Mild confession here, folks: I haven’t read all that many military thrillers. It isn’t that I don’t like then; rather, it’s just that … well … I haven’t read all that many of them. When it comes to nonfiction, I tend to prefer books that deal with either eras and/or specific individuals (and the parts they played). As a consequence, I may not be the best reader to offer up a modest review of THE LAST BATTLE. Or, depending upon your preferences, I may be the best as I’ll come at the material from a perspective quite possibly a bit more ‘mainstream’ than most.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and characters. If you’re the kind of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last two paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
I admit that I was entirely unfamiliar with just how involved the Germans of World War II were in building prisons. Of course, we’ve all heard all about the concentration camps as the persecution and ongoing murder of an entire race of people has always been front-and-center in protracted discussions about the conflict. But the Nazis were prepared for every possible contingency: they’d gone to great lengths to secure facilities that could be used to house high profile prisoners-of-war – politicians of nations they seized or occupied – all with the intention of ‘using’ these folks for leverage when and if the opportunity presented itself.
A castle stronghold in Austria, Schloss Itter was one such place. It was seized late in the war, but it was fully operational throughout the final two years. It happened to house some of the most respected French VIPs who had been captured, and THE LAST BATTLE details not only how the prison came to be but also explores the greater historical background of the facility as well as fairly intensive biographies of all players. This includes practically any German or American officer involved in the intense skirmish, and author Stephen Harding even provides these players with a respectable post-script – what they did after the war – for those interested.
And, for the most part, it’s a legitimately fascinating tale – at times, it’s told with far too much detail for me, but, being unfamiliar with most war-time non-fiction, maybe this is fairly routine. Whatever the case, it’s gripping as the stakes are raised, and the last 70 pages I read in a single sitting as I couldn’t quite bring myself to put it down. What you’ll no doubt find in these pages are an assortment of American and German ‘characters’ who are a tough act to follow, and you’ll see firsthand perhaps just how and why these uncooperative French ended up being in such a state to begin with. Suffice it to say, these French politicians (of differing parties) were actually not all that pleased about being holed up together, and, after the war, they went explored the politics of personal destruction to some ridiculous measures. Shame on you, French. Shame on you!
THE LAST BATTLE is published by Da Capo Press, a division of Perseus Books Group. It’s written by Stephen Harding. The book retails for $25.99 – a bit steep (if you ask me) for such a trim read.
RECOMMENDED. Though exhaustive in detail to the point of feeling occasionally clinical, THE LAST BATTLE is a gripping account of an oft-overlooked or rarely-heard-of military engagement that brought American and German soldiers together in an attempt to save some stuffy French VIPs in the final few hours of World War II. Out of 200 pages, I struggled a bit with the first seventy (or so), as author Harding goes to great lengths to set the particulars (and I do mean ALL of the particulars) in motion before even getting to the battle. This may (or may not) be customary with military thrillers – I’ve only read a handful, but this was easily the most comprehensive.