As readers we are as guilty as the rest of the media when it comes to our insatiable obsession with the second world war. We just keep returning to it, drawn irresistibly, by that haunting “what if?”. Here the focus is on the last year of the war in Europe (incidentally, it would have been nice if Kershaw had even acknowledged that there was a war going on elsewhere) and tries to answer the question – why did Germany fight on into 1945 when the end was only a matter of time, and when the cost was so high in terms of human life and destruction of property, including Germany’s cultural heritage.

Asked this question a non-historian would hazard that the Nazi party, its leadership, in particular Hitler, would have had something to do with it, and of course this is the case. So successful had the Nazi’s been in making themselves part of every aspect of German existence that the thought of giving up when their leaders where still promising victory was inconceivable. factor in the mythology of the stab in the back surrender of 1918 and the scene was set to a fanatical fight to the death. The detail of this is portrayed by this book – and it is fascinating to see how the administration managed to keep mundane activities running almost up to the end of the war. More chilling is the retribution meted out to anyone who tried to hasten the end of the war, or surrender, even with the Allies at the point of victory.

Kershaw makes very effective use of letters home and diaries, as well as other sources such as secretly recorded prisoners of war, to get nearer to the heart of what ordinary Germans really thought about the end of the war. The illusion of Hitler’s invulnerability was extremely strong.

There are a few things I would like to have seen covered in this book. Firstly, the war is portrayed as a European battlefield, and while the focus was on Germany I don’t see how the context of the World War could be ignored. Secondly, the war the conflict to the north and south of Germany is largely ignored, along with pretty much any other non-Germanic part of the conflict. As I understand it Germany had large reserves of forces in for example Norway which were never called into the final struggle for the homeland – why not, when old men and young boys were being pushed into uniform? Finally, we hear time and again that many Germans clung to the hope of some secret weapon that the Nazis were working on. We are led to believe that these were simply false hopes, rumours dreamt up by a desperate populace and allowed to spread by a propaganda machine running out of lies. But is that the whole story – was there really no German research into new weapons that could, potentially, have turned the course of the war?

Advertisements