April 1945: The Hinge of History
Thomas Nelson Books, 2022.
Hardcover, 528 pages, $31.99.
Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse Of The Third Reich
By Volker Ullrich.
Hardcover, 336 pages, $28.95.
Reviewed by Robert Huddleston.
When the coming release of April 1945: The Hinge of History was announced, I immediately ordered a copy, first, because an outstanding historian, Jon Meacham, said this in his review: “[Craig Shirley] captures that epochal time with brio and insight. A terrific book.”
Second, and more personal, April 1945 was especially critical in my combat service in the European conflict in World War II. By the first of April as a fighter/bomber pilot, I had completed seventy-five combat missions with nine more to go in April. (On April 17, my wingman was shot down and died from his burns.) I had two more combat sorties before victory in Europe was declared on May 8, 1945.
The attractive book cover leaves no misunderstanding as to the purpose and focus of Shirley’s book, which gives an account of the transition from World War II in Europe to what was to become the “Cold War” between the Soviet Union and the Western allies. Yes, there is “brio” in April 1945, but as the “hinge of history,” it comes up short.
The fourth chapter consists of 156 pages of the book’s total of 411. Within these 156 pages there are 401 “notes” citing the source of what is presented. And here a glitch appears in what historian Jon Meacham describes as “a terrific book.” Of the 401 cited sources, at least ninety percent are from newspapers and/or news magazines. The same goes for the first three chapters, which cover January through March 1945, and for Chapter 5, which covers May 1945. Simply put, newspapers, news magazines, radio news reports and, more recently, cable TV news—with some notable exceptions—may, as it is often stated, provide the first draft of history, but they do not qualify as “history” as taught in our academic universe. Yes, there are news outlets that field war correspondents that report from primary sources. One of my favorites was Martha Gellhorn reporting for Colliers magazine; read The Face of War to understand her talent as a war correspondent reporting mainly from primary sources. Rather than being touted as “the hinge of history,” readers should accept that the news is an incomplete and provisional account of the facts.
Public news sources serve as a means of feeding the public’s demand for knowledge of what is going on. We must wait until historians apply their craft, often months and years later, to know the true story.
The “first draft of history,” as news reporters like to describe themselves, is not suitable, nor a substitute, for what historians document for current and future generations. A draft is a draft is a draft, as the poet might say.
Eight days in May by the German journalist Volker Ullrich is an excellent example of the historian’s craft. There are more primary sources cited in this volume than there were newspaper sources in April 1945. The sources cited are in German but are translated for English readers. More importantly, the story of May 1945 focuses not on the Allied victory, but on defeated Germany, a nation where the citizens faced uncertainty and fear of the future, especially from Soviet forces thirsting for revenge.
Uncertain of what “unconditional surrender” would bring, many Germans took to writing diaries and journals, perhaps to avoid thinking about the unthinkable revenge that occupying forces would take. “I can do nothing now,” wrote an anonymous woman in Berlin who was repeatedly raped by Russian forces. “But you will be held to an accounting in the future based upon my documented evidence.“ A dutiful historian, Ullrich tracked down the woman to verify that the story had not been factually altered in its post-war publication.
A common refrain from German civilians was that they were the true victims of the conflict. Many were, along with most if not all civilians of the warring nations. Left unsaid by the German civilians, however, was the part played by the German leader, Adolf Hitler, in launching the conflict with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.
On April 24, 1945, shortly before the end of the conflict in Europe, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff directed General Eisenhower to release the armament units which would relieve the defeated Nazi forces of all military assets. When these disarmament units went into effect in April of 1945, my unit, the 506th fighter squadron, was on the border of the future Soviet occupation zone. Requiring assistance to carry out the disarmament efforts, I volunteered to assist in the area around the Nordhausen location of the underground V2 missile production. Acting ahead of the Air Force’s effort, US army ordnance moved quickly to ship one hundred V2 ballistic missiles back to the United States. At this time into the area around Nordhausen came Charles A. Lindbergh, Jr., also searching for German military assets desired by the US Navy. Although we did our “scrounging” in the same area, I never encountered Lucky Lindy.
Robert Huddleston is a combat veteran of World War II and the author of two novellas: An American with the Luftwaffe (2014) and Love and War: A Father and Son in Two World Wars (2020). He resides in a continuing care facility near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he continues to write short stories, essays, and book reviews.
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