Hitler’s death did not end the war in Europe in 1945. Instead, as diplomat-historian Stafford (Ten Days to D-Day: Citizens and Soldiers on the Eve of the Invasion, 2004, etc.) writes, the fighting dragged on for three more momentous months, during which Europe was reshaped.
That quarter-year has not exactly been overlooked. The closing pages of Stephen E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, for instance, find its paratrooper protagonists in western Austria, where, as Stafford notes, it was feared that the remnants of the Nazi state would attempt to regroup for a last stand in the mountainous redoubt. That prospect, surmises the author, contributed to Eisenhower’s decision not to race to Berlin but instead to stop the Western Allies’s advance at the Elbe River and cede the land east of it to the Soviets, even though Churchill was strongly agitating to “capture Berlin and use it as a bargaining tool with the Soviet leader.” Even in the desperate days before Hitler’s suicide, German soldiers were offering stiff resistance. In its wake, strong German resistance continued until the government of Admiral Doenitz finally agreed to unconditional surrender, having offered to make peace with the West under the condition that Germany be allowed to continue fighting against the Soviet Union. Eisenhower did keep the lines open for two days to allow German units an escape route to the west, and, writes Stafford, “thanks to Doenitz’s delaying tactics, almost two million German soldiers were able to avoid Soviet captivity.” With that surrender, the Allies now had the task of imposing occupation rule on Germany, quashing any last efforts at armed resistance and cleaning up a horrific mess while attending to millions of displaced, starving persons—a story that stretches well beyond July 1945, but one that Stafford capably outlines.
Drawing on the memoirs of participants—from Nazi test pilots to concentration-camp inmates—and on an impressive body of historical work, Stafford delivers a useful survey of a transformative time.