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Among the Ruins
The End: Germany, 1944-45 - Ian Kershaw
Member Name: Jake Speed
The End: Germany, 1944-45 - Ian Kershaw
Advantages: Absorbing read
Disadvantages: Unavoidably treads some familiar ground
The End: Hitler's Germany, 1944-45 was written by Ian Kershaw and published in 2011. The book looks at one of the enduringly compelling and fascinating areas of study thrown up in the wake of World War 2. How and why did Germany manage to extend the war through to 1945 when it was clearly apparent that they were fighting an increasingly hopeless lost cause as early as 1942? Why did their leaders not seek to negotiate with their enemies and save millions of lives? Why did the German people continue to accept Hitler's rule? Why didn't the army remove Hitler and the Nazis from power to save Germany from needless suffering? The book begins in July 1944. The D-Day landings at Normandy have been consolidated and millions of Allied soldiers are assembling on the Continent. Rome has fallen and German soldiers are fighting a desperate rearguard near Florence. Allied airbases can now be stationed ever closer to the Reich and the destruction of German cities and the death of civilians through extensive bombing will only get worse. Most harrowing and worrying of all though from a German perspective is the growing crisis in the east, a theatre where their battered and outgunned formations have been in headlong retreat for many weary months. The Red Army has launched Operation Bagration and smashed Hitler's strategically placed Army Group Centre with the loss of 530,000 German troops. Army Group Centre contained nearly 50 divisions and some of the best armoured formations left in the Wehrmacht and yet it was swatted aside by the unstoppable Soviet offensive as if it was nothing more than an irritant. There is now a gaping German hole across 700 miles of the huge eastern front and East Prussia is threatened. The Red Army has a ten to one advantage in infantry and a twenty to one advantage in heavy guns and air power. What was once unthinkable for the Nazi leaders and the German population is inevitable and unavoidable. The war will now be fought on German soil.
This is a very readable and absorbing book and once again I liked Kershaw's (who wrote one of the best biographies of Hitler and is something on an expert on Germany in World War 2) economical style and the way he concentrates on his story and themes without too many unnecessary distractions or diversions (mercifully footnotes are thin on the ground here despite the fact that the book is 400 pages long). If you are relatively familiar with World War 2 books and interested in this period then you'll probably be familiar with many of the general explanations put forth here but I found there were enough new tangents and musings to make the volume reasonably satisfying nonetheless. It sounds ridiculous and simplistic but one of the principle reasons why Germany fought on for so long was that it genuinely couldn't think of an alternative or anything else to do. The thought of surrendering to the Russians terrified them for understandable reasons (especially once the vengeful Red Army had entered German soil and begun a bestial rampage of rape, murder and looting) and the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender allowed Hitler and Goebbels to claim that this would mean the end of Germany and would be unacceptable. Hitler also believed that the alliance of nations threatening Germany's borders was one that could not possibly hold together. You had two very capitalist countries (Britain, US) and a communist one (Soviet Union) for starters so friction was bound to occur. The Nazi high circle also clung to a belief and hope that Britain and the United States would eventually fall out and grow tired of their alliance.
So, they could justify the continuance of the war on the grounds that if they just held out for long enough the coalition ranged against them would surely crumble and then the Americans or British might even join them in fighting the Soviet Union and protecting Europe from communism. It was all nonsense of course but they clung to such unrealistic hopes when all seemed lost. This partly explains Hitler's Ardennes Offensive (aka The Battle of the Bulge) where he sacrificed Germany's last armoured reserves in a desperate surprise attack in the west through the Ardennes Forest. The aim of the offensive was to capture the port of Antwerp and split the American and British forces. Hitler believed that the Allies would argue and lose their appetite for war as a consequence and it would then allow him to transfer more men and tanks to the east where they were badly needed. But with the Wehrmacht lacking experienced battle hardened soldiers and desperately short of fuel for its tanks and vehicles, the offensive quickly petered out and fell hopelessly short of expectations. All it did was shorten the war because their armies in the west were now even weaker with the losses in men and tanks. Kershaw has a decent account of the offensive in the book and somehow manages not to feel like he is treading familiar ground too much (no mean feat given how much this battle has been written about).
Kershaw does become slightly circuitous at times and feel like he's repeating himself but his core theme of the rule of Hitler through charismatic authority is expertly developed and explained. "All other factors,lingering popular backing for Hitler, the ferocious terror apparatus, the increased dominance of the Nazi party, the prominent roles of the Bormann-Goebbels-Himmler-Speer quadrumvirate, the fear of Bolshevik occupation, and the continued readiness of high-ranking civil servants and military leaders to continue doing their duty when all was obviously lost, were ultimately subordinate to the way that the charismatic Fuhrer regime was structured, and how it functioned, in its dying phase." Believe it or not, Hitler was actually surprisingly popular even up to 1944 and when he survived the attempt on his life by disgruntled army officers he even got something of a poll boost as many people were sympathetic and shocked that anyone would try to kill him. One other factor of course in Germany grimly holding out for so long was the belief that new "wonder weapons" would arrive to alter the tide of war in Germany's favour. People knew of the V rockets and jet-fighters. They wrongly assumed that Hitler had something even more amazing up his sleeve that he was waiting to unleash at the last minute. These mythical wonder weapons maintained some hope as the war came closer to home.
