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Cruelty and Collapse

The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945
By Ian Kershaw
(Penguin, 564 pp., $35)

It can be harder to lose a war than to win one. Nazi Germany won quick victories in 1939 and 1940 against its eastern and western neighbors, Poland and France. Many Germans who had doubted the wisdom of war came around with enthusiasm to the sound of German boots on the Champs Elysées. Warsaw and Paris fell more quickly and with fewer complications than anticipated. Their conquest convinced many Germans, including army officers, that further campaigns could be won by strokes of genius. Then the first planned “lightning victory,” the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, went awry. Rather than falling like “a giant with feet of clay,” as Hitler expected, the Soviet Union dug in and fought hard. By the end of 1941, the Germans found themselves at war with three mighty powers: Great Britain, which had declared war on Germany after the invasion of Poland and remained in the fight despite the fall of France; the Soviet Union, which had been Germany’s ally during the attack on Poland, then resisted with success Hitler’s treacherous attack; and the United States, brought into the war by Pearl Harbor, but an economic ally of the British and the Soviets well before its own forces landed on Sicily in July 1943 and Normandy in June 1944.

By late June 1944, with the Americans and British established in France and the Red Army crashing through Belarus, the end had begun. Ian Kershaw chooses the attempt on Hitler’s life of July 20, 1944, to begin his own history of the slow and difficult defeat of Nazi Germany. Might the war have ended sooner, as Kershaw suggests? Had the plotters killed Hitler, might Germany have been spared pointless suffering? Kershaw is careful in how he justifies his choice of turning point, noting only that if an armistice had followed a successful coup, events might have turned out differently. It is not at all clear, of course, that Claus von Stauffenberg and his fellow conspirators would actually have taken power had Hitler died; nor is it likely, even if so, that they could have immediately signed an armistice.

Though we might like to believe that opponents of Hitler must have been agreeable men, the conspirators’ demands for Germany would probably have exceeded anything that the Western allies could have accepted. They were not intending to surrender unconditionally, but hoped for peace in the west to continue the fight against the Soviets in the east. It seems unlikely that the alliance between Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union would have broken at this late date, not least because London and Washington had no interest in allowing the Soviets to defeat Germany alone. It is also not clear that the Allies would even have negotiated with the conspirators, who included some criminals of the first rank: Arthur Nebe, who as commander of Einsatzgruppe B was responsible for much of the Holocaust in Belarus, or Eduard Wagner, who as quartermaster general of the Wehrmacht oversaw camps where millions of Soviet prisoners were starved to death. What seems likely, as Kershaw argues, is that the failure of the attempt on Hitler’s life gave his regime renewed support from society, aroused frightened loyalty from some wavering military officers, and provided the justification for a new wave of terror within Germany.

Kershaw’s task is not to explain why Germany started the war, nor why it had the war aims that it did, nor even why it lost. He is exercised by the question of why Germany continued to fight in the second half of 1944 and the first months of 1945, at great cost to itself. By the summer of 1944, many Germans no longer believed that the war could be won, though surprisingly many did; many had lost faith in Hitler, but some regained it after the failed assassination. The prospect of being without a Leader after twelve years of his rule was a shock. Germans found it hard not to sympathize with a victim of a bomb plot, especially one who exercised terrifying power.

Kershaw, a master of the use of police records to record social mood, demonstrates that such sympathy was widespread. He also shows that the assassination attempt created the conditions to terrorize German society right at the moment when the coming defeat seemed to demand repression of defeatism. Those who opposed the war and the regime, even if they were not in prisons or concentration camps, found themselves waiting hopelessly for the end. Any change would have had to come from the top, from someone with access to Hitler and willing to depose him. The men who mattered at this point—Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann, Albert Speer, Joseph Goebbels—were afraid of Hitler and owed their careers to him. More than this: they were still, Kershaw argues, in thrall to Hitler’s charisma. In Kershaw’s portrayal, Nazi Germany is more a personal than an ideological state, with acolytes bound to a Leader, lacking public legitimacy and political motivation beyond his vaguely expressed will.

