Although cliché, it is certainly true that history is the story of intersecting paths. History’s best stories are those whose various character paths originate at points most divergent from each other. One such story occurred in Austria during the final days of World War II. In his book The Last Battle, Stephen Harding successfully informs not only to the historical significance of the point of intersect (the battle); he also relates the backstories (the paths), of the participating characters.
A quick read of one hundred and seventy three pages, which include a Prelude and Acknowledgements, Harding’s book brings the little known Battle of Schloss Itter to a wider audience. Schloss Itter, a Tyrolian castle, provides the point of intersect. With origins reaching to the 9th century BC, many of Europe’s great historical figures are among its previous owners. However, during the first months of 1945 the lives of contemporary characters, elite and ordinary, converged at the castle to provide one of World War II’s most unlikely stories. For Hitler’s Germany, Schloss Itter’s location made it a logical location to house special prisoners. During the war’s final months’ civil control failed, German military men abandoned their posts in hopes of melding into the civilian population, and die-hard Nazi adherents looked to continue the battle against all enemies. When their guards either fled, panicked, or engaged in resistance against the advancing American forces, the unarmed prisoner’s safety became precarious. At this point, the lives of an aspiring professional football player, a future California orange farmer, a senior SS officer with connections to Dachau, a disenchanted Wehrmacht officer, a Croatian electrician, and a group of the French Republic’s political elite converged. Harding’s narrative is excellent. He keeps the story moving while providing all necessary background information. Not only is this a very good book, my copy was a gift that the giver was able to have Harding sign. It is now a keepsake.
Stephen Harding, The Last Battle: When U.S. and German Soldiers Joined Forces in the Waning Hours of World War II in Europe (Philadelphia: Da Capo Press, the Perseus Books Group, 2013).