We’re issuing orders in Berlin that practically don’t even arrive, let alone can be carried out. I see in this the danger of an extraordinary diminution of authority.
Joseph Goebbels, diary entry, 28 March 1945
Berlin in April 1945 was a city bracing itself for the storm about to blow. All possible preparations were being hastily made to try to counter the coming onslaught from the east. Everyone knew that it could not be long before the city was engulfed in the fighting. The mood had reached rock bottom. Only the occasional expression of gallows humour punctuated the fatalistic acceptance that there was no way out.1 But as the seemingly interminable dark days of those truly terrible winter months of 1944–5 gradually gave way to a sunny and warm spring, some Berliners tried their best to shut out the war for a few fleeting moments.
For anyone passing through the Tiergarten, the beautiful park in the centre of the city (if now horribly damaged, occupied by heavy artillery and serving as a source of much needed firewood), beneath trees coming into bloom and accompanied by the chirping of the birds, or looking out from the balconies of spacious villas in the Grunewald, on the western outskirts of Berlin, the war could seem far away (though the ruins of some villas could provide a swift reminder). But fleetingly pleasant activities, unremarkable strands of peacetime everyday life, were in early April 1945 no more than an attempt to ‘seize the day’, to grasp what might be one of the last chances of enjoyment before grim reality overtook them.
Others sought to ‘seize the night’ as women and soldiers in districts of central Berlin frantically engaged in ‘a hectic search for pleasure’ in shelters, basements of buildings reduced to rubble and dark pathways through the ruins. Looting and thieving were commonplace. Despite the harsh penalties, a black market flourished in food and almost any material goods to be found. Resort to any form of alcohol – including stolen medical supplies – served for many to blot out fears of what was in store.2
Whatever illusions people still briefly entertained swiftly passed. And in any case only a few were in a position to share them. Most were too worn down by cares and worries, trying to cope with the severe privations of daily existence. For the city, like every other big city in the country, was in physical appearance and the psychological disposition of its inhabitants deeply scarred by the war. The main feature of Berlin’s outward appearance was, in fact, not just the devastated city centre, the desolate façades, the bomb craters, the ruined buildings that were no more than empty shells, but its emptiness – the lack of traffic and people on the streets, the shops bereft of goods, the houses without furniture.3 At night, ‘a ghost town of cave-dwellers was all that was left of this world metropolis’, noted one observer.4 Practically every evening, as people ate their meals by flickering candlelight – since electricity usage was heavily rationed – sirens would announce the latest air raid and lead to the nightly descent into the nearest shelter. It was a sharp tug out of any reveries – a reminder that the end was fast approaching, and that the Red Army was only a short distance away, poised to launch its attack on the Reich capital.
Hitler’s own dreamworld during nocturnal visits to the cellars of the New Reich Chancellery as he sat by the model, constructed by his architect Hermann Giesler, of his home town of Linz as it would appear at the end of a victorious war provided him, too, with a momentary distraction from the clammy pressure of the war. Beyond that, his fantasies fitted the mask that he wore even now, refusing to concede to himself or anyone else that his world had collapsed into ruins. He had, at the latest since the failure of the Ardennes offensive, known that defeat was certain. But he could not openly admit it. This was part of the continuing act of the indomitable Führer which he had unceasingly upheld throughout the mounting adversity – the constant pretence, to himself as well as his entourage, that all would eventually turn out well. His dreams and illusions were a defiance of the reality gripping him most of the time – of a lost war, and of an imminent end that had to follow his own death. Since he could never contemplate surrender, as long as he lived the immense suffering and destruction of the war would continue. And since he would not allow himself to be captured, suicide was the only way out. His monstrous ego had led him long since to conclude that the German people had proved themselves unworthy of him. Their defeat had shown them to be weak. They did not deserve to survive. He could weep no tears for them. But he had yet to decide when and where to end his own life.
For those in his entourage, who saw him on a daily basis, his authority remained utterly unquestioned. Beyond the bunker, deep below the garden of the Reich Chancellery in the centre of Berlin, that he had made his last home since returning from the western front in mid-January, it was a different matter. The Reich itself had drastically shrunk. Goebbels pointed out on 9 April that German possessions were by now reduced to little more than a narrow band running southwards from Norway to the Adriatic coast of northern Italy.5 Much of what had been the Reich was by now under enemy occupation and beyond Hitler’s reach. And for most ordinary people in areas still under German rule, Hitler had long been a shadowy presence, someone encountered only through the occasional proclamation or newsreel pictures – though they were aware that as long as he lived there would be no end to their misery. For the Gauleiter, the regional rulers of the Reich, his writ was ceasing to run. It was not that they thought of openly challenging his authority. They had been his loyal viceroys for years, the pivot of his power in the provinces. And even now the consequences of any rebellious acts were to be feared. But huge communications problems and the advances of the western Allies meant that control from Berlin was scarely possible any longer. They had to tackle the situation confronting them directly, not await often unrealistic and impracticable orders from Berlin. In any case, it was obvious that Germany could hold out at best for only a week or two longer. Most of Hitler’s henchmen thought of little beyond saving their skins. Few of them contemplated leaping into the funeral pyre with their Leader.
As Nazi rule disintegrated ever more rapidly and fragmentation took the place of any semblance of centralized governance, the regime increasingly ‘ran amok’.6 Police, SS, and regional and local Party officials took matters into their own hands in the ferocious repression of anything hinting at rebellion or attempts to prevent senseless last-minute destruction. ‘Internal enemies’ were at extreme risk as Nazi desperadoes turned on them in the last agony of the regime, determined to exact revenge for their hostility, and to ensure that they would not be able to exult in triumph at the downfall of Nazism. And the fate that had befallen the prisoners of the concentration camps in the east was inflicted upon those in the remainder of the Reich, forced out of the horrendous hellholes and, in one final spurt of intense terror, dragooned onto seemingly aimless death marches. Now, as before, as the regime visibly fell apart its leaders in the Party and in the military lacked both the unity of spirit and will and the organizational capacity – which the Italian Fascist leaders had exercised in toppling Mussolini in July 1943 – to confront Hitler and try, even at the final hour, to halt Germany’s descent into the abyss. The last act in the drama remained, therefore, to be played out.
With the loss of the Rhine front in March, any lingering logic to continuing the war in the west had evaporated. Nevertheless, the generals fought on. Keitel and Jodl in the High Command of the Wehrmacht and the Commander-in-Chief West, Field-Marshal Kesselring, had believed, so they later claimed, to the end of March that they could prevent the total collapse of the front on the Rhine and stabilize for a while the position in the west.7 The only faint rationality was presumably the old one of buying time for the western Allies to recognize that their true enemy lay in the east, bringing the collapse of the ‘unholy’ coalition with the Soviet Union and allowing the remnants of the Wehrmacht to find new purpose by joining with the western powers against the Red Army. If that did represent the thinking at the time, it was by now even more obviously the mere pipe dream it had always been. With victory so close, the last thing on the minds of Roosevelt and Churchill was breaking with the Soviet allies who continued to bear the brunt of the human losses in the fight to crush Hitler’s regime.
The total collapse in the west was unstoppable. The swift American advance, once US troops had consolidated positions over the Rhine, had driven wedges between Model’s Army Group B in the Ruhr and the Army Groups H to its north and G to the south. By 2 April, Model’s forces, still numerically strong but with weak heavy weaponry, were cut off in the Ruhr and could be supplied only from the air. Two days later, the American 9th Army began its attack to destroy the surrounded German forces. They had to surmount initial fierce resistance, but the outcome was never in doubt. Mayors of some major cities, encouraged by leading industrialists and backed by Social Democrats, Communists and other anti-Nazi groups, emerging from years of suppression, surrendered without a fight. Duisburg, Essen, Solingen, Bochum and Mülheim fell without inflicting further unnecessary suffering on populations deprived of the most basic amenities and forced to dwell in cellars, bunkers and bombed-out buildings. In contrast, fighting continued for four days before Hamm was taken and Dortmund eventually fell only after being encircled then stormed by powerful American forces on 13 April.8 By this time, Model had reported that about two-thirds of his army lacked weapons. Troops were now deserting in droves, simply disappearing into the woods or the ruined cities, and a number of commanders surrendered their units.
American forces had in the meantime advanced deep into central Germany. By the middle of April they had pushed into Thuringia, taking Erfurt, Weimar and Jena, from where they pressed south towards Coburg and Bayreuth, as well as advancing into Saxony to the outskirts of Halle, Chemnitz and Leipzig and to the north-west, capturing Hanover and Braunschweig. By 11 April they had reached the Elbe. There was no longer a German front to speak of. Continued fighting was, nevertheless, sporadically fierce and the Americans still encountered pockets of tenacious resistance. As in the Ruhr, the civic officials of numerous towns and cities preferred surrender to senseless destruction. Gotha, Göttingen and Weimar were among those that capitulated without a fight. In Magdeburg, by contrast, the refusal of the city’s military commandant to surrender on 17 April prompted a devastating attack by 350 planes the same afternoon before the last resistance faded the following day.
To the north, the British and Canadians made slower progress against the still relatively strong forces of Blaskowitz’s Army Group H. But by 10 April the British had reached Celle, north-east of Hanover, and, further north, reached the Weser, south of Bremen, while the Canadians had forced their way northwards through the Netherlands almost to the coast. The major North Sea ports and links to Denmark and Norway remained, however, in German hands and the Wehrmacht in the north-west constituted one of the last relatively intact bases of power for the Nazi regime.
In southern Germany, the situation was more ominous. Hitler dismissed Colonel-General of the Waffen-SS Paul Hausser, Commander-in-
Chief of Army Group G, on 2 April, after he had wanted to retreat to the south and south-east. His replacement, General Friedrich Schulz, tried to implement Hitler’s orders to hold out for two to three weeks to gain vital time, so it was claimed, to introduce jet-planes which would transform the military situation, and pressed all available forces into a display of fanatical resistance in the area of Aschaffenburg, on the Main. Until the middle of the month, he succeeded in blocking the American advance until he was outflanked by the 3rd US Army heading south from Thuringia, at which the retreat of Army Group G turned into flight. American and French troops had meanwhile advanced towards Stuttgart. Heilbronn, an important railway junction on the eastern bank of the river Neckar, was taken only after intense fighting. The town was defended by a relatively heavy concentration of Wehrmacht troops supported by Volkssturm contingents. Its citizens, terrorized by a fanatical Nazi leadership, had been unable, as in many other places, to instigate moves to capitulate without a struggle. The result was that Heilbronn suffered a week’s bitter but futile fighting before the inevitable surrender. That was the exception. Most places were able to engineer a surrender and avoid being blown to smithereens in a senseless attempt to hold out.
The French had easily taken Karlsruhe and other towns in Baden without a struggle, though for reasons still unclear they almost completely destroyed Freudenstadt in the Black Forest. By the middle of the month they were set to attack Freiburg, which fell to them with little fighting on 21 April. Stuttgart, the capital city of Württemberg, was surrendered the next day without a struggle, despite the insistence of the Gauleiter on a fight to the last, after the Nazi leaders had fled. Prominent anti-Nazis had managed to persuade the mayor, a long-standing Nazi himself, to spare the city pointless destruction. The French swiftly took control of Stuttgart and the surrounding areas. For local inhabitants, fear of the Nazis – who in most cases skedaddled – turned into anxiety about the French conquerors. Unlike the Americans, whose occupying forces were largely disciplined, the French troops, especially it seems a minority of the feared colonial troops from North Africa, looted extensively and perpetrated numerous rapes on entering German villages and townships, as reports by the local clergy and others made plain. In Freudenstadt, the worst instance, the raping, looting and pillaging went on for three days.9
In the meantime, driving south through Franconia, American troops encountered resistance, sometimes heavy, but took town after town – most surrendered without a fight – before on 16 April reaching Nuremberg, the very shrine of Nazism. Hitler ordered the ‘city of the Reich Party Rallies’ to be defended to the last. The fanatical Party leadership, with nothing to lose and Götterdämmerung mentality intact, refused to capitulate. It simply delayed the inevitable. After four days of fierce fighting and further unnecessary bloodshed and destruction the former Party stronghold and symbol of Nazi power eventually fell. It was 20 April, Hitler’s birthday.10
On 15 April the western Allies had laid down their immediate future objectives: in the north, press on to Lübeck, consolidate positions on the Elbe in central Germany, and in the south, advance to the Danube and into Austria. That same day Hitler stipulated that, should the Reich be split into two by enemy advance through central Germany, Grand-Admiral Dönitz in the north and Field-Marshal Kesselring in the south should take command of the defence as his delegates in whichever part of the country he himself was not situated.11
The Wehrmacht in the west was by now in a truly desolate situation. And in the east, the awaited big Soviet offensive, directed at Berlin, was set to begin before dawn of the very next day, 16 April.
