Nazi Germany's Anatomy of Self-destruction

In his latest work, ‘The End,’ renowned historian Ian Kershaw draws a portrait of German society advancing with eyes wide open to its perdition.

Avner Shapira
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Avner Shapira

Long before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz decided to raise the tax on beer in Israel, very different leaders in a very different time and place were required to make another decision about the popular drink. At the end of August 1944, Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, discussed the introduction of emergency measures in Germany so as to conserve the manpower and resources needed for the military effort to succeed in the Second World War. Goebbels suggested, among other measures, stopping the production of beer and sweets, but was overruled by Hitler.

In his latest book, “The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945,” the British historian Sir Ian Kershaw explains the Führer’s reasoning. In regard to sweets, he notes, Hitler pointed out that even the Soviets never stopped manufacturing them, because they are as essential for the civilians at the rear as for the soldiers at the front. As for beer, halting its production would not leave the people unmoved and was liable to have “severe psychological repercussions in Bavaria” and stir popular resentment.

Five years earlier, shortly after the eruption of the war, Germany forbade the sale of chocolates to Jews. Now there were few Jews left in the country, but even the life of the members of the “Aryan race” was far from sweet, as Kershaw shows in the book.

In November 1923, Hitler and his supporters mounted the so-called Beer Hall Putsch in Munich, in an attempt to seize power in Bavaria. But in 1944, the bitter taste in the mouths of Germany’s citizens was not only due to the residue of their beloved drink. Still, as Prof. Kershaw’s analysis shows, probably not even cessation of beer production would have prompted the people to rise up against the dictatorial regime in its prolonged death throes.

“The End” published in 2011 in English and just out in a Hebrew edition (translation by Carmit Guy ) draws a portrait of a society advancing with eyes wide open to its perdition. Kershaw, author of, among other works, an acclaimed and monumental biography of Hitler, and one of the world’s leading experts on the history of Nazism, dissects the “anatomy of self-destruction” that characterized German society in the brief period between July 1944 – after the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler by Col. Claus von Stauffenberg and his allies in the “officers’ plot” – and Germany’s absolute capitulation in May 1945, about a week after Hitler’s suicide.

“The period is pivotal in the history of the 20th century, the hinge on which the century turned,” Kershaw says in an interview conducted by email. “In Germany, the Nazi regime was eventually destroyed, after fighting on to the very end, wreaking immense destruction and vast loss of life. Perhaps 10 million were killed in Europe in those months (of more than 40 million killed in the Continent throughout the war ). The ground was laid for a new Europe, one that would be divided for decades between the superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union.”

His interest lay “in exploring how and why Germany was able to fight on for so long, even when it was obvious that the war was irredeemably lost. I was surprised to find there had been no general attempt to answer this question on the basis of an analysis of the structures and mentalities in Hitler’s Germany.”

The country was in a state of chaos. Allied bombing raids left swaths of devastation, laid waste whole cities and killed about half a million civilians. The number of soldiers who were killed, wounded or taken prisoner reached new heights, and hundreds of thousands of German troops tried to desert. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were killed in the course of the mass flight from the regions captured by the Red Army in the east. The morale of the civilian population was at a nadir, and the number of suicides by civilians who feared revenge at the hands of the Russian soldiers soared. And if this were not enough, the “death marches” forced upon concentration camp prisoners and the attendant atrocities left about a quarter of a million people dead and contributed to the general unraveling of the country.

Yet, even amid the chaos, political and social mechanisms continued to operate as usual, imposing draconian supervision and control, and brutally suppressing those who did not toe the line or expressed the slightest dissent. Hitler’s absolute refusal to consider unconditional surrender, as demanded by the Allies, and the distinctive character of the Nazi dictatorship which did not contain mechanisms for removing the leader (in contrast to the fate of Mussolini in fascist Italy ) were among the reasons that, as Kershaw writes, “the regime, torn apart on all sides, could continue to operate until the Red Army was at the portals of the Reich Chancellery.”

The ship was already listing, but the orchestra continued to play on the deck until almost the last minute. On April 12, 1945, Kershaw relates, the Berlin Philharmonic held its final concert in the period of the Third Reich, four days before the Soviets launched their assault on the city. In line with Hitler’s “twilight of the gods” mentality, which preferred a fight to the death over surrender, the orchestra also played the finale of the opera “Götterdämmerung,” written by the Führer’s favorite composer, Richard Wagner.

