The End

The Defiance and Destruction
of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945

By Ian Kershaw

Penguin Press. 592 pp. $35

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Reviewed by John Rossi


Ian Kershaw, author of the definitive biography of Adolf Hitler, turns his attention this time to the last days of the Nazi regime.

Concentrating on the 10 months following the attempt on Hitler's life on July 20, 1944, Kershaw seeks to answer the question of why the Germans continued to fight when it was obvious that a terrible defeat was unavoidable.

Kershaw begins by tracing what he labels "the descent into the abyss" that was Germany during the last months of the war. The details are grim. He estimates that during those months, more German civilians were killed than during all the previous years of the war. For example, 60 percent of all bombs dropped on Germany fell after July 1944. German military losses during this period matched those for the four years of fighting prior to July 1944.

Even more shocking is his description of how the Nazis singled out for further persecution the groups they had already horrifically brutalized - including Jews, Poles, gays, the handicapped, and political unreliables - "to ensure that those who had rejected the regime would not be around to triumph at its downfall." The terror, gassing and murdering continued down to the end of the war through what Kershaw labels the "inertia" and "passivity" of the German people.

Kershaw also focuses on the four Nazi leaders under Hitler - Albert Speer, Josef Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann - who sought to enhance their political position during the last phase of the war.

Determined to avoid "another 1918," when the German government collapsed at the end of World War I in a political uprising, these four somehow believed that they would inherit the Third Reich and then be able to negotiate realistic terms with the Allies. The power struggle among them was sordid, and a fitting epitaph for a corrupt, dying regime.

Some historians have included the Allied demand for unconditional surrender among the reasons for German tenacity in the face of sure defeat. Kershaw accords the argument only limited validity, although Nazi leaders, especially Goebbels, employed it in an effort to rally Germany's sagging morale. After the war, many Germans turned to it as a convenient excuse for prolonging the fight, since it shifted the blame for continuing the war to the Allies.

Fear of the Russians was a major factor in the German determination to fight on, according to Kershaw. That trepidation was rooted in German guilt over the atrocities its forces perpetrated on the eastern front, among the most brutal of the whole war.

As Russian forces crossed into German territory in late 1944, they began to wreak havoc on the German population, with rape being a specialty. Kershaw notes that rape was used by the Russians as a way of inflicting humiliation "on the defeated male population by degrading their wives and families."

He estimates that 1.4 million German women, approximately a fifth of the female population of eastern Germany, were victims of Russian sexual assaults.

Devotion to Hitler, which lasted well into the last months of the war, also contributed to the German determination to fight on. Kershaw notes that the German people drew a distinction between the Nazi party, which they came to despise, and Hitler, whom they continued to admire. The unsuccessful attempt on Hitler's life in July 1944 only strengthened his hold on the German people, who regarded those involved as traitors.

Not until the failure of Hitler's last offensive in the West, the Battle of the Bulge in January 1945, did the German public begin to lose their respect for him. Once the British and Americans crossed the Rhine and the Russians reached the outskirts of Berlin in March, the citizenry lost all hope and turned against Hitler. Only then, Kershaw notes, did desertions become commonplace. According to Kershaw, the number of deserters from the German military exceeded 35,000, of whom 15,000 were executed.

The last months and weeks of the war also saw an upsurge in suicides throughout Germany. In the east, suicides were common to avoid falling into the hands of the Russians. In the West, where many Germans surrendered to the Americans and British, suicides were fewer, although a large number of German generals killed themselves to avoid the loss of face.

Kershaw's study of the war's end is hard going at times because of the unremitting grimness of the story, but it is an important addition to our understanding of one of the darkest pages in recent history.

John Rossi is professor emeritus of history at La Salle University in Philadelphia.