In East Prussia the Soviets had finally broken the siege of the once beautiful, now devastated city of Königsberg. On 9 April, with his forces on the verge of complete destruction and the city an inferno, its commandant, General Otto Lasch, finally surrendered – though only when Red Army soldiers stood outside his bunker. The defence of Königsberg had cost the lives of 42,000 German soldiers and 25,000 civilians. Some 27,000 soldiers left in the garrison at the end entered Soviet captivity.12 In a towering rage, Hitler had Lasch sentenced in his absence to death by hanging – a sentence impossible to have been carried out – and his family imprisoned.13 He also dismissed General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, last commander of the 4th Army, which, apart from remnants still holding out in the Samland, was by now effectively defunct. By the time the harbour at Pillau eventually fell, on 25 April, only 3,100 of an army once comprising half a million soldiers were left, barricaded on the Frische Nehrung until the end of the war.14
To the south-east, there had been a further great disaster: after a siege lasting nearly two weeks the Austrian capital, Vienna, fell, a ruined shell, to the Red Army on 13 April, after days of intense street-fighting that continued into the heart of the city with heavy losses on both sides. The Soviets could now push further westwards into Austria on both sides of the Danube. Few German soldiers forced to retreat further into a shrinking Reich could have placed much faith in Hitler’s empty words two days later: ‘Berlin stays German, Vienna will be German again, and Europe will never be Russian.’15
By then Zhukov’s troops, massed on the Oder only some 70 kilometres from Berlin, awaited the signal to launch the attack which, they were confident, would destroy Hitler’s regime and bring them victory. A mighty army had been assembled for the battle of Berlin. Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front and, further north, preparing to attack westwards from Pomerania, the 2nd Belorussian Front under Rokossovsky together comprised 1.4 million men, with more than 4,000 tanks and 23,000 pieces of heavy artillery. To the south, Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front, ready to be launched from bases on the Neiße, had a further 1.1 million men and 2,150 tanks. Each of the fronts was backed by massive air support, amounting in all to 7,500 planes. Facing them were Heinrici’s Army Group Vistula (an outdated name, since they were now preparing to fight west of the Oder), consisting of the 3rd Panzer Army under Manteuffel to the north and the 9th Army under General Theodor Busse, directly guarding the approaches to Berlin, together with, defending the attack from the Neiße and protecting the southern outreaches of the city, part of Schörner’s Army Group Centre (the 4th Panzer Army under General Fritz-Hubert Gräser). The German forces amounted in total to a million men, 1,500 tanks and armoured vehicles, and 10,400 artillery pieces, backed by 3,300 fighter planes. The imbalance in forces was compounded by the fact that many of the Germans were young, ill-trained recruits, while the air-strength was purely nominal since so many planes were grounded through lack of fuel. Only the three concentric rings of deep-echeloned fortifications barring the path to the capital gave an advantage to the defenders.
Zhukov’s offensive began at 3.30 a.m. on 16 April with an immense artillery barrage amid a battery of searchlights aimed at blinding the enemy and illuminating the path of attack. But German defences held for two days before, after ferocious fighting and huge losses on both sides, the heavily fortified Seelow Heights, a steep outcrop of hills ranging 90 metres above the Oder valley between Seelow and Wriezen and the last formidable natural defensive barrier outside Berlin, fell to Zhukov’s troops. With this, Busse’s 9th Army was split into three parts and forced into retreat in the north, centre and south of the front. Konev’s offensive from the Neiße, meanwhile, had broken through more easily, driving the defenders back towards Dresden but, even more menacingly, rapidly advancing northwards towards Berlin and the rear of Busse’s army. By 20 April, the 1st Belorussian Front had forced its way through the outer defensive ring around Berlin and its right flank was preparing to press the advance to the north of the city. Berlin was on the verge of being encircled. South of Berlin, Konev’s tanks had reached Jüterbog, the German army’s major ammunition depot, and were about to overrun Zossen, its communications centre. Zhukov’s forces had taken Bernau, north of the capital, early in the morning. A few hours later, his guns opened fire directly on Berlin.16
In the last desperate weeks, in which the gains from fighting on were hard to rationalize, Hitler’s front commanders remained paralysed from taking any action other than continuing the struggle, whatever the cost in lives and destruction. Since they had attempted nothing to halt the gathering self-destructive (as well as massively devastating) momentum over previous months, there was no likelihood of their doing anything when the end was so close. On the contrary, through an almost Darwinistic selection achieved by the dismissal of so many generals, only hardline loyalists, committed to continuing the fight whatever the cost, were left in key posts.
Field-Marshal Kesselring, Commander-in-Chief West (though by now with little of a western front to command), had for a time in the 1930s been Chief of Staff in the Luftwaffe, commanded an air fleet in the early years of the war, then sealed his reputation as a tough commander-in-chief in Italy, a military leader of high professional competence who took care to keep out of politics.17 He was an arch-loyalist, always exuding real or contrived optimism, however grim the military situation, and invariably impressed by Hitler’s will to hold out. It was little surprise that Speer had no success in trying to persuade him not to implement Hitler’s ‘Nero Order’ to destroy Germany’s economic infrastructure on retreat.18 Speer was again disappointed in the field-marshal when Kesselring arrived in the Führer Bunker in early April to inform Hitler of the hopelessness of the situation. After only a few sentences, Hitler interrupted with a lengthy disquisition on how he was going to turn the tables on the Americans. Whether he was genuinely convinced, or, more likely, taking the easy way out, Kesselring was soon agreeing with Hitler’s fantasies.19
After the war, in his self-serving memoirs, Kesselring gave a glimpse of his mindset in mid-April, with the Ruhr lost and the battle for central Germany unfolding. He saw meaning in sustaining the fight in the Harz Mountains in order to hold up the enemy’s advance ‘until a stronger, organised striking force came to the rescue’. He had in mind the 12th Army, scraped together at the end of March and stationed east of the Elbe and in the region stretching from Dessau to Bitterfeld and Wittenberg. ‘Only with its help could there be a certain assurance that the course of events on the Russian front would not be influenced from the west and the splitting of Germany into two halves be prevented.’ His views, he stated, coincided with those of the High Command of the Wehrmacht. ‘At that moment I did not examine the question of the effect of these operations on the outcome of the war, which was no longer a matter for profitable thought. All I was trying to do was to prolong the battle by all available means in front of the Harz to give time for our operations on the Russian front to mature.’ Even if the Russians and the western Allies were to meet on the Elbe or in Berlin there would still be a justification for continuing the war: ‘the imperative necessity to gain time for the German divisions engaged in the east to fight their way back into the British and American zones’.20
The Commander-in-Chief of Army Group B, encircled in the Ruhr, Field-Marshal Model, had long been numbered among Hitler’s most trusted generals, and was described by the Dictator towards the end of April 1945 as having been his ‘best field-marshal’.21 Like Kesselring, Model had disingenuously insisted, while serving Hitler to the best of his ability, that he was ‘unpolitical’. Like almost all of his fellow generals, in fact, he shared at the least partial identities with Nazism – including detestation of Bolshevism, and belief in both the superiority of German culture and Germany’s rightful supremacy in Europe. As the war had turned irredeemably against Germany, his own fanatical will to stave off defeat and prevent the victory of the Reich’s enemies was reflected in his unwaveringly confident proclamations to his soldiers and orders for ruthless punishment of ‘inferior elements in the civilian population’ who displayed a defeatist or hostile attitude.22 He echoed demands of the regime to ‘hold out’ at all costs, and even the vocabulary of Nazi propaganda. At the end of March, his proclamation to his sub-commanders had described the duty of officers as setting an example to their men, if need be through their own deaths, and convincing them of the need to continue the struggle ‘even more than before… down to self-sacrifice’. He demanded immediate action against those sections of the civilian population who had been ‘infected by Jewish and democratic poison of materialist ideas’ and put the protection of their own belongings above ‘unconditional support for the fighting troops’.23
Model remained conscious of his loyalty and obedience to Hitler even as German hopes crumbled. This was still the case after his strategic recommendations on the Ardennes offensive had been ignored, and even after a confrontation with Kesselring about a possible breakout from the Ruhr had led to his vehement denunciation of Keitel and Jodl at Wehrmacht High Command.24 Increasingly in conflict with this, as the end approached, was his sense of soldierly duty. Unlike Kesselring, he was amenable to Speer’s entreaties not to destroy vital economic infrastructure. But he refused all attempts to persuade him to surrender his encircled army. (Feelers towards a possible capitulation had initially been made by Walther Rohland, Speer’s tank expert, with Colonel-General Josef Harpe, now commanding the 5th Panzer Army in the west. Harpe, who had been dismissed from his command during the retreat in the east in January, refused to act since going against the will of Model and the five western Gauleiter would have meant certain condemnation to death.)25 Hitler’s order, following the fall of Königsberg, to have families arrested in the event of capitulation or refusal to accept orders, apparently weighed heavily with Model.
By 17 April the fighting in the Ruhr was over. When all hope had gone for his troops, Model dissolved his Army Group rather than formally capitulate to the enemy. Some 317,000 German soldiers and 30 generals entered captivity. Model had long seen suicide as the only honourable way out for a field-marshal, and had hinted for some weeks at his own death in defeat. He shot himself in the woods near Duisburg on 21 April.26
Field-Marshal Schörner – Hitler’s favourite commander and the last one to whom he gave the field-marshal’s baton, on 5 April – was, as we have had cause to note in earlier chapters, notorious for his brutality even among his peer group of tough generals, all of them strict displinarians. Anything other than driving his troops on to continue the fight against what he saw as an ‘Asiatic’ enemy was here inconceivable. While Schörner did not have an equivalent anywhere else in the army, he had no monopoly of ruthlessness towards his own troops. The successor to SS Colonel-General Hausser as Commander-in-Chief of Army Group G in southern Germany, General Schulz, issued orders for ‘the most severe measures’ to be taken to prevent the possibility of soldiers taking to flight at the appearance of enemy tanks. Every soldier leaving his position in battle without a command had to be made aware of what awaited him. Acknowledging the shortage of weaponry, he demanded that soldiers compensate with small arms and the Panzerfaust.27
Fighting on had become an end in itself. As Kesselring’s reflection, quoted above, indicated, it was not thought worthwhile to contemplate how actions might affect the outcome of the war. Most generals were perfectly capable of rational assessment of the situation. They chose instead to overlook their own dire assessments of the lack of weaponry, shortage of men and minimal prospects against overwhelming force to stress the need to do everything ‘not to disappoint the onward-driving will of the Führer’.28
This fitted par excellence the stance of those in Hitler’s own direct military entourage. Here, independence of judgement had never existed. Though General Jodl had on earlier occasions not refrained from speaking frankly to Hitler, he remained an ultra-loyalist, still in thrall to the ‘genius’ of the Führer. Field-Marshal Keitel had never throughout his career shown a flicker of willingness to stand up to Hitler, and was not going to start now. And with Guderian’s dismissal as Chief of the General Staff at the end of March, the last semblance of feisty determination to counter what he saw as calamitous operational decisions was gone. His replacement, General Hans Krebs, was a capable staff officer, but had scarcely been selected for his readiness to challenge higher authority. Personally far more emollient than Guderian, he was quickly assimilated into the bunker community and amounted to little more than a cipher. The division of responsibilities between the High Commands of the Wehrmacht and of the Army had long been a structural weakness in the running of the war. Now, with the war almost over, the division ceased to be significant. But the new unity, in kowtowing to Hitler at every turn, was even more disastrous than the former split had been. And, certainly, nothing to deflect Hitler from his decisions was to be expected of the commanders-in-chief of the Luftwaffe and navy, Göring and Dönitz. Göring had long been out of favour. But when he attended military briefings his lasting humiliation made him, if anything, even more determined to show his mettle and back Hitler. Dönitz, for his part, proved himself in these last weeks to be among the most fanatical of Hitler’s military leaders in insisting on the fight to the last.
On 7 April, Dönitz, echoing Hitler’s own sentiments, declared: ‘We soldiers of the navy know how we have to act. Our military duty, which we unerringly fulfil, whatever happens around us, leaves us standing as a rock of resistance, bold, hard and loyal. Anyone not acting in this way is a scumbag and must be hanged with a notice round his neck saying “Here hangs a traitor who from the most base cowardice has helped German women and children to die instead of protecting them like a man”.’ On 19 April he commended the example of a prisoner of war in Australia who had ‘quietly bumped off’ Communists in the camp and said he would be promoted to a leadership position on his return. ‘There are more such men in the navy’, he added, who show their ‘mastery of difficult positions’ and prove their ‘inner value’. Just over a week earlier, Dönitz expounded his own views on the presence of the enemy deep inside German territory. Capitulation, he stated, meant the destruction of Germany through Bolshevism. He defended National Socialism, and Hitler’s policies, as necessary to prevent the Russians overrunning Germany. Grumbling, moaning and complaining was fruitless, and born of weakness, he declared. ‘Cowardice and weakness make people stupid and blind.’ The leadership was aware of all possibilities. The Führer alone, years ago, had clearly seen the threat of Bolshevism. ‘At the latest in a year, perhaps within this year, the whole of Europe will recognise Adolf Hitler as the only statesman of standing.’ Europe’s blindness would one day be removed and result in political possibilities for Germany. Dönitz urged a commitment to duty, honour, obedience, hardness and loyalty. He demanded of his commanders ruthless action against any officers failing in their soldierly duty. A crew would always go down with their ship in honour rather than surrender it. The same principle applied to the fight on land. Every naval base would be defended to the last, in accordance with the Führer’s orders. It was victory or death. The navy would fight to the end. This would earn it respect in coming times. It had to represent the will to existence of the people. There was no situation that could not be improved by heroism. Every alternative led to ‘chaos and inextinguishable disgrace’.29
Dönitz’s unconditional obedience to Hitler’s will and conviction in the need to continue the fight was equally plainly expressed in a meeting with a number of Gauleiter and other leading Party figures in northern Germany on 25 April. Interestingly, the question was raised at the meeting – by whom is not stated – whether it might be better to end the fighting ‘in the interest of maintaining the substance of the German people’. Dönitz replied that the assessment of this question was ‘exclusively a matter of the state leadership embodied by the Führer and nobody had the right to deviate from the line laid down by him. The action of the Führer was exclusively determined by concern for the German people’ – though, as we know, Hitler had actually stated on more than one occasion that they did not deserve to survive. ‘Since the capitulation must in any case mean the destruction of the substance of the German people, it is from this standpoint too correct to fight on,’ Dönitz added. He stated his determination ‘to put into action what was ordered by the Führer’.30
Among the very few frontline generals to show any independence of mind and try to assert himself against Hitler in the last weeks was Colonel-General Gotthard Heinrici, presented with the unenviable task of defending against massively superior forces the coming attack on Berlin from the Oder. Other than Model, there was no general better equipped to conduct a defensive struggle. But Heinrici was well aware that his forces were weak in armour and heavy artillery, and had large numbers of young, ill-trained soldiers. He was therefore appalled to learn at the beginning of April that Hitler was depriving him of several reserve divisions (including two panzer divisions) and relocating them to Army Group Centre, now forced back into defending what was left of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Heinrici had been summoned to Berlin on 6 April to outline his defensive preparations for the forthcoming offensive.
