Finest Hour 139, Summer 2008
Endgame 1945: The Missing Final Chapter of World War II, by David Stafford. Little Brown, 582 pages.
By Marcus Frost
Mr. Frost is a member of the Churchill Centre’s board of trustees and active in both the San Antonio and North Texas chapters.
Most books on World War II in Europe end on V-E Day, 8 May 1945, following Germany’s unconditional surrender. Professor David Stafford chose to look at the aftermath, through a unique cross section of nine people caught up in the final phases of the war and whose lives were deeply affected. His powerful account—he himself admits he was quite drained at the end of it—reveals the horrors that occurred in the wake of V-E Day, which the jacket describes as “merely a brief pause in the action.”
No stranger to Churchill studies, David Stafford, former executive director of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, is project director at the Centre for the Study of the Two World Wars at the University of Edinburgh. His Churchill works include Roosevelt and Churchill: Men of Secrets, and Churchill and Secret Service. This latest narrative addresses one of the least-covered aspects of World War II historiography.
Broken into four parts, Endgame 1945 begins on Hitler’s final birthday, 20 April 1945, and ends at the Potsdam conference, a three-month span packed with world-shaping events, but events seen through the eyes of ordinary people. We are witnesses as the concentration camps, Buchenwald and Dachau, are discovered and liberated; and as the Anglo-American forces race to get a victor’s foothold in Europe. The effects of total war have not ended with the German surrender; devastation and confusion are everywhere as the victors struggle to deal with prisoners of war, displaced persons, Holocaust survivors and the wounded and starving, while trying to establish a military administration in the defeated countries.
Many of Stafford’s characters are soldiers from American, Canadian, and British armies. Their battles take them from the Po River Valley in Italy to the Netherlands, where strong Nazi forces refuse to surrender and have to be eliminated in a battle to the death. Stafford shows us “endgame” as these soldiers saw it, through diaries, letters, personal testimonies and memoirs. One of them, fighting for the British, is of German-Jewish descent, forced out of Germany by Hitler’s pogroms. Another character is a BBC war correspondent who follows Patton’s army as it races through Germany.
Two women characters are a British relief worker and a German married to an Italian, one of Hitler’s political prisoners, along with her two sons. The relief worker tries to assuage the suffering continent; the German woman endures concentration camps, the fate of her two young sons unknown, herself not knowing whether she will live or be executed.
David Stafford skillfully weaves the lives of his characters with history as it unfolds. He describes in fine detail Hitler’s suicide in his Berlin bunker, and Mussolini’s death at the hands of Italian partisans. But the power of this book is its vivid description of what the war was like for common citizens. The reader is taken back in time, feeling and experiencing their intensely personal stories.
At the end of this book you will be as drained as the author was, and perhaps glad not to have experienced their fate. Nor does his book leave us hanging: the Epilogue explains what happened to them all.
At the outset, Stafford supplies the reader with two quotes worth bearing in mind as we contemplate the most horrible of all wars:
“Say no more than How will it be with me? for however it be thou wilt settle it well, and the issue shall be fortunate… if a great boar appear, thou wilt fight the greater fight; if evil men, thou wilt clear the earth of them, But if I die thus? Thou wilt die a good man, in the accomplishing of a noble deed.”
“I am tired and sick of war. Its glory is all moonshine…War is Hell.”
—GENERAL WILLIAM TECUMSEH SHERMAN