Prolonging the agony

In ‘The End,’ Ian Kershaw explains why the German leadership, well aware that the Second World War was lost, did nothing to stop the senseless slaughter and destruction.

Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill 521 (photo credit: Library of Congress / MCT)
Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill 521
(photo credit: Library of Congress / MCT)
For Winston Churchill, the Second World War years of 1944- 1945 were a time of a triumph and tragedy: triumph in the victory and tragedy in the ensuing cold war. For Hitler and his gang, this was a time of cruel reckoning and facing reality – the shattered dream of world domination and the prospect of eternal damnation. Still, except for the fanatics, most Germans could hardly complain – they knew they had brought all their troubles on themselves.
However, to compound his crime, Hitler decided that the surrender of 1918 would not repeat itself, and decided to fight to the bitter end. This meant continued bloodshed and destruction.
Ian Kershaw – the author of the prizewinning, two-volume biography of the German leader, Hitler 1889-1936 and Hubris and Hitler 1936-1945, as well as of Fateful Choices and Making Friends with Hitler – presents us with a gripping and penetrating study of the last months of the Nazi regime and explains how Hitler’s dogmatic inflexibility, a stubborn belief in his own starry leadership, prolonged the war and immense suffering.
In The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany – which is well illustrated with maps and contains extensive notes and an index – Kershaw endeavors to explain why the German leadership, well aware that the war was lost, did nothing to stop the senseless slaughter and destruction.
While it is true that a few Germans considered a revolt, or surrender to the West in order to create a common front against the Soviet Union, they all failed.
One such attempt, on July 20, 1944, had severe consequences: A conspiracy of prominent Germans in the armed forces, military intelligence and the Foreign Ministry delegated Count Claus von Stauffenberg to set off a bomb in Hitler’s HQ; however, the failure to kill Hitler resulted in an even sharper radicalization of the Gestapo-run police state and practically put an end to any possibility of a regime change or prospects of surrender.
It wasn’t only the terror that held the German war effort together. Many Germans still believed in Hitler’s “secret weapons” and his mystical power to win. They couldn’t believe that capitalist America and the communist Soviet Union had joined forces. They feared the Allied demand for an unconditional surrender (which according to Churchill did not prolong the war). It was, above all, the Germans’ deep-seated sense of discipline and patriotism that kept them steady under the heavy aerial bombardment, while they had to dig the strategically worthless fortifications and serve the crumbling regime faithfully.
The arrival of the first German refugees from the East signified that the painful retribution was near. They feared the revolt of the 12 million Germany- hating foreign workers employed in their midst. Such fears grew after many German refugees were massacred, robbed and abandoned during the retreat from East Prussia, where priority went to the evacuated soldiers and their equipment.
GERMANY WAS now ruled by Martin Bormann, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler and Albert Speer – three brutal fanatics and one organizational genius.
Assisting them were the Nazi Party Gauleiters (leaders), who distinguished themselves by evaporating into thin air whenever they were in danger. But they disciplined the old and infirm, and Gauleiters made sure that during evacuations no known opponents of the regime were left alive.
The mobilization of the old and of inexperienced youth for the Volkssturm formations was good propaganda, but worthless at the front. The creation of the “Werwolf” force to carry out sabotage behind the Allied lines and spread Hitlerism after the war was a ruse to enable some Nazi officials to escape, carrying gold and valuables to Switzerland, Spain and South America. On April 1, 1945, “Werwolf” Radio began broadcasting tirades against the Allies and describing imaginary acts of sabotage.
The most vigorous Nazi fanatics created the “Freikorps ‘Adolf Hitler,’” a paramilitary force equipped with bicycles and bazookas.
The dreaded foreign workers were shot frequently. Orders were given not to leave any concentration camp inmates alive during retreat as living witnesses. This resulted in the death marches, which were completely pointless except as a means of inflicting further suffering on those designated the Reich’s enemies.
Ultimately the regime did not know what to do with the hundreds of thousands of prisoners, hungry, sick and dying daily. The camp guards thought only of themselves, and the decision of whether to kill prisoners as ordered from above depended on the local camp commander. In Celle, 15 km. northeast of Hanover, almost 800 prisoners, men and women, fell on the night of April 8-9, 1945. Many railway wagons transporting prisoners were bombed from the air, and hundreds of them burned to death.
In March 1945, Himmler, just about to be fired from his post by Hitler, had ordered that the Jewish prisoners be treated like all the others and their death rates reduced, as part of his frantic efforts to reach some arrangement with the Allies.
BY THAT point, the Allies were closing for the kill, as the German troops were already battle-weary. Many deserted their units, even if they would be hanged on the spot when apprehended.
On March 18, 1945, German armaments minister Speer told Hitler openly that the economy would collapse within few weeks. Hitler, who had once said that Germany would either be victorious or cease to exist, told Speer that “if the war is lost, then the people is lost, this fate is irreversible, what will remain will be only the inferior ones.”
He ordered Speer to implement the “scorched earth policy,” to destroy the Saar mines, all factories, railways, bridges, electric and water installations.
Speer – who, despite the steadily growing chaos, had succeeded in keeping the German war machine going – refused to implement his boss’s recommendations and saved what he could.
In April 1945, more and more Germans were asking why the Allies’ landings had not been stopped. They aimed their criticism at Hitler himself, even if people did not mention him directly. But the presence of the eight million Nazi Party members, one-10th of the population, still held back the critics.
Hitler was already a sick man, playing for himself the role of a hero in a Wagnerian drama. Compounding his guilt was a series of tragic strategic military decisions he made. He refused to agree to orderly withdrawals, and in sudden bouts of anger dismissed reliable officials and appointed party hacks. Mostly he lived in his own dreamworld.
Kershaw succeeds in presenting this great drama of Nazi Germany’s last hours in vivid and exciting colors. He writes with gusto and depth. However, I would like to hear more about the Nazi attempts, during the last months of the regime, to cover up their crimes by burying and burning the bodies of their victims and preparing to deny the Holocaust.
Still, I would strongly recommend this book to all students of human affairs, for Kershaw shows us how human folly causes terrible suffering, and reveals the senselessness of tyranny and war as factors in human relations.