The End, by Ian Kershaw

It was not dying–no, not ever dying;
But the night I died I dreamed that I was dead,
And the cities said to me: “Why are you dying?
We are satisfied, if you are; but why did I die?”
–Randall Jarrell, “Losses”

This book does not look at the big picture.

Taking Nazi Germany as the historical subject, The End chronicles its last ten months, from the attempt on Hitler’s life on July 20, 1944, to the imprisonment of Reichspräsident Dönitz and his cabinet on May 23, 1945. Germany is the center of gravity of the story, so that what is outside (the strategy and tactics of the Allies, the hardships of civilian populations in occupied countries, even the casualties of the opposition) gets no treatment. Looking at Nazi Germany as a dying entity, this book examines how it died and what it pulled with it on the way down.

Hitler’s determination not to repeat the “stab in the back” of World War I, along with the decision of the Allies at Casablanca to accept nothing but unconditional surrender, meant that the last year of the war was especially deadly. Kershaw calculates that 49 percent of German battlefield deaths occurred during the last 10 months of the war. At the very end, German casualties numbered 300,000-400,000 per month.

The book corrects some matters of conventional wisdom. Dönitz was a devoted Nazi, not a mere career Navy man doing his duty. The picture emerges of a large portion of the Wehrmacht officer corps who, having taken a personal oath of allegiance to Hitler (and seen the reaction to Stauffenberg’s July 20 attempt), never seriously considered insubordination. It was only when the Red Army was about to overrun their men and Hitler was giving nonsensical orders without any realistic view of the battlefield situation that any of the generals would seek a modification of orders from Berlin.

Most strikingly, the book lowers the deaths from the fire-bombing of Dresden on February 13-14, 1945, from 250,000 to perhaps 25,000. The larger figure originated in Nazi propaganda: “Goebbels magnified the number of victims, by the simple device of adding a ‘0’ onto the official figure. Instead of 25,000 dead–itself a vast number–Goebbels created a death toll of 250,000. From horrific reality, he created even more horrific–and long-lasting–myth.” In and endnote, Kershaw describes an historians’ commission that came to the 25,000 figure in 2010, agreeing with the official investigations of 1945-46.

The totality of the German state was devoted to the war effort and would not cease until Hitler was dead (and not even then). No one was allowed to slip away from his ranks, no matter how close an overwhelming invading force may have been; no civilians could put out a white flag to try to protect themselves from the opposition; no mercy could be shown to prisoners, taken on the road by their jailers for no coherent purpose, except that they might be useful some day; no criticism of the Führer would stand. To all such sensible ways of dealing with the coming end, the response was a “flying” (summary) court-martial and prompt hanging for the servicemen, and a bullet in head for the civilians.

To his credit, Kershaw addresses the obvious objection that The End focuses disproportionately on the hardships borne by the Germans themselves in the war’s last year, when they were entirely to blame for the war itself. He does not give them that way out, observing that many of them accused themselves and could say, “We had it coming for what we did or let happen.”

Nazi snare drum


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