Historians have engaged readers with a focus on the “hinges of history,” homing in on momentous months or weeks that changed America or the world. Jay Winik honed in on the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination in “April 1865.” John Lukacs spun a whole book out of “Five Days In London, 1940.”
A few years ago, my friend Craig Shirley wrote a best-seller on “December 1941,” when America was caught dramatically off guard at Pearl Harbor and was dragged into World War II. Now he has written a companion volume on the end of the war with “April 1945,” so readers can consider “the alpha and the omega.”
As with the first book, Shirley captures details large and small to give readers a sense of what it was like to live through these moments in history. The Saks Department Store ran a promotion aimed at children called the “Clean Plate Club” under the motto “Food Will Win the War – Don’t Waste It!” Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, joined the war effort as an Army captain making propaganda films for GIs, “several under the direction of the legendary Frank Capra.”
The title doesn’t describe the whole reach of the tale, since the book takes the reader from January through April 1945, with an epilogue on events from May to September. These months were marked by fierce fighting but also by optimism, of the Allies marching inevitably toward Berlin, from both east and west. American forces found some surprises. When the 9th Armored Division took a Nazi prison camp near Rheinbach, they discovered all the prisoners were free, and their German captors were in the jail cells.
Having seen starving children in Holland and death camps, and thousands massacred by the Luftwaffe, Americans weren’t in a charitable mood when Germans showed them hospitality during their advance. In March of 1945, Ralph Jones wrote in the Atlanta Constitution that “these are the ones who fantastically proclaimed themselves members of a nation of ‘supermen.’ Instead, a nation of under-evolved rats, as they are.”
In the New York Times on April 10, a French master sergeant who was captured by the Germans in 1940 told terrible tales of Jews being locked into houses and then set on fire; Nazis shot anyone who tried to escape. One day, he saw the Germans jam 100 Jewish men, women, and children into a railway car after they had been stripped of all personal possessions and then machine-gunned.
When Americans arrived to liberate the Dachau death camp, the Associated Press reported "the water supply of the city was reported contaminated from 6,000 graves on high ground."
The American troops liberating the camps were forcing the local civilian population to tour the camps and witness the carnage at the hands of their countrymen. In one town, the mayor and his wife committed suicide after being forced to absorb the hellscape of the local holocaust.
There were also horrors in the Pacific. On March 4, 1945, the Atlanta Constitution reported a story headlined “Japs Burn Helpless Americans.” On Palawan Island, the Japanese rounded up 150 American POWs into a series of underground shelters, poured gasoline on them and ignited it, and then machine-gunned or bayonetted anyone who tried to escape. Miraculously, three Americans escaped. All told the exact same story of the gasoline, men burning alive, and the shooting of helpless servicemen.
April is a dramatic hinge, when President Roosevelt died of a hemorrhage in Georgia on April 6 and Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on April 30. It sounds unthinkable today, but some Germans were in disbelief at this breaking news because they thought he died the previous summer in the Claus von Stauffenberg suitcase-bomb assassination attempt at Hitler’s Prussian “Wolf’s Lair” headquarters.
Some anecdotes really sing. The men of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division, who fought through D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, encountered very little resistance as they entered Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” in Berlin on March 5, and the troops not only took military souvenirs; they were allowed to consume some of the ten thousand bottles of wine and liquor on the premises.
V-E Day followed quickly on May 8, coinciding with President Truman’s birthday and the Truman family’s first full day in the White House. Shirley sums up: “And just like that, the promised thousand-year Reich lasted a measly twelve.”
Even in the last days of the war, the Cold War was emerging. At the conference establishing the United Nations Charter in San Francisco, the Soviet foreign minister Vlacheslav Molotov furiously blocked U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius as chairman of the meeting. Associated Press reported on “Russian determination to wield decisive, perhaps dominant influence in the creation of world peace machinery.”
Craig Shirley established himself as the Sherlock Holmes of Reagan historians, but books like these show he can bring his eye for entertaining detail and analysis to other historical figures and periods. This book is an impressive feat.
L. Brent Bozell III is founder and president of the Media Research Center, parent company to CNSNews.