Innumerable books have described the wartime sufferings of Europe’s innocents at the hands of the Nazis, a subject that rightly still haunts us. Recent years, however, have seen an increase in the amount of writing that deals with the second world war and its immediate aftermath from another point of view: that of the war’s principal begetter, Germany.
That Germans, too, suffered horribly at the end, there can be no doubt. Ian Kershaw’s masterly work is at heart an organisational history, skewering the often squalid manoeuvres of the Nazi elite, laying out and analysing how the once apparently invincible trinity of Nazi party, German people and army slowly but inexorably dissolved as lightning victory gave way to agonisingly drawn-out defeat and subsequent disillusion. However, the author, one of the world’s leading authorities on the Third Reich, does not shirk the almost unimaginably catastrophic human cost of this process.
The End begins in the early autumn of 1944, when it became clear that this was a war Hitler’s trained attack-dog of a state could no longer win. After the Anglo-American breakout from Normandy in late July 1944, and the devastating success of the Soviet summer offensive, it seemed the war might be over by the end of the year. The failed July 20 plot against Hitler’s life increased the impression that the German state itself stood on the verge of collapse.
Yet, somehow, Germany reorganised and held out. Not indefinitely but for appreciably longer than anyone would have thought possible. By September, the western front had deteriorated into bloody stalemate. In October, the Soviet advance towards the German heartlands all but halted. Warsaw, apparently at the mercy of the Red Army in July 1944 and with its people in open revolt, did not fall until January 1945, by which time hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants had been slaughtered by the vengeful Germans and their city all but razed to the ground.
Not only had the Nazi system shown amazing resilience but the largely aristocratic coup attempt in July had given Hitler and his paladins an excuse to purge the army of its independent spirits and dramatically step up the militarisation of society and the economy. They also initiated a radical reign of terror among the general German population of a kind that had hitherto been confined to Jews, foreigners and a dwindling number of indigenous leftwing renegades.
Until this time, a major difference between Hitlerism and Stalinism, though both totalitarian systems ruled by terror, had been the more selective nature of the Nazis’ treatment of their own population. Stalin killed millions of Soviet citizens in quota-dictated random round-ups that affected “innocent” and “guilty” alike – support for the status quo and even membership of the party was no protection.
By contrast, while the Gestapo treated active political dissidents with ruthless brutality, any “Aryan” German who either supported the regime or remained broadly accepting of it – the great majority – was extremely unlikely to end up in a concentration camp.
After July 1944 this changed. Ordinary Germans struggling for their own or their family’s interests, or even for simple physical survival, now stood an increasing chance of being subjected to the barbarities that “racial undesirables” and the people of the occupied countries had long been accustomed to. Perceived “defeatist” remarks, criticism of the regime, subversive jokes, participation in the near-universal black market, reluctance to accede to the increasingly onerous demands placed on the mass of the people, who were expected to match the vaunted “fanaticism” (a word of high praise in the Nazi vocabulary) of their political masters, could lead to arrest, imprisonment or death.
This harshness extended to the armed forces. As Kershaw points out, it is telling that during the first world war, with millions of German conscripts fighting under appalling conditions and suffering horrendous losses, only 18 suffered the death penalty for desertion. During the second world war, the equivalent figure was around 15,000.
Of course, any keen Hitler supporter would have insisted that this lack of “brutality” (another favourite Nazi word) on the part of the Kaiser’s government accounted for his overthrow by treacherous revolutionaries and the loss of the war. Aware of this, and aware also that the Allies harboured hopes of a similar denouement, the Nazi regime did everything and anything necessary to avoid the fate of Imperial Germany.
The regime knew too well that popular loyalty to the party, even to the dark magic of its once-adored Führer, was fast declining. In January 1945, 62 per cent of captured German soldiers still professed loyalty to Hitler, a figure that by the end of March had tumbled to 21 per cent. But was the delay in the Third Reich’s demise, and the consequent vast, needless slaughter, merely a question of ruthless loyalists holding a great nation to ransom? Not entirely.
In the east, people had every reason to fear the Russians and resist accordingly. In October 1944, the Red Army’s brief incursion into German territory, in East Prussia, had shown that revenge – in the form of mass rape, looting and killing – was on the Soviet agenda. And so it proved, horribly, during the rest of the Russian advance.
In western and central Germany, however, where Anglo-American troops were expected to become the occupiers, the situation was different. Try as they might, Joseph Goebbels’ propagandists failed to persuade the population to be frightened of the western Allies. Nevertheless, people retained a strong residual patriotism and commitment to duty, a stoical clinging on to everyday habits and loyalties, which also meant that until the final hour the majority continued to work and, if necessary, fight for the victory that most now knew could never be.
White flags might have come out swiftly at the very end, as the Allies approached a town or village, but meanwhile, by and large, wartime German society continued to function. And as Kershaw reminds us, in a perhaps slightly perfunctory survey of the postwar German mood, many millions – not just Nazi fanatics – even then continued to hold on to the “ideals” that had made Hitler, until Stalingrad, possibly the most popular leader in Germany’s history.
Postwar Germany would become one of our world’s most deeply rooted and admirable democracies but it would take time. Many explanations for this are found in Kershaw’s gripping and boldly intelligent work of scholarship. It will surely become the standard popularly accessible account of the Nazi system’s terrible final phase.
Frederick Taylor is author of ‘Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany’ (Bloomsbury)
The End: Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45, by Ian Kershaw, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 592 pages