After-Hitler-Second-World-Europe/dp/1848544944">After Hitler: The Last Ten Days of World War II in Europe
By Michael Jones
(NAL Caliber, 400 pages, $27.95)
There were social conditions and historical events that helped bring it about. But to an extraordinary degree, the horror of Nazism and the murderous cataclysm it brought on the world are down to one extraordinary individual, Adolf Hitler. But World War II did not end in Europe when, with the Red Army bearing down on his Berlin bunker, the little corporal committed suicide on April 30, 1945, thereby cheating the hangman.
Hostilities rattled on until an unconditional German surrender led to the celebration of VE Day in Western Europe on May 8 and in the Soviet Union a day later. These 10 days were some of the most consequential of the war, with political considerations dominating strictly military ones. There were agendas everywhere.
The policy of the allies had always been to fight first, win the war, and take care of the political realignments later. In May of 1945, later was now. In the Yalta conference of February, 1945, the Allies agreed to postwar national and political lines, and to who would take what militarily during the remainder of the war. The Western allies mostly adhered to these agreements, the Soviets not so much.
There was still some shooting going on in May, but this pointless resistance was of consequence mostly to those involved in it. It was mopping up as far as the big picture was concerned. Job One for the Western allies was to prevent the Red Army, eight-million strong at the time, from setting up shop in most of Western Europe. The lines of post-shooting-war Europe became the lines of Cold War Europe. And those lines were largely determined by where the various armies wound up in that fateful spring. The lines also determined for millions whether they would live free or be virtual slaves in a Soviet system as totalitarian as the one that had just been defeated at such a high cost.
In his will, Hitler designated Admiral Karl Dönitz, head of the German navy and a Nazi fanatic, to become president of the Reich (though not Führer — Hitler reserved this ridiculous title for himself). The Dönitz regime lasted barely three weeks, was never recognized by the Allies, and, by its delaying actions and futile resistance, made the end of the war more costly than it needed to be. But, as with the Japanese in the Pacific, futile resistance was part of Nazi DNA.
Dönitz had an ideological reason for demanding fanatical resistance — a Nazi True Believer, he considered it an honor to die in battle for Hitler and the fatherland (not that he was at risk of enjoying this honor himself — the sumbitch died of a heart attack at 90 thirty-five years later). But he had a practical reason as well. He wanted to allow time for the millions of German soldiers and civilians fleeing west to avoid capture by the advancing Red Army. The Nazis had behaved in a beastly manner in their invasion of the Soviet Union, and now Russian soldiers, a famously undisciplined lot, were keen for payback. Rape, pillage, and murder were the order of the day. Germans knew they would receive much more civilized treatment from the British and Americans.
In addition to those fleeing the Red Army, there were millions of starving refugees made homeless by war damage. There were an untold number of displaced persons, slave laborers transported to the Reich from all over Europe. There were survivors of the liberated death camps. There were prisoners of war from camps that had been overrun by the advancing Red Army. Some of these ex-prisoners were put into an almost comically complex repatriation system by the Soviets, others were simply left on their own to make their way back to wherever they belonged. Add to this hundreds of thousands of surrendering Wehrmacht soldiers, and it becomes clear how logistically difficult it was for the advancing Western Allies. In some cases British and American troops had to simply bypass thousands of surrendering but still-armed German troops in order to continue advancing on their objectives.
By the spring of 1945, fascism in Europe had been well and truly beaten. But Europe was a broken and thoroughly tragic mess. Much of the continent would remain so as a Nazi tyranny was replaced by a Soviet one. There were plenty of sad stories in Eastern Europe after the war, but none sadder than Poland.
The war began when the Nazis invaded Poland from the west in September of 1939, with the Soviets, then allies with the Germans, helping themselves in the east. Because of the invasion the Western Allies declared war on Germany, but were unable to defend Poland, which fell in a month. Polish troops fought bravely with the Allies during the war, but that country’s post-war fate was a half-century of Soviet domination.
British historian, author, and journalist Michael Jones tells the stories of these momentous events, and of the remarkable personages involved in them, in this compact and well-written history of a period that is often neglected. Most stories of the war in Europe conclude with the suicide in the bunker and ignore the war’s ragged, and for some precincts tragic, denouement.
After Hitler, Jones’ ninth book on various historical subjects, will repay the reading time both of professional historians and amateurs seeking to know more about World War II in Europe. Jones is one of the happy few who made it through the PhD while still being able to write clearly, even-handedly, and economically. He packs a remarkable amount of history and insight into a small number of pages. I recommend After Hitler to TAS readers. It will be in bookstores October 5.
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