Between January and March 1941 the operational plans for ‘Barbarossa’ were put in place and approved by Hitler. Outwardly confident, he was inwardly less certain. On the very day that the directive for the attack on the Soviet Union was issued to the commanders-in-chief of the Wehrmacht, 18 December 1940, Major Engel had told Brauchitsch (who was still unclear whether Hitler was bluffing about invading the USSR) that the Führer was unsure how things would go. He was distrustful of his own military leaders, uncertain about the strength of the Russians, and disappointed in the intransigence of the British. Hitler’s lack of confidence in the operational planning of the army leadership was not fully assuaged in the first months of 1941. His intervention in the planning stage brought early friction with Halder, and led by mid-March to amendments of some significance in the detailed directives for the invasion.
Already by the beginning of February, Hitler had been made aware of doubts – at any rate a mood less than enthusiastic – among some of the army leaders about the prospects of success in the coming campaign. General Thomas had presented to the Army High Command a devastating overview of deficiencies in supplies. Halder had noted in his diary on 28 January the gist of his discussion with Brauchitsch early that afternoon about ‘Barbarossa’: ‘The “purpose” is not clear. We do not hit the British that way. Our economic potential will not be substantially improved. Risk in the west must not be underestimated. It is possible that Italy might collapse after the loss of her colonies, and we get a southern front in Spain, Italy, and Greece. If we are then tied up in Russia, a bad situation will be made worse.’ Misgivings were voiced by the three army group commanders, Field-Marshals von Leeb, von Bock, and von Rundstedt, when they lunched with Brauchitsch and Halder on 31 January. Brauchitsch, as usual, was reluctant to voice any concern to Hitler. Bock, however, tentatively did so on 1 February. He thought the German army ‘would defeat the Russians if they stood and fought’. But he doubted whether it would be possible to force them to accept peace-terms. Hitler was dismissive. The loss of Leningrad, Moscow, and the Ukraine would compel the Russians to give up the fight. If not, the Germans would press on beyond Moscow to Ekaterinburg. War production, Hitler went on, was equal to any demands. There was an abundance of matériel. The economy was thriving. The armed forces had more manpower than was available at the start of the war. Bock did not feel it even worth suggesting that it was still possible to back away from the conflict. ‘I will fight,’ Hitler stated. ‘I am convinced that our attack will sweep over them like a hailstorm.’
Halder pulled his punches at a conference with Hitler on 3 February. He brought up supply difficulties, but pointed to methods by which they could be overcome, and played down the risks that he had been emphasizing only days earlier. The army leaders accepted the priority Hitler gave to the capture of Leningrad and the Baltic coast over Moscow. But they neglected to work out in sufficient detail the consequences of such a strategy. Hitler was informed of the numerical superiority of the Russian troops and tanks. But he thought little of their quality. Everything depended upon rapid victories in the first days, and the securing of the Baltic and the southern flank as far as Rostov. Moscow, as he had repeatedly stressed, could wait. According to Below, Brauchitsch and Halder ‘accepted Hitler’s directives to wage war against Russia without a single word of objection or opposition’.
In the days that followed the meeting, General Thomas produced further bleak prognoses of the economic situation. Fuel for vehicles sufficed for two months, aircraft fuel till autumn, rubber production until the end of March. Thomas asked Keitel to pass on his report to Hitler. Keitel told him that the Führer would not permit himself to be influenced by economic difficulties. Probably, the report never even reached Hitler. In any case, if Thomas was trying through presentation of dire economic realities to deter Hitler, his method was guaranteed to backfire. A further report demonstrated that if quick victories were attained, and the Caucasus oil-fields acquired, Germany could gain 75 per cent of the materials feeding the Soviet war industry. Such a prognosis could only serve as encouragement to Hitler and to other Nazi leaders.
Hitler remained worried about a number of aspects of the OKH’s planning. He was concerned that the army leadership was underestimating the dangers from Soviet strikes at the German flanks from the Pripet Marsh, and called in February for a detailed study to allow him to draw his own conclusions. In mid-March, he contradicted the General Staff ’s conclusions, asserting – rightly, as things turned out – that the Pripet Marsh was no hindrance to army movement. He also thought the existing plan would leave the German forces overstretched, and too dependent upon what he regarded as the dubious strength of the Romanian, Hungarian, and Slovak divisions – the last of these dismissed merely on the grounds that they were Slavs – on the southern front. He ordered, therefore, the alteration from a two-pronged advance of Army Group South to a single thrust towards Kiev and down the Dnieper. Finally, he repeated his insistence that the crucial objective had to be to secure Leningrad and the Baltic, not push on to Moscow, which, at a meeting with his military leaders on 17 March, he declared was ‘completely immaterial’. At this conference, these alterations to the original operational plan were accepted by Brauchitsch and Halder without demur. With that, the military framework for the invasion was in all its essentials finalized.