LIKE A NUMBER of other prominent historians of the Third Reich of his generation, Kershaw was trained in another field. For a number of his peers, this was the social history popular in the 1970s. Kershaw himself was trained as a medievalist before moving into social history. Educated to believe that the traditional historical categories of power, economics, and ideology were no longer of primary interest, social historians of this generation found themselves, in their maturity, confronting the questions of the origins of Nazi power and of the Holocaust with a somewhat idiosyncratic tool kit.

Kershaw has always seemed to enjoy a certain advantage. He had little difficulty seeing Hitler as a tyrant with satraps, though he deepened the classical image by applying the Weberian notion of charisma. It was Kershaw who provided one of the best resolutions to the dispute between “functionalists” and “intentionalists” that has plagued German historians. Was the regime an accident of leadership, or an outgrowth of institutions? It was both, argued Kershaw: Hitler’s rise and his decisions were indispensible factors in any explanation, but his coterie and their institutions worked creatively to realize his will. They “worked toward the Führer,” in Kershaw’s nice phrase. In his earlier work, Kershaw has emphasized that this combination of charisma and creativity was superimposed upon an infrastructure of effective state institutions, which even in the conditions of 1944 and 1945, as he argues here, continued to function extraordinarily well.

That said, Kershaw’s work is like that of his generation in its precise sociological focus on Germans and in its exclusive reliance on German-language sources-despite the fact that the Third Reich was a multinational empire whose mortal victims rarely knew the German language. Although Kershaw is anything but uncritical, he is nevertheless at work in the Platonic cave of the shadowy concepts of his German subjects, and sometimes his formulations reflect this methodological constraint. Those last ten months of World War II were not the “most destructive phase” of the war, as Kershaw writes, but rather the most destructive phase for Germans. By July 1944, the Germans had been forced to abandon the siege of Leningrad, leaving a million dead within its walls; by July 1944, the Germans could no longer terrorize the Belarusian and Ukrainian countryside, where they shot at least half a million people; by July 1944, most of the Jews who would be killed in the Holocaust were already dead. Kershaw wants to view “the war solely through German eyes in the attempt to understand better how and why the Nazi regime could hold out for so long.” Leaving aside whether or not this is possible—do we not always also see the war through our own eyes?—there is the problem of what German eyes did not see, when German heads turned away.

German boys and girls in 1944 and 1945 were wearing clothes taken from murdered Jewish boys and girls in Belarus, but this did not mean that they saw or thought about those murders. Yet in some sense those murders were present in German life. German men and women saw the Belarusian forced laborers arriving in early 1944, but they did not see the grotesquely violent campaigns that forced them to leave their homes. German forces were murdering Belarusian women and children, seizing men and livestock, and leaving burned villages behind. To be sure, this policy was brought to an end in June 1944, as the Germans were driven from Belarus by the Red Army, so in strict chronological terms it does not belong in the book. But those Belarusians working in Germany had the memory of wives and children and sisters and mothers and aunts and grandmothers and lovers and friends being shot behind their eyelids; and so in some sense these murders, too, were present in Germany.

IN A MEASURABLE way, stolen goods and especially forced labor were relevant to the answer to Kershaw’s question about the endurance of the Nazi regime. The German armies that fought on with such horrible losses in 1944 and 1945 were replenished by German men, whose jobs were in turn taken by forced laborers. Like other British historians who write on German subjects, Kershaw is too imprecise in his political geography to permit the reader to see how a contracting German empire extracted what it could. He conflates the Soviet Union with Russia, and by “civilian Russian population” he means the peoples of the occupied western Soviet Union, chiefly Ukrainians and Belarusians. This vagueness about lands and people does indeed reflect many kinds of German sources, and so might indicate a limitation of Kershaw’s method.

Even the assassination attempt of July 1944 was not just a German drama. The tiny resistance in Germany was dwarfed by the resistance in Poland, in which perhaps a million people took part. The largest act of armed opposition to Nazi rule was the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944, which was prompted in part by Stauffenberg’s failed attack. Polish underground leaders interpreted the attempt as a sign that the regime was falling, and tried to retake their capital as the Germans weakened but before the Soviets arrived. In response, German forces murdered more than one hundred thousand Polish civilians, and destroyed the Polish capital block by block with explosives and flamethrowers.

