Hitler Goes to Ground
What intangible forces sustained Hitler during these last dark weeks and in turn allowed him to sustain others ? Schopenhauer identifies a certain rare character whom Fate has raised from total obscurity to eminence and who ever afterward believes that the same forces will never wholly desert him in his hour of misfortunethat no abyss is really bottomless, but that when he has plumbed its depths he will once again be lifted to the heights. Such a man was Hitler. He had been tutored, years before the war, by Lloyd George, too. The elderly British statesman had revealed to him in conversation that only the Armistice of 1918 had saved the Allies and dashed the cup of victory from Germanys lipsa perhaps ill-considered remark which the F¸hrer never tired of quoting.
While in Italy the stalemate continued, the race for Berlin between East and West convinced Hitler that the two world hemispheres must within months be at war with each other, a war from which Germany would emerge as the lachender Dritte. His analysis was correct in all but one essential detail : the time scale. Had his war lasted the full seven years, he might have reaped the Cold War rewards that fell to his successors. Yet Hitler had good reason to expect them to come sooner. Until the very last days of his life his Intelligence experts nourished his beliefs with evidence of the coming conflictevidence of the most concrete kind. For example, a group of Soviet agents parachuted into Templin on the night of April 7-8, 1945, admitted under interrogation that their mission had been to find out what plans the Allies had made for attacking the Russians ; if the Allies reached Berlin first, the agents were to destroy their papers and lie low, on no account revealing themselves as agents.
If Stalin himself expected such a clash, then Hitler intended to keep his Reich in existencehowever battered and however diminisheduntil then.
Since late February 1945, and a further ruinous American air raid on Berlin, Hitler and his staff had spent their nights in the Reich Chancellerys shelters. Albert Speer had begun building the main deep shelter for Hitler in mid-1944, and now it lay becalmed and impregnablecompared by Julius Schaub to a U-boat prowling the depths below Berlins sea of houses and ministry buildings. Such was the scene of this final chapter of Hitlers life, with its narrow concrete passageway and cell-like rooms, the constant hum of air-conditioning machinery, the glare of artificial light, the throng of military and Party officialssome curious, some concerned, but most clinging to Hitler and his infectious belief that this crisis would be overcome.(1) The F¸rers shelter was entered down a short flight of steps and through gas-tight doors from the older, weaker shelter built in 1938 beneath the Chancellerys ceremonial hall. Right of the passageway after the machine room was Martin Bormanns office with the main telephone switchboard and his teleprinter units ; the office was wallpapered with maps of Germany and Berlin, each covered with a celluloid sheet on which a five-man unit marked in blue chinagraph pencil the progress of each enemy bomber-stream hour by hour. Here Hitler spent the hours of the big alerts, watching with tired eyes the arrows approaching Berlin ; each week the tracks grew more complex, for now the British bombers attacked from behind screens of radio jamming and electronic countermeasures, feinting first toward one city, then another, while fast raiding forces mounted diversionary attacks far from the main targets of the night. Since the holocaust of Dresden, British bomber forces had cascaded incendiaries and explosives into Chemnitz (Karl-Marx Stadt), Duisburg, Worms, Kassel, ancient W¸rzburgthe list was endless.
The Americans too had begun attacking area targets. Nuremberg and Munich were laid waste. But by day the tide was beginning to turn, as the Me-262 jets with the heavier armament and air-to-air rockets joined the squadrons. The grim pages of the Luftwaffe High Commands war diary reported : Four Me-262s shot down four bombers. . . . But as the Luftwaffes fuel stocks ran out, this last hope expired. General Peltz (Ninth Air Corps) and Colonel Hajo Herrmann (Ninth Fighter Division) had secured in February G–rings permission in principle for a mass attack by suicide pilots on American bomber formations. Originally 600 Messerschmitt 109s were set aside for this, but the Chief of Air Staff, General Karl Koller, objected that since the Me-109 was ceasing manufacture and only 1,800 still survived, the suicide attack (Werewolf) would accelerate the end of piston-engined fighter operations and tactical reconnaissance missions until the improved Ta-152 fighter arrived.
The suicide operationalmost overlooked by historywas vivid proof of the anger and bitterness fomented by the bombing war. After weeks of hesitation Koller made available 180 Me-109s with high-performance engines on April 3 ; 150 pilots were released, but far more, 184, volunteered and flew in Werewolf four days lateremptying their cannon into the bombers at point-blank range and then ramming them. The battle took place west of Hanover on April 7, 1945. Of the suicide Me-109s, 133 were lost after destroying 23 American bombers ; 77 pilots were killed ; the escorting jet fighters claimed 28 more American bombers that day.
Left of the red-carpeted main passageway in Hitlers shelterwith its incongruously lavish decor of priceless paintings and furniture rescued from the Chancellery upstairswere his private rooms : a bedroom with army bed, wardrobe, chest of drawers, and a safe ; and a tiny, low-ceilinged living room with desk, table, and hard upholstered sofa ; a portrait of Frederick the Great hung over the desk. Between the bedroom and passageway was the small conference room, filled with a map table surrounded by a wooden bench. Through the doors at the passageways far end a spiral staircase led up into the Chancellery gardens.
A filtration system protected the shelter against poison-gas attack. Recently it had been improved after fumes were detected during a war conference ; inquiry revealed that G–rings chauffeur had parked his car near the air-intake duct and had left its engine running to keep warm ! In February 1945 Hitler was also fitted with a gas mask in case of emergencies.
This bunker was connected to the Voss Bunker under the Chancellery, which could house two thousand people. In 1939 Hitler had opened it to Berlins hospital and welfare services, and many an Adolf had first seen the light of day here, the birth being marked by flowers for the mother and a bankbook with a hundred marks for the child. During April 1945 an SS Life Guard battalion moved in, as did Bormanns staff and a field hospital, and the maternity clinic was moved to a shelter underneath the Reichstag. Every evening a line formed in the street for access to the Voss Bunker. Hitler ordered a concrete shelter built for those waiting, but weeks later his order had still not been carried out. I have to attend to every minor detail myself, he exclaimed angrily at lunch to his secretaries. And yet theres nobody suitable as a successor. Hess went off his rocker. G–rings lost the publics sympathy. Himmler is unacceptable to the Party. Fr”ulein Schroeder, the sharpest of his secretaries, pointed out : But Himmlers name is often mentioned by the people. The mans got no artistic sense at all ! retorted Hitler, to which Fr”ulein Schroeder tartly replied, In our present straits artistic sense hardly matters ! Hitler stopped eating and angrily stalked out. Carry onrack your brains to think of a successor ! Some days later he repeated this injured challenge. Why not Admiral D–nitz ? Julius Schaub suggested. Hitler did not reply.