While the preparations for the great offensive were taking shape, however, Hitler was preoccupied with the dangerous situation that Mussolini’s ill-conceived invasion of Greece the previous October had produced in the Balkans, and with remedying the consequence of Italian military incompetence in North Africa.
In all, during the calamitous month of January, the fighting in Libya had seen some 130,000 Italians captured by the British. The likelihood of a complete rout for the Italians in North Africa had to be faced. By 6 February, Hitler was briefing the general he had selected to stop the British advance and hold Tripolitania for the Axis. This was Erwin Rommel, who, with a combination of tactical brilliance and bluff, would throughout the second half of 1941 and most of 1942 turn the tables on the British and keep them at bay in North Africa.
Hitler’s hopes of a vital strategic gain in the Mediterranean – notably affecting the situation in North Africa – by the acquisition of Gibraltar were, however, to be dashed again by the obstinacy of General Franco. Already at the end of January, Hitler had been informed by Jodl that ‘Operation Felix’ – the planned assault on Gibraltar – would have to be shelved, since the earliest it could now take place would be in mid-April. The troops and weapons would by then be needed for ‘Barbarossa’, at that time scheduled for a possible start only a month later. Hitler still hoped that Mussolini, at his meeting on 12 February with Franco, might persuade the Caudillo to enter the war. The day before the meeting, Hitler sent Franco a personal letter, exhorting him to join forces with the Axis powers and to recognize ‘that in such difficult times not so much wise foresight as a bold heart can rescue the nations’. Franco was unimpressed. He repeated Spanish demands on Morocco, as well as Gibraltar. And he put forward in addition, as a price for Spain’s entering the war at some indeterminate date, such extortionate demands for grain supplies – saying the 100,000 tons already promised by the Germans were sufficient for only twenty days – that there was no possibility they would be met. Spain, as before, had to be left out of the equation.
Hitler confirmed the ‘dreadful conditions’ in Spain which Goebbels reported to him the day after his big speech in the Sportpalast on 30 January 1941, to mark the eighth anniversary of his appointment as Chancellor. The Propaganda Minister found Hitler in high spirits, confident that Germany held the strategic initiative, convinced of victory, revitalized as always by the wild enthusiasm – like a drug to him – of the vast crowd of raucous admirers packed into the Sportpalast. ‘I’ve seldom seen him like this in recent times,’ Goebbels remarked. ‘The Führer always impresses me afresh,’ he added. ‘He is a true Leader, an inexhaustible giver of strength.’
In his speech, Hitler had concentrated almost exclusively on attacking Britain. He did not devote a single syllable to Russia. But for the first time since the beginning of the war, he reiterated his threat ‘that, if the rest of the world should be plunged into a general war through Jewry, the whole of Jewry will have played out its role in Europe!’ ‘They can still laugh today about it,’ he added, menacingly, ‘just like they used to laugh at my prophecies. The coming months and years will prove that here, too, I’ve seen things correctly.’ Hitler had made this threat, in similar tones, in his Reichstag speech of 30 January 1939. In repeating it now, he claimed to recall making his ‘prophecy’ in his speech to the Reichstag at the outbreak of war. But, in fact, he had not mentioned the Jews in his Reichstag speech on 1 September, the day of the invasion of Poland. He would make the same mistake in dating on several other occasions in the following two years. It was an indication, subconscious or more probably intentional, that he directly associated the war with the destruction of the Jews.
