Alex Constantine - January 19, 2008
Excerpt: ENDGAME, 1945
The Missing Final Chapter of World War II
By David Stafford
" ... two deserters were bundled out of a truck in a deserted Ford assembly plant outside Amsterdam, pushed against a wall, blindfolded and executed by firing squad. ... The victims in this case were anti-Nazis from Hitler's navy, the firing squad was made up of German sailors, the rifles and the truck were provided by the Canadian Army and the execution was carried out within the framework of a deal struck between the Canadians and the Wehrmacht ... "
On May 7, 1945, General Alfred Jodl put his signature to Germany's unconditional surrender. A few hours later, 52-year-old Hermann Goering turned himself in to the Americans. The SS had placed the chunky, grandiose field marshal under comfortable house arrest in April, after his own attempt to cut a deal with the Allies was reported to Hitler.
The weeks at Mauterndorf Castle, 40 miles from Salzburg, had been cozy. Goering's wife Emmy and daughter Edda were with him. He enjoyed cigars and fine wines from the cellars. But with Hitler dead and Himmler vanished, Goering hoped to step back on stage as a postwar player.
"I consider it absolutely vital ... that parallel to Jodl's negotiations I approach Eisenhower unofficially as one marshal to another," Goering radioed Admiral Karl Doenitz, Hitler's successor as leader of the Thousand Year Reich. "I might create a suitably personal atmosphere for Jodl's talks."
In Endgame, 1945, British historian David Stafford, author of many books, including Spies Beneath Berlin, and who taught for many years in Canada, explores the world-turned-upside-down that was Europe in the spring of 1945. It is a gripping story of a dark time, powerfully told.
Even after unconditional surrender, Nazi survivors like Goering continued to delude themselves that they would soon be negotiating mano-a-mano with Allied generals and statesmen, working out in agreeable fashion the terms and conditions of Germany's rehabilitation. It was a delusion sustained by some Allied stroking, even as concentration camps were liberated and the depths of Nazi murderousness revealed.
Doenitz's rump government was established at Flensburg, close to the Danish border, where 60,000 German military personnel from all three services heavily outnumbered Allied troops in the immediate vicinity. It was allowed to continue its strange half-life for weeks after the unconditional surrender.
"The streets were crowded with German staff cars filled with German officers ... the docks were patrolled by German naval and military police, fully armed. ... the Luftwaffe was still in charge of the airfield."
Doenitz and his accomplices were sanguine, prepared to make nice with the British and the Americans, hoping to play off the western Allies against the Russians or vice-versa, thereby acquiring some geopolitical breathing room and, eventually, recognition as a (new, nicer) Nazi government: Third Reich Lite.
It was not to be. The Flensburgers, as Stafford says, were "blind to the magnitude of German defeat, the enormity of the crimes of the Third Reich, and the realities of big power politics ... the grand wartime alliance was certainly poised to fracture, but believing the West would accept the men of Flensburg revealed the extent of their delusion."
Albert Speer, as minister of economics and production, had been responsible for the productive efficiency and brutal inhumanity of the Nazi warmaking economy. Smart enough to distance himself from Doenitz, Speer was sufficiently vainglorious to hope that, now that Germany was broken, he was the man the Allies would turn to in order to fix it. Ensconced at Glucksburg Castle, a few miles outside Flensburg, still expecting to be postwar player, Speer indulged a stream of distinguished visitors, including John Kenneth Galbraith, George Ball and Paul Nitze of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey, who were trying to establish how effective Allied bombing had been in disrupting German industry. Speer was even invited on a day trip to Paris by friendly Allied officers.
The consistent refusal of top Nazis, and much of the German population, to accept any personal responsibility for the horrendous situation in which Europe found itself in 1945 peals like a grim bell through this book. The end of the war stinks, and it's not only the unburied dead causing the bad smell. In every country the Allies liberated, thousands of citizens had knuckled under to the Nazis. The end of the war was anything but a clean finish, even for a perfectly respectable country like Norway, where 90,000 people were accused of collaborationist activities and 46,000 found guilty of some degree of helping the enemy, with 600 sentenced to terms of eight years or longer, and 25 sentenced to death.
Millions of stories that made no sense at all, even in the context of a world deranged by war, were happening every hour of every day in 1945. Stafford has found his way to some them by sifting the memoirs, journals, letters and archives of a handful of individuals - U.S., British and Canadian infantrymen, commandos, intelligence officers, BBC reporters, a UN Refugee Relief administrator, a concentration-camp survivor - who were on the ground.
The structure of the book is based on their testimonies. There are no groundbreaking revelations. The larger story of the war's end in Western Europe has been told before, but Stafford's witnesses are up close and personal, and their stories have freshness and pungency. They are all Westerners, so the book has little to say about how the endgame was played out on the Eastern Front, where the Red Army uncovered horrors like Auschwitz, and inflicted total war on the Germans without discriminating between military or civilian, innocent or guilty.
Many stories in Endgame approach black comedy, except the black is so black that the comedy doesn't stand a chance. One week after the unconditional surrender of all German forces in Europe, two deserters were bundled out of a truck in a deserted Ford assembly plant outside Amsterdam, pushed against a wall, blindfolded and executed by firing squad. The execution of deserters was hardly unusual. But the victims in this case were anti-Nazis from Hitler's navy, the firing squad was made up of German sailors, the rifles and the truck were provided by the Canadian Army and the execution was carried out within the framework of a deal struck between the Canadians and the Wehrmacht, whereby the 150,000 German troops still in Holland were allowed to remain organizationally intact, with their German hierarchy in full authority.
For several days after the liberation, thousands of German soldiers remained fully armed and on Dutch streets until they marched in perfect discipline to designated places, where they finally surrendered their weapons.
One of the anti-Nazi sailors executed was Rainer Beck, whose mother was Jewish and whose father had been persecuted for being a Social Democrat. Beck deserted in September, 1944, when the Allies first crossed the Dutch border, and took refuge with his sister, who was hiding in Amsterdam. When the Canadians entered the city, he turned himself in to the Dutch Resistance, who handed him over to the Canadian Army, who placed him in the Ford plant with 1,800 captured German marines under the authority of German commandant.
A German court-martial convicted the boy in 15 minutes, after which a Canadian officer arranged truck transport and issued captured German rifles and ammunition to the execution squad.
Peter Behrens, author of Governor-General's Award-winning novel The Law of Dreams, is writing a novel set during the Second World War.
Phillip Crawley, Publisher