A horrifying history of the Reich's violent end
A review of Ian Kershaw's "The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945" — a magisterial history of the waning months of World War II, when Germany knew it had lost the war, and why the country chose to follow Hitler into the abyss.
Special to The Seattle Times
'The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945'
by Ian Kershaw
Penguin Press, 510 pp., $35
By the autumn of 1944, it was clear that there was no hope for Nazi Germany. In September, the Wehrmacht began to crumble before the steady advance of the Allies on the Western Front, and by October the Red Army had reached German soil. The Luftwaffe was all but immobilized by the Allies' air superiority; the Ardennes Offensive, Hitler's final attempt to turn the tide of war, failed in December, and in January, 1945, the Soviets were streaming toward Berlin.
Any rational, responsible government would have sued for peace. But this was Nazi Germany. "We can go down," Hitler told one of his henchmen. "But we'll take the world with us." Why and how the Nazis held on until May 8, 1945, when their fate had been sealed at least six months earlier — and the terrible price that German soldiers and citizens paid — are the subjects of Ian Kershaw's magisterial new book, "The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945." The author of an award-winning two-volume biography of Hitler, Kershaw has created an epic of self-destruction, a kind of historical Götterdämmerung in which an entire culture embraces or submits to "an end with horror."
Why did (comparatively) sane leaders in the military and the Nazi party obey Hitler's orders when they knew it was sheer madness? Why did a starving bombed-out population remain so docile? Why were precious resources channeled into relocating Jews, foreign workers and other enemies of the state on "death marches" even as the Allies were streaming into German territory? Combing through a huge array of sources, including soldiers' letters, bugged conversations of German POWs, internal reports, memoirs of high-ranking Germans and surveys conducted by the Nazis, Kershaw comes to one fundamental conclusion: Germans at all levels of society had neither the will nor the means to resist Hitler's drive to "total destruction."
Indeed, as Kershaw makes clear, many remained enthusiastic or at least thoroughly brainwashed to the crack of doom. "What crimes they must have committed to be treated so cruelly, " one Nazified civilian commented upon seeing skeletal Jews emerging from a slave labor camp.
Whatever their guilt as individuals, the German people collectively paid a "colossal price" for Hitler's madness in fighting to the bitter end. Casualties in the Wehrmacht during the last months of the war tallied about 350,000 men a month and "far more" German civilians died from July 1944 to May 1945 than in the previous years of the conflict.
Kershaw strikes a fine balance between the thematic and the chronological as he tracks the spiral of events, from Claus von Stauffenberg's failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944 through the May 1945 surrender (and arrest) of Grand-Admiral Karl Dönitz (who took over as Reich President following Hitler's suicide on April 30). Also impressive is the artistry with which Kershaw fuses the "top down" history of leaders with the "bottom up" stories of prisoners, deserting soldiers, refugee families and ordinary citizens desperate to survive the catastrophe.
The violent downfall of powerful evil people furnishes one of the great pleasures of history and literature, and Kershaw makes the most of the demise of his large cast of monsters. In the final chapters, "The End" becomes a page-turner as Berlin falls, Nazi functionaries flee like rats, and Hitler and his inner circle go down in an inferno of suicide bullets, poison, arrest and summary execution. A consummate professional, Kershaw elicits outrage without raging himself.
Long, dense, tightly detailed and occasionally repetitive, "The End" is ultimately horrifying. Kershaw brilliantly demonstrates how and why the Third Reich chose destruction over surrender. What remains unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, is why the German people empowered this murderous regime in the first place.
Seattle author David Laskin's "The Long Way Home: An American Journey from Ellis Island to the Great War" is the winner of the 2011 Washington State Book Award in History/General nonfiction.