Why did he repeat the threat at this juncture? There was no obvious contextual need for it. He had referred earlier in the speech to ‘a certain Jewish-international capitalist clique’, but otherwise had not played the antisemitic tune. But within the few weeks immediately prior to his speech, Hitler had had the fate of the Jews on his mind, commissioning Heydrich at this point with the task of developing a new plan, replacing the defunct Madagascar scheme, to deport the Jews from the German sphere of domination. Perhaps Hitler had harboured his ‘prophecy’ in the recesses of his mind since he had originally made it. Perhaps one of his underlings had reminded him of it. But, most probably, it was the inclusion of the extract from his speech in the propaganda film Der ewige Jude, which had gone on public release in November 1940, that had stirred Hitler’s memory of his earlier comment. Whatever had done so, the repeat of the ‘prophecy’ at this point was ominous. Though he was uncertain precisely how the war would bring about the destruction of European Jewry, he was sure that this would be the outcome. And this was only a matter of months before the war against the arch-enemy of ‘Jewish-Bolshevism’ was to be launched. The idea of the war to destroy the Jews once and for all was beginning to take concrete shape in Hitler’s mind.
According to the account – post-war recollections, resting partly on earlier, lost notes in diary form – of his army adjutant Gerhard Engel, Hitler discussed the ‘Jewish Question’ soon after his speech, on 2 February, with a group of his intimates. Keitel, Bormann, Ley, Speer, and Ribbentrop’s right-hand man and liaison officer Walther Hewel were present. Ley brought up the topic of the Jews. This was the trigger for Hitler to expound at length on his thoughts. He envisaged the war accelerating a solution. But it also created additional difficulties. Originally, it had lain within his reach ‘to break the Jewish power at most in Germany’. He had thought at one time, he said, with the assistance of the British of deporting the half a million German Jews to Palestine or Egypt. But that idea had been blocked by diplomatic objections. Now it had to be the aim ‘to exclude Jewish influence in the entire area of power of the Axis’. In some countries, like Poland and Slovakia, the Germans themselves could bring that about. In France, it had become more complicated following the armistice, and was especially important there. He spoke of approaching France and demanding the island of Madagascar to accommodate Jewish resettlement. When an evidently incredulous Bormann – aware, no doubt, that the Madagascar Plan had by now been long since shelved by the Foreign Ministry and, more importantly, by the Reich Security Head Office – asked how this could be done during the war, Hitler replied vaguely that he would like to make the whole ‘Strength through Joy’ fleet (ships belonging to the German Labour Front’s leisure programme) available for the task, but feared its exposure to enemy submarines. Then, in somewhat contradictory fashion, he added: ‘He was now thinking about something else, not exactly more friendly.’
This cryptic comment was a hint that the defeat of the Soviet Union, anticipated to take only a few months, would open up the prospect of wholesale deportation of the Jews to the newly conquered lands in the east – and forced labour under barbarous conditions in the Pripet marshlands (stretching towards White Russia in what were formerly eastern parts of Poland) and in the frozen, arctic wastes in the north of the Soviet Union. Such ideas were being given their first airing around this time by Himmler, Heydrich, and Eichmann. They would not have hesitated in putting their ideas to Hitler. The thinking was now moving way beyond what had been contemplated under the Madagascar Plan, inhumane though that itself had been. In such an inhospitable climate as that now envisaged, the fate of the Jews would be sealed. Within a few years most of them would starve, freeze, or be worked to death. The idea of a comprehensive territorial solution to the ‘Jewish problem’ had by now become effectively synonymous with genocide.
Hitler had been under continued pressure from Nazi leaders to deport the Jews from their own territories, with, now as before, the General Government seen as the favoured ‘dumping-ground’. Among the most persistent was the Gauleiter of Vienna, and former Hitler Youth Leader, Baldur von Schirach, who had been pressing hard since the previous summer to relieve the chronic housing problems of Vienna by ‘evacuating’ the city’s 60,000 Jews to the General Government. Hitler had finally agreed to this in December 1940. The plans were fully prepared by the beginning of February 1941. Fresh from his visit to Vienna in March, on the third anniversary of the Anschluß, Hitler discussed with Hans Frank and Goebbels the imminent removal of the Jews from Vienna. Goebbels, anxious to be rid of the Jews from Berlin, was placated with an indication that the Reich capital would be next. ‘Later, they must sometime get out of Europe altogether,’ the Propaganda Minister added.
