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Ian Kershaws the End

Updated on November 25, 2011

Ian Kershaw says farewell to the Nazi state

After almost 40 years, Ian Kershaw has written what he says is "the last thing I do on the Nazis" (Moss). It is fitting that this last work of his in the field focuses on the last days of the Third Reich between the failure of the Stauffenberg plot in July 1944 and Germany's surrender on May 8, 1945. The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945, applies the results of Kershaw's previous work on public opinion in the Third Reich, the structures of power, and the personality cult of Hitler to what is, for him, the final challenge: How did the regime continue to function in the last days of the war, crippled in material, logistics, and hope? Germany's defeat was certain; the level of destruction that defeat entailed was largely chosen by the German leaders themselves.

Kershaw's narrative opens with the summary trial and execution of a young theology student in Ansbach on April 18, 1945. This event contains many of the complexities of German defiance in these last days: a military commandant ordering resistance when resistance is more than without hope, but wholly without purpose; the continuing participation of civil authorities with the desires of the regime; the participation of the populace in the discovery and punishment of the regime's enemies, and a wider passivity before authorities in the general populace. Hours after Robert Limpert, 19, was hung, the Americans took possession of Ansbach, abandoned by the commandant who had insisted on the young man's trial and execution, without a shot.

The Nazi state was not upheld by true believers alone, but also by the fearful, the apathetic, the ambitious, the patriotic, and the merely obedient. It was upheld by a lack of imagination. As the German historian Heinrich Jaenecke wrote: 'The puzzle is not Adolf Hitler. We are the puzzle.'

Brunnhilde's Immolation

Arthur Rackham's Brunnhilde's Immolation, this scene from Wagner's Ring was, according to Albert Speer, performed during the last concert of Berlin's Philharmonic shortly before Hitler's suicide.
Arthur Rackham's Brunnhilde's Immolation, this scene from Wagner's Ring was, according to Albert Speer, performed during the last concert of Berlin's Philharmonic shortly before Hitler's suicide.

Kershaw's goal in The End is to write "an integrated history of disintegration" (xix), a very difficult task that imposes limits on what is possible as a historian. There is no single, universal answer to Kershaw's fundamental question. A catalogue of the factors feeding defiance reveals the challenge of the task Kershaw set himself: Hitler's charismatic role and governmental function, the power politics of "the crucial quadrumvirate" (Martin Bormann, Heinrich Himmler, Josef Goebbels, and Albert Speer, along with the Gauleiter as a group), the continuing obedience of the Wehrmacht, fear (of government forces, of the post-war situation, of the Red Army), a '1918 syndrome' exhibited by Hitler personally, but not by Hitler alone, and the Nazi state's successful elimination of alternative, organized centers of power and position. These factors existed in combinations that varied by individual and context; their relative strength shifted with the war's realities, and with individual delusions and desires. Those who approach Kershaw's work looking for a neat solution reducible to a quip or a single statement applicable to all Germans of the decision-making, action-capable elite will be disappointed. Such an answer appeals to our desire for simplicity and finality, but cannot long be supported by the available facts.


Desperate measures

The Volkssturm, delivering men too old, and boys too young, for military service into a defensive militia, failed both militarily and as propaganda.
The Volkssturm, delivering men too old, and boys too young, for military service into a defensive militia, failed both militarily and as propaganda.

Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights

Kershaw uses a narrative form to explore the last months of the Nazi regime, and this stylistic decision involves some repetition. Unfortunately, the field of options that the elites entertained were limited. The problems they faced, while simply described and lying mainly within Speer's competence--infrastructure, production, and armament,--resisted solution and limited the range of options open to the decision-makers. As power radiated from Hitler, and those in power engaged in courtship dances and subterfuges to gain his attention and his support, all those in power summon his name, point to his words, and deliver hagiographic speeches to his image. Hitler remained the "chosen" man, the leader, although he became to many the man "chosen" by Providence to destroy, not build, the nation. Hitler's name was the magic key of the bureaucracy, the word which could shift the focus of agencies and motivate them. The resistance exhibited by the Nazi state to the Allies was inconceivable without Hitler, but, as Kerhsaw's narrative shows, he was not the actor whose participation determined the shape and ferocity of that resistance. It was the men of the Party, the Wehrmacht, and the bureaucracy who shaped and fueled that resistance.

The most significant failing of Kershaw's book is its failure to adequately explain the continued participation in self-policing and resistance of the civilian populace outside of the Party. Terror in the Nazi state, as illustrated by Robert Gellately and other historians who have studied the Gestapo and the state's internal policing, relied upon the populace's participation, a zealotry formed of conviction, greed, and a perverted patriotism. Certainly, as the Party increased its control of the terror apparatus and its role in the Wehrmacht in the last days of the Reich, there was more reason for passivity than ever before, but there was also more cause for a rejection of the leadership. The German people had an opportunity to save themselves, but they did not. They were afraid, of the evil of the Soviets and of the evils slavery and oppression had bred in their own borders.

Kershaw's explanation for the passivity, much wider in the population than active participation, of the German people is keyed to physical exhaustion and terror. The efforts of the state to stave off its own destruction and continue to feed the military machine with a shrinking Reich from which to draw manpower and material resulted in nationwide impressment of available laborers into building and manning defenses, clearing the rubble of bomb strikes, and industry. Basically, Kershaw concludes that the German population was kept in a state of physical and mental exhaustion so great that their view was narrowed to the necessities of immediate survival. This, in combination with the coercive agents of the regime and the lack of alternative, organized foci to voice and act upon opposition to the Party and the state, prevented, according to Kershaw, the realization of a popular revolt, as had occurred in 1918.

Berlin 1945

The End deserves to be read for its detailed, reasoned analysis of the death of the charismatic Third Reich. He is careful in his presentation of probabilities as probabilities, not facts. When he had to reconstruct a situation from incomplete or conflicting information, he informs the reader of this fact and briefly delineates alternate reconstructions, an act that many historians, convinced of their own version and, perhaps, not trusting their readers to evaluate information on their own, neglect. It is not, however, a book that comes to an easy conclusion in which a single solution to the proposed difficulty is reached. I take this "failure" as a success, however, for in such a complex field of men and dilemmas, it is highly unlikely that a single answer would even approximate the reality. Kershaw does not write a romance. His history is not opera, and for him annihilation is not redemptive. Germany was not purified by its experiences, rid of the perils and evils of ultranationalism, racism, and violence. He does in The End succeed in his intent; I understand better than before reading it the resistance to surrender exhibited by Germany in its last months


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    • profile image

      Hester 2 years ago

      It's a relief to find soonmee who can explain things so well

    • Ed Michaels profile image

      Ed Michaels 6 years ago from Texas, USA

      Happy New Year to you as well. I have found that Hub Pages is an excellent way to make contact with people with interests similar to mine outside of an academic setting. I am not in one at the moment, so this has been a real plus for me.

      I do not think The End is Kershaw's best work. It is repetitive in places, and the great difficulty of accurately determining the opinions of the citizens of Germany at this period remain. Unfortunately, I think we are not able at this point to come to any accurate measurement of those opinions: there are too many good reasons to lie after the war, too much danger in honest expression during the war, and we are too distant from it in time to create polling measures to correct for these issues, if it is possible to form such measures.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 6 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      Excellent Hub. Voted Up, Awesome, and Interesting. I have not read Kershaw's book yet, but I was introduced to his scholarship in graduate school. I have much respect for his work and your review essay about his "last" word on the Nazi regime.

      Interesting that we have such similar interests, history in general, but the Holocaust in particular. Hope you have a great New Year.