The Luftwaffes impotence against the air raids began to corrode his mind. A million people in Germanys domains had been slain by the enemys bombers or machine-gunned to death in fields, streets, and trains. He was obsessed by the idea that those responsible were escaping unpunished.
One day early in April Bormann read to Hitler an Allied newspaper report that German troops had saved an American bomber crew about to be lynched by angry townsfolk after a raid. Hitler was furious and looked around at General Koller, standing to the left of his chair. These are the men who are murdering German women and children ! Its incredible ! Since Kaltenbrunner was hovering in the background, Hitler turned to him too. I order that all bomber crews shot down these last few months or in the future are to be turned over by the Luftwaffe to the SD at once and liquidated. This sweeping order was greeted with hostile silence by the officers present in the cramped conference room. Koller pointed out that the enemy might then simply take reprisals against their Luftwaffe prisoners ; Hitler retorted that they could arrest one hundred thousand French civilians in Germany and hold them hostage to prevent such reprisals.
In the passageway outside, Keitel, Kaltenbrunner, and Koller agreed that the order should be ignored. But Hitler buttonholed Koller a few minutes later and appealed to him. You must help mewe cant go on like this. Our air defenses have failed. What am I to do against this nightmare terror-bombing and the murder of our women and children ? Koller urged patience. When our jet squadrons get stronger the war in the air over Germany will turn in our favor again. Hitler replied, I cannot wait until then. If these airmen realize that in the future they will be liquidated as terrorists, theyll think twice about whether to fly over. Koller replied that neither the Luftwaffeinto whose officers the laws and articles of war had been painfully drummednor the SD would lend themselves to such an order ; he also pointed out that Luftwaffe pilots would themselves suffer in enemy hands. Hitler replied without emotion, In other words the Luftwaffe is afraid. Fair enough, but I am in charge of the German peoples safety, and I know no other way.
The failure to execute this latest order showed again that as the end approached Hitlers authority was crumbling. Yet another instance was his ministers unauthorized peace feelers to the enemy. Since Yalta, Hitler had emphatically opposed all such feelers, but Ribbentrop persisted nonetheless. He sent his English affairs expert, Fritz Hesse, to Stockholm, and when the Swedish press exposed Hesses mission on March 15earning for Ribbentrop a thunderous rebuke from Hitlera few days later the foreign minister again sent Werner von Schmieden to Switzerland and Consul Eitel Friedrich Moellhausen to Madrid, to contact Allen Dulles and the American ambassador, Robert Murphy, respectively, about terms for a halt to the frightful bombing and carnage; but Schmieden was still waiting for an entry visa to Switzerland when the war ended, and Murphy had evidently just left Madrid for Washington before Moellhausen could get to see him. Reichsmarschall G–ring referred to Hitlers stubbornness in a private conversation late in March ; General Koller noted that when he complained to G–ring about the lack of clear directives from Hitler the Reichsmarschall agreedhe is just as much in the dark. F[¸hrer] told him nothing. Nor is it permissible to make the slightest political move, for example, the attempt of a British diplomat in Sweden to contact us was strictly rebuffed by F. The F¸hrer flatly forbids Reichsmarschall to make any use of his own comprehensive contacts abroad. . .(2) Again and again the foreign minister [Ribbentrop] submits fresh possibilities to F., but he just turns them down. Thus nobody knew how long a war still to plan for : another year or longer ? or just a few last desperate months ?
By the date of G–rings remarks, March 28, 1945, Germanys position was militarily hopeless. Asked by Hitler ten days earlier to comment on the loss of Saar coal and its effect on their arms production, Albert Speer had answered in one sentence, It will speed up the general collapse. When Gauleiter Forster had arrived from Danzig late on the nineteenth with word that four thousand Russian tanks were converging on that city, Hitler had still confidently sworn that Danzig would be saved. But in the west a catastrophe had already occurred. All attempts at destroying the Remagen bridge across the Rhine failed until too late ; by the time the German naval frogmen and jet bombers had between them brought it down, the Americans had another bridge in service and the enemy bridgehead had swollen to unmanageable proportions.
Kolberg had fallen in mid-March after holding out against the Polish and Russian enemysome in German uniformslong enough for sixty thousand of the ports civilians to escape by sea. The civilian evacuation of K–nigsberg and Danzig was in full swing. In Hungary and Pomerania the counterattacks in which Hitler had vested his hopes had failed dismally. In the west one disaster overtook another. On the night of March 22, American amphibious tanks had sprung a surprise bridgehead across the Rhine at Oppenheim at a cost of only eight casualties. At 3 A.M. on the twenty-fourth, Montgomerys main Rhine crossing began at Wesel. By March 28 it was clear that the Ruhr was about to be encircled. Whole companies of German troops were throwing away their weapons and deserting. There were reports that German civilians had actually helped the Americans cross the Main near Frankfurt and were dancing with them in the streets at night. General Koller confided to G–ring : My own faith in our army commanders and in our striking power is exhausted. He regarded the southern American operation as strategically the most dangerous : it was the old French interwar strategy of thrusting eastward astride the Main toward Czechoslovakia so as to slice Germany in two.
The speed of events in the west stunned Hitler, who had been confident that in the east a great German defensive triumph lay in store. On March 25 he told Gauleiter Fritz Sauckel that for the first time he feared the war was lost. But as General Jodl explained to Allied interrogators : For our leaders there was no alternative but to fight on to their last breath ; your propaganda itself fostered this attitude. American troop indoctrination manuals had reached the Chancellery ; as one F¸hrer adjutant wrote : The implacable hatred preached in them against the entire German nation seems little short of the Old Testament language to me. Early in April, Hitler was shown a captured British manual ominously code-named Eclipse: evidently the end product of the Morgenthau Plan, it named numerous categories of Germans for automatic arrest and contained maps of the ultimate dissection of Germany and Berlin into occupation zones. At the same time army Intelligence secured a copy of Stalins infamous Order Number Five: The German people is to be destroyed. All German factories and property are to be laid waste. The German animal must be battered to death in its hovels. Brief German reconquests of ground in East Prussia brought fresh reports on the fate of the Germans who had not escaped in time. It shall not be ! These illiterate brutes shall not inundate all Europe ! Hitler raged. I am the last bulwark against this peril. If there is any justice, then we shall emerge victorious. One day the world will see the moral of this struggle !
