Book Review: The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945


by Ian Kershaw

New York: Penguin Press HC, 2011. Pp. xxvi, 564. Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $35.00. ISBN: 1594203148

A well regarded historian of the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw   has written several important works, notably a two volume biography of Hitler and a very well received structuralist analysis of the governance of the Third Reich stressing the development of the “Fuhrer thesis” and of Hitler as a "lazy" dictator who governed through competing satraps who did the actual work but had no power except through him.  In The End, he has written an excellent account of the last short year of the Hitler Reich from the failure of the bomb plot in July of 1944 to the final surrender in early May of 1945. 

In this book, Kershaw asks how the regime kept Germany fighting long after it was objectively obvious that the war was lost and further resistance was futile.  In 1918, Germany had asked for terms when the military situation became hopeless.  Yet in 1945, fighting continued until essentially all of Germany and the majority of Axis occupied Europe had been overrun by the Allies. Germany suffered more civilian and military casualties as well as vastly more war damage to housing and industrial plant in these last ten months of the war than in the previous five years.  Kershaw tries to explain why.

Kershaw approaches the problem chronologically.  This has certain limitations, as it means some points get repeated
multiple times. Chronology does, however, make for clarity in reading.  Kershaw rejects the thesis that “Unconditional Surrender” kept Germany fighting. He argues that no terms possibly acceptable to the Allies would have been any easier for the Germans to swallow prior to total catastrophe.  Instead he sees Hitler as having used four satraps -- Bormann, Speer, Goebbels, and Himmler -- to keep the war machine going.  The four worked at cross purposes as they jockeyed for dominance, but nevertheless did collectively help prolong the war.  Taken as a whole, Himmler and Goebbels managed to mobilize enough men to rebuild the fighting strength one last time in the autumn of 1944.  Speer organized one last burst of arms production that reequipped these regenerated armies.  Bormann and Himmler coordinated the regime’s terror apparatus, turning on the average German so that people kept their heads down and followed orders to avoid punishment.  This combination of developments allowed a brief renaissance of German combat power in late ‘44 and early ‘45, with offensives in the Ardennes, Alsace, and Hungary.  When these attacks had run their course, of course, the regime still made discussion of surrender impossible.  The satraps had power only through Hitler.  There was no collective council in which they could exert influence to force a discussion of surrender. Their own rivalries precluded forming such a grouping and confronting Hitler.  Also, except for Speer, none had a semi-serious prospect of a role in a future post-Hitler Germany. 

The officer corps was kept in line both by fear of punishment, the example of the savage penalties inflicted on anyone even tangentially linked to the “July Plot” proving quite effective right to the end of the war, and a quite realistic appraisal by
senior commanders that their subordinates would not obey surrender orders as long as Hitler lived.  Enough of the junior officers and enlisted men still believed in Hitler and National Socialism to provide a framework around which the terror of the flying courts martial and the effects of unit cohesion, as soldiers fight for their friends as much if not more than for their nation, and do not want to let their friends down, could work to keep the troops at the front.  The troops in the East had the added incentive of personal fears of Soviet captivity and patriotic fears of what conquest by the Soviets would mean to German civilians.  Similarly the German civilians in the West faced draconian punishment if the white flags went up too quickly.  The net effect of all this was that individual survival entailed letting the war come to its destructive end.

All in all, this is a book well worth reading for the ways in which a modern state can evolve past utilitarian logic  to what amounted to national suicide.  The End is best approached on that basis, as its other thesis, an attempt to divine German mentalities in this period, fails of lack of reliable data and leads to much repeating in each chapter of very similar generalities.


Reviewer: Scott Palter   

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