The significance of this for Kershaw’s account is not just that Germans were still killing, all the way to the end, in greater numbers than they were being killed, although that is true. The reason that the Warsaw Uprising might have deserved more than the one sentence it gets is that it was seen by “German eyes,” such as those of Heinz Reinefarth and Oskar Dirlewanger and the thousands of troops and policemen they commanded to commit atrocities that defy description. The incineration of Warsaw took place beyond the boundaries of prewar Germany, to be sure; but in August 1944 Warsaw was still part of the German colony known as the General Government, and it was still run by Germans as part of a German empire. The empire was shrinking, but racial imperialism was still the essential German experience.

The suppression of the Warsaw Uprising was also a late episode in the Holocaust, since after the destruction of the city, Jews who had been taking shelter with Poles (and thousands still were) had literally no place to hide. During the Warsaw Uprising, German eyes also saw, because Germans carried out, the deportation of some 67,000 surviving Jews from the Łódź ghetto to Auschwitz. Both of these places, annexed from Poland in 1939, were within the Reich in 1944. Even if these events were not known in detail to the “majority German populace” that Kershaw defines as his subject, they were an element of a gigantic crime that was quite well understood.

Kershaw is one of the best historians of Nazi Germany and knows all of this better than most, but his temporal and spatial framework prevents the reader from contemplating to what extent the Holocaust as such was a subject in German minds. Germans in 1944 were considering the world not so much from the point of view of the uncertain future of 1945, but rather in the certain knowledge of what Germans had done to others in the previous months and years. Might this have had something to do with their willingness to fight on, as Kershaw suggests here and there? Peter Longerich has argued that one of the political purposes of the Holocaust was to bind Germans to the regime, precisely because they knew that the world could not forgive them.

Kershaw understands, of course, that his period only makes sense in light of prior history. He refers cogently to a certain German-Allied agreement about World War I and its peace settlements: no one wanted a real (German point of view) or mythical (Allied point of view) stab in the back, and therefore the war had to be fought to a definite end; no one saw the point of negotiating a surrender, since the Allies would punish Germany unfairly anyway (German point of view) or because Germany would become again a threat to world peace regardless (Allied point of view). In this way, Kershaw neatly dispenses with the idea that the Allied demand of unconditional surrender was what kept the Wehrmacht in the field. He assumes that readers will be familiar with the history of Hitler’s rise to power and his destruction of the rule of law, and with his exploitation of the memory of one world war to prepare for a second.

ONE OF KERSHAW'S central arguments is that Germany could fight on because no one in the Wehrmacht could challenge Hitler after July 1944. To a considerable degree, the loyalty that officers exhibited after the failed coup was a consequence of trends that had begun long before. In the 1930s Hitler had wooed the army with promises of rearmament and victories, but saw to it that the top field commanders and staff officers were loyal to him. During the war he gave the army its promised triumphs in Poland and France, but also involved it in some of the worst war crimes perpetrated in the east. This goes a long way toward explaining why the assassination attempt came so late, but also toward explaining why most officers would have opposed it had they known of it, and had no thought of abandoning the fight thereafter.

Kershaw disavows his talents as a military historian, but he is far too humble. The battle sketches are wonderful, appropriately placed in the argument, and enriched by his abundant work in the primary sources, such as the letters of soldiers. Although this is not the main case that Kershaw wishes to make, one reason the war continued for so long in such unfavorable conditions was that the Wehrmacht was the best fighting force in the European theater. Treating the issue only as one of politics would have meant taking for granted some of the most improbable achievements in the history of modern warfare, which Kershaw is far too reasonable a historian to do. After the crushing defeat of Operation Bagration, in which an entire German army group was destroyed by the Red Army in Belarus in June 1944, the Wehrmacht managed to reconsolidate and hold the line at the Vistula River; after the massive Allied landings and reconquest of much of France, the Wehrmacht was capable of a massive counteroffensive as late as December 1944.

Although the Nazi leadership tried to present the eastern and western fronts as equally critical, Kershaw records some persuasive evidence that soldiers fought the British and the Americans with determination but the Soviets with desperation. They knew that the Soviet Union Germany had attacked in 1941 was, at that moment, the most murderous state in modern history. Hitler had set a trap for his soldiers and his people by quickly surpassing Stalin’s fearsome murder rates during his “war of annihilation” against the Soviets. Stalin noticed Hitler’s phrase and promised the same to the Germans. German soldiers knew that their comrades had been involved in the murder of millions of Soviet citizens. “We are guilty ourselves,” wrote one, “we’ve earned it.”

