The Third Reich was dead, but it wouldn’t lie down.
By January 1945, with the failure of the Ardennes offensive, it was clear to the German leadership that the war was lost. The customary and rational course of action would have been to sue for peace on whatever terms could be obtained. Instead, Germany elected to fight on to the point of national obliteration. Hitler was determined to resist to the end and take the country down with him, but award-winning historian Kershaw (Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, 2008, etc.) seeks to explain why the rest of the nation followed him into the abyss, and how it was possible to hold the armed forces and the German economy together until the fall of Berlin. This is an astonishing story well told by the reigning English-speaking master of Third Reich history. On one level, it is a gripping narrative of desperate actions taken to shore up the battle lines with replacements of men and materiel from ever-shrinking resources; the militarization of the populace to defend, however ineffectively, “fortress cities”; improvised adjustments to transport to compensate for smashed rail lines and overrun factories; and wanton murders and pointless forced marches of evacuated prisoners. But Kershaw also deftly explores the policies and attitudes that kept Germans struggling on with the war effort after all hope was gone, and prevented organized opposition to continuing the war from coalescing in the military or elsewhere. At its core, this is a story of people great and small in the grip of an enormous catastrophe brought down upon them by their charismatic (though by then widely despised) leader; unable to do anything about it individually or collectively, they just kept doing their jobs, however hopeless or absurd they appeared. Whether motivated by duty, terror, inertia, wishful thinking or denial, soldiers fought and civilians worked, generals went on attempting to comply with impossible orders and bureaucrats issued directives of stunning irrelevance because they could see no practical or honorable alternative.
A carefully considered and powerfully told saga of a national suicide.