Wehrmacht soldiers. via Us national archives

What Separates a Hero From a Coward?

A Review of The Last Battle

What separates a hero from a coward? A patriot from a traitor? These questions are more important than ever in light of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelation of the National Security Agency’s domestic spying and the federal government’s decision last week to charge Snowden with espionage.

They are also recurring questions in The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe, a new history from journalist Stephen Harding, published in May by Da Capo Press.

The Last Battle recalls when French political prisoners, American GIs and German Wehrmacht soldiers all fought together to hold off an attack by fanatical German SS troops in the last military action of the Western front.

After Hitler’s death in the final days of World War II in Europe, not all of the German armed forces laid down their arms. Some members of the Waffen SS determined to fight to the last man. They began roaming the European countryside and cities, harassing Allied armies and brutally executing the “defeatists” among their countrymen.

These would-be insurgents also executed political prisoners in a desperate bid to eliminate witnesses to German war crimes. One of the SS’s targets was Schloss Itter, an Austrian castle that held VIP French prisoners, politicians and generals of France’s pre-war government and several “number prisoners” that had been brought there to work.

Here one of the unlikeliest alliances of World War II formed. Tipped off by Austrian resistance members that the VIPs were in imminent danger, an American cavalry officer named Jack Lee decided to mount a rescue operation. Outmanned, outgunned and leading war-weary GIs who didn’t want to be the last Allied troops to die in Europe, Lee got unexpected help from decorated Wehrmacht Maj. Josef “Sepp” Gangl and his soldiers.

Harding tells this odd and exciting tale in exhaustive detail. The battle itself only takes up one chapter, with the rest of the book exploring the backgrounds of the individuals involved and the events leading up to the final stand. The first chapter explores the history of Schloss Itter and its transformation from luxury resort into Nazi prison.

The Last Battle describes the French VIPs, their careers, their captures and how they fared in prison. There was little camaraderie among the French. They spent much of their imprisonment in heated arguments, accusing each other of being collaborators — and many indeed had joined the collaborationist Vichy regime.

The Americans come across as reluctant warriors who thought the war was over, only to be thrust into one last battle alongside questionable allies against a ruthless and fanatical foe. In exploring the Germans’ background, Harding asks what would drive highly decorated Wehrmacht war heroes to do battle at the sides of their former enemies against their former comrades. The answers for each man are as varied as the reasons they found themselves caught up in the war in the first place.

The Last Battle is meticulously researched and expertly written. Though some readers might lose patience with the slow build-up to the fighting, the biographies and background serve to humanize the combat in this fine history of a bizarre final skirmish of World War II.

The author previously reviewed The Rice Paddy Navy by Linda Kush.

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