Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich
“Were it not for the horrors visited on Germany’s European neighbors, as well as on many of its own citizens, by the Nazis, one might almost feel a twinge of sympathy for the common German. Almost, but not quite.”
In 1962, novelists Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II authored a political thriller about a fictional attempted coup in the United States led by a complex military and political cabal. Seven Days in May was later adapted to a film starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Rumor had it that President John F. Kennedy supposedly feared this scenario could actually occur. Who knew that May was a month so potentially fraught with political and military chaos?
Well, as it turns out, there was precedence. Though it took an extra day 17 years earlier, German historian and journalist Volker Ullrich’s Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich tells us that May in the 20th century was a particularly sketchy month.
Originally published in 2021, as translated by Jefferson Chase, Eight Days in May essentially serves as the third in Ullrich’s Hitler trilogy, which includes the two-part Hitler biography, Hitler: Ascent 1889-1939 and Hitler: Downfall 1939–1945.
In Eight Days in May, the author starts by taking the reader inside the Berlin bunker in which Adolf Hitler and his bride Eva Braun took their own lives on April 30, 1945. The demise of the duo plunged the Third Reich, which was already staring into the abyss of defeat, into its final death throes.
Confused and rudderless, Germany’s military and civilian leadership, such as it was, floundered helplessly in the aftermath. Their goal was not so much to pull victory out of a hat as it was to delay the inevitable as long as possible.
As the Western Allies of the United States and Britain approached from one side, and the ruthless Russians steamrolled toward Berlin from the other, questions swirled about a very uncertain future. “As April 30, 1945, drew to a close, it was completely unclear what would become of Germany after Hitler.”
The chaos that followed in the eight days between Hitler’s death and Germany’s unconditional surrender, which occurred over the two-day period of May 7–8, almost defies belief. Freemasonry and Nietzsche are both sometimes credited with the expression, “From chaos, comes order.” Regardless of where the expression originated, the German experience, as depicted by Ullrich, reads a little differently: From chaos, comes more chaos; then—maybe, just maybe—order.
The author draws on a variety of sources, including letters and journals of, among others, citizens who had lived through the trauma of war, often blindly believing in the righteousness of der Fuhrer’s quest for world domination and the elimination of what they saw as “impure” races standing in their way. For a while, victory had seemed inevitable.
That certainty was shaken, however, in the waning months of the war. Then defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory, and German optimism crumbled to dust following the self-inflicted death of their leader.
Ullrich delivers a day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of those eight days leading up to the surrender death knell. Were it not for the horrors visited on Germany’s European neighbors, as well as on many of its own citizens, by the Nazis, one might almost feel a twinge of sympathy for the common German. Almost, but not quite. Too many of them turned blind eyes to those horrors.
When atrocities came to light, those who had been blinded by nationalism morphed into a combination of apologists and amnesiacs. “[V]ery few Germans were prepared to confront such monstrous facts and their own complicity in them. On the contrary, most reacted with emotional frigidity and a well-practiced, reflexive look away. . . .” Ullrich puts a button on it this way: “’We didn’t know!’ became the catchphrase of German denialism.”
Civil War general William T. Sherman, he of the scorching march across Georgia, famously said that “war is hell.” Volker Ullrich tells us that the end of war might equally be hell.
As the Russian army swept across eastern Germany, its troops committed their own atrocities. Whether it was revenge for what their countrymen had experienced at the hands of the German army or whether it was the inherent brutality of the Russian soldiers, the horror was the same.
Rape, murder, and plunder seemed to be the order of the day, leading to an epidemic of suicides by the German populace. In the town of Demmin, “[c]ollective panic—a kind of mass hysteria—seemed to seize the city’s population, with whole families ending their own lives.”
According to various unofficial reports and records, the estimates of suicides in Demmin ranged from a low of 700 to highs of more than 1,000. According to the author, they are commemorated by a stone in the local cemetery that bears the inscription, “Suicides driven mad questioning the sense of life.” And that was just one small town.
A young German woman’s diary contained this remarkable, heartbreaking entry: “What does it mean—rape? When I said the word for the first time aloud . . . it sent shivers down my spine. Now I can think it and write it with an untrembling hand, say it out loud to get used to hearing it said. It sounds like the absolute worst, the end of everything—it’s not.”
It is sources like this diary that make Eight Days in May such a remarkable accounting of a week-plus-a-day that is often glossed over. Emotionally, it is hard to read, but true history almost always is.
Past doesn’t have to be prologue, but if we sweep unpleasant history under the rug, no one should be surprised if the lessons it teaches are not learned. On that score, Ullrich concludes, Germany serves as an example. “It is crucial to remember the extent of the devastation, material and moral, to understand . . . what an achievement it is that Germans today live in a nation defined by stability, freedom and peace.”