Jonathan Sumption

Nothing left to lose

Jonathan Sumption on the obduracy, distrust and inertia that characterised the end of the Third Reich

Nothing left to lose
Text settings

The End: Hitler’s Germany, 1944-45

Ian Kershaw

Allen Lane, pp. 508, £

In chess, the king is never taken. When defeat is inevitable, the losing player resigns. And so it is in war. Defeated leaders sue for terms. Or they are toppled and replaced by fresh leaders who sue for terms, like Napoleon in 1814 and 1815, Reynaud in 1940 and Mussolini in 1943. ‘Wars are finally decided’, Adolf Hitler told his military commanders in December 1944, ‘by the recognition on one side or the other that the war can’t be won any more.’ Yet Hitler himself was to be virtually the only exception to the rule, unless we count Saddam Hussein.

At the time that he uttered these words Hitler was facing enemies on two fronts, each disposing of immeasurably greater forces than he could muster on all fronts combined. On the Russian front alone, he was outnumbered 11 times over in infantry, seven times in tanks, 20 times in field artillery, 20 times in airpower. The disproportion would have been greater still but for the hasty recruitment of large numbers of barely trained youths. The Luftwaffe, almost out of fuel and pilots, was on the verge of collapse, as allied strategic bombing forces ranged increasingly freely over German territory.

Precisely when Hitler himself realised that the game was up is unclear. For a long time, he was buoyed by extravagant hopes for the V2 ballistic missile and the Ardennes offensive, and then by un-realistic expectations of a break-up of the ‘unnatural’ coalition between the capitalist Anglo-Americans and their communist Russian allies. But by January 1945, Hitler knew that defeat was inevitable, and had already decided to commit suicide when it came. Yet even then he drove his forces on in a needless fight to the last man. Germany paid a terrible price for his furious obduracy. In the last ten months of the war, the German industrial base was wrecked. More German civilians died and more German homes were lost to air attack in this period than in the whole of the rest of the war. Half of all German servicemen killed during the war died in this final phase, not to mention hundreds of thousands condemned to long years of harsh captivity at the hands of the Russians. Their fate served no rational military purpose.

In this book, Ian Kershaw asks how Hitler was able to maintain control of Germany and its armed forces in the face of certain defeat. Why was he not overthrown by his own commanders? Why did the troops fight on against overwhelming odds? Why did civilians continue to obey the orders of a discredited government whose days were known to be numbered, at untold cost to themselves? To answer these questions, Kershaw deploys a remarkably wide range of material, published and unpublished, famous, infamous or unknown. Apart from familiar sources such as the table talk of Hitler himself, the war diaries of OKH and OKW, and the exculpatory memoirs of the participants, there are contemporary diaries, domestic intelligence reports, POW interrogations, newspapers. The account which emerges is predictably complex.

He makes short work of old orthodoxies. The Allies’ insistence on unconditional surrender was at most a marginal factor. Until the last few days, the German leadership would not have made terms even if there had been any on offer. Internal repression is only a partial explanation. There was hardly an opposition to repress. The complaisance of the great majority of the German population in the face of Nazism, about whose crimes they knew more than they cared to remember when the war was over, is one of the major themes of recent historical writing on the subject. Even among German prisoners of war, safe from retribution, bugged private conversations show that there was very little criticism of the leadership. ‘As long as the bombs were falling elsewhere, on others, they had no complaints’, Kershaw cynically observes.

A number of factors emerge from Kershaw’s narrative, which made a destructive combination even if none would have been enough on its own. In the first place, there was the personality of Hitler himself, a mesmerising figure at the centre of a group of jealous, quarrelling henchmen, none of whom had any significant personal following but all of whom knew that there would be no future for them after a German defeat. Hitler was convinced that there was no point in surrender and imposed this view on those around him. If Germany was defeated, it would be because it did not deserve to survive. ‘What will remain after this struggle,’ he told Speer in March 1945, ‘will in any case only be the inferior ones, since the good ones will have fallen.’ ‘We can go down, but we’ll take a world with us,’ he told one of his adjutants in the course of some maudlin reflections on the failure of the Ardennes offensive.

In Kershaw’s view a critical role was played by the memory of the first world war, which had given rise to some tenacious political myths, in particular the national obsession, by no means confined to committed Nazis, with the ‘stab in the back’ of autumn 1918. It was a received truth that the mutinies and revolutions had deprived Germany of imminent victory. If the Stauffenberg bomb plot of July 1944 had succeeded, it would probably have gone down as another ‘stab in the back’ of an undefeated giant. As it was, the failure of the plot more or less guaranteed that there would be no further attempt to unseat Hitler by the only people in a position to do it, namely the armed forces. In the atmosphere of mutual fear and suspicion which followed, there were extravagant displays of loyalty among those officers who were afraid to be fingered as potential traitors, many of whom privately agreed that Hitler was leading them to national disaster.

Among the civilian population, 12 years of Nazi rule had extinguished any potential opposition. The innumerable local and national organisations of the Nazi party, membership of which was indispensable for anyone who wanted to get on, had made accomplices of most of them, and hollowed out the natural leadership of German communities down to the smallest towns and villages. In the final months of the war, the civil administration was largely supplanted by the officials of the party. In most parts of Germany, the regional Gauleiters of the party maintained their control to the end. Even among non-Nazis, a basic patriotism transcended political loyalties: attachment to family, community and country, all the mutual loyalties of any group in the grip of disaster.

Finally, there are the intangible aspects of mass psychology involved, which Kershaw skilfully conveys in quotations from security service reports on domestic morale and in many private diaries and letters. Hopelessness and despair bred inertia and fatalism among civilians, and a resigned attachment to the routine of fighting among the military. The officers’ code of honour ensured that they would obey as they had always done. Even for their followers, obedience was simpler than any alternative at a time when every exit seemed to lead to death. On the eastern front, discipline was reinforced by fear of the Russians, with their thirst for revenge and well-deserved reputation for savagery. But there were remarkably few desertions, even in the west where prisoners were known to be well treated.

The End is a remarkable feat of historical scholarship and intelligent analysis. We are unlikely ever to have a conclusive answer to the questions which Ian Kershaw addresses. The circumstances of the fall of the Third Reich are too extraordinary. The experiences of those who lived through it are too varied. The temptations to special pleading are too strong. In a field where generalisation is almost impossible, Kershaw is suitably cautious in his reasoning and qualified in his conclusions. But he comes as close to an explanation of what happened as we are likely to get.