TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 8 January 2013
By mid 1944 there had been significant breakthroughs both on the Eastern and Western fronts, and it was clear that Germany would lose the war. Why then did it continue until mid 1945? This is the question addressed by Ian Kershaw, one of the foremost experts on Nazi Germany. He observes that this was an almost unique event, because historically countries reaching this point invariably sue for peace, rather than fight to the bitter, destructive end.
Von Stauffenberg's failed attempt to assassinate Hitler lead to a revival of the latter's popularity, which had weakened as the war proceeded badly. There was also a drastic reorganization of power within the state and greater control over the administrative organs of the Reich by the Nazi Party, with Goebbels, Bormann, Himmler and Speer becoming core figures. There were severe punishments, usually death, for anyone expressing dissent in any form. This was one component of the atmosphere of fear that pervaded the population. Another, best described as terror, was experienced by those living in the Eastern regions, who were petrified of the revenge the Red Army was expected to take for the atrocities committed by German forces in Russia. These fears were fully justified by later events, when Russian troops committed atrocities including looting, mass rape and summary executions. Goebbels played on this fear to persuade the population that there was no alternative to fighting on, against all the odds.
The Allies insistence on unconditional surrender was also exploited by Goebbels' propaganda machine. To surrender so abjectly would, he insisted, mean the end of Germany and its people. This was also the view of Hitler, who, to the day of his death, refused to consider the idea. But as the state began to disintegrate, why was there no collection of senior people to oppose Hitler, whose popularity with the bulk of the population was beginning to wan, most of whom wanted to simply end the misery of their daily lives. Military leaders were also fearful, although very few senior officers sacked by Hitler (and there were many) were executed. Rather they had a perverted sense of honour that forbade them to defy their Commander-in-Chief, to whom they had sworn a personal oath of loyalty. Bormann, Himmler and Goebbels were more concerned about maneuvering to accumulate more personal power, which of course flowed from Hitler. The actions of Speer seem to have been conditioned by his earlier huge admiration for Hitler, because he brilliantly continued to devise ways whereby the armed forces were supplied with armaments and other vital materials.
By 1945, Germany was a fully militarized state `ruled by terror', thrashing about in its death throes and willing to destroy even its own people. Summary courts martial were set up that passed immediate death sentences for `dissenters' of all sorts (in the second half of 1994 350 soldiers per month were executed for desertion); concentration camp inmates (15,000 from Auschwitz alone) were pointlessly marched westwards as the evidence of the death camps were destroyed, resulting in thousands dying en route from cold and hunger, or simply shot for being unable to keep up; and there was an orgy of killing foreign workers and political prisoners. There were still pockets of fanatical support for continuing the war. The Waffen-SS showed high levels of morale, and when pilots were asked to undertake kamikaze-style missions, an astonishing 20,000 volunteered.
In the midst of the carnage, some things continued in an almost surreal way. In February 1945 the Finance Ministry drew up plans to increase consumer taxes over income tax at a time when most of the country was occupied by enemy troops; Academic grants were still being awarded to foreign students to study in Germany in the last few weeks of the war; and the last concerts and first-class football matches in Berlin actually took place just two or three days before the Russian assault on the city. At the peak of the battle for Berlin almost 3880 inhabitants committed suicide and gangs of fanatical Nazis roamed the streets killing anyone they judged to have fled the fighting. Only Goebbels followed Hitler onto the funeral pyre; few other senior figures followed their example; only 55 out of 554 army generals and 8 out of 41 Gauleiters committed suicide, for example, and only 2 Gaulieters actually died fighting.
Why then did the war continue beyond the point where any reasonable person would have sued for peace? Kershaw concludes that fear, both of the Party apparatus and the Red Army, certainly played a part, as did the Allies' surrender terms. But above all, senior members of state were unable to overcome not just the charismatic character of Hitler, even long after this had faded, but also the character of the rule he had established.
This is a very fine book, full of detail, with a wealth of references to support the material of the text and some interesting photographs. The only criticisms I would make is that events on the Eastern front are treated in a little less detail than those on the Western front, which does not always reflect the achievements of the two armies, and there is a quite a lot of repetition. Nevertheless, this is still one of the best book I have read about the final months of the Third Reich.