Why did the Germans keep on fighting to the bitter end in 1945, long after it was clear to almost everybody that the war was lost? From the catastrophic defeat of the Sixth Army at Stalingrad early in 1943, through the devastating Allied bombing raids on Hamburg in the summer of 1943, reports on popular opinion filed by secret agents of the Nazi regime record a growing belief that Germany was going to lose. So why did Germans not rise up and force the regime to sue for peace? Towards the end of the First World War, recognition that the war was lost led senior generals to the negotiating table. Not so in 1944-45. Why not?
Most wars between states in the modern age, according to Ian Kershaw, end with an agreed peace as soon as one side concedes defeat. It is possible to think of major exceptions to this rule, from Napoleon’s France in 1814 to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq two centuries later. Sometimes, too, there is regime change before peace is concluded, as in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 or indeed the First World War. Still, the determination of the Germans to go down fighting in the Second World War was remarkable and demands explanation – all the more so, since the death and destruction they suffered increased hugely in the final months. In his new book, Kershaw, who began his career as a historian of Nazi Germany with pioneering work on German popular opinion in the Third Reich before writing a major biography of Hitler and studies of decision-making and diplomacy in the 1930s and 1940s, returns to his original focus of interest and tries to find an answer to the perplexing question of Germany’s failure to surrender.
The first and most obvious reason lies, it is clear, in the nature of the Nazi regime itself. The Third Reich was not a normal state. It was not even a normal dictatorship, if there is such a thing. From the start of his career, Hitler was possessed with a Social Darwinist view of the world that saw relations between states as a struggle for survival and supremacy between races. There was no compromise: either Germany would achieve global hegemony or it would go under. His war aims were neither rational nor limited. As the military situation deteriorated, he insisted with ever greater vehemence that the struggle had to continue. In the final months, he became increasingly divorced from reality, hoping for rescue by miracle weapons such as the V-1 and the V-2, expecting quarrels to break out between the western Allies and the Soviet Union, or looking for a speedy end to the war after the death of President Roosevelt. A portrait of Frederick the Great, who had turned round the fortunes of Prussia after the occupation of Berlin by the Russians, provided him with intermittent hope.
Hitler has sometimes been credited, notably by the American historian Gerhard Weinberg, with exercising a degree of flexibility in his command of the German armed forces during the years of defeat and retreat, but in the regime’s final months this gave way to a stubborn insistence that retreat was treason, tactical withdrawal military cowardice, and realism weakness of willpower. Exuding confidence in ultimate victory, he continued to move his armies around long after they had become desperate, disorganised and depleted rabbles. On occasion the mask of self-belief would slip, and he would confess that all was lost; at the end, he announced to his intimates, he would put a bullet through his brain. ‘We’ll not capitulate. Never. We can go down. But we’ll take a world with us.’ The German people, Hitler concluded, did not deserve to survive. They had failed the test of history. On 19 March 1945 he issued the infamous ‘Nero order’, telling his commanders to destroy everything that might fall into the hands of the advancing enemy.
But Hitler’s self-destructiveness and contempt for the German people in some ways only deepen the mystery of why they fought on. Part of the answer clearly lies in the psychological power he still wielded. Whether by force of personality or habit on the part of his underlings, or as a result of prestige built up through the years of success, he continued to be able to persuade his immediate subordinates to follow him into the abyss. ‘Even in the last weeks,’ Kershaw notes, ‘some went in to see him demoralised and disconsolate and came away with new enthusiasm and determination.’ Albert Speer, for instance, whose efforts had done so much in the final three years of the war to increase arms production and keep it going in the face of Allied bombing raids, continued to serve Hitler even though he realised more clearly than most that all was lost.
Only at the very end did they begin to desert him: Hitler dismissed Göring for supposedly trying to seize power and Himmler for negotiating with the Allies behind his back. Even then, an extraordinary number chose to follow Hitler into oblivion, in a wave of suicides that has few parallels – not only Goebbels and Bormann, and later Göring, Himmler and Ley, but also senior government ministers like Rust and Thierack, 10 per cent of the army’s generals, 14 per cent of air force generals, 20 per cent of the party Gauleiters and many more further down the hierarchy. Their self-immolation was testimony to their allegiance to Hitler as well as to their belief that life was meaningless without him. Arrest and trial would confront them with their crimes and rob them of their belief that what they had done was historically necessary. Suicide, some thought, was an honourable, Roman way out, a heroic gesture that would serve Germans as an example for the future. The world of illusion was not inhabited by Hitler alone.
