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 …

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Letters

The Bitter End’ October 20, 2005