The idea of "no surrender" has plenty of appeal when the enemy is at the door. Just ask Winston Churchill, who put it this way in words for the ages: "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…"
The British people, for all their suffering, never actually faced a choice about whether to keep fighting when all was lost. The Germans did. Their choice in the waning months of World War II was to keep fighting and fighting and fighting, a disastrous decision.
History buffs don't hear much about these last weeks in Germany outside of the final few hours in the Nazi bunker in Berlin. But now, British historian Ian Kershaw gives them their due in a new book about the decisions behind a disaster.
The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's German, 1944-1945 is too packed with detail to provide much drama or suspense. But it does provide lessons in the costs paid by those who swear blind allegiance to everything but the idea that there's honor in giving up and moving on.
We can look throughout history and see examples of wars that ended with surrender before despair. In the Civil War, the South didn't force the North to win by going house to house. Germany and its allies capitulated in World War I without requiring women and children to fight invaders in the streets of their cities.
In the next world war, Germany would be different, largely because Hitler himself was different. His cult of personality and interconnected group of acolytes made him impossible to dislodge from power. When he said "keep fighting," there weren't people to say no.
That's not to say he was free of enemies toward the end. But, as Kershaw shows, the unsuccessful assassination attempt against in him in July 1944 (that's the one in the Tom Cruise movie "Valkyrie") actually made him stronger by eliminating threats and intimidating critics.
Despite his decrepit physical state and bad military decisions, Hitler still "symbolized … an indomitable will to hold on to every inch of territory, never to capitulate," Kershaw writes. "And he could still enthuse those in his presence with the strength of his own will, and with his unquenchable optimism."
The author is best known for his two-volume biography of Hitler that delved deeply into the personality of one man. This time, Kershaw has to juggle dozens of characters, and he doesn't spend much time making them come alive. The Nazi officials end up being largely interchangeable, and Kershaw never quite manages to present history in a way that reads like a novel, as Erik "The Devil in the White City" Larson did this year with "In the Garden of Beasts," his bestselling book about an American ambassador's family in Nazi Germany.
The value of "The End" comes through Kershaw's sharp analysis of the motivations of those who kept Germany in the fight even as its borders collapsed.
There's starry-eyed optimism, including a belief that a fantastic new weapon was still just around the corner. There's a well-founded fear of the horrors of the Russian invasion. And there's the hopelessness and oppression that grow during the final days and prevent resistance. Even as the society disintegrated, "the regime responded in characteristic fashion: By hugely stepping up the resistance at home."
In the final weeks, German civilians were, as Kershaw puts it, almost entirely embraced by a sense of helplessness. "The misery was near universal as people simply awaited the end of the war, unable to do anything to hasten it, left to their fate…. The only hope was that the war would soon end and that the British and Americans would arrive before the Russians."
The German military, meanwhile, suffered from the same inability to act. No one dared mutiny or overthrow the regime.
The ultimate German end game was a road to ruin. As Kershaw explains, it had its roots in a leader of charisma who inspired loyalty. Hitler's charisma vanished in the war's final months, but the loyalty – and society's ways to punish disloyalty – remained in place.
And so the man who wanted to lead Germany to its greatest heights brought it to its worst days, utterly unstoppable until great armies knocked over his door.
Randy Dotinga is a regular contributor to the Monitor's book section.