SWANSONG 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich. By Walter Kempowski. Norton. 479 pages. $35.
“Hitler’s last birthday was a grim and sad affair,” writes Flight Capt. Hans Baur in Berlin on April 20, 1945. “Grand Admirals Raeder and Donitz, Himmler and Goebbels came to congratulate him.”
So begins “Swansong 1945,” a compendium of extraordinary diary entries made in the “last days of the Third Reich,” organized by Walter Kempowski. The comments range from the tragic to the mundane, but they are the voices of those who lived through this period and thus are inherently interesting.
The wide range of emotion conveyed in the book includes a sense of doom, surrender, bafflement, despair, misery and, sometimes, hope. As the Russians bombarded the city, Adolf Hitler writes to Benito Mussolini on April 20: “In the spirit of dogged contempt for death, the German nation and all those who are similarly minded will halt this attack ... and with our unique form of courage, we will change the destiny of Europe for centuries to come.”
Meanwhile, at the Hotel Adlon, a well-known Nazi gathering place, Waffen-SS officer Leon Degrelle writes: “The Hotel Adlon was still in operation, in spite of the bombs and grenades that were already landing in the street. ... Waiters in tuxedos and maitre d’s in tailcoats went on solemnly and unflappably serving purple pieces of kohlrabi on the silver trays meant for better days.”
Nearby at Templehof, the German journalist Lothar Loewe writes, “We were dancing on a volcano.” A German citizen writes of Hitler, “All the good things this man had done ... but the good does not outweigh all the terrible things that befell the German people. ... What will the final settlement be like? What will become of us and our youth, which has been so squandered?”
In the Fuhrerbunker in Berlin, Goebbels states: “If the Soviets advance as far as the Elbe ... the Americans will retreat and let the Russians take over ... Stalin will wage a propaganda war against the Western powers ... Within a very short time there will be another conflict here.”
A Red Army soldier sends greetings from Berlin to his girlfriend. At a cemetery in the city, a list of deaths include many suicides.
Hitler: “I don’t want the Russians to display my corpse in a panopticon. Gunsche, I expressly order you once again to ensure under all circumstances that nothing of the kind can happen again.”
A message from Churchill to Stalin: ‘In the absence of a signed document of surrender, the four Powers will have to issue a declaration recording the defeat and the unconditional surrender of Germany and assuming supreme authority in Germany.”
In a “political statement” before his death, Hitler claims he never wanted a war against England or the United States.
And there are the voices from the liberated concentration camps: “And what about us? We know only a tormented fear-filled world of cruelty, in which we are the victims of events, objects ... all so futile.” And this, from an inmate at another camp: “We are human beings again. We are free.”
The final entries refer to the end of the war. Emotions are mixed. George Kennan, renowned American diplomat, writes: “I cannot recall that I felt any great elation over the end of the war in Europe.”
A nurse in Somerset, England: “A thunderstorm greeted VE Day, but it was over before I went to join the longest fish queue I remember.”
A reveler in London: “As we moved on to Westminster Bridge there was a terrific din of ships’ hooters, all different ranges of key, in fact a real hullabaloo. An extremely enjoyable evening which would not be forgotten.”
And in Germany: “Over: German supreme command has surrendered, unconditionally, VE Day, for which we had been waiting for so long, has arrived, the horror has passed.”
Stalin’s daughter Svetlana in Moscow chimes in: “We were all in an elevated state, we were all so joyful in that May 1945.”
Kempowski labored for many years collecting these first-hand accounts, and what a story they tell, unique in that it is a living history.
Reviewer Frances Monaco is a writer in Charleston.