Monday, 14 July 2008

“Endgame 1945:” by David Stafford

Wars rarely end cleanly and World War Two was certainly no exception. Though the guns fell silent, animosities remained and suffering continued. In the aftermath, refugees and wounded had to be cared for and basic services restored, all against a background of political uncertainty and economic devastation. This difficult period – what one might call the ‘birth pangs of peace’ – is the subject of David Stafford’s new book “Endgame 1945”.

Stafford covers the short – but tumultuous – 3-month period from Hitler’s birthday in late April to the opening of the Potsdam conference in July 1945. Using memoirs, diaries and interviews, he structures his narrative around the accounts of a handful of Allied veterans, leavening the dominant military focus by the addition of other characters, such as a frustrated aid worker, an ambitious war correspondent and a German heiress.

In this way, Stafford brings a vital human element to the familiar political and military story of the end of World War Two. He illustrates well the vicissitudes of morale in those difficult months; the hopes and fears, the futility and the optimism.

For the military, of course, life was still largely one of boredom and hardship punctuated by the excitement of combat and the often-numbing horror of the aftermath - what one writer aptly called the “ghastly brotherhood of war”. Yet Stafford also relates wider concerns; a genuine fear of the SS, for instance, as well as widespread consternation that the Germans fought on when their cause was so patently lost.

Civilian concerns were rather different and naturally centred on the well-being of loved ones, and the very real worries about the humanitarian disaster looming in the aftermath of the war.

In essence, therefore, “Endgame 1945” is a series of engaging set pieces, with short digressions, detours and vignettes to provide context and backstory. Despite the obvious peril of this approach, the book never feels disjointed, however, largely through the excellence and persuasiveness of Stafford’s writing. Stafford frames and guides the narrative well; allowing his ‘voices’ the space to develop, yet never permitting them to dominate.

By way of complaint, Stafford’s is quite a specific view. To be fair, he makes no claims to comprehensiveness, preferring a pointillist approach, yet, with only a couple of exceptions, he has confined his ‘voices’ to those of Western Allied soldiers. This lends immediacy and a degree of familiarity to his narrative, of course, but provides a rather distorted picture. The Eastern Front, for instance, is ignored entirely, as are the Poles, who fought in every theatre in Europe. The Germans, meanwhile, are generally objectified; seen as enemy soldiers to be feared or civilians to be pitied or despised. Only one German ‘voice’ is permitted to present the viewpoint of the defeated.

This rather one-dimensional approach is disappointing. However, if one can see past that, “Endgame 1945” is an engaging and illuminating read. Stafford’s focus may be narrow, but he has nonetheless ably combined the personal with the political; the micro with the macro, and has produced a most readable account.

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