Under a different head of state, such as Göring or Himmler, Germany might have sued for peace well before May 1945. But the Allies had agreed at Casablanca in January 1943 to demand nothing short of unconditional surrender from Germany. The armistice in the First World War had been a costly mistake, they concluded. It had allowed the far right, not least the Nazis, to argue that Germany had not been defeated militarily, but that the armed forces had been stabbed in the back by Jewish revolutionaries at home. There must be no possible doubt this time.
After the war, many surviving senior German officers blamed the policy of unconditional surrender for the continuation of the war. The demand, one of them said, ‘welded us to a certain extent onto the Nazi regime’, since it left them with no guarantees about their future. This claim, however, has been dismissed by historians as a flimsy excuse. ‘Hardly any notice was taken’ of the demand for unconditional surrender by the high command, according to one senior general, and there was no discussion of its possible military consequences. The reason the Germans fought on has to be sought, as Kershaw rightly says, in Germany itself, not in policies adopted by the Allies.
Certainly, the Allied demand for an unconditional surrender gave Nazi propagandists a useful justification for fighting on. The machinery of persuasion marshalled by Goebbels, the propaganda minister, functioned up to the end. Long before this came, however, its constant trumpeting of the imminent arrival of new wonder weapons that would turn the tide of the war, its ever more strident insistence that the fighting spirit of the German people would eventually prevail, its forced optimism and its exhortations to sacrifice were all falling on deaf ears. People thought the chorus of propaganda broadcasts, newspaper articles and newsreels emanating from the Propaganda Ministry sounded like the band playing on the deck of the Titanic. ‘Wherever you go,’ one junior officer wrote in his diary after Cologne fell, ‘only one comment: an end to the insanity.’ Almost all sources agree that morale was in a state of collapse by the beginning of 1945. By the end of March, interrogations of soldiers captured by the western Allies found that only 21 per cent still had faith in Hitler, a sharp fall from the 62 per cent who had professed loyalty in January.
More important perhaps in the minds of many army officers was the personal oath of allegiance to Hitler they had been obliged to take. Many subsequently gave this as a reason for their continued loyalty. It was not necessarily a retrospective excuse. Military training and habits of obedience had been amplified by the Third Reich into a sense of loyalty to Hitler as the supreme commander of the armed forces. Certainly, neither the Allied demand for unconditional surrender nor the military oath of allegiance prevented a group of senior army officers from conspiring to overthrow Hitler in July 1944. But Colonel Stauffenberg’s bomb failed to kill the dictator, and the majority of military commanders had in any case refused to join the conspiracy, either because they regarded its chances of success as small, or because they felt it was treachery to the nation at a difficult moment, or because they genuinely felt inhibited by their oath of allegiance. After the plot, Hitler and Himmler’s drastic purge of the armed forces left only unquestioningly loyal officers in post. Even the relatively sensible General Gotthard Heinrici, charged with the defence of Berlin, felt it would be treason to refuse to obey Hitler’s orders, though he confided to his diary that they were either meaningless or insane.
For civil servants, municipal administrators, judges and prosecutors, teachers and state employees across the country, an ingrained sense of duty ensured that they carried on doing their jobs. They continued even when their decisions could no longer be implemented, issuing paper orders that stood no chance of being put into effect, judging and condemning offenders criminalised by Nazi legal measures because that was what the law required them to do. That the law itself had been perverted by Nazism did not occur to them. They had unthinkingly adapted to the Third Reich because it had taken over the management of the state; they continued to work for it to the end because they felt it was their job to do so. The senior official in the Reich Chancellery, asked after the war why he had carried on working, could not understand the implication of the question: ‘As a long-standing civil servant,’ he shrugged, ‘I was duty-bound in loyalty to the state.’
Characteristic of this almost complete alienation from reality was the demand presented to leading ministers on 23 February 1945, just over two months before the end of the war, by the finance minister, Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk, for reductions in government expenditure and increases in taxes on property, tobacco and alcohol, utilities and other items of consumption in an attempt to cover the growing budgetary deficit. His initiative culminated in the Alice in Wonderland statement that ‘it cannot be objected that essential provisions for the population are thereby being made more expensive,’ since ‘a large part of the population has already been entirely without regular access, or with only restricted access, to water, gas and electricity for months.’ Schwerin was still working on his proposals a month later, when there was scarcely any part of the country that was not under Allied occupation.
