Military history



In the mounting chaos and destruction of the last months of the war, Hitler’s influence over the German masses finally disappeared. Even supporters of the regime, noted the SS Security Service on 28 March 1945, were criticizing him. Nobody believed his assurances of victory any longer.172 ‘Do you believe then,’ some were reported as saying, ‘that the German people has completely given up thinking? Do you think then that the German people can be kept going for much longer with empty phrases and promises?’ In 1941 Hitler had announced that the last battle-ready Russian divisions had been destroyed. With the Russians now at the gates, ‘who can take it badly when we don’t believe the Leader’s word any more?’173 ‘Doubts about our leadership,’ the Security Service was forced to admit, ‘are making no exception of the Leader’s person.’ When Hitler’s proclamation of 24 February 1945 was read out over the radio, it did not make a favourable impression on listeners. ‘The Leader is making another prophecy,’ mocked a lower Nazi official in Lüneburg. ‘It’s the old record yet again,’ said another.174 Anger at the Nazi leadership had become general. People now feared the threat of the SS and of die-hard Nazi activists more than they feared defeat.175 Among ordinary Germans, from whom his identity as a Jew was carefully kept hidden, Victor Klemperer now began to find spontaneous, mostly retrospective expressions of sympathy for the Jews, ‘these poor people’.176 Only a few still professed belief in Hitler, blaming others for Germany’s defeat.177 People began removing swastikas from buildings and destroying other Nazi insignia displayed in public places.178

There was increasing anger, too, at the Nazi leadership’s failure to surrender when everything was so obviously lost. Those who remembered the First World War recalled that the military leaders of the day had thrown in the towel when they had realized that they were about to be defeated, thus saving many lives. ‘What decent people Hindenburg and Ludendorff were by comparison,’ one said. ‘When they saw that the game was up, they brought it to an end and didn’t let us go on being murdered, But these people! Just so they can rule for another couple of weeks ...’179 Millions were indeed dying in this final phase of the war. Lore Walb reflected bitterly on Hitler’s ‘really great guilt. Why,’ she asked on 23 April 1945, ‘doesn’t he finally give up the fight - and why is he rushing us all into a civil war at the end as well?’ She was deeply angered by what she called the ‘unreason of the fanatics’, amongst whom she now clearly numbered Hitler himself.180 And indeed, far from deciding to bring the death and destruction to an end, Hitler was determined if anything to make it worse. Faced with an invasion of German territory by the autumn of 1944, and perhaps taking a leaf out of Stalin’s book, he urged a policy of ‘scorched earth’, denying the enemy armies the ability to live off the land, just as the Russians had tried to do earlier in the war. The idea was completely unrealistic. Allied forces had ample supplies from their own bases. The only victims would have been German civilians. Government ministries agreed that the idea was impracticable, and Speer persuaded Hitler to disable industry in the battle zone by removing vital components rather than by blowing up factories or flooding mines. The armaments minister still thought that it would be possible to reoccupy the conquered territories in the near future and wanted essential production facilities to be ready for reuse. But after the Battle of the Bulge and the resumption of the Soviet advance at the beginning of 1945, Speer finally realized the inevitability of defeat. He decided that the German people would need as far as possible to inherit a functioning economy after the war was over, and he began, no doubt, to be concerned about his own reputation with the Allies. The main person now standing in the way of a managed surrender was Hitler himself. In mid-February 1945, according to his own later account, Speer conceived the idea of dropping poison gas down a ventilation shaft into Hitler’s bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery. He managed to get the air filter system removed in response to Hitler’s complaints that the air below ground was stuffy. But he was still casting around for a suitable chemical when Hitler, obsessed with security after the July bomb plot, recalled that poison gas was heavier than air, had a ten-foot chimney built over the air intake to the bunker and posted SS sentries all around the roof, which was now equipped with searchlights to identify anyone found lurking there at night. Speer quietly abandoned the project; whether it had ever existed outside his own fantasies remained unclear.181

On 18 March 1945 Speer sent Hitler a memorandum outlining plans for the preservation of Germany’s economic infrastructure to allow reconstruction after the end of the war. Hitler told the military briefing that evening that there would be no point in taking such a course of action. The German nation had failed in the struggle for the survival of the fittest. The future belonged to the victors. Those Germans remaining after the struggle was over would be poor racial stock because the best had been killed. So it was not necessary to provide them with the basis for their future existence, on however primitive a level. Then he turned his anger on to Speer’s memorandum. His response to it was to strip his Armaments Minister of most of his powers. On 19 March 1945 Hitler issued what quickly came to be known as his ‘Nero order’, after the Roman Emperor who had supposedly commanded the destruction of the city of Rome by fire. All military, transport, communication, industrial and supply installations and equipment within the Reich that might fall into the hands of the enemy were to be destroyed. ‘It is an error,’ Hitler said, ‘to believe that after the recapture of lost areas it will be possible to use undamaged or only temporarily paralysed transport, communications, industrial and supply installations again for one’s own purposes.’ When the enemy was finally beaten back, he would ‘leave only scorched earth behind him and . . . abandon all concern for the population’.182 This was a fantasy on several different levels, of course. But it could cause immense suffering if implemented. Albert Speer determined to stop it. He toured the battle-fronts and arranged with sympathetic army commanders that Hitler’s command to destroy everything should be ignored. Speer learned that the Regional Leaders were preparing to flood the coalmines, blow up the lift machinery and block the canals. Speer and his team quietly disposed of the explosives and other equipment that would be needed to carry out the plan, met with the Regional Leaders and went some way towards persuading them of its impracticality. He had already arranged with Heinrici, Model and Guderian to preserve the physical infrastructure of the invaded areas, east and west, as far as was possible under conditions of war.183

