Into Dust

Richard J. Evans

  • The End: Hitler’s Germany 1944-45 by Ian Kershaw
    Allen Lane, 564 pp, £30.00, August 2011, ISBN 978 0 7139 9716 3

Why did the Germans keep on fighting to the bitter end in 1945, long after it was clear to almost everybody that the war was lost? From the catastrophic defeat of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad early in 1943, through the devastating Allied bombing raids on Hamburg in the summer of 1943, reports on popular opinion filed by secret agents of the Nazi regime record a growing belief that Germany was going to lose. So why did Germans not rise up and force the regime to sue for peace? Towards the end of the First World War, recognition that the war was lost led senior generals to the negotiating table. Not so in 1944-45. Why not?

Most wars between states in the modern age, according to Ian Kershaw, end with an agreed peace as soon as one side concedes defeat. It is possible to think of major exceptions to this rule, from Napoleon’s France in 1814 to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq two centuries later. Sometimes, too, there is regime change before peace is concluded, as in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 or indeed the First World War. Still, the determination of the Germans to go down fighting in the Second World War was remarkable and demands explanation – all the more so, since the death and destruction they suffered increased hugely in the final months. In his new book, Kershaw, who began his career as a historian of Nazi Germany with pioneering work on German popular opinion in the Third Reich before writing a major biography of Hitler and studies of decision-making and diplomacy in the 1930s and 1940s, returns to his original focus of interest and tries to find an answer to the perplexing question of Germany’s failure to surrender.

The first and most obvious reason lies, it is clear, in the nature of the Nazi regime itself. The Third Reich was not a normal state. It was not even a normal dictatorship, if there is such a thing. From the start of his career, Hitler was possessed with a Social Darwinist view of the world that saw relations between states as a struggle for survival and supremacy between races. There was no compromise: either Germany would achieve global hegemony or it would go under. His war aims were neither rational nor limited. As the military situation deteriorated, he insisted with ever greater vehemence that the struggle had to continue. In the final months, he became increasingly divorced from reality, hoping for rescue by miracle weapons such as the V-1 and the V-2, expecting quarrels to break out between the western Allies and the Soviet Union, or looking for a speedy end to the war after the death of President Roosevelt. A portrait of Frederick the Great, who had turned round the fortunes of Prussia after the occupation of Berlin by the Russians, provided him with intermittent hope.

Hitler has sometimes been credited, notably by the American historian Gerhard Weinberg, with exercising a degree of flexibility in his command of the German armed forces during the years of defeat and retreat, but in the regime’s final months this gave way to a stubborn insistence that retreat was treason, tactical withdrawal military cowardice, and realism weakness of willpower. Exuding confidence in ultimate victory, he continued to move his armies around long after they had become desperate, disorganised and depleted rabbles. On occasion the mask of self-belief would slip, and he would confess that all was lost; at the end, he announced to his intimates, he would put a bullet through his brain. ‘We’ll not capitulate. Never. We can go down. But we’ll take a world with us.’ The German people, Hitler concluded, did not deserve to survive. They had failed the test of history. On 19 March 1945 he issued the infamous ‘Nero order’, telling his commanders to destroy everything that might fall into the hands of the advancing enemy.

But Hitler’s self-destructiveness and contempt for the German people in some ways only deepen the mystery of why they fought on. Part of the answer clearly lies in the psychological power he still wielded. Whether by force of personality or habit on the part of his underlings, or as a result of prestige built up through the years of success, he continued to be able to persuade his immediate subordinates to follow him into the abyss. ‘Even in the last weeks,’ Kershaw notes, ‘some went in to see him demoralised and disconsolate and came away with new enthusiasm and determination.’ Albert Speer, for instance, whose efforts had done so much in the final three years of the war to increase arms production and keep it going in the face of Allied bombing raids, continued to serve Hitler even though he realised more clearly than most that all was lost.

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