- - Wednesday, September 28, 2011

THE END: THE DEFIANCE AND DESTRUCTION OF HITLER’S GERMANY, 1944-1945
By Ian Kershaw
Penguin Press, $35, 400 pages

Sir Ian Kershaw is a prize-winning historian who has devoted himself to the study of Hitler and his time. In “The End,” he has produced more than a history. Rather, he has performed a detailed anatomy of the conclusion of World War II in Europe from the post-D-Day breakout to the surrender of Germany. It is grim reading, stupefying in its detail of the horrible Nazi and Russian atrocities visited upon civilians.

Yet the book is compelling and fascinating in its depiction of how the Nazi regime - from Hitler’s intimates to the senior military commanders to the private soldiers - dealt with the intensifying crush of defeat on both the Eastern and Western fronts. One is impressed against one’s will by the energy and resourcefulness of the Germans in maximizing the defensive effect of their dwindling resources.

The reader is struck by the unconditional determination of Hitler and his regime to keep up the fight until every hope was extinguished, even to the point that it became physically impossible to fight on. All the senior commanders, whatever their private thoughts, felt committed to fight to the death as long as Hitler willed it. Only when Hitler was reliably reported dead did some commanders feel released from their oath, and even then, some generals, SS officials and party functionaries pressed on. They adopted “flying courts-martial” to apprehend and execute soldiers, local officials and ordinary civilians who sought to escape their harsh and hopeless duty to fight to the death.

Martin Bormann, alone of Hitler’s top insiders, planned for his desertion and escape from the final catastrophe and remains unaccounted for to this day. Joseph Goebbels chose suicide for himself and his family. Hermann Goering had been dismissed from his command of the Luftwaffe after failing to stop the Allied strategic bombing campaign. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel remained in command of the hollow military headquarters until the end. Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, took poison. Hitler’s choice to succeed himself in supreme authority was the hard-nosed chief of the navy, Grand Adm. Karl Doenitz, who was fanatically committed to fight to the end (perhaps a surprise to some who think the navy might have represented a more pragmatic tradition).

The control of the entire economy and weapons-production program devolved upon Albert Speer, the architect, superbuilder and logistic genius who survived the war and made a slick accommodation with the Allied occupation authorities by virtue of his economic know-how. As soon as Hitler was dead, Speer was a one-man peace plan.

As defeat grew closer, Hitler’s top officials were increasingly at odds with each other. Goebbels, in effect the chief morale officer, blamed Goering for defeat in the air war; all military commanders blamed Keitel for the shortage of troops. Speer blamed the military for the shortage of prison labor; Hitler blamed Himmler for a secretive approach through the Swiss for a negotiated peace. Yet while Hitler lived, all purported to be committed to war to the death.

Mr. Kershaw puts to bed a couple of theories that gained credence after the war. One was the view that the insistence of Roosevelt (not Churchill, although he reluctantly went along with it) upon unconditional surrender made the Germans fight harder and extended the war by precluding a negotiated peace.

But, as Mr. Kershaw makes clear, every German commander and official except Bormann had long accepted Hitler’s orders to fight or die, even relatively reasonable commanders like Gen. Gotthard Heinrici and Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. Another theory was that the failure of the July 20 plot to kill Hitler stifled what might have been a growing determination to take military decisions away from him and end the war. But Mr. Kershaw points to the nearly unanimous view among senior commanders that the plot, if they knew of it, was anathema, representing a violation of their oath and a disgrace to the military tradition. The plot’s collapse did not change that.

“The End” confirms, not for the first time, that the ablest of Hitler’s military commanders was Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the theater commander in Italy, whose energy and resourcefulness earned him the West Wall command just in time to experience defeat.

This book is a compelling read, far from pleasant, but superbly written, fascinating and immensely informative.

David C. Acheson is a former president of the Atlantic Council of the United States.