Why did Germany fight on?

HISTORY: The End: Hitler’s Germany 1944-45, By Ian Kershaw, Allen Lane, 563pp. £30

HISTORY: The End: Hitler's Germany 1944-45,By Ian Kershaw, Allen Lane, 563pp. £30

IN LIGHT OF THE economic crisis facing Europe, it is worth recalling that within living memory the continent overcame a far greater catastrophe: devastation at the hands of Nazi Germany and its allies. Ian Kershaw’s new study of the final year of Hitler’s regime provides a salutary reminder of this cataclysm.

Kershaw examines the period from Claus von Stauffenberg’s failed assassination attempt on Hitler, in July 1944, to the unconditional surrender signed by Admiral Dönitz, Hitler’s successor, on May 7th, 1945, a week after Hitler’s suicide, in order to answer a question that continues to perplex historians: why did Germany continue to fight long after it became obvious that it had lost the war?

For Kershaw, the failed Ardennes offensive in December 1944 marked the last major German throw of the dice before overall military defeat became inevitable. It was clear by late 1944 that the German armaments output was unsustainable; indeed, Kershaw wryly remarks, it was largely because of the fanatical effort of Albert Speer that the German arms industry continued functioning at all. By January 1945 Germany had also been defeated in the air: short of fuel and planes, the Luftwaffe was a spent force.

The decision to keep fighting was a costly one. In the 10 months between July 1944 and May 1945 more German civilians died than in all the previous years of the conflict. More than 400,000 were killed by Allied bombing and there were up to 500,000 further civilian deaths, accompanied by widespread mass rape, as a result of the Soviet invasion and occupation of Germany’s eastern regions. As Kershaw notes, had the Stauffenberg assassination succeeded and the war subsequently ended in 1944, the lives of almost half of the German soldiers who died in the second World War might have been saved: 49 per cent of German military deaths occurred in the final 10 months of the conflict.

Even the final week of the war was hugely costly, when Dönitz, who emerges here as a far more radical Nazi than is often claimed, pursued the fight after Hitler’s suicide. Forced to continue fighting, rather than being allowed to retreat to the west, 220,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner by the Red Army between May 1st and May 8th, 1945, and 1.6 million after the final surrender.

What lay behind this drive to Gotterdammerung? Kershaw argues that a range of interacting factors ensured that the Nazi regime would fight on until the point of total self-destruction. In the east, extreme (and often justified) fears of Soviet atrocities against prisoners of war kept soldiers fighting, as well as ongoing propaganda, directed by Goebbels, about the potential horrors of a Bolshevik occupation. Hitler’s refusal to allow strategic retreats also ensured that “fortress cities”, such as Breslau (now Wroclaw), where 200,000 civilians were trapped after February 1945, were forced to hold out until devastated rather than negotiate a handover.

In other eastern areas Nazi regional leaders refused to evacuate the local German civilian population, before deserting their posts at the last minute and saving themselves. Abandoned by their leaders, hundreds of thousands of German civilians fled too late, in appalling conditions, as the Red Army arrived. Fifty thousand people died fleeing the Warthegau region alone. Other civilians fleeing East Prussia became trapped on the coast, their plight epitomised by the sinking of the overloaded liner Wilhelm Gustloff, which was evacuating refugees from Gotenhafen (now Gdynia), when 7,000 drowned.

The insistence of the Allies on unconditional surrender was another factor that kept Germany fighting. Rumours that the Allied coalition might split also gave false hope to the Nazi leadership, who, right up to May 1945, entertained fantastical ideas about Britain and the US changing sides and uniting with Nazi Germany against Soviet Russia.

Central to the calamity of continued conflict, however, was the role of terror, as the Nazi party, co-ordinated by Martin Bormann, increasingly took over the running of Germany from the civil service in the final months of the war. The ruthless purges that followed Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt ensured that no later elite opposition dared to mobilise against Hitler. Internal terror was also fundamental to keeping German civilians quiescent to the end, long after they had lost all faith in Hitler, whose popularity was, according to Kershaw, in “free fall” by 1944-45. Deserters, dissidents, “defeatists” and even those just hanging out a white flag before the Allies arrived were summarily executed.

Ultimately, Kershaw argues, the most significant reason why Germany kept fighting was that Hitler’s system of charismatic rule remained in place, ensuring that, until his suicide, he alone, a leader who refused to countenance capitulation, determined all war policy. His regional Gauleiters and his key acolytes, Bormann, Speer, Goebbels and Himmler, along with the unflinching loyalty of Germany’s leading generals, emerge as the fatal culpable combination that ensured the continued functioning of a ruthless system, wreaking untold devastation, as this remarkable book shows.

Heather Jones is a lecturer in international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her book Violence Against Prisoners of War in the First World War: Britain, France and Germany 1914-1920was published by Cambridge University Press earlier this year