Remember those scenes on YouTube of Hitler in the bunker surrounded by embarrassed staffers as he furiously pounds the table because he can’t get a jumbo mortgage or tickets to “The Little Mermaid”?
During the last months of the Nazi empire, there were many, many times when real life wasn’t so very different from these jokey redubbings of a dark group moment in Oliver Hirschbiegel’s movie “Downfall.”
Proof is provided by Ian Kershaw in his vivid “The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945.”
Top Nazis dream of wonder weapons, invent advertising campaigns, film costume dramas and puzzle over Yuletide gifts as their cities get barbecued and millions die.
The ridiculous finance minister thinks raising the property tax might be a good idea.
All the while, the Fuhrer barks idiocies at the most spineless men in uniform ever seen on this planet. One of the worst, Albert Speer, architect and minister of armaments, slinks from the Berlin bunker after his beloved patron orders up a scorched-earth policy to destroy whatever real estate is still standing (and possibly taxable).
By the summer of 1944, Germany had definitely lost a war that had started going badly with the destruction of the Sixth Army in the snows of Stalingrad and took another disappointing turn with the liberation of France and the collapsing Western Front.
Yet the Germans would not give up. They killed their enemies and each other with zombie-like energy until Hitler blew out his brains on April 30, 1945.
“Even when it was faltering and failing in every other respect, the Nazi regime managed to terrorize, kill and destroy to the last,” Kershaw writes.
How and why? Going beyond his admirable two-volume Hitler biography, Kershaw ponders the lingering memories of the First World War, the fear of Russia, the Fuhrer’s malign radiance, the effectiveness of the terror apparatus and the mad sense of duty afflicting his generals.
What cowards they were, hiding behind the oath of personal fealty demanded by Hitler like some mythic lord from the saga of the Nibelungs.
When a handful of officers finally conspired to assassinate Hitler on July 20, 1944, the result was a high moment in German tragicomedy -- even if you haven’t watched the “Valkyrie” movie in which Tom Cruise can’t seem to remember which hand he doesn’t have as the maimed Claus von Stauffenberg.
Down to three fingers and one eye, Stauffenberg had trouble loading one bomb and, of course, had really bad luck with the other.
Hitler, barely wounded, continued bellowing orders for another 9 months.
For Kershaw, Hitler’s “charismatic rule” created the mentality that compelled sensible, even civilized men to follow him into the abyss. Bathed in the flattering lights of the Speer-designed rallies at Nuremberg, he had transformed himself into everything -- chancellor, president, Fuhrer, commander-in-chief -- and they were nothing but saluting vassals.
We glimpse tough generals quaking as they step into Hitler’s presence to deliver bad news or exiting delirious with joy because he praised them for some well-executed mass slaughter or other.
As things got worse, the motivation to keep fighting increased for true believers, who had nothing to lose. These were the members of the SS or the proud carriers of Party cards. They could not imagine a Reich without Hitler and they rightly feared the approaching Russians.
Arriving in the little town of Nemmersdorf, for instance, the Red Army may have nailed a few naked German women to barn doors.
Kershaw draws harrowing pictures of the chaotic mass migrations that unfolded with the collapse of the Eastern Front and the evacuation of the camps. SS guards herded the survivors through the snows, shooting many. Caravans of German nationals struggled to return to their charred Reich.
The numbers are flabbergasting: an estimated 900,000 escaped from East Prussia over the Baltic Sea; 250,000 made their way by land through the Pomeranian plains.
“The extent to which Germany had become an immense charnel-house in the last months of the Third Reich is barely imaginable,” Kershaw writes.
Yet Germans will be Germans. The bureaucracy just wouldn’t die. Even as the Reich melted down, the postal service, for instance, kept delivering the mail, though the responsible minister did issue a plea for everyone to stop writing so much.
And Goebbels, the propaganda minister, kept ordering up movies like “Kolberg,” for which he diverted real soldiers to play soldiers in the time of Napoleon. I watched it recently on DVD. A creepy melding of history, fantasy and reality, it extols Germans who prefer to incinerate their town and live underground to surrendering to the French.
“We will become moles!” exclaims the mayor, a man with a message to any Nazis who saw the movie when they weren’t diving into cellars.
“The End” starts with a disturbing scene of low-level Nazis and Hitler youth lynching a 19-year-old theology student for cutting the telephone wires to the commandant’s base just hours before American troops enter the pretty baroque town he was trying to save from destruction.
Kershaw concludes with the foot-dragging surrender by Hitler’s successor, the odious Karl Doenitz, who, like just about every unctuous murderer in the Fuhrer’s orbit, re-invented himself once his great leader was dead.
Doenitz got off with a light sentence and died at the age of 89 in some sweet town he hadn’t helped destroy.
“The End” is published by Penguin Press (564 pages, $35). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg’s arts and culture section. Any opinions are her own.)