Despite the problems which had arisen in 1940 about the transfer of Jews and Poles into the General Government, Heydrich (partly under pressure from the Wehrmacht, which needed land for troop exercises) had approved in January 1941 a new plan to expel 771,000 Poles together with the 60,000 Jews from Vienna (bowing to the demands for deportation from Schirach, backed by Hitler) into Hans Frank’s domain to make room for the settlement of ethnic Germans. A major driving-force behind the urgency of the ambitious new resettlement programme was the need to accommodate (and incorporate in the work-force) ethnic Germans who had been brought to Poland from Lithuania, Bessarabia, Bukovina and elsewhere in eastern Europe and since then miserably housed in transit camps. Frank’s subordinates were dismayed at having to cope with a massive new influx of ‘undesirables’. In the event, however, inevitable logistical complications of the new plan soon revealed it as a grandiose exercise in inhumane lunacy. By mid-March the programme had ground to a halt. Only around 25,000 people had been deported into the General Government. And only some 5,000, mainly elderly, Jews had been removed from Vienna. There was still no prospect, within the confines of the territory currently under German control, of attaining either the comprehensive resettlement programme that Himmler was striving for, or, within that programme, solving what seemed to be becoming a more and more intractable problem: removing the Jews.
From comments made by Eichmann’s associate Theodor Dannecker, and, subsequently, by Eichmann himself, it was around the turn of the year 1940–41 that Heydrich gained approval from Hitler for his proposal for the ‘final evacuation’ of German Jews to a ‘territory still to be determined’. On 21 January Dannecker noted: ‘In accordance with the will of the Führer, the Jewish question within the part of Europe ruled or controlled by Germany is after the war to be subjected to a final solution.’ To this end, Heydrich had obtained from Hitler, via Himmler and Göring, the ‘commission to put forward a final solution project’. Plainly, at this stage, this was still envisaged as a territorial solution – a replacement for the aborted Madagascar Plan. Eichmann had in mind a figure of around 5.8 million persons.
Two months later, Eichmann told representatives of the Propaganda Ministry that Heydrich ‘had been commissioned with the final evacuation of the Jews’ and had put forward a proposal to that effect some eight to ten weeks earlier. The proposal had, however, not been accepted ‘because the General Government was not in a position at that time to absorb a single Jew or a Pole’. When, on 17 March, Hans Frank visited Berlin to speak privately with Hitler about the General Government – presumably raising the difficulties he was encountering with Heydrich’s new deportation scheme – he was reassured, in what amounted to a reversal of previous policy, that the General Government would be the first territory to be made free of Jews. But only three days after this meeting, Eichmann was still talking of Heydrich presiding over the ‘final evacuation of the Jews’ into the General Government. Evidently (at least that was the line that Eichmann was holding to), Heydrich still at this point had his sights set on the General Government as offering the temporary basis for a territorial solution. Frank was refusing to contemplate this. And Hitler had now opened up to him the prospect of his territory being the first to be rid of its Jews. Perhaps this was said simply to placate Frank. But in the light of the ideas already taking shape for a comprehensive new territorial solution in the lands, soon to be conquered (it was presumed), of the Soviet Union, it was almost certainly a further indicator that Hitler was now envisaging a new option for a radical solution to the ‘Jewish problem’ once the war was over by mass deportation to the east.
Heydrich and his boss Himmler were certainly anxious to press home the opportunity to expand their own power-base on a grand scale by exploiting the new potential about to open up in the east. Himmler had lost no time in acquainting himself with Hitler’s thinking and, no doubt, taking the chance to advance his own suggestions. On the very evening of the signing of the military directive for ‘Operation Barbarossa’ on 18 December, he had made his way to the Reich Chancellery for a meeting with Hitler. No record of what was discussed survives. But it is hard to imagine that Himmler did not raise the issue of new tasks for the SS which would be necessary in the coming showdown with ‘Jewish-Bolshevism’. It was a matter of no more at this point than obtaining Hitler’s broad authority for plans still to be worked out.
Himmler and Heydrich were to be kept busy over the next weeks in plotting their new empire. Himmler informed a select group of SS leaders in January that there would have to be a reduction of some 30 million in the Slav population in the East. The Reich Security Head Office commissioned the same month preparations for extensive police action. By early February Heydrich had already carried out preliminary negotiations with Brauchitsch about using units of the Security Police alongside the army for ‘special tasks’. No major difficulties were envisaged.
