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The Beginning of the End, the Battle at the End, and the End

The Retreat: Hitler’s First Defeat

By Michael Jones
Thomas Dunne Books, 2009

War in the Ruins: The American Army’s Final Battle Against Nazi Germany

By Edward G. Longacre
Westholme, 2010

Berlin at War

By Roger Moorhouse
Basic Books, 2010

On 22 June 1941, Nazi Germany surprised the world by suddenly attacking its own ally, the Soviet Union. Certainly the Soviets were surprised, in that dull-faced flat-footed way the treacherous are always surprised by treachery. The German offensive was in its first few weeks a textbook success of the patented Blitzkrieg type; Minsk, Gomel, and Kiev all fell immediately to the advancing Wehrmacht, and Wolfram voin Richthofen’s Luftwaffe destroyed the ragged Russian air force with contemptuous ease. Prisoners of war were taken in vast numbers, burgeoning croplands were avidly coveted. The guiding objective of all this summer slaughter was obvious though at first unstated: to capture Moscow before the worst of winter set in, to knock the Russian bear out of the fight in the first round. This had worked before – Poland, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, France, Belgium: all had fallen with a speed that astonished both themselves and international onlookers.

The move should not have surprised careful watchers of Adolf Hitler. Mein Kampf demonstrates at tediously ample length the precise geographies of his hatred. As much as the Jews are reviled in that breathless, terrible text, the Bolsheviks and Slavs are no less so; only the most foolishly optimistic Moscow diplomat could possibly have hoped that Hitler meant them no harm. They may have pinned their hopes on simple practicality, or on the chance that Hitler was as attentive a student of history as he endlessly proclaims himself to be in his book. History itself is chary of absolutes, but military history is replete with them, and the loudest of these was learned at bitter cost by generals from Alexander to Crassus to Richard Lion-Heart to Napoleon Bonaparte: don’t invade the East.

Hitler’s decision to do just that was based on his own warped version of practicality. His technologies of warfare – long-range communications, rapid troop-transport and resupply, strategic concentration, all the ligaments of lightning – had served him with unparalleled efficiency to date. Countries with proud military traditions but antiquated hardware had surrendered in weeks, sometimes days, until only the island of Britain held out. Hitler must have looked at the vast grain fields of the Ukraine as a breadbasket waiting to be emptied – and the farmlands themselves as the rightful spoil of pure Aryan blood. His troops would displace and liquidate the “beastly” inhabitants of those wide new frontiers, and then he would deal with the recalcitrant England at his leisure. It all made perfect sense if you concentrated on the glorious departure of Napoleon’s forces bent on invasion (Hitler had timed the start of his invasion, Operation Barbarossa almost to the exact same day) and avoided thinking about how the campaign of 1812 ended.

That string of early victories would have softened the judgement of a far more balanced man than Hitler, and there was also the needling of provocation. The Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939, a union of voracious dictatorships based solely on territorial gain, was not a thing built to last. The Russians almost immediately began probing its elasticity, inching toward a Baltic hegemony that the Nazis couldn’t allow. Betrayal was the natural gambit of both players in the pact, and in 1941 Hitler made his greatest gamble, sending almost 3 million troops into Russia despite the fact that he would now technically be fighting a war on two fronts. England was supine and at bay, and Russia’s defeat was supposed to be pro forma.

The first successes were euphorically fast. Michael Jones, in his absorbing history of the campaign, records the testimony of a Russian supply officer watching the debacle at the frontier:

I saw one of our generals standing by a crossroads. He had come to review his troops, and was wearing his best parade uniform. But his soldiers were fleeing in the opposite direction. He stood there, forlorn and alone – without even an adjutant by his side – while the troops flooded past. Behind him was an obelisk, marking the route of Napoleon’s invasion in 1812.

Jones has gathered an eye-opening number of tape-recorded reminiscences and first-hand accounts that combine to make his book a worthy if close-focused companion to Paul Carell’s Hitler’s War on Russia and Alan Clark’s Barbarossa. Jones’ research paints a vivid picture of that euphoria, and of the chaos that attended the sheer speed with which the Germans overran their initial opposition. One panzer company closes on Kalinin:

We dashed on, through scenes of total disorder. Red Army commanders swore at us from their vehicles, believing that we were Russians fleeing from the front. Enemy vehicles cut into our column, joined us for a while, and then, realising our identity, swerved off again. It was all quite incredible. We reached Kalinin without any losses, having amassed an astonishing array of booty – hundreds of Russian trucks and artillery pieces – on our 100-kilometre raid.

The invasion, Operation Barbarossa, and the assault on Moscow, Operation Typhoon, were military and industrial expressions of that Blitzkrieg euphoria, and they took into account all variables except the possibility of their own failure. Russian resistance, at first non-existent, soon began to stiffen – fierce pockets of resistance at Vyazma and Bryansk and elsewhere were never entirely quelled, and Josef Stalin capitalized on patriotic fervor to mobilize an ever-increasing number of fresh troops and to fire up those already under arms. And as with Bonaparte, so with Hitler: a Russian winter of a ferocity not seen in living memory swept down on the invading forces with six-foot snowdrifts and temperatures plunging to –30 degrees Celsius. German regiments were being hurried to the Eastern front with no heavy coats, no gloves, no scarves, often no head covering, and both new and seasoned troops were succumbing to frostbite and disease. Fuel and equipment froze solid in such weather, and when even Hitler was prepared, by January, to order a large-scale withdrawal, much of the retreat had to be effected in horse-drawn wooden carts. Thousands of German troops perished of the elements, and millions of Russian prisoners of war were allowed to starve to death. In 1942 a Wehrmacht priest asked, “Will it be possible to atone for the crimes we are committing?”

