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Nazi Rule and the Soviet Offensive in Eastern Germany, 1944–1945

The Darkest Hour

Alastair Noble has been a Historian in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office since 2002, previously working at The National Archives, Kew. This, his second book, is based on a major revision of his PhD thesis, ‘Propaganda, Morale and Flight: Germany’s eastern provinces, summer 1944–spring 1945’, which was examined by the late Professor John Erickson, the foremost western authority on the Nazi–Soviet war.

The Darkest Hour is a groundbreaking English-language examination of the final period of Nazi rule in Germany’s eastern provinces at the end of the Second World War. It outlines the wartime role of this region and assesses the impact of Nazi ‘popular mobilisation’initiatives during the closing months of the conflict. Major projects such as the preparation of the Ostwall defences and the raising of the Volkssturm (Home Guard) are examined in depth. The book concludes by weighing up the importance of propaganda and coercion to the Nazi regime as it attempted to prolong its existence in the face of crushing military defeats.

The Darkest Hour incorporates a unique synthesis of archival and printed source material from the English-speaking world, Germany, Poland and Russia. The eastern German Nazi leadership, their crimes and their corruption, are covered collectively to a greater extent in this book than in any English-language account hitherto. As the Third Reich was on the brink of defeat, its leader and lackeys wielded life or death powers and were loathed by the civilian population as much as the advancing Soviets were feared.

This extensive account of this important historical period and circumstance is essential reading for all scholars and students of the Third Reich and European military history.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-285-3
Hardback Price: £65.00 / $95.00
Release Date: November 2008
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-286-0
Paperback Price: £29.95 / $49.95
Release Date: December 2009
Page Extent / Format: 360 pp. / 246 x 171 mm
Illustrated: Maps and Photos


Abbreviations and Glossary
List of Illustrations

Part I A Faraway Land

Chapter 1
Come the Gauleiters, 1933–1939

Chapter 2
An Oasis of Tranquillity? The German East, 1939–1944

Chapter 3
Enjoy the War, the Peace will be Dire

Part II The War Comes Home: Eastern Germany
July 1944–January 1945

Chapter 4
A Deep Anxiety over the Fate of East Prussia

Chapter 5
A Unique, Improvised Exertion: Ostwallbau, 1944

Chapter 6
Confronting Catastrophe: The October Invasion of East Prussia and the Launch of the Volkssturm

Chapter 7
A Stay of Execution

Part III Endgame: Eastern Germany 1945

Chapter 8
The Deluge

Chapter 9
Our Brave Fortresses in the East


A gripping and masterful account of the catastrophe that overwhelmed Germany’s eastern provinces during the final months of Hitler’s‘ thousand year’ Reich. Based on impressive scholarship, it’s a grim and harrowing read that evokes pity, horror, and awe at the sheer scale and force of the atrocities and hardships inflicted on millions of hapless civilians by the Nazi Party and Soviet forces alike, and at the whirlwind of war that swept away centuries of German settlement and forever changed the map of central Europe. For anyone wishing to understand the forces that shaped postwar Europe this is compulsory reading.
David Stafford, University of Edinburgh, author of Endgame, 1945

A very impressive piece of academic research. Dr Noble relates in near clinical detail a story of greed, barbarism and incompetence which should be essential reading for anyone with an interest in modern Germany and its eastern neighbours.
Dr Keith Hamilton, Senior Editor, Documents on British Policy Overseas

Alastair Noble’s book is meticulously researched and tells the extraordinary and harrowing story of how the Nazi regime attempted to defend eastern Germany. It is a powerful account and deserves a wide audience.
Professor Evan Mawdsley, University of Glasgow

Noble examines relations between the German public east of the Oder river in the regions of East Prussia, eastern Pomerania, east Brandenburg, and Silesia and local Nazi officials, as well as the short-term fates of those who fled and/or were expelled from these regions as Nazi Germany fell. Of particular concern in the study are the efforts of Nazi officials to combat public defeatism in the face of the advancing Red Army. Nobel describes how Nazi propagandists assessed the public mood and how they simultaneously exploited fears of Soviet invasion in order to mobilize the public while assuring them that their homes would not be threatened or, at least, they would be recaptured and relief would be delivered. He also documents the increasing readiness of the Nazis to resort to coercion against the German public as propaganda was rendered more and more impotent by military reality.
Reference & Research Book News