At the meeting in the Führer Bunker, the general, accompanied only by his operations chief, Colonel Hans-Georg Eismann, had to face not just Hitler but his entire supporting military entourage, including Keitel, Jodl, Dönitz, Göring, Krebs and Himmler. He coolly summarized the situation of his Army Group. A particular weakness was the front near Frankfurt an der Oder, where defences depended heavily upon the Volkssturm. Heinrici asked for ‘fortress’ status for Frankfurt to be given up, and the eighteen battalions holding the city to be redeployed in his own defensive forces. Hitler, seeming at first to accept the proposal, suddenly erupted into a thunderous outburst of fury at generals and advisers who failed to understand him. The rage soon subsided, but Heinrici was granted only six out of the eighteen battalions he had wanted. The general emphasized the weakness of his infantry reserves and requested reinforcements of at least three divisions. For an imminent battle of such significance, the situation was unacceptable, he stated. For a moment there was silence. Then Göring volunteered 100,000 men from the Luftwaffe, followed by Dönitz and Himmler, who said they would provide between them 30,000–40,000 men from the navy and SS. Heinrici’s objection that these were young recruits not trained and inexperienced in hard infantry defensive warfare was ignored. Weapons for them could only be provided by taking them from units of foreign troops serving with the Germans.
When Heinrici pointed out the weakness not just of his infantry, but also of his armoured formations, after losing important units to Schörner, Hitler told him that the Red Army would launch its offensive not at first towards Berlin but towards Dresden, then Prague. Heinrici looked in astonishment at General Krebs, but the Chief of the General Staff backed Hitler, saying the possibility could not be ruled out. Throughout, Hitler, supported by his entourage, had swept over the serious problems which Heinrici had raised and provided the most optimistic gloss possible. At the end of the audience, Heinrici questioned whether the fighting quality of the troops could withstand the opening barrage of the attack, and asked again where, since the outcome of the battle depended on it, he could find replacements for the inevitable losses. Hitler reminded him of the reinforcements promised by the Luftwaffe, navy and SS. On the first question, he told Heinrici that he bore the responsibility for conveying ‘faith and confidence’ to the troops. If all possessed this faith, ‘this battle will be the bloodiest defeat of the war for the enemy and the greatest defensive success’, he concluded. Leaving the Reich Chancellery some while later, after a prolonged wait in the bunker because of an air raid, Heinrici and Eismann sat in silence in their car until the general said simply: ‘It’s come to this for us.’31
Heinrici was to undergo worse conflict with Hitler’s military advisers in the High Command of the Wehrmacht later in the month as the battle of Berlin reached its denouement. But his audience with the Dictator on 6 April already highlighted the ambivalence of his continuing stance. He thought Hitler was mistaken and wrong-headed in his decisions. Nevertheless, he felt obliged to implement these decisions to the best of his ability. As he saw it (making every allowance for the fact that his post-war memoirs were intended to vindicate his own actions), his duty was a patriotic one – to defend Germany, not serve Hitler and National Socialism. But carrying out what his conscience and upbringing told him was his duty could only be done by helping to sustain the regime. He was, it is true, unlike Kesselring open to Speer’s request not to implement Hitler’s ‘scorched earth’ decree. But that was about as far as his defiance went, as an incident in mid-April demonstrates. Speer, visiting Heinrici in his headquarters near Prenzlau, broached the question of assassinating Hitler and asked whether the general was prepared to act. (The question was purely rhetorical since Speer’s talk of killing Hitler was no more than hypothetical, and backed by no preparation. He possibly raised the matter with thoughts already in mind of his defence when faced with charges of participation in the regime’s crimes.) The answer was prompt and straightforward. In a personal sense, Heinrici said he had no bonds to Hitler or his entourage. But as a soldier he had sworn an oath of allegiance and as a Christian he had learnt ‘thou shalt not kill’ (killing in war was plainly a different matter). He could imagine that in extreme circumstances he could reject the obedience bound up in the oath. ‘But as a soldier, to murder the supreme commander, to whom I swore an oath of loyalty, in the face of enemy attack, that I cannot do!’ He was, moreover, sure that it would prompt later belief in a ‘stab in the back’. Speer agreed. They were, he acknowledged, trapped. They could only go on.32
Whatever their varying attitudes towards Hitler and National Socialism, ranging from fanatical commitment to little more than contempt, no general – and the same applied to the vast majority of the soldiers in their commands – wanted to see Germany defeated, least of all to be subjugated by the Bolsheviks. The consequence of doing all in their power to prevent this happening was the prolongation of the war, and of the lifespan of the Nazi regime, with all the suffering this entailed. Hopes that, even now, something could be salvaged from the war and Germany ‘saved’ outweighed the desire for an end to Nazism. For some, indeed, there was no estrangement from Nazism and the lingering dream that a miracle could still happen. In his retirement near Würzburg after his dismissal for ‘failure’ in East Prussia, Colonel-General Reinhardt, for example, could plaintively ask ‘when and how the salvation that we still believe in will come’. A week later, just like Hitler and Goebbels, he saw in President Roosevelt’s death on 12 April ‘a glimmer of hope’.33
Meanwhile, the deadly machinery of war ground on. Reserves of manpower were exhausted.34 Orders were still going out involving the Party in cooperating with the Wehrmacht to round up ‘stragglers’ and send them back to the front.35 But whatever the brutal methods used, the numbers amounted to a mere drop in the ocean. At the end of February, Hitler had approved using 6,000 boys born in 1929, some of them therefore not yet sixteen years old, to strengthen rear defensive lines, as well as the training of a ‘Women’s Battalion’.36 But by April boys were being sent out to fight not in the rear, but in the front lines. The Reich Youth Leader, Artur Axmann, agreed at the end of March to establish ‘panzer close-combat units’ of the Hitler Youth. At the start of April the first battalion of 700 Hitler Youth was ferried out on lorries to fight as close-combat troops to shoot down tanks near Gotha.37 When the Soviet offensive began, fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds were to find themselves facing up to the onslaught from Russian tanks. The Waffen-SS were still press-ganging young Germans to join up a month later even as the Soviets were battling their way into the centre of Berlin.38 It was far from the case, however, that all young Germans had to be coerced into almost suicidal combat. Whether through indoctrination in the Hitler Youth, idealism, or a sense of adventure, many went willingly to the front, some ready even at this desperate stage of the war to offer the last sacrifice for their country.39 Few could have been prepared for what lay in store. Most of the Hitler Youth recruits were in any case far from being fanatics ready to die for their country, and were just frightened, disorientated boys, forced into action and often wantonly slaughtered in a hopeless cause.40
Improvisation was by now the order of the day. In the south of Germany, the Volkssturm were used to carry out road repairs after bombing raids to enable troop movements to continue. Most road-workers were by this time in any case serving with the Volkssturm, it was pointed out. Orders were still being dispatched for the hasty erection of tank barriers by means of the ‘ruthless and comprehensive deployment of the entire population’. The dearth of equipment for the fighting troops was partly to be made good by distribution from Wehrmacht stores in the path of enemy advance. In Württemberg, Army Group G was grateful to come across 100,000 pairs of boots to replace the down-at-heel footwear of the troops, along with large amounts of leather clothing.41
Astonishingly, Hitler himself had to order, in the last week of his life, that all stocks of weapons and equipment left lingering for more than a week on wagons at railway stations should be unloaded and supplied to the troops.42 None of this was any more than papering over the cracks. But it contributed towards enabling some sort of a fighting force to continue operations in the increasingly desperate circumstances. And pretences had to be maintained. Remarkably, amid the extraordinary shortages of men and matériel in a lost war, preparations were still made in mid-April for an exhibition of the latest armaments models to be displayed in the courtyard of the Reich Chancellery for Hitler’s usual birthday inspection on 20 April.43
Generalizations about mentalities among the rank-and-file of the armed forces are obviously hazardous. And however varied the political attitudes of individual soldiers, sailors and airmen, the overwhelming number probably simply accepted that they had no choice but to do what they were ordered to do: fight on. The character of the fronts certainly affected attitudes. There was almost certainly greater tenacity, determination to fight, and even belief in Hitler among those directly facing the Red Army in the east, where the ideological conflict was most pronounced, than among the troops on the collapsing western front. How representative was a letter home at the beginning of April from an NCO serving with the 12th Panzer Division cut off in Courland cannot be known, but it indicates that Nazified ideas were still present in his unit: ‘Some will regard the war in these critical days as lost,’ he wrote.
But the war is only lost if we surrender. Even should Germany capitulate, would the war be over for us? No, the horror would be only just really beginning and we would not even have weapons to defend ourselves. As long as we have weapons and the firm belief in our good cause, nothing is lost. I believe firmly in a decisive shift in fortunes. Providence, which sent us the Führer, will not allow all the terrible sacrifices to have been in vain and will never abandon the world to the annihilatory terror of Bolshevism.44
There were, however, contrasting attitudes, even among soldiers in the east. Reflective diary entries in mid-April from an NCO based in Prague, with obvious anti-Nazi feelings, display critical distance from the regime, a realistic view of the hopelessness of the position, and a sense that the fate now embracing the Reich had been earned by the crimes in the east that Germans had committed. He estimated that about 10 per cent of the soldiers, with reference to statements by Hitler and Goebbels, still believed in ‘a technical miracle’. Remarkably, there was speculation about the splitting of the atom, and that Germany possessed a weapon of such force that it would make England disappear from the face of the earth. Even worse than such talk, the diarist thought, was that a great sector of the German population, while not believing in the existence of such a weapon, regretted that Germany did not have one which it could use to destroy all its enemies in one strike: then ‘we would be the victors’. In such notions he saw the extent of the brutalization and moral decay which Nazi education had produced. ‘This people will have nothing to complain of in its own fate,’ he commented. He had heard in the last days several times from older soldiers who had experienced the first two years of the Russian campaign the saying that all guilt is avenged on earth. They saw reports, he thought partly exaggerated, of Bolshevik atrocities in the occupied eastern parts of Germany as proof of this. ‘Many think consciously of the things that they themselves saw or had to carry out and which have to be set against what is allegedly taking place now. “We are guilty ourselves, we’ve earned it” – that’s the bitter recognition that many struggle through to.’45
Two days later the same soldier commented on the fighting in central Germany and the surrender of Königsberg, with the attendant condemnation to death in absentia of the German commandant and arrest of his family. He saw the demands of the Nazi leadership to defend every town and village to the last as leaving no lingering doubt about ‘the fanatical will and the method to try to counter the imminent threat of collapse. Everyone not involved in the defence or acting against the decreed measures will be threatened with death.’ However, he thought there was growing acceptance of unconditional surrender, and that mass desertion and internal unrest would spread in the following days. The signs of rising anger were evident. People were saying more openly what they had earlier secretly thought, and ‘the insight into the true situation and the intentions of our leadership is growing’. ‘In these days the last arguments are being knocked out of even the most hard-nosed optimist,’ he wrote. ‘Soon nobody and nothing will be able to justify further resistance. The slogan of heroic downfall will then in its naked madness be plain to the entire people.’46
However divided they were in their political stance, for soldiers awaiting the Red Army’s Oder offensive, east of Berlin, a prominent motive for continuing to fight was unquestionably defence of the homeland against a hated enemy. More telling in the heat of battle was the group cameraderie of the fighting unit. And most important of all in the last resort was the desire for self-preservation. German soldiers were well aware that they could expect no quarter from the Red Army if they were captured. They often knew, sometimes at first hand, of earlier German atrocities in the east. What awaited them on capture, they were sure, was death or at best indefinite slave labour far away in the Soviet Union.
