FABER & FABER 442 pp, €23.99, e book€12.53
Last week Paris celebrated the seventieth anniversary of its liberation, largely intact, from the Nazis. How and why this occurred is one of the themes explored in this book on the resistance, at various levels, by Germans to Hitler during the last year of World War Two.
Hitler, “a maniac of ferocious genius” in Churchill words, continues to fascinate, with hundreds of new books on his era appearing annually. The Second World War – his war – was the most destructive in world history. By its close, at least sixty million were dead, millions more displaced, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe obliterated, and hundreds of European cities destroyed.
Could it have been even worse? Taking the failed July 20 Assassination Plot as a starting point, Randall Hansen explores some of the legends about the last months of the War. Did Prussian General von Choltitz “save” Paris? Did Albert Speer (as he claimed) almost singlehandedly frustrate Hitler’s instructions to destroy Germany’s industry and infrastructure as its enemies closed in? Did the German armies in the west “give up”, concentrating instead on fighting the Soviets?
As Hansen notes, it could all have been different. Had the stock market not crashed in 1929 the Nazis would have been a footnote. Had Hitler lingered longer in a Munich pub in 1939 the war would have been over swiftly. And, had the July 20 meeting taken place underground, as originally intended, Stauffenberg’s bomb would have killed Hitler, possibly sparing – even then – millions of lives, and Eastern Europe from Soviet domination.
Hitler survived, wreaking a savage vengeance on the plotters and purging the Wermacht. Yet by then the writing was on the wall, with all but the most fanatical Nazis realising that defeat was inevitable. For the German generals, as their armies retreated the issue became increasingly whether and how to surrender, a dilemma that would become more acute as they were pushed back into Germany itself. Any compromise, any withdrawal, ran contrary to the insane instructions from Berlin to fight to the end and destroy everything in the enemy’s path, and, moreover risked death also for family members.
Many commanders chose to fight. In the remaining nine months a brutal defensive war saw more Germans killed and more German cities destroyed than in the previous five years. But many also chose compromise, by different methods, sometimes by surrender, sometimes by rapid withdrawal, sometimes citing lack of men or equipment to carry out any scorched- earth policy. Their varied reasons included calculated self-interest, growing disenchantment with the regime’s brutalities and a wish to limit Germany’s destruction. Increasingly also, within Germany itself, they cooperated with local civilians to frustrate Hitler’s designs, with cities like Hamburg, Dusseldorf and Heidelberg surrendering easily, even as Nuremberg and other cities were destroyed.
The major test of this approach came in occupied France. Liberating Paris was very much an Allied priority, and Hitler was well aware of its symbolic and strategic significance. His instructions to the new military governor were clear: Paris was to be a fortress, defended to the end “from the rubble.” The governor, Dietrich Von Choltitz, came with good credentials, his actions in Rotterdam in 1940, and later in Sevastopol, suggesting a penchant for brutality and blind obedience, whatever the orders.
The role of Von Choltitz in saving the city has been disputed since, with the 1960s book and film “ Is Paris Burning?” painting him as saviour, a claim rejected strongly by members of the resistance. Hansen suggests the truth was somewhere in between and more complicated.
Paris was, after all, a jewel of a city, liked and admired by many German officers. Von Choltitz lacked the capability and resources to carry out Hitler’s instructions. Equally importantly he lacked the will, seeing no military purpose in destruction per se and accordingly made only token attempts to fight. Later, in captivity, he condemned the destruction of Brest by its defenders as a war crime – hardly the words of a diehard. Marseilles and Toulon, with their vital ports, similarly fell to the Allies after minor resistance.
On the domestic front Hitler issued a number of orders culminating in the infamous Nero Decree calling for total destruction of Germany’s non-military industry and infrastructure, as part of his nightmare vision of a Gotterdammerung to engulf Germany. The intervention of Albert Speer, Hitler’s former architect and later Minister for Production, was key in heading off much of the threatened catastrophe.
Here again the truth was complicated. Speer could not have done it all on his own as he later claimed. Nevertheless he acted bravely in countermanding or delaying orders, often substituting “paralysis” for “destruction” in re-interpreting the Fuhrer’s commands. He argued successfully to Hitler, who continued to babble on or believe in ultimate victory, that it made no sense, therefore, to destroy utterly what would be needed again when Germany drove the Allies out! Speer’s role, however positive in terms of German recovery after 1945, did not save him from a twenty year sentence at Nuremberg for war crimes.
On the eastern front, what Joachim Fest has called the Third World War, the fighting remained intense to the end. Breslau fell after a mighty siege while Greifsfeld, which surrendered peacefully, endured the usual orgy of rape and murder by the Red Army.
Did this resistance matter? The author is in no doubt. The July 20 resisters provided “ a moral framework of reference for post-war political life in Germany. The post-20 July disobeyers helped ensure that there was a Germany that could be economically, physically and morally rebuilt.”