by Alexander Lohse
Ithaka, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2021. Pp. xii, 196.
Illus. notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 1501759396
German Public Opinion in the closing years of World War II
Why did German soldiers and civilians continue to resist until Soviet tanks were at the Brandenburg Gate in the heart of Berlin? In Prevail until the Bitter End, Alexandra Lohse (a research scholar at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum) attempts to answer this question in the Germans’ own words. This short book—158 pages of text, plus notes, bibliography and index—focusses on just a few issues that mattered to both soldiers and the home front between January 1943 and the end of the war in May 1945.
Lohse begins with the responses of both soldiers and civilians to the Nazis’ first severe defeat, at Stalingrad in February 1943. Chapter 2 follows up with the public’s reception of Joseph Goebbels’ Sport Palace speech on February 18th, in which he demanded support for a “total war.” Chapter 3, the most interesting section of the book, discusses Germans’ knowledge of, and response to, mass murder and other atrocities. The next chapter leads with the July 20, 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life, and how it outraged and energized both soldiers and civilians. In Chapter 5, “Dissolution”, Lohse records what people said as their country was being occupied as the Red Army reached Berlin.
Lohse chose two sources to try to get at what Germans at the time actually believed, rather than what they told interrogators or interviewers, or chose to report in diaries or later works. She relied – for the most part – on a British collection for the Wehrmacht, and a Nazi source for the German civilians.
The British of course had interrogated German prisoners, but they also set up special facilities bugged with hidden microphones, and recorded what both common soldiers and top generals said to each other in private. Their conversations were taped and transcribed. Lohse quotes dozens of men from pilots to the commander of the Afrika Korps as they comment on what they did, and their reactions to news as the war progressed.
Within Germany, the Sicherheitsdienst, (SD) the domestic intelligence organ of the SS, used hundreds of agents to listen in at factories, bars, and cafes to find out what people thought and said.
In both cases, the people speaking should have been candid, though in fact, she notes the limitations of both collections. Soldiers, even in captivity, were reluctant to sound defeatist when speaking to fellow POWs. Ordinary Germans might not trust their neighbors. With rare exceptions, criticizing Hitler was off-limits, even as the war was ending. As for mass murder, many books in recent years have established that most Germans knew that Jews and others on the Eastern Front were being killed, even if very few knew about the extermination camps such as Sobibor and Auschwitz. Lohse establishes that while only a few soldiers would admit to personally killing these victims, many had witnessed the murders. It may seem bizarre today, but this knowledge both inspired fear among Germans in and out of uniform, and increased their resolve to keep fighting. They feared terrible vengeance from the Jews, who would surely subject Germans to similar violence. All in all, however, Germans were happy with both Nazi policies in general, and the destruction of European Jewry.
But this satisfaction did not extend to party officials. Though the Führer was revered, local Nazis were held in contempt because of their class origins and perceived corruption.
A volume in the series “Battlegrounds: Cornell Studies in Military History”, Prevail Until the Bitter End provides a good overview of German public opinion in the second half of the war. For military history readers, though, it is less interesting than Neitzel and Welser’s Soldiers.
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Our Reviewer: Jonathan Beard is a retired freelance journalist who has devoted most of his life to reading military history. When he worked, he wrote and did research for British, American and Danish science magazines, and translated for an American news magazine. The first book he owned was Fletcher Pratt’s The Monitor and the Merrimac. Jonathan reviews regularly for the Michigan War Studies Review. His previous reviews for StrategyPage and NYMAS include Down the Warpath to the Cedars: Indians' First Battles in the Revolution.
Note: Prevail Until the Bitter End is also available in audio and e-editions.
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