Propaganda vilifying the enemy and depicting the horrors awaiting them should the Bolsheviks prevail, rammed home to the troops in pep-talks from NSFOs, naturally, then, fell on its most fertile ground in the east. For troops being pushed relentlessly back in north-western, central and southern Germany there was a less clear focus. Fear of the enemy was far less pronounced. At the same time, revulsion at the notion that foreign enemies were occupying German soil doubtless spurred on many. A group of fourteen- and fifteen-year-old boys, evacuated from the Ruhr, who volunteered for service in the SS in Lower Franconia in early April 1945, had themselves mixed motives. Some were ardent Nazis, others sought cameraderie and adventure. But all of them wanted to ‘save the Fatherland’.47 There were still, if in a minority, plenty of ardent Nazis present in the armed forces, especially among younger soldiers. In one letter that came into British hands in April, a lieutenant serving in Lower Saxony told his parents in Westphalia: ‘I simply cannot believe that the Führer will sacrifice us senselessly. Nobody will be able to rob me of my faith in “Him”. He is my All…. Who knows what experiences I shall have before we meet again, but I am an officer and will gladly do all I can for my Fatherland, more – much more, even – than duty requires.’48 Volunteers were not lacking for service as suicide-pilots, with the aim of ramming their fighters into Allied bombers. More than 2,000 men immediately came forward, motivated by the loss of their homeland in the east, the death of their families through Allied bombing, or Nazi fanaticism. The kamikaze-style tactic proved unsuccessful and the self-sacrifice pointless: only eight bombers were brought down through ramming, at a cost of 133 German planes and the lives of seventy-seven pilots.49 Waffen-SS units still showed astonishing levels of morale, fighting-power and commitment to the regime, as well as utter ruthlessness in blowing up houses where white flags were flying and taking reprisals against individuals raising them. In varying degrees, differing from person to person, ideological commitment, fanatical loyalty, a sense of comradely duty, fear of the consequences of non-compliance and sheer lack of alternative drove on the German will to resist.50
Perhaps, other than a vague notion that their actions were helping somehow to ‘save’ Germany, many soldiers in the west had no clear rationale for why they were still fighting. For in the west, too, self-preservation was the most prominent motive, according to a survey of 12,000 soldiers’ letters during March. In almost all, the wish was expressed to survive the last phase of the war and rejoin their families.51
An impression of a disintegrating army can be glimpsed from the diary account, cited on occasion in earlier chapters, of Lieutenant Julius Dufner. By April 1945, Dufner was based in the Bergisches Land south of Remscheid, near Wermelskirchen, then in nearby Solingen as Model’s orders came through for the dissolution of Army Group B. On 13 April he heard rumours that soldiers had thrown away their weapons and that the war in the west was over. As troops retreated, men and women were exhorting them to lay down their arms, offering accommodation and civilian clothing. Two days later there were further rumours, that Hitler, Göring and Goebbels had been shot or committed suicide. Inhabitants were pulling down tank barriers in Solingen. Wehrmacht goods were being distributed to the local population. Children were running round in steel helmets discarded by soldiers. Hatred against the Party was now able to find voice. ‘Everything smelling of the Party was seen as fair game,’ he noted. By 16 April nearly all the soldiers were wearing civilian clothes and acting as if they had been dismissed from army service, though an actual order to that effect had still not come through. Their senior officer, a major, was dressed in an ill-fitting suit and sports cap, giving up any pretence at command. The last munition dump was detonated. The following day, 17 April, in the ruined city centre of Solingen, as German prisoners were loaded onto lorries to be taken into captivity, and American GIs, smoking Camel cigarettes and chewing gum, took over the town, he set out for home in Baden (where he arrived nearly a fortnight later) in civilian clothing, and on the bicycle that he had obtained by offering his motorbike and 100 Reich Marks in exchange. For him, the war was over.52 Other soldiers, particularly those tensely awaiting the battle on the Oder, were less lucky.
The regime’s control in western areas was by now in an advanced stage of dissolution. Propaganda reports gave Goebbels an ‘alarming’ picture of demoralization. There was no longer reluctance to voice sharp criticism of Hitler himself, and no fear of the Americans. White flags were put out as they approached, and they were greeted with enthusiasm, regarded as protectors against the Soviets. The population were often directly opposed to their own troops who wanted to continue the fight, with a predictably depressing effect on the soldiers. There was a good deal of looting. Alongside the defeatism and widespread fatalism, many people were now talking of suicide as the best way out. Characteristically Nazified demands were voiced for drastic action against those seen as responsible for Germany’s plight. People pointed to the peremptory punishment of those who had failed to detonate the Remagen bridge and thereby allowed the Americans to cross the Rhine; they wanted similar treatment for those responsible for the ‘catastrophe in the air war’, even demanding the death penalty for Göring. Some believed – as did Hitler himself – that treason was behind the collapse on the western front.53
So negative were the reports reaching Bormann that he felt it necessary to write a lengthy complaint to Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Chief of the Security Police, at the tone of the ‘typical SD report’, which generalized broadly from a small number of individual cases to paint a bleak picture. Bormann accepted that some segments of the population – but not the population – had welcomed the Americans, though he attributed this to an inability to counter the propaganda effect of enemy radio and to the readiness of people to believe that the war would soon be over, and with that a release from the constant bombing raids. For his part, he was convinced that, as after 1918, there would soon be ‘a very strong sobering process’.54
According to General Schulz, Commander-in-Chief of Army Group G, in a telex on 8 April to Karl Wahl, Gauleiter of Swabia, ‘the fighting of the last days has clearly shown that the population in the zone close to the front uses all means to deter soldiers from any fighting and resistance in order to protect their property from destruction’. As a counter-measure, he urged the evacuation of the population near the combat zone. Wahl took the view that this did not yet apply to the population of his Gau.55 A few days later, he nevertheless complied with an order to evacuate a zone either side of the Danube as a preventive measure in case it was drawn into the fighting area. Women and children were ordered to leave within two hours on foot or bicycle since no transport was available, and to use side roads to keep the main routes clear for the troops.56 In many parts of the west, evacuation, as Goebbels acknowledged, was impracticable. ‘We’re issuing orders in Berlin that practically don’t even arrive, let alone can be carried out,’ he wrote, seeing in this ‘the danger of an extraordinary diminution of authority’.57 Removing a largely unwilling population was impossible. No transport was available. And there were no areas to send them to. Evacuation orders of the Führer could simply not be implemented and were quietly forgotten.58
In the south, following the collapse in Hungary and Austria, chaos arose from tens of thousands of refugees fleeing from the Soviets. Gauleiter August Eigruber of Gau Oberdonau complained bitterly to the Party Chancellery that Gau Bayreuth and Gau Munich-Upper Bavaria would not accept fifteen trainloads of refugees, numbering around 100,000 people, from Vienna, the Lower Danube and Hungary, nor, despite orders, send urgently needed cereals to Gau Upper Danube, which had no corn supplies left. The refugees had been left in railway sidings for several days. Munich eventually agreed to take its share. Gau Tirol was also forced into accepting some, though the Gauleiter, Franz Hofer, said that while he would do what he could for Germans, he could do nothing for Hungarians, Croats and Slovenes. No one wanted to take the Hungarians. Gauleiter Fritz Wächtler in Bayreuth stubbornly continued to refuse to cooperate. The Party Chancellery sought in vain to get him to respond to its demands, eventually sending a special courier to obtain a reply. Wächtler had also failed to provide the daily situation reports to which, it was said, the Führer attached great importance.59 His unwillingness or inability – Bayreuth was suffering severe air raids at the time – to comply with orders from Berlin was a further indication of the gathering dissolution of the regime.
The collapsing communications network also contributed to the undermining of central control. By early April it was almost impossible to sustain contact between Berlin and the Gaue in southern Germany and Austria. A motorbike courier service was proposed to relay urgent messages. The ‘communications calamity’ had never been so great.60 Where communications still functioned, they brought an unceasing flood of new decrees and directives from Bormann, ‘thoroughly useless stuff’ according to Goebbels, and largely ignored by Gauleiter who did not even have time to read them. The Propaganda Minister contemptuously dismissed Bormann’s efforts, saying he had turned the Party Chancellery into ‘a paper Chancellery’.61
A glimpse of the profound lack of realism at lower levels of the Party, existing to the end, can be found in the directive of the Kreisleiter of Freiberg in Saxony, as late as 28 April. ‘Now that a certain stabilization of the situation has taken place,’ he wrote (two days before Hitler’s suicide), ‘it is necessary again to turn intensively to Party work.’ A whole array of duties followed.62
In Vienna, the Party was in a desolate state weeks before the city fell to the Red Army. There were reports of a rebellious mood among the working class (which indeed manifested itself in attempts by underground Communist groups to assist the Soviets when they entered the city), and high levels of antagonism towards the Party. Functionaries were insulted, even spat at, and did not dare walk round after air raids unless armed. There was strong criticism of the Gauleiter (and one-time Hitler Youth leader), Baldur von Schirach, and of Hitler. Women were said to have been especially prominent in the agitation, even inciting troops to mutiny.63
Goebbels could still try to claim, not least for Hitler’s benefit, that the ‘Werwolf’ activity marked a return to the revolutionary ethos of the Party’s ‘time of struggle’ before the ‘seizure of power’ in 1933.64 He continued to press for radical action. And he acted ruthlessly without hesitation. When 200 men and women stormed bakers’ shops in a district of Berlin to get bread he saw it as a symptom of ‘inner weakness and budding defeatism’, deciding instantly to stamp it out ‘with brutal methods’. Two of those singled out as ringleaders, a man and a woman, were summarily sentenced to death by the People’s Court that afternoon and beheaded the next night. Posters, radio broadcasts and a meeting held by the Kreisleiter about the incident aimed at discouraging any repetition.65
As Goebbels knew, such ruthlessness could not hide the evident fact that the Party was disintegrating. The constant propaganda slogans to ‘hold out to the last’, and to go down fighting in defence of towns and villages stood in stark contrast to the behaviour of many Party functionaries who disappeared into thin air at the approach of the enemy. The Party Chancellery repeatedly reminded functionaries to set the best example to the population. The Führer expected political leaders to master the situation in their Gaue with lightning speed and maximum severity, Bormann told them in mid-April. They had to educate their District Leaders in the same way. ‘Leaders by nature have burnt their bridges and show extreme commitment,’ he added. ‘The honour of each one is worth only as much as his steadfastness, his commitment and his deeds.’66 The appeals fell mainly on deaf ears. ‘The poor examples presented by the Party have had an extraordinarily repellent impact on the population,’ Goebbels remarked at the beginning of April. Its reputation had been badly tarnished.67 A few days later, he admitted that the behaviour of Gau- and Kreisleiter in the west had led to a huge drop in confidence in the Party. ‘The population believed it could expect that our Gauleiter would fight in their Gaue and, if necessary, die there. This has not been the case in any instance. As a result, the Party is fairly played out in the west.’68
Some Gauleiter (and beneath them many Kreisleiter and lower functionaries of the Party) had simply left the people in their areas in the lurch and fled.69 Much to the disgust of Goebbels, Josef Grohé, Gauleiter of Cologne-Aachen, had failed to defend his Gau in March as the Americans entered and left in advance of the civilian population with his staff in a motor boat. He retained a skeletal staff for a short time at Bensberg, then dissolved his Gau administration entirely on 8 April and moved to Field-Marshal Model’s headquarters before discarding his uniform a week later and setting out under an assumed name in a vain attempt to locate his family in central Germany.70 Albert Hoffmann, Gauleiter of Westphalia-South, had tried in previous weeks through ‘extreme severity’ to combat signs of collapsing morale and defeatism in his Gau. But, despite giving Speer the impression that he backed his attempts to prevent unnecessary destruction, he personally ordered a number of bridges to be blown up and made plans for his departure at the beginning of April. He moved to the headquarters of Model’s Army Group B and was seldom seen thereafter in his Gau offices. Without consulting either Hitler or Bormann, at a meeting with his Kreisleiter on 13 April he announced the dissolution of the Nazi Party in Gau Westphalia-South, fled that same evening and vanished before joining his family in the middle of May disguised as a farmhand.71 Gauleiter Koch, who for years had ruled East Prussia with a rod of iron and had been the target of much hatred for the belated and mismanaged evacuation of the population in January, was still in April producing slogans in the besieged provincial capital such as ‘Victory is Ours – Königsberg will be the Grave of the Bolsheviks’.72 At the same time he was making preparations to take himself, his family and his possessions to safety. He made a final departure from East Prussia by air on 25 April, just before the harbour at Pillau was taken by the Red Army and the fate of around 100,000 refugees still stranded on the Samland was sealed. From the Hela peninsula he transferred to the ice-breaker Ostpreußen, apparently with his Mercedes on board, and sailed to Denmark before travelling on to Flensburg, where he vainly demanded a U-boat to take him to South America.73
If these were the most blatant cases of the flight of the Party’s ‘Golden Pheasants’, few Gauleiter were prepared to entertain the prospect of the ‘heroic’ death that the image of the leading Nazi ‘fighters’ demanded. Only two out of forty-three serving Gauleiter, Karl Gerland of Kurhessen and the notably brutal Karl Holz of Franconia died at their posts in the fighting.74 Holz’s last report from Nuremberg, sent late in the evening on 17 April, painted a depressing picture of the situation in the city (though the most negative sections were crossed out, perhaps in the Party Chancellery’s Munich office). The troops were worn down by the enemy superiority in matériel. The poor morale of ‘stragglers’ was evident. One group of thirty or so men had approached the enemy with white flags before being shot down by machine-gun fire from their own side. The population simply awaited its fate, cowering in the cellars and bunkers. He proudly reported that he had sent out some of his staff to organize the Werwolf, and that his Gau had managed to assemble within only a few weeks a regiment of tank-destroying troops from the Hitler Youth, who had fought courageously, though with big losses, so that one battalion was already nearly ‘wiped out’. He and the mayor of the city, Willi Liebel, had decided to stay in Nuremberg and fight rather than leave the city.75 Next day, Nuremberg was under fire.
Holtz’s report to Hitler declared that ‘in these hours my heart beats more than ever in love and loyalty to you and the wonderful German Reich and people’, and ‘that the National Socialist idea will be victorious’, for which he was rewarded with the Golden Cross of the German Order, the highest honour of Party and state. Just before midnight on 19 April, Holz again wired Hitler – for the last time: ‘Our loyalty, our love, our lives belong to you, my Führer. All our good wishes for your birthday’ (the next day). He refused to contemplate surrender and threatened even now to have anyone showing a white flag shot. On that day, 20 April, the ‘city of the Reich Party Rallies’ surrendered. Holz had just dispatched the local SA leader to fight his way through to report to Hitler ‘that we have defended Nuremberg to the last man’. His final act was to order the SS men in his company to open fire on some policemen who were trying to cross to the Americans. An absolute fanatic to the end, Holz was among a group that continued the fighting in the ruins of the police headquarters, where he was killed.76
Farther east, Gauleiter Karl Hanke was coming to symbolize the genuine Nazi ‘hero’ in the beleaguered city of Breslau. The situation there was worsening daily. From the beginning of April, with the loss of the aerodrome at Gandau, even provisioning of the city from the air was no longer possible. Houses were bulldozed, inflicting further misery on local inhabitants, in order to construct an emergency air-strip. The living conditions of the population, still numbering more than 200,000, were meanwhile indescribable, and became almost impossible when non-stop bombing raids on Easter Monday, 2 April, obliterated practically the entire city centre.77 They were paying a terrible price for Hanke’s decision in January to defend ‘Fortress Breslau’ to the last. In Nazi eyes, however, he signified the indomitable spirit that refused to capitulate.