Back in Berlin, Hitler accused his Armaments Minister of trying to persuade the Regional Leaders to countermand his orders, and told him that he would only keep his job if he could convince himself that the war could still be won. Speer demurred. There was no doubt that the war was lost, he said. Hitler asked him again, in ‘an almost pleading tone, and for a moment,’ Speer later recalled, ‘I thought that in his piteousness he was even more persuasive than in his masterful poses. Under other circumstances I would probably have weakened and given in. This time, what kept me from submitting to his spell was the thought of his destructive plans.’184 Hitler gave him twenty-four hours to come up with an answer. Speer drafted a letter of refusal, but Hitler’s secretaries informed him they had been forbidden to type it on the special large-character typewriter used for documents to be perused by the short-sighted Leader, so Hitler would not be able to read it. Speer gave in. Back in the Chancellery, he told Hitler: ‘My Leader, I stand unreservedly behind you.’ Hitler’s eyes filled with tears of affection and relief. Speer had avoided dismissal. Indeed, he secured Hitler’s authority to implement the Nero order himself and regained most of his powers. On 30 March 1945, following this interview, Speer persuaded Hitler to issue a clarification of the Nero order, which laid down that the destruction had to take place only in order to deny the enemy the use of industrial plant to bolster his own military strength. It was permissible to do this by crippling plant rather than destroying it. Speer continued to work against Party fanatics who wanted to destroy everything. In practice, too, by this stage both industrial firms and their workers had every incentive to protect their factories and mines from destruction, and many of them did so.185 In any case, such arguments were becoming increasingly academic as the Allied troops advanced further into the heartland of Germany.

Hitler’s mood of apocalyptic defeatism alternated during these final weeks with outward displays of defiant confidence in his ability to turn the situation round. He continued to hope for a split in the alliance between the Soviet Union and the Western powers. Some, like the Chief of the Army General Staff Heinz Guderian, advocated surrendering in the west and throwing all Germany’s troops and resources into the defence of Berlin against the Red Army, in the hope that this would persuade Britain and America to join a new struggle against the Soviet domination of Central Europe. But Hitler would not hear of any kind of surrender, not even a partial one, and accused Guderian of committing high treason. For the moment he took no further action, but from late January 1945 onwards, his meetings with the Chief of the Army General Staff were held with Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the SS Security Service, a silently menacing witness, in attendance. Others too, however, thought of pursuing a similar line, including Ribbentrop and Goring. Yet they were unwilling to take any serious steps towards a negotiated peace in the west in the light of Hitler’s intransigence. Hitler himself blamed Britain’s persistence in opposing him on Churchill’s love of conflict, but he also thought that it would be easier to make peace with Stalin, who would not have to contend with the kind of independent public opinion that hamstrung the Western leaders. At the same time, however, he did not think Stalin could be brought to the negotiating table unless the Red Army was so severely beaten before the gates of Berlin that he saw no alternative, so the end result was the same here too: Germany had no alternative but to fight on.186

Hitler had not survived the attempt to kill him on 20 July 1944 entirely unscathed. Although the blast temporarily cured his Parkinsonian tremor, most easily visible in the shaking of his left hand and lower arm, it was back by the middle of September 1944, and to it was added dizziness, an inability to stand for long periods, and a serious ear injury that took many weeks to overcome. On 23 September 1944 he had developed severe stomach cramps, and four days later symptoms of jaundice. He had become exhausted, developed a high temperature and taken to his bed. Only on 2 October 1944 had he begun to recover; by this time he had lost 16 pounds in weight. The doctor treating him for his ear problem had tried to blame his symptoms on the pills Morell was prescribing him, and he had won the support of Hitler’s other attending physicians, including Karl Brandt, but Hitler’s reaction had simply been to dismiss them all and reaffirm his faith in Morell’s expertise. Indeed, the fact that Hitler had recovered while continuing to take the pills gave the lie to their assertion that Morell was trying to poison the Nazi Leader.187 Nevertheless, in the last months of his life, according to Albert Speer, Hitler’s health continued to deteriorate. By early 1945, Hitler was, he wrote,

shrivelling up like an old man. His limbs trembled; he walked stooped, with dragging footsteps. Even his voice became quavering and lost its old master-fulness. Its force had given way to a faltering, toneless manner of speaking. When he became excited, as he frequently did in a senile way, his voice would start breaking . . . His complexion was sallow, his face swollen; his uniform, which in the past he had kept scrupulously neat, was often neglected in this last period of life and stained by the food he had eaten with a shaking hand.188

Perhaps it was pity for him, Speer thought, that kept his entourage from raising any objections ‘when, in the long since hopeless situation, he continued to commit non-existent divisions or to order units supplied by planes that could no longer fly for lack of fuel’.189 They listened in silence when he told them that Stalin and the west would surely come to blows before they had won the war, or claimed that, in such a situation, the west would find it impossible to do without him. Speer himself was still happy enough to spend time with him poring over the plans they had drawn up for the rebuilding of Linz after the war. Yet Hitler’s charisma was now ebbing away even amongst his immediate following. Speer noted later that where once everyone had stood when he entered a room, ‘now conversations continued, people remained seated, servants took their orders from guests, associates who had drunk too much went to sleep in their chairs, and others talked loudly and uninhibitedly’.190

Hitler now spent increasing amounts of time in the bunker complex beneath the Reich Chancellery. Initially he still lunched in the undamaged part of the Chancellery, but his apartment had been destroyed along with much else in an air raid on 3 February 1945, and he worked and slept underground, coming up only to exercise his dog Blondi in the Chancellery garden, surrounded by heaps of rubble. He would rise at midday or shortly afterwards, shave and dress, then have lunch before conducting a conference on the military situation, attended not only by senior commanders but also by Himmler, Bormann, Kaltenbrunner and sometimes Ribbentrop. After dinner, at around eight, there would be another military briefing, after which he would retire to his study and hold forth in his accustomed manner to his entourage until he went to bed, often at five or six in the morning.191 On 24 February 1945, on the anniversary of the promulgation of the Nazi Party programme in 1920, Hitler held a final meeting for the Nazi Party Regional Leaders in a still-standing hall in the Reich Chancellery. Arriving from all over Germany, the ‘Old Fighters’, many of whom had not seen him for some months, were shocked by the way he had aged. He shuffled rather than walked into the room, his eyes were bloodshot, his left hand and arm were visibly trembling, and he had to give up an attempt to raise a glass of water to his mouth to refresh himself. One participant noticed that he occasionally dribbled as he spoke. Attempting to rally them for one last effort, he promised yet again the arrival of wonder-weapons that would change the course of the war. They had to get the people of their districts to fight on until the new weapons were deployed, he said. Otherwise, if the German people were defeated, it would be clear that they did not deserve to win. The faith he expressed in the wonder-weapons was patently not sincere. But his belief in the Darwinian doom about to overtake the German people certainly was.192


