Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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If Aristotle is right that tragedy produces feelings of pity and terror, then Max Hastings Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-45 rates among the most tragic books I have ever read. Opening in September 1944, after the battle for Normandy, when the western Allies believes the war was all but over, Hastings plunges into seven months of violence more total than anything our planet had ever suffered before, or ever will again barring a nuclear war.

For the Jews of Europe, it was already too late by September 1944; the Nazi work of extermination had largely run its course. But a more prompt collapse of Germany would have saved the lives of millions of fighting men, Allied and German, and millions of civilians, not to mention the cultural treasures of Dresden.

Among the questions Hastings addresses in this lucid and deeply researched book: Why did the war last so long?

His answer leads us to consider some of the deepest themes in his emerging multi-party history of World War II. (A volume on the Pacific war will shortly be forthcoming to add to his previous works on Bomber Command and the Normandy campaign.)

1. The poor quality of the Western Allied generalship and the weak will to fight of the Western Allied armies.

Hastings does not offer much comfort to the vanity of American, British, or Canadian readers. He disparages the generalship of every high Western commander except George C. Marshall. Eisenhower was too cautious, Montgomery too boastful and unreliable, Crerar too stolid and unimaginative. He contrasts all of them with the Soviet commanders, especially Zhukov, who took strategic risks and won huge encircling victories.

He blames Montgomery for allowing his ego to drive him to reach German territory first in Operation Market Garden, the air drop at Arnhem – thus missing a chance to seize Antwerp before the Germans dug in, and open the deep water port that the Allies would need to supply an early drive into Germany proper.

He blames Eisenhower for insisting that all Allied fronts advance in neat tandem, so as to avoid exposing themselves to flank attacks. German flank attacks could not inflict serious damage given Allied air supremacy – while the constant “tidying up” delayed Allied advances enough that winter arrived in 1944 before the Western Allies arrived in Germany.

Hastings esteems Patton rather better than any of the other field commanders. He describes Patton, disgusted at the slow movement of one of his corps, ordering the corps commander to act as a traffic policeman. Yet Hastings harshly condemns Patton for his willingness to put thousands of lives at risk to stage an operation whose main purpose seems to have been to liberate his son-in-law from German captivity.

Here though he makes another and even more uncomfortable point: Even when Allied commanders showed aggressiveness and verve, they were thwarted by the hesitancy and passivity of their troops. In contrast to stereotype, it was the German soldiers who most consistently acted independently. Americans and Brits awaited orders and shunned risks.

Among other shibboleths, Hastings takes aim at the “greatest generation” myth. While there were real heroes on the Anglo-American side – and while the troops at the tip of the spear did often fight valiantly – overall (he insists) British forces in World War II displayed nothing like the devotion and courage of the British forces in the First World War, and American units fell far short of the standards set, North and South, during the Civil War. Hastings’ emphasis on the extreme problems of corruption in the US Army lead one to wonder whether Sergeant Bilko may not be a much more representative figure than Captain Winters.

And yet, Hastings – always very reflective in his moral judgments – counters these harsh assessments with a consoling thought. In a nightmare encounter like the last year of World War II, great generalship meant great ruthlessness – and great disregard for human life. The best commanders came from the worst societies, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The failure of the Anglo-Americans to produce such fighters was a tribute to the positive qualities of the commercial, civilian Anglo-American societies. And thanks to the amazing productive capacity of these free societies, the Anglo-Americans won anyway, not by out-generaling or out-fighting the Germans, but by out-taxing and out-producing them. My favorite anecdote from the whole book expresses this thought:

General Erich von Straube, after signing the surrender of his forces in Holland to First Canadian Army, was being escorted back to the German lines by Brigadier James Roberts. After driving some twenty minutes in silence, von Straube’s aide tapped Roberts on the shoulder and said that his commander wished to know what the brigadier had done before the war: “Were you a professional soldier?” Roberts was momentarily bemused by the question. He had indeed been a soldier for so long that his other life seemed impossibly remote. Then he realized that the German was seeking some crumb of solace for his defeat. He answered von Straube: “No, I wasn’t a regular soldier. Very few Canadians were. In civilian life I made ice cream.”

2. Wrong-headed Allied strategy. Hastings seconds those who thinks that the British and Americans over-invested in airpower and then deployed it unstrategically. Bombing destroyed Gemany’s fuel-making capacity and forced the Germans to invest resources in anti-aircraft defenses that might otherwise have built ground weapons. But the city-blasting strategy was not only morally obnoxious – it also wasted Allied resoruces. Hastings witheringly documents the distaste of the Allied air arms for ground support work. With an eye to securing their bureaucratic independence postwar (remember the US Air Force of World War II was still the Army Air Force), they sought a role distinct from ground forces – and city-blasting was it.

The scale of the waste is difficult to measure or fathom. The British massively over-invested money resources in the construction of heavy bombers. On the American side, the waste was of scarce manpower resources: the moste dedicated and capable able soldiers and officers were too often directed away from the infantry toward “elite” arms and especially the air services.

Hastings believes that the Second World War was every bit as much a war of attrition as World War I or the US Civil War. It had to be done by destroying German armed forces on the ground, at high human cost to the Allies, with the outcome being determined by brute numbers. He tells the story of a Polish officer listening with mounting disgust to a lecture by an American colonel on “the principles of war.” Afterward, the Pole approached the American. “You have forgotten the most important principle: Be stronger.”

Churchill’s hopes of a “soft underbelly”; American hopes of victory through technology; all were misplaced. It was the Soviets who had the clearest grasp of the ugly strategic reality. Germany would have to be defeated through the mass slaughter of German fighting men – and since those German fighting men almost invariably inflicted more casualties than they suffered, the mass slaughter of German fighting men implied even worse slaughter among the Allies. Consciously or unconsciously, the Allied leaders allowed most of that terrible human cost to fall on the Soviet fighting forces – which is why the postwar settlement so appallingly appeased the imperial ambitions of the Soviet rulers.