The state continued to function, yet in the final months it increasingly ceded power to the Nazi Party at every level. This was, party activists commented, a ‘time of struggle’, like the old days before 1933. The treachery of the officers in Stauffenberg’s failed plot left Hitler and the leaders of the Reich deeply distrustful of the old elites. Hitler’s immediate subordinates, Goebbels, Himmler and Bormann, acted to move the party, its Gauleiters and activists into the institutional space previously occupied by the state bureaucracy. New laws and regulations gave party officials hugely extended powers over civilian life. They drafted labour, organised clean-ups after bombing raids, co-ordinated civil defence and mobilised the Volkssturm, the ‘Dad’s army’ of civilian conscripts who were meant to spearhead last-ditch resistance to the invasion of the Reich. Ill-equipped and poorly trained, mostly without even uniforms, they were no match for the battle-hardened troops of the Allies and the Red Army, and 175,000 of them were killed in the last months of the war. They were usually led by hardline Nazi activists, however, and provided yet another instrument by which the party took control over the mass of the German people. One function of the Volkssturm was to punish backsliding and defeatism among the population. Shootings and informal courts-martial leading to the execution of ‘traitors’, increasingly held in public, became common in German towns in the winter of 1944-45. Kershaw provides many horrific examples of the ruthlessness with which the party and its adherents punished backsliding. People who wanted to avoid bloodshed were strung up from lamp-posts with placards around their necks: ‘I wanted to do a deal with the Bolsheviks.’ ‘In a house in which a white flag appears,’ Himmler ordered on 3 April 1945, ‘all males are to be shot.’ For good measure the Gauleiter of Franconia added: ‘Villages that raise white flags communally will be burnt down.’
This order does not seem to have been carried out, but there were enough middle and lower-ranking Nazis left in positions of power to institute a reign of terror that bullied the vast bulk of the civilian population into acquiescence with their senseless determination to fight on. The numerous cases of last ditch Nazi brutality range from a local Nazi leader in Heilbronn who came across a street with white flags hanging from several houses to welcome the approaching Americans, stopped the car and ordered his men to jump out and shoot everyone in sight, to a flying court-martial unit under Major Erwin Helm, who arrested a 60-year-old farmer who had made sarcastic remarks to the local Volkssturm, bullied the two other members of the court into condemning the man and hanged him ‘from a branch of the pear tree just beneath the window of his farmhouse while insults were hurled at his horror-struck wife’.
Such fanatics behaved as they did not least because they knew that their crimes meant they had no future if Germany lost. The Nazi leaders played on this feeling; Himmler had already gathered high-ranking officials and generals at Posen and Sonthofen to tell them explicitly about the extermination of the Jews, thus bringing them into complicity with what he and they knew was regarded in the world at large as a crime. The Gauleiters did nothing that could imply weakness; they even refused to evacuate areas threatened by Red Army forces, though when it came to their own safety they were often unprepared to back up words with deeds; many, like Arthur Greiser, issued ringing exhortations to his people to defend to the last, then fled the scene.
Not only did Nazis shoot or hang ‘shirkers’, ‘defeatists’, ‘deserters’ and ‘cowards’, they also evacuated concentration camps and prisons lest the inmates should be liberated by the Allies, and sent them on ill-organised, often aimless ‘death marches’, shooting and killing stragglers as they went. Hundreds of thousands died in the process; of the 715,000 camp inmates at the beginning of 1945, fewer than half were still alive six months later. In the camps still unliberated by the Allies, the huge numbers of starving and maltreated prisoners arriving from other camps soon created impossible conditions in which typhus and other diseases spread rapidly and scores of thousands died.
Terror also increased drastically in the armed forces. Tens of thousands of soldiers deserted – one estimate puts the number at a quarter of a million even before the final months of chaos – but those who contemplated running away knew that if they were caught by any of the patrols waiting on Germany’s streets, railway stations and arteries of communication to ask people for their papers, they would face certain death. At least 30,000 soldiers were condemned to death for desertion, defeatism and similar offences during the war, with around 20,000 being shot, in contrast to 150 during the First World War, only 48 of whom were executed. Middle and higher-ranking officers continued to operate courts-martial and pass death sentences even after the war was officially over.