By now, indeed, Hitler was looking mainly to what he imagined would be his place in history. Issuing a proclamation to the armed forces on 11 March 1945 (‘Heroes’ Memorial Day’), he announced that he had decided to provide the world with an example, going down, he implied, fighting, rather than surrendering cravenly as had been the case in 1918. Goebbels too decided that, if defeat was to come, then it would be a heroic defeat. He would devote his final weeks to creating inspiring images of Nazi self-sacrifice for future generations. Goebbels tried to persuade Hitler to broadcast to the nation again, but the Leader replied gloomily that he had nothing new to offer, and he was aware of reports from the Security Service of the SS that his proclamation of 24 February 1945 had not met with a positive reception. Goebbels was deeply frustrated. But Hitler knew that propaganda had finally failed in the face of the hard facts of invasion and defeat. At another level, as he moved increasingly depleted and in some cases non-existent armies around on his map in the bunker conference room, Hitler was now living a life almost entirely removed from reality. Such illusions were shared in full by Martin Bormann, who exercised his power over the Nazi Party by issuing a stream of directives, decrees and exhortations on a whole variety of issues. Goebbels complained that he was making a paper chancellery out of the Party Chancellery. The Regional Leaders, he thought, would not have the time to read the decrees, let alone the means to implement them. In government ministries, civil servants continued working despite their rapidly shrinking sphere of influence, like cartoon characters running off the edge of a cliff and keeping going despite the yawning abyss beneath.193

At the Berlin headquarters of the Hitler Youth at this time, wrote Melita Maschmann:

Every one of us worked with hectic energy. Countless projects were started up, knocked out by the effects of the war, abandoned, taken up again, cancelled, altered, rejected once again and so on. During the last months of this, the feeling crept over us that all this feverish activity on the part of the Reich Youth Leadership was hardly producing the slightest response in the country. Our office was like a termites’ nest, gradually pervaded by a sense of the coming collapse without a single person daring to breathe a syllable about it . . . Our brains gave birth to plans and still more plans, lest we should have a moment to stop and think and then to have to recognize that all this bustle was already beginning to resemble the convulsions of a dance of death.194

In the last weeks of the war, she gave up anything more than the occasional appearance at the office, and busied herself with helping refugees fleeing from the Red Army. Coming across a group of injured anti-aircraft auxiliaries, all schoolboys, many weeping after a bomb had destroyed their emplacement and killed many of their comrades, she heard one say when asked if he was in pain: ‘Yes, but it doesn’t matter, Germany must triumph.’195 ‘From all those weeks which immediately preceded the collapse of Germany,’ she recalled, ‘I cannot remember a single conversation in which the probability of our defeat was mentioned. ’196 But she moved in circles of true Nazi believers, of course. And even here, the atmosphere began to take on the bizarre characteristics of the last days of a crumbling empire. While Berlin burned, Maschmann’s boss, Reich Youth Leader Arthur Axmann, a man who boasted regularly of his working-class origins, held social evenings at the Youth Leadership’s inn at Gatow, to the west of Berlin, where, according to the puritanical Maschmann, by her account a reluctant participant, ‘the eating and drinking there was often sheer gluttony’, and the party-goers included film starlets, ‘charlatans and self-important egoists’.197

The death of US President Franklin D. Roosevelt on 12 April 1945 momentarily lifted the gloom in Hitler’s Berlin bunker. For Hitler, waving a newspaper clipping at Speer, this was ‘the miracle I always predicted. Who was right? The war isn’t lost. Read it! Roosevelt is dead!’198 Providence had come to his aid again. For a short while, fantastic schemes circulated round the corridors of the bunker. Speer would fly to meet Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman, and peace would be signed. Hitler’s study had a picture of Frederick the Great on the wall; the Prussian King had recovered during the Seven Years’ War even after the Russians had occupied Berlin, and Hitler took inspiration from his example: indeed, Goebbels memorized the passage from Thomas Carlyle’s biography of the King in which the author, addressing the monarch directly, reassured him that he would prevail in the end, then recited it to the Nazi Leader as an encouragement.199 Hitler felt that the American President’s death was just like this turning-point in the wars of Frederick the Great, when the Tsarina Elizabeth had died, and Russia suddenly abandoned the anti-Prussian coalition. Before long, however, as it became clear that Truman had no intention of reneging on the policies of his predecessor, the brief euphoria subsided.200 On 20 April 1945 the Red Army opened the assault on Berlin. It was Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday.

In previous years the Leader’s birthday had been the occasion for nationwide festivities. Remembering these amidst the ruins of Berlin was too painful, and Hitler banned the usual office celebrations, though his staff none the less lined up in the bunker to give him their congratulations. Hitler emerged into the open briefly to review a small detachment of Hitler Youth in the Chancellery garden, where they had gathered with representatives of the army and the SS. He congratulated the boys, none of them more than fourteen years old, on their bravery, patted one or two of them, and then vanished below again. It was his last public appearance, and the last time he was formally caught on camera. In the following days, most of the remaining senior figures in the regime left the centre of Berlin, driving out of the city through the smouldering rubble on the few roads still left open before the Russians closed the circle. Speer, Dönitz, Himmler, Kaltenbrunner, Ribbentrop, Rosenberg and a host of government ministers were among them. Hitler sent most of his personal staff away by plane to Berchtesgaden. Hermann Goring had already shipped much of his enormous art collection from his hunting lodge Carinhall, north of Berlin, to the south in a convoy of trucks, before saying his goodbyes to Hitler and departing for Bavaria himself. Only a few remained, notably Bormann, Hitler’s long-term factotum Julius Schaub, and the top military men, including Keitel and Jodl. Hitler now gave way to hysteria. He threatened to have his doctor, Morell, shot for trying to drug him with morphine. On 22 April 1945 he ranted at the generals. Everyone had betrayed him, he shouted, even the SS. Breaking down in despair, he told them for the first time openly that he knew the war was lost. He would stay and shoot himself. All attempts to dissuade him failed. Eventually Goebbels, to whom he had ranted in similar vein over the telephone, arrived and calmed him down. They agreed that the Propaganda Minister, his wife and his six young children would come to stay in the bunker for the final days. Hitler’s two remaining secretaries had also volunteered to stay. Meanwhile, Schaub burned Hitler’s private documents and then left for Berchtesgaden to make sure the same was done there.201

