Review: The End: Germany, 1944-45 by Ian Kershaw (2011) Assessment 9 out of 10

Sir Ian Kershaw notes that continuing to fight on to the bitter end in a war is rare. Casualties spiralled, German military losses in the last 10 months of the war were equal to those in the four years to July 1944, 350,000 German soldiers dying in each month of the final cataclysm. Allied bombing extended ever deeper and more destructively into the Reich. Berliners took refuge from bombing in East Prussia. Faced by the Russian advance, Koch its Gauleiter intervened to prevent evacuation with fateful consequences for those in East Prussia.

So why did the Germans fight on?

Fear of the Soviets and, after the brutal way in which the Germans had fought on the Eastern Front, with ill-use of Soviet prisoners the norm, Germans expected similar treatment and fought on.

The Party remained in control, even as administration and society broke down. This was the final step in a process of increasing Nazi Party intervention, with unrestrained violence exercised by hanging and kangaroo courts judging anyone inclined to give up the fight, or suspected of doing so. The regime ,which fought on, became ever more dangerous for its own citizens.

Even if belief in Hitler and the Party was weakened, the population and army was still concerned for volk, country and homeland and fought on.

In 1943 Himmler explained extermination of the Jews to the Party Gauleiters, making sure they shared the knowledge of, and responsibility for it, so would fight on. Hitler didn’t want prisoners from the camps to be liberated by the allies, initiating the terrible death marches. Wandering under guard control across the Reich, they ensured the German people too shared knowledge of the treatment of its internal enemies, including the Jews. When prisoners escaped from the forced marshes, members of the police, Wehrmacht, Hitler Youth and ordinary citizens participated in hunting them down.

The ethos of the Officer Corps meant it fought on, unwilling to disobey orders not to retreat, even when such orders were self-destructive. Hitler purged the German generals, leaving only Nazi believers in place, so after the July attempt on Hitler’s life, there was no possibility of an internal revolt.

Nazi Germany was a plutocracy, rule of many, In the last months it was dominated by a quadrumvirate of Nazi grandees, Himmler, who controlled the SS and camps, Bormann, who controlled the Party and used his proximity to Hitler to reinvigorate it, Goebbels, the propagandist Minister of Information, who both believed and created the Hitler Myth, and Speer, Armaments Minister, whose efforts, including the use of slave labour, meant German armaments’ manufacture did not peak until the last year of the war. Rivalry within this group was typical of the Byzantine nature of the Nazi state in which there was continuous jockeying for position.

However Germany was also a monocracy, rule of one, that of the charismatic, little seen, Führer. “Working towards the Führer” resulted in an inevitable radicalization of the state, which continued right to the End. Hitler wouldn’t consider peace-making. To do so would have been to repeat the betrayal of the 1918 German Armistice against which he had railed. The dominant elite, divided as they were and mired in its crimes, possessed neither the will nor means to prevent Hitler taking Germany to total destruction. Hitler’s suicide on 30 April 1945 with the Russians breaking into Berlin was followed on 9 May by capitulation by the regime led by the Nazi, High Admiral Dŏnitz, Hitler’s nominee as his successor.

Kershaw’s view is that personal dictatorship by the Führer, was the final reason Germany fought on to its End. Once, he was no longer there, the regime failed the End reached.

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