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09.14.11

How It Ended

In a new book, 'The End,' the Nazi historian Ian Kershaw delivers a compelling and horrifying look at the final months of World War II and asks why Hitler and his army kept on fighting.

Sir Ian Kershaw is Britain’s premier historian of Nazism. His definitive two-volume biography of Hitler, entitled Hubris (which took the Fuhrer up to 1936) and Nemesis (which took him up to his suicide in the ashes of Berlin’s Wilhelmstrasse on April 30, 1945) won the Wolfson Prize, Britain’s equivalent of the Pulitzer for non-fiction, as well as the British Academy book prize. “For the present generation,” wrote one reviewer, “Kershaw’s Hitler stands out as a clear beacon of truth, illuminating a dark age of terror and mendacity.”

Afterward Kershaw wrote Making Friends With Hitler about the arch-appeaser Lord Londonderry. I sat on the judging panel of the Elizabeth Longford Prize for historical biography at that time, where we were unanimous in awarding him the prize. Next came Fateful Choices, an enthralling book about the 10 key decisions made between 1940 and 1944 that decided the outcome of the World War II. There then was Hitler, The Germans, and the Final Solution, a collection of scholarly essays that answered all the important questions posed by the Holocaust. After that came his superb Luck of the Devil: The Story of Operation Valkyrie, about the July 20, 1944 bomb plot that Hitler only managed to survive through, well, the luck of the devil.

Now, even though he retired from being professor of modern history at the University of Sheffield in 2008, Sir Ian has brought out yet another absolutely first-class work of Nazi history, The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany which tells the truly horrific story of the period between the failure of the Bomb Plot and the Nazis’ surrender 10 months later. It seeks to answer that central question which so many have posed over the intervening seven decades yet so few have hitherto convincingly answered: Why did the Germans fight so hard for so long after they had so obviously lost?

With his customary narrative and analytical skills, Kershaw first tells the tale of German tenacity in the face of certain defeat, and then draws together all the reasons that explain the phenomenon, which he then boils down into one overarching explanation. The way that the narrative throws light on the analysis, while simultaneously opening questions that are subsequently answered and illuminated by further narrative, is a masterpiece of the historian’s art, and shows that Kershaw is still at the very top of his game. But quite apart from the skill of the telling, the sheer facts of the tale itself are utterly absorbing, with the psyches of Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Model, Speer, Bormann and the rest of that morbid crew—but above all of course the Fuhrer himself—once more filling even this widest of historical canvasses.

Astonishingly, the only major surrender of German forces to take place before Hitler’s death occurred in Italy the day before his suicide, by General Heinrich von Vietinghoff and Waffen-SS General Karl Wolff. Otherwise it was not until  May 8, 1945 that the Wehrmacht finally capitulated, when Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed the surrender documents at Karlshorst, near Berlin. Considering that the Americans, British, and Canadians had landed in Western Europe over 11 months before, bringing across millions of troops, and the Russians had crushed the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Center—killing, capturing, or wounding 530,000 German soldiers—in Operation Bagration a full 10 months earlier, why did it take so incredibly, frustratingly, painfully long?

It was an inherent aspect of Hitler’s evil genius that, paradoxically, the charismatic rule outlasted even his charisma itself.

The answer, Kershaw conclusively proves, lies in the underlying DNA of the Nazi state as it was founded in January 1933, and in what had happened in Germany in the intervening 12 years. What Kershaw calls “the structures of rule and underlying mentalities behind them” were fundamental to why ordinary German soldiers were willing to fight on to the inexpressibly bitter end. “All other factors,” he argues, “lingering popular backing for Hitler, the ferocious terror apparatus, the increased dominance of the Nazi party, the prominent roles of the Bormann-Goebbels-Himmler-Speer quadrumvirate, the fear of Bolshevik occupation, and the continued readiness of high-ranking civil servants and military leaders to continue doing their duty when all was obviously lost, were ultimately subordinate to the way that the charismatic Fuhrer regime was structured, and how it functioned, in its dying phase.”

Of course Kershaw makes clear that although his rule was charismatic, by early 1945 Hitler himself was stripped of his actual personal charisma by the obvious fact of Germany’s failure and defeat, though even then he was still occasionally capable of firing up his generals into the belief of ultimate victory. Yet what Kershaw describes as “the structures and mentalities of his charismatic rule” lasted right up until Hitler’s death in the bunker. It was an inherent aspect of Hitler’s evil genius that, paradoxically, the charismatic rule outlasted even his charisma itself. It meant that the dominant elites of the nation, which Hitler had kept deliberately divided over the past 12 years, and thus at loggerheads, “possessed neither the collective will nor the mechanisms of power to prevent Hitler taking Germany to total destruction.”

With such brilliant deductive analysis, on the top of superb storytelling skills, all that remains is for us to hope that despite Kershaw’s retirement this will not be—as seems to be threatened—his final work on the Third Reich. Historians as talented as he, sadly, have no right to retire.