Two days later Speer returned to speak with Hitler one last time. Speer’s claim that he confessed his disobedience to Hitler in an outpouring of emotion was a later invention. The two men did not discuss their personal relationship at all, despite their years of friendship. Hitler simply asked him if he should give in to the entreaties of his entourage and leave Berlin for Berchtesgaden. Speer’s reply confirmed Hitler’s own intentions: he would stay on in the Reich capital, and kill himself to avoid being captured by the Russians. Eva Braun, his long-time companion, who had arrived in the bunker some weeks before, would die with him. Their bodies would be burned to avoid desecration. After an eight-hour stay, Speer flew out again, this time for good.202 Shortly afterwards Hitler’s resolve was strengthened when he learned of the fate that had overtaken Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci. The pair were picked up by partisans on 27 April 1945 in a column of cars, trucks and armoured vehicles full of German troops and Italian Fascists on its way to Italy’s northern border, near Lake Como. An armed detachment led by the Communist partisan ‘Colonel Valerio’, who had spent five years in prison in the 1930s for anti-Fascist activities, put them up against a wall and shot them with a sub-machine gun in an act of ‘Italian people’s justice’. After executing fifteen more prisoners in the small town of Dongo, Valerio and his squad took all the bodies to Milan, where they dumped them on the Piazzale Loreto. A crowd gathered and desecrated the corpses in every possible way, spitting and urinating on them and shouting insults. Eventually Mussolini, Petacci and some of the others were hung upside-down from the gantry of a petrol station, where they were exposed to further insults.203 If anything were needed to confirm Hitler’s decision to kill himself, this was surely it.

Only now, at the very end, did Hitler’s closest associates begin to desert him. Informed of Hitler’s intentions by one of the generals present at the Leader’s hysterical outburst on 22 April, Hermann Göring assumed that the 1941 decree naming him as head of state if Hitler was unable to carry out his duties would now come into force. He sent a telegram to the bunker announcing that he would take over if he heard nothing by 10 p.m. on 24 April. Persuaded by Göring’s arch-enemy Bormann that this was an act of treason, Hitler sent a reply rescinding the 1941 decree and demanding the Reich Marshal resign all his offices for reasons of health. Göring did as he was told. Within a few hours he was under house arrest on the Obersalzberg. Himmler was next to defect. For several weeks, the head of the SS had been secretly negotiating with the Swedish Red Cross for the release of Scandinavian prisoners from the remaining concentration camps. On 23 April 1945, hearing of Hitler’s decision to kill himself, he met his intermediary, Count Bernadotte. Himmler grandly declared that he was now effectively the leader of Germany, and drafted an instrument of surrender to be passed to the Western Allies. Once more, Hitler exploded when he learned of what he called ‘the most shameful betrayal in human history’. He took out his fury on one of Himmler’s subordinates who had the misfortune to be in the bunker at the time: Hermann Fegelein, a corrupt SS officer who had entered Hitler’s entourage by marrying Eva Braun’s sister. Earlier in the week, Fegelein had left the bunker without warning and disappeared. He had been discovered later, in his apartment, drunk, dressed in civilian clothes and in the company of a young woman who was not his wife. Around him were bags full of money, ready for his getaway. Fegelein was arrested and brought before Hitler, who threw furious accusations at him. He was working for Himmler, he had disappeared from the bunker to plot Hitler’s arrest or assassination, he was a traitor. Hitler convened a drumhead court-martial which sentenced Fegelein to death. The guilty man was taken up to ground level and executed by firing-squad. 204

All the while, Hitler was still convening his military conferences and directing the defence of Berlin. But the armies he was ordering to punch through the Soviet lines or break through the gathering encirclement from outside scarcely existed any more as coherent units. They numbered no more than a few score thousand, hardly enough to repel more than 2 million Soviet troops now pushing forward for the final assault. By 25 April 1945 the Soviet generals Zhukov and Konev had closed the ring around Berlin and begun advancing through the suburbs towards the city centre. As in Stalingrad, the war degenerated into bitter, uncoordinated street fighting. General Gotthard Heinrici, whose reputation as a skilful commander of defensive operations had brought him command of the Army Group defending the capital, had maintained a semblance of order only by ignoring Hitler’s injunctions to stand firm, but on 29 April he finally resigned his post, unable to cope any longer with the Leader’s increasingly meaningless commands.205 Heinrici’s patriotic convictions, together with the habits of military discipline and the fear of what would happen if he surrendered to the Russians, were still shared by many German soldiers, who carried on fighting even when all was so obviously lost. The thousands of members of the People’s Storm who were drafted in to defend the capital were not so determined; many of them deserted to go back to their families whenever the opportunity presented itself.206

