After German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel signed the articles of surrender on May 9th, 1945, “Soviet officers shook hands with their allies from the west.” World War II was officially over, and a festive spirit descended upon the victors. “Vodka and champagne flowed, freely, and buoyed by the joyous atmosphere, [Soviet Marshal] Zhukov even performed a Russian folk dance on the parquet floor of the officers’ mess.”
Passages like those abound in Volker Ullrich’s most recent book Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich (Liveright). Between the covers of this absorbing and sometimes revolting book, the reader is immersed in the tragic hours when the grandees of the Nazi horde maneuver to cling to power under the leadership of Admiral Karl Dönitz, while trying to save as many German soldiers as possible from the advancing Russian soldiers who are – legitimately, one could say – thirsty for “revenge and retribution”.
It is also maddening to read about the denial and the “pass the buck” mentality metastases in the German psyche regarding responsibility for the Holocaust. They were “merely following orders”, weren’t they? We should add to that the legends of the good executioners that are hastily written by those who try, and sometimes succeed, at avoiding the noose. And what about the grotesque discourse fed about the “honorable battles” of the Wehrmacht. Thanks to historians like Volker Ullrich, these trends can be identified and countered.
Under a sensible pen, a whole cast of characters appear who will play a determining role in the future of Germany, East and West. From Konrad Adenauer to Willy Brandt, as well as the “emotionless apparatchik” Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker on the communist side, you can literally see buds of the New Germany blossoming under your eyes.
The whole narrative put forward by Volker Ullrich is comparable to the story of a political transition in a different context. You need to add to that a horrendous human cost. One is left feeling frustrated that the brunt of the Nazi crimes and actions is on the shoulders of the victims. Among them, the author naturally evokes those who endured and perished in the concentration camps during the Holocaust, but also those poor women who became victims of rape – a subject that remained a taboo under the East German communist régime.
But what I like the most in an author is the capability to look above the fray of the accepted discourse.
“But by no means did every Soviet soldier attack women in Berlin”, writes the author. “Amid all the reports of violent transgressions, there were also examples of generosity and readiness to help. A Hitler Youth named Lothar Loewe recalled that after he was taken prisoner, an older Russian soldier gave him a field cooking pot full of beef broth and a spoon: “This was the first time I encountered Russians. I have never forgotten this encounter, this human gesture.” Red Army soldiers were particularly prone to showing kindness to children.””
That quote is an effective antidote to the Manichean rationale resulting from the Cold War, according to which all the Russians had to be horrendous. One should never forget that, without warlords like Georgy Zhukov and his acolytes, Hitler might have danced in the streets above the Reich Chancellery rather than commit suicide beneath them to avoid facing the music. I digress here, but I think Volker Ullrich’s observation is not only pertinent but very welcome in the current context.
I think it would be important to remember that older soldier and those who acted like him as much as we condemn the rotten apples who descended like barbarians on the streets of Berlin.
Under National Socialism, writes the author, “[…] human stupidity has been completely mobilized.” And we would be wrong to think that it can’t happen again. Ronald Reagan said that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for […].” We commemorated a few days ago the sacrifice of those who consented tremendous sacrifices and even their lives on Remembrance Day. We might have to do the same in the future and we cannot shy away from that historic reality.
Eight Days in May is an excellent combination of military and political history, where courage walks alongside cowardice and determination rises where death couldn’t prevail.
I know it will sound cliché. But if you believe that light always prevail over darkness, you will love this book.
Volker Ullrich, Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich, New York, Liveright, 2021, 336 pages.
I would like to express all my gratitude to the exceptional Mahogani Harris of Penguin Random House Canada for providing me with a review copy of this fascinating book.