Defeat seemed certain to all but the most blindly loyal. The hours Hitler spent with them increased, for they alone still displayed the kind of caged fanaticism that might even now see Germany through her misfortunes. He rewarded their loyalty well. When Goebbels late in March abused the Reich press chief, Dr. Otto Dietrich, for his overconservative press policies toward the Allies, Hitler sent for Dietrich and told him : Im sending you on six weeks leave. By then it will all be over one way or the other. Dr. Robert Ley, leader of the Labor Front and previously the butt of many cruel witticisms in Hitlers milieu, was now like Goebbels favored with many hours of Hitlers private conversation. He left Berlin inflated with new courage and conviction, to organize an Adolf Hitler Free Corps in Austriatank-killer teams trained and equipped to operate behind the Russian lines. The F¸hrer was head and shoulders above us all, wrote Ley after the war. And we were too puny for this Titan. Hitlers earlier sycophants discreetly bowed out or were impatiently dismissed. As the end approached, old scores were settled all aroundby Goebbels against Ribbentrop, by Bormann against Speer, by Speer against G–ring, and by Ley against that petty and pitiable Heinrich Himmler. On March 20, Hitler relieved the Reichsf¸hrer of command of Army Group Vistula. The F¸hrer saw through Himmler, wrote Ley. I had a long talk with the F¸hrer at the time, in which he bitterly complained of Himmlers disobedience, dishonesty, and incompetence.
Fundamental to Hitlers predicament was that many of his generals and ministers were already secretly preparing window-dressing for the war crimes trials they regarded as inevitable : Gotthard Heinrici, the mild-mannered, church-going general Hitler was forced to appoint as Himmlers successorfor want of any better commanderslacked the wholehearted commitment of a Sch–rner or Model : Model held out with Army Group B in the encircled Ruhr pocket until his guns had fired their last ammunition ; he then took his own life to cheat the enemy. This was the bold spirit which had saved Stalins Russia in 1941 and 1942. But Hitlers lieutenants lacked even the will to cheat the enemy of the spoils of war : the arms factories of Upper Silesia had fallen intact into Russian hands and were now adding to the arms and ammunition stockpiles being built up on the eastern bank of the Oder. Speer had not hesitated to order the destruction of Hungarian oil refineries in Januarya premature destruction that the OKW was just able to stop in time. But by March he was planning less for Germanys defense than for his own.(3)
Speers character was ambivalent and complex, and Hitler evidently changed his mind about him ; after a half-hearted attempt at dismissing him late in March he cut him out of his political testament entirely one month later. He was disappointed by the failure of Me-262 jet aircraft production to reach Speers predictions, and he appointed SS General Hans Kammleralready special commissioner for V-weaponsto take charge. Another of Speers projectscodenamed Iron Hammerhad also fallen short of expectations : 82 special aircraft, arranged in tandem, had been built for a daredevil attack on the main Soviet power stations, producing between them 1,904,000,000 kilowatts for Stalins tank and arms factories. Since February, G–ring had strongly backed the project, and enough fuel had been set aside while the bomber and Pathfinder crews were trained. But on March 18, Speer had advised Hitler to divert nearly half the special aircraft to destroy the Soviet bridges across the Oder or Vistula rivers the moment the big enemy offensive began. Hitler was torn between the two alternatives but reverted in Speers absence on March 26 to his order for an attack on the Soviet power stations. Imagine what it would have meant for us if the enemy had attacked all our power stations simultaneously ! It is just the same for the enemy. Id rather forgo the attack on the Vistula bridgeswe can do them sometime later. But when the full moon came, the weather conditions were wrong and Iron Hammer had to be postponed indefinitely.
Hitler did not even resent Speers uncomfortably frank March 15 memorandum on the economic situation. He told Guderian he had stuffed it, unread, into the man-high safe at the foot of his bed. It bravely exposed Speers conviction that the war was hopelessly lost : the enemy air raids, and the loss of the coal-bearing regions, made Germanys final economic collapse inevitable within four to eight weeks. After this collapse the war cannot even be militarily continued. Speers memorandum urged Hitler to remember the governments obligation in the coming hours of trial to aid its people ; and he demanded strict orders prohibiting the destruction of factories and bridges, as this could now only harm Germany. Hitler turned a deaf ear on Speer when he again argued these points, in person this time, late on the eighteenth. Speer was an intellectual foreign to the dictates of strategy ; and it was the ministers fortieth birthday next day. But his indulgence toward Speer cooled when he learned a week later through Party channels that Speer had secretly driven to the west to sabotage Hitlers orders for a scorched-earth policy to slow down the enemy advance. Hitler had issued these orders on March 19, after Keitels orders issued in January had failed to prevent the scandalous events of Upper Silesia and the Saar, where entire industries had fallen intact into enemy hands. Hitlers emphatic directive called for the destruction of all military installations and transport-, communications- and publicutility equipment insofar as they may be of use to the enemy in the furtherance of his fight.(4)
Both Speer and his energetic deputy, Karl-Otto Saur, shuttled between Berlin and the Ruhr, but Hitler soon learned that their purposes were very different. Saur admitted that further production in the Ruhr was hopeless, but he bitterly criticized the response of the General Staff officers there to his own expressions of optimism. Speer on the other hand had spread despondency and gloom, infecting everybody he had met and urging them to turn their factories over to the enemy intact. Meanwhile the American spearheads were plunging deeper and deeper into Germany. At Hanau and Aschaffenburg two more key bridges fell undemolished into their hands. Probably only Speers friendship with Hitler and Eva Braun now spared him from an unkinder fate. Late on March 28 the F¸hrer coldly received him and instructed him to stand down as armaments minister, giving the customary ill-health plea as an excuse. Speer clearly lacked the necessary faith that the tide could still turn in their favor, the F¸hrer pointed out. Speer flushed and protested, but Hitler challenged him outright. Do you still hope for a successful continuation of the war, or is your faith shattered ? When after twenty-four hours Speer had still not given him a straight answer, Hitler virtually sacked him, although he continued to value his presence at the Chancellery as a friend. Meanwhile, Jodl and his military staff attempted to put Hitlers defense doctrines into practiceinstilling into the western army group commanders the need to bring home to the enemy that they were plunging into a Germany fanatical with fighting spirit. Only this would enable the western front to be stabilized. This is not the time or place for considering the civilian population, the OKW order concluded.
