Book Review: Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 by Max Hastings

Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 by Max Hastings examines the closing stages of World War II’s fighting in Europe from roughly just before Operation Market Garden through the surrender of Germany. It’s not so much a narrative as it is an examination, so some prior knowledge of World War II, while not necessary, is helpful. It goes beyond the movements of Army Groups, Armies, and Corps to look at the experiences of those who took part in the fighting and the experiences of the civilians displaced and/or affected by the fighting. Hastings uses the skeleton of a narrative and fleshes it out with the experiences of the participants in the battles, prisoners of war, and civilians and refugees who were there. For the most part, the military voices are those of Majors and below who were on the front lines and the civilian voices are those of women and children who had to evacuate before the Russian advance through Germany. Hastings is frank and objective. He examines the performance of the Allied forces, explaining why American and British troops fought and behaved the way they did and how German and Russian forces fought and behaved differently. I can’t stress enough that this isn’t a glowing hagiography; Hastings looks at the good and the bad. He also examines why the Germans fought on in a lost cause, particularly on the Eastern Front, in the way they did. The accounts of the civilians really drive home how much of a horror the Eastern Front was. He also looks at the end of the fighting in Europe through the lens of the Cold War to follow. Some key quotations:

Allied generals were constantly hampered by the fact that, even when they advanced bold and imaginative plans, these were often incapable of execution by conscientious but never fanatical civilian soldiers, opposed by the most professionally skilful army of modern times. Yet it seems wrong to leave the matter there. There is a vital corollary. If American and British soldiers had been imbued with the ethos which enabled Hitler’s soldiers to do what they did, the purpose for which the war was being fought would have been set at naught.”

Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 by Max Hastings

The Western allies, and above all the Americans, still perceived the war overwhelmingly as a military event. For Stalin, it was always a political one. The days were over when Moscow confined its ambitions to dominance of its own republics. Russia’s reward for victory was to be an empire of buffer-states, which would ensure that never again was the nation vulnerable to direct aggression.

Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 by Max Hastings

In that final phase on the Western Front, the confrontation between reasonable men who aspired to behave in a reasonable way and unreasonable, often hysterical men and children willing to embrace death became more painful than ever. In the history of the Second World War, much has been written about the “fanatical” performance of the Japanese soldier. Yet Japan surrendered without fighting a battle for its homeland. It was Germans who fought to the last in the rubble of their own towns and villages, some of Hitler’s soldiers who displayed a fanaticism matching and perhaps surpassing that of the armies of Nippon.

Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 by Max Hastings

This, to me, is the best kind of History book. A good History book doesn’t just explain what happened, it delves into how and why things happened the way they did and puts events in perspective. For that reason, Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 is very much worth the read because it provides an account of not just how World War II came to an end in Europe, but why it did.

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