The End, and the Beginning, of Germany

Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich
By Volker Ullrich
322 pp. Liveright. $29.

The rise and fall of Nazi Germany has been exhaustively covered, with the release of dozens, if not hundreds, of books on the topic every year. Despite that, common knowledge of the regime’s downfall seems to end with Hitler killing himself in his bunker. But what happened in the days immediately following?

After his fantastic two-volume biography of Hitler, German historian Volker Ullrich is back with what could very well be the third volume — “Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich.”

Most of the other books I’ve read about the unraveling of Nazi Germany have come from an American or British perspective, but as a German himself Ullrich provides a point of view that those books lack.

Rather than rejoice in Allied victories, Ullrich is more often examining Germans’ denial and their refusal to take responsibility for the horrors perpetrated by the regime, though he also highlights the efforts made by “good” Germans during the war.

I never knew, for example, that Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich accompanied the advancing American army as it battled its way up through Italy and then, later, across France into Germany as a “captain” — performing for GIs the whole way. Dietrich stated that she did so because she felt some responsibility, having emigrated from Germany herself.

Similarly, Ullrich writes about the actions of men like Konrad Adenauer, the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, and Kurt Schumacher, the chairman of Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), in light of the price they paid for protesting the Nazi party and the role they’d go on to play in post-war Germany. Attention is also paid to another notable figure who would become German chancellor — Willy Brandt.

As a non-German who knew little about how the country rebuilt following World War 2, and even less about the backgrounds of the politicians who would assist in that rebuilding, these parts were really enlightening.

As he did in his comprehensive Hitler biographies, Ullrich never falters at any point from pointing out the grievous crimes committed by the Nazis and the assistance they received from a populace that was far too eager to look away.


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