What such ‘special tasks’ might imply became increasingly clear to a wider circle of those initiated into the thinking for ‘Barbarossa’ during February and March. On 26 February General Georg Thomas, the Wehrmacht’s economics expert, learned from Göring that an early objective during the occupation of the Soviet Union was ‘quickly to finish off the Bolshevik leaders’. A week later, on 3 March, Jodl’s comments on the draft of operational directions for ‘Barbarossa’ which had been routinely sent to him made this explicit: ‘all Bolshevist leaders or commissars must be liquidated forthwith’. Jodl had altered the draft somewhat before showing it to Hitler. He now summarized Hitler’s directions for the ‘final version’. These made plain that ‘the forthcoming campaign is more than just an armed conflict; it will lead, too, to a showdown between two different ideologies … The socialist ideal can no longer be wiped out in the Russia of today. From the internal point of view the formation of new states and governments must inevitably be based on this principle. The Jewish-Bolshevik intelligentsia, as the “oppressor” of the people up to now, must be eliminated.’ The task involved, the directions went on, was ‘so difficult that it cannot be entrusted to the army’. Jodl had the draft retyped in double-spacing to allow Hitler to make further alterations. When the redrafted version was finally signed by Keitel on 13 March, it specified that ‘the Reichsführer-SS has been given by the Führer certain special tasks within the operations zone of the army’, though there was now no direct mention of the liquidation of the ‘Bolshevik-Jewish intelligentsia’ or the ‘Bolshevik leaders and commissars’.
Even so, the troops were to be directly instructed about the need to deal mercilessly with the political commissars and Jews they encountered. When he met Göring on 26 March, to deal with a number of issues related to the activities of the police in the eastern campaign, Heydrich was told that the army ought to have a three- to four-page set of directions ‘about the danger of the GPU-Organization, the political commissars, Jews etc., so that they would know whom in practice they had to put up against the wall’. Göring went on to emphasize to Heydrich that the powers of the Wehrmacht would be limited in the east, and that Himmler would be left a great deal of independent authority. Heydrich laid before Göring his draft proposals for the ‘solution of the Jewish Question’, which the Reich Marshal approved with minor amendments. These evidently foresaw the territorial solution, which had been conceived around the turn of the year, and already approved by Himmler and Hitler, of deportation of all the European Jews into the wastelands of the Soviet Union, where they would perish.
During the first three months of 1941, then, the ideological objectives of the attack on the Soviet Union had come sharply into prominence, and had largely been clarified. In the context of the imminent showdown, the barbarism was now adopting forms and dimensions never previously encountered, even in the experimental training-ground of occupied Poland.
In the fateful advance into the regime’s planned murderous policy in the Soviet Union, the army leaders were complicitous. On 17 March, Halder noted comments made that day by Hitler: ‘The intelligentsia put in by Stalin must be exterminated. The controlling machinery of the Russian Empire must be smashed. In Great Russia force must be used in its most brutal form.’ Hitler said nothing here of any wider policy of ‘ethnic cleansing’. But the army leadership had two years earlier accepted the policy of annihilating the Polish ruling-class. Given the depth of its prevalent anti-Bolshevism, it would have no difficulty in accepting the need for the liquidation of the Bolshevik intelligentsia. By 26 March, a secret army order laid down, if in bland terms, the basis of the agreement with the Security Police authorizing ‘executive measures affecting the civilian population’. The following day, the Commander-in-Chief of the army, Field-Marshal von Brauchitsch, announced to his commanders of the eastern army: ‘The troops must be clear that the struggle will be carried out from race to race, and proceed with necessary severity.’
The army was, therefore, already in good measure supportive of the strategic aim and the ideological objective of ruthlessly uprooting and destroying the ‘Jewish-Bolshevik’ base of the Soviet regime when, on 30 March, in a speech in the Reich Chancellery to over 200 senior officers, Hitler stated with unmistakable clarity his views on the coming war with the Bolshevik arch-foe, and what he expected of his army. This was not the time for talk of strategy and tactics. It was to outline to generals in whom he still had little confidence the nature of the conflict that they were entering. According to Halder’s notes, he was forthright: ‘Clash of two ideologies. Crushing denunciation of Bolshevism, identified with a social criminality. Communism is an enormous danger for our future. We must forget the concept of comradeship between soldiers. A Communist is no comrade before or after the battle. This is a war of annihilation. If we do not grasp this, we shall still beat the enemy, but thirty years later we shall again have to fight the Communist foe. We do not wage war to preserve the enemy.’ He went on to stipulate the ‘extermination of the Bolshevist commissars and of the Communist intelligentsia’. ‘We must fight against the poison of disintegration,’ he continued. ‘This is no job for military courts. The individual troop commanders must know the issues at stake. They must be the leaders in this fight … Commissars and GPU men,’ he declared, ‘are criminals and must be dealt with as such.’ The war would be very different from that in the west. ‘In the east, harshness today means lenience in the future.’ Commanders had to overcome any personal scruples.