Fear of the regime and its servants kept many people going, but so did fear of the enemy, above all of the Red Army, which in the final months was blasting its way across eastern and central Germany, raping and pillaging as it went. Goebbels’s propaganda machine made great play with incidents such as the massacre by Red Army troops carried out in the East Prussian village of Nemmersdorf. Ordinary Germans elsewhere reacted, according to the security police, by noting gloomily that rape, murder and pillage was what they could expect, given the atrocities carried out in occupied Eastern Europe by their own troops. ‘Have we not slaughtered Jews in their thousands?’ a security officer reported people in Stuttgart asking. ‘The Jews are also human beings. By acting in this way, we have shown the enemy what they might do to us in the event of their victory.’ The fears, which turned out in large measure to be justified, were heightened by what appeared to be widespread popular acceptance of Goebbels’s propaganda line that the Allies – Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin – were being manipulated by a world conspiracy of Jews out for revenge on the German people. To many troops and civilians, fighting on seemed better than consigning themselves to the mercies of ‘the Russians’.
To ask that people should rise up against the regime, overthrow it and make peace with the Allies was to ask the impossible. Ordinary Germans, their towns and cities bombed to rubble, their gas, electricity and water services working only intermittently if at all, their factories and workplaces destroyed, their food and fuel supplies dwindling, had to concentrate on simply keeping themselves and their families alive. In any case, the pervasive presence of the party and its agencies in the last months of the war meant that any kind of collective action was out of the question. What would happen was vividly illustrated by the fate of the gangs of foreign workers involved in black-marketeering in the industrial cities of the Rhineland, who fought pitched battles against the police amid the rubble and shot dead the chief of the Gestapo in Cologne; rounded up and arrested, they were publicly hanged as a warning to others.
Collective action higher up the ranks was just as impossible after the failure of Stauffenberg’s bomb plot. Within the Nazi Party and the government, institutions capable of formulating a concerted policy that diverged from Hitler’s had long since ceased to exist; the Reich cabinet hadn’t met for years, and there wasn’t anything resembling the Fascist Grand Council that deposed Mussolini in 1943. Hitler had arrogated all institutional power to himself: he was head of state, head of government, head of the party, supreme commander of the armed forces, commander-in-chief of the army – in short, he was ‘The Leader’. All power emanated from him; everyone in senior positions owed such power as they had to him; all knew they could prosper and survive only if they carried out his wishes and conformed to his ideological dictates.
Even though Hitler increasingly cut himself off in his underground bunker, ceased to give addresses to the people and lost the hold he had gained on them through his carefully orchestrated public broadcasts and speeches, his personal style of rule continued to control the actions of those who held power in Nazi Germany. There was, in the last months, Kershaw writes, ‘charismatic rule without charisma. Hitler’s mass charismatic appeal had long since dissolved, but the structures and mentalities of his charismatic rule lasted until his death in the bunker.’ Correspondingly, once he had gone, the whole edifice crumbled into dust. Hitler was no longer there to fight for. Despite all Goebbels’s efforts to create a resistance movement to harass the Allied occupying forces, the Werwolf, there was no resistance worth speaking of.
The End is a vivid account of the last days of Hitler’s Reich, with a real feel for the mentalities and situations of people caught up in a calamity which many didn’t survive, and which those who did took years to overcome. The book does not, perhaps, give enough weight to the feelings of nationalism that imbued so many Germans, especially in the officer corps; it was more than a mere excuse when they claimed they were fighting for Germany, to protect German civilisation against the Bolshevik hordes. The effects of Goebbels’s claim that it was not just German but European civilisation that was at stake could have been explored more deeply. Fear and hatred of ‘the East’ did not begin with the Nazis. Nationalist convictions, mixed with a strong dose of contempt for ‘Slavs’, underpinned Nazism for many, and were vitally important to those whose Nazism was only skin-deep.
Finally, terror, which Kershaw persuasively reinstates as a key element in the Nazi regime, in contrast to those who have seen that regime as based overwhelmingly on popular consent, was central to it long before the outbreak of the war; it did not merely appear in 1939. It was implicit throughout the years of peace, and the structures and mentalities that enabled it to assume a central role in 1944-45, just as it had in 1933, were already in place, ready to be activated when the going got tough.