book cover imageAfter Hitler: The Last Ten Days of World War II in Europe

by Michael Jones.

New American Library, 2015.
Hardcover, pp. 374, $28.

On 30 April 1945, when Russian troops were but four hundred yards away from his underground headquarters, Adolf Hitler killed himself. The Second World War in Europe was over. But not quite. A week later German troops were fighting still. Some of their commanders did not sign their unconditional surrender for another two days. Some towns and villages were occupied by German troops for another ten days (in one instance more than three weeks after Hitler’s suicide.) A German government, appointed by him a few days before his death, was still in existence. Nothing like this happened after Napoleon’s fall in France in 1815. His cult and prestige went on and on in France for another fifty-five years. In Germany Hitler’s cult and prestige did not last. This in itself was a remarkable reversal, a change in public opinion and in the popular sentiments of an entire people.

Not many historians have dealt with what happened in Germany during the three weeks following Hitler’s death. This book tells us much about that time; it includes passages from letters and memoirs. It also suggests that the first symptoms of the cold war between Soviet Russia and the Western Allies (most particularly between Churchill and Stalin) were already discernible then. Jones’s prose depends sometimes on clichés. His summary of the entire war is expressed in this dedication: “To those–from East to West—who fought to rid Europe of fascism.” Fascism was a particular and short-lived Italian (more precisely, Mussolinian) phenomenon which had little in common with Hitler’s National Socialism. And: did Stalin really fight this war to rid Europe of “fascism”? Arguable at best.

Still in spite of these shortcomings the details of this book tell us much. Above all the Germans—the people as well as their armies—were convinced that their continued struggle against the Russians was unavoidable, while their struggle against the British and the Americans was not. Their reasonsfor this amounted to more than their belief in Hitler’s propaganda. The reports and the evidences of the barbarous and inhuman behavior of the Russian soldiers in Germany were more than sufficient for them to think so. Added to (or, more accurately, beneath and above) that was their conviction, not only that the Americans and the British would treat them better than the Russians but also the hope that sooner or later the Americans and the British would confront the Russians, a situation from which Germany could eventually profit. Throughout the weeks after Hitler’s death pronouncements of many of the remnant German generals ceaselessly declared that fighting “Bolshevism” was the duty, the task of German soldiers till the very end.

After Hitler’s death and before most of the surrenders of German forces to the Allies took place, there still a big swath of territory across the middle of Europe and Germany, peopled by German armies of various kinds, not yet overrun by their enemies. During the next three weeks these forces melted away, and the division of half of Europe between Russia and the West was nearly complete. And it was this division of Europe, not the spectre or danger of international Communism, which were both the sources and the essence of the coming cold war. Its main lines had been limned in February 1945 at Yalta, between Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt. They agreed on the division of Germany and Austria along zonal borders and on much of Eastern Europe going under Russian rule. What was unclear was what Russian rule would mean. Would it mean a Russian sphere of interest or total subservience to Russia? Soon Stalin’s preference was clear. Whatever his armies occupied was definitely and utterly his.

Churchill foresaw this—Roosevelt did not. This is why Churchill, in late April 1945, ordered Field Marshal Montgomery to race across the northern neck of Germany, notwithstanding the Yalta zoning, precluding Russian troops from entering Denmark. That is why General Eisenhower, the supreme commander of the Allied armies in Western Europe, ordered the American army to stop at the river Elbe, allowing the Russians to go into Berlin. That was why in the first days of May he ordered Americans to halt at the western frontier of Czechoslovakia, a country tacitly allotted to Russia. The advance of the western armies had been rapid enough so that they could have reached Berlin (or Prague) before the Russians. Eisenhower did not want that. Like Roosevelt he preferred to avoid any kind of trouble with Stalin. Churchill was already profoundly disturbed by Stalin’s moves in Poland, showing that he more and more obviously wanted to secure the all-out subservience of that great land (and of its brave army) to Russia.

So most of Europe (and Germany, and Berlin) were divided. This lasted for forty-five years. The subtitle of Jones’s valuable book reads: “The last days of World War II in Europe.” It was that—but, perhaps even more, it was the start of the division of Europe.  

John Lukacs is one of the nation’s preeminent historians. He is a long-time contributor for the Bookman.