By mid-August 1944, any German with the slightest grasp of military reality could discern that the end was nigh in the east. In just two months of summer fighting, the Red Army had swept the last remnants of the Wehrmacht from Belorussia and eastern Poland, all but annihilating Army Group Center in the process, and now stood poised on the frontier of the Reich. Though NSDAP functionaries continued to preach the time-honored faith of unconditional victory and devotion to the genius of the Führer, the message from the pulpit of National Socialism in these dark times increasingly emphasized an unseasoned and decidedly baleful theme: “Strength through Fear.” Defeat meant extermination. If the “blind destructive fury” of the Bolshevik hordes was not checked, “no creatures would survive in Germany, no blade of grass would grow, no insects would live” (p. 86). All Germans in the east, soldiers and civilians alike, must prepare for the Soviet onslaught. All must fight. The impending battle would determine the fate of the German race.
... Fear and the exploitation of fear animate Alastair Noble’s impressive new study. Concentrating on the pervasive German dread of Soviet occupation and the variety of ways in which Nazi authorities and propagandists attempted to manipulate public anxiety to prolong the hopeless defense of the Reich, Noble lays bare the havoc and the cruelty of the war’s last months in eastern Germany. His geographical focus is primarily East Prussia, eastern Pomerania, East Brandenburg, and Silesia, i.e. those eastern provinces of the Reich that had an overwhelming German majority and that lay within Germany’s prewar borders. His research is meticulous, based on an imposing mass of archival sources, most notably a trove from the Ost-Dokumentation collection in Bayreuth and an extensive range of “mood,” “behaviour,” and activity reports compiled by and for the Sicherheitsdienst, the Propaganda Ministry, and the Reich Ministry of Justice. The author has seemingly left no file unopened, no document unread.
Central European History

The monumental suffering of German civilians during the Soviet invasion of eastern Germany in 1944–45 has concerned regional expellee groups, German historians and indeed national governments at various times since World War Two. Alastair Noble builds on a significant body of work by others scholars, but treads new ground also, by providing a balanced, detailed and comprehensive English-language treatment which eschews the politicized nature of some previous studies. His sources, the pitfalls of which he is careful to point out, consist of private accounts; official reports from the Reich Security Service, the Propaganda Ministry, the German Army and other agencies; and, predominantly, the testimonies of former eastern German government officials and other expellees, as compiled by the West German government and Federal Archive during the 1950s and early 1960s. In addition to its scholarly qualities, the book also benefits from a powerful, absorbing writing style to rival even Antony Beevor.
Noble’s earlier chapters furnish the reader with important reminders of the high pre-1933 levels of Nazi support in eastern Germany, of the wartime suffering and death of foreign workers, POWs and Jews in the region, and of the outrages which the Germans inflicted in the lands of those same Red Army soldiers who would eventually bring such calamity to Germany’s eastern realms. Nonetheless, his primary focus is upon the increasingly dire wartime ordeal of the eastern German population itself. Noble is particularly concerned to highlight how that population suffered at the hands not just of the Soviets, but of its own leaders also. The region’s Gauleiters, most prominent among whom was East Prussia’s Erich Koch, had risen to the higher levels of the Nazi hierarchy through their own self-serving ruthlessness. Once in power they remained true to form, enriching and aggrandizing themselves by any means. Noble shows how it was largely out of self-interest that, during the war’s final two years, senior Party officials in eastern Germany sought so desperately to fortify the population’s levels of morale and endurance – in the face of increasing bombing, wartime shortages, the social and economic strain created by the influx of evacuees, and the approaching spectre of the Red Army.
…Noble really hits his stride during the months following the destruction of Army Group Centre in summer 1944, a catastrophe which brought the Red Army to the borders of Germany itself. In these perilous circumstances, eastern Germans greeted news of the July 1944 attempt upon Hitler’s life with particular consternation. But the endeavours of regional Nazi officials to rally the population proved forlorn, and further exposed the regime’s bankruptcy. The building of the much-vaunted Ostwall produced a pale, under-fortified imitation of the Westwall, drained the region’s agricultural economy of important labour, and subjected the German workers who laboured on it to squalid, degrading conditions. Meanwhile Germany’s final, desperate manpower levy, the Volkssturm, not only proved useless militarily, but also drew the region’s remaining men-folk away from their families; this would contribute to the dreadful chaos once the refugee masses eventually sought to flee westward. For eastern Germany’s senior Party officials, as Noble makes clear, all this was beside the point; preserving their own necks by compelling the population to struggle to the end was their primary concern. Among the results of this effort were numerous attempts by Gauleiters both to interfere with sensible military decision-making by Wehrmacht commanders on the spot, and to hinder early attempts at orderly, pre-emptive civilian evacuation. Their efforts would greatly exacerbate the scale of the disaster that befell eastern Germany during the war’s final months.
... Covering the Soviet invasion of eastern Germany proper from January 1945, Noble details the disorderly refugee rout and the mass death of women and children by the roadsides, together with the killing and savagery which Red Army soldiers unleashed, whether at the behest of their commanders or through their own brutalized state. It is testimony to the power of his writing that these particular passages are often genuinely difficult to read. At the same time, Noble admirably succeeds where some historians have failed by avoiding both the Scylla of being seen to place Soviet atrocities in eastern Germany on an equal footing with Nazi crimes, and the Charybdis of being seen to legitimize such Soviet atrocities as brutal but understandable vengeance for the outrages perpetrated by the Germans in the Soviet Union.
... That much of the eastern German population’s suffering was made needlessly unavoidable by the crass, self-serving actions of Nazi apparatchiks is a running theme throughout the book. Nevertheless, it is not only the Party, but the Wehrmacht also, which comes in for harsh criticism. For instance, Noble demonstrates as fallacious the claim that the Wehrmacht continued fighting in the east purely so as to hold open corridors to the west for floods of refugees; on the contrary, army units and their commanders frequently took action that was severely detrimental to those refugees, and wild plunder by German troops was widespread. This excellent book, scholarly and compellingly written, is thoroughly deserving of a wide readership.
European History Quarterly

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