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The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944–1945, by Ian Kershaw, The Penguin Press, New York, 2011, $35

In his landmark two-volume biography Hitler British historian Ian Kershaw sought to answer why 68 million Germans, including the military establishment, willingly gave such a hateful figure so much power that it cost the lives of some 40 million Europeans. Kershaw has probably come as close to explaining that mystery as any scholar ever will.

Now Kershaw is back with another baffling query: Why did the Germans keep fighting in 1944–45 when it was clear they had already lost the war?

It was not just a matter of putting up a good fight for appearances’ sake. The suffering the German civilians and military endured in the closing 10 months of the war was appalling. Allied bombings killed about 400,000 civilians during that period, the Soviet invasion another half-million. Millions more were injured, raped or displaced. Of the more than 5 million German servicemen who died during the conflict, some 2.6 million died after July 1944, and in the winter of 1945 about 350,000 were perishing each month.

So why did the Germans prolong the horrors of war when their defeat was inevitable? The answer is a complicated one, and Kershaw is meticulous in detailing all the forces—from fear of the Soviets to fear of the Nazis—that made the Germans persist.

Writing this history as a narrative, Kershaw begins on July 20, 1944, when Claus von Stauffenberg failed in his attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler. In Kershaw’s eyes the failure of this coup is critical to understanding the Nazi will to fight, for it resulted in the promotion of four key Hitler acolytes—Martin Bormann, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and Albert Speer. Himmler, Goebbels and Bormann each in his own way contributed to a prevailing atmosphere of terror that forced Germans to fight on, largely because the retribution for not fighting was worse than war itself. Armaments minister Speer, while more moderate, was the “organizational genius” who maintained the arms output that kept the Germans fighting.

Borrowing a theme from the Hitler biographies, Kershaw maintains that the only component of German society that could have stopped this madness was the military, but it chose to honor its insane oath to Hitler rather than combat his crumbling regime. With the generals choosing to fight, the rank-and-file soldier had little choice but to follow.

Citing sources that range from soldiers’ letters to interviews with captured Germans, Kershaw tries to fathom the opinions and emotions that kept Germany fighting. At times the book broaches too many themes at once, and it often repeats key points—small and unavoidable flaws in such an all-inclusive study. But these petty complaints fade under the authority of Kershaw’s tireless research on his marathon quest to understand the big questions about the most important period in modern history.

—Peter Moreira