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The Bitter End

The End: Hamburg 1943

by Hans Erich Nossack, translated from the German and with a foreword by Joel Agee, and with photographs by Erich Andres
University of Chicago Press,85 pp., $20.00

Armageddon is a mosaic composed of hundreds of brightly colored fragments, each one a story told by an eye-witness. Most of the fragments occupy less than a page. The mosaic is a panorama of the last eight months of World War II in Europe, between September 1944 and May 1945. These were the months in which British and American armies in the West and Russian armies in the East fought their way across the frontiers of Germany and finally defeated German armies on German soil. The panorama is remarkable in many ways. The toll of death and destruction and misery during these eight months was unequaled by any similar period in the long history of human misfortunes, wars, and persecutions. The German armies fought with extraordinary skill and bravery to defend their shrinking territory, long after any realistic hope of victory had disappeared. The invading armies, in spite of profound political and cultural differences, succeeded in working together until their job was done. Each of these aspects of the panorama is illuminated by personal experiences described in the individual fragments.

The eyewitnesses are divided more or less evenly between soldiers and civilians, between males and females, between Germans, Russians, Poles, Jews, Britons, and Americans. Hastings interviewed most of them personally during the year 2002, when he traveled to their countries and met them in their homes, most of them by then old people recalling events that happened when they were in their teens or twenties. Hastings is well aware that memories recalled after fifty-eight years are unreliable. As he says, these memories are not history. They are the raw material out of which history may grow. They provide a useful corrective to official histories based on written documents, which may be equally unreliable. They give us direct access to the human face of war, the face that the official histories usually ignore.

To interview German and Russian witnesses, Hastings used interpreters whose help he gratefully acknowledges. The interpreters not only translated but also helped him to find witnesses with good stories to tell, and these witnesses then led him to others among their friends and acquaintances. Two groups of witnesses that he found in this way were Russian women who had been girl-soldiers in the Red Army, and German women who had been refugees escaping from East Prussia when the Red Army overran their homeland. The Russians describe a tough but in many ways joyful atmosphere of comradeship and shared hardship on the road to victory. The Germans describe a nightmare of death and destruction as they made their way as exiles from a lost paradise. It is not surprising that the best witnesses are usually female, since women live longer than men in all countries, and especially in Russia.

In addition to the recent interviews, Hastings also includes in his account interviews that he recorded long ago as raw material for his other historical books, Bomber Command, a history of the British strategic bombing of Germany published in 1979, and Overlord, a history of the invasion of France by British and American armies published in 1984. The earlier interviews are mostly with senior commanders and politicians who were no longer alive when Armageddon was written. Hastings also includes quotations from letters and documents that he found in Russian archives and in various other archives that recently became accessible to historians.

The older interviews and letters provide a striking contrast to the newer interviews. The older sources show us war as seen by commanders and planners, a succession of operations following one another in a logical sequence like the moves in a game of strategy. The new interviews show us war as seen by foot soldiers and civilian victims, a succession of murderous assaults that occur randomly and unpredictably, without any intelligible pattern. Both views of war are valid, and both are necessary components of any history that attempts to be truthful. Hastings keeps the two views in balance and blends them skillfully as he builds his mosaic. Where the two views conflict, he tends to give greater credence to the foot soldier than to the general.

My own limited experience of World War II leads me to share Hastings’s bias in favor of foot soldiers. I belong to the same generation as Hastings’s foot soldier witnesses. I was lucky not to be a foot soldier. I was a civilian living in London at various times when German bombers were flying overhead. From time to time a bomb would fall and demolish a couple of houses. Our antiaircraft guns made a lot of noise but I never saw them hit an airplane. I remember thinking that the German kids overhead were probably as bewildered as I was. The nearest I came to being hurt was in January 1944, when a bomb fell on our street and broke our windows. This happened while the German army in Russia was fighting monstrous battles to hold its ground against the Soviet winter offensive. The fate of the world was being decided in Russia.

Hitler was evidently out of touch with reality, sending his precious airplanes to London to break our windows instead of sending them to Russia where they were desperately needed. The most vivid impression that remains to me from those times is a feeling of irrelevance. The little game that I was witnessing in London was wholly irrelevant to the serious war that we were supposed to be fighting. My memory fits well with the picture of the war that Hastings shows us. The serious and purposeful fighting is done by a small fraction of the people involved. Most of the people, most of the time, are irrelevant. Irrelevant or not, they still suffer the consequences.