Human dimension

In the summer of 1944, after the invasion of Normandy, the Allied commanders thought the war would be over by Christmas. At first, the attempt on Hitler’s life strengthened the impression that the end of his regime was fast approaching, in light of the manifestations of resistance by senior officers. However, according to Kershaw, the failure of the assassination attempt was fraught with significance both for the Wehrmacht (the Germany army) and society as a whole.

“The failed plot had a baleful legacy,” he notes. “Only arch loyalists were left in important positions of military command. The punishment meted out to the plotters was sufficient to deter military leaders from any attempt at a repeated coup d’état. Hitler sought to bind the army still closer to the regime. Himmler, the SS chief, was given command of the Replacement Army (from where Stauffenberg’s attempted coup had been launched ), the use of so-called NS-Führungsoffiziere (National Socialist Leadership Officers ) to try to instill Nazi doctrine into the troops was stepped up, and the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute was, for the first time, introduced into the army.

“Outside the military sphere, wide-ranging powers were granted to the propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, to mobilize all remaining manpower for the army; Albert Speer increased his control of armaments production; and Martin Bormann (head of the Party Chancellery and Hitler’s private secretary ) was able to extend the power and influence of the Nazi Party over all aspects of civilian life.”

During those last 10 months of the war, Hitler’s charisma had faded among German society, but nevertheless his “charismatic leadership” played a crucial role. How would you explain this paradoxical situation?

“I distinguish between Hitler’s personal appeal and the structures of rule that, from the beginning of the Nazi regime in 1933, had been dominated by his highly personalized form of governance. Hitler’s popular appeal, which had been waning since 1941, and more sharply since 1943, enjoyed a short-lived revival following the failed bomb plot, but collapsed rapidly from autumn 1944 onward. However, the bonds which welded different parts of the regime to Hitler’s leadership were, if starting to weaken, still largely intact.

“In the Wehrmacht, for instance, many officers continued to take most seriously the oath which they had sworn to Hitler personally, and found it difficult to contemplate disobedience, even in the face of insane orders. Within the party, internal rivalries and enmities coexisted with continued loyalty to Hitler, almost to the very end. In fact, his personalized leadership drew some of its very strength from the inevitable divisions and rivalries that it produced.

“At the regional level, the 40 or so Gauleiter (regional chieftains ) had been with Hitler for many years. They had no exit route to break from him now, and in any case their personal bonds with him remained very strong. That ensured party control at the periphery of the regime until the final weeks of collapse.

“So,” Kershaw adds, “in these and other ways, Hitler’s ‘charismatic leadership’ continued to the end, even though his appeal to the mass of Germans had been in free fall long before then.”

A striking example of this influence is the activity of the architect Albert Speer, Hitler’s confidant, who served as his minister of armaments from 1942.

“Speer was, in this period, the most enigmatic, but possibly the most important, of the Nazi leaders below Hitler,” Kershaw says. “Without his undoubted managerial and organizational skills, armaments production would almost certainly have collapsed much earlier and the Wehrmacht would then have been unable to fight.

“After the war, in the Nuremberg Trials and most notably in his later memoirs, Speer sought to create the impression that he had recognized by the time of the Allied landings in Normandy in June 1944 that the war was lost. His actions belie such a claim. He worked like a berserker down to the very last weeks to ensure that the army had munitions. Without his efforts, the last big German offensive – the ‘Ardennes offensive,’ in December 1944 – would not have been possible. Only in March 1945 did he finally acknowledge that the war was lost and even then he could not break completely with Hitler.”

The story of the Third Reich’s collapse has been told in a range of books and other works. What differentiates Kershaw’s chronicle is its emphasis on the lives of the ordinary people in Germany: “No one has written a better account of the human dimensions of Nazi Germany’s end,” The New York Times opined in its book review.

However, the daily life of the country’s citizens was inseparably intertwined with the policy of the regime during 1944-5, even more forcefully than before. Against the backdrop of the heightened military effort, the regime was able to tighten its hold on civil society and completely penetrate it. A major expression of this was the regime’s establishment of the Volkssturm (Storm of the People ), militias that mobilized hundreds of thousands of civilians capable of bearing arms: youths (from the age of 16 ) and adult men (up to the age of 60 ). These recruits, most of them middle-aged, encountered great difficulties if they tried to obtain an exemption from the service.

“The Volkssturm, established in autumn 1944 under the direction of Himmler and Bormann, was militarily as good as useless,” Kershaw points out. “The men who were dragooned to fight in these last reserves were ill-trained, badly armed and often, because of their age, not physically equipped for combat. In battles against the might of the Red Army, these men were no more than cannon fodder, and the losses were enormous.

