Ian Kershaw on the Last Days of the Third Reich 'Hitler's Influence Was Fatal'
Part 2: 'There Was Something Typically German about It'
Kershaw: I can't by any stretch of the imagination believe that this sort of thing would have been possible in Italy or Greece. There was something typically German about it. I don't mean it as a national stereotype. I'm thinking more of a cultural tradition that is imparted through education and encourages certain virtues. At one point in my book I quote Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger, the state secretary in the Reich Chancellery, who, when asked during questioning why he continued working so diligently until the end, replied in astonishment that it had been his duty. He didn't even understand the question.
SPIEGEL: Do Germans lack the ability to slack off?
Kershaw: One could put it that way. Of course, it's actually a very positive thing to have a sense or duty or even honor. But the Nazis completely distorted these values. What does duty mean for a general in the final phase of the Reich? To keep fighting until everything is in ruins? Or to issue the order to surrender?
SPIEGEL: Perhaps there were too many committed Nazis who truly believed in the cause. Opportunism can sometimes be beneficial.
Kershaw: That's probably true. In many cases, the fate of a city was determined by whether it was being run by people who simply wanted to save their skins, or by fanatics who would order anyone who hung a white flag from their window to be shot. Take Breslau (ed's note: today's Wroclaw ), for example, where Karl Hanke, the local Gauleiter (ed's note: regional Nazi Party leader), issued the order to resist to the last man. The center of the city was flattened, and the unspeakable suffering endured by the population, until Breslau finally fell into Soviet hands, was in vain.
SPIEGEL: Hanke himself made sure he was flown out on the last plane.
Kershaw: That was typical of these party officials, who spoke of resisting to the last bullet. But only two out of 43 Gauleiter were killed in combat. The overwhelming number brought themselves to safety early on and deserted the population.
SPIEGEL: Many military historians emphasize the special fighting spirit of the German Wehrmacht. For the ordinary private, would there have been an alternative to continuing to fight?
Kershaw: The only thing I see would have been desertion, which would have meant certain death upon capture.
SPIEGEL: What is your assessment of Hitler as a military commander?
Kershaw: His influence, especially in the late phase of the war, was certainly fatal. But many generals made it too easy for themselves, after the fact, by blaming him for all the wrong decisions. If you read the reports from the briefings, you can see that Hitler rarely went against the grain. We know, for example, about the increasingly desperate attempts by Colonel-General Georg-Hans Reinhardt in East Prussia to convince Hitler to approve a tactical withdrawal of the Army Group Centre. But it wasn't just Hitler alone who rejected the idea. In fact, he enjoyed the broad support of the officers in his immediate environment.
SPIEGEL: "I looked into his eyes and knew that everything would be all right," Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz said after a briefing with Hitler. Other officers said similar things. Where does this absolute faith in the Führer come from among men who were otherwise not overly sentimental?
Kershaw: You'd have to ask the psychologists. Why did Albert Speer fly back to the bunker when in fact everything was already over? Apparently he was unable to disassociate himself from Hitler until the end, and many others in the entourage felt the same way. This emotional dependency is also evident in the Gauleiter meeting on Feb. 24, 1945, in which the party leaders experienced Hitler as a broken man and were completely horrified by what they saw. But then Hitler approached each man individually and looked him in the eyes, at which point the mood suddenly lightened, as Gauleiter Rudolf Jordan writes in his memoirs.
SPIEGEL: The spell was suddenly broken when Hitler committed suicide.
Kershaw: Everything happened very quickly after that. Goebbels was almost the only one who stood by Hitler until death. Almost everyone else went on the run. Even loyal (Martin) Bormann tried to escape from the world of the bunker and go wherever he could.
SPIEGEL: The bizarre sides of your book include the descriptions of the intrigues at court. German lay in ashes, and yet the paladins were grappling for power and influence.
Kershaw: This too explains the persistent strength of the system. The mutual mistrust among those in the leadership prevented factions from forming within the power structure that could have been dangerous to Hitler. There were short-term alliances at best, which immediately fell apart when one person discovered an advantage, such as between Goebbels and Speer.
SPIEGEL: You describe Speer as the most enigmatic figure in the dictator's circle. What prompted such an intelligent and highly realistic person to persevere to the end?
Kershaw: An unquenchable ambition, and certainly the faith in Hitler and the mission, as well. Speer remains an enigma to me to this day. No one was more aware of what condition the Reich was in, and yet in March he wrote a memorandum in which he recommended continuing the fight at the Rhine and the Oder. Of course, he neglected to mention that in his memoirs.
SPIEGEL: You write that the German arms industry produced its largest volume of weapons in December 1944, despite the devastating bombing war.
Kershaw: Without Speer's ability to maintain arms production under the most adverse circumstances, the war would have ended much earlier. Until the Ardennes Offensive, he and his people performed veritable miracles when it came to producing ammunition. There is no other way of putting it.
SPIEGEL: If the July 20 plotters had been successful with their bomb against Hitler, the war would have been over by the fall of 1944 at the latest. As a historian, do you wish Hitler had been killed on that day, or are you happy that the assassination attempt failed?
Kershaw: I've often asked myself that question. When one writes about these things, one feels an inner wish that they should succeed. I believe this is the position of any person who is not caught up in the ideas of Nazism. In the last year of World War II, as many people died in Europe as on all military fronts throughout all of World War I. Politically speaking, however, it is probably a blessing that the plotters failed in their attempt. Otherwise, the chances of having a democratic Germany would have been significantly slimmer.
SPIEGEL: Professor Kershaw, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Jan Fleischhauer
- Part 1: 'Hitler's Influence Was Fatal'
- Part 2: 'There Was Something Typically German about It'