Saturday, June 15, 2013

Book Review 284: Hitler's Final Fortress Breslau 1945

(Almost through with the stack of books on the Eastern Front; new topics coming soon.)

HITLER'S FINAL FORTRESS BRESLAU 1945, by Richard Hargreaves. 268 pages, illustrated. Pen & Sword, $50

The siege of Breslau is mentioned often in the final diary entries of Josef Goebbels. The stand by “dear Hanke” did much to reinforce the Nazi propaganda minister’s fanaticism.

He did all he could to build up the same feelings in the German people. How much that had to do with the stability of German resistance will always be a question.

Of Goebbels’ fanaticism there can be no doubt. His sincerity is another matter. Karl Hanke, the brutal Nazi sent to organize the defense, had cuckolded Goebbels. Goebbels possibly regretted Hanke’s death (under uncertain circumstances) less than he claimed.

In any event, Richard Hargreaves has written a good account of a battle that turned out to have no significance in the war fighting, but in the aftermath reversed a major turning point in European history: Stalin saw to it that Poland recovered Silesia, of which Breslau is the capital.

It was the conquest of Silesia by rural, poor, backward Brandenburg-Prussia that provided the underpinnings for the development of the industrialized, aggressive modern Prussian state.

Hargreaves gives only the barest hint that the long siege (the longest on the German side of the Russo-German war, though nothing like as long as the siege of Leningrad) was due less to fierce German resistance than to a political game played by Stalin.

Hitler’s theory of “fortresses” assumed that the forces need to invest and reduce a fortress would weaken the power of the overall Red Army offensive. If ever true, it was no longer so early in 1945 when the Russians could detach an army to Breslau without noticing. (If anything, and here Hargreaves does not comment, the Red Army’s long supply lines meant that detaching an army made it that much simpler to get enough munitions to the mobile front.)

It appears that Stalin was content to leave Breslau untaken until his army of Polish communists, busy elsewhere early in 1945, could be sent to Silesia to oversee the clearance of Germans from the province.

The defense force was so small and poorly equipped that it seems the Russians could have overwhelmed it any time they wanted.

If this explains the odd strategy of the Red Army, it heaped extra misery on the civilians of Breslau. But in a brutal clearance as the cordon was being formed, the Germans already had expelled a huge mob of desperate people with no preparation. It is thought that 80,000 perished in the blizzards that covered them, those not shot down by the Russians.

After the fall, the Poles ruthlessly drove the Germans out. This was one episode of the clearance of about 12 million Germans from the East. It was this rolling back of an ethnic advance that had been going on for over 700 years that has meant that eastern Europe has not created any war scares over the past seven decades.

Excising Silesia from Germany, although it has left a small, irritating band of irredentists in Germany, had the important benefit for Russia of making any revived German fascist state militarily weaker.

Silesia is now the economic heart of Poland, with its capital, Wroclaw, which was Breslau and is today almost empty of Germans.

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