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Monday, February 20, 2012

Reading List: The End

Kershaw, Ian. The End. New York: Penguin Press, 2011. ISBN 978-1-59420-314-5.
Ian Kershaw is the author of the definitive two-volume biography of Hitler: Hitler: 1889–1936 Hubris and Hitler: 1936–1945 Nemesis (both of which I read before I began keeping this list). In the present volume he tackles one of the greatest puzzles of World War II: why did Germany continue fighting to the bitter end, when the Red Army was only blocks from Hitler's bunker, and long after it was apparent to those in the Nazi hierarchy, senior military commanders, industrialists, and the general populace that the war was lost and continuing the conflict would only prolong the suffering, inflict further casualties, and further devastate the infrastructure upon which survival in a postwar world would depend? It is, as the author notes, quite rare in the history of human conflict that the battle has to be taken all the way to the leader of an opponent in his capital city: Mussolini was deposed by his own Grand Council of Fascism and the king of Italy, and Japan surrendered before a single Allied soldier set foot upon the Home Islands (albeit after the imposition of a total blockade, the entry of the Soviet Union into the war against Japan, and the destruction of two cities by atomic bombs).

In addressing this question, the author recounts the last year of the war in great detail, starting with the Stauffenberg plot, which attempted unsuccessfully to assassinate Hitler on July 20th, 1944. In the aftermath of this plot, a ruthless purge of those considered unreliable in the military and party ensued (in the Wehrmacht alone, around 700 officers were arrested and 110 executed), those who survived were forced to swear personal allegiance to Hitler, and additional informants and internal repression were unleashed to identify and mete out summary punishment for any perceived disloyalty or defeatist sentiment. This, in effect, aligned those who might have opposed Hitler with his own personal destiny and made any overt expression of dissent from his will to hold out to the end tantamount to suicide.

But the story does not end there. Letters from soldiers at the front, meticulously catalogued by the censors of the SD and summarised in reports to Goebbels's propaganda ministry, indicate that while morale deteriorated in the last year of the war, fear of the consequences of a defeat, particularly at the hands of the Red Army, motivated many to keep on fighting. Propaganda highlighted the atrocities committed by the “Asian Bolshevik hordes” but, if exaggerated, was grounded in fact, as the Red Army was largely given a free hand if not encouraged to exact revenge for German war crimes on Soviet territory.

As the dénouement approached, those in Hitler's inner circle, who might have otherwise moved against him under other circumstances, were paralysed by the knowledge that their own authority flowed entirely from him, and that any hint of disloyalty would cause them to be dismissed or worse (as had already happened to several). With the Party and its informants and enforcers having thoroughly infiltrated the military and civilian population, there was simply no chance for an opposition movement to establish itself. Certainly there were those, particularly on the Western front, who did as little as possible and waited for the British and Americans to arrive (the French—not so much: reprisals under the zones they occupied had already inspired fear among those in their path). But finally, as long as Hitler was determined to resist to the very last and willing to accept the total destruction of the German people who he deemed to have “failed him”, there was simply no counterpoise which could oppose him and put an end to the conflict. Tellingly, only a week after Hitler's death, his successor, Karl Dönitz, ordered the surrender of Germany.

This is a superb, thoughtful, and thoroughly documented (indeed, almost 40% of the book is source citations and notes) account of the final days of the Third Reich and an enlightening and persuasive argument as to why things ended as they did.

As with all insightful works of history, the reader may be prompted to see parallels in other epochs and current events. Personally, I gained a great deal of insight into the ongoing financial crisis and the increasingly futile efforts of those who brought it about to (as the tired phrase, endlessly repeated) “kick the can down the road” rather than make the structural changes which might address the actual causes of the problem. Now, I'm not calling the central bankers, politicians, or multinational bank syndicates Nazis—I'm simply observing that as the financial apocalypse approaches they're behaving in much the same way as the Hitler regime did in its own final days: trying increasingly desperate measures to buy first months, then weeks, then days, and ultimately hours before “The End”. Much as was the case with Hitler's inner circle, those calling the shots in the international financial system simply cannot imagine a world in which it no longer exists, or their place in such a world, so they continue to buy time, whatever the cost or how small the interval, to preserve the reference frame in which they exist. The shudder of artillery can already be felt in the bunker.

Posted at February 20, 2012 22:12