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The End: Hitler's Germany, 1944-45

The Führer and his absolute power forced Germans to fight on when all was lost, Jill Stephenson finds

Do we need another book on the Second World War? In general, no. But in this particular case, the answer is a resounding "yes". It is true that the military history of the war has, so to speak, been done to death - in books, articles, films and television programmes. Apparently, insomniacs in Idaho will lap up anything to do with the war. The End will reprise some of what they already know, but it will also add much additional substance and value to it.

Ian Kershaw's intention is not merely to give an account of the military aspects of the last year of the war, although rehearsing these is essential to his purpose. This is eminently readable, in effect military history without tears. But his main purpose is to engage with those historians who have claimed that Germans willingly fought to the bitter end, thus indicating their support for Hitler's regime and its objectives, including, say some, genocide. Kershaw's method is to investigate in painstaking detail the reasons that the Second World War lasted so long and the extent to which this was because Hitler's war aims were supported by the mass of German soldiers and civilians. He has adopted a narrative form, interweaving strands on the military course of the war, the attitudes of members of the hierarchies of the armed forces and the National Socialist Party (NSDAP), and evidence about the mood of soldiers and civilians. His investigation is based squarely on a wealth of archival sources, including letters and diaries as well as security agents' reports and official documents, in addition to a mass of relevant secondary literature.

The simple reason for the war's continuing until Germany was totally defeated and occupied was that Hitler would not countenance surrender. He could have no future after the war, and he had no concern for the potential future of any of his fellow countrymen. He was the source of all power - including over the armed forces - in a system where opponents had long since been eliminated and structures put in place to ensure that only he had absolute authority. This, argues Kershaw, was strongly accentuated by the fallout from the failed conspiracy against him on 20 July 1944. Thereafter, the screws of control were tightened even further, with the NSDAP given virtually unlimited control over civilian life and senior military officers put on notice that any questioning of Hitler's decisions would be regarded as rank disloyalty. Surviving the attempted coup also gave Hitler a new lease of confidence, buttressing his conviction that the only possible outcomes were victory or downfall. This iron rule remained in force until his death at the end of April 1945.

In the meantime, from July 1944 onwards, Germany's armies fought on, haemorrhaging soldiers at an appalling rate and obliging their adversaries to do the same, while bombers created an inferno in Germany's towns and civilians had to function in an environment of destruction and dislocation, all in a cause that was patently lost. Germany's resources in terms of manpower and materials were quantitatively far inferior to those of the opposing coalition. Yet the leading men of Hitler's inner circle managed to perform miracles, Joseph Goebbels in "combing out" a million men from other areas for the armed forces, and Albert Speer in effecting a level of armaments production that should have been unattainable for a mere mortal, and was attainable only at a terrible cost to many of Germany's millions of foreign slave labourers. With that, and with some highly skilled, committed and, in some cases, fanatical generals - none more so than Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz - the last stages of the war were drawn out far longer than seemed likely in autumn 1944, and longer than they should have been, with the attendant blood-letting.

Why did soldiers fight on? In fact, a great many did not. Kershaw estimates that there were hundreds of thousands of deserters. Thousands of them were apprehended and executed, especially in the last stages of the war when summary execution after a hasty trial by court martial was routine. But desertion was an individual matter; surrender was not, as the arrest of the families of generals who surrendered on the eastern front demonstrated. Still, as Kershaw says, "Exhausted, demoralized troops provided no basis for insurrection."

And so in one aim, at least, Hitler was successful: there would be no repeat of the mutinies and request for an armistice of 1918. The mass of soldiers fought on to the end, a minority of them loyal and fanatical, but many well aware that the game was up while they were, under draconian military discipline, powerless to act. There were other motives. The solidarity of a group of fighting men should not be underestimated. Further, in Nazi Germany, loyalty to the regime and national pride had become indivisible. The Allies were the enemy who had destroyed their towns, and countering their invasion and occupation of Germany was a self-evident necessity. This became less compelling in the west once the Allies had invaded and had, for the most part, treated captured soldiers and civilians humanely. There, civilians and some soldiers alike welcomed the invader, in the face of exhortations and very real threats from the Nazi leadership to desist. In the east, German soldiers fought on tenaciously, and civilians desperately constructed fortifications, to try to prevent the Red Army from inflicting on more Germans the atrocities they were alleged, with much justification, to have committed in Nemmersdorf, in East Prussia. Fear of Russians and of Bolshevism was genuine and extreme.

In any other system, one would have expected opportunistic generals or political grandees to break with the supreme leader to prevent further bloodshed and destruction, once defeat was certain. But in Nazi Germany those who harboured doubts kept them to themselves - or expressed them and were fired. Kershaw is clear that the magic of the charismatic dictatorship lasted for some in the civil and military hierarchies almost to the end. The generals were certainly responsible for the disastrous continuation of the struggle, whatever some might later claim in their memoirs. For the overwhelming majority of party leaders, at national and regional level especially, but not excluding some at district and local level, their investment and involvement in Hitler's system were so great that, as Kershaw says, they had burned their boats.

There seemed no alternative for them to going down fighting, and they were determined to take the bombed, disoriented, grieving and hungry citizenry with them - until almost the last minute, when many party leaders simply fled. But raising a white flag or dismantling an anti-tank barrier could cost ordinary people their lives. Many were shot or hanged for doing so. And the orgy of violence in the last weeks of the war included the calculated murder of many of the Nazis' former opponents and bêtes noires: they were not to be permitted to survive to see the Nazis' downfall.

Kershaw has demonstrated that it is legitimate to describe German suffering - while clearly acknowledging the suffering of Jews in concentration camps and on death marches, and of foreign slave labourers, whose toil in horrific conditions enabled Speer to meet his production targets. He has woven his strands of narrative in masterly fashion. There are a few points where the material feels a little repetitive, but then death, destruction and insane decisions were constantly repeated. This is a persuasive, readable and scholarly account that demonstrates its author's mastery of the subject, skill as a historian and innate good sense to perfection.

The Author

Ian Kershaw had hoped to study modern languages at university, choosing Latin and French for his A-level subjects and taking history only to make up his third. But inspired by his teacher, he went on to pursue history at the University of Liverpool and received first-class honours.

He completed his DPhil at the University of Oxford in 1969, a year after joining the University of Manchester as assistant lecturer in medieval history.

He spent two years at the University of Nottingham before being invited to spend a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin in 1989, where he witnessed the fall of the Wall and the move to German unification. He enjoyed Germany, but says there was much he missed about England - not least rugby league, cricket and football.

In 1990, Kershaw joined the University of Sheffield, where he remained until his retirement in 2008. He says he was reluctant to accept a knighthood in 2002, until "my wife put the pen and the relevant form in front of me and said: 'Sign here.'"

He enjoys exploring the Yorkshire Dales; visiting medieval churches, ruined abbeys and castles; drinking wine and beer with his friends and family; and, "as my wife pointed out, doing daft things with our five grandchildren".

The End: Hitler's Germany, 1944-45

By Ian Kershaw

Allen Lane, 592pp, £30.00

ISBN 9780713997163

Published 25 August 2011

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