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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 8 page 18


Nazi terror actually became more violent and arbitrary in the regime’s final days. The SS, the Nazis' own private army, whose members had no future without Nazi rule, were insanely cruel towards anyone who advocated surrender, or who even expressed defeatist attitudes. “In the face of rapidly deteriorating morale,” says Randall Hansen, “the regime responded the only way it knew how: the SS turned viciously on the local population. In late February [1945], the SS seized a 24-year-old soldier, [identified only as] 'Felix K.', who was serving 10 years in prison for observing from his hospital bed that the war was pointless. The SS shot him.”

There could be more than one anti-Nazi conspiracy in the same city, as happened in Düsseldorf, where a working-class anti-fascist group known as Antifako distributed leaflets, pleaded with militiamen to desert, and disarmed a Nazi bomb meant to destroy the waterworks. As American forces drew near, Antifako urged citizens to fly white flags (or pillowcases, or anything white) to signal that they were out of the war. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, a group of middle-class professionals were attempting (unsuccessfully) to usurp the local leadership. The SS captured and summerily executed several members of this last group, but a pair of them did escape to the American lines and guided the Americans back into Düsseldorf on a back route free of anti-tank barriers.

Aloys Odenthal, an architect-turned-resister who was guiding the Americans, was offered a gun for self-protection. He turned the offer down. “I won’t shoot another Dϋsseldorfer,” he said. “My friends and my family are probably dead. What does life have to offer me now? My task is almost fulfilled.”

Hansen devotes a lot of ink to Albert Speer, the Nazi Wunderkind architect-turned-industrial-czar who kept German industrial production in high gear throughout the war. In the war's last year, Speer toiled, connived and wheedled to preserve as much infrastructure as possible despite Hitler’s scorched-earth policy. Using the clever, politically acceptable excuse that industrial capacity had to be preserved until the very last minute so it could contribute every last ounce toward the Reich’s inevitable triumph, Speer devised elaborate bureaucratic procedures, requiring approvals from multiple officials, that were guaranteed to delay scorched-earth decisions until the Allies arrived and seized the infrastructure intact. It may be that Albert Speer valued himself so highly that he expected to play a role in rebuilding Germany. It may be that he imagined the world would overlook his wilful blindness (if that’s what it was) to the concentration camps. What he actually earned for his efforts was 20 years in Spandau prison.

Maybe those readers who really go for books about Nazis and/or WW2 will want this book. Personally, I’m 50-50 on it. The maps and photo selection are miserly and for the most part unhelpful. And this book’s got an epic-scale cast of thousands, so sometimes I got fed up with just too many gruppenfϋhrer and oberst-generäle clicking their heels (as it were) on the same page.

Speaking of fed up, I say this book is amerigocentric. Mostly Hansen tags along with the Americans as they liberate city after city in gentlemanly fashion. A story supposedly about German resistance turns out to be as much about American mastery and how German civilians went that extra mile to surrender to the Americans. The Brits and Canadians are left poking around in the Netherlands sideshow.

The Russians get the worst coverage of all, considering that they deserve at least half the credit for winning the war, and probably more than half. Hansen’s rationale for snubbing the Russians is that there were few cases of German cities or armies surrendering to them. On the Eastern front, the Germans expected to receive violent retribution no matter what course they followed. The one case of surrender we hear about — the northeastern city of Greifswald — turns out to be a tale of perfidy. Within a year the Soviets arrested almost everyone involved in arranging the surrender and put many of them to death. Soviet troops plundered the city, says Hansen, and there were “reports of mass rapes.”

Finally, I could never get comfortable with Professor Hansen’s premise that the disobedience exhibited by however many civilians and officials against Hitler’s scorched-earth orders should count as resistance. For one thing, this defiance came late in the game, it came when Germany was already gazing into the jaws of defeat. And it did not aim at regime change. Aside from Albert Speer’s efforts, most of the “resistance” was merely local salvage operations.

That’s not to deny that what defiance did occur was brave and admirable. These eleventh-hour mutinies saved lives and preserved much infrastructure that would help Germany get back on its feet. Homes, workplaces, and communities were preserved. Perhaps just as important, they provided Germany with some small moral cover to look to in subsequent years as the hard-to-accept truth about the concentration camps began to sink in.