One thing about the book that I found especially interesting was the Bormann-Goebbels-Himmler-Speer "quadrumvirate" (Goering is by this point, despite being Hitler's nominal successor, completely discredited by the failure of the Lufwaffe to live up to his promises and has lost the previous status he used to enjoy as a member of the inner circle). Speer is a very interesting character and I felt like I got some new insights on him through Kershaw. Speer was the young architect who Hitler took a shine to and wanted to design a new capital. By 1944 Speer (who was still only in his thirties) had been made the Armaments Minister and was responsible for the Wehrmacht having enough rifles, ammunition, tanks and vehicles to continue the war. After the war, when he was released from prison, Speer became something of a celebrity, appearing on television a lot and creating an image as the "good Nazi". The genial and urbane Speer would claim that he knew the war was already lost and used his influence to save German infrastructure and industry (despite Hitler's insistence that everything in the path of the enemy should be demolished) to alleviate suffering and save the country. He said he had considered killing Hitler by putting poison gas in the Berlin bunker and knew nothing about the Holocaust. But as Kershaw explains, Speer was not quite who he claimed to be. Not only is there now evidence that he knew of the horrors of the Final Solution but he was also as responsible as anyone for the war needlessly dragging on as long as it did. Speer was remarkably ambitious and took his job as Armaments Minister very seriously, ruthlessly exploiting foreign slave labour to keep Germany's munitions factories going even as disaster and ruin loomed.
Speer was an advocate of "total war", the complete mobilisation of Germany's population and industry to the war effort (something which, strangely, Hitler was a late convert to, the Furhrer even demanding that confectionery factories remain open at one point because he believed it would be bad for morale if Germans couldn't buy sweets). But Goebbels not Speer is placed in charge of total war and uses his position to take Speer down a peg or two (both Goebbels and Martin Bormann were uncomfortable with the young Speer joining them as one of the main Nazi grandees and wasted no time in undermining him). Goebbels starts taking workers out of Speer's factories to plug the manpower crisis and so Speer naturally now has a harder task in producing the weapons the army needs to fight. The petty jealousies and intrigue between the leaders of the private Nazi Empires even as the country was close to defeat and ruin remains morbidly compelling to read about. Germany, Kershaw explains, is losing thousands of soldiers every day through death, injury and desertion and must scrape the bottom of the manpower barrel with all men between the ages of 16 and 60 now obliged to join the war effort in some way. Many are destined for the Volkssturm - Goebbels' new national militia or Home Guard. The Volkssturm receives the traditional Nazi propaganda gloss and is supposed to be six million strong when complete, thus easing Germany's disasterous manpower situation. In reality, it never attains anywhere near six million men and - bereft of uniforms and rifles and made up of many who are simply unfit to fight - proves to be little more than a paper tiger, only serving to pointlessly sacrifice the lives of ill-trained boys and old men who should have been nowhere near the battle front.
One thing that is almost surreal in the book is how Nazi beauracracy functioned almost to the end. Kershaw begins with an account of Robert Limpert, a theology student who decides that his home town of Anbasch must be saved from needless destruction. Limpert distributes leaflets calling for a peaceful surrender to the encroaching Americans and is publically hung after being reported by Hitler Youth. Limpert sounds like the voice of sanity but repression functioned in Germany to the last. Because the Wehrmacht is being soundly battered on both sides (to give you an idea of how hopeless the military situation is, Kershaw says that a single terrifying and sustained artillery assault by the Soviets in the east killed a quarter of the powerful German 4th Army in one engagement), many of its soldiers are in constant disorganised retreat and become separated from their units. Himmler orders that all soldiers found roaming outside their military unit will be shot or hung for cowardice but by 1945 it's almost impossible to work out who has deserted or who is genuinely lost in the chaos. Germany eventually executes over 20,000 of its own soldiers for cowardice or desertion. To give you a perspective on this figure, in the whole of the war Britain executed 40 soldiers. There is also a lot of stuff on the Gauleiters too. These were usually the most ruthless administrators and the most vociferous in demanding that soldiers fight or be executed and that people must not flee.
As we discover in the book, when it came to practicing what they preached, the Gauleiters were no example to anyone, secretly fleeing themselves the first chance they got with their looted art treasures, leaving woman and chidren to fend for themselves. The End: Hitler's Germany, 1944-45 is probably not quite an essential purchase if you have a decent amount of World War 2 books already on your shelf but it's an absorbing and interesting book and certainly worth reading. I liked the fact that Kershaw doesn't do that familiar history volume thing of quoting endless diaries and letters from private citizens. This can be an essential and fascinating device but you don't miss it here at all and it makes the book feel far less guilty of bloat than many others in this area. I can imagine that some readers might feel that Kershaw doesn't dredge up anything terribly new here but then that's not exactly easy these days given the time that has elapsed and the wealth of World War 2 books but even though I had read things like Defeat in the West and Berlin I never found my attention drifting and was always interested in his thesis and thoughts. There are two sections of colour and black and white photographs to accompany the text and at the time of writing you can buy The End: Hitler's Germany, 1944-45 for about £5.
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