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All Fall Down

A review of The End, by Ian Kershaw.

The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944–1945

by Ian Kershaw
Penguin Press, 2011

In the final year of the Second World War, Germany was destroyed at a catastrophic human cost. Some 400,000 Germans were killed, 800,000 wounded, and 5 million forced from their homes. The nation’s military losses were staggering, as high during the last 10 months of the war as during the four years preceding them. Had Adolf Hitler surrendered in May 1944, when it was already clear that the war was lost, instead of persisting until his suicide nearly a year later, the German people would have been spared untold suffering.

But Hitler didn’t stop the war and the German people didn’t stop Hitler, which is what makes Ian Kershaw’s The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944–1945, such a fascinating study in leadership. Kershaw, whose two-volume biography of the man who plunged the world into war — Hitler: 1889–1936, Hubris (W.W. Norton, 1999) and Hitler: 1936–1945, Nemesis (W.W. Norton, 2000) — is considered a contemporary classic, seeks to answer a historical question here: How was it that Hitler was able to control Germany even when continued fighting was tantamount to collective suicide, and after he had lost the power of his personal charisma? In tackling this question, the historian, who was knighted in 2002 for his services to history, also addresses a broader question about leadership itself: How is it that bad leaders manage to hold on, to keep their followers in line even after it becomes screamingly obvious that they are mis-leading — even to the point of destroying their groups or organizations?

Kershaw’s explanation for why Hitler was allowed by his people to take the nation over the precipice is necessarily multifaceted. Fear certainly had something to do with it: Most ordinary Germans were terrified, with good reason, of opposing the Nazi regime.

Other reasons included the power of the Nazi Party and the perpetual motion of the German bureaucracy itself. The government remained an efficient and well-oiled machine to the end, always with Hitler at its helm. The military played its part as well. Although high-ranking officers did not necessarily agree with Hitler’s orders, military code ensured that they almost never challenged his right to issue those orders or questioned their duty to follow them.

Of course, there was in addition Hitler himself. Though he was badly weakened politically and militarily, writes Kershaw, Hitler did not “deviate from what had been the leitmotiv of his political existence, that there would never, ever, be a ‘cowardly’ capitulation.”

It is easy to dismiss Hitler as a leadership aberration. Not only is what happened in Germany historically rare, but its repetition seems less likely as time goes on. In recent decades, the global number of totalitarian and authoritarian states has decreased considerably. But the larger leadership questions linger: Why does bad leadership persist, and why do followers tolerate leaders who are manifestly inept or corrupt?

These are not idle questions. Both the public and private sectors are rife with examples of bad leadership, and the costs are often horrific. Think of the price paid when a CEO leads a large company into bankruptcy, or the global ramifications of ineffective or unethical political leadership.

If Kershaw’s penetrating analysis of Hitler’s last year offers clues as to why bad leadership is common, we should be able to find ways to make it less so. Clearly, the reasons that followers tolerate bad leaders include the fear of retribution, the pressure to conform, and the reluctance to make the effort required to challenge them. Perhaps bad leadership can be better contained if organizations build into their structures and cultures some ways to overcome these obstacles, such as by following W. Edwards Deming’s injunction to “drive out fear, so that everyone may work effectively for the company.” The bureaucratic machinery of organizations could also install circuit breakers that trip when poor decisions are made; certainly that is the intent of many rules and regulations. Finally, leaders themselves could and should be trained to recognize the dark side of their own behavior — realizing, for instance, that their own constancy can be a dangerous thing when applied to the wrong cause, and enlisting advisors and coaches as well as their own followers for objective feedback.

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