By 29 April 1945 Soviet troops were entering the government quarter round the Potsdamer Platz at the heart of Berlin. The end was surely only hours away. Hitler made his last preparations. He summoned a city councillor, Walter Wagner, to the bunker. Now that there was no longer any need for concealment, he said, he would marry Eva Braun. As bombs and shells crashed down outside, Wagner performed the ceremony in front of Goebbels and Bormann as witnesses. A short champagne reception followed. At three in the morning, Hitler heard from Keitel that the last attempt at relieving Berlin from the outside had failed. As dawn broke, Soviet guns began bombarding the Reich Chancellery above. The military commanders told Hitler that it would all be over by the end of the day. After lunch, Hitler said farewell to his secretaries. All the remaining inhabitants of the bunker had been given prussic acid capsules, but Hitler did not entirely trust their effectiveness, although the previous day he had successfully had his dog Blondi put down with one. He retired to his study with Eva Braun at half-past three in the afternoon. Opening the door ten minutes or so later, Hitler’s valet Heinz Linge, accompanied by Bormann, found Hitler’s body on the sofa, blood oozing from a hole in his right temple, his pistol at his feet; Eva Braun’s body was next to his, giving off a strong smell of bitter almonds. She had taken poison. Following Hitler’s prior instructions, his personal adjutant Otto Günsche, assisted by Linge and three SS men, took the bodies, wrapped in blankets, up into the Reich Chancellery garden, where, watched by Bormann, Goebbels and the two remaining senior military officers, Krebs and Burgdorf, they were doused in a large quantity of petrol and set alight. Observing the macabre scene from behind the partly opened bunker door, the funeral party raised their arms in a last ‘Hail, Hitler!’ and returned underground. Not long after six in the evening, Günsche sent two SS men to bury the charred remains. All that remained to identify them when Soviet investigators found them a few days later were dental bridges that the technician who had worked for Hitler’s dentist since 1938 certified belonged to the former Nazi leader and his companion.207

Hitler left a brief private will, disposing of his personal possessions, and a much longer ‘Political Testament’, dictated to his secretary on 29 April 1945, in which he denied bringing about the war that had begun in 1939. It was remarkable for its scarcely veiled confession - or rather, boast - that he had had the Jews killed in revenge for the part he supposed they had played in starting the war. That war, he reaffirmed, ‘was willed and incited exclusively by those international statesmen who either were of Jewish descent or worked for Jewish interests’. Recalling once more his prophecy of 30 January 1939, and thinking of the First World War and, perhaps, the Depression that had been so crucial in bringing him to power, he reminded his future readers that he had left nobody in any doubt

that the real people to blame for this murderous struggle would be: the Jews! I further left nobody in any doubt that this time not only would millions of . . . grown men suffer death and not only would hundreds of thousands of women and children be incinerated in the cities and bombed to death, but also that the real guilty parties would also have to expiate their guilt, even if by more humane means.

He ended by calling upon Germany and the Germans ‘to observe the racial laws precisely and to resist pitilessly the world-poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry’.208


After the completion of Hitler’s will, Goebbels had dictated a codicil of his own to the secretary. Weeping copiously, he said that for the first time he was going to disobey a direct order from his Leader. Hitler had told him to leave Berlin. But he was going to stay ‘at the Leader’s side to end a life which for me personally has no further value if it cannot be used in the service of the Leader and by his side’.209 The day before, Magda Goebbels had written to her son by her first marriage, informing him that she was going to kill herself along with her husband and their children:

The world that will come after the Leader and National Socialism will not be worth living in, and therefore I have taken my children away. They are too dear to endure what is coming next, and a merciful God will understand my intentions in delivering them from it. We have now only one aim: loyalty unto death to the Leader. That we can end our lives with him is a mercy of fate that we never dared hope for.210

At twenty to nine in the evening of 30 April 1945, Helmut Kunz, an SS doctor, gave each of the six Goebbels children a morphine injection to put them to sleep, then Ludwig Stumpfegger, Hitler’s physician in the last period of his life, put a phial of prussic acid into each child’s mouth and crushed it, causing instant death. Goebbels and his wife climbed up the steps to the Reich Chancellery garden, and bit on their capsules. An SS man shot each body twice just to make sure they were dead. The bodies were then set alight, but there was very little petrol left over from the incineration of Hitler and Eva Braun’s corpses, so the bodies of Joseph and Magda Goebbels were easily recognized by the Red Army troops when they came into the garden the following day.211 The two remaining generals, Wilhelm Burgdorf and Hans Krebs (Hitler’s last Chief of the Army General Staff) also killed themselves, along with the commander of Hitler’s military escort, Franz Schädle. The rest of the bunker’s inhabitants made their way into an underground railway tunnel in a desperate attempt to escape. Emerging into the open at the Friedrichstrasse station, they were confronted by a scene of unbelievable devastation, with shells falling everywhere, the buildings reduced to smoking rubble, and Soviet troops engaging small groups of German soldiers in the final assault. Amidst the noise and confusion, the secretaries and a few others somehow succeeded in evading capture and found their way to the west; others, including Günsche and Linge, were taken prisoner; many were killed by stray bullets or suspicious Soviet soldiers. Bormann and Stumpfegger managed to get as far as the Invalidenstrasse but found their way blocked by Red Army troops and took poison to avoid capture.212

The deaths in the bunker and the burned-out streets above were only the crest of a vast wave of suicides without precedent in modern history. Like Hitler, some senior Nazis killed themselves out of a warped sense of honour, fearing the indignity of being put on trial, the shame of being publicly condemned for their crimes, and the insults that would perhaps be done to their bodies. Hermann Göring was the most prominent among them. As American troops entered his Bavarian hideout near Berchtesgaden on 9 May 1945, he gave himself up voluntarily, evidently thinking he would be regarded as a significant figure from a defeated regime who would be used to negotiate terms of surrender. The American commander shook his hand and gave him a meal, after which reporters were allowed to quiz him on his role in the Third Reich and his views on what lay ahead (‘I see a black future for Germany and the whole world’). A furious Eisenhower embargoed the reports and had Göring moved to prison, put on a diet, weaned off his drug dependency and subjected to gentle but persistent interrogation. Recovering much of his former energy, the ex-Reich Marshal charmed his interrogators and impressed his captors with the way he quickly came to dominate his fellow prisoners. Unrepentent and still proud of what he had done, he was condemned to death by hanging, and when his demand that he should be allowed to die an honourable soldier’s death before a firing-squad was rejected, he obtained a poison capsule, probably through one of the guards, and killed himself on 15 October 1946.213

