, Joseph Goebbels and Albert Speer, together with Martin Bormann, the Nazi Party boss, were able to mobilise German society for one last push. In a remarkable effort, they combed industry and the civil service to provide another million men for the army. Many were elderly members of the Volkssturm militia, or mere youths, but they could still fire a tank-busting Panzerfaust.

As a result of Speer's inspired improvisation as a war minister, the armaments industry reached peak production of munitions in December 1944, in time for the Ardennes offensive. This breakthrough - also caused by Eisenhower's ineptitude - was short-lived, but it gave Germans another spasm of optimism and the will to hold out until "miracle weapons" or disunity among the Allies came to their rescue.

However, neither defence nor counter-attack would have been feasible without the loyalty of the German army. Kershaw recurs to this fact time and again. Only the army could have toppled Hitler, but it shot its bolt on 20 July 1944. The failure of the bomb plot ended any chance of co-ordinated resistance. Furthermore, the officers who survived the subsequent purge were proven loyalists. Lower down the ranks, they were young lions who welcomed the increased Nazification imposed by Himmler.

The bungled assassination attempt produced a burst of sympathy for the Führer. The "old fighters" re-emerged to mobilise society, using the pretext of militarisation to take control of every aspect of life. They were abetted by a "sophisticated and experienced bureaucratic machine", manned by civil servants who shared a "distorted sense of duty" with the generals.

If fighting on became an end in itself for the soldiers, the bureaucrats focused on keeping the trains running, supplying rations, clearing bomb damage and caring for refugees. No one facing the Red Army in the east needed any encouragement. Russian atrocities, however exaggerated, guaranteed fanatical resistance.

Kershaw maintains that everything hinged on Hitler. The unique structure of government he had shaped made everyone dependent on him, and as long as he was determined to carry on there was no alternative power base, not even for Himmler or Speer in their (fleeting) moments of realism. The Reich continued because there was always a spine of "diehards with no future" loyal to Hitler, and able to marshal, bully or terrorise the mass of Germans, who were now resigned to their fate.

Kershaw is right to stress that the Reich finally fell under the "rule of the desperadoes", but he underestimates the extent to which
ordinary Germans were acclimatised to ever greater daily inhumanity. Had the Allies broken the Reich in late 1944, the shock alone might have produced a collapse. Instead, the Germans were like the frog in the slowly heating tank of water. They were boiled before they understood that it was time to jump.

David Cesarani is a professor of history at Royal Holloway, University of London

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11