Monday, November 21, 2011

What We're Reading: The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany 1944-1945

The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945 by Ian Kershaw.

In the late fall through the early spring of 1944 and 1945 it was clear that Germany had lost the Second World War. It was bereft of significant allies in the European theatre, and the Allied forces and arms arrayed against the Reich were massively superior to the devastated German army and the Luftwaffe. Allied armies were advancing into German territory on both the eastern and western fronts of the war. There was virtually no air support for German ground operations, and the Allies were bombing and destroying German industry and cities at will. The seemingly rationale course would have been to seek peace terms, and failing that, to accede to the demands of the Allies for unconditional surrender. The question that Kershaw seeks to answer is why Germany fought when there was nothing to be gained by prolonging the conflict. That decision resulted in the physical destruction of German cities, of infrastructure, and major industries. More importantly, it cost the lives of millions of additional German soldiers and civilians. It was a disturbing exercise in self-immolation.

The explanation for Germany’s continued defiance has perhaps never been addressed so comprehensively before. To the degree that an explanation has been offered, historians have often focused on the Allies demand in 1943 at their Casablanca Conference for Germany’s unconditional surrender, a demand that was intended to communicate Allied resolve, but also one made to help hold the Allied coalition together. It addressed a mutual distrust by preventing any one country from negotiating a separate peace with Germany. Kershaw dismisses the notion that the demand for unconditional surrender had any decisive influence in Germany’s decision to fight on.

For many of the German population, and for Nazi Party true believers, there was a profound willingness to trust in Hitler and the Nazi leadership. This was a trust born out of the seemingly miraculous German victories early in the war. As the military situation deteriorated, the still well functioning Nazi propaganda apparatus was able to convince many that “miracle weapons” were about to be introduced that would reverse Germany’s fortunes. The belief was also fostered that the Allied coalition was fragile, that if Germany could just hold out a little longer, a rift would develop between the Soviets and their Anglo American allies. But more important than these self-delusions, Kershaw locates Germany’s resignation to a path of total destruction in the very nature of the Nazi state and its leadership. Although he and the Nazi Party had become unpopular, Hitler’s power remained, until the moment of his suicide, without challenge. There was despair and resignation in the country about the course of the war, but it did not translate into political rebellion. There was no organized opposition in Germany, and within the Nazi Party Hitler’s power had been built by maintaining rivalries between factions, never allowing any group to become powerful enough in its own right to pose a threat to his authority. The Party and government bureaucracy remained neurotically devoted to detail, regulation, and routine as the world crashed down in flames outside their office doors. It would have served the German population better if it had simply broken down in panic and collapse.

Hitler was determined that Germany would go down in flames with the Nazi Party, and the regime became even more repressive than it had ever been, taking revenge and murdering wholesale outsider groups within Germany, and executing German soldiers and civilians who expressed any notion of defeat or desire for an end to the war. Those in the Nazi Party knew they had no future, not only because of their failure in the war, but because of the terrible crimes they had committed. But their hate survived, when all else was lost, in the determination that their enemies would go down with them in their annihilation and death. As the Allied armies approached Berlin, Hitler remained inflexible.

In many counties, the army, especially when it was being tasked to do the hopeless by a maniacal political authority, would be the only force left to call a halt to the destruction. But in Germany, the power of historical memory, among other factors, made such an option unlikely. Hitler rose to power on the constant refrain that German defeat in the First World War had come about as a result of a “stab in the back” by Jews and by army officers who had rebelled and negotiated an end to the conflict. After the failure of a group of army officers to kill Hitler in the Stauffenberg bomb plot, there was never any question of the army overthrowing Hitler. In fact most army officers and most Germans were outraged at the plot to kill the Fuhrer. Many in the army were Nazi true believers, and those who were not had a profound sense of loyalty and duty as officers to continue to fight to defend their country.

In the end, seeing no way out, hopelessly armed and poorly trained citizen militias and German front line soldiers fought on to save their own lives and the lives of their families, especially on the eastern front where there was well founded terror that the advancing Russian armies would seek reprisals on the population for German atrocities in western Russia. In the end, many fought because they believed that if they did not, Germany as a state would not survive after the war. German patriotism served to support the inflexible aims of the Nazi state, and the fighting even survived for some weeks the fall and destruction of Berlin and the death of the architect of all this misery.

Because of the way the totalitarian states in Eastern Europe collapsed at the demise of the Soviet Union, and more recently because of the successful revolutions in Arab dictatorships, we have come to console ourselves with the notion that totalitarian states rest on tenuous foundations and do not often have the support of their populations. We are too willing to dismiss the tenacity or longevity of repression. A bold move we think will topple an oppressive state like a house of cards. Kershaw’s anatomy of the Nazi state makes it clear that this is not so. It also makes clear that there are different routes to totalitarian power, that the national and cultural history of each nation may come to support or undermine such a development in different ways. This study also demonstrates that, as with individuals, there may develop with nations a psychology of self destruction that will defy the military expectations and calculations of those who wage a war without understanding this. Finally, The End, challenges the way we think about the costs of a conflict. We calculate the destruction of a war and the loss of life in terms of our own losses; seldom is the cost to the belligerent a part of our calculation or a cause of grief and regret. Kershaw is careful not to make Germans in some way victims, and he makes clear who the real victims of the Nazi state were. And the inability of Germany to end the war earlier, when it was apparent all was lost, cost not only untold suffering in Germany, but the needless death of Allied soldiers as well. But it is hard to watch a sort of national insanity unfold and not to feel a deep sense of sorrow at the waste and at the persistent hubris of men who find themselves unable to control the dark forces they have unleashed, forces to which they have pledged their hopes, their allegiance, and their lives.

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