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Ian Kershaw on the Last Days of the Third Reich: 'Hitler's Influence Was Fatal'

In a SPIEGEL interview, the best-selling British historian Ian Kershaw talks about the last days of the Third Reich, why the Germans persevered when it was clear that all was lost and the devastating consequences of the failed July 20, 1944 attempt to assassinate Hitler.

Photo Gallery: The Last Days of World War II Photos

SPIEGEL: Professor Kershaw, you have spent the last three years studying the collapse of Nazi Germany. In the end, are we left to shake our heads in amazement at the absurdity of the final phase, or do you, as a historian, also feel something akin to admiration for the perseverance of the Germans?

Kershaw: The head-shaking predominates, at any rate. I'm convinced that we English would have given up much earlier. It's certainly unusual for a country to continue fighting to the point of complete self-destruction. It's the sort of thing we usually see in civil wars, but not in conflicts in which hostile nations are at war with one another.

SPIEGEL: The question of why the Germans persevered for so long is the starting point of your new book. What would have been the obvious thing to do?

Kershaw: In any armed conflict, there is eventually a point at which one side realizes that it's over. If the people in power don't give up but instead continue to plunge the country into ruin, there is either a revolution from below, as was the case in Germany and Russia near the end of World War I, or there is a coup by the elites, who attempt to save what can still be saved. An example of that is the overthrow of Benito Mussolini in Italy in July 1943.

SPIEGEL: What is the latest point at which the Germans should have recognized that they could no longer win the war?

Kershaw: I would say in the summer of 1944, after the successful landing of the Allies in Normandy and the Russians' enormous territorial gains in the east. At that point, the war was objectively lost, even if the German public didn't see it that way. But starting in December 1944, after the failed Ardennes Offensive (ed's note: also known as the Battle of the Bulge), it was also clear to the power elite in the German Reich that there was nothing left to be gained militarily. At that point, it would have made sense to enter into capitulation negotiations.

SPIEGEL: Until the very end, the leadership of the German armed forces, the Wehrmacht, clung to the hope that the Allied coalition would fall apart and pave the way for a separate peace with the Western powers. Given the speedy end of the military alliance in the Cold War, this idea doesn't sound all that absurd.

Kershaw: Of course, the idea wasn't idiotic, but at that point in the war, it was completely illusory to bet on the coalition coming to an end. There were never any serious considerations on the part of the Western Allies about going it alone. The highest priority was to defeat Hitler's Reich, and for that purpose the alliance with the Russians was indispensable. Churchill, as much as he distrusted Stalin, argued this many times and turned a deaf ear to all alternatives.

SPIEGEL: Your book begins with the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. In your view, the attempted assassination significantly prolonged the war.

Kershaw: The July 20 plot led to a strengthening of the regime, at least temporarily. There was a noticeable increase in Hitler's popularity with the public. The shock effect of the attack was enormous, as we can see from many private records. But even more important is the fact that a purge of the officer corps in the Wehrmacht ensued. Arch-loyalists replaced people who were considered unreliable. All resistance was ruled out as a result.

SPIEGEL: You note that the Hitler salute was only introduced in the Wehrmacht in the summer of 1944. Why so late?

Kershaw: Hitler needed the Wehrmacht more than any other part of the Nazi regime, which is why he was relatively cautious in his dealings with the leadership for so long. The July 20 assassination attempt prompted him to conclude that it was time to bring the army into line. Within the officer corps, there was a strong consensus with the Nazi state in terms of goals and mentality. But when one considers an arch-Nazi like Field Marshall Ferdinand Schörner, we see where the difference lies between someone like that and most of the other senior officers, who were Nazified but were not in fact true Nazis.

SPIEGEL: In the summer of 1944, most of Germany's major cities had been laid to waste, and since the defeat at Stalingrad, there had also been no news from the front of any decisive victories. How was the mood within the population?

Kershaw: Deeply concerned, anxious and oppressed. But confidence in Hitler hadn't vanished yet. It was only at the end of 1944 that his standing began to fall like a stone. According to a report by the security service near Berchtesgaden, in March 1945, on the so-called Heldengedenktag (ed's note: a Nazi holiday to commemorate fallen heroes), no one was willing to return the Hitler salute anymore.

SPIEGEL: How reliable were these reports, which the Nazi leadership used to gauge the mood in the country?

Kershaw: The original reports from the base are relatively blunt in their statements. In mid-1944, Hitler's secretary, Martin Bormann, halted the further dissemination of the central summaries of these reports from the Reich, arguing that they painted the mood in too negative a light. The reports from the propaganda offices, which were sent to Joseph Goebbels, also reveal this decline in the general mood. There are often marks on the page where Goebbels had drawn a thick line with a green pen, because he had expected reports of victories.

SPIEGEL: It was Goebbels who, after July 20, wanted to ask for greater sacrifices from the civilian population. Was Hitler much more cautious in this regard?

Kershaw: Hitler always had a very sensitive ear for anything that could undermine the morale of the German people. It was a lesson he had learned from World War I, namely that it was important to keep the people in good spirits, or else there would be an uprising from below, as had occurred in 1918. That's why he made sure that the Bavarian farmers continued to get their beer. Goebbels saw much more clearly than Hitler that the German population was indeed prepared to accept tough measures, provided they affected everyone equally.

SPIEGEL: The system functioned until the end. Only a few months before the end of the war, applications for building permits were being submitted and approved, and wages were being paid. The last concert of the Berlin Philharmonic took place on April 12, 1945.

Kershaw: And the Soviet offensive on the German capital began four days later. The audience sat in the unheated auditorium of the Philharmonic, wearing heavy coats, while (Wilhelm) Furtwängler conducted Symphony No. 4 by Bruckner.

SPIEGEL: And on April 23, 1945, Bayern München defeated TSV 1860 München in the Munich football derby.

Kershaw: Yes, they won 3:2. When I read that, I was so shocked that I thought the date might be wrong. But it was correct.

SPIEGEL: Do you have an explanation for this eerie urge to preserve normality?

Kershaw: The normality of routine, even if it's only a phony normality, is probably essential to the functioning of human order. You go to your workplace to check your files, even if the work you do is completely useless. And when your office no longer exists, because it was bombed, you simply set yourself up somewhere else.

SPIEGEL: But that isn't enough to maintain the public order.

Kershaw: It's true that this wouldn't have been possible without a well-trained civil service. The exemplary bureaucracy was the backbone of the regime. Even the postal service was kept more or less intact. When the rail network had been destroyed, the Reich postal minister issued the directive that motorcycles were to be used instead of trains. When there was a shortage of gasoline for the motorcycles, they switched to bicycles. In the end, they walked across the mountains with a rucksack on their backs. It's bizarre to imagine, but it worked.

SPIEGEL: Do you recognize a specific German character trait in all of this?


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About Ian Kershaw
    Ian Kershaw, 68, is one of Britain's most-respected historians. Until his recent retirement, he was a professor at Sheffield University. He has been researching the Nazi era for almost 40 years and is probably best known for his two-volume biography of Hitler. His latest book is titled "The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1944-1945."

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