Bormann added his own characteristic warning to his Gauleiters : Devil take the one who deserts his Gau under enemy attack except with express orders from the F¸hrer, or who does not fight to the last breath in his bodyhe will be cast out as a deserter and dealt with accordingly.
Hitler spent the last week in March 1945 purging his followers of the faint of heart. Hans Lammers, his chief of Chancellery, came for the last time on the twenty-seventh and mentioned his high blood pressure ; Hitler sent him to Berchtesgaden on sick leave. On March 29 he dismissed General Guderian too, fearing that when the crisis came his poor health would produce a breakdown similar to his collapse in the Moscow winter of 1941. General Hans Krebs, a young and tough idealist strongly reminiscent of Zeitzler in his heyday, took over as Chief of the General Staff. Heinrich Himmler had also fallen from grace, for the SS Sixth Panzer Army in Hungary under SS General Sepp Dietrich had not only failed in its big counterattack north of Lake Balaton, but had been routed and thrown back onto the Austrian frontier. Nothing could stop the Russians from pouring into Vienna ; the Hungarian oil fields were lost. If we lose the war, it will be his fault ! Hitler raged, and ordered that as a punishment Sepp Dietrichs principal divisions were to be stripped of their brassards and insignia for three days. Himmler was packed off to Vienna to issue a stern reprimand to his Waffen SS generals.
Guderians dismissal resulted from a similar defeat just east of Berlin. Hitler had clung to the ancient city of K¸strin to deny its important Oder bridges and road junctions to the Russians ; since mid-March he had been preparing a limited counterattack toward K¸strin from his own Frankfurt bridgehead, hoping to destroy the enemy assault forces massing for the attack on Berlin. But before General Theodor Busses Ninth Army could begin the counterattack, the Russians struck and encircled K¸strin completely ; Busses own attack on March 22 failed, but Hitler insisted that it must be repeated immediately. General Heinrici, Himmlers successor as army group commander, came to the bunker in person on March 25 to argue for K¸strin to be abandoned to the enemy so that he could conserve what ammunition and gasoline he had for the big defensive battle looming ahead. But again Hitler insisted on a policy of attack. A purely defensive stance would allow the Russians to pounce at willthe German reserves would be tied down in hasty repair jobs, and then Heinrici would begin clamoring for new reserves all over again. Since the enemy will always be stronger than us, Hitler wearily reminded him, they will then ultimately break through and that will be your downfall. Their only hope was to throw rapid punches at the enemy before they were ready to attack, delaying them week after week while Hitler stockpiled ammunition for the major battle. Most Russian strength was massing south of K¸strinparticularly artillery. Hitler admitted that a renewed counterattack here would be a gamble, but with the necessary faith, he insisted, it would succeed.(5)
The new attack began on March 28. The German tanks reached K¸strins outskirts, but once again the infantry failed to follow through and the tanks were brought back. Against Hitlers explicit orders the K¸strin garrison then broke out to the west, knifing through Russian lines which Heinrici and Busse had described as impenetrable. Hitler summoned General Busse to the bunker and informed him of his displeasure. Guderian loudly and intemperately defended him, purpling with rage. Hitler cleared the bunker conference room and advised Guderian : You need sick leave. I dont think your heart can stand the strain. Come back in six weeks.
Along the Oder, Marshal Zhukov had assembled over 750,000 troops for the offensive ; farther south along the Neisse Marshal Konev had 500,000 more under his command. Additional Soviet forces were approaching from the battlefields of East and West Prussia, but Hitler believed that the attack might begin without them, because the Russians were determined to reach Berlin before the Americans.
On the day after Guderians dismissal Hitler issued a clear-sighted appraisal of the situation now that we have failed to shatter the enemy preparations by counterattack. He demanded a fanatical defense effort by Army Group Vistula, from General Heinrici himself right down to the youngest recruit. In particular Hitler ordered Heinrici to construct a main battle line two to four miles behind the present front linea bitter lesson he had learned from the Americans on the dawn of his own Ardennes offensive. The moment the Russian offensive was seriously anticipated, Heinrici was to fall back on this second line ; the huge enemy artillery bombardment would then fall on the empty trenches of the original front line. Heinrici was also ordered to resite his artillery farther back, where it could saturate the countryside between the present front and the main battle line when the Russian attack began.(6)
Thus his malevolently brilliant brain was still functioning logically and flexibly, even though his physical frame was a palsied shadow of the Hitler that had sprung this war on central Europe in 1939. His doctors were unanimous in agreeing that his sanity remained intact until the end, even though he could not walk more than thirty paces without gripping something firm for support, and his bloodshot eyes became so poor that he had to put on his spectacles even to read documents typed on the special big-face typewriters. His hair had turned an ashen gray, and Morell observed in Hitler for the first time now fetor ex orethe clinical description of bad breath. But when frontline commanders were brought down to the shelter, his willpower and perseverance appeared undiminishedthe central powerhouse, coordinating and commanding, that alone seemed to enable Germany to withstand the onslaught of the whole world in indignant coalition against her. A year before he had dominated all Europe from the North Cape to the Crimea and the Spanish frontier ; now millions of enemy troops were only an hours drive away, east and west of his capital, and his headquarters was this shelter. Yet the admiration of his strategic advisers was unimpaired. Looking at the whole picture, General Jodl unashamedly told his interrogators, I am convinced that he was a great military leader. Certainly no historian can say that Hannibal was a poor general just because ultimately Carthage was destroyed. Admiral D–nitz, himself no simpleton, unreservedly echoed this judgment on Hitler.
