Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich
By Walter Kempowski.
W. W. Norton, 2016 (paperback). $17.
Reviewed by Anthony Brandt
THIS AMAZING BOOK PICKS OUT FOUR DAYS at the very end of World War II in 1945: Adolf Hitler’s birthday, April 20; the day Soviet and American troops met at the Elbe, April 25; the day of Hitler’s suicide, April 30; and the day of Germany’s surrender, May 8. Out of a vast welter of human witness in diaries, journals, letters, and reports, Kempowski put together more than 1,000 excerpts to chronicle the chaos and insanity of this time, and the result is hypnotizing. You don’t want to stop reading.
This is the last volume in a series of 10 compiling such material from throughout the war, and the first to be translated into English. It contains accounts from soldiers at the front, Russian, German, American, British, French; refugees fleeing the eastern front for the American lines; civilians trying to survive; soldiers and officers of all ranks, including generals, describing what is going on around them; prisoners in prison camps; and on and on. An SS officer describes having dinner at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin on April 20, where “waiters in tuxedos and maîtres d’ in tailcoats went on solemnly and unflappably serving purple pieces of kohlrabi on the silver trays meant for better days.” Russian tanks were only a few miles off; artillery shells were already landing in the streets. In Leipzig, after the city is taken, American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White runs up the steps of the City Hall and in room after room finds city officials and their families sitting dead in office chairs or on couches, bottles of poison by their sides. A German first lieutenant supposed to defend Berlin cries out in despair: “What am I supposed to do with French rifles? What am I supposed to do with the Luftwaffe auxiliary personnel? What are the girls still doing here?”
The book contains firsthand accounts from people who were in Hitler’s bunker at the end, and Hitler’s “political testament” is here as well. Other accounts stand out, too. The terror German civilians, especially women, felt at the approach of the Russian troops—with good reason—is sharply sketched. Surprises show up, like the Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun’s statement, “I’m not worthy to speak of Adolf Hitler….He was a warrior, a warrior for humanity and a herald of the gospel of justice for all nations.” I had forgotten that he was a Nazi sympathizer.
There is the continuous shock of the concentration camps: German civilians riding in a cart are stopped on the road by camp survivors who take two boxes from the cart. One of the Germans describes a survivor: “His head, which sat on a thin neck, looked more like a skull or a mask than a living person, particularly as he had only one eye….I had to struggle to look at him.” Someone asks where he came from. “Mauthausen concentration camp,” he replies. “Never heard of it,” says the German.
It is vivid, it is dramatic, it is real people of all sorts, victims of history, caught in these terrifying moments. MHQ
ANTHONY BRANDT has written for many national magazines and has been the book columnist for Men’s Journal and National Geographic Adventure.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue (Vol. 28, No. 4) of MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Reviews: Unsung Conflicts.
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