Book Review: After Hitler
by Michael Jones
NAL Caliber, 2015
So synonymous is Nazi Germany with Adolf Hitler that it always comes as a little jolt to recall that it outlasted him. True, Hitler and his new bride Eva Braun committed suicide on the afternoon of April 30th, but Hitler’s chosen successor, Admiral Karl Donitz, took control of a government that was in tatters but still possessed of money, some mobility, and tens of thousands of men under arms in pockets of resistance extending from Dunkirk to northern Yugoslavia. On May 3 he moved the seat of government from battered Berlin to Flensburg, assembling a staff and issuing orders even while major German cities and territories unconditionally surrendered virtually every hour. It wasn’t until May 15th the all fighting ceased in the Eastern Front, and Donitz’s Nazi government didn’t go out of existence until May 23rd, when he and his handful of ministers were arrested.
It’s a gritty, sordid story, and it’s one historians have always felt drawn to recounting. Ian Kershaw’s The End told it superbly, as did David Stafford’s Endgame, 1945, as did Edward Longacre’s War in the Ruins, and now it gets a fresh retelling from British historian Michael Jones (who’s been having a busy year, having also recently published a short, punchy book on the Battle of Bosworth), who sets the stage with the kind of sweeping narrative touches he’ll use to offset the many individual diaries and letters he’ll consult throughout the bulk of his book:
The Fuhrer’s legacy was one of death, destruction and terrible suffering. It was a legacy brought to Europe as a whole, and increasingly visited on his own people. Allied bombing had killed more than 400,000 German civilians and injured another 800,000. Nearly 2 million homes had been destroyed and another 5 million people had been forced to evacuate. Most of the casualties had occurred in the last months of the war. The Soviet invasion of eastern Germany in January 1945 resulted in another 500,000 civilian deaths and untold misery, with hundreds of thousands fleeing westward, away from the Red Army.
Jones tells the story of that death and destruction in effective, largely unadorned prose, using first-hand accounts to dramatize the bitter rearguard losses of the German troops in the field, many of whom, during this brief interval, were desperately trying to surrender to the Americans advancing from the west rather than the Russians advancing from the east. Naturally, such stories contain their fair share of doomed pride, as group after group of professional soldiers under the command of career officers are summarily ordered to surrender without any conditions. The shock and resistance of these men (Jones recounts several pathetic little battles that resulted solely from this cognitive dissonance) can’t help but be almost touching, especially since so many of them had felt no specially binding allegiance to the Nazi order in the first place. Almost touching, that is, until the reader is reminded of what they and their troops allowed the Nazis to do – a reminder that crops up regularly in this account, as American, British, and Russian troops uncover one concentration camp after another. As Jones hardly needs to point out, the rapid-fire disillusionment of these discoveries did a lot to eradicate any inclinations toward mercy:
On May 6 Major Hugh McLaren of the 10th British Casualty Clearing Station arrived at Sandbostel concentration camp in northern Germany, 35 miles northeast of Bremen. He wrote a memoir of his experiences, describing it as a “horror camp.” Horror is not, perhaps, the most original word for the events of the time – the vast human displacement all over Europe, the death marches, the liberation of slave laborers and the uncovering of the Nazi policy of annihilating those considered undesirable to their new order – but it remains an apt description.
Lurking in the background of this story of Germany’s total defeat is the specter of another, much different, and much longer war than the one the Nazis provoked. Jones is refreshingly critical of the Allied timidity when it came to confronting Stalin’s Soviet Union with any kind of resistance, whether it be to the taking of Prague or the envelopment of Berlin. US General Eisenhower deference to the Russians is portrayed here as more short-sighted than diplomatic, although Jones does make some efforts to humanize the psychopathic thugs running the Russian advance, as when he details the political fallout from the Soviets’ discovery of the US’s new nuclear capability:
It was a watershed moment. The Western Allies now held a powerful military advantage although the Soviets would obtain much of the information anyway, through their espionage system within the United States. In private, Soviet foreign minister Molotov told Stalin: “The Americans have been doing all this work on the atom bomb without telling us.” “We were supposed to be allies,” the Soviet leader retorted. Mistrust between East and West was growing. There would be no more meetings between Britain, America and the Soviet Union. The Cold War era was approaching.
And just that easily, the focus shifts; no group less compelling than the losers in a war. The German armed forces are rounded up; the German commanders are put on trial and imprisoned (Donitz’s long fate) or executed (which certainly would have been Hitler’s); the German scientists are snapped up by either the Soviets or the Americans; the accords were signed; the ruins eventually cleared away. The signal strength of After Hitler is to give individual faces and voices to these larger events.