I have been reading The End by Ian Kershaw and it struck me that the story therein of Hitler’s Reich going down to total destruction is really a recurrent phenomena.
It is interesting that Kershaw, who began his earlier 2 volume biography of Adolf Hitler with the hypothesis that the Fuhrer was more the opportunistic vehicle of grand historical forces, in this study of the Nazi Gotterdammerung has accepted that the pull of Hitler’s inexorable authority over Nazi and traditional German elites was charismatic, personalized and beyond challenge, even when Hitler was encircled by Soviet forces in his subterranean bunker and hours from suicide. Kershaw details how Hitler and his die-hard Gauleiter apparatchiks repeatedly demanded not only the militarily impossible, but the nonsensically insane, from the Wehrmacht, the Waffen-SS and the German people themselves. Virtually everyone struggled to comply.
This story is far from unique.
The Imperial Japanese, it must be said, surpassed even their Nazi allies in stubborn refusal to accept empirical reality and determination to fight to uttermost ruin. After the destruction of their Navy, loss of 100,000 men in Okinawa (their entire army there, minus a handful, fought to the death), the ruin of their cities, approaching famine, exhaustion of aviation fuel and gasoline stocks, the declaration of war on Japan by the Soviet Union and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima – Imperial Japan’s war cabinet deadlocked on a vote to surrender. The Kamikaze enthusiasts among the flag officers proposed a battle plan for their home islands to the war cabinet picturesquely titled “Honorable Death of 100 Million”, with gruesome implications for Japan’s civilian population.
Emperor Hirohito inspects Hiroshima after the atomic bombing
Many years later, Prime Minister Nakasone, who had been conscripted as a mere boy to meet invading American soldiers and Marines on the beach with a sharpened bamboo stake, credited the two atomic bombs with having saved his life. Without them, Japan’s warlords, with the tacit approval of their Emperor, would have coerced the Japanese nation into a gloriously genocidal defeat. A policy that while irrational, faithfully followed the cultural spirit of Bushido and Japan’s mythic 47 Ronin.
Then there was the ancient example of Masada, the defiance of Titus by the Jewish Sicarii in 73 AD, as described by Josephus:
…. Miserable men indeed were they, whose distress forced them to slay their own wives and children with their own hands, as the lightest of those evils that were before them. So they being not able to bear the grief they were under for what they had done any longer, and esteeming it an injury to those they had slain to live even the shortest space of time after them,-they presently laid all they had in a heap, and set fire to it. They then chose ten men by lot out of them, to slay all the rest; every one of whom laid himself down by his wife and children on the ground, and threw his arms about them, and they offered their necks to the stroke of those who by lot executed that melancholy office; and when these ten had, without fear, slain them all, they made the same rule for casting lots for themselves, that he whose lot it was should first kill the other nine, and after all, should kill himself. Accordingly, all these had courage sufficient to be no way behind one another in doing or suffering; so, for a conclusion, the nine offered their necks to the executioner, and he who was the last of all took a view of all the other bodies, lest perchance some or other among so many that were slain should want his assistance to be quite dispatched; and when he perceived that they were all slain, he set fire to the palace, and with the great force of his hands ran his sword entirely through himself, and fell down dead near to his own relations. So these people died with this intention, that they would leave not so much as one soul among them all alive to be subject to the Romans.
….Now for the Romans, they expected that they should be fought in the morning, when accordingly they put on their armor, and laid bridges of planks upon their ladders from their banks, to make an assault upon the fortress, which they did, but saw nobody as an enemy, but a terrible solitude on every side, with a fire within the place as well as a perfect silence So they were at a loss to guess at what had happened. At length they made a shout, as if it had been at a blow given by the battering-ram, to try whether they could bring anyone out that was within; the women heard this noise, and came out of their underground cavern, and informed the Romans what had been done, as it was done, and the second of them clearly described all both what was said and what was done, and the manner of it: yet they did not easily give their attention to such a desperate undertaking, and did not believe it could be as they said; they also attempted to put the fire out, and quickly cutting themselves a way through it, they came within the palace, and so met with the multitude of the slain, but could take no pleasure in the fact, though it were done to their enemies. Nor could they do other than wonder at the courage of their resolution and the immovable contempt of death, which so great a number of them had shown, when they went through with such an action as that was.