For Hitler the spring had brought encouraging signs for the future, which blinded him to the remorseless approach of the enemy armies. Hundreds of the new jets were now reaching the squadrons. Jet reconnaissance planes had reopened the skies over England and Scotland. On March 17 the first Mark XXI submarinecapable of voyaging submerged to Japanhad set forth, bound eventually for the east coast of the United States. Underground oil plants were being built by the SS. He and the General Staff believed that Stalin could be held off, for Soviet tank losses were outrunning production : in February, Stalin had lost 4,600, against a monthly output of only 2,300 ; in the first twenty-two days of March no fewer than 5,452 Soviet tanks were claimed destroyed. The enemys reserves will shortly be exhausted, the General Staff assured the F¸hrer. Stalin had been provoked into launching a sixth attack on Hitlers besieged army in Kurland ; again he had suffered a bloody defeat, and he made no further attempts. In the beleaguered fortresses of Breslau and K–nigsberg German garrisons were still holding out. And as long as I have K–nigsberg I can still claim to the German people that East Prussia is not lost, Hitler explained in private. On the Czech frontier, the tough General Ferdinand Sch–rner fought a grim twenty-day defensive battle for the industrial city of Moravian Ostrau (Ostrava) which ended on April 3 in a convincing victory for his Army Group Center. Hitler appointed him field marshal.
During the first week of April 1945 this optimism was severely shaken. On April 2 the Reich surgeon general, Dr. Karl Brandt, privately warned him that one-fifth of all essential medical items was already unobtainable, and that stocks of two-fifths more would run out completely in two months. This put the shortest time-fuse yet on Hitlers strategy : without medicines disease and epidemic would cut his people down. Now that the Ruhr and Saar arsenals had been overrun, crippling production shortages in weapons, small arms, ammunition, and explosives made a mockery of his efforts to raise fresh divisions from the Hitler Youth or Reich Labor Service battalions. Virtually all aircraft production had ceased ; the ground-attack and air-transport squadrons were already running out of replacement aircraft. An airlift to Field Marshal Models Army Group B, encircled in the Ruhr pocket, was out of the question. The Breslau garrison was barely surviving, but in K–nigsbergdespite Hitlers repeated instructions that the fortress was to be held to the last man-the commandant, General Otto Lasch, surrendered to the Russians on April 9 ; during the following night Hitler ordered a message sent to all surviving command posts and radio units at K–nigsberg : General Lasch is to be shot as a traitor immediately.
But which generals heeded Hitlers orders now ? His authority was waning, and they were beginning to act arbitrarily, in disregard and ignorance of the central strategy laid down in Berlin. Blomberg always told me that obedience stops short at generals, Hitler was to recall a few days before the end. At his midday war conference on April 1, Hitler had expressly laid down : Anybody retreating in Austria is to be shot ! But now every day Martin Bormann submitted sheafs of telegrams from the angry and bewildered Gauleiters reporting the Wehrmachts headlong retreat from across the Hungarian frontier. During the afternoon of April 5, General Otto W–hlers Army Group South retreated fifty miles, Bormann jotted in his diary : The Bolsheviks are outside Vienna ! But Hitler merely sacked the general and replaced him with Lothar Rendulic, the gritty general who had just thwarted Stalins last assault on the Kurland army group. One of Bormanns Party officials had telephoned that night : None of the army group gentlemenmeaning W–hlers staff has the slightest faith in their ability to hold off the enemy penetration into the [Zisterdorf] petroleum fields ; nor in fact, and this I must state plainly, do they believe we can still win. The Luftwaffe blew up all Viennas searchlight sites on the night of April 3 without a word to the army group. In the Lower Danube Gau the Wehrmacht rout goes on.
Zisterdorf, outside Vienna, was Hitlers only remaining source of petroleum. On April 6 he ordered its defense until the last possible moment. Vienna itself seemed bent on suicide. From there SS Colonel Skorzeny reported on the tenth that while the tank brigades were running out of gasoline, retreating Luftwaffe units were passing through with truckloads of girls and furniture; a handful of tough SS commanders could stop the routhe himself had just ordered three traitors hanged from a bridge. Three days later Vienna was overrun.
Warilybecause he knew Hitlers loathing of astrologersDr. Goebbels had sent for the F¸hrers horoscope, which the Gestapo kept filed away. Two separate horoscopes came to a remarkably unanimous conclusionand both could be interpreted as having already predicted the outbreak of war in 1939, the victories until 1941, and the hammer blows of defeat since then ; the hardest blows, they prophesised, would fall in this first half of April, while the second half would temporarily give Germany the upper hand again. A period of stalemate would follow until August 1945, in which month peace would return. After three cruel years, the horoscopes concluded, Germanys ascent to greatness would be resumed in 1948.
Stalins big Oder offensive might begin any day now. General Theodor Busse was confident that his Ninth Army could stop it from reaching Berlin. In the west, Hitler planned to launch in mid-April a counterattack against the long exposed American flank as they thrust eastward. Goebbels strove to persuade Hitler not to lose hope, for he was sure the clash between Russia and the West must come within the next three to four monthsby August 1945, in short. Early in April he came to the shelter and, in his melodious and theatrical voice, read aloud to Hitler from Carlyles fine description of the darkest hours of the Seven Years War. It was a moment in which Frederick the Great saw no way out, his generals and ministers were convinced of imminent defeat, and Prussias enemies already gloated over its fall. With an uncertain future stretching darkly before him the great king wrote one last letter to Count Finckenstein proclaiming that if the tide had not turned by a certain date he would accept defeat and swallow poison.
Here Carlyle apostrophized :
Brave King ! Tarry awhile, because your days of travail will soon pass. Already the sun has risen behind the clouds of your misfortune, and soon it will shine forth.
Three days before the kings deadline, the Czarina Elizabeth died, the accession of Peter III took Russia out of the war, and thus the House of Brandenburg was saved. Goebbels saw tears starting in Hitlers eyes as he laid the book aside.
Putting himself in Stalins now enviable shoes, Hitler himself believed the buildup before Berlin was only a feint and that the real Russian offensive would first be toward Prague. Stalin must surely intend to embrace the important Czech industrial region before his American rivals could reach itjust as Hitler had striven for the Donets Basin and the Caucasus in 1941. Hitler had chided General Guderian : The Russians wont be as stupid as us. We were dazzled by our nearness to Moscow and just had to capture the capital. Remember, Guderianyou were the one who wanted to be first into Moscow at the head of your army ! And just look at the consequences ! Whether this was intuition or on General Staff advice the records do not disclose, but at this crucial juncture, he impulsively ordered General Busse to relinquish four SS panzer divisions to Sch–rners army group defending Czechoslovakia.
