Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
8 Nov. 2021
Review by Jonathan Beard, New York City
Prevail until the Bitter End: Germans in the Waning Years of World War II
By Alexandra Lohse
Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 2021. Pp. 208. ISBN 978–1–5017–5939–0.
Descriptors: Volume 2021, 20th Century, World War II, European Theater Print Version

When the Red Army was approaching Berlin in April 1945, German civilians were digging anti-tank ditches and the Wehrmacht was defending every meter of territory. Why did these people, with the war so obviously lost, fight to the bitter end? Alexandra Lohse (US Holocaust Memorial Museum) tries to answer this question by looking at what both soldiers and ordinary Germans said and wrote to each other and their families. Although she is familiar with the many books historians have written on these issues (1) and with the diary and memoir literature—she cites Victor Klemperer's famous diaries[1] repeatedly—she concentrates on sources likely to reflect Germans' candid opinions.

Her chief source for soldiers is records of the Combined Services Interrogation Centre (CSDIC). This British intelligence agency set up special housing for certain German POWs, with rooms bugged with hidden microphones. The first installations were in the United Kingdom, but later in the war, expanded to North Africa, France, and Germany. Early in the war, the British concentrated on technical intelligence, but the monitors extended their interests to the prisoners' combat experiences and political attitudes. Lohse describes the thousands of pages of transcripts she read:

Since the transcripts' declassification, scholars have analyzed them for insights into the behaviors and mentalities of German combatants, exploring, for instance, the spectrum between situational and ideological explanations for the ferocious violence they unleashed until final defeat. (9)

Heinrich Himmler's SS provided similar material for the homefront. The SS's Sicherheitsdienst (SD) or "security service" deployed thousands of agents throughout the Reich to listen in to conversations in markets, cafes, and air raid shelters. The Nazis were aware that their propaganda was not universally believed, and needed to gauge public opinion. These SD records gave Lohse data from private conversations from early 1943 right to the end of the war in May 1945.

Chapter 1, "Stalingrad," looks at German reactions to the wave of bad news from late 1942 into 1943. Both the Battle of Stalingrad and the Afrika Korps' fighting in North Africa had been well covered by Nazi media, which now had to cope with the surrender of hundreds of thousands of troops on the banks of the Volga and in Tunisia as well. For Germans at home, these defeats—after almost three years of victories—were a grim accompaniment to the ever increasing Allied bombing of their cities. Their faith in their government's propaganda plummeted and their eagerness for reports from soldiers themselves grew. This was noted by the SD, which described the value of letters home and reports to Germans at home by soldiers on furlough.

Chapter 2, "Mobilizing the National Community," concerns Joseph Goebbels's famous Sport Palace speech (18 Feb 1943), in which he asked a cheering crowd to support "total war." One of the consequences was increased mobilization for the entire population, including women. But

many contemporaneous sources suggested that German men widely worried about the war's toll on female virtue. This was particularly apparent in POWs' discussions of women deployed in auxiliary services, in Western Europe, for instance. (55)

Another recurrent theme in Prevail is the combination of resentment and contempt for Nazi party officials. Partly, this reflected the perception that these people had soft jobs and enriched themselves. Another important problem was their class origins: the party did not recruit from the nobility or traditional elites. Party bosses were seen as "usurpers who received their privileges neither by birth nor by merit" (58).

Chapter 3, "Genocide and Mass Atrocities," is the most interesting part of the book. Only the top leaders knew of the scope of Nazi genocide, but many prisoners were quite aware of what happened in Eastern Europe; by 1943, even incurious Germans realized that Jews had disappeared from their towns. Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust, was deeply unpopular with both soldiers and civilians, and the SS was feared rather than admired. As knowledge of German killings spread, so did an odd fear: if Germany lost the war, the Jews would exact revenge. As a colonel captured in Tunisia put it, "Then we shall not simply be shot, we shall die in the most brutal way" (78). Lohse adds a bizarre permutation of this fear. A local official in Middle Franconia reported that Jews from there were working as commissars in the Red Army. Supposedly one of them, a former cattle dealer (a common Jewish trade in Germany) approached some German soldiers trapped behind Russian lines and helped them escape. "People say that the Jew explained that there was no real animosity toward Bavaria, only against Prussia and especially against the SS" (95). Another variation on this theme concerned Germans' reaction to Allied bombing of their cities. Having been indoctrinated to think the Jews instigated the war, some Germans believed the air raids were retribution for the destruction of Jewish property on Kristallnacht, the Nazi-instigated pogrom of 1938.

Chapter 4, "Enemies Within and Without," begins with public reaction to the 20 July 1944 attempt on Hitler's life, and then moves on to the increasingly bad news Germans faced as Allied armies approached and then entered the Reich. Chapter 5, "Dissolution," chronicles what Germans said as the war was ending and the Nazi state fell apart. The book closes with a short "Conclusion" that reflects on the previous chapters and a comprehensive bibliography of the primary and archival sources the author canvassed in her research.[2]

All in all, Alexandra Lohse provides a salutary analysis of how German soldiers and civilians dealt with bad news in the second half of World War II. That said, the book is a survey and none of its people—except perhaps for Victor Klemperer—come alive for readers.

[1] I Will Bear Witness 1942-1945: A Diary of the Nazi Years, tr. Martin Chalmers (NY: Modern Library, 2001 [German orig. 1995]).

[2] Regrettably, the author cites only German editions of works readily available in English translation: e.g., Martin Broszat's The Hitler State (NY: Routledge, 2016), a fundamental study of Nazi government, and Sönke Neitzel and Harald Welser's Soldaten: On Fighting, Killing, and Dying (NY: Knopf, 2012), the first book to use the transcripts of overheard soldiers.

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