The literature produced about World War II continues without end.
Occasionally a new study will reveal new information, fresh insights, or the detailed examination of some aspect of the war and its aftermath previously not addressed by scholars.
Such is the case with “Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians And The Death Of The Third Reich”, Stephen G. Fritz’s study of the last days of the war in Franconia, a stronghold of the National Socialism movement.
Although The Allied Army had crossed the Rhine in early 1945 and the outcome of the war was no longer in doubt, General Eisenhower took very seriously intelligence reports detailing Germany’s last-ditch “Werwulf” strategy: concentrating resistance to the Allies in Franconia, where remnants of The German Army, aided by local and imported guerilla groups, were to establish an Alpine stronghold, a stronghold difficult if not impossible for an occupying army to conquer.
Eisenhower’s fears of an “Alpine Redoubt” proved to be well-founded. Having dispatched an army to intercept the German retreat toward Franconia, Eisenhower began receiving reports that the Allies were encountering ferocious fighting from a variety of German defenders: Wehrmacht, SS, Hitler Youth and Volkssturm forces, all offering such tenacious resistance that Eisenhower feared that Germany’s last-ditch effort would hamper the successful post-war occupation of Germany itself.
In the early months of 1945, Eisenhower was worried about post-war considerations in places besides Franconia.
The German occupation of Holland had turned Holland into a virtual fortress, impregnable to attack. Once on European soil, The Allied Army had deliberately sidestepped Holland, not expecting Holland to fall until Germany itself surrendered. One Eisenhower concern was that a defeated Germany would not give up Holland without a fight, or at least without concessions.
Another Eisenhower concern was Norway. Germany’s occupation of Norway was expected to be difficult to bring to a conclusion. The Allies believed that German forces would continue to occupy and control vast portions of the country long after war’s end, and do so by establishing an impenetrable German stronghold in Norway’s mountains.
With growing alarm, Eisenhower feared that his occupying forces, at great cost, would be required to deal with resistance on three separate fronts—and he decided to nip Franconian resistance in the bud even before the war ended. Accordingly, more than two months before cessation of hostilities, Eisenhower sent troops to occupy Franconia, an area otherwise without strategic or military significance.
For civilians living in Franconia in the last weeks of the war, March, April and May of 1945 brought living hell.
Civilians, by and large, were eager for the war to end. Their chief concerns were preserving their property, preserving their way of life—and, most of all, preserving their lives and the lives of their families.
Local officials, however, often had a different view. Many officials wanted to defend the towns and cities to the point of total destruction rather than surrender them to the Allies. Toward this end, they were often joined by hardened, battle-tested soldiers of the Wehrmacht, transferred to Franconia from The Eastern Front in order to create havoc for the Allies.
The situation was highly volatile, and varied significantly village-by-village, town-by-town, city-by-city.
Throughout Franconia, local officials fought with Nazi officials who fought with military officials who fought with the local militia who fought with the civilian populace over what course of action to take as the war wound down.
Each of these constituencies had a different outlook. Each had a different motive. Each had a different plan of action.
The result was that each jurisdiction became unique, largely controlling its own fate. Such fates were dependent upon the vagaries of local politicians, local party officials and local citizens of prominence—as well as upon the actions of whatever Wehrmacht personnel happened to be passing through town, some of which were resolved to fight unto death and others of which wanted nothing more than to lay down arms.
A hodgepodge of different methods for dealing with the advancing Allies was adopted, a scattershot approach that the Allies had trouble predicting (and controlling).
Some towns willingly surrendered to the Allies. Others did not.
Some towns were virtually undefended. Others were virtual fortresses.
Some towns welcomed the Americans with relief and open arms. Others became death traps for American combatants.
In the changing circumstances of battle, some towns that had surrendered to the Allies found themselves once again under German control, and the leaderships of those towns were regarded as traitors (and were treated as such).
The womenfolk in many towns insisted upon raising white flags of surrender. In some towns, their efforts were successful. In other towns, their efforts were not, and the women were hung like common criminals.
One of the causes of fierce German resistance in Franconia was the fear—probably justified at the time—of an Anglo-American sell-out to vengeful Soviets. The people of Franconia had heard reports of the inhuman actions of The Russian Army in the East, and many were prepared to die rather than subject themselves to similar horrors.
