(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Max Hastings's Armageddon: The Battle for Germany, 1944-1945 begins in September, with American and Commonwealth forces in control of France and pushing the German army almost to the borders of Germany. Allied successes had come so suddenly that many prognosticators thought Germany would collapse by Christmas, 1944. Hastings's history of the last year of World War II offers a number of reasons for Germany's ability to prolong the war, including poor strategy on the part of the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, political difficulties, and German ability to improvise.

In 1944, Hastings indicates, many Western commanders substituted wishful thinking for sober analysis. Because Western commanders believed that the German army was about to collapse, they looked for dramatic campaigns that would end the war in one swoop. One such campaign was a series of airborne assaults in Holland, code-named Operation Market Garden. The operation was designed to seize three vital bridges in Holland, thereby opening up northern Germany to invasion. From the beginning of the campaign, however, weakly armed airborne troops, unexpectedly fierce German resistance, and poor armored performance doomed the operation to failure.

Rather than pursue this flawed plan, Hastings argues, the Allies should have cleared German troops from the vicinity of Antwerp. In September, 1944, when the German forces were in retreat, clearing the seaward approaches to Antwerp would have been relatively easy and would have achieved a key strategic objective: providing the Allies with a desperately needed major port in which to offload the vast quantities of petroleum vital to their armies. Shortages of petroleum slowed the pace of Allied advance as much as German resistance did.

Similarly, the Soviet high command made terrible mistakes. Two of premier Joseph Stalin's goals in the latter stages of the war were to seize territory for Russian expansion and to create puppet states in Eastern Europe. Instead of striking directly for Berlin, Stalin chose to send a major part of his forces toward the Baltic Sea and the Balkans. Although these campaigns destroyed some German forces, they indirectly prolonged the war, which would be lost or won in Berlin, not Budapest.

Soviet personnel also prolonged the war. While American soldiers handed out chocolate bars to German civilians, Soviet troops tortured them. In town after town, Hastings relates, Soviet soldiers raped every German woman they could find, regardless of age or condition. These atrocities were an outgrowth of the Soviet desire for revenge; German troops had behaved barbarously in Russia for the previous three years. Stalin encouraged his troops to commit these atrocities, and the generals in charge of strategy did nothing to limit them. However, the Soviet leadership also knew that war crimes against German civilians ensured that German forces would defend more fiercely.

Political difficulties also prolonged the war. Asked to plan the postwar rebuilding of Europe, Henry Morganthau—U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt's secretary of the treasury—wanted to destroy Germany's industrial capacity and thereby reduce Germany to a nation of small farmers and shepherds. To Morganthau, only this would stop Germany from fomenting another war. Similarly, during the Yalta Conference in early 1945, American, British, and Soviet leaders pledged that they would only accept unconditional surrender from Germany. The Germans who learned of the plan realized it meant the destruction of their way of life. Nazi leaders turned the Allied plans and pledges into propaganda, arguing that they proved the Allies intended to destroy Germany.

A third sort of political difficulty prolonged the war: National pride limited the ability of the Americans and Commonwealth troops to work together effectively in 1944. In the first part of the book, the Western Allies are hampered by the monumental egos of their best battlefield commanders. Bernard Montgomery, the British field marshal, and George Patton, the American general, behaved like prima donnas, defying President Dwight D. Eisenhower's commands and hoarding resources to conduct their pet projects. Infighting between American and British troops in particular delayed vital operations until the two national forces learned to work together more effectively in 1945.

A final sort of political difficulty prolonged the war: fear of public opinion at home. As Hastings demonstrates, leaders in the United States and the British Commonwealth were extraordinarily sensitive to the effect of casualties on public opinion. They dreaded a repetition of the trench warfare of World War I, with its enormous casualties and immense human suffering. Instead, Western leaders hoped that technology could replace manual fighting and labor.

One manifestation of this belief was the American and British strategic bombing campaigns over Germany. From 1943 on, the American and British bomber commands argued that strategic...

(The entire section is 2033 words.)