Added 7 August 2007.


Toby Thacker: The End of the Third Reich

Surely not another book on the last days of the Third Reich? In fact Thacker's contribution is somewhat different. Subtitled Defeat, Denazification and Nuremburg, January 1944 to November 1946, it has as a subtext the attitudes of the Germans during that period and the attempts by the Allies to change the same.

Much of the military history will be familiar to anyone well read in this period, but Thacker makes a reasonable summary of the major events, covering both West and East, unlike some Western authors, although Italy is not mentioned much other than the difficulty of enforcing a swift decision in that theatre. D-Day, Normandy and the breakout are looked at rather more detail than, say, the Soviet destruction of Army Group Centre, but the latter is still cited as the decisive victory that it was, Hitler's mania for "fortresses" also being noted. Thacker also points out that many of the German weapons being produced up to the bitter end were high quality and it was these, as well as the fanatical or fatalistic attitude of the defenders, that made the final Allied victory so slow, rather than any deficiency in Allied strategy. For their part the Western Allies were mostly content to follow the broad front strategy (the one attempt at a rapid blitzkrieg-type advance, Operation Market Garden, being a heroic failure), sensing that material- and overwhelming air superiority meant that victory was theirs to lose. Stalin was as unconcerned about casualty lists as Hitler but likewise played a long game, looking to maximise his advantages in Eastern Europe. The ordinary German, whether civilian or soldier, was mistrustful of official news but either had a residual faith in Hitler or else was aware of the increasing number of hangings for supposed defeatism or desertion, especially in the final months when bodies were displayed openly hanging from trees and lampposts. In any event Goebbels' propaganda had painted the direst picture of Allied intentions, even before the ill-conceived Morgenthau Plan was made public.

As early as Casablanca the Allied leadership, notably Churchill, had threatened that there would be trials of war criminals. One of the interesting aspects of Thacker's book is the development of this theme and the general idea of "punishing" the Germans in some way. Although the cruder ideas of taking out every possible local Nazi official and shooting them were dropped, there remained a vague sense, especially after the liberation of the concentration camps, that most Germans and especially Nazi Party members had what was coming to them. Thacker notes that in the weeks after the US liberation of Buchenwald, even ordinary Wehrmacht prisoners were often abused, while in one or two incidents camp guards were shot or (possibly worse for them) handed over to their former prisoners. This may also explain the ambivalent attitude towards area bombing of cities, which towards the end of the war seemed to have no other purpose other than a form of retribution on the general population. On the German side, the leadership became increasingly paralysed in the last few months, with the possible exception of Goebbels who remained energetic in both his beliefs and his activities until the final few days. Hitler himself rarely seen outside of the bunker until his suicide, which in one way relieved the Allies of a knotty problem but created others. Bizarrely, Himmler saw himself as a possible go-between, not realising, as Thacker puts it, that most of the Allies would have liked to shoot him on sight. Most Germans were mostly occupied with fleeing to the West to escape Soviet vengeance, which at times could be brutal if disorganised, especially towards women.

The surrender brought about the problem of what to do with Germany. Although much has been made in recent years of apparent ill-treatment of German POWs in the immediate aftermath, and Thacker concurs that this did happen, he puts the numbers of deaths at 5-10,000, which still makes the abuse blameworthy but not in the same league as the wilful atrocities committed by the Nazis (or for that matter the Soviets in Katyn Wood, which is also discussed in the book). In fact so many POWs had been accumulated in the West German sector that many were allowed to return home after a short while. At the same time Thacker records Allied efforts to track down war criminals, citing as an example the Auschwitz commandant Höss who was able to disguise himself for a year but was eventually caught to give testimony at Nuremburg before being hung on the grounds of his own camp. Soviet justice was extremely summary, the death sentence often being carried out on the same day. But despite very occasional outbursts of defiance (those recorded by Thacker seem to have been amateurish) the Germans in fact proved very cooperative with their occupiers, so much so that Montgomery's no-fraternisation orders were ameliorated quite quickly. The denazification process began almost immediately with the dismissal of possible Nazi sympathisers from the staff of radio stations and saw a purge of the schools, universities and arts. The last was to prove the more difficult, since the Allies quickly saw a gap in the lives of both occupied and occupier that needed filling quickly, if only with concerts. This illuminated a larger problem as noted by General Lucius Clay, namely that to vet everybody and to try everybody would have been expensive and probably unworkable, as well as causing resentment among the general population. In the event the numbers were limited and many cases subsequently turned over to the reconstituted German courts, who could be surprisingly lenient in sentencing.

Nuremburg is covered by one late chapter in the book, together with an account of other trials. Although Nuremburg dealt mainly with the surviving senior Nazis and their associates, eleven of whom were sentenced to death, Thacker also gives useful and interesting details of war crimes trials that took place elsewhere in Germany, for example that of Belsen camp commandant Kramer and his staff (he and others including three women guards were sentenced to death by hanging, and Alfred Pierrepoint, the British executioner, is recorded as executing about 200 prisoners). At Nuremburg there were of course problems in any approach to punishing individuals for the actions of a government and a dictator, and a certain amount of hypocrisy on the part of the Allies was inevitable. An interesting opinion poll noted by Thacker is that although a majority of Germans at the time of the trial thought that Nazism had been a good idea, badly executed, a majority nevertheless believed the trials to be essentially fair and the sentences not excessive. Thacker obviously believes that Alfred Speer wrongfooted the tribunal and that Fritz Sauckel was perhaps the scapegoat for Speer's own crimes: certainly parts of Speer's testimony appear unconvincing.

In conclusion Thacker sums up both the military and political victory of the Allied powers and discusses them in the light of von Clausewitz's dictum that "war is just a continuation of policy by other means." He points to the subsequent failure of Nazism to regain any significant toehold in Germany since the war, asserting that even modern-day neo-Nazi skinheads are probably more a reflection of pan-European racial tension than a genuinance renascence. Finally, and this is the point that others might wish to dispute, he compares the Nuremburg trials with the 21st century International Tribunal and also the trial of Saddam Hussein, which was still ongoing when the book was published. All in all this is a useful and highly readable book on a subject and period too often overlooked.

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