General Warlimont, who was present, recalled ‘that none of those present availed themselves of the opportunity even to mention the demands made by Hitler during the morning’. When serving as a witness in a trial sixteen years after the end of the war, Warlimont, explaining the silence of the generals, declared that some had been persuaded by Hitler that Soviet Commissars were not soldiers but ‘criminal villains’. Others – himself included – had, he claimed, followed the officers’ traditional view that as head of state and supreme commander of the Wehrmacht Hitler ‘could do nothing unlawful’.
The day after Hitler’s speech to the generals, 31 March 1941, the order was given to prepare, in accordance with the intended conduct of the coming campaign, as he had outlined it, guidelines for the ‘treatment of political representatives’. Exactly how this order was given, and by whom, is unclear. Halder presumed, when questioned after the war, that it came from Keitel: ‘When one has seen how, dozens of times, Hitler’s most casual observation would bring the over-zealous Field-Marshal running to the telephone to let loose all hell, one can easily imagine how a random remark of the dictator would worry Keitel into believing that it was his duty on this occasion to give factual expression to the will of the Führer even before the beginning of hostilities. Then he or one of his subordinates would have telephoned OKH and asked how matters stood. If OKH had in fact been asked such a question, they would naturally have regarded it as a prod in the rear and would have got moving at once.’ Whether there had been a direct command by Hitler, or whether – as Halder presumed – Keitel had once more been ‘working towards the Führer’, the guidelines initiated at the end of March found their way by 12 May into a formal edict. For the first time, they laid down in writing explicit orders for the liquidation of functionaries of the Soviet system. The reasoning given was that ‘political representatives and leaders (commissars)’ represented a danger since they ‘had clearly proved through their previous subversive and seditious work that they reject all European culture, civilization, constitution, and order. They are therefore to be eliminated.’
This formed part of a set of orders for the conduct of the war in the east (following from the framework for the war which Hitler had defined in his speech of 30 March) that were given out by the High Commands of the Army and Wehrmacht in May and June. Their inspiration was Hitler. That is beyond question. But they were put into operative form by leading officers (and their legal advisers), all avidly striving to implement his wishes.
The first draft of Hitler’s decree of 13 May 1941, the so-called ‘Barbarossa-Decree’, defining the application of military law in the arena of Operation Barbarossa, was formulated by the legal branch of the Wehrmacht High Command. The order removed punishable acts committed by enemy civilians from the jurisdiction of military courts. Guerrilla fighters were to be peremptorily shot. Collective reprisals against whole village communities were ordered in cases where individual perpetrators could not be rapidly identified. Actions by members of the Wehrmacht against civilians would not be automatically subject to disciplinary measures, even if normally coming under the heading of a crime.
The ‘Commissar Order’ itself, dated 6 June, followed on directly from this earlier order. Its formulation was instigated by the Army High Command. The ‘Instructions on the Treatment of Political Commissars’ began: ‘In the struggle against Bolshevism, we must not assume that the enemy’s conduct will be based on principles of humanity or of international law. In particular, hate-inspired, cruel, and inhumane treatment of prisoners can be expected on the part of all grades of political commissars, who are the real leaders of resistance … To show consideration to these elements during this struggle, or to act in accordance with international rules of war, is wrong and endangers both our own security and the rapid pacification of conquered territory … Political commissars have initiated barbaric, Asiatic methods of warfare. Consequently, they will be dealt with immediately and with maximum severity. As a matter of principle, they will be shot at once, whether captured during operations or otherwise showing resistance.’
This did not reflect the imposition of Hitler’s will on a reluctant army. In part, the army leadership’s rapid compliance in translating Hitler’s ideological imperatives into operative decrees was in order to demonstrate its political reliability and avoid losing ground to the SS, as had happened during the Polish campaign. But the grounds for the eager compliance went further than this. In the descent into barbarity the experience in Poland had been a vital element. Eighteen months’ involvement in the brutal subjugation of the Poles – even if the worst atrocities were perpetrated by the SS, the sense of disgust at these had been considerable, and a few generals had been bold enough to protest about them – had helped prepare the ground for the readiness to collaborate in the premeditated barbarism of an altogether different order built into Operation Barbarossa.
