We have rarely felt sorry for what the Germans suffered at the end of World War II, in part because the Germans have done a superb job of feeling sorry for themselves. Most Germans in 1945 (and long afterward) believed that their own suffering freed them from any obligation to ponder what Germans had done unto others. Historians, therefore, have hesitated to exploit this material, for fear of seeming to endorse the repellent spectacle of German self-pity. The distinguished British historian Richard Bessel, however, understands the difference between suffering and atonement, and with “Germany 1945” he has produced a sober yet powerful account of the terrible year he calls the “hinge” of the 20th century in Europe. The decisive blow came in January, when a Red Army invasion force, nearly four million strong, poured into eastern provinces that would soon cease forever to be German. (The Anglo-American invasion from the west paled by comparison.) They killed with dreadful efficiency. German military deaths that month exceeded the total wartime losses of either the United States or Britain. Millions of civilians fled in terror from what they had long been told were savage Slavic hordes. Hitler’s government, deep in denial, did little to ease the refugees’ distress. Nor did it permit the orderly surrender of lost territories. While some soldiers and civilians enthusiastically embraced orders to fight to the death, the rest were kept in line by roving SS death squads that hanged deserters from lampposts. But the formidable Wehrmacht was hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned.
more from Brian Ladd at the NYT here.