For his personal leadership of the defence of Breslau, and to his great delight, Hitler bestowed upon the Gauleiter the Golden Cross of the German Order.78 In mid-April, Albert Speer sent Hanke a personal letter effusively thanking him for his personal friendship, ‘for all that you have done for me’, and praising him for his ‘achievements as defender of Breslau’, through which he had ‘given much to Germany today’. ‘Your example,’ Speer went on, ‘yet to be recognized in its greatness, will later have the inestimable high value for the people of only few heroes of German history.’ He did not pity him, Speer concluded. ‘You are heading for a fine and honourable end to your life.’79 The ‘hero’ had, however, no intention of going down with the city he had condemned to near total destruction. Hours before Breslau’s capitulation on 5 May, Hanke would make his escape in a Fieseler Storch, perhaps the only plane ever to leave the improvised air-strip in the city.80
The brutal message which Bormann dispatched in Hitler’s name to members of the Party on 1 April clearly signalled, in its call to utter ruthlessness in demanding a fight to the last, the gathering desperation of the regime’s leadership:
After the collapse of 1918 we devoted ourselves with life and limb to the struggle for the right of existence of our people. Now the high point of our test has come: the danger of renewed enslavement facing our people demands our last and supreme effort. From now on the following applies: The fight against the enemy who has forced his way into the Reich is to be uncomprisingly conducted everywhere without pity. Gauleiter and Kreisleiter, other political leaders and heads of affiliates are to fight in their Gau and district, to conquer or to fall. Any scumbag who leaves his Gau when under attack without express order of the Führer, anyone not fighting to the last breath, will be proscribed and treated as a deserter. Raise your hearts and overcome all weaknesses! Now there is only one slogan: conquer or fall! Long live Germany. Long live Adolf Hitler.81
It was a callous attempt at the final hour to turn back the tide. It could do nothing to stave off collapse as the inexorable military defeat grew closer by the day. Even so, in these last weeks it set the tone for the gathering wave of unbridled violence against the regime’s declared enemies as its control crumbled.
Even the regime’s high representatives were not immune from its venom. Gauleiter Fritz Wächtler – a prominent functionary in Thuringia almost since the time he joined the NSDAP in 1926, appointed Thuringian Minister of the Interior in 1933, and since 1935 Gauleiter of the Bayerische Ostmark with honorary status as an SS-Obergruppenführer – had, as we saw, been unresponsive to missives from the Party Chancellery towards the end of the first week of April. This may have contributed to the readiness of Bormann and Hitler to believe the malicious report of his deputy that Wächtler had deserted his Gau. Whether communications difficulties prevented Wächtler from letting Führer Headquarters know his position is unclear. He certainly did face major problems at the time. Bayreuth, the seat of his Gau headquarters, had been heavily bombed three times in early April, and by the middle of the month looked like a ghost-town. Most of the Volkssturm men, who had been mobilized to defend the city, fled, followed by the Kreisleiter and his staff, before American tanks reached the outskirts in the night of 13 April. The Party had by then effectively abdicated its power in the city, which was defended by no more than 200 or so soldiers under a ‘combat commandant’ (Kampfkommandant).
Wächtler also secretly left Bayreuth about the same time with his Gau staff to head south and take up residence in a hotel in Herzogau, a district of the small town of Waldmünchen, in the Upper Palatinate, close to the Czech border. It seems probable that Wächtler was transferring his command post rather than deserting. But his deputy and long-standing rival, Ludwig Ruckdeschel, who had himself transferred his base to Regensburg, chose not to see it like that. It appears that Ruckdeschel contacted Führer Headquarters in Berlin, accusing Wächtler of desertion. In the early morning of 19 April, Ruckdeschel and a squad of 35 SS-men arrived at Wächtler’s hotel. Ruckdeschel ignored Wächtler’s plea that he had removed his staff to organize resistance from Waldmünchen, and without hesitation pronounced the death sentence. Screaming ‘dirty treason’, Wächtler was taken away, stood up against a nearby tree and immediately shot dead by a firing-squad. Ruckdeschel proclaimed that Wächtler had been thrown out of the Nazi Party and executed for cowardice in the face of the enemy, threatening any ‘scoundrel and traitor’ acting similarly with the same fate.82
For ordinary citizens, compliance through fear of instant and arbitrary reprisals was a rational form of behaviour. Anyone showing the least sign of opposing the regime’s own death wish of senseless ‘holding out’ against impossible odds faced great peril. Himmler decreed on 3 April that ‘in a house in which a white flag appears, all males are to be shot’. He was responding to an initiative from the Party, referred to him by the OKW, which had recommended the burning down of any house showing a white flag.83 On 12 April, the High Command of the Wehrmacht issued an order, signed by Keitel, Himmler and Bormann, that every town was to be defended to the last. Any offer or promise by the enemy should the town surrender was to be rejected out of hand. The assigned ‘combat commandant’ was personally responsible for ensuring that the defence of the town was carried out. Anyone acting against this order, or any official seeking to hinder the commandant in fulfilling his duty, would be sentenced to death. Publishing this order in Nuremberg, the Gauleiter and Reich Defence Commissar for Franconia, Karl Holz, added his own rider: ‘Every traitor hoisting a white flag will without fail be hanged. Every house where a white flag is hanging will be blown up or burnt down. Villages that raise white flags communally will be burnt down.’84
Despite such uncompromising orders, backed by ruthless terror (even if the threat to burn down entire German villages does not appear to have been carried out), there were numerous cases of localized opposition. Few people wanted to end their lives in a futile show of ‘heroism’ or to see their homes and workplaces blown up senselessly. Whether they were able to avoid the worst of the destruction varied from place to place, depending on local conditions and the actions of those still holding the reins of power in their hands. Representatives of the dying regime in threatened areas – local government officials, Party functionaries, town commandants who were handed military control over a locality – did not behave uniformly. In western regions, localized power-struggles often decided whether a town was surrendered without a fight or went down in a hail of destruction.85 Many mayors of towns and even local Party leaders behaved responsibly in defying demands to fight on. This could, however, bring savage reprisals if local desperadoes – Party fanatics or SS men, usually – gained the upper hand. In other instances, regime zealots still controlled the local levers of power and condemned inhabitants of towns or villages to unnecessary death and destruction in the final hours before occupation – and before, as a rule, they themselves fled at the last minute. There was no clear pattern.
In many eastern areas, the approach of such a feared enemy brought not thoughts of handing over a town or village without a fight, but panic and attempts to flee – usually after Party representatives, knowing what awaited them if they fell into Soviet hands, had abandoned them. Cottbus in Brandenburg was one of many such examples. Almost all the civilians in the town and surrounding area fled westwards in the days before the Soviet assault on Cottbus began on 21 April. By the early hours of the next morning, all the regular troops, including an SS panzer unit, had pulled out, destroying bridges as they went. Only the Volkssturm and a few groups of ‘stragglers’ remained to defend the town. The last 200 soldiers or Volkssturm men fled that day. ‘That was the last of the German Wehrmacht that I saw,’ recalled one eyewitness. The Party Kreisleiter also vanished. The ‘fortress commandant’ in Cottbus accepted that without regular troops the town was indefensible. This decision, and the speed of the Red Army’s advance, meant that the last act in the fall of the town came quickly and without further fighting or additional pointless destruction (though Soviet soldiers set on fire houses in which they found Nazi symbols).86
The fate of a village or town depended heavily upon the stance of the combat commandant and the actions of prominent citizens. The lovely university town of Greifswald, close to the Pomeranian coast, was fortunate in avoiding destruction. The rector of the university, a fifteenth-century foundation, and a small group of professors and prominent citizens were able to gain the backing of the combat commandant for the surrender of the town to the Soviets without a fight, despite the insistence of the Kreisleiter that it be defended even if it held up the Red Army for only an hour. Without the support of the combat commandant (who encouraged citizens to put out white flags from their homes), the Party officials in the town were powerless.87
In western Germany, probably more than in eastern areas, the collapsing control of the regime offered possibilities, despite the terror, for groups of citizens, women often prominent among them, sometimes led by local ‘worthies’ such as priests or doctors, to take the initiative to prevent the destruction of their townships. They could, if they were fortunate, win support from the mayor or other local government officials and win over the combat commandant.88 Much hinged upon the individuals concerned, their readiness to take action, the stance of the local Party officials, and the presence of the SS or Wehrmacht troops insistent upon terrorizing any seen as ‘defeatists’. In Stuttgart, the mayor, Dr Karl Strölin, himself a Nazi, was persuaded by anti-Nazi local notables to ignore the demands of the Gauleiter of Württemberg, Wilhelm Murr, who was fanatically determined to fight on and punish any who stood in his way. Strölin, gaining the support of the new combat commandant’s superior and through him the Wehrmacht commander in the area, opened clandestine negotiations with the Allies. On 22 April Stuttgart was surrendered without a struggle.89
On occasion, direct action prevented the worst. In the picturesque small town of Bad Windsheim in Lower Franconia, in the most spectacular of a number of demonstrations led by women against the destruction of their towns, 200–300 women, some of them with their children, protested in early April about the decision of the local military commander to hold out against the imminent arrival of strong American forces.90 After a tense confrontation, Bad Windsheim eventually fell without being subjected to total destruction and heavy loss of life. Such courageous protests were, however, not always effective. In Lahr, in the south of Baden, a large group of women in rebellious mood, hurling insults at Hitler and the Party, persuaded a delegation of the town’s officials to seek agreement from the local Wehrmacht commandant to surrender without a fight. Waiting for the return of the delegation, the women hoisted white flags throughout the town, and started the bell tolling to signal surrender. Their hopes were premature. The delegation returned empty-handed. The SS commandant insisted on the defence of Lahr, warning the women that if the white flags were not withdrawn that evening his own men would open fire on the town. Instead of surrender, battle raged throughout the night and into the next day before the town fell to the French, who then looted houses and shops, saying that the SS had behaved worse in France.91
Such actions to try to avoid futile destruction when all was obviously lost could provoke a drastic response. Hundreds of German citizens fell victim to uncontrolled violence in the last weeks of the Nazi regime. Examples could be multiplied without difficulty.92 Following the women’s demonstration in Bad Windsheim, for instance, one woman, wrongly selected (probably because of her reputation as a critic of the NSDAP) as the ringleader by a hit-squad sent down by the Gestapo in Nuremberg, was cold-bloodedly shot in front of her husband and daughter and a notice pinned to her body announcing that ‘a traitor has been executed’.93 In Schwäbisch Gmünd, a small town in Württemberg not far from Stuttgart, the Kreisleiter and combat commandant had two men executed just before midnight on 19 April, hours before the Americans entered the town without a fight. One of the men was known to have been an opponent of the Nazis since 1933, when he had been arrested for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets and returned from his stay in a concentration camp a changed person, psychiatrically disturbed. The other was a former soldier, no longer fit to fight after a serious injury. In a heated argument about handing over the city or fighting on, with the certainty of the destruction of the lovely town with its beautiful medieval minster, they had been heard to shout, probably under the influence of alcohol, ‘Drop dead Hitler. Long live Stauffenberg. Long live freedom.’ The two were removed from their police cells late at night, taken to a wood at the edge of the town and shot dead. The local Nazi representatives were ensuring, with their last act of power, that long-standing opponents would not live to enjoy their downfall. Even as the executions were taking place, the Kreisleiter and his entourage were preparing to flee from the town.94
An extreme case was the arbitrary shooting dead of four civilians, among them a pastor, in a suburb of Heilbronn on 6 April when the local Kreisleiter, Richard Drauz, and a group of fanatics (three of them in the Volkssturm) fleeing by car together with him as the Americans approached came across a street in which white flags hung from several houses. In a rage, he stopped the car, ordering his men ‘out, shoot, shoot everybody’. Drauz’s accomplices arbitrarily shot down their victims, men and women, within a frenzied few minutes, narrowly missing several others, before driving off.95
Others fell victim not to random shootings or the actions of hit-squads, but to the brutal summary ‘justice’ of the ‘flying court martial’. One such mobile court travelled through parts of southern Germany in a grey Mercedes under the leadership of Major Erwin Helm, ‘a special kind of berserker’, proud of an earlier head-wound that had left part of his brain protruding through his skull. Passing close to the village of Zellingen in Lower Franconia at the end of March, Helm’s attention was drawn by the commander of the local Volkssturm battalion, a doctor, to a sixty-year-old farmer, Karl Weiglein, who had allegedly made a sarcastic comment during a pep-talk for the battalion, then later remarked that those responsible for blowing up the nearby bridge over the Main should be hanged. Helm’s instant reaction, before hearing any details of the incidents, was that Weiglein should be executed. When the hurriedly constituted court martial – there was no defender – took too long over its deliberations, Helm threatened to proclaim the sentence himself and prepared the place of execution while the ‘court’ was meeting. As soon as the inevitable death sentence was pronounced, he hung a notice round Weiglein’s neck: ‘Sentenced to Death for Sabotage of the Wehrmacht and Mutiny’. In a particularly sadistic move, Weiglein was hanged from a branch of the pear-tree just beneath the window of his farmhouse while insults were hurled at his horror-struck wife.96
Walter Fernau, an NSFO and member of Helm’s squad who had prosecuted Weiglein and demanded the death sentence, still justified it many years later. ‘I really cannot say to you’, he told his interviewer decades after the event, ‘that at the time I thought that was too harsh.’ He took the view that Weiglein was guilty even though the case against him was not proven. The situation necessitated harsh measures, he argued. There was also the deterrent effect. Helm said, Fernau claimed to recall, ‘that he has to be hanged and kept on display so that the Zellingen Volkssturm people see, well, if we step out of line we’ll get the same as him’. The court rightly, in his view, did not have powers to give prison sentences. A few months in prison while others were dying would have been unjust. From the first to the last day of belonging to Helm’s battalion, said Fernau, ‘I never had the sense that I had made myself guilty.’97
Though anyone seen to stand in the regime’s way now ran the serious risk of summary execution, the main targets of the ‘crimes of the last phase’ were nevertheless not random, but real or imagined opponents of the regime, defeatists, ‘subversives’, supposed ‘shirkers’, presumed deserters or ‘cowards’, or anyone welcoming the end of Nazism or the arrival of the enemy. In this sense, the violence differed from the style of savagely arbitrary collective reprisals that had frequently been inflicted earlier in the war on the peoples of Nazi-occupied Europe. When directed by Germans against their fellow countrymen in the last weeks, the horror had a different pattern. Old scores were settled. Personal animosities, little to do with ideology, played their part. So did feelings of sheer revenge. Long-standing opponents were arbitrarily dispatched to prevent their enjoying their moment of triumph.
