The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944–1945
By Ian Kershaw, 592 pp.
The Penguin Press, 2011. $35.
If Hitler—or a successor—had decided to throw in the towel when it became clear that the war was unwinnable, how many millions of lives might have been saved? This resonant question is at the core of Ian Kershaw’s much-anticipated new book. The End traces the disintegration of the Third Reich from 1944, when the July plot failed to kill Hitler, to the very last minutes of the führer’s life in the ruins of Berlin. (Disclaimer: I am not related to Professor Kershaw, though that assumption regularly dogs me. I was once asked by a history professor if he was a relative, and shook my head no. He then tossed a very poor essay back at me, saying, “Didn’t think so.”)
Very few societies, Kershaw stresses, have fought “to the point of total destruction.” Why Germany in 1945? The Allied demand for unconditional surrender was a factor, although less important than has been widely argued. Churchill himself rejected that notion out of hand: the Allies’ conditions for a negotiated surrender, the prime minister explained, “looked so terrible when set forth on paper, and so far exceeded what was in fact done, that their publication would have only stimulated German resistance.” What of Joseph Goebbels’s brilliant use of propaganda? Highly effective until the cataclysmic defeat at Stalingrad, by 1945 the Nazi spin-doctor convinced only the very young and willfully gullible. Nor was Hitler’s popularity, “his charismatic rule,” a decisive factor. By January 1945, when a record number of Americans died in Europe, Hitler was reviled by many Germans. Very few, however, dared to openly express their disdain for him and his party lest they be executed by one of the many roving kangaroo courts doling out instant discipline.
Terror, the central dynamic of Nazism, lies at the heart of Kershaw’s narrative. Fear of the truly barbaric Soviets, wreaking revenge for the enormity of German crimes in the East; fear of maniacal Nazis in the SS and Gestapo; fear of the invader and loss of one’s homeland—all were factors in the scale of the final Götterdämmerung. But not even terror kept so many Germans fighting with frighteningly real enthusiasm, even into the last bloody weeks, when it was clear that all was lost.
In the end, Kershaw demonstrates, it all came down to Hitler. Der Führer had diabolically trapped Germans in a vortex of escalating nihilism. So long as he breathed, the rush to annihilation gathered pace. There was no effective opposition to him, no alternative power base or potential leader. He was head of the state, the armed forces, the party, the apparatus of terror. Every institution, from the civil service to the judiciary, had been radicalized and brought under his total control. Confronting him, Kershaw writes persuasively, “in any organized body, political or military, was completely impossible…. Hitler’s mass charismatic appeal had long since dissolved but the structures and mentalities of his charismatic rule lasted until his death in the bunker.”
Kershaw’s work is, as always, based on superb scholarship, and for long sections The End is utterly absorbing as the Reich’s fall gathers ghastly momentum. Unfortunately, as with most academic historians, Kershaw tends to steer clear of oral history and the kind of emotional testimony found in populist accounts; he appears to have conducted few if any interviews with living eyewitnesses. So those looking for a thrilling account of the Reich’s last year on the battlefield, let alone trenchant social history, will be disappointed. Nevertheless, The End is essential reading, brilliantly illuminating why Germany—and much of Europe—lay in ashes by the time the architect of its ruin put a pistol to his head.