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eight days in may

12 november 2021

Eight Days in May is Volker Ullrich's account of the final days of Nazi Germany. It is not a Hitler book, not the Nth retelling of the lugubrious goings-on in the bunker, though Ullrich briefly summarizes them. He starts with Hitler's suicide and goes from there to weave together the stories of people from all corners of Germany, and some people abroad, as they came to the realization that the Nazis were defeated and that Germany faced an unscripted future.

The "Flensburg Government" of May 1945 would make comic-opera material if it weren't so unspeakably evil. Hitler designated admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor – not technically as Führer, there could only be one of those, but as President, a title that had fallen into abeyance under the Hitler government. Dönitz took the assignment seriously, and moved the seat of the German government to the city of Flensburg on the Danish border, site of the national naval academy and roughly equidistant from the invading armies that were reducing the Reich's territory to a few acres here and there. In all solemnity, Dönitz chose a cabinet and staffed various ministries. The irrepressible Albert Speer showed up, commandeered a local castle as his palace, and had himself chauffeured into town for meetings. The whole proceeding was quite insane, as the government barely had contact with its still-fighting military, and no hope of collecting taxes or providing services. But for a few days, the remaining units of the Wehrmacht that fought on here and there gave nominal allegiance to Flensburg.

Meanwhile, the Red Army was occupying Berlin, raping German women; refugees were fleeing from the east, trying to get behind British or American lines before the Soviets arrived; individual German commanders were trying to surrender to those British or American forces rather than to Soviets; concentration-camp prisoners were being inexplicably marched away from the front for reasons that never made much sense and now made less than ever; Jews in hiding were beginning to emerge; locals in the still-occupied countries the Allies hadn't yet invaded (Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and what would become the Czech Republic) rose up against their conquerors; German civilians were cut off from news and began to learn hunger and privation after a wartime of relative ease.

Ullrich brings together all these stories, drawing from many a primary and secondary source, in a skillful text that builds a panoramic history from many small portraits. Eight Days in May is an exceptionally good historical narrative.

Ullrich, Volker. Eight Days in May: The final collapse of the Third Reich. [Acht Tage im Mai: Die letzte Woche des Dritten Reiches.] 2020. Translated by Jefferson Chase. New York: Liveright [Norton], 2021.