Ideological indoctrination was, however, far from insignificant. Now as before, the worst of the murderous violence was directed at the perceived racial or political enemies of the regime, foreign workers and, above all, concentration camp prisoners. Out of 288 ‘crimes of the last phase’ bringing convictions in post-war trials in West Germany, 114 (39.6 per cent, the highest single proportion) related to the shooting of prisoners and foreign workers. Apart from members of the Gestapo and other police units, Volkssturm men and prison personnel were most prominent among the convicted killers.98
Prominent individuals who had been involved in the resistance to Hitler could not be allowed to witness his downfall. Among those who had formerly belonged to the opposition within the Abwehr (German military counter-intelligence) Hans von Dohnanyi, who had worked for Hitler’s downfall since 1938, was hanged in Sachsenhausen concentration camp on 9 April after a farcical ‘trial’ before an SS court martial. A similar fate in Flossenbürg the same day befell Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, former head of the Abwehr, Colonel Hans Oster, who had been part of a plot against Hitler in 1938 and had leaked German invasion plans to the Dutch in 1940, and the evangelical theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose courageous attempts to persuade the western Allies to support the resistance in Germany had come to nothing. In Dachau, Georg Elser, the Swabian joiner who had tried to blow up Hitler in 1939 was also murdered (without even the semblance of a trial).99 But such killings were merely the tip of the iceberg. With the regime lurching almost visibly out of control, prisoners, whether in concentration camps or in state penitentiaries, lived or died at the whim of their guards or jailers. Violence towards prisoners, already escalating wildly, now became ubiquitous.100 It was even prompted in some cases by the military leadership. When his forces were cut off in the Ruhr, Field-Marshal Model ordered on 7 April that prisoners in penitentiaries, including those under remand for political offences, should be handed to the police for ‘examination’. The execution of more than 200 prisoners followed. There were numerous other killings in the final hours before penal institutions were evacuated, or before the Allies arrived. Where an official executioner could not get to a penitentiary on time, prison officials – rewarded with money and cigarettes – carried out the killings. In one subsidiary of Emsland camp, a young apprentice chimney-sweep, wearing an army captain’s uniform, turned up and ordered the execution of dozens of prisoners. Astonishingly, his orders were followed, a sign of the mounting chaos in the collapsing regime. More than a hundred prisoners were executed over the next few days.101
Amid the gathering mayhem and murderous frenzy, the violence and killing of the death marches of concentration camp prisoners in the final weeks of the regime mark a separate unholy chapter.
The hurried, often chaotic, evacuations and subsequent terrible death marches of prisoners from Auschwitz, Groß-Rosen, Stutthof and other camps in the east, which we followed in Chapter 6, had at least a semblance of underlying rationale – from the regime’s perspective. The prisoners were to be kept out of the hands of the enemy and brought back into the interior of the Reich where – in theory, though scarcely in practice for such emaciated, exhausted, frozen, starved, beaten and otherwise maltreated human beings – they could be available for labour, or, as Himmler saw it, as potential pawns in any deal with the Allies. Those who were not killed en route, or who did not die from exhaustion or exposure to the bitter winter conditions, eventually reached camps within Germany, including Bergen-Belsen.
Following two days of negotiations and, amazingly, Himmler’s permission to hand over rather than evacuate the camp – unaware (given the dramatic decline in the already dreadful conditions in the camp over recent weeks) of exactly what horrors he was revealing, and hoping to exploit his ‘humanitarian’ gesture in his dealings with Bernadotte – British troops entered Bergen-Belsen on 15 April. Most SS guards had by then left. Around 50,000 prisoners, in a state closer to death than life, were liberated. Thousands of decomposing corpses, many of them dead in the typhus epidemic that had raged for weeks lay around. Some 37,000 had died since February, more than 9,000 in the two weeks before the liberation of the camp. Another 14,000 were to die from the effects of their suffering in the camp in the following weeks.102 That Bergen-Belsen was handed over, not evacuated, was a unique occurrence. The typhus epidemic ruled out evacuation.103 In all other camps, an attempt was made to remove the prisoners before the camp could be taken by the enemy.
In March, as part of his attempt to reach some arrangement with the Allies, Himmler had ordered that Jews should be treated like other prisoners, informing camp commandants that they were no longer to be killed, and that the death rate among prisoners should be reduced by all possible means.104 On the last day of March, the commandant of Buchenwald was expecting the camp to be handed over to the Allies. Within less than a week that had diametrically altered. Himmler now ordered the camp’s prisoners, where possible, to be sent to Flossenbürg.105 In this, as an order sent to the commandant of Flossenbürg in mid-April made clear, he reverted to the policy that there could be no question of surrendering concentration camps and that no prisoner should be allowed to fall alive into enemy hands.106 Hitler’s reaction to reports that newly liberated prisoners from Buchenwald had made their way to nearby Weimar and had looted and raped had probably caused the reversion.107 Himmler now pressed for the swift evacuation of Mittelbau-Dora and Buchenwald. During the night of 4/5 April removal of the Mittelbau prisoners in the direction of the concentration camps in Sachsenhausen, Ravensbrück and Mauthausen began, and ended within forty-eight hours or so.108
On 11 April American soldiers reached the camp complex at Mittelbau-Dora, where they found 700 ill and emaciated prisoners, soon afterwards encountering further horrific scenes as they liberated the subsidiary camps. When the Americans arrived in Buchenwald, the largest camp in Germany, on 13 April, an unimaginably gruesome experience, they found around 21,000 prisoners – many little more than walking skeletons – remaining in the camp out of the complement of 48,000 little more than a week earlier. The rest had set out, by rail or on foot, between 7 and 10 April, heading for the concentration camps many kilometres away to the south of Flossenbürg and Dachau, themselves bursting at the seams with swollen numbers of prisoners.109 These camps, too, and those still remaining at Mauthausen (not far from Linz in Austria), Sachsenhausen (just outside Berlin), Neuengamme (near Hamburg) and Ravensbrück (a women’s camp, about 80 kilometres north of Berlin), would evacuate their prisoners capable of marching, under catastrophic circumstances and with no obvious destination, during the second half of April.110
The Buchenwald prisoners were among the numerous long columns of bedraggled, gaunt, shrunken figures from the remaining concentration camps now being driven by their merciless guards hundreds of kilometres criss-cross through parts of Germany in disastrous conditions that defy description or obvious rationale. The prisoners were at this stage of the war plainly not of any use as forced labour (even if capable of working). And given the pace of the Allied advance, they would, even if they reached their destinations, obviously fall in the near future into enemy hands. No consideration appears to have been given to the notion of killing all the prisoners in the camps, which, given the speed of the Allied advance, would in any case scarcely have been practicable. But if those removed were eventually going to be killed anyway, there was little logic to the lengthy treks beforehand. Himmler had not, it is true, given up expectation that the prisoners – or the Jews among them – could be used as pawns in some deal with the Allies. As long as they were alive and within his power, they might still serve a purpose in his illusory scheme.
This dubious rationale apart, the death marches were completely pointless, except as a means of inflicting still further enormous suffering on those designated as the regime’s internal enemies. But the commandants and the guards treating the prisoners on the marches with such sadistic brutality did not seek any rationale. Their system still functioned – after a fashion. They remained, even in its dissolution, set in the same mentality that had earlier seen them torture prisoners pointlessly or force them to carry out pointless backbreaking labour.111 Ultimately, by April 1945 the regime just did not know what to do with the hundreds of thousands of prisoners still in its domain. In the gathering chaos of the last weeks, the death marches reflected the futile flailing of a regime on the verge of its own destruction but retaining its murderous capacity to the very end.
As the regime collapsed, decisions on what to do with the prisoners were left increasingly to those guarding them. Only unclear or confused guidelines, though leaving much scope for initiative, came from Himmler and the now faltering concentration camp central administration. Camp commandants were wary of acting prematurely, so gave evacuation orders at the last minute. Max Pauly, commandant of Neuengamme, near Hamburg, told interrogators after the war that in April 1945 he did not know what to do with his prisoners.112 When the marches set out, the fate of the prisoners was entirely in the hands of their guards – by this time far from all SS men, and including many drawn from the Volkssturm. How many were firm believers in Nazi ideology, or even genuine regime loyalists, cannot be known. But all had been in some way ‘schooled’ in how to deal with the ‘enemies of the people’. There was no control over the guards’ actions, no sanction for what they did. Their decisions on who should live or die were arbitrary.
Prisoners were dispatched without a thought on a daily basis by guards to whom they were totally anonymous, lacking all identity. One blond-haired SS guard, only about twenty years old, casually shot a thirteen-year-old boy on a march from Sachsenhausen because he could not keep up with the fast pace, almost running speed. In their anger and despair, the boy’s elder brother, a Jesuit priest, and his father tried to jump on the SS man, but he simply ‘fired a few volleys from his machine gun at them’. ‘The machine guns rattled unceasingly’ as many prisoners were mowed down in the first two days. When, after a night in a barn, one prisoner refused to continue the march, the same young SS brute simply shot him dead, then a few minutes later turned his gun on the prisoner’s distraught brother-in-law who had lagged behind. By now, the blond SS man simply ‘pulled out prisoners who, in his opinion, did not walk fast enough and shot them on the spot’.113
The guards thought of little besides themselves and their task of delivering their charges at the destination. As long as prisoners were capable of walking, obeying instructions, and serving the needs of their guards – not least keeping them away from the front – they might survive. But any sense that they had become a burden for the guards meant their instant death.114 Once on the marches, no obvious distinction seems to have been drawn by the guards about the prisoners. All, Jewish or not, were subject to their arbitrary murderous actions.115
In some cases, the killings became full-scale massacres. In Celle, 35 kilometres north-east of Hanover, almost 800 prisoners, men and women, fell victim on the night of 8/9 April. The railway wagons transporting them – Russians, Poles and Ukrainians predominantly, some but far from all Jewish – from two satellite camps of Neuengamme at Salzgitter to nearby Bergen-Belsen were caught during a heavy air raid while standing in the station at Celle. Hundreds of prisoners burnt to death while trapped in the wagons.116 Those who escaped the inferno were able to take flight into the nearby woods. The manhunt rapidly set up to track them down consisted not only of their SS guards, but Volkssturm and SA men, local police and Party functionaries, soldiers stationed nearby, members of the Hitler Youth, and also groups of local citizens who spontaneously joined in. When one thirteen-year-old boy enquired about the identity of the prisoners, as shots rang out in the woods, he was told ‘they could well be Jews’. The crowd was easily persuaded that the escapees were dangerous criminals and Communists. The mass shooting of probably around 200 prisoners was thus portrayed, and evidently viewed, as self-protection.117
Shortly afterwards, between 9 and 11 April, about 3,000–4,000 prisoners, many of them from Mittelbau-Dora heading for Bergen-Belsen, Sachenhausen and Neuengamme camps, arrived in the village of Mieste, near Gardelegen, about 40 kilometres north of Magdeburg. When damaged tracks prevented their train from continuing, and the prisoners were force-marched to Gardelegen, the local Kreisleiter, Gerhard Thiele, exploiting stories that escaped prisoners had looted and raped in a village not far away and declaring that he would do everything to prevent such an occurrence in his area, made preparations to have them killed. There was great urgency since the Americans were closing in on the town. The SS were aided in the meantime in guarding the prisoners by detachments from the Wehrmacht, Hitler Youth, the Volkssturm, the local fire brigade and other organizations. When objections were raised that the site of the cavalry school he had proposed for the killing was too close to the town centre, Thiele came up with the idea of a large barn in an isolated position in a field on the outskirts. On 13 April, more than 1,000 prisoners, Jews among them though predominantly ‘politicals’, were herded into the barn. Petrol was poured on the straw, the large doors were sealed, and the barn was set alight. Some prisoners trying desperately to escape were shot by the guards. The remainder died in the flames. Next day, the Americans arrived while the attempt was still being made to bury the charcoaled remains of the prisoners.118
Unlike the earlier death marches that had left from the camps in the east, the thousands of prisoners who had been in every conceivable way degraded and dehumanized now trekked through Germany itself, before the eyes of the German public. As in Gardelegen, their guards were often a motley bunch. Most were drawn from the SS and were well armed and often accompanied by dogs which they did not hesitate to turn on the prisoners. But a march from Ravensbrück in mid-April was guarded only by lightly armed ‘older men’, thought to be auxiliary police. Others had guards composed of SA men or ethnic Germans from different parts of eastern Europe.119
Beatings and shootings of prisoners also took place before the eyes of the public, with no attempt to hide them. The hostile stance of the German population dominates the recollections of the victims, thankful though those doubtless were who benefited momentarily from any sign of human kindness. Post-war German accounts, on the other hand, had good reason to emphasize sympathy for the prisoners and condemnation of the crimes of the SS guards.
Acts of solidarity, friendship or support from bystanders seem at any rate to have been relatively rare. Years of demonization of Jews and indoctrination in racial stereotypes, along with the stoked-up fear of the ‘people’s enemies’ – reinforced through lurid radio reports of former Buchenwald prisoners rampaging and marauding through Weimar, and similar stories used to justify the massacre at Gardelegen – had clearly not been without their baleful effect. However much Germans saw themselves, increasingly, as victims of Hitler and the Nazi regime, many of them were not ready to extend their sympathies to concentration camp prisoners, least of all Jews, or to embrace the true victims of Nazism as part of their ‘community’. The human wrecks before their eyes looked like the caricatures of ‘subhumans’ rammed home in incessant propaganda. But in all their evident frailty, they were still, perversely, seen by many as a threat. ‘What crimes they must have committed to be treated so cruelly,’ was one comment. Another person, justifying the shooting by Wehrmacht soldiers of thirteen escaped prisoners (recaptured with help of the local population), remarked: ‘They were political prisoners and mere criminals.’120 Survivors of the marches recounted, depressingly but unsurprisingly, numerous cases where they had been insulted, jeered at, spat at, had had stones thrown at them, or were refused food and drink by local inhabitants. In some cases, German civilians, as at Celle, aided guards to capture prisoners who had escaped, and apparently participated in the killing.121
Alongside the horrific instances of callous support for murderous action, there were, nevertheless, indications that some civilians, even if they were the exceptions, tried to give food or succour to the prisoners passing through their villages. A British report on the massacre at Celle stated that numerous citizens tried, in the face of threats and abuse from the perpetrators, to aid the prisoners by giving them first aid or comforting them.122 Around 1,250 weak and starving prisoners who arrived in Hütten in Württemberg at the beginning of April were said to have been given food by some local families. The local mayor apparently succeeded in bringing in some supplies for the prisoners and appealed to the Wehrmacht for help. A Wehrmacht officer and veteran of the First World War, called to the scene, then organized a meal for around 200 sick prisoners who remained after the others had been marched off. He also ordered the dead to be properly buried.123
In Altendorf, a village in the Upper Palatinate where 650 prisoners stopped on the night of 21/2 April on their trek from Buchenwald to Dachau, thirteen prisoners who hid in a barn were hunted down by their SS guards with dogs and pitchforks. Twelve were caught and immediately shot. The thirteenth, a Pole, was able to escape when the head of the local constabulary chose not to hand him over to the SS and allowed him to be fed before he disappeared. The dead victims were then buried by Volkssturm men in a mass grave in the cemetery, in contrast to many instances when local inhabitants elsewhere rapidly dug improvised graves where the prisoners had been killed, or simply pushed the corpses into a roadside ditch and covered them over.124 The examples could be multiplied of inhabitants recalling feelings of shock and shame at the beatings and shootings that they witnessed, of providing prisoners with food and drink (not just when the guards simply requisitioned it), or, more rarely, of assisting escape or not betraying hiding-places.125
Most people, however, it seems reasonable to surmise, simply remained passive – not participating, but also showing no opposition – as the maltreatment and murder occurred beneath their gaze. The bystanders’ own fear of the reactions of the guards to support for the prisoners understandably played a part. With the war so close to its end, few were ready to invite retribution, least of all in the cause of prisoners whose guilt was for the most part taken for granted. But some evidently did risk retribution through signs of sympathy for the prisoners. Fear could not, therefore, have been the sole cause of the prevalent passivity. Even so, it was probably less the case that ‘broad social support… was given to the killing’126 than that few were prepared to risk their own well-being by acting against guards ruthlessly wielding power in attempting humanitarian gestures which, they felt, would change nothing towards people with whom they could not identify. That was enough to make them accomplices to murder. The passivity allowed the killing to continue until the guards fled on the approach of the enemy and the prisoners were liberated not by Germans themselves, but by their conquerors.
In the Berlin bunker on 20 April the Nazi grandees, having congratulated Hitler on his birthday, avowed their lasting loyalty and said what for most of them would be their final farewells, were chafing at the bit to depart before the roads out of the capital became blocked. Goebbels apart, hardly any were anxious to join their Leader on the funeral pyre. Whatever their long-standing rhetoric about fighting or dying, when it came down to it they thought predominantly about saving their own skins. Göring’s copious belongings were packed and on their way to Berchtesgaden. He had sent his wife and family to relative safety there some weeks earlier. His ranch at Carinhall, north of Berlin, was now deserted and waiting to be detonated. A few weeks later he was telling Allied interrogators that until late in the day he had thought Germany might be able to fight to a stalemate.127 Now he was off – to await an uncertain end, but certainly not self-immolation in the Berlin catacombs.
Speer headed north to Hamburg, though he felt he had not properly said goodbye to the man who had dominated his life for more than a decade, and with whom even now he could not completely break the ties which had bound them together. To remedy this he was to make an arduous (and pointless) fleeting return to the bunker on 23 April. Perhaps he was even now thinking that, once the end had come, all might not be lost for him, and hoped that Hitler would anoint him as his successor.128 To Speer’s dismay, Hitler could scarcely bring himself to offer more than a perfunctory goodbye.129
Himmler was also on his way north, and set to continue his clandestine dealings with Count Bernadotte in the hope of extracting something out of the disaster for himself even at the end. In his desperation he was even willing to meet a prominent member of the Jewish World Congress and to agree to the release of female Jews from Ravensbrück concentration camp. He was also ready to make a promise he could not have kept even had he wanted to – that no more Jews would be killed. He had ordered the SS to fight to the last, and never to capitulate.130 He himself was contemplating doing precisely the opposite of what he had preached.
Bormann, the éminence grise of the regime, must have been aware by now that his leadership of the Party Chancellery had become little more than an empty title. Few Gauleiter were even in a position to receive his directives. He could not leave the bunker. That was clear. But once Hitler was dead, which could not be far off, he had every intention of escaping both his own demise and the clutches of the Russians.
Goebbels, the last of the quartet who, beneath Hitler, had dominated internal politics in the last months and ensured that the regime continued to operate until the end, had, whatever his public rhetoric and notwithstanding his private flights of fantasy, clearly seen what was coming for quite some time. He continued to do all he could to help in the fight to fend off the Soviets. Even on Hitler’s birthday, he laid on Berlin buses to carry soldiers out to the Oder front.131 But he knew it would be in vain. By then he had had his personal belongings destroyed. The originals of the diaries he had diligently kept for over twenty years were among them. However, he ensured that this daily record of his role alongside Hitler in Germany’s lost but ‘heroic’ fight – what he saw as his lasting legacy for future generations – would be preserved for posterity by sending out three copies into hiding.132 He and his wife Magda then made ready to move into the Führer Bunker to join Hitler. They knew that in doing so they were taking the decision to end their lives. They had already decided to kill their six children.133
By next morning, 21 April, the government district in the heart of Berlin was being shelled. There was a rumble like distant thunder, but unceasing and growing louder by the hour.134 The Soviets were now only about 12 kilometres away to the east. As the encirclement of the city advanced, a unit of the Red Army liberated some 3,000 prisoners – mainly sick women and children – left behind in Sachsenhausen concentration camp when most of the prisoners had been marched off on 20 April.135 By 24 April Busse’s 9th Army was caught in a tightening Soviet vice. Colonel-General Heinrici’s warnings of this fate had been ignored by Hitler and his military advisers.136 Heinrici would eventually have the dubious distinction of being the last of Hitler’s generals to be dismissed, on the night of 28/9 April, when he finally refused to carry out an utterly impossible order from Keitel and Jodl.137 By then his army was breaking up in a westward stampede of soldiers desperate to avoid Soviet captivity. The constant interference in his command by unrealistic orders had ultimately proved too much for him. But there was also a personal grievance: he felt deeply insulted at the way Keitel and Jodl had treated him, ‘unworthy’, he thought, of the manner in which the commander-in-chief of an Army Group should be addressed and ‘unbearable’ for an officer with forty years of service behind him.138
Heinrici’s stance even in these last days, and that of Field-Marshal Keitel and General Jodl, said much about Hitler’s generals. When Heinrici objected to Keitel and Jodl about the minimal prospects of the slightest success in what his Army Group Vistula was expected to undertake, he was simply told it was his duty to rescue the Führer. Hitler’s main advisers, he felt, either could not or would not accept the true situation and realize that the battle of Berlin was lost. But Heinrici did not offer his resignation. Instead, as he stated in a description of the battle he compiled less than a month later, ‘the bond of my duty of obedience as a soldier, the impossibility of rejecting orders to save the Supreme Commander of the Wehrmacht’ meant that he felt unable to refuse ‘without committing treason’. ‘After the OKW had placed “the saving of the Führer” at the head of all orders, this took precedence over other military considerations.’
For Keitel, however, even Hitler’s death would not prevent the continuation of the struggle. If Berlin could not be saved, he suggested to Heinrici, the Army Group should carry on the fight in northern Germany. Heinrici retorted that this was neither economically nor militarily possible. ‘The will to fight on the part of the soldiers was already falling sharply and would collapse altogether with the news of the death of the Führer.’ Keitel answered that this news would therefore have to be delayed as long as possible. Further resistance was necessary in order to enter negotiations with the western enemies. Germany still possessed numerous bargaining counters, such as Denmark, Norway and Bohemia, that would serve as a good basis for negotiation. Heinrici thought Keitel was completely detached from reality, though his awareness of the preparations being made by Dönitz in Plön, in line with Hitler’s orders, to continue the fight in the northern half of the country as long as possible made him take the proposition seriously.139
On 25 April the Reich was cut in two as American and Soviet troops met at Torgau, on the Elbe. By noon that day Berlin was completely encircled. The city centre now came under increasingly heavy artillery bombardment. Berlin had been declared a fortress, to be defended to the last. The forces to do so were weak indeed, compared with the Soviet behemoth. But Dönitz was among the military leaders who took the view that the battle for Berlin was necessary whatever the cost to the civilian population since they would otherwise be deported to Russia without any attempt to prevent their undergoing such a fate.140 As it was, civilians had to experience the misery, suffering and death that accompanied the relentless destruction of their city. Soviet troops had to fight their way practically block by block. But amid intense and bitter street-fighting they pressed inexorably on towards the epicentre of Nazi rule in the Reich Chancellery.141 They knew Hitler was there.
A combination of near hysteria and outright fatalism had by then caught hold in the bunker. Hitler had placed illusory hopes, not defused by Keitel and Jodl, who knew better but were still fearful of giving him bad news,142 in the newly and hastily constituted 12th Army under General Walther Wenck, fighting on the Elbe, and, especially, in a counter-offensive to the north of Berlin led by SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner’s panzer corps. When he had learnt, on 22 April, that Steiner’s attack had not taken place,143 the pent-up feelings had exploded in a torrential outburst of elemental fury. Hitler admitted openly for the first time that the war was lost. He told his shocked entourage that he was determined to stay in Berlin and take his life at the last moment. He seemed to be abdicating power and responsibility, saying he had no further orders for the Wehrmacht. He even implied that Göring might have to negotiate with the enemy.144 But, astonishingly, he had pulled himself together again, refused to concede a grain of his authority, and exuded as always undiluted optimism in his military briefing just moments after speaking privately about his imminent death and the burning of his body.145 The act, which had slipped for a brief moment, was back in place.
Keitel was sent to Wenck’s headquarters with orders – totally unfeasible, but temporarily cheering up Hitler once more – to march on Berlin. The High Command of the Wehrmacht was now split between Krampnitz, near Potsdam (later moving north, until finally based with Dönitz in Plön), and Berchtesgaden. Despite the despairing outburst during his temporary breakdown, Hitler was still in no mood to relinquish control. Göring learnt this when, mistaking the information he had received about Hitler’s eruption as denoting incapacity or unwillingness to lead any longer and assuming, therefore, that on the basis of the long-standing succession law he should take over, he was peremptorily dismissed from all his offices and put under house arrest at the Berghof. Bormann, an arch-enemy for years of the Reich Marshal, could savour a last triumph.
Even now the generals in charge of Berlin’s defence would not contemplate capitulation. When General Kurt von Tippelskirch arrived on 27 April to take over the 21st Army, hastily put together from whatever units could be found, he had a long conversation with Heinrici, with whom he had served in Russia, about the position of Army Group Vistula. They acknowledged that every day brought further immense destruction to what remained of the Reich. Only capitulation could prevent it. Yet such a decision was still impossible, Tippelskirch argued. It would mean acting against the will of the Führer (and Jodl had recently emphasized that negotiations were impossible as long as Hitler lived).146 Moreover, an attempt to capitulate would be unsuccessful. The mass of the soldiers would refuse to obey orders to hand themselves over ‘and start on the road to Siberia’, and would seek to find their own way home. The enemy would then claim the conditions of capitulation had not been met. The war would continue. So would the destruction of the land. The soldiers would be taken prisoner anyway. No good would, therefore, have been served. But ‘the Army Group would bear the disgrace of capitulation and desertion of the Führer’. ‘The fight must therefore go on, with the aim of bringing the armies gradually so far to the west that ultimately they would fall not into Russian but into Anglo-American captivity.’147 In this reasoning, plainly, the interests of the army exceeded all other concerns.