3. German fanaticism. In our memories of World War II combat, we tend to associate “fanaticism” with the forces of the Japense Empire. Yet as Hastings arrestingly observes, the Japanese surrendered before US forces landed on their home islands. The Germans by contrast fought ferociously all the way to Berlin. More arrestingly still, the Germans resisted to the last as ferociously on the western as on the eastern front.

And since the German army, man for man, was the best fighting force in Europe, this extended resistance prolonged the war months beyond all Allied expectations.

Hastings points out that if the German high command had cared at all for the future welfare of the German population, they could easily have shifted all their resources to the east, and given ground to the Anglo-Amricans in the West. They chose otherwise. Hastings vividely describes the terror methods used against those Germans suspected of less than adamant resistance: intimidation, torture, murder. Yet he also makes plain that to the end, the great preponderance of the German population joined their leaders in a refusal to accept the inevitable and seek peace.

Again and again in Hastings pages, we meet many more committed Nazis than it is now convenient to acknowledge. Even more often, we meet Germans who refuse to acknowledge that their nation had done anything wrong – and who react with fury to the appearance of British troops in their towns as an “invasion” entirely disconnected from any action by their own nation. One might say (Hastings does not go in for such fanciful thoughts himself) that the Second World War will only truly have ended when all sides complete their moral calculus: Germans first and foremost, collaborators and allies in the rest of Europe – but also the western allies too, who waged an unnecessarily horrific air war against civilian populations, and finally (the one country that has not even begun this task) the people of Russia.

4. Soviet Brutality. For many years after the war, it was considered somehow unseemly to describe in any detail the horrifying abuses committed by the Soviet troops in eastern Germany, especially East Prussia. Somehow it was taken as minimizing Nazi guilt to record Soviet guilt. Hastings as ever keeps a clear moral head, acknowledging that the Nazi crimes were greater – and that Soviet atrocities were a response to previous outrages – but also documenting exactly what the Soviet population did. Mass rape, murder of prisoners, reckless disregard for all humanity: as it was done unto them, so the Russians did unto the Germans, both spontaneously and under the orders of their high command, up to Stalin himself. The once beautiful city of Konigsberg, home to Immanuel Kant, burial place of the Prussian kings, was reduced to rubble – and then rebuilt as a Soviet nightmare eyesore. The most valuable of all the artworks looted by the Nazis in Russia, Peter the Great’s amber room, had been stashed in Konigsberg Castle. It vanished in the battle, almost certainly destroyed by the Russians themselves, unaware that the art they were smashing up was property of their motherland, not the enemy.

The Soviets themselves soon perceived that this misconduct only hardened German resolve and prolonged the war. By then it was too late: the Germans were digging in for a battle in and around Berlin that would ultimately cost some 400,000 Soviet casualites, including perhaps 80,000 dead, and uncounted hundreds of thousands of Germans.

5. The Character of Twentieth Century Warfare. After the prolonged stalemate on the western front in 1914-1917, military thinkers understandably became fascinated with technologies and techniques that promised to restore maneuver warfare. Erwin Rommel, Charles de Gaulle, Basil Liddell Hart – all wrote books hailing the possibility that the tank, the fighter, and the radio in combintation could achieve sudden and decisive results. The success of the German operations in the spring of 1940 seemed to confirm these theories, and the Western Allied breakout in the reverse direction in August-September 1944 seemed to confirm them again. British writers in particular, acutely conscious of their nation’s much lighter casualty toll in 1939-45 than in 1914-1918, were especially susceptible to the “blitzkrieg” myth.

The technological and tactical advances of the second war did not however alter the fundamental strategic fact revealed by the first (and foreshadowed by the US civil war): the ability of modern states to command unprecedented resources – the power of nationalism to mobilize unprecedented popular support – meant that the locus of decision in war had shifted from the individual battlefield to the will to fight of the nation as a whole. 

The Napoleonic idea of the “decisive battle” – the battle that destroyed an army and thus won a war – the idea borne out by Austerlitz and Waterloo, and then extended into late 19th century military thinking at Solferino and Sedan – had passed out of date. In the 20th century, nations that lost armies raised new ones. At Waterloo, France suffered about 25,000 casualties. At Verdun, 400,000. After Waterloo, the emperor fled. But the France of Verdun had no emperor – it was France itself that was fighting, and it continued to fight so long as it had anything to fight with. 

France collapsed in 1940 not because it could not have continued to resist, but because French society was so divided that the French state had forfeited the ability to summon resources from the population. France however was a unique case among the large nations. Genuine popular support in the Anglo-American democracies, a mix of genuine support and terror in Germany and the Soviet Union, gave the other major combatants access to the total material and human resources of their respective nations. Blitzkrieg, that access kept them working and fighting to the end: the Wehrmacht never ran out of ammunition after all and continued to receive new and more advanced tanks to the very end.


Hastings is working his way to an episodic multivolume history of the second world war. If I had to recommend any one series of books on the subject, his would be it. No author does a better job of addressing all aspects of the titantic struggle in an accessible and lively way, from battlefield tactics to grand strategy to economics and war finance to the experience of the ordinary soldier or citizen. And all is bounded by a moral judgment that is both sensitive and fair. Hastings never allows his respect for the Wehrmacht to blind him to the evil of its cause; never allows his support for the Allied cause to blind him to the misdeeds of his side or his British countrymen. These books represent a truly outstanding historical achievement, in the best British tradition of non-academic history. 

I’m sending in my advance order for Hastings’ book on the Pacific war right away, and I look forward to it eagerly.

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