Soldiers and civilians also knew, at least in a general way, of the extermination of Europe’s Jews. What remains unclear, and no doubt Kershaw is appropriately cautious, is whether Germans fought on because they feared a specifically Jewish revenge. As Kershaw writes, German propaganda presented Jews as “the root of the intended horror” that would befall Germany after defeat, and certainly some officers expressed the fear that the Soviets would extirpate the German race. Such anticipation of a reverse Final Solution was absurd, of course: the Soviet Union was no Jewish state, and fought for no Jewish goals, and no revenge for the Holocaust was forthcoming. But the question of the influence of the Nazi association of communism with Jews is an important one to the history of anti-Semitic politics: how far did Hitler’s vision of the world bind people to him, not only because they had committed crimes in its name, but because they feared the impossible revenge of the war’s supreme victims?

THE HISTORY OF the chancellery, which Kershaw presents with unrivaled skill, seems at first more straightforward than the history of the battlefield. It is not surprising that Hitler’s entourage stayed close to their leader: these men had nothing to lose from continuing the war and everything to lose by ending it. Unlike almost everyone else in Germany, their life expectancies increased in direct rather than in inverse proportion to the length of the war. Hitler’s closest associates had been improvising between an obstinate leader and an inflexible reality since 1941 at the latest, when the lightning victory over the Red Army had not materialized. The bubble of euphoria had burst then, and Hitler’s henchmen breathed the stale air from his lungs for four long years. They had to present the world to him, and they had to modify his commands so that they could be applied to the world.

Well before 1944 they were all accustomed to working in unfavorable circumstances, one of which was that they were not permitted to note that this was the case. Thus much of what Kershaw relates about 1944 and 1945 was already true in 1943 or even in 1942. Hermann Göring, nominally Hitler’s number two, had long since fallen from favor. Albert Speer, the architect, had been organizing the war economy since early 1942. Heinrich Himmler had shifted his major responsibility from the colonization of a defeated East to the murder of its native populations, Jews above all, in late 1941. Martin Bormann, the head of the Nazi party chancellery, continued his steady climb, as party institutions slowly overwhelmed state ones. Kershaw skillfully brings Bormann into the foreground, deftly using his letters to his wife. Bormann, whose wife wanted his bigamy legalized, wrote to her of his concerns that American jazz would demoralize future generations of Germans. The Nazi leader who gained the most in the final months of the war was Goebbels, who was entrusted with what he called the “great totalizing process” of exploiting all remaining energies within German society for the prosecution of the war.

The leader himself, as Kershaw persuasively maintains, “retained at the core an extraordinary inner consistency.” He had always believed in a catastrophe, and failed to notice that he was its cause. Germany had to be saved, Hitler always believed, and only trial by war could harden a faltering race. Hitler was no friend of ideas of progress, or indeed of linear time. In a world of limited resources and competing races, he thought, those who took the resources would show themselves to be earth’s righteous rulers. As Adam Tooze put it in his economic history of the Third Reich, which adds a good deal to Kershaw’s account of both endurance and collapse, “strategy for Hitler was the grand strategy of racial struggle.”

The logic of racial war could be applied even when conventional strategies no longer had traction in the real world. Hitler noticed that Germany was about to be defeated, but by no means thought that this falsified his vision. It simply meant, he said, that “the future belongs to the stronger peoples from the east.” Hitler wanted to fulfill history’s verdict by destroying German industry and German cities in the war’s last weeks. Here the entourage finally broke free: Speer, who rightly believed that the German economy had a future in a postwar Europe, managed to halt the implementation of this order.

Kershaw’s subtitle speaks of the “defiance and destruction of Nazi Germany.” Defiance there was, from the Nazis’ own perspective, not only from 1944 but from the very beginning. They had always seen themselves as the beleaguered victims of grand conspiracies; their end at the hands of a great coalition was the homecoming of reality to illusion. Their idea of rule was certainly destroyed: Hitler killed himself, his regime collapsed, his ideas were discredited by defeat. But Germany itself, though heavily damaged and completely occupied, was not destroyed. The scale of human losses was of course enormous, and far greater than that of the British or the Americans, but less than in the eastern lands that the Nazis had seen as colonies, and less than is often thought or claimed. Goebbels added a zero to the total of German dead in the bombing of Dresden, changing 25,000 to 250,000 and creating an enduring myth. The number of Germans killed during the frightful evacuations and ethnic cleansings at war’s end was (and is) similarly exaggerated. Kershaw notes with typical perceptiveness and fairness that, since Germans suffered so much more at the end of the war than they had earlier, they were wont to think, though quite wrongly, that their own experience of 1944-1945 was as bad as the war had gotten.

WHAT KERSHAW CALLS the end was, of course, also a beginning. The wartime German empire was dismantled, and postwar Germany became two states rather than one. The Federal Republic of Germany became a prosperous democracy, an American ally, and an organizer of European integration; the German Democratic Republic was a Soviet satellite and, for a time, an apparent example of the economic promise of communism. Both of these Germanys were new homelands for twelve million or so resettled German refugees. Rather than Germans becoming the racial masters of a depopulated East, Germans from the East moved west to Germany, more than making up for German war losses. These people, it goes without saying, could not have escaped intermarriage and assimilation over the centuries in Eastern Europe. They were Germans, but they brought variety. The wartime presence of millions of male Slavic forced laborers in Germany, often living with German women whose husbands were at the front, had much the same effect. The unthinkably brutal and widespread rape of German women by Red Army soldiers also ensured that many German babies born in 1946 owed their genetic heritage to people whom the Nazis called subhumans.

For their part, these laborers and soldiers returned to a Soviet Union where they were screened by the secret police because of their contact with the decadent capitalist West. Thousands of them were executed and hundreds of thousands were sent on to the gulag, where they sometimes met captured German prisoners of war. Tens of thousands of German prisoners of war were murdered by the Soviets, and many more died in the worst of the Soviet camps, felling timber or mining uranium. Although falling far short of the biological extermination Goebbels had warned of during the war, Soviet treatment of captured Germans was extremely harsh.

By the time the weary German survivors of the gulag returned, in the 1950s, Europe was in the midst of a cold war. The Nazis had hoped, at war’s end, that the alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union would break if only they could hold out a bit longer; in fact it broke only when the war was over and the Germans were defeated. It is hard to say just how, but surely the German fight to the end shaped the coming cold war conflict. What if, to return to Kershaw’s own hypothetical, the Wehrmacht really had stopped fighting in June 1944? Surely the Soviets would then have penetrated further into German territory than they in fact did, and perhaps then communist East Germany would have been the larger state, and capitalist West Germany the smaller. In the event, it was the larger Federal Republic that flourished and dominated, unifying with its smaller neighbor in 1990 to make the Germany of today.

It can be better to lose a war than to win one. The success of today’s united Germany reminds us that catastrophic ends can be fruitful beginnings. In important respects, categorical defeat was the best thing, in the circumstances, that could have happened to Germany. A certain kind of political powerlessness was liberating in the new postwar economy. Unlike all of their wartime enemies, the Germans lost not only all colonies, but any dream of future empire. Unlike the Soviets, the British, and the Americans, for whom empire, real and imagined, would at certain crucial moments weigh fatefully upon politics, the Germans began afresh and perforce with international cooperation as the only available model of domestic prosperity. In the 1950s and 1960s Germans in the Federal Republic might have dreamed of recovering territories lost to Poland, but the Soviets made such a policy unthinkable during the cold war and the Americans did the same thereafter. German unification was achieved on the understanding that it was the last territorial change involving German lands: today Poland is a member of the European Union and NATO and the issue is irrelevant. In the twenty-first century, Germany is not only visibly richer and more functional than the powers that defeated it; it is one of the most prosperous large countries in the history of the world.

There are mysteries here, awaiting study. One of them is this: the men and women who built the Federal Republic were, in the main, the same people who had built the Third Reich. Just how this came to pass, and whether such a success could endure, are questions that have troubled the best of German thinkers, from Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt through Jürgen Habermas and Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht. So perhaps the time has come for a careful history of Germans from 1944 to 1948, from end to beginning.

Timothy Snyder is professor of history at Yale University. His most recent book is Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (Basic Books). His next book, Thinking the Twentieth Century, is a volume of conversations about contemporary intellectual history conducted with the late Tony Judt. This article originally ran in the November 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.