Away from the madhouse in the bunker, the remnants of government were in terminal disarray. Most ministerial staffs (with the big exception of the Propaganda Ministry) had been relocated to southern Germany, beginning in March, leaving no more than skeletal arrangements in Berlin. A number of ministers and their staffs had followed in April, welcoming the opportunity to leave. Berlin was now a government capital without government apparatus. The head of the Reich Chancellery, Hans-Heinrich Lammers, had left for Berchtesgaden at the end of March. He went on leave, claiming high blood pressure. In fact, he had suffered a severe nervous breakdown. He had for long served little real purpose. The Reich Chancellery’s function had since the previous summer been hardly more than residual, as its powers had drained off to Bormann in the Party Chancellery. In its last days, its acting head was the State Secretary, Friedrich Wilhelm Kritzinger, who was left with the purely theoretical task of coordinating the other ministries and the remainder of the Reich Chancellery civil servants from Berlin. Asked after the end of the war why he had not resigned, Kritzinger seemed scarcely to understand the question. ‘As a long-standing civil servant I was duty-bound in loyalty to the state,’ he answered, expressing shame at its policies towards Jews and Poles. (Even on the morning of 21 April, as Soviet rockets exploded in the government district of Berlin, civil servants continued to ‘work’ – doing nothing useful – at their desks.148) When asked further why Lammers continued to do all he could for the war effort, Kritzinger replied: ‘Well, there had to be some sort of organization. Think just of food for the people. That functioned to the end.’ ‘Would it have been better had it not functioned to the end?’ his interrogator retorted. ‘It was war,’ shrugged Kritzinger.149
On the evening of 20 April Kritzinger gave instructions to the ministerial staffs still in Berlin to leave with all haste for the south by road. That proved impossible. A new order was given to leave next day by air. Not enough planes were available. It was then suggested that they should go to the north instead. Exasperated by now, the Finance Minister, Graf Schwerin von Krosigk, who in previous weeks had pressed Goebbels and Speer to take action that would pave the way for the western Allies to come to terms,150 demanded a clear order of the Führer, saying he had no intention of being hanged en route by the SS as a deserter. When, after much trying, Kritzinger managed through Bormann to obtain a ‘recommendation’ from Hitler for the ministers to head north, it was not enough for Krosigk. He now insisted on a written Führer order. Eventually, Kritzinger succeeded in persuading Bormann to get Hitler, for whom this was scarcely the highest priority at the moment, to sign a written order to head for Eutin, far to the north in Schleswig-Holstein. Amid such panicky improvisation, the ministers of a Reich with a long and proud tradition of state service fled the capital and a head of state set on self-destruction.
With Hitler’s earlier orders to split the Reich into northern and southern sectors coming into effect, there were by now effectively six centres of government in Germany: Hitler in his Berlin bunker, his authority real and unchallenged – where it could still reach; the High Command of the Wehrmacht, itself now divided between Krampnitz and Berchtesgaden; parts of the Reich cabinet based in the south and the remainder in the north under Dönitz; Göring still presided (until ousted by Hitler on 23 April) over his own remaining Luftwaffe command in Berchtesgaden; while Himmler had what was left of his SS and police power-base in the Lübeck area in the north.151 There was no semblance any longer of a central government of the Reich.
In the provinces, too, or what was left of them under German control, the regime was also imploding – accompanied, inevitably, by untrammelled violence in its very last days. On 20 April the Gau administration in Augsburg was told that the banks would run out of money within a week. Wages and salaries could then no longer be paid. No banknotes had been received from the Reichsbank for a week. The Bavarian Finance Ministry was printing money, but it would not be ready for eight to ten days, and it was itself awaiting a transport of 300 million Reich Marks from Berlin, after which Swabia would be allocated its share.152 Whether that happened is unclear, but Swabia had not much longer to limp on before Augsburg was surrendered to the Americans on 28 April.
Near chaos was reported in late April by the Kreisleiter in the small town of Lindau, on the Bodensee at the western tip of Bavaria close to the Swiss border. Drunken German soldiers were rampaging through the streets and looting property. Huge numbers of refugees and deserters had poured into the town. The Kreisleiter sought permission to restore order by having the first hundred seized and shot. Permission, mercifully, does not appear to have been granted. Lindau survived a few more days before surrendering on 2 May.153
Violence also preceded the capitulation without a fight of Regensburg, the capital of the Upper Palatinate. The tone was set by Gauleiter Ruckdeschel, who had engineered Gauleiter Wächtler’s execution. Ruckdeschel and the Nazi leadership in the city were determined to fight on. In a tense meeting in the city’s velodrome on the evening of 22 April, called by the Kreisleiter, Ruckdeschel declared that the city would be ‘defended to the last stone’. His speech, broadcast locally, merely succeeded in stirring up fear and dismay. The Americans were only a short distance away, and few people were prepared to go down in flames as the enemy took the town. Next morning some women started going round shops, spreading the word that there was to be another meeting that evening in Moltkeplatz, in the city centre, to demand that Regensburg be handed over to the Allies without a fight. Nearly a thousand people, many of them women with children, turned out. As the crowd started to become restless, it was addressed by a prominent member of the cathedral chapter, Domprediger Dr Johann Maier, who, however, was able to say only a few words before he and several others were arrested.
When Ruckdeschel heard what had happened, he ordered that Maier and the other ‘ringleaders’ be hanged. A rapidly summoned drumhead court lost no time in pronouncing the death sentence on Maier and a seventy-year-old warehouse worker, Joseph Zirkl. They were hanged in Moltkeplatz in the early hours of 24 April. The terror apparatus had still functioned. But with the Americans on the doorstep, the town’s military commandant, its head of regional government, the Kreisleiter and the head of police suddenly vanished into the night. Gauleiter Ruckdeschel had also disappeared. The way was all at once clear for emissaries to hand over the city on 27 April, still largely undamaged by the war.154
In other parts of Bavaria, too, representatives of the regime were determined to leave the scene with shows of vengeful last-minute murderous violence, as futile as they were horrific. The Nazis, as they knew, were on the way out. But their capacity for taking violent revenge on their political opponents continued. The murder of more than forty people in different parts of the region, with the Americans in some cases only hours away, was prompted by the proclamation over a captured radio transmitter on the outskirts of Munich on the morning of 28 April of the ‘Freedom Action of Bavaria’, a courageous but ultimately counter-productive localized rising against the Nazi regime in its final days. The ‘Action’ was led by three officers in locally stationed Wehrmacht units, Captain Rupprecht Gerngroß, Major Alois Braun and Lieutenant Ottoheinz Leiling. It aimed at impressing the Allies that in Bavaria at least the Nazi regime did not represent the only face of Germany, and sought to achieve the restoration of traditional Bavarian values in the rebuilding of the province. It was unquestionably a brave mistake at this juncture. In encouraging long-standing opponents of the regime in a number of Bavarian towns and villages to open shows of defiance, it was unwittingly signing their death warrant. There was little to be achieved militarily or politically by the rising. Villages, towns and cities were in most cases being handed over through often bold manoeuvring at the appropriate moment by those on the spot. It was inconceivable that an attempted rising, planned and executed in little more than amateurish fashion, could bring an immediate end to the fighting in Bavaria. Instead, it merely served as a provocation for local Nazis still wielding power to take murderous revenge on their opponents, in the process settling some long-standing vendettas.
The Gauleiter of Munich-Upper Bavaria, Paul Giesler, now a cornered fanatic, was behind the worst of the violence. Five men in Munich were taken out on his orders and shot. In Altötting, a Catholic pilgrimage centre, the Kreisleiter led an SS squad which shot five people – local opponents for many years – on a list he had rapidly drawn up. When his hit-squad reported the execution of another three in neighbouring Burghausen, he shouted ‘What, only three?’ The worst outrage was in the small mining town of Penzberg, somewhat incongruously situated in beautiful Alpine scenery between Munich and Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Local Nazi leaders wanted to blow up the coal mine, heart of the town’s economic life, and the waterworks and bridges in the vicinity. To block the destruction, former Social Democrats and Communists participated in an attempt to take over the coal mine and depose the Nazi town leadership. It was not long, however, before the officer of a nearby Wehrmacht unit had the leaders of the revolt, including the former SPD mayor, arrested. With the deposed Nazi mayor, he then drove to Munich, where Gauleiter Giesler peremptorily gave orders that they were to be shot immediately, without trial. On return to Penzberg, about 6 p.m., the sentences for treason were read out and the executions of the seven prisoners were promptly carried out. A Werwolf squad, around 100 strong, given the task by Giesler of dealing with the ‘politically unreliable’, meanwhile hastened down to Penzberg and that evening hanged a further eight people, among them two women, at different points of the town, placing notices round their necks declaring that they were traitors and in the service of the enemy. The next day, the Americans arrived.155
In Berlin, hardly any people were aware of the subterranean drama in the bunker. They had far more pressing things on their minds. They desperately wanted peace – ‘an end with horror rather than a horror without end’, as the well-worn phrase had it. They had equally desperately wanted the Americans to get to Berlin before the Russians.156 Even that hope had disappeared. All that was left was fear of what was coming and the desire to survive. The streets were empty, apart from some queues of people outside shops trying to buy the food they needed for a long siege.157 Most were by now living in cellars ‘like woodlice, creeping into the farthest corners’,158 constantly hungry as rations dwindled, without heating because of coal shortages, with little or no gas or electricity, having to stand in long queues to collect water in buckets from street pumps. People had the feeling that they were no longer governed. ‘No orders any more, no news, nothing. No swine is bothered about us,’ as one woman expressed it.159 Without electricity, few by now could receive news by radio. As even the last of the two-page broadsheets that passed for newspapers disappeared, they had to rely upon word of mouth to glean fragments of often inaccurate information.160 At least they were spared the headlines of the Völkischer Beobachter, still printed in Munich until 28 April and proclaiming in its headlines that ‘Germany Stands Firm and Loyal to the Führer’, ‘The Führer – Defender of Berlin’, or ‘The Führer Inflames Berlin’s Fighting Spirit’.161 Anyone expressing such sentiments on the streets of Berlin was thought to be mad. But bodies hanging with notices round their necks proclaiming them to have been ‘traitors’ were a warning not to speak out recklessly, and still to take extreme care of those still standing behind the fatally wounded regime.162
As long as the roads out of Berlin had remained open, thousands – many of them pale, worn-out women and their exhausted children – tried to escape to the west, on foot, in horse-drawn wagons, pushing wheelbarrows and prams containing remnants of their last few possessions.163 Then the last escape routes were shut off. There was now nothing to do but wait in dread in cellars, wanting the end but fearing what it meant.164 In the last week of April, the worst fears of many Berliners started to be realized as soldiers of the Red Army arrived.
In the bunker, too, the end was near. The final act in the drama had begun. The regime’s ruthlessness in its own death-agonies struck home within the small bunker community itself when Eva Braun’s brother-in-law, the dissolute and brutal Hermann Fegelein, an SS leader close to Himmler, tried to flee and, after being dragged back was summarily sentenced to death and executed. Fegelein was no more than a substitute for the real arch-traitor in Hitler’s eyes in the last days of his life: Heinrich Himmler. The Reichsführer-SS had, it seems, like Göring, taken news of Hitler’s outburst on 22 April as an effective abdication. He had finally cast off the caution which had dogged him throughout his dealings with Bernadotte and offered to capitulate in the west (though not in the east). This, for Hitler, was the ultimate betrayal. In his last volcanic explosion of rage, he had Himmler, too, thrown out of the Party and ordered his arrest.165 But his reach no longer stretched far enough to have the Reichsführer-SS, in the north of the country, brought back to Berlin and subjected to a final disgrace and fearsome execution.
With Himmler’s betrayal, it seemed as if the fight had gone out of Hitler. In the last act of the drama, he married Eva Braun, his partner of many years, who had decided to end her life alongside him, and drew up his Testament. In its political section it included the names of the ministers in the successor government. Dönitz, his fanatical support throughout recognized – also in sending sailors to fight in Berlin’s last battle – was to become Reich President. Goebbels, Bormann, Hanke, Saur, Giesler and Schörner, diehards all of them, were rewarded for their loyalty and zealotry. There was no place for Speer. The task done, and the Soviets almost literally at the gates, all that was left was for Hitler and Eva Braun to make the last preparations to commit suicide. In the mid-afternoon of 30 April, Hitler shot himself and Eva Braun took poison. Dönitz, up in Plön in Schleswig-Holstein, did not learn of Hitler’s death until next morning – not long after he had sent a message, presuming him to be still alive, professing his continued unconditional loyalty. The Wehrmacht and the German people – those who were listening – were not informed until the late evening of 1 May that Hitler had fallen ‘at the head of the heroic defenders of the Reich capital’, a propaganda lie to the last.166 Joseph and Magda Goebbels had committed suicide that day, after poisoning their six children. The following day, 2 May, the German troops in Berlin were ordered to cease fighting. The Soviet ‘hammer and sickle’ flag fluttered from the Reichstag.
The war was still not over. Outside Berlin, fighting continued. But with Hitler’s death, the insuperable obstacle to capitulation was removed. What had been impossible as long as he was alive became immediately realizable as soon as he was dead. Nothing demonstrates more plainly the extent to which he personally had held together the regime. The bonds with his ‘charismatic community’ and the fragmented structures of rule that had existed throughout the Third Reich and guaranteed his own unchallengeable power had allowed it, at terrible cost to the German people, to continue to operate until the Russians were at the very portals of the Reich Chancellery.