The history of World War II teaches us several lessons that are still valid today. First is the immense importance of the Geneva Conventions on humane treatment of prisoners in mitigating the human costs of war. All through Hastings’s narrative, we see a stark contrast between two kinds of war, the war in the West following the Geneva rules and the war in the East fought without rules. A large number of witnesses of the western war, German as well as British and American, owe their lives to the Geneva conventions. In the western war, soldiers fought hard as long as fighting made sense, and surrendered when fighting did not make sense, with a good chance of being treated decently as prisoners of war. Many of the prisoners on both sides were killed in the heat of battle before reaching prison camps, but most of them survived. Those who reached the prison camps were treated in a civilized fashion, with some supervision by delegates of the International Red Cross. They were neither starved nor tortured.

At the same time, on the eastern side of the war, brutality was the rule and the International Red Cross had no voice. Civilians were routinely raped and murdered, and prisoners of war were starved. Soldiers were expected to fight to the death, and most of them did, since they had little hope of survival as prisoners. It is not possible to calculate the numbers of lives saved in the West and lost in the East by following and not following the Geneva rules. The numbers certainly amount to hundreds of thousands in the West and millions in the East. Americans who are trying today to weaken or evade the Geneva rules are acting shortsightedly as well as immorally.

A second important lesson of World War II is the fact that German soldiers consistently fought better than Britons or Americans. Whenever they were fighting against equal numbers, the Germans always won, a fact recognized by the Allied generals, who always planned to achieve numerical superiority before attacking. This was the main reason why the Allied advance into Germany was slow. If the Allied soldiers had been able to fight like Germans, the war would probably have been over in 1944 and millions of lives would have been saved.

Hastings explains the superiority of German soldiers as a consequence of the difference between a professional army and a citizen army. The Germans were professionals, brought up in a society that glorified soldiering, and toughened by years of fighting in Russia. The British and American soldiers were mostly amateurs, civilians who happened to be in uniform, brought up in societies that glorified freedom and material comfort, and lacking experience of warfare. The difference between the German and Allied armies was similar to the difference between Southern and Northern armies in the American Civil War. The Southern soldiers fought better and the Southern generals were more brilliant. The Northern soldiers won in the end because there were more of them and they had greater industrial resources, just as the Allies did in World War II. The leaders of the Old South romanticized war and led their society to destruction, just as the leaders of Germany did eighty years later.

Hastings says we should take pride in the fact that our soldiers did not fight as well as Germans. To fight like Germans, they would have had to think like Germans, glorifying war and following their leaders blindly. The Germans have a word, Soldatentum, which means the pursuit of soldiering considered as a spiritual vocation. Fortunately, the word cannot be translated into English. The literal translation is soldierliness, but the word “soldierliness” in English does not convey the tone of solemnity that Soldatentum conveys in German. We should consider ourselves lucky that Soldatentum is not embedded in our culture as it was embedded in the culture of Germany in 1944. The Germans who survived World War II are also lucky, since the devastation of their country finally convinced them that Soldatentum was a false god.

The third lesson of World War II is the value of international alliances. Inter- national alliances are slow and cumbersome and unromantic. Leaders of international alliances cannot move quickly. They must make compromises and accept delays in order to achieve consensus. They cannot make brilliant and disastrous decisions as Hitler did. They cannot lead their people to destruction. To fight a war within the constraints of an international alliance is a good protection against fatal mistakes and follies. Eisenhower was an ideal person to lead an international alliance. He was a mediocre strategist and an excellent diplomat. He had no interest in military glory. His priorities were to hold the alliance together and to win the war with the minimum number of casualties. Unlike the brilliant German generals who were his opponents, he demanded as little as possible from his soldiers. He preferred to end the war with live soldiers rather than with dead heroes.

Eisenhower won the war by going slow and avoiding big mistakes. The most important decision that he made during the period covered by Armageddon was to send a personal message informing Stalin that his armies would not try to take Berlin. The message was sent in March 1945, without consulting the political authorities in Washington and London. Eisenhower knew that several of his subordinate generals wanted passionately to march in triumph through Berlin. He knew that the attempt to do so might result either in a bloody battle with the Germans or in a disastrous clash with the Russians. He knew that many political leaders in Washington and London would give strong support to a grab for Berlin. He took personal responsibility for a decision that would be politically unpopular at home but would save the alliance with Russia and incidentally save the lives of his soldiers.

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