Book Review: Stephen Harding’s The Last Battle

I need to read more non-fiction. I always need to read more non-fiction.

It’s not that I dislike non-fiction books, it’s just that the typical trade paperback format is a lot more convenient. Most non-fiction is published in formats larger than the typical sci-fi trade paperback, so it’s slightly harder to just stuff the book in your pocket while you’re headed out the door. It’s a petty reason, sure, but it’s something that comes into play.

I managed to work my way past this little hangup, however, and recently finished Steven Harding’s The Last Battle. The book centers around, well, the last battle in the western theater of WWII.

It’s a fascinating story. During the war, the Nazis imprisoned a bunch of French politicians and generals in a secluded Austrian castle called Schloss Itter.

Pretty pleasant, except for the Nazis.

Once Hitler killed himself, and the Reich began to fall apart, the guards abandoned the French VIP’s. However, there were still roving bands of SS troopers combing Austria, shooting anyone who they suspect of surrendering to the Allies.

As one could expect, the French VIP’s had to get help- and they did, in a rather unlikely combination. An American tank crew and a handful of infantrymen joined forces with about a dozen German troops who had thrown in with the Austrian resistance. And in the kind of twist that would probably push the story into unbelievability, were it marketed as fiction, the commander of the German troops at Schloss Itter was a SS officer himself. This ragtag bunch of Americans, Germans, and Frenchmen then proceeded to fend off a far larger force of SS troops for six hours, until reinforcements finally arrived.

Harding lays out the history and details of Schloss Itter clearly, but still in a compelling fashion. It’s a fascinating little story- really, the only thing that’s missing is Captain America showing up (he would’ve been frozen in an iceberg at the time anyway).

The Last Battle is a thoroughly researched book- Harding had the advantage of several first-hand accounts of life at Schloss Itter, both from the prisoners themselves, German records, and American accounts of the battle.

This said, The Last Battle is also very small in scope, centering on a single skirmish in the last days of WWII. The book won’t give you a greater understanding of the war at large, but it’s still an interesting little corner of history to explore, just for awhile. It was also a far shorter read than I had originally anticipated, given the fairly straightforward nature of the narrative. I haven’t got much else to say about the book- I’m sure if I were a WWII historian, I could weigh in on some deeper stuff, but the general tone of the book is ‘This happened, and then this happened, while this happened…isn’t that neat?’ Pretty cut and dry, to tell the truth.

All and all, The Last Battle is an interesting little diversion for anyone who’s interested in WWII history. It’d make a hell of a movie, if Hollywood ever wanted to adapt it.

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