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review: history

Ian Kershaw's latest book attempts "to understand better how and why the Nazi regime could hold out for so long." The question has more than academic importance. More people – soldiers and civilians – died in the 10 months covered by this study than in the previous 4½ years of war, and they died horribly – firebombed, shot on death marches from empty concentration camps, killed senselessly by Nazi officials a few hours before they themselves fled the arrival of the Allies.

Germany became, as Kershaw writes, "an immense charnel house in the last months of the Third Reich," and that story, the rare account of a modern state determined to fight to the last, constitutes the greatest achievement of this remarkable book. Kershaw tells the story of the mass murder and homicidal suicide of Hitler's Reich in its final days with a mastery of detail so compelling that I could not put it down.

Like all Kershaw's work, it combines narration and analysis. In The End, he sets up a structural model that he calls "charismatic rule," a reflection of the strange hold Hitler had over the vast machine of the Nazi state. He argues that the extreme "personalization" of Hitler's rule – with no politburo, no cabinet after 1938, no war council, no military junta, senate or representation – led to decision-making that was at once centralized but unco-ordinated, save by Hitler's will.

Even the military command structure itself had two centres of power, and as the regime entered its final months, four figures emerged from the Hobbesian struggle to carry out Hitler's will: Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, who became the official responsible for "total war"; Martin Bormann, head of the revived Nazi party, now charged with the management of daily life under the punishing attacks of British and American bombing: Albert Speer, the architect-turned-industrial czar who had to keep war production going even as the bombs fell; and Heinrich Himmler, head of the terror apparatus. He shows how, to the very last, all these powerful figures, and all the generals and admirals, remained completely unable to resist Hitler.

Grand-Admiral Karl Dönitz, who emerges from this study as one of the most fanatical Nazis, a fact he denied in his many years in Spandau prison, unexpectedly found himself as Hitler's designated successor.

Even after Hitler's suicide on April 30, 1945, Dönitz hesitated to begin to negotiate the capitulation of the Third Reich because the habit of obedience had become so ingrained. In the final weeks of the regime in May, 1945, he formed a shadowy new government in Flensburg on the Danish border, and imagined that somehow the British and American governments would treat them seriously as negotiating partners. The portrait of these madmen, still talking of Germany as a "culture nation" too valuable to be defeated, is one of Kershaw's finest achievements.

Terror, which became madder and more arbitrary as the regime began to collapse, accounts for part of the hold that Hitler had on the German people, but Kershaw shows that it cannot account for the continuing slavish devotion and obedience. The state bureaucracy functioned to the last. I remember the pay slip issued for SS-Obergruppenführer und General of the Waffen-SS Karl Wolff, with all the deductions and contributions neatly typed, which I saw in the Berlin Document Centre. It was dated May 3, 1945. The Russians had already taken Berlin, a city almost entirely destroyed, and this junior clerical assistant carried out the duties of an orderly state until the end.

Kershaw, in his summary, lists a variety of other factors: the certainty of a ferocious urge for revenge on the part of the Soviet Union and the Red Army, the transformation of the German officer corps as fanatical Nazis replaced the Prussian aristocrats after the July plot of 1944 on Hitler's life, the increasing radicalization of the top Nazi leadership, the realization among party activists that that they had no future apart from the Führer. Yet he concludes that the elites had neither the "collective will nor the mechanisms of power" to stop Hitler's rage to destroy everything he had built.

Kershaw quotes Heinrich Jaenecke's remark on Hitler's power: "The puzzle is not Adolf Hitler. We are the puzzle." And they are. Why did the German people, and they did so overwhelmingly, as Kershaw shows, surrender to a paranoid madman and stay loyal to him to the bitter end? Even Ian Kershaw, who wrote the definitive biography of Hitler and offers us this magnificent account of the "twilight of the Nazi gods," has no answer.

Jonathan Steinberg is the Walter H. Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania.

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