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Why the Nazis didn’t surrender

LAURENCE REES: Why did the Nazis stick it out right to the bitter end, when the levels of destruction they endured in late 1944 and early 1945 were absolutely horrendous?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: I think authoritarian regimes, even quite terroristical authoritarian regimes, are usually ended in one of two ways – either by some sort of revolution from below as happened, say, in Russia in 1917, or by some coup d’état, some putsch from within the leadership of the regime. Now in this case, revolution from below I think is an impossibility in 1944-45. The terroristic repression was of such a kind then that it made it impossible for people from below to organise to bring down that regime if that’s what they wanted to do. Then there’s the massive dislocation that has to be taken onboard, so people are scattered all over, they’re being moved around, they’re in and out of the army, so the notion that there is a sort of stable population who could organise a revolution is, I think, a hopeless notion in Germany in 1944-45.

The putsch idea was of course attempted in July 1944 by Stauffenberg in the attempt to assassinate Hitler and failed. Once that’s failed then the notion of another coup from within is extraordinarily difficult to organise, and in this the fear element there, even amongst the leadership of the Army and Corps, has to be reckoned with. Also the fact that now these people are showing themselves to be 110% because of what’s happened in the Stauffenberg plot. So that type of a repeat of the conspiracy that almost killed Hitler in ‘44 I think can be ruled out. And then the other thing is that this type of leadership system that Hitler had represented in Germany since 1933, what we call ‘charismatic authority’, had actually resulted in this disintegration of the system of government, fragmentation of that, so there is no unit there which can come together as they did, for example, in Italy where you have the figurehead of the king which there isn’t in Germany, another source of loyalty beyond Mussolini, and where you have the Fascist Grand Council that Mussolini had set up which comes together and actually deposes him. Nothing like that happens in Germany – Hitler rules out the idea of a senate of the Nazi party so there is no body that can come together and ever do this.

And then in one way or another these Nazi leaders such as Bormann and Goering and Goebbels and Speer and so on, they can never come together to form an entity which is seen to break Hitler down. Therefore both at the top and at the bottom there is actually a lack of alternative to what is really taking place. And the final thing on that is that only one person, and this was acknowledged by everybody, could decide on a negotiated end to this. If you were going to actually bring about an end to the war through negotiation, Hitler was the only who could do it, and he ruled that out time and time and time again, when all these other people were talking about it, Goebbels, Goering, Himmler and the rest of them.

And maybe one last point is that of the Nazi leaders, all of them knew what they’d got into in the East, so there’s a sort of ‘we burnt out bridges behind us.’ It’s like a conspiracy of a gang of criminals in a way, that they knew what they’d done and so there was no future for them once that regime was over. So hence that led to the actions of desperados in this regime in the very last phase, which increased at the same time the terror, and made it impossible for anybody to act against the regime. So I think it’s quite a complicated position but there are a whole number of reasons why any end other than the complete destruction of Germany was not feasible.

LAURENCE REES: How important also, in addition to all the factors you've just mentioned, was the memory of the way the First World War had ended in all this?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: Well that was, of course, a critical component in Hitler’s own thinking, and of those who thought like him, which was that the First World War had ended in, from his point of view, this humiliation of the surrender. And Hitler had said repeatedly over and over again - this sort of 1918 syndrome was central to his mentality - there’d be no repeat of November 1918, and, as he said to his Luftwaffe adjutant in December 1944: ‘we can go down but we’ll take a world with us.’ Defeat with honour, as he saw it, fighting to the last bullet was imminently preferable to capitulation which was then the most humiliating form of ending this war and would bring about a new national humiliation as well.

So that was the thinking that was really behind a lot of Hitler’s actions, the mentality which kept him going right to the end. Most people didn’t think like that, but nonetheless because of their ties to Hitler – the fact that they couldn’t break with him, that only he could actually decide when the war was over from a German point of view – there was nothing really they could do to accelerate that end and bring about a negotiated settlement. And when they tried, as Himmler did at the end of April 1945, he was immediately ousted from all his offices by Hitler and would have been killed if they could have set hands on him.

LAURENCE REES: So the fact that there was no large, effective resistance moment against the Nazis in Germany during the war, that’s not something Germans today should feel any historical ‘guilt’ about – as I know some do?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: No, and one of the things in the First World War, as the First World War was getting to an end, provisioning food stuffs for the German people were not available, they were still in the Second War right to the end - things of that sort functioned after a fashion. In the First World War the overall revolution in November 1918 starts with a naval mutiny, and the officers' corps were themselves turning their backs on the regime.

For the reasons I’ve given in Germany in 1944-45 that couldn’t and didn’t happen. So the treatment of anybody who showed any slightest sign of what they called ‘defeatism’ or shirking their duties, let alone desertion, was absolutely draconian, and large numbers of Germans did desert, far more than in the First War, between 1943 and ’45, but they were peremptorily rounded up and shot and so on. And so you knew, any action against this regime, you would face instantaneous reprisals and that was sufficient to deter those people from any sort of action, because by 1945 it was plain the war was over. You’d lost the war so the only question was hold out to the end, don’t risk your neck now because it’s over anyway, and just hope that the Americans or the British get here before the Russians.

LAURENCE REES: And we've talked before about how you think I’m unduly hard-hearted about my judgement about people like Stauffenberg? You feel these were actually noble, good people who obviously risked their lives?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: Well, Stauffenberg and those people like him, in a sense they were actually servants of the state in many ways. They were officers in the Wehrmacht and the rest of it and most of the people who were involved in the conspiracy of 1944 had actually come to that through a process of alienation from this regime – they didn’t start off as being completely antagonistic to Hitler at all. So there’s an element there in which you have to understand why they were enthusiastic for the regime and how they gradually broke away from it. But the action they took in 1944 demanded enormous courage and not just courage on their own part, but on the part of fears of what would happen to their families and their loved ones if this didn’t work, in the sense that they were going against the grain and that they would be seen as traitors and the chances were that it would fail.

So it took courage on all sorts of different levels, and the thing is - if that had succeeded - one thing which we do know is that if it had succeeded then there’d be an immediate attempt to negotiate a settlement and who knows how that would have panned out. But the chances are that they would have got some sort of settlement, the war would have been ended months earlier and the absolute colossal bloodshed of those last months of the war would have been avoided. So if Stauffenberg’s bomb had succeeded then millions of people would have been alive at the end of the war who actually weren’t alive when it came to the Goetterdaemmerung of May 1945.