World War II in Europe officially ended when Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 7, 1945. But in the view of Allied commanders, the war should really have drawn to a close in 1944, when the Third Reich was in full retreat.
Against all odds and in the face of defeat, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime held out, thereby prolonging the war by about 10 months and condemning millions of civilians, particularly Jews, to needless suffering.
In The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945 (Penguin Press), the distinguished British historian Ian Kershaw explains in voluminous detail why Germany continued to fight until the bitter end.
“The fact that the regime did hold out and that the war ended only when Germany was militarily battered into submission, its economy destroyed, its cities in ruins, the country occupied by foreign powers – is historically an extreme rarity,” Kershaw writes.
As he points out, wars in the modern era have usually ended when the ruling elites of a nation have sued for peace and reached an agreement with the victor. Indeed, this was the case in World War I. But in World War II, the pattern was completely shattered.
By the dictates of logic, Germany should have surrendered in 1944.
The D-Day landings at Normandy had taken place, setting the stage for Allied advances into Germany. Round-the-clock Allied bombing raids of German cities were taking a terrible toll. On the eastern front, the Red Army had smashed through Wehrmacht defences. In the Ardennes, Germany’s last major offensive fizzled.
And yet Germany fought on, the great majority of Germans still unhesitatingly loyal in their support for the doomed war effort. In Kershaw’s view, Germany’s determination to carry on, come what may, was partly rooted in Hitler’s refusal to contemplate capitulation. When he finally realized that victory was unattainable, he committed suicide rather than surrendering.
Hitler convinced his followers that defeat would bring about the utter destruction of the German people, and that Bolshevism, Germany’s arch enemy, was a product of a Jewish conspiracy.
Reiterating this claim, Hitler’s closest aide, Martin Bormann, declared, “A victory for Bolshevism… would mean not only the extermination of our race, but also the destruction of everything that its culture and civilization has created.”
Brainwashed by these theories, ordinary Germans remained generally loyal to Hitler. As a result, support for the regime was widespread, not just among Nazi diehards, Kershaw notes.
The association of Hitler with patriotic support for the country remained strong, especially after the failed assassination attempt on his life in July 1944.
“Effusive outpourings of loyalty and support for the Fuehrer were immediately registered in all quarters, along with furious outrage at the ‘tiny clique’ of ‘criminal’ officers (as Hitler labelled them) who had perpetrated such a vile deed. It would, of course, have been near suicidal to voice regrets in public that Hitler had survived, though certainly that was the private feeling of a good many people.”
A lasting consequence of the abortive assassination plot was the elimination of high-ranking officers in the armed forces who might have been agents of regime change, Kershaw observes. Conversely, with the general staff having been purged of so-called traitors, the military leadership expressed total obedience to Hitler.
One of Hitler’s firmest backers was Grand Admiral Karl Donitz. Although he cultivated the image of a purely professional officer, he was in actuality a real hardliner, never wavering from his appraisal of Hitler as a man of “extreme chivalry and kindness.”
Albert Speer, the minister of armaments, was also instrumental in Germany’s decision to prosecute the war at all costs. “Without my work, the war would perhaps have been lost in 1942-43,” he claimed. “He was surely right,” Kershaw says. “His achievements constitute an important element in the answer to the question of how Germany held out so long.”
There is another factor to consider.
With signs of disintegration within the civilian population and among foot soldiers appearing in the winter of 1945, the regime stepped up repression at home. Germans were now increasingly subjected to what Kershaw describes as “wild reprisals for perceived defeatism.”
But the worst of the terror was reserved for the regime’s designated enemies: Jews, foreign workers, prisoners of war and concentration camp internees.
Jews, in particular, bore the brunt of the persecution. Death marches, coming on the heels of the Final Solution, which reached a peak of intensity from 1942 to 1944, claimed the lives of yet more Jews.
Kershaw says the majority of Germans appear to have been unconcerned by the fate of Jews, perhaps because relatively few people in Germany had first-hand, detailed knowledge of the Holocaust.
“For most, it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ apart from the nagging worry that the ill-deeds perpetrated by German overlords might well come back to haunt then in defeat and occupation.”
Germany paid an onerous price for extending the war to such absurd lengths. Out of 18.2 million servicemen who served in the Wehrmacht, Luftwaffe, navy and Waffen-SS, 5.3 million were killed.
“Of these, 2.7 million died down to the end of July 1944,” he writes, adding that a further 2.6 million were killed in the last 10 months of the war.
By the very end, 300,000 to 400,000 servicemen were dying each month.
The casualty figures stagger the imagination, yet Allied opinion polls taken in the immediate aftermath of the war revealed that about 50 per cent of Germans still thought National Socialism had been in essence a good idea that had been badly implemented.
Another Allied survey, taken in October 1945, found that 20 per cent of Germans basically agreed with Hitler’s Jewish policy. A further 19 per cent were also in agreement but thought Hitler had gone too far.
In conclusion, Kershaw points out that Germany persevered because “the structures and mentalities” of Hitler’s regime lasted until he shot himself in his Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945.
“The dominant elites, divided as they were, possessed neither the collective will nor the mechanisms of power to prevent Hitler taking Germany to total destruction.”