Monday, February 2, 2015

After Hitler: The Last Days of the Second World War in Europe by Michael Jones

I have to admit that sometimes I ask myself, 'How much of the Second World War continues to remain mired in myths and legends?'  Each time I get tired of reading monographs on this time period I find a volume that reinvigorates my interest.  Michael Jones has managed to do this with every book he has put out on the war.  I can confidently say that I, someone who has been reading on this period for over a decade, continue to be amazed by the information he manages to convey and unearth.  While not everything that's found among these pages is original research, the narrative Jones has crafted is compelling and once more shows that even if some believe this time period has become over-saturated (every now and then I find myself among those 'some'), there are still areas that need more focus, attention, and rigorous research.

The premise of this text relies on looking at the last ten days of the war after Adolf Hitler commits suicide in his bunker.  There are numerous vignettes that build a narrative based on information about events from earlier years of the war, but in one form or another they all follow the threads that Jones weaves to come back to these fateful and climactic ten days.  One of the more controversial issues the author deals with is rape on both the Eastern and Western Fronts.  This is a subject that has yet to be fully explored by scholars for many reasons, but slowly more pieces of the puzzle are making their way into recent monographs (two recent examples are: "The Soviet occupation of Germany" by Filip Slaveski and "What Soldiers Do: Sex and the American GI in World War II France" by Mary Louise Roberts).  My biggest issue is the broad brush that's often used to paint the entirety of the Red Army as guilty of some rather large arbitrary number of rapes in either Berlin alone or all of Germany.  Jones adds to the puzzle by showing that the situation was much more complicated as, with one example, Polish forces under Red Army command perpetrated their own brand of justice on the Germans.  Before the storming of Berlin the 1st Polish Army 'was forced to draw up a disciplinary ordinance to curb the wilder excesses of its soldiers' (44).  Similar orders were read out to the Red Army as well, and for good reason.  There were also instances when justice took the form of on the spot executions as when a Red Army colonel found an NKVD soldier guilty of rape and offered him his pistol with one bullet to end his life within a minute 'with some self respect', or else he'd finish him off as the 'coward' he was (54-55).

Throughout the text one of the main themes the author continues to stress are the choices made by the western allies and the Soviets in regards to actions on the ground, which had major consequences for each side.  For instance, the promises made to the Soviets by Roosevelt and his administration in regards to Lend Lease were soon called off by Truman who attempted to utilize Lend Lease shipments as a bargaining chip, a move the Soviets were loathe to entertain.  Furthermore, Montgomery's move at Lüneburg Heath was co-opted by the Dönitz government to fulfill their needs and treated as an armistice rather than an unconditional surrender, something the Soviets were angered by but allowed in lieu of being able to sign an unconditional surrender for the remainder of German troops still operating throughout Europe at a place and date of their choosing.  Still, even those wishes were upset by the signing of the surrender of the German Wehrmacht at Rheims instead of Berlin, and more so by a lowly Soviet representative who was simply available, rather than Marshal Zhukov.  In part the signing at Rheims was the fault of Eisenhower who was keen on ending the war as soon as possible and wanted peace yet needed to simultaneously keep in mind the wishes of his Soviet allies, who were not always as forthcoming as they should have been.

Aside from the above, some of the more interesting discussions revolved around the Prague Uprising and the role of Vlasov's Russian Liberation Army in helping the resistance fight their German occupiers until they could no longer hold out with the Red Army making its way to Prague for a liberation of their own of the last Eastern European capital still under German control.  Additionally, the resistance of a Georgian Legion battalion on the Dutch Island of Texel was a complete surprise to me, as was how the Soviets treated the survivors and the memory of this incident.  Overall, I can't praise the author enough for what he's done in this volume.  Taking a look at the last ten days from the point of view of Soviet, American, British, German, and even Canadian eye-witness accounts brings an original look at the chaos of the final days of the Second World War.  On May 8 and 9 a reprieve for many occurred as VE Day was celebrated.  And soon enough the alliance that so many worked so hard to form will crumble as old issues creep up once again to create a new threat in the form of a Cold War (one whose language in many ways becomes recycled, by both sides, from the rhetoric they worked out so well during the Second World War).  

There were some weaknesses that I encountered.  I am disappointed in the system of 'endnotes' used here as it made tracing information more difficult than it needed to be and I believe footnotes would have been the better alternative as this is to a large extent a scholarly work.  There were references to the Warsaw Uprising (August 1944) but they were somewhat inaccurate and dismissive of the Red Army and Stalin.  In many ways this is a perfect example of an area that continues to wait for further scholarship as current volumes are still vague and greatly lacking when it comes to the Soviet side of things.  Finally, some of the material here is gathered from various internet websites that, while overall presenting useful and interesting information, are not always accurate.  Aside from these minor issues, this is a highly recommended volume and a great addition to literature on both the waning days of the Second World War and the foundations that were being set by the western allies and Soviet Union in what would become the Cold War.

1 comment:

Dirk said...

Excellent review of an excellent book. I am going after all other books by Michael Jones!