Almost a year before this, the former German Labour Front leader Robert Ley had hanged himself in the prison cell where he was awaiting trial. Ley’s mental deterioration, caused by a combination of an air crash during the First World War and heavy drinking thereafter, accelerated under the conditions of confinement, and he occupied himself mainly by writing lengthy letters to his wife, Inge, who had herself committed suicide in 1942. He also wrote in the dead Inge’s imaginary responses to his letters (‘You have courageously portrayed the Leader as he really is: The greatest German of all time’) and tried to communicate with the American automobile manufacturer Henry Ford, whom he regarded, not without some justification, as a fellow antisemite. On receiving his indictment for war crimes, Ley shouted: ‘Stand us against the wall and shoot us! You are the victors!’ He rejected the charges laid against him and killed himself, as he wrote in his suicide note, because he could not bear the shame of being treated as a criminal when he was none.214 Heinrich Himmler also killed himself. Leaving Flensburg disguised with an eye-patch and a false passport, and accompanied by a few aides, including Otto Ohlendorf, Himmler had managed to cross the river Elbe before running into a British checkpoint, where he and his companions were arrested. On their arrival at an internment camp near Lüneburg, the commandant sent the others to their cells while detaining Himmler (a ‘small, miserable-looking and shabbily dressed’ man) for further questioning. Realizing the game was up, Himmler took off the eyepatch and put on a pair of spectacles instead. It was instantly obvious who he was, even before he whispered the name ‘Heinrich Himmler’. He was searched, and a phial of poison was taken off him, but his interrogators were still not satisfied, and ordered a medical examination. When the doctor ordered Himmler to open his mouth, he noticed a small black object between the SS leader’s teeth. As he took Himmler’s head to turn it towards the light for a better look, Himmler snapped his teeth sharply together. There was a crunching sound, and he fell to the ground. He had bitten into a glass cyanide capsule and was dead within seconds. He was forty-four years old. Other leading SS officers followed his example, including Odilo Globocnik, who also took poison, Ernst Grawitz, the SS chief medical officer and enthusiastic experimenter on concentration camp inmates, who blew himself up together with his family by detonating two hand-grenades, and Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger, the SS and police chief who had made such trouble for Hans Frank in the Polish General Government.215

Hans Kammler, the senior SS officer who had been the key figure in the recruitment and exploitation of forced labour at the Dora-Central Works rocket factory, had acquired one last promotion from a grateful Hitler, who just before the end of the war had given him the entirely meaningless title ‘Plenipotentiary of the Leader for Jet Aircraft’. After travelling across Germany trying to rally SS forces for a last stand, Kammler finally arrived in Prague, where he was shot by his adjutant, on his own command, at the very end of the war, desperate to avoid falling into the hands of Czech partisans.216 Theodor Dannecker, the roving ambassasdor of death responsible for the deportation of many Jews to Auschwitz from different countries, fled to relatives in the north German town of Celle at the end of the war, but was arrested on a visit to his wife in Berlin on 9 December 1945, where he was denounced by her neighbours. The following day, he hanged himself in prison. On hearing of his death, his wife decided to kill herself along with their two young sons, but, as she was murdering the older boy, his cries awoke his younger brother, and she was unable to complete the killings. She was arrested and tried, but acquitted on grounds of diminished responsibility, and emigrated to Australia.217 Another senior SS officer, Philipp Bouhler, head of Hitler’s personal Chancellery and organizer of the ‘euthanasia’ murders of the mentally ill and handicapped, killed himself together with his wife on 19 May 1945.218

Reich Education Minister Bernhard Rust committed suicide on 8 May 1945, finally belying the reputation for indecision he had acquired during his years of office. Reich Justice Minister Otto-Georg Thierack was arrested by the British, and killed himself in an internment camp on 2 November 1946. The President of the Reich Supreme Court, Erwin Bumke, killed himself too, while the Reich Doctors’ Leader Leonardo Conti, who was arrested and imprisoned prior to being tried in Nuremberg for his part in the murder of mental patients, hanged himself in his cell on 6 October 1945. Konrad Henlein, leader of the Sudeten German Nazis, killed himself after being captured by the Americans. Altogether, 8 out of 41 Regional Leaders, 7 out of 47 Higher SS and Police Leaders, 53 out of 554 army generals, 14 out of 98 air force generals and 11 out of 53 admirals killed themselves. Field Marshal Walter Model, Hitler’s favourite military man, shot himself in a forest near Düsseldorf towards the end of April 1945 in order to avoid the shame of surrendering, in conformity with the injunction Hitler himself had issued to all German troops. Another general, Johannes Blaskowitz, who had been denied promotion after condemning German atrocities in Poland in 1939, was none the less arraigned for war crimes and eventually killed himself by jumping out of his cell window at Nuremberg on 5 February 1948. Regional Leader Jakob Sprenger of Hesse-Nassau committed suicide along with his wife as soon as he heard of Hitler’s death.219

Many others contemplated suicide. Rudolf Höss, the former commandant of Auschwitz, considered death as an option in 1945. ‘With the Leader gone, our world had gone. Was there any point in going on living?’ Eventually, after much debate, Höss and his wife decided in the end to live on ‘because of the children’. He later came to regret this decision. ‘We were bound and fettered to that other world, and we should have disappeared with it.’220

His attitude was shared by many other Nazis, especially young people whose adult lives had been wholly bound up with the regime. Melita Maschmann

was firmly convinced that I would not outlive the ‘Third Reich’. If it was condemned to go under, then so was I. The one thing would automatically follow the other without my having to do anything about it. I did not picture my death as a last sacrifice which I should have to make. Nor did I think of suicide. I was filled with a shadowy impression that ‘my world’ would be flung off its course, like a constellation in a cosmic catastrophe, and would drag me with it - like a tiny speck of dust - into outer darkness.221

She and her friends did not, she confessed, ‘want anything to outlive the Third Reich’.222 In the event, she too decided to live on and face the unknown terrors of a future without Nazism. Others were more determined. Interviewed by Gitta Sereny in 1991, Martin Bormann’s son told how he had been driven to the Obersalzberg when his school, the Reich School of the Nazi Party at Feldafing, was closed on 23 April 1945, and was sitting with many of the staff from his father’s office and the Berghof in a nearby inn on 1 May when the radio announced Hitler’s death. Everyone was still and silent for a while, he remembered, ‘but very soon afterwards, people started to go outside, first one - then there was a shot. Then another, and yet another. Not a word inside, no other sound except those shots from outside, but one felt that that was all there was, that all of us would have to die.’ So the fifteen-year-old Bormann too went out, carrying his gun. ‘My world was shattered; I couldn’t see any future at all.’ But in the back yard of the inn, ‘where bodies were already lying all over the small garden’, he saw another boy, aged eighteen, sitting on a log, and he ‘told me to come and sit with him. The air smelled good, the birds sang, and we talked ourselves out of it.’223

