Longtime history and travel author, Nicholas Best, sheds new light on momentous events at the end of WWII through the lens of eye witness accounts. He captures the reactions of people we don’t normally associate with the war: actresses and filmmakers, writers and soon-to-be Popes, as well as more familiar political figures like Bob Dole, Jack Kennedy, and Winston Churchill and his wife. More than a chronological sequence of events, this book reads like a series of snapshots, as vivid and captivating and as the events and people they describe.
He divides the book into five parts, corresponding to the last five days of the war, April 28 – May 2, 1945. Between Italy, Germany, Russia and the Netherlands, Best chronicles both Mussolini’s and Hitler’s gruesome deaths and the ensuing mayhem they inspire. Mussolini’s wife and two children just hope to get out alive after Mussolini’s body, and that of his girlfriend, are paraded through the streets. Hitler’s closest Nazi officials debate escaping their underground bunker, killing themselves like their leader, or surrendering to the Allies rather than the Bolsheviks. Those in charge of Dachau and other concentration camps have no choice; they’re dealt with by the Americans who liberate the camp. Russians celebrates May Day by storming the German Chancellery. Meanwhile, American and British pilots drop food instead of bombs over famished Holland in Operation Manna.
One of the most compelling storylines is to follow actress Hildegard Knef and her boyfriend Ewalt on Demandowsky over the course of the five days, as they fight their way through enemy lines, staying with willing friends until their presence makes their hosts easy targets for Russian soldiers. We don’t get such protracted stories of other personages, like Audrey Hepburn, one of the starving Dutch, or Kurt Vonnegut, a soldier, or Ezra Pound, American Nazi, or Gunther Grass, Nazi-turned-resistor, or Allen Dulles, negotiating a surrender in Italy, to name a few. But almost all the voices Nicholas Best cites, speak in their own words. At the beginning of the book, he makes no bones about the fact that some accounts contradict. He concludes the book with follow-ups of what happens to all these people after the war, making the overall project less about the war and more about preserving firsthand memories. find the book on goodreads