William J. Astore
Review of David Stafford, Endgame, 1945: The
Missing Final Chapter of World War II. New York: Little,
Brown, 2007. Pp. xix. 581. ISBN 978-0-316-10980-2.
chess, the endgame attracts its own small legion of specialists.
With fewer pieces left on the board and one's king sallying forth
from behind its protective redoubt of pawns, the margin of error for
each new move becomes increasingly small, even as the moves
themselves become both more constrained and more predictable.
Successfully checkmating an opponent's king or driving him into an
untenable position leading to resignation or unconditional
surrender is the ultimate goal.
metaphor for war, chess is evocative yet also misleading, a fact
clearly illustrated by David Stafford in Endgame, 1945.
Beginning his account in April 1945 and covering the next three
months of the war and its aftermath in Europe, Stafford stresses
that this war did not simply end with the toppling of Germany's
"king," Adolf Hitler, or the capture of various major or minor
pieces like Benito Mussolini. Nor in this "endgame" did events
become any simpler or the moves more predictable, as confusion and
near anarchy reigned.
Indeed, a theme that emerges in Stafford's account is that the
Allies were far better prepared to win the war militarily than to
deal with its chaotic aftermath, although here they might be excused
because of the unprecedented magnitude of the problems they faced.
Stafford, in short, provides a salutary reminder that VE Day in May
1945 hardly marked the end of European conflict--or for that matter
the hatreds Nazism had created or given free rein.
Stafford forthrightly admits that his account is both
impressionistic and selective. He divides it into four parts:
(1) Friday, 20 April 1945, marked by Hitler's birthday in the
Führer-bunker; (2) 20-30 April 1945, a period of bitter fighting leading
up to Hitler's inglorious suicide; (3) Hitler's death to VE Day, a week
marked by both posturing and fighting/suicide pacts by Nazi
dead-enders as well as further tragedies; and (4) VE Day to
Potsdam, when the enormity of the task of rebuilding shattered
cities and lives became apparent even as Allied cooperation gave way
to intense competition and harsh recrimination.
students of World War II, Stafford tells mostly familiar stories,
but he tells them well. His recounting of British and American
reactions during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald,
Dachau, Ohrdruf, Wobbelin, and other concentration camps is
especially harrowing. The horrifying portrait of National Socialist Germany is all the more disturbing because of Stafford's restraint.
He largely allows his subjects to express their shock and outrage at
the abominations they witnessed.
A British commando, Bryan Samain, is one of Stafford’s witnesses.
Three years earlier, in 1942, this “skillful young Army killer” had
been a fresh-faced teen extra in the
feel-good film, Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Now, as he watched
thousands of displaced persons stagger past him, Samain witnessed a
new, horrifying, reality: "Every time they met us they cheered us in
a dozen different tongues, and when we looked at them closely we saw
they were little more than walking skeletons, with ribs protruding
pitifully from the flesh, faces lined and haggard, and eyes that
told of a hundred sufferings" (17).
respect to the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, Stafford captures the almost unimaginable experiences of young medical
students deployed from Britain to help care for the sick and dying:
"As the students moved through the huts, women clutched at their
sleeves in desperation, crying out 'Herr Doktor! Herr Doktor!'
and telling them their pitiful stories: 'My mother and father were
burned in Auschwitz'; 'My husband was flogged to death by the SS';
or, they asked them pleadingly, 'Will I ever be beautiful again,
Herr Doctor?'" (86).
with few illusions about the nature of the enemy he was facing was
the New Zealand-born and Oxford-educated Geoffrey Cox, an
intelligence officer fighting against the Nazis in Northern Italy in
1945. On the outskirts of Padua, he wrote to his wife that: "I find
my contempt for the raw material of the German race grows as they
keep docilely obeying the orders of a corrupt and beaten regime. Day
after day I interrogate scores of young [Germans] whose minds have
been shut to any fresh thought but Nazi obedience since Hitler took
over. They are the most degenerate spectacle I have ever
events of April and early May 1945--Himmler's betrayal of Hitler,
Hitler's suicide, and Göring's vainglorious posturing--may have
helped to break the spell of unquestioning obedience. But in other
cases, unrepentant Nazis simply raced like rats to escape from a
sinking ship, sometimes bartering jewels for peasant clothing in
improvised attempts at disguise. Others put more elaborate exit
strategies into action: at the Baltic seaside resort of Travemunde,
a motorboat was intercepted as it tried to slip away. On board, the
British "found a German major-general who admitted he was off to
Scandinavia with his staff officers, his mistress, a large stock of
cigars and thirty bottles of Kummel liqueur" (286).
the Allies worked to restore order after VE Day (and as Soviet
troops continued to wreak a terrible vengeance on their erstwhile
German conquerors), the search went on for Nazi loot, Nazi killers,
and Nazi collaborators. Stafford concludes his account on a worrying
note--the refusal of nearly all Germans, even non-Nazis, to admit
any personal responsibility or culpability for the crimes of
National Socialism. Indeed, a few prominent Germans, such as
Cardinal Josef Frings, Archbishop of Cologne, were so blind as to
declare that the Anglo-American occupation regime was "scarcely
different from a totalitarian state"! With notable understatement,
Stafford concludes that "This was an astonishing claim given all
that had happened in Germany over the previous twelve years, and a
dismaying indicator of how little had been learned from the Hitler
Written with verve, Stafford's unsparing account of the evils
committed and death toll inflicted even by a checkmated Nazi Germany
is a powerful reminder of the character of Hitler and his criminal
regime--a character reflected most accurately by the murderous sheen
of the SS Death Head insignia.
Pennsylvania College of Technology