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A missed opportunity
on 4 July 2012
I read this book with considerable anticipation, having read and admired several other of Kershaw's books on the Third Reich. Kershaw is one of the greatest experts on this period of history and the premise of the book - to explain why the the German people kept fighting well beyond the bitter end - is intriguing.
Kershaw rejects the view that continued resistance can be explained merely by reference to the terror apparatus of the Hitler regime, without disregarding the importance of this factor.
He argues instead for a complex of factors including terror, the dread of the retribution and counter terror which might be expected from soviet forces, the destruction or nazi domination of institutions from which alternative sources of power might have issued a demand for surrender, the purge of the military after the abortive July 1944 plot, the fanatical resistance of key figures, particularly Hitler himself, and the demand from the allies for unconditional surrender. As ever, he is a master of the sources and quotes liberally to illustrate his arguments.
I found his book disappointing, however, for five main reasons: the structure of the argument, repetition, predictability, conceptual vagueness of Kershaw's use of the term 'mentality' and a sort of failure to engage with some of the sources from which he quotes so liberally.
The difficulty with the structure of the argument is that it falls between two stools. It is largley based on a chronological narrative, which is combined with a number of thematic discussions. I found this quite confusing and it prevents his arguments from emerging very clearly. The thematic arguments would have been much more convincing if Kershaw had pursued a more comparative approach to explain why the Germans behaved so differently from the Italians, Finns, Hungarians and Roumanians and what, if anything might be learned from the seemingly comparable fanaticism of the Japanese.
The mixed structure also leads to a great deal of repetition - remarked by some other reviewers - as each theme is revisited at each stage of the narrative.
The argument is not, moreover, particularly new. All of the factors listed above are more or less standard features of contemporary historiography and rather undermine the claim that this book gives us a compelling conclusion to arguments about this aspect of the war - 'the end of "the end" ' so to speak.
It is not clear, fourthly, what Kershaw means by 'mentality'. This is a fairly important issue, since he wants to get beneath the conventional explanations which tend to focus on the doings of elites to find out what motivated ordinary Germans - civilians and soldiers - to fight for as long and as hard as they did.
Mentality is a term derived from French historiography and means different things to different people. It can probably (and briefly) be defined as a spectrum which extends from fairly short term and more or less conscious ideas to ideas which are very deep rooted, largely unconscious and rather difficult and slow to change. A popular belief in the imminence of 'wonder weapons' might be an example of the former; a belief in a hierarchy of races and in the innate superiority of the German race might be an example of the latter. Kershaw is not clear where he stands on this spectrum, although from the context, it would seem that he leans towards widely held, short term, conscious ideas. The failure to explore more deeply held beliefs is a serious limitation of his argument.
I find it more difficult to formulate my final difficulty with this book. It is something to do with the apparently delusional nature of much of the testimony that Kershaw reviews. How could so many people continue to believe that Hitler had some secret plan, that the miracle weapons would save the day, that the allies would at the last minutes go to war with each other?
Kershaw doesn't really explain this other than by reference to the effectiveness of nazi propaganda, although he also cites multiple sources to suggest that many Germans treated this with a healthy scepticism.
Perhaps the answer may lie in the aspect of 'mentality' that Kershaw doesn't really explore. Could it be possible that the main or missing reason why the war in Europe lasted as long as it did, lies in the feelings of racial pride and superiority which effectively blinded many (most?) Germans even to the possiblity of defeat. From this perspective, the delusional beliefs might make a bit more sense and could be linked to other apparently separate behaviours such as the treatment of and indifference to Jews, Russians and other 'lower races'. I don't know, but the book would have been much more interesting if it had explored this theme.
To conclude, this is undoubtedly a good and stimulating book as is more than evidenced by the many favourable reviews. In my view, however, and with a sideways glance at many of Kershaw's other and better books, The End is something of a missed opportunity.