In early March, Sch–rner had commanded 413,000 troops, and 527,000 more were under Heinricis command ; since then Hitler had moved strong reinforcements to the Oder and Neisse fronts. The Soviet forces were not so overwhelming in terms of troop strength as they were in purely material strength : tens of thousands of Russian guns and rocket launchers waited mutely on the Oders higher eastern bank overlooking the German positions ; the Luftwaffe was powerless to interfere. Against the enemys frightening tank superiority, Hitler could set only his own antitank and antiaircraft batteries, and the bravery of individual tank-killer squads equipped with hand-held bazookas. Yet he was confident of a swift victory. He summoned General Heinrici to the shelter again on April 4 and subjected the Oder defenses to a mile-by-mile scrutiny. He reminded Heinrici of the need to lay down deadly minefields at the obvious Schwerpunkt positions ; he ordered the Ninth Army to drive tunnels into the strategically crucial Seelow Heightswhich commanded the marshy valley west of K¸strin through which the Russian attack must advanceto protect the armys reserves from enemy artillery. He gave Heinrici control of all army and Luftwaffe antiaircraft batteries and warned him against Seydlitz officers infiltrating in German uniforms. Behind the main front line, thousands of trees were being felled and antitank trenches dug. Evidence of Russian occupation methods, seen by General Busses officers and troops in villages they had recaptured, determined them to keep Soviet forces from advancing one more yard into Europe.
By April 11 American forces had reached the Elbe at Magdeburgonly sixty miles from Berlin. Hitler was told that a Russian deserter had revealed that the Oder offensive would begin in four days time, but he suspected it might come even earlier, as the Russians would want to reach Berlin before the Americans. Again he asked for a complete report on Heinricis army group. He was assured that no other sector in Germany was so powerfully manned with troops and artillery. He congratulated Heinricis officers. The Russians are going to suffer their bloodiest defeat ever ! But late on April 12 he admitted to his staff that he was uneasy about the sector east of Cottbuswhere Sch–rners and Heinricis army groups met at the junction of Oder and Neisse.
One thing was certain : he could not fight a long battle of attrition because his stocks of aviation fuel would keep the Luftwaffe airborne over the Oder battlefield for only a few days, andas the quartermaster general warned explicitly on April 15all German munitions supplies would shortly cease. Their munitions factories and dumps were almost all in enemy hands. There may shortly occur the most momentous consequences for our entire war effort, the general had warned.
As American troops advanced across Thuringia, Hitler was confronted with the problem of the concentration camps. G–ring advised him to turn them over intact and under guard to the Western Allies, who would sort out the criminals from the foreign laborers and Russian prisoners, thus preventing hordes of embittered ex-convicts from roaming the countryside and inflicting additional horrors on the law-abiding. Hitler did not share G–rings trust in the enemy. Sitting casually on the edge of the map table after one war conference, he instructed Himmlers representative to ensure that all inmates were liquidated or evacuated before the camps were overrun.
Nor had he forgotten his special collection of prominent prisonersamong them his star defendants for planned postwar trials. On April 8 prison officials loaded them aboard prison vans for transfer to the south. There was a kaleidoscope of famous names : the Schuschnigg family, General Thomas, Dr. Schacht, General Halder, Molotovs nephew, Captain S. Payne Best (a British Intelligence officer kidnapped in Venlo, Holland, in November 1939), and Colonel Bogislaw von Bonin. Behind them at Flossenb¸rg camp they left Admiral Canaris and General Oster. A few days before, General Buhle had stumbled by chance on the long-sought secret diaries of Canaris, and they sealed the Abwehr chiefs fate. He and General Oster were hanged after a summary court-martial on the ninth. The surviving VIPs were moved to Dachau, near Munich. A vague notion of continuing the war from the easily defended mountain region of Bohemia, Bavaria, and northern Italy had begun to crystalize in Hitlers brain. When Gauleiter Franz Hofer came from the Tirol on April 9 and urged Hitler to abandon most of northern Italyarguing that the only arms production of any significance came from the South Tirolthe F¸hrer pointed out that virtually the entire arms effort now relied on electrosteel supplied by northern Italy. Late on April 10 he ordered Karl-Otto SaurSpeers de facto successor as armaments ministerto investigate the possibility of creating an independent arms industry in the Alps.
If the remaining Reich was cut in two by the American and Russian spearheads, military governments under Admiral D–nitz and Field Marshal Kesselring would rule the northern and southern Reich respectivelya curious but significant rebuff by Hitler to the Partys ambitions. He briefed Kesselring at length late on April 12. Kesselring ever after recalled the F¸hrers radiant optimism. Id even say, in retrospect, he was a man possessed by the idea that he might yet be savedhe clutched at it like a drowning man at straws. Hitler talked of the coming great victory on the Oder, of his new secret weapons, of the Twelfth Army he was raising under General Wenck to defeat the Allies on the Elbe, and of the coming rupture between the Russians and the West. General Busse, commanding the Ninth Army on the Oder, shared Hitlers confidence. If need be, well stand fast here until the Americans are kicking us in the arse, he said, earthily expressing his strategic convictions to Goebbels that evening ; and the propaganda minister assured Busses more skeptical staff that if there was any justice, some miracle would surely save the Reich, just as the House of Brandenburg had been saved in 1762. With gentle irony an officer inquired, Which Czarina is going to die, then ? All along the Oder, a troublesome Russian artillery activity had just begun.
The news of President Franklin Delano Roosevelts sudden death on April 12 in Warm Springs, Georgia, reached Hitler only a few minutes after an American news agency announced it that night. Goebbels telephoned, his voice shrill with excitement. Mein F¸hrer, I congratulate you ! Now Roosevelt is dead ! It is written in the stars that the second half of April will be the turning point for us. This is the turning point ! All Hitlers ministers agreed that God had wrought a swift and terrible Judgment on their hated enemy. Speer and other doubting Thomases were fetched. Hitler brandished the news agency report at them. Do you still say we have lost the war !
The next morning he began dictating his famous proclamation to his soldiers on the eastern frontto be released the moment Stalins offensive began :
For one last time our mortal enemies, the Jewish Bolsheviks, are throwing their weight into the attack. They are attempting to shatter Germany and annihilate our people. You soldiers in the east already know full well the fate awaiting German women and children. The older men and children will be murdered, women and girls will be debased to barrack-room whores. The rest will go on foot to Siberia.
We have been expecting this attack, and since this January everything has been done to build up a strong front. A mighty artillery is waiting to greet the enemy. Our infantry losses have been made good by innumerable new units.... This time the Bolsheviks will meet the old fate of Asiathey must and shall bleed to death at the gates of the German Reichs capital.
Whoever fails in his duty now is a traitor to our people. The regiment or division that abandons its position will be a disgrace to the women and children who have withstood the bombing terror in our cities.