Out of the many who contemplated killing themselves at this time, however, a good number did indeed take the fatal step. The wave of suicides went far beyond the ranks of committed Nazis. In a report on popular behaviour and morale drawn up at the end of March 1945, the Security Service of the SS recorded an atmosphere such as might be found at the end of the world:

A large part of the people has become used to living only for the day. Any kind of pleasures that present themselves are exploited. Even the most pointless occasion is taken as an opportunity to drink down the last bottle, originally reserved for the celebration of victory, the end of the blackout, the return of husband and son. People are getting used to the idea of making an end to themselves. Everywhere there is a great demand for poison, for a pistol, and for other means of putting an end to life. Suicides out of genuine despair at the catastrophe that is expected with certainty are on the agenda.224

Earlier the same month, the pastor at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin had felt it necessary to deliver a sermon against suicide. But his words were not heeded. Official statistics recorded a jump from 238 suicides in the capital city in March 1945 to no fewer than 3,881 the following month, falling to 977 in May. Ordinary citizens were disoriented, despairing, unable to see a future after the collapse of the Third Reich. Suicide notes discovered by the police mentioned ‘the current situation’, or ‘fear of the Russian invasion’, as a reason for killing oneself, without going into further detail. As one said, ‘life did not have a point’ any more after the end of the Third Reich. A number of parents underlined their lack of a future perspective by killing their children before they killed themselves.’225

Suicide rates rose almost everywhere, including in Catholic regions, though here it is likely that they were affected by an influx of refugees from Protestant areas, where the taboo on killing oneself was not so strong. In Upper Bavaria, for example, there were 421 suicides in April and May 1945, in comparison to only three to five in the same months in previous years. But such increases were dwarfed by those recorded in the areas invaded by the Red Army, including Berlin. In the city’s district of Friedrichshain, a grammar-school student reported that more than a hundred people killed themselves the day the Russians arrived. ‘A blessing that there is no gas,’ she added, ‘otherwise even more would have taken their lives; perhaps we might also be dead.’226 In the Pomeranian village of Schivelbein, a Protestant clergyman reported that ‘whole good, churchgoing families took their lives, drowned themselves, hanged themselves, slit their wrists, or allowed themselves to be burned up along with their homes’ as soon as the Red Army arrived. Mass suicides were reported from other small Pomeranian towns - 500 in Schönlanke, for example, and 700 in Demmin, following the arrival of the Red Army. The burial register for the town of Teterow, where some 10,000 people lived in 1946, recorded 120 suicides in early May. Rapes by Russian soldiers were undoubtedly a major reason for this increase. In Teterow, shame and wounded masculinity after such incidents drove fathers of families to kill their wives and children, often with the woman’s consent, before killing themselves. In the Sudetenland, it was reported that ‘whole families would dress up in their Sunday finest, surrounded by flowers, crosses and family albums, and then kill themselves by hanging or poison’.227

Yet suicide was always a minority action. Many committed Nazis were thrown into confusion without succumbing to despair. Charlotte L., born in 1921 and employed doing welfare work in the Reich Labour Service, was a convinced Nazi who seems to have had no thought of killing herself. Political education had inspired a burning commitment in her. Writing in her diary on 5 February 1940, she had recorded the ‘pleasure’ with which she had taken a class on ‘the consequences of Jewry’.228 By 22 April 1945 the Americans had occupied her home town of Helmstedt, but Charlotte still refused to accept that the war was lost. ‘I believe firmly in our Leader,’ she wrote, ‘& that Germany has a future that we Germans deserve.’ Her world collapsed when she heard that Hitler was dead. ‘Our beloved Leader, who has done everything for us, for Germany.’ She was disgusted at how many people were now changing their views. ‘As wonderful as things were under the Leadership of Adolf Hitler,’ she wrote on 3 June 1945, ‘they can no longer be for a long time. The newspapers are telling lies and screwing up their propaganda beyond measure. Behind all this stands the Jew. Will the world ever realize that the Jew is the evil for us all?’ she asked. Inge Molter, daughter of an active Nazi, also carried on hoping for victory until the very end. But gradually such people also began to achieve distance from the Nazi leadership. After her husband, the former stormtrooper Alfred, had gone missing during the final battle for Berlin, she obtained a job as a nurse in a hospital where a doctor told her at length of the atrocities the Nazis had committed. ‘I often really don’t know any more,’ she wrote to her absent husband, in whose death she still refused to believe, ‘how I regard all those things. Sometimes I really have to think now that it wouldn’t have been good if we had won the war.’229


On 5 May 1945 the soldier and former stormtrooper Gerhard M. found time once more to write an entry in his diary. ‘Our Leader Adolf Hitler,’ he began, ‘is no more.’ But, he continued with evident puzzlement, ‘This fact has not shattered us as one might have supposed.’ With his comrades he had spent a little time reminiscing about the adventures of the previous twenty years. ‘Then, however, everyday life carried on anyway, and we reconciled ourselves to it. Life goes on, even if the last Leader of the Great German Reich is no more.’230 Similar reactions were reported by others. The German people had been officially told in a radio broadcast just before half-past ten at night on 1 May 1945 that Hitler had died heroically fighting to defend the capital of the Reich against the Bolshevik hordes. The truth would have undermined any further will to fight, and thereby destroyed any last remaining possibility of a negotiated settlement - a possibility that in fact only existed in the imagination of the new leaders of the Reich. Indeed, when the German commander in Berlin told his troops to lay down their arms, on 2 May 1945, he justified his order by telling them that Hitler had abandoned them by killing himself.231 Many people refused to believe what seemed to them an unlikely story, and speculated that Hitler had taken poison. In any case, with his death, the last remaining reason for supporting Nazism had evaporated. There were no scenes of grief. No distraught citizens wept in public, as Russians were to do on the death of Stalin eight years later. The eighteen-year-old Erika S. went out on to the streets of Hamburg shortly after the announcement of Hitler’s death to see how people were reacting. ‘Strange,’ she reported, ‘nobody wept or even looked sad, although the beloved, honoured Leader, whom the total idiots regarded almost as a God, is no longer alive . . . Strange . . .’ Only in school did she see a few girls weeping after the announcement in the morning assembly.232

