The Shadow of Death in Germany: Richard Bessel and the end of the Third Reich
In Richard Bessel’s work, “The Shadow of Death in Germany at the End of the Second World War,” he notes that “during the last year of the Second World War, more Germans died than in any other year before or since.” Essentially, by “1945, Germany became a [virtual] land of the dead” (pg.51). The most significant contributor of death for Germans was in military action, “which claimed the lives of [an] astronomical number of soldiers in the final stages of the war.” To say the least, death was at the very epicenter of daily life for Germans living in the Third Reich. However, as we can see, this loss of life came not in the first years of the war, but in the waning and bitter months between January 1945 and lasting till Germany’s eventual surrender in May 1945. During these months, the Soviet offensive crushed the Wehrmacht from East Prussia and into southern Poland. The Allied bombing campaign against Germany was at its highest peak, cities across Germany were bombed day and night, and a few were utterly destroyed. Of the Germans that did not die, twelve-million found themselves homeless.
Contrast to the eventually surrender of German forces at the close of WWI, when the fight still stood well beyond the borders of the newly established Weimer Republic, in the last battles of WWII, both solider and civilian were fighting and dying within the very heartland of Germany; according to Bessel, “the dead fell not in France or Russia, but in Berlin and Breslau” (pg.52). According to Bessel, in the final months, in an effort to combat resistance among the German population, “the Nazi regime made a point of displaying the corpses of ‘cowards’ so that all could see” (pg.53). Günter Grass, recalling some sixty years after the fall of the house of Hitler, as a seventeen year old boy in the Waffen-SS, that “the first dead that I saw were not Russians, but Germans. They were hanging from the trees; many of them were my age” (Bessel, pg.53). Such public death was not the only method the Third Reich used to manipulate and control the German population. An entry in Joseph Goebbels’ diary articulates the spawn of total war, in a confession of sorts, just a few weeks before his own suicide, he remarks regarding Nazi leadership, that “we must always lead the German people back to the basic thesis of how we wage war and make it clear to them that they have no other choice but to fight or to die” (Bessel, pg.54). However, in reality, the two become equally as significant. The Third Reich would have to fight and die; not one or the other, but both.
According to Bessel’s article, the sight of such mass death was indeed traumatic for Germany; however, it was also opportune. On one hand, deep imprints of brutality and death from the Third Reich era still lingering in a post war culture, and on the other hand, the trauma was, one could say, an easy scapegoat for avoiding the memories for their overall involvement in the criminality and savagery aimed towards European Jewry. Either way, Germany still paid a high price for living in Hitler’s nightmarish Reichland, more so in the coming years, during the Cold War… and yet somehow, well into the second half of the twentieth century, building from the wreckage a “normal” peaceful society.