Another cause of resistance, held by committed Nazi ideologues, was the belief that The German Reich would rise again. This faction wanted to see a spirited resistance that would result in the total destruction of Germany, followed by a foreign occupation so brutal and so miserable that the population would look back on the period of National Socialism as a golden age and seek its return.
American forces were lucky in that they enjoyed an overwhelming advantage in firepower at this late stage of the war. Franconian towns and cities that offered resistance instantly became the targets of artillery shells and air strikes. The Americans intended to show that they meant business, and German resistance was quickly pummeled into submission by American superiority in armaments.
Resistance, however, did not end with Germany’s final defeat. Well into the late 1940’s, American soldiers were attacked, maimed and murdered by small but organized factions of resisters, most of which were believed to have been formed by Nazi loyalists and sympathizers.
Many top officials in the American occupying force were of the opinion that, were it not for the fact that the Germans had been so utterly worn down by war, a successful insurgency might have developed and threatened the success of the occupation.
The years 1946 and 1947 proved to be particularly hazardous for Americans. Germany had not yet begun to recover economically from the war’s devastation, and local populaces were unhappy with the American policy of permitting economic development only in the agricultural sector (a policy not to be abandoned until late 1947).
Tensions between Germans and occupying forces became acute that year, when attacks against American soldiers became frequent and sabotage became widespread. Such actions were attributed to a small band of diehard zealots as well as frustration over a deteriorating economy and unhappiness with growing fraternization between German women and American GIs. The frequency of attacks was to wither the following year, coincident with changes in economic policy and the goodwill engendered by announcement of The Marshall Plan.
Nevertheless, throughout the late 1940’s, occupation authorities (and American politicians) despaired of success, always calling for more troops and more personnel trained in civic affairs. The U.S. Army and President Truman were repeatedly accused of poor planning for the occupation phase of the war.
The press and public alike became convinced that eventual success was highly unlikely. Predictions of ultimate disaster became commonplace. A widespread perception was that the occupation had been botched from the beginning, that the devastation of Germany was too great ever to be repaired, and that the German people were obstinately resistant to a democratic form of government. These perceptions were not to begin to change until the successful Berlin Airlift of 1948.
Despite resistance efforts, relations between the German people and the American occupying forces were, on the whole, reasonably good. Germans realized—with profound thanks—that the Americans were more civilized occupiers than the Russians, British or French. Americans recognized that the Germans, alone among Western Europeans, were as orderly, industrious and advanced as themselves.
By 1949, resistance had largely come to an end—and, of greater importance, the German populace no longer supported small bands of resisters. Like thieves and murderers, the resisters had become outcasts.
The resistance had come to an end—and so, before much longer, would the occupation.
Fritz tells this story well. His sources are deep and widespread, and include personal interviews as well as police reports, intelligence reports, U.S. Army records, and German newspapers and periodicals from the period. Indeed, almost one-third of the book is devoted to documenting primary and secondary sources, probably a good thing (other than for the general reader) since Fritz is treading unbroken ground.
“Endkampf” was widely (and positively) reviewed in American and European historical journals at the time of its publication in 2004. The book, however, was totally ignored by the mainstream press, a very odd state of affairs given the book’s unique timeliness. The publishers of The New York Times and The Washington Post presumably did not want to alert their readers to the existence of a new, scholarly publication addressing the perils involved in a post-war occupation, especially a publication that would allow readers to draw parallels between the post-war occupation of Germany—ultimately successful—and the post-war occupation of Iraq.
Despite the mainstream press ignoring “Endkampf”, someone was paying attention: the book remains in print, and is widely known to scholars of the period.
All wars end in a post-war period of insurgency. Such circumstance is entirely unremarkable, known to all but the obtuse. Fritz’s book on the history of the American occupation of Franconia is an invaluable study, full of lessons applicable to our own time.
It is my understanding that “Endkampf” has been read and studied—and admired—by key U.S. military personnel, in Washington and in Baghdad.
As for those who ignored the book on its initial publication: Whoever could have imagined that a study of Germany in the aftermath of World War II might shed light on the current situation in Iraq?