Again Hitler warned them to be on guard against German traitors in the pay of Stalin and perhaps even wearing German uniforms. Berlin stays German ! Viennawhich the Russians had overrun that very April 13will be German again. Europe will never be Russian.
He issued the proclamation to the army groups that night. It closed with a reference to Roosevelt. At this moment when fate has carried off the greatest War Criminal of all times from the face of this earth, the wars turning point has come.
Hitler seemed to have shut his eyes to the possibility that Berlin itself might become a battlefield ; but late on April 13, 1945, when Ribbentrop spoke with him ; he gave permission for the nervous diplomatic corps to leave the capital for southern Germany. The next day the shelling of Busses positions increased, and two hundred Russian tanks launched attacks of up to regimental strength ; ninety-eight tanks were destroyed. April 15 brought a lull. According to a Russian prisoner, the attacks had been for reconnaissance purposes.
It was on this day that Eva Braun unexpectedly arrived back in Berlin. Some of those who knew Hitler intimately found the decision to remain at his side comparatively easy. The last letter from one of his adjutants to his wife admitted, however : It is certainly hard for us men to stand in our last battle far from our families, knowing that our wives and children will later have to face the trials of life alone. But hundreds of thousands of others have found the strength, and I am trying to set an example, however humble, to all my compatriots.
During the night General Wencks new army succeeded in destroying one American bridgehead on the Elbe south of Magdeburg and in reducing another. But a Russian prisoner taken south of K¸strin revealed that the big Oder offensive would begin the next morning, April 16he spoke of a colossal artillery barrage and of mighty new tanks and howitzers standing by, and he reported that the Red Army troops had been ordered to tidy up their uniforms and wash and shave every day to make a cultivated impression from now on. This had the ring of authenticity ; Hitler ordered Busses Ninth Army pulled back during the remaining hours of darkness into the secret second line of defense (a line which, he now learned, Heinrici had built without much enthusiasm). At his midnight conference Hitler learned with stabbing misgivings of a puzzling request by General Heinricifor permission to transfer his army group HQ to a new site which Hitler found, after much searching on the map, to be to the rear of Berlin and thus behind the F¸hrers own headquarters.(7) He flatly forbade such a transfer and again ordered General Krebs to telephone instructions to the army group to build up its rear positions as fast as possible.
Too late, these afterthoughts. At 5 A.M. the next morning, April 16, a mighty Russian artillery barrage began all along the Oder and Neisse rivers. Nearly half a million shells thundered down on thenow virtually abandonedGerman forward positions. At 6:30 A.M. Zhukovs tanks and infantry began pouring across both sides of the Frankfurt-on-Oder strongpoint still held by Busses Ninth Army ; an hour later the main assault on the Fourth Panzer Army defending the Neisse front began. Savage battles developed between tank and gun, while overhead two thousand Russian planes bombed and harrassed the defenders ; the German air force threw all it had into the battle. Sixty planes manned by suicide pilots crash-bombed the Oder bridges across which the enemy was flooding westward. By nightfall, although a five-mile-deep breach had been torn into the front near Wriezen, held only by the ill-experienced 9th Paratroop Division, there was no doubt in the Chancellery that a resounding defeat had been inflicted on the enemy.
Christa Schroeder asked quietly whether they would now be leaving Berlin. Hitler answered almost resentfully, No. Calm downBerlin will always be German ! The secretary replied that she was not afraid and regarded her life as spent already. But I cant quite see how its all going to end, with the Americans coming closer every day on one side and the Russians on the other.
Time ! explained Hitler. Weve just got to gain time !
1 Thus Admiral D–nitz advised his commanders on March 3, 1945 : Let us place our trust unconditionally in Adolf Hitlers leadership. Believe me, in my two years as Navy Commander in Chief I have found that his strategic views always turned out right.
2 Some words are missing from Kollers note, as his papers decayed during the postwar years of burial and concealment. Count Lutz Schwerin von Krosigk also noted in his unpublished diary a talk with Goebbels on April 9, 1945, in which Goebbels described how Germany had put out cautious peace feelers. The Russians and Americans had reacted positively, but the British had rejected them out of hand.
3 Perhaps Speer was exaggerating when he claimed under Allied interrogation a few weeks later that he had counted up all the acts of high treason which he had committed from the end of January onward and had arrived at a total of over sixty.
4 In his memoirs Speer omits the words I quote.
5 Cornelius Ryan omitted mention of this conference of March 25, 1945, in The Last Battle (New York, 1966) andrelying on an alleged diary of General Heinricirefers to a conference on April 6 as the first with Hitler. The war diaries of Army Group Vistula and the OKH operations staff establish the correct date as the fourth.
6 Unaware of this Hitler Order of March 30, 1945, Cornelius Ryan in The Last Battle, pages 299, 342, and 351, gives Heinrici the credit for this stratagem.
7 In defiance of the orders he had accepted from Hitler, Heinrici had secretly decided that if his Oder front collapsed, he would abandon Berlin to the enemy without even the pretense of a fight. He did not inform Hitler of thisalthough the decision affected not only his own two armies, but also the defenders of Berlin and the capitals three million civilian inhabitants. Albert Speer claimed to have brought about Heinricis remarkable decision in a secret conference with him on April 15, 1945.
p. 777 See e.g., the teletype from Foreign Armies East to the General Staff on April 16, 1945 (T78/304/5405).
p. 778 Copies of Admiral D–nitzs notes to his commanders are in Bormanns files (T81/5/2954 et seq.)
pp. 778-79 On Operation Werewolfthe Luftwaffe kamikaze attacksee the OKL war diary, March 18 and April 3, 6, and 7, 1945. It is not even mentioned in Schramms OKW war diary.
p. 779 In generally describing life in Hitlers Berlin bunker I used the manuscripts or testimony of Schaub, Christa Schroeder, Speer, Puttkamer, G–hler, Below, Scheidt, Guderian, Saur, Jodl, Keitel, G¸nsche, General Erich Dethleffsen, and others.
p. 780 The outburst is described by General Koller in a letter to the Nuremberg lawyer Professor Franz Exner dated March 25, 1946, and independently by the attending staff stenographer Gerhard Herrgesell, July 19, 1945. A few days beforehand, Professor Gieslers mother had been killed on the road from Stuttgart to Ulm by an Allied fighter plane, which may have influenced Hitler.
pp. 780-81 Schmiedens failure is related in his interrogations. Fritz Hesse went to Sweden on February 17 with Ribbentrops peace proposals ; but on March 15 the Swedish journalist Arvid Fredborg compromised them in a Svenska Dagbladet article, Nazistis fredstrevare gjordes via Stockholm?which, according to Karl Wolff, Kaltenbrunner at once reported to Hitler. See S¸ndermanns diary, March 18, on this.