What does the phenomenon of bitter-end political leadership mean in terms of strategy?
To the extent that war is a contest of wills or a form of bargaining between two political communities, the fanaticism of bitter-enders simplifies strategy while often complicating the warfare necessary to execute it. Strategy is simplified because, to borrow a term from labor relations, the “last, best offer” has been refused. No bargaining is taking place – one or more sides refuses peace at any price short of total victory (“unconditional surrender”) or complete defeat. This represents movement away from a limited war for limited ends closer toward Clausewitz ‘s theoretical “Absolute War” by becoming, for the losing party, an existential conflict. The implicit threat to fight to the bitter end in any war – assuming the resources and will to make good on the threat exist – is really a primitive form of psychological deterrence; most states seeking limited objectives will avoid getting trapped in this dynamic.
This means the strategic calculus is altered by such a stance. The war itself and the driving need to wage it to it’s ultimate conclusion may have come to outweigh the value of the original “End” over which the conflict began; perhaps a policy concession or bit of territory or admission by a state’s rulers of a subordinate place in the diplomatic pecking order. While adopting a “bitter-end” position logically seems disadvantageous to the weaker party, it presents the enemy with a new set of problems. The “Means” or costs required to wage a war of conquest and lengthy occupation may be economically or attritionally prohibitive, or even physically impossible. Israel has a fine military and nuclear weapons but the Jewish state is too small to subdue and rule over the Arab states; Imperial Japan, for all it’s martial ferocity and cruelty, could not swallow the vastness of China, divided by civil war and fighting without allies, even before Pearl Harbor. Reach can exceed grasp.
Likewise, the moral burden and diplomatic friction of waging war not only against the opposing army, but the enemy population as well – of bombing or blockading into starvation women, children and the elderly – may be more than a political community or it’s leadership are able to bear and remain unified. As callous and narcissistic leaders of great countries usually are, few of them (fortunately) aspire to follow in the footsteps of Hitler, Stalin or Mao and openly spill an ocean of blood. The impressive firepower of the bombing campaigns of Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon did not break Hanoi’s will to fight the Vietnam War, they broke the Eastern Establishment’s will to pursue anticommunist Containment by force in Vietnam or elsewhere. The brutal counterinsurgency tactics of the French Army in the Algerian War destroyed the Algerian rebels militarily, but it shattered the Fourth Republic politically.
Insurgency, the “war of the weak”, is powerful because it inherently contains elements of bitter-endism. To rise up against one’s own society usually is an act of politically burning your boats and wearing, so far as the state is concerned, the mantle of treason and all that it entails. A desperate act by desperate men and conversely, many of the leaders of states, being tyrants, are in no better position. Tyrants are widely despised; the Gaddafis or Mussolinis know that their power is their only guarantee of safety and their fate, if they fall into the hands of their people, would be terrible, so any rebellion must be crushed immediately, lest it gain traction. The Shah by contrast, was a congenital coward but a realist. He knew what might happen if he and his family fell into the hands of his political opponents, so the Pahlavi dynasty preemptively fled at the first sign of trouble (twice).
Finally, a word must be said about the position of a people under the leadership of bitter-ender rulers in a war. Caught between a rock and a hard place, they essentially have three choices, none of them attractive:
1. Make a supreme effort to win the war.
2. Make a supreme effort to overthrow the government and sue for peace.
3. Desert the cause as quietly as they can on an individual basis and hope for the best.
The best almost never happens. Kershaw’s history of the fate of the Germans in 1945 would have been well understood by Thucydides, even if the Melians were as blameless as the Germans were deserving of their fate:
….About the same time the Melians again took another part of the Athenian lines which were but feebly garrisoned. Reinforcements afterwards arriving from Athens in consequence, under the command of Philocrates, son of Demeas, the siege was now pressed vigorously; and some treachery taking place inside, the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.
If you want the bitter end, be prepared to drink the last drop.