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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Review: The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-45 by Ian Kershaw


A man cuts some telephone lines he thinks connect the military bases one to another. He's seen by two members of the Hitler Jugend who report his actions. He's summarily arrested by the local police. The regional commander is summoned and a summary trial is conducted and the man executed. This scenario occurs just four hours from the town being overrun by the Allies in Germany. The question Kershaw asks and answers is why did local bureaucracies and systems continue to function so well as apocalypse was often just minutes away. Why continue to resist at a cost of inevitable total destruction. In early 1945, German soldiers were dying at a rate of 350,000 *per month.* It was a scale of killing that even dwarfed the First World War. British and American bombers were leveling cities and killing thousands of civilians, yet the populace and it's representative structure continued to resist and function.

I was confused in the beginning by what seemed to be contradictory points, i.e., that many in the general staff and lower ranks were very supportive of Hitler to the end while at the same time he cites numerous examples of terror shown to any kind of disloyalty or wavering on the part of civilians or military, especially after the Stauffenberg assassination attempt (an astonishing 20,000 German soldiers were shot as opposed to 40 British which would indicate to me a substantial level of defeatism or discord among the lower ranks). Special squads were created to enforce loyalty and the number of executions soared. At the same time he examines numerous letters and diaries showing support for Hitler among those soldiers and the civilian bureaucracy continued to function at a high level. I might argue that finding support for a position in the myriad number of papers left by the highly literate German people might be found regardless of the overall view.

Contradictions abound and just as one view was proposed, Kershaw presented evidence to the contrary. What’s much clearer is the entanglement of motivations of many different people for many different reasons. Partly, it was that Himmler brought his administration of terror from the East back to the Reich. Another was the personal loyalty of from those mignons at the top, Himmler, Bormann, Goebbels, et al, who derived their power from Hitler so it was natural they would remain fanatically loyal to the end. The extreme brutality of the Russian soldiers on the eastern front led to the desire to hasten westward where the Americans and British were perceived to be more amiable.

The slaughter at the end of the war is simply unimaginable and Kershaw doesn’t spare the reader. Hundreds of thousands died in the last few months of the war. Twice as much tonnage of bombs were dropped by the Allies in the first four months of 1945 than in all of 1943. Millions were left homeless and fled the approach of the Soviet Army eager to apply much of the same fearsome slaughter the Germans had inflicted on the Slavic people on their march east. Fifty percent of the German soldiers who died in the war were killed in the last ten months. A few deserted, most continued to fight. The machinery of the state continued and defeatists were murdered by Nazi death squads.

The failure of the Germans to give up when clearly all was lost may lie in the culture Hitler had created. The oft cited reason of allied demands for unconditional surrender Kershaw dispenses with, if not entirely convincingly. The German people had been so used to dictatorial and fanatic leadership that they were unable to do anything but follow orders and were suitably cowed and ripe for the leadership of anyone. Put broadly, the simplest reason may be that people simply “went along to get along.”

It’s a fascinating study. My only quibble is that I think the book might have been strengthened by a comparison with events in Japan, which, one might argue, were similar.
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