“But the Volkssturm was a big organization and it served as a further way of marshaling, controlling, regimenting and militarizing German society in these last months. Moreover, though the men were often unwilling participants, the Volkssturm leaders were frequently fanatical Nazis who were involved in numerous atrocities – for instance, against prisoners on ‘death marches,’ and also against German civilians – in the final phase of the war.”

Kershaw is very mindful of the suffering of these civilians, who personally experienced not only the Allies’ attacks but also domestic suppression and terror. After finishing “The End,” one readers continued to be haunted by the many human voices documented in the book. One such voice is that of a farmer from eastern Germany, whose daughter was raped by Soviet soldiers one of 1.4 million German women who suffered this fate during the Russian advance.

“‘Can you hear?’ one farmer despairingly asked as cries came from his house. ‘They’ve got my 13-year-old daughter for the fifth time already this morning.’” Or the voice of a woman who, at the beginning of May 1945, wondered whether her children needed to go on greeting people with “Heil Hitler” even after the Führer’s death. She told them she thought they should go on saying it, “because Hitler remained the Führer to the last. But if that seems odd to them, they should say ‘Good day’ or ‘Good morning.’”

‘Doubly fitting’

Kershaw, 69, retired four years ago as a history professor from Sheffield University, in the north of England. He was knighted in 2002 for his achievements in historical research, but is somewhat dismissive of the honor: “I dislike the neo-feudal title, and have always been a bit embarrassed by it,” he told The Guardian newspaper a year ago.

Kershaw added that his wife had to more or less force him to accept the title, which he had repeatedly rejected. Dame Betty Kershaw, a professor of nursing, received her title four years before her husband for major contributions to her field. The Kershaws live in Manchester and have two sons and five grandchildren.

Kershaw specialized in the Middle Ages at the start of his academic career. He began to study Nazism in the 1970s, under the German historian Martin Broszat. One of his areas of research was public opinion in Germany during the Nazi period; his book “The ‘Hitler Myth’: Image and Reality in the Third Reich” (second, revised edition, 2001 ), examines the German public’s attitude toward the Führer.

Kershaw gained international repute for, among other things, his acclaimed two-volume biography “Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris” and “Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis,” published in the latter part of the 1990s. More than a personal biography of the leader of the Third Reich, the work is a collective biography of German society, which explains the forces and mechanisms that made possible Hitler’s ascension to power and the consolidation of his strength.

The biography emphasizes the activity of all those who tried “to work toward the Führer along the lines he would wish without awaiting instruction from above,” as Kershaw notes in the introductory chapter “Reflecting on Hitler” in “Hubris.” They would thereby abet the regime’s continuing radicalization, particularly in regard to the persecution and annihilation of the Jews.

Two other acclaimed books by Kershaw on Nazism and World War II are “Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions that Changed the World 1940-1941” and “Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution.”

Next January marks the 80th anniversary of Hitler’s rise to power and the establishment of the Third Reich. In light of the abundant research about this regime, what are the main elements that historians of Nazism should focus on?

“I’m not sure that major new areas of interpretation will be opened up. I think the question of the popular appeal of Nazism, how far the regime penetrated German society in all its varied aspects, and whether it succeeded in creating and sustaining a ‘Volksgemeinschaft’ (an ethnic-nationalist people’s community ) will remain key topics of inquiry and debate.

“Perhaps, after so much concentration on the period of the war and the Holocaust, there will be some renewed consideration of the early stages of Nazi power and the prior collapse of democracy topics which have been less at the forefront of attention in recent times but, with some worrying signs of the revival of nationalism, xenophobia and racism in Europe during the current crisis, might again become a major focus of interest.”

Kershaw has recently begun work on a new book, a history of 20th century Europe, to be published as part of the “Penguin History of Europe” series.

“I envisage not a short history of the 20th century but a long one, running from the First World War to the current European crisis,” Kershaw says. “Nazism will obviously figure somewhat prominently in the book, but I do not envisage writing further books directly on that topic. I have worked on the Nazi era for over 30 years and, though my interest is undiminished, I don’t see major new issues that I want to explore. So the title of my latest book is doubly fitting: the end of the Nazi regime and the end of my scholarly preoccupation with it!”

German soldiers examine bodies in eastern Prussia, after a brutal invasion by the Soviet Red Army, October 1944.
Ian Kershaw. Credit: Amrei-Marie



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