The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
September 11, 2006

Ending World War Two in Europe: Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-45 - Max Hastings

Posted by Jeremy Black

Armageddon: The Battle for Germany 1944-45
by Max Hastings
Pp. 688. London: Macmillan, 2004
Hardback, £25; Paperback, £9.99

This is by any standards grim as well as impressive. Hastings' subject, the climactic struggle of World War Two in Europe, is made grimmer because he both provides pungent accounts of the face of battle, and also because he regards it as important to give due weight to the fate of civilians, not least the vileness of German brutality. "Prisoners of the Reich" is a very pungent chapter.

Furthermore, many of his arguments will be uncomfortable for Western readers. Hastings is not impressed by many aspects of the Anglo-American war effort, and there is considerable criticism of many generals, including Eisenhower, Montgomery, Bradley, Hodges, Patton and Browning, of Harris and British strategic bombing in the last stage of the war, of American fighting quality (ascribed to being citizen soldiers), tactics and operational art, of the failure to drive the Germans back harder in 1944, of the Arnhem and Hürtgen Forest operations, and of much else. Roosevelt is found very naïve in his treatment of the Soviets, and is seen as anti-British, and Portal is criticised for not sacking Harris. The shooting of German prisoners is fully discussed.

Criticism of the Germans is much stronger, and Hastings' willingness to engage with moral issues is commendable, as are the judgments he makes:

To an impressive degree, the American and British armies preserved in battle the values and decencies, the civilized inhibitions of their societies… The Germans and Russians… showed themselves better warriors, but worse human beings. This is not a cultural conceit, but a moral truth of the utmost importance to understanding what took place on the battlefield.
[p. 105]

… Hitler's generals … allowed themselves to lapse into fulfilling their duties in a moral vacuum…. Most of the courageous Germans who had dared to oppose Hitler were now dead or in cells waiting execution, where their grace and dignity did more to redeem the German people in the eyes of posterity than anything achieved by the Wehrmacht.
[pp. 199-200]

… it is difficult to extend to the German people the pity due to innocent victims of Nazi tyranny. However bitterly many Germans may have regretted this by 1945, Hitler and Nazism were the creations of their society. The horrors the Nazis inflicted upon Europe required the complicity of millions of ordinary Germans.
[p. 341]

Although Hastings is impressed by the fortitude and tactical skill of the German military, he is also alive to their failings. In the Bulge offensive, for example, the infantry displayed a lack of enthusiasm, skill and training which shocked their own officers and contrasted with the fighting ability of the German armour.

Nevertheless, the willingness of the Germans to fight on after Hitler had died is striking. Some of this fighting, especially in Bohemia, was large scale. In the fighting around Prague, between 6th and 11th May 1945 alone, the Soviet 1st, 2nd and 4th Ukrainian Fronts reported casualties of 23,383, 14,436 and 11,529 respectively.

Soviet operational art receives due attention, but so also does the willingness to take very heavy casualties. As Hastings shows, even operations that were not crucial to Soviet success, such as the capture of Danzig, involved difficult fighting and severe losses. In the advance on Berlin, some of these casualties are attributed to the vainglorious competition between Zhukov and Konev.

The savagery of the NKVD, whose victims included Soviet POWs, the Polish resistance and Polish Jews, is given due attention, as is the enforced movement of peoples to the homelands Moscow deemed appropriate. Hastings also draws welcome attention to the rear-area campaign waged by the NKVD, which required the deployment of thousands of their troops. The bloody chaos that persisted for months, or indeed years, was a direct consequence of Soviet brutality.

The book is full of ironies. Hastings argues that the result of the Western allies' measured approach to fighting their war on land, coupled with German determination, ensured that much of Eastern Europe was exposed to Soviet brutality and tyranny; yet also that the ability of Anglo-American forces to maintain their military culture rested in part on the Soviet willingness to take very heavy casualties. A good book, thoughtful throughout, although a few of the linking passages are weak, and the exclusion of Italy is unfortunate. Alongside Douglas Porch's Hitler's Mediterranean Gamble, Armageddon suggests that the accessible blockbuster can still offer much.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and The Dotted Red Line: Britain's Defence Policy in the Modern World (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement