Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Death of the Third Reich

by Stephen G. Fritz; University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2004, $35.

Stephen Fritz, author of Frontsoldaten, has produced another winner. Endkampf is the story of the American drive into southern Germany, the region known as Franconia, in an effort to prevent the Nazis from falling back into the anticipated Alpine stronghold known as the Alpenfestung (Alpine Fortress) or national redoubt. Although the Allies could not know it, the Alpenfestung was a myth, an artful creation of Nazi propaganda. Despite this fantasy, as the Americans pushed into Franconia they found not a defeated enemy offering sham opposition, but fanatical, even merciless, resistance carried out by an SS officer and hardened veterans from the brutal fighting on the Eastern Front.

Like much contemporary military history, Endkampf is less a story of battles and engagements and more an account of a society at war, or rather in the midst of war. Fritz’s account analyzes the nature of life in Germany as the Nazi regime began to collapse. Why did some Germans continue to resist to the bitter end while others did not? The reasons are of course as numerous as the individuals involved. No single answer is possible. Instead, the reconstruction of pieces of the story, as far as they can be known, is what the historian does. It is particularly irksome, therefore, that Fritz should use the mathematical terminology from chaos theory to describe the collective behavior of German society at the end of the Third Reich. Such terminology strips history of its personalities, its accidents, its cultures and mentalities, the intentions and perceptions of its actors, both major and minor, and, most of all, its drama.

Fortunately, he does not carry this beyond the book’s preface. That transgression aside, Endkampf has eight chapters that take the reader from the anxious American lunge at the Nazi bait to the immediate postwar period. In between he discusses such things as the fierce resistance of some German units to the American advance and the GIs’ sometimes bloody reprisals as they grew increasingly unwilling to risk their lives in a war they believed was already won. The narrative is not solely about military operations, however. The author describes such things as German civilians who at times aided their own troops and at other times killed them, the stubborn German anti-Semitism and the GIs’ own unsympathetic attitudes up until the very end of the war. Rather than a bang, the war ends with a whimper as combat-weary GIs find themselves forced to deal with the wandering hordes of displaced persons pouring into the American sector throughout 1945, and the forced resettlement of displaced Jews, all the while coping with rising crime rates across Germany.

In the spring of 1945, death and destruction were everywhere, but life went on. The cataclysmic, all-encompassing Götterdämmerung (twilight of the gods) hoped for by Adolf Hitler and Josef Goebbels was, in fact, a jumble of acts of self-interest and self-sacrifice followed by just another ordinary day in which the sun again rose in the east and set in the west.

What that sun would rise and set on, however, was a German nation too ashamed to “show its face,” as Thomas Mann wrote after the war, and yet too pragmatic to let shame stand in the way of survival. Even before the last shots were fired, many Germans had begun to see their conquerors, their occupiers, as liberators. On the other hand, German resistance movements, like the small bands of Hitler Youth and Werewolf units that committed acts of sabotage and murder, though never on the scale hoped for by the Nazi leadership, persisted into 1946.

Fritz’s fluid pen has created a fascinating book. He makes solid use of published and unpublished American and German sources. The stories he relates are at once astonishing and yet predictable. Not surprisingly, he finds no single answer to the questions posed earlier; nor does he really explore the individual stories and phenomena thoroughly enough to satisfy the interest he provokes. History is as complex and contradictory as human nature, and it is impossible to capture in one narrative. Nonetheless, Endkampf will strike historians in and out of the classroom as both interesting and useful.

 

Originally published in the April 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here