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Remembering the Final Days of World War II


The journalist Max Hastings says that even with all the books and movies devoted to World War II, there's something we may overlook.

Mr. MAX HASTINGS (Author, "Armageddon"): We know about the Holocaust. We know about the six million Jews who died. What's much less widely known is that in the Second World War, the Germans took about six million Russian soldiers prisoners and about three million of them died in captivity. It was a stupendous struggle of a scale of brutality that even to this day some people in the West still don't fully appreciate.

INSKEEP: Vast regions of Eastern Europe were devastated, including some of the countries that President Bush will visit starting at the end of this week to mark the anniversary of the war's end. Germany surrendered 60 years ago this month.

Max Hastings' book "Armageddon" describes the war's final months through the eyes of people who survived to tell their stories.

Mr. HASTINGS: One man who always stuck in my mind was a fighter pilot who was shot down over the German lines at the beginning of 1945. When he recovered, he was sent as a slave laborer to Pennemunde on the Baltic, where they were testing the V2 rocket. And there he found himself in this camp where Russian slave laborers were dying in hundreds and thousands every week. And after he'd been there a couple of weeks, he concluded that if he stayed there till the end of the war, that either they'd die of starvation or the Germans would shoot the survivors before the Red Army arrived. So he said to his work gang--eight of them--he said, `We're going to escape.' And they said, `How can we? This is an island. Everyone who's tried has been torn to pieces by the dogs.' And he said, `I'm a pilot. I'm going to fly you out.'

After a couple of days, early one morning, they clubbed their guard to death and ran 400 yards down the runway to the commandant's personal aircraft. They managed to get into this thing, to get it started and to get it into the air. And they were so weak with hunger that the pilot had to have one of the other prisoners standing behind him, leaning over him, helping him to move the controls. And they lurched across the Baltic before finally they saw snow and the coastline beneath them. They crash-landed in the snow over the Red Army lines, and for the first couple of hours they were treated as heroes. And then the NKVD, Stalin's secret police, arrived and interrogated them. And after two hours, they said, `What you claim to have done is impossible. This is obviously a German plot.' Well, I said to this man, `Where did you spend V-E Day?' He said, `Where I spent the next two years,' he said, `in solitary confinement.'

INSKEEP: This is a time in the last months of the war when the German invasion of Russia had turned out disastrously. The Germans were in retreat. The Russians had millions of men pursuing them. What happened as the Russian armies began forcing their way onto German territory?

Mr. HASTINGS: The Russians, who'd suffered terribly from what the Germans did to their country, arrived in Germany bent upon a terrible revenge. They'd actually been told by their political officers for months to keep so-called revenge diaries in which they wrote down all the terrible things the Germans had done to them so that when they got into Germany, they could take retribution. And so they did, with mass pillage, rape, killing. And, of course, they, the Russians, paid the price for this because the Germans in their path felt that there was no purpose in survival, far less in surrender, and so many, many Germans on the eastern front fought with the fanaticism of despair. It's an experience almost beyond our imagining.

I mean, I met a woman who wrote to me when she heard I was writing this book and she said, `I was in Berlin'--she was a German woman. `I was in Berlin in May 1945, so I kept a diary. Would you like to see it?' And she sent me her diary and it's an extraordinary document. She was 17, and she was with her sister in her apartment when the Russians burst in. She and her sister were raped by a succession of Russian soldiers, as most women in Germany were. And after they'd gone, their mother said to them, `Your honor is gone. You have no choice but to kill yourselves.' Their own mother took these two sisters up on the roof of their apartment building and the scene was played out with the father standing on the sidewalk underneath pleading with them not to jump and their mother telling them to jump. Well, in the end, they collapsed into hysterics and ran back into the house.

INSKEEP: You said most women, German women, in the path of the Russian army were raped. Is--do you think...

Mr. HASTINGS: That's not an exaggeration. Russians didn't rape individual women as an act of sexual desire; it was an atavistic action against a whole nation.

INSKEEP: In this huge catalogue of human suffering that you've put together, one of the most striking things, I think, is that you deal with the suicide of Adolf Hitler in a single sentence at the end of a paragraph that is mostly about something else. It seemed almost to me like you were making a statement about the relative value of human lives and the way that our attention has gone.

Mr. HASTINGS: It's a sense of humility you feel for all those people who went through those extraordinary experiences. There's nothing useful to add about the death of Hitler. We don't need any more books about Hitler, alive or dead. We need more books to try and help us to understand how an educated, civilized people like the Germans could ever have gone along with himself and this bunch of gangsters for so long. It is so moving to hear these stories, and I suppose one feels a sense of privilege of being able to recount them.

I mean, I'm very struck--one story, a wonderful woman called Edith Gabal(ph), whom I heard about from a former American Army nurse. And she was telling me about this Hungarian girl whom she met in the concentration camp at Ebensee in '45. I went to see Edith Gabal in Queens, a wonderful old woman, who told her story of unspeakable happenings in a succession of Nazi concentration camps.

And when we'd been with her for three or four hours, I called a cab to take me to Kennedy and the cab didn't come. And I was standing on the sidewalk getting more and more angry and jumping up and down, saying, `I'm going to miss the goddamn plane!' And Edith Gabal came out and she stood beside me and she laughed and she said, `Don't worry.' She said, `It doesn't matter.' She said, `It's not important.' She said, `When you been in death camp, you get to see that missing an airplane really doesn't count for much.' I blushed then as I blush now, that the poor woman who'd been through such experiences I could have shown that preoccupation with trivia, which is characteristic of our time and our generation.

INSKEEP: Max Hastings is the author of "Armageddon." It's a book about the last year of World War II in Europe.

Thanks very much.

Mr. HASTINGS: Steve, thank you very much, indeed, for talking to me.

INSKEEP: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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