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Last Days of the Reich: The Collapse of Nazi Germany, May 1945

de James Lucas

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When the Third Reich collapsed, 70 million Germans were left bewildered and terrified, their leaders dead or incarcerated; the victors saw fully for the first time the unbearable legacy of death, atrocity, and destruction left by the Nazis. Here is the view from Hitler's bunker, where news came of his troops surrendering on every front. An extraordinary story of ruin, retribution, sometimes courage and occasional suicide...and the ultimate rise from these ashes of a powerful, democratic republic.… (més)
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I was drawn to this book as it is one of the few wartime histories to talk about Austria in any detail. But there is certainly more to it than that. Written in 1986, it has a Cold War perspective on the events of May 1945, complete with the rhetoric of the times. (The odd favourable comment about contemporary Yugoslavia will certainly raise eyebrows for the modern reader.)

The usual narrative on May 1945 is taken up almost completely with the fall of Berlin under the onslaught of the Red Army and Hitler's suicide. More recent histories have mentioned, to a greater or lesser extent, the rampage of rape and looting that the Red Army carried out in the following days. The end of the war elsewhere in Europe is little appreciated. Lucas details the ending of the war on all the remaining fronts, and describes well the chaos as different elements of the German forces reacted to the news differently, some of them fighting on, others attempting to arrange an honourable surrender. In nearly all cases, the impetus to escape the oncoming Russians was considerable.

Lucas talks at length about the attempts to evacuate German civilians from the Baltic ports to the west; the liberation of Vienna, Graz, Innsbruck and Salzburg; and he touches on the actions of other Allied forces in their final moves into the Reich. As a British writer, it is notable that he does write about the excesses exercised by French and American troops on the civilian populations, whilst the British are described almost as paragons of virtue in comparison. His contempt is reserved for the Allied governments and senior commanders who oversaw the handing back of displaced civilians and combatants from occupied countries to the Red Army.

There is a detailed discussion of the Austrian Freedom Front and O5, the partisan forces operating in the west of the country; American and British troops entering Austria were surprised to find the country already under the control of a post-Nazi provisional government and with well-organised partisans exercising military control. However, this outward display of organisation hid underlying internal tensions, some of which were a continuation of the period Austrians call "the Civil War" in the inter-war period, and some of which continue to have faint echoes today.

He devotes considerable discussion to the "Alpine Redoubt", the propaganda thread that suggested that the Nazi high command had a series of impregnable fortifications in the Austrian and Bavarian Alps, to where the surviving German forces would retreat and from where they would then wage continual war, including with the secret super weapons that were supposedly only weeks away from deployment. The Allies, especially the Americans, fell for this so thoroughly that it shaped the whole outcome of the final stages of the war, Eisenhower diverting his armies to the south-east and pouring additional resources into the Italian front to defeat a strong enemy that wasn't there. Although the intelligence suggested otherwise, there was sufficient of it that suggested the "Alpine Redoubt" story that it convinced senior commanders, though it is quite likely that they were seeing what they expected to see. So the Americans, British and other allied forces on the western front concentrated on the south and the Baltic coast, and left Berlin to the Russians. And so Europe was shaped for the next fifty years.

The one point about there being considerable Allied force strength in northern Italy and southern Austria was that those forces were present in sufficient numbers to deter Tito from expanding Yugoslavia into the Austrian province of Carinthia (Kärnten) and also into the adjoining provinces of Italy. At one point, the western allies were contemplating having to fight a new war against Tito days after the end of the German war. Fortunately, that fate was averted.

Lucas makes reference to manpower shortages amongst the British, but omits to set that into context. At that time, troops were being rotated out of the front and sent back to the UK in preparation for the formation of Tiger Force, the Allied expeditionary force to invade the Japanese Home Islands. (This was my father's experience; he was a part of that rotation, leaving Italy immediately after the fall of Rome to go to a holding battallion before starting training for the Far East.)

This is specifically a military history, but there is a fair amount of content relating to the fate of civilian populations. However, as a military history, it stops with the arrival of members of the Allied Control Commissions and the transition from military invasion to occupation. How the events of the early post-war years set the political agenda that led to the European Union is outside the scope of this book, yet the modern EU grew from the ashes of war in ways that we find difficult to contemplate nowadays.

Nonetheless, this is a useful account of the military detail of that short period. (It should be noted that proof-reading is quite poor and there are a number of geographical inaccuracies.) ( )
2 vota RobertDay | Dec 4, 2018 |
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When the Third Reich collapsed, 70 million Germans were left bewildered and terrified, their leaders dead or incarcerated; the victors saw fully for the first time the unbearable legacy of death, atrocity, and destruction left by the Nazis. Here is the view from Hitler's bunker, where news came of his troops surrendering on every front. An extraordinary story of ruin, retribution, sometimes courage and occasional suicide...and the ultimate rise from these ashes of a powerful, democratic republic.

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