With both the Elbe and Rhine frontiers breached by the early months of 1945, Germany had clearly lost the war. To understand why the Germans continued to give battle, Ian Kershaw looks at the German mindset and the National Socialist structures of political power.
Kershaw begins his book with the attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life in July 1944. Alarmed by the advancing Russian army, a group of generals attempted an assassination and coup d’etat. But the bomb planted by a young staff officer at Hitler’s field headquarters in East Prussia failed to kill Hitler. Had it done so, Kershaw contends, the army hierarchy would have sued for peace. But the failed attempt actually strengthened German resolve.
The coup d’etat had limited objectives: an armistice on the Western front. The conspirators hoped to convince the Americans and British to come to terms and then join Germany sans Hitler in repelling the threat of Soviet Bolshevism to Eastern and Central Europe. Hitler remained adamant in opposing any negotiations and would have to be removed.
The precedent set by the armistice that ended the First World War clouded the German mindset in the last months of the war. By the fall of 1918, hunger was stalking Germany. Public support for the war in France had crumbled. The military leadership feared mutiny. America had entered the war and the terms proposed by President Woodrow Wilson would leave Germany as the dominant power in Central Europe. Germany sued for peace but had not been defeated, hence the Nazi myth of a ‘stab in the back’ and the ‘cowardly capitulation.’
The political power structure of the Nazi regime had become increasingly top-down: Hitler and four henchmen, Martin Bormann, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Albert Speer. The quadrumvirate understood Germany’s dire military situation, they questioned some of Hitler’s calls, but they loyally carried out his commands. All were ‘war criminals’ and had been warned by the Allied leadership that they would be arrested and tried; they had nowhere to go.
They had no worry about the military elite. The younger generals who replaced those purged after the attempted coup d’etat had stronger loyalty to their Führer.
Bormann was responsible for re-invigorating the Nazi Party and insuring its continued loyalty to Hitler. Himmler, head of the SS and the Gestapo, had been given the additional responsibility for ensuring that the army and the gauleiter remained committed to Hitler’s war. A reign of terror kept most ordinary Germans frightened and intimidated.
Goebbels and Speer, though in many other issues at odds, convinced Hitler and then implemented “total war,” the unlimited allocation of German lives and resources to continue the fight. Germans were assured that the Wehrmacht would soon be receiving “new weapons.” V2 rockets would bring Britain to her knees. The navy had a new generation of U-boats. Given this mindset, Kershaw does not believe the Allied demand for unconditional surrender had much to do with the decision to fight to the end.
The conduct of the Russian armies now occupying East Prussia and Poland was effectively used to keep most Germans from contemplating surrender. The German army’s rampage in Poland and the Ukraine during Operation Barbarossa in 1941 plus some well-publicized atrocity stories committed by Russians made it impossible for either soldiers or civilians to think of any alternative to battling the advancing Soviet armies..
The massive German Ardennes offensive in the December 1944 was intended to undermine the British and U.S. will to fight on. For a week or so it gave hope to Germans. But the Allies held a huge superiority of men and weaponry, and the German offensive was turned back. Then in January 1945 the Russians began their winter offensive.
The final months of the Nazi regime bunkered under Berlin is a well-known story. Mentally and physically Hitler was deteriorating; he did not want to be captured by the Soviets. Sadly his suicide didn’t happen until the end of April. Bormann, Goebbels, and Himmler also committed suicide. Speer’s last months had a different trajectory. Still loyal to his Fürher, nevertheless he worked to keep the gauleiters from carrying out Hitler’s orders to destroy heavy industry, the German railroads, bridges, even cathedrals. Speer convinced them that industry should be “disabled” to allow Germany to fight another day.
The resulting loss of life was enormous. From July 1944 to April 1945, there were 350,000 casualties a month, dead, missing, and captured. Half of all Allied bombs dropped on German cities occurred between July 1944 and the end of the war. The wonderful baroque cities Dresden and Wurzburg and the medieval city of Nuremberg were destroyed.