BERLIN » The tense expression on Ilse Grassmann’s face belies the festive occasion. It’s Christmas 1944 and she is sitting at home with her three youngest children, the table bare of food or gifts. Her husband is due to be called up soon to join Nazi Germany’s hopeless attempt to win the war. Their 18-year-old son is already stationed in Denmark awaiting the Allied advance.
The scene captures the mood most Germans felt during the final months of World War II. Few believed the claim by Adolf Hitler and his loyal followers that Germany could still achieve an "Endsieg," or final victory. But many feared the consequences of defeat, as the conflict threatened to consume the country that had unleashed it upon the rest of the world.
The picture is part of an exhibition in Berlin marking next year’s 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Its subjects are ordinary people caught between the encroaching enemy and their own murderous leadership, which launched a futile offensive in Belgium — known as the Battle of the Bulge — just before Christmas 1944.
"A responsible government would have seen the country was doomed and negotiated for peace," said Claudia Steur, a historian who curated the exhibition. "But Hitler didn’t give a damn. He felt that if Germans couldn’t win they should die."
From October 1944, young boys and men up to the age of 60 were called up to fight for the Fatherland. Later the maximum age for men was extended to 70, and women were armed too.
Meanwhile, anyone found listening to enemy radio risked a death sentence as the dictatorship tried desperately to hide what was happening from its own people, even as many German cities lay in ruins.
IF YOU GO
‘GERMANY 1945 — THE LAST MONTHS OF THE WAR’
» Open daily 10 a.m.-8 p.m. at the Topographie des Terrors museum, Niederkirchnerstrasse 8, Berlin, through Oct. 25, 2015. Free entry.
The Nazis’ propaganda machine went into overdrive, stoking fear of what their enemies — particularly the Soviets — would do to German civilians they captured.
Reports of mass rapes and other atrocities by the Red Army in East Prussia sent many fleeing westward. Effective methods of suicide became an everyday topic of conversation, and German authorities handed out cyanide capsules to thousands in Berlin alone in spring 1945.
By that time a once-proud country had been reduced to rubble, in part by German troops themselves acting on Hitler’s orders to leave nothing but scorched earth behind them.
"It’s very hard to imagine the level of destruction of 1945 when looking at Germany today," said Randall Hansen, a historian at the University of Toronto.
A failed coup in July 1944 resulted in a purge of officers. Those who remained felt the need to demonstrate their loyalty to Hitler until the end, resulting in complete destruction of entire cities, such as Breslau, now Wroclaw, said Hansen. In some cases civilians did manage to persuade local commanders to surrender, such as in Freiburg or the Baltic port of Greifswald.
Retreating German troops also sought to destroy evidence of their own atrocities, especially the concentration camps where 6 million Jews died along with political prisoners, gypsies, homosexuals and others. Civilians, meanwhile, threw away swastika flags and copies of "Mein Kampf" to avoid being identified as Nazi sympathizers.
Germany signed an unconditional surrender on May 7, 1945. One day later a court-martial sentenced a young German sailor, Alfred Gail, and two others to death for desertion.
"Now we will be the last victims of this war, and all for nothing, like so many who died in action," he wrote in a last letter to his parents, which is part of the exhibition. They were executed on May 10 — two days after the war had formally ended.
By Frank Jordans, Associated Press