Thursday, September 18, 2014

Ian Kershaw. The End (2011) The Collapse of Nazi Germany

     Ian Kershaw. The End (2011) Subtitled “The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945", and that’s exactly what the book narrates. It’s a depressing account of how many factors came together to cause what had till then never happened in modern times, the near-destruction of a nation. That Germans of all classes had a role in this destruction raises questions about attitudes, values, desires, ambitions, ideology, and systems that Kershaw does his best to answer. He shows that all these factors played into the process.
      Attitudes: There’s no question that many, I think most, people realised that the war was lost long before it came to its bitter end. But a combination of Nazi zeal, numbness, fear for oneself and one’s loved ones, patriotism, and a strong sense of duty all prompted people to continue to fight or at least not to oppose fighting. It wasn’t until the very end, when Allied troops arrived at the outskirts of towns and villages, that some local officials found the courage to oppose their own conditioning and the remaining Nazi power and surrender to the invaders. This saved a number of places from physical destruction. The psychological toll however was huge.
     Values: A prime value for the military and the bureaucracy was duty. It was impossible for these people to violate this value. Their sense of self was founded on it. It’s not surprising that soldiers and bureaucrats continued to follow orders and protocols even when doing so became mere theatre of the absurd.
     Desires and ambitions: The Nazi elite knew they were done for. Many took the coward’s way out. Others fled, abandoning their duty. A few believed they could salvage some kind of role in post-War Germany and continued the struggle in large part to buy time for some kind of negotiations, despite the Allies’ repeated demand for unconditional surrender.
     Ideology: Hitler never wavered in his ideology, and when the war was lost, he rationalised his failure as the failure of the German people, who had betrayed him and his vision for a Thousand Year Reich. That his ideology prevented him from building the governance structures and human relations with conquered peoples that would guarantee a stable Reich after his death was something he never publicly admitted, though we of course cannot know what he thought in the dark hours of early morning, when unwelcome insights insinuate themselves into the insomniac mind.
     There were many committed ideologues besides Hitler in the Nazi Party and in the Armed Forces. These people believed that the alliance between the West and Soviet Russia could not last, and that by prolonging the war they could prompt a split that would change everything. That split did come, but not until after the war. Their ideology of suppression of the weaker races led them to use brutal punishment to enforce duty and prevent rebellion. In the final weeks and days, these now legitimised protocols for murder were used by many Nazis to avenge themselves on those who had opposed them.
     Systems: Systems of governance broke down, but it took a long time for them to disintegrate, and at the local level they mostly held up. Local authorities and organisations did astonishing work in coping with the floods of refugees, the diminishing food supply, the loss of electricity and water, the increasing piles of rubble, the damaged transport.
     The central government lost more and more control as communications and transport were destroyed, but as long as Hitler was alive, its power persisted, and since it was the only institution that could parley with the Allies, it could not end the war by surrender until Hitler shot himself. The contrast between the continued functioning of government at the local level and the paralysed non-functioning of the central government is instructive. As systems analysts have noted, All systems are designed to produce the results they achieve, whether or not the results are intended. In Hitler’s Germany, the system was designed to identify the Nazi State with its F├╝hrer. That identification was what nearly destroyed Germany. Where local government was in the hands of people who identified with the Nazi State, infrastructure was destroyed and people died. Where people broke that identification, infrastructure was preserved and people survived.
     Kershaw’s book is almost compulsively readable. He has the knack of piling on and organising detail so that an overall pattern or impression emerges. That pattern is one of paralysing inability to abandon the F├╝hrerprinzip, for many different reasons. But chief of these was people’s inability to act autonomously, to decide for themselves what would be best for their community. Kershaw shows there is no one reason for this paralysis, and he also shows what happens when  it subsists. A depressing but valuable book, with implications far beyond understanding the unravelling of Germany in the last months of World War 2. ****

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