The Beginning of the End


Sixty years ago, the end began. It would take almost a full year for the Allies to batter the Third Reich into submission, but in the summer of 1944, the end was inevitable. All could see it. The combined might of the Allied armies was simply overpowering for whatever Germany had left to throw at it. But it was neither easy nor simple.

So why didn’t Germany sue for peace, cut its losses and surrender, rather than face the prospect of ruin and devastation? Why did Germany continue its reckless, inhumane pursuit of terror and repression – even accelerating the Final Solution in that final year – rather than accepting defeat? What compelled them to fight on?

Was it terror? Inertia? Ideology? Social peer pressure? Simple numbness? Why did Germany keep fighting a lost cause?

That’s the question Ian Kershaw tackles in his new book, The End (Penguin, 2011). The book arrived in a package today and I have read just the preface. The end of the war is a topic I’ve studied before.

I’ve read a lot of books about World War II, about the armies, about the battles, about the leaders and the politics in every nation. Few have attempted to explain why Germany remained defiant even as it was pounded into ruin; or explain the psychology of the ruled and their rulers. Most have made the story into a narrative of battles and politics that runs forward on the rails of chronology.

The book review in The Guardian notes:

The end of the Third Reich presents an enduring historical enigma. How can we explain the extraordinary cohesion of German society right up to the bitter end – the lack of rebellion or mutiny, the relatively low levels of desertion from the ranks of the army, and the tenacious hold of the National Socialist state over the lives of ordinary people until, very suddenly, it was all over? The most obvious explanation – that people really did believe in Him (a phrase from the reich brilliantly analysed at the time by Victor Klemperer) – raises a second puzzle: why, if German society remained basically Nazified, was there so little resistance to foreign occupation after “liberation”? These two riddles continue to preoccupy historians, and now Ian Kershaw, the doyen of English scholars of the Third Reich, seeks the answers.

Sure, there are simplistic answers, most of them centred around Hitler and the allegiance his followers and the generals felt. But surely that’s too pat: it hinges on the fate of one man and – Operation Valkyrie aside – there was little effort from the thousands of others involved in the government and the war to stop the roller coaster. Kershaw documents how everyone carried on doing normal things right to the end: attending soccer matches, movie theatres, concerts.

And how much would the Allies have accepted? What terms would have been acceptable to the uneasy alliance that included such diverse and competing political goals – Soviet, American, French and British? I wonder whether Stalin would have even accepted a surrender in any but the most abject, divisive terms, because it was always his goal to expand Soviet control into Eastern Europe. Too many ideologies were in the mix for any simple solution.

I also wonder what was going through the minds of the Allies – the soldiers, sailors, the airmen, the WRENs and the Home Guard – my parents, my in-laws, and my relatives, all war weary and bruised by the loss of friends and family after more than four years of war. Did the final year, starting with D-Day, open with optimism and relief, or did it look like the worst was yet to come?

I think of my father and mother, both veterans, wondering how it might have seemed to them? Did the world tilt? Did it start to return to normalcy? Or did it ramp up to a fever pitch or propaganda and nationalist sentiment?

I don’t think I’ll ever lose my interest in WWII, nor stop reading about it – about the events, the people, the politics, the battles, the history. It was too close to my own generation, too recent, affected too many people I know – or, as time marches on inexorably, I knew – for me to forget.

Despite decades of reading and studying the period, I continue to find it fascinating and will read about it for many more years to come. Kershaw’s newest book is only the latest in a long line of works.