The impetus for those crimes had been victory, and Nazi victories began to end in 1942 and early 1943. The Germans lost the Battle of Stalingrad and were routed out of North Africa and the Mediterranean. Sicily was recaptured by the Allies, U-Boat attacks were shut down all over the Atlantic, and on 6 June 1944 the invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe began. By March of 1945, Allied forces were crossing the Rhine and the Russians were rushing to Berlin from the East. Hitler had concentrated his forces in a desperate attempt to preserve his thousand-year Reich, now increasingly being defended by hastily-armed Hitler Youth brigades and detachments of the Volksstrum militia, largely untrained and poorly-equipped young boys and old men. These rag-tag forces must be credited with a forlorn kind of courage, even despite the fact that that they were often coerced into patriotism. Military historian Edward G. Longacre’s War in the Ruins tells the fascinating story of the American Army’s 100th Infantry Division and its yard-by-yard slog along the west bank of the Neckar River, where it met with pockets of just such forlorn resistance in the ancient city of Heilbronn. The city had been a major industrial hub for the Nazis throughout the war, and it did not go quietly into the the night of general surrender. Longacre takes the now familiar “Band of Brothers” approach to telling the story of how the disparate hang-dog members of the 100th’s various regiments endured the artillery fire, sniper attacks, and often brutal weather in their conquest of the city.

As Longacre makes clear, the rumor of a secret Nazi Redoubt centered in part on Heilbronn, and every Allied trooper stationed in Germany had cause to worry about whether or not such a nightmare, consisting of a string of heavily-fortified and supplied mountain bases stretching across southern Germany and western Austria, really existed. Describing this worry, Longacre writes,

When, at Hitler’s signal, tens of thousands of troops fell back to man these defenses, the Wehrmacht – and, by extension, the Third Reich – would be able to hold out indefinitely, prolonging the war for years, perhaps decades. Even if unable to stave off defeat, the redoubt’s defenders could mount a suicidal stand and produce a bloodbath the likes of which the Allies could not have imagined.

The Redoubt didn’t exist, of course – it was just another lie Hitler’s propaganda spun to bolster the courage of the German people. The regiments of the100th, like all other elements of the Allied forces in Germany in 1945, encountered the German people as no people should ever be encountered: desperate, sullen, utterly demoralized, grimly beaten. Nowhere was this more heartbreaking than in Berlin itself, whose changes of fortune and beleaguered citizens are adroitly anatomized in Roger Moorhouse’s gripping, thoroughly-researched Berlin at War.

Here we have Berliners exuberantly waving to ranks of soldiers marching off to victory; here we see the city’s inhabitants gradually adapting to the exigencies of modern warfare with its anti-aircraft towers, its rationing, and its air strikes; here we watch crowds doing a touchingly different kind of waving as the war turns desperate and train-loads of children are evacuated from the city. Like Jones and Longacre, Moorhouse has done his best work in marshaling anecdotal evidence – his book is filled with first-hand accounts of every aspect of Berlin’s rise, day-to-day life, and fall, as when one German diary-keeper records the end of it all:

We are vegetating in a ghost town, without electric light or gas, without water; we are forced to think of personal hygiene as a luxury and hot meals as abstract concepts. We are living like ghosts in a vast field of ruins. … A city where nothing works except the telephones that sometimes ring, glumly and pointlessly, beneath piles of fallen masonry.

As with all examinations of this kind of intimacy, there is the danger of blurred perspective. Moorhouse falls victim to this only occasionally, most crucially on the most crucial question confronting any historian of this particular defeated city’s inhabitants: how much did they know, and how early did they know it? The Nazi regime excelled as few others have in the tricky work of suborning innocence and tainting simplicity, and historians of the Nazi era must choose what they wish to believe about the culpability of an entire people. Moorhouse makes his position clear:

Ordinary Berliners, even if they broadly supported the Nazis, would have known very well that the regime had teeth, and so tended to avoid behaviour that might bring them into conflict with the authorities … even those who heard rumours of the Holocaust would instinctively have blocked them out, turned a blind eye, so as not to compromise themselves or their loved ones.

That’s a neat and comforting formulation, an open invitation to the exculpation of the good-hearted German Volk in the grip of the vicious Nazi Party machine, and there’s ample evidence to suggest some elements of it might be accurate. But there’s also ample evidence to the contrary – Jewish shops and businesses defamed, Jewish rights curtailed a bit more every day, Jewish houses and property confiscated and then redistributed, often at well-attended public auctions, and large numbers of Jewish people – Germans, Berliners – moved out of their homes and into crowded housing projects, or onto trains bound for the East. Moorhouse would have us believe it’s possible to turn a blind eye to such things and still not be guilty of anti-Semitism, but it’s possible he’s doing a bit of blocking-out himself.

The Allied forces famously ceded most of Berlin to the Russians in deference to the staggering losses that country had suffered in repulsing the Nazis. Hitler killed himself (as Longacre points out, he’d committed suicide even before the fighters of the 100th had succeeded in taking Heilbronn), the Nazi leadership surrendered, and the citizens of an almost totally destroyed Berlin traded one nightmare for another. A stroller in its neat and gorgeous streets today would scarcely guess at the sheer weight of doomed valor, lurking guilt, and human suffering that once filled every street. Histories like these are valuable reminders of the cost of peace and the price of evil – if we’re to have such peace and such evils, we’re lucky to have historians willing to do the work of telling us why they matter.

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A.C. Childers was born in Chippenham, England and works as a freelance writer and editor in London.