Eight Days in May. How Germany’s War Ended. By Volker Ullrich. Trans. by Jefferson Chase. London: Penguin Books, 2021. ISBN 978-0-141-99410-9. Pp. ix, 322.
Reviewed by Michael C. Davies
Every polity will inevitably go through a process of dealing with the trauma of failure, the costs and consequences of defeat, and the creation of various narratives to make sense of the events that have occurred. In order to begin that process, however, the defeat itself actually has to occur first. Volker Ullrich’s new book, Eight Days in May: How Germany’s War Ended, describes the final days of the Nazi regime. In walking the reader through those momentous days, he shows the chaos and contradiction of the events. Yet, within that chaos are the threads of the parallel process of the rejection of the old narratives of Nazi rule and the genesis of the new ones. This story is interspersed with the stories of those who helped to create those narratives as a means to set the scene for the coming future. The other side of that chaos is the dissociative state the end of the war sent all those involved; where it was as if “the clocks literally seemed to be standing still” (p. ix).
Ullrich’s purpose is simple: to “created a vivid portrait of the dramatic transitional phase between the apocalyptic demise of the Third Reich and the beginnings of the Allied occupation” (p. xii). Ullrich does this by outlining the major events of each of the eight days from May 1 to May 8, 1945, beginning the story with Hitler’s suicide on April 30. The book does not focus on any one group, level, set of leaders, or events. Instead, the narrative consistently moves around to the different elements that affect that day. The quality of Ullrich’s prose and Chase’s translation makes it effortless for the reader to keep track of these changing issues, persons, and events, especially as Ullrich can jump from describing the joy of survival to the horrors of the Nazi crimes, liberation, or the early occupations, in quick order.
One of the most interesting elements of the book is the repeated descriptions of the effects that Hitler’s suicide seemed to have on the entire German war machine. By removing himself, Hitler’s death released everyone from their oath. As this oath demanded total sacrifice to the apocalyptic end, the release allowed military and civilian leaders to formally surrender without fear and it allowed the regular solider and civilians own personal will and resolve to collapse with it. Ullrich repeatedly speaks of the “spell” (p. 24) and “mythic aura” (p. 55) Hitler had Germany under. Whether truly real or not, this was the strength of the cult of personality. This element also speaks to the fact that Germany was not really defeated until Hitler allowed it to accept that defeat, regardless of the military situation.
A second oft-forgotten element is that the particulars of the collapse of the Wehrmacht was an intentional strategy of the post-Hitler government. The book describes how, with Grand Admiral Karl Donitz now in charge of the so-named Flensburg Government, it was a stated goal to allow the Western allies to gain as much ground as possible, while keeping the Red Army at bay. These Nazi holdovers executed this strategy by allowing as many surrendered soldiers and civilians to flow across the Western lines as possible, in order to save them from the Red Army, Bolshevism, and Stalin’s reprisals. Millions of individuals were transported across Germany in a matter of days to achieve this. Ullrich vivid descriptions of the policy in action reminds the reader that defeat is as much as choice as it is an imposition.
These two factors also point to something all military operational planners must keep in mind, regardless of the character of warfare engaged: Prisoners of war are actually a desired element in achieving victory and are also a planning and logistical nightmare. With millions of people moving, nearly every German city reduced to rubble, and the complete collapse of the economic system, it was up to the victors to supply, disarm, and control this new army of the defeated. Ullrich describes how tens of thousands likely died of starvation, exposure, and exhaustion in the months afterwards because the Western allies were simply not prepared. The Red Army, on the other hand, just did not care. Regardless, this issue speaks to bias many operational planners have to only caring about the battle, not its aftermath, even amidst a global total war where unconditional surrender was the stated goal.
Finally, the ideological disorientation that strategic defeat compels means that it opens up many avenues for alternatives to thrive. It was fascinating to have Ullrich weave through how, in eight days, Germany went from being a personalist dictatorship, to a devastated and traumatised ungoverned space, to the seeds of their future selves. In one of his funnier moments, he wrote how “when the allies conquered Germany…, they were astonished to find that they arrived in a country apparently free of National Socialists” (p. 266). However, there is also a distinct downside to such occurrences. The relatively easy acceptance of the occupations let Germans escape from the reality of what they had unleashed on the world. In the West, the economic miracle allowed them to “flee the reality of their recent history.” While in the East, the ideology of Stalin “gave Germans an excuse to forgo contemplating their own participation…” in the crimes of Nazism (p. 269). It would not be until the 1960s that Germany would really begin to deal with the ghosts of its own past.
It is this contradiction that is of such importance to anyone interested in understanding the end of a war. Over the last twenty-plus years, the United States has experienced every element and emotion of the conclusion of war. From taking capitals and capturing and tying the defeated leaders, to defeating armies, regular and irregular, to signing ignominious ‘peace’ agreements, and, finally, to hasty withdrawals from collapse. It is no wonder it is suffering from multiple ailments of the trauma of defeat. It behoves anyone who wishes to learn from the mistakes of the Wars of 9/11 to perhaps turn to one of America’s greatest victory to gain some initiating insight. If so, Eight Days in May is a fantastic place to start. The book also has additional relevance as total war has returned to the European continent once more, and the United States might find itself in control of a devastated territory in Eastern Ukraine, defeating a personalist imperialist dictatorship, and managing an army of the defeated once more.
Michael C. Davies is a Ph.D. candidate in Defence Studies at King’s College London, focusing on the theory and practise of victory. He previously conducted lessons learned research at the U.S. National Defense University where he co-authored three books on the Wars of 9/11 and is one of the progenitors of the Human Domain doctrinal concept.