Ribbentrop described the Moellhausen mission in some detail, but the diplomat touches on it only barely in Die gebrochene Achse (Alfeld/Leine, 1949), page 280. An interrogation of Dr. Ernst Jahr, chief of the ecclesiastical affairs branch of the Gestapo, stated on May 3, 1946, that Ribbentrop had also sent Bishop Heckeldirector of the foreign affairs section of the German Evangelical churchto Stockholm during March 1945 to open up ecclesiastical channels to London.
p. 781 The quotation is from General Kollers diary, March 28, 1945. See too G–rings OCMH interrogation, July 20, 1945.
p. 781 At Hitlers conference on March 8, 1945, after the Remagen bridge scandal, S¸ndermann noted in his diary : The F¸hrer also plans to send in flying courts-martial to stamp out these signs of dissolution. I have noted down two of his angry outbursts : Only Russian methods can help us now, and If we lose the war the Germans will be exter‚minated anywayso its a good thing to exterminate some of these creatures now. The Remagen culprits were executed.
pp. 782-83 Among Robert Leys papers I found a long manuscript he wrote about Hitler in August 1945. It is among the files of the American prosecutor Justice Robert H. Jackson, who recommended that Leys papers should be destroyed after his Nuremberg suicide.
pp. 783-84 For my account of Iron Hammer I used Kollers papers, the OKL war diary, Gehlens files (H3/653), and a teletype from Himmler to Fegelein, March 13, 1945 (T311/169/0831).
p. 785 Speer gives his version of his talk with Hitler in a letter to him dated March 29, 1945but he never delivered it. His Allied interrogators recorded that although Speer had hoped to withhold the letter from them because of its purely personal language, they found it nonetheless. But there can be no doubt that Speer did put up a tough fight against the destruction orders. On April 3, 1945, Milch noted in his diary a session of the transport staff Hitler had set up under Speer in mid-February : Speer relates his battle with F[¸hrer] over demolitions.
p. 785 Bormann circulated the OKW order (signed by Jodl) to all Gauleiters on March 30, 1945 (T81/5/3034 et seq.).
p. 786 In addition to Heinricis notesappended to the war diary of his army group (T311/169)a valuable source is General Theodor Busses article on the Ninth Armys operations in WR, 1955, pages 159 et seq. I also used the daily notes written by Guderians and Krebss adjutants after Hitlers conferences (T78/305).
p. 787 In an OCMH interrogation of July 21, 1945, Admiral D–nitz echoed Jodls words to the USSBS on June 29 : Despite the defeat at Carthage the people admired Hannibal, didnt they ? And despite our German defeat the people still admire Hitler. The admiral added, Hitler was a man with an abundance of good nature. His mistake was that he was too noble. He persisted too much in his loyalty toward people who didnt deserve it. This trait in Hitler was also referred to by G–ringof all people (OCMH interrogation, July 23).
p. 787 The first Mark XXI submarine (U-2511, Captain Adalbert Schnee) put out on March 17, 1945, but was delayed in home waters by air raids and did not finally commence operations from Bergen until April 30only to be recalled almost immediately by D–nitz upon Hitlers death.
pp. 788-89 There is a folder of the Gauleiters teletype reports to Bormann during April 1945 on microfilm T580/43; I also used his diary, which was found on a corpse‚presumably hisin Berlin early in May.
p. 789 Goebbels related all this to Schwerin von Krosigk ; see the latters diary, April 15, 1945.
p. 790 Hitlers erroneous supposition that Stalin would first drive into Bohemia is clear from the adjutants notes on his war conferences from March 28 to April 6 (T78/305).
p. 791 Quartermaster general Alfred Toppes letter to Keitel, April 15, 1945, is on microfilm T77/778.
p. 791 One of the participants in the conferences where Hitler ordered the liquidation of the convicts gave me the information ; himself an SS major, he asked for his identity not to be divulged.
p. 792 Busses words are quoted by Goebbels in the Schwerin von Krosigk diary.
p. 793 On the evacuation of the diplomatic corps, see the memo of May 1, 1945, in the Ribbentrop papers (T580/266). The adjutant quoted is Albrecht. After his letter of April 9, his wife heard no more of himhe was presumed killed in the defense of the Chancel‚lery.
p. 793 The prisoner interrogations were reported by Colonel Gerhard Wessel on April 15, 1945 (T78/305).
p. 794 After the war Speer made little secret of his part in persuading Heinrici to abandon Berlin to the Russians without much fight. See his CIOS interrogation, June 1, 1945, and his conversation with Milch shortly before his departure to Spandau prison (diary, July 1947). Hitler stayed in Berlin to organize the resistance. This Speer thwarted with General Heinrici and his Chief of Staff Kinzel, who sacrificed Berlin at his request. Only thus could be prevented the large-scale demolition of Berlin bridges and factories which Hitler had ordained should the battle come. In his recent Memoirs, Speer rather identifies Heinrici himself as the mastermind. The general had disclosed : There wont be any fight over Berlin. Speer : So Berlin will be swiftly captured ? Heinrici : Well, there wont be any real resistance. There is a record of Speers visit to Heinricis HQ on April 15, 1945, in the army group war diary (T311/169/1719), but it is vague on this point : Speer was against any battle for Berlin because of the civilian casualtiesa sound argumentand because of the destruction of vital industrial and traffic bridges Hitler had ordered. The record then states that should Army Group Vistulas front be breached, it proposed to pull back Ninth Army on both sides past Berlin. (Hitler, of course, was never told this.) However, Hitler himself had on April 4, 1945, personally instructed Heinrici that a commission must immediately be set up to prepare and supervise the demolition of bridges in Greater Berlin, but that on no account were the principal traffic bridges to be so prepared (General Staff diary, annexes, T78/305/6931 and 6945). In the circumstances it is difficult to understand Albert Speers meddling in purely military affairs.
p. 794 The words are from Fr”ulein Christa Schroeders shorthand notes written in May 1945 and transcribed at my request.