Lore Walb, whose admiration of Hitler had been boundless five years before, now wrote, on 2 May 1945:

Hitler fallen, now he is at rest, it’s surely the best thing for him. But ourselves? We’re abandoned and delivered up to all and sundry and in our lifetime we can’t rebuild any more what this war has destroyed. In the beginning the ideas Hitler wanted to realize were positive, and in domestic policy some good things happened. But he failed totally in foreign policy, and particularly as the supreme warlord. ‘The path of an idea’. What a path! And the people must now pay for it . . . What a bitter end . . . Hitler is dead now. But we and those who are to come will carry throughout our lives the burden he laid on us.233

‘That’s now the end,’ wrote a twenty-three-year-old office worker in Hamburg on 2 May 1945. ‘Our Leader, who promised us so much, has achieved what nobody in power in Germany has so far achieved, he has left behind a Germany that is totally destroyed, he has taken away everyone’s house and home, he has driven them from their homeland, he has caused millions to die, in short, he has achieved an appalling chaos.’234

After experiencing the bombing of her home town of Siegen and then hand-to-hand fighting between German and American troops as she cowered in a cellar, one fifteen-year-old girl who had believed in the promise that Germany would win at the last minute with new, secret weapons could see all was lost. ‘I had to go into the dining room on my own, and there I threw myself on to the sofa and wept bitterly.’ Everything had been destroyed. ‘At first I didn’t feel any resentment against the Leader . . . but now, now I have fought through to the opinion that the Leader isn’t worth feeling sorry for.’ She felt betrayed by him, and by the other Nazi leaders, who were now committing suicide one after the other. Now indeed she could see the sense of the assassination attempt of 20 July 1944, which she had condemned so bitterly at the time. ‘The men of 20th July had realized that the Leader’s death was Germany’s only salvation.’235 In Hamburg on 30 April 1945, hearing of Hitler’s death, which she believed to have been caused by his having poisoned himself, Luise Solmitz at last felt free to release the hatred that she had been building up for him over the previous months. He was, she wrote in her diary, ‘the shabbiest failure in world history’. He was ‘uncompromising, unbridled, irresponsible’, qualities that had at first brought him success but then led to catastrophe. ‘National Socialism,’ she now thought, ‘brought together all the crimes and depravities of all the centuries.’ Twelve years previously she had thought very differently, but ‘Hitler turned me from a meek and mild being into an opponent of war.’ Goebbels was also dead: but ‘no death can expunge such crimes’. As for Hitler: ‘Now that we hopefully have his unimaginable crimes, lies, meannesses behind us, his botch-ups and his incompetence, his 5 years and 8 months of war, most Germans are saying: the best day of our life!’ She noted: ‘Hitler’s promise: “Give me 10 years and you’ll see what I’ve made out of Germany” has for months been his most often-quoted, out of bitterness.’ On 5 May 1945 the Solmitzes burned their Nazi flag. But it was not just Nazism that was defeated. ‘Never has a people supported such a bad cause with such enthusiasm,’ she wrote on 8 May 1945, perhaps thinking of her own earlier attitudes, ‘never so impelled itself to self-annihilation’. The Germans were ‘lemmings’ rushing to self-destruction. Not only the Nazis, but also the Germans, she concluded, had lost.236

Life went on not least because most people were far too busy trying to keep themselves alive amidst the ruins of the Reich to worry overmuch about Hitler’s death, its meaning or its possible consequences. The arrangements Hitler made in his Political Testament for the continuation of government were an irrelevance in a situation where most of the Reich was now in the hands of the Allies. He rewarded Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz for his loyalty by making him Reich President, a post which Hitler had once said was so bound up with the memory of the previous incumbent, Paul von Hindenburg, that it should never be reinvented. Clearly, inconsistency was not going to get in the way of Hitler’s own exclusive purchase on the title ‘Leader’. Dönitz was also made head of the armed forces. Goebbels was named Reich Chancellor and Bormann Party Minister. Goebbels had managed finally to secure the dismissal of his hated and despised rival Joachim von Ribbentrop as Foreign Minister and his replacement by Arthur Seyss-Inquart, while Karl Hanke, a Regional Leader still resisting the Red Army in beleaguered Breslau, was named Himmler’s successor as Reich Leader of the SS. The disloyal Speer was replaced as Armaments Minister by Karl-Otto Saur, and Goebbels’s State Secretary Werner Naumann was promoted to the position of Propaganda Minister. A few existing ministers, like Backe, Funk, Schwerin von Krosigk and Thierack were allowed to continue in government. But by now they had virtually nothing left to govern. From his headquarters in Flensburg, near the Danish border in Schleswig-Holstein, Dönitz tried to buy time to allow the troops still fighting the Red Army to withdraw to the west by agreeing to the surrender of the German forces in northern Italy, north-west Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands. The German armies in Austria and Bavaria capitulated as well, under orders from their commander, Albert Kesselring. Dönitz’s tactic was partially successful, allowing over one and three-quarter million German troops to surrender to the Americans or the British instead of the Soviets, whose tally of prisoners amounted to less than a third of the total. But his bid to negotiate a separate general capitulation to the Western Allies met with a brusque rejection. Under threat of a continuation of bombing raids, Jodl agreed to a total and unconditional surrender, to be effective by the end of 8 May 1945, authorized reluctantly by Dönitz and signed in the early hours of 7 May 1945. The act was repeated with the full text drawn up earlier by all four Allies at Marshal Zhukov’s headquarters outside Berlin two days later, back-dated to the previous day. The war was over.237

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