As the full barbarity of the Commissar Order became more widely known to officers in the weeks immediately prior to the campaign, there were, here too, honourable exceptions. Leading officers from Army Group B (to become Army Group Centre), General Hans von Salmuth and Lieutenant-Colonel Henning von Tresckow (later a driving-force in plans to kill Hitler), for example, let it be known confidentially that they would look for ways of persuading their divisional commanders to ignore the order. Tresckow commented: ‘If international law is to be broken, then the Russians, not we, should do it first.’ As the remark indicates, that the Commissar Order was a breach of international law was plainly recognized. Field-Marshal Fedor von Bock, Commander of Army Group Centre, rejected the shooting of partisans and civilian suspects as incompatible with army discipline, and used this as a reason to ignore the implementation of the Commissar Order.
But, as Warlimont’s post-war comments acknowledged, at least part of the officer corps believed Hitler was right that the Soviet Commissars were ‘criminals’ and should not be treated as ‘soldiers’ in the way that the enemy on the western front had been treated. Colonel-General Georg von Küchler, Commander of the 18th Army, for instance, told his divisional commanders on 25 April that peace in Europe could only be attained for any length of time through Germany presiding over territory that secured its food-supply, and that of other states. Without a showdown with the Soviet Union, this was unimaginable. In terms scarcely different from those of Hitler himself, he went on: ‘A deep chasm separates us ideologically and racially from Russia. Russia is from the very extent of land it occupies an Asiatic state … The aim has to be, to annihilate the European Russia, to dissolve the Russian European state … The political commissars and GPU people are criminals. These are the people who tyrannize the population … They are to be put on the spot before a field court and sentenced on the basis of the testimony of the inhabitants … This will save us German blood and we will advance faster.’ Even more categorical was the operational order for Panzer Group 4, issued by Colonel-General Erich Hoepner (who three years later would be executed for his part in the plot to kill Hitler) on 2 May – still before the formulation of the Commissar Order: ‘The war against the Soviet Union is a fundamental sector of the struggle for existence of the German people. It is the old struggle of the Germanic people against Slavdom, the defence of European culture against Moscovite-Asiatic inundation, the repulse of Jewish Bolshevism. This struggle has to have as its aim the smashing of present-day Russia and must consequently be carried out with unprecedented severity. Every military action must in conception and execution be led by the iron will mercilessly and totally to annihilate the enemy. In particular, there is to be no sparing the upholders of the current Russian-Bolshevik system.’
The complicity of Küchler, Hoepner, and numerous other generals was built into the way they had been brought up and educated, into the way they thought. The ideological overlap with the Nazi leadership was considerable, and is undeniable. There was support for the creation of an eastern empire. Contempt for Slavs was deeply ingrained. The hatred of Bolshevism was rife throughout the officer corps. Antisemitism – though seldom of the outrightly Hitlerian variety – was also widespread. Together, they blended as the ideological yeast whose fermentation now easily converted the generals into accessories to mass murder in the forthcoming eastern campaign.
In the last week of March, three days before he defined the character of ‘Operation Barbarossa’ to his generals, Hitler received some highly unwelcome news with consequences for the planning of the eastern campaign. He was told of the military coup in Belgrade that had toppled the government of Prime Minister Cvetkovic and overthrown the regent, Prince Paul, in favour of his nephew, the seventeen-year-old King Peter II. Only two days earlier, in a lavish ceremony on the morning of 25 March in Hitler’s presence in the palatial surrounds of Schloß Belvedere in Vienna, Cvetkovic had signed Yugoslavia’s adherence to the Tripartite Pact, finally – following much pressure – committing his country to the side of the Axis. Hitler regarded this as ‘of extreme importance in connection with the future German military operations in Greece’. Such an operation would have been risky, he told Ciano, if Yugoslavia’s stance had been questionable, with the lengthy communications line only some twenty kilometres from the Yugoslav border inside Bulgarian territory. He was much relieved, therefore, although, he noted, ‘internal relations in Yugoslavia could despite everything develop in more complicated fashion’. Whatever his forebodings, Keitel found him a few hours after the signing visibly relieved, ‘happy that no more unpleasant surprises were to be expected in the Balkans’. It took less than forty-eight hours to shatter this optimism. The fabric of the Balkan strategy, carefully knitted together over several months, had been torn apart.
This strategy had aimed at binding the Balkan states, already closely interlinked economically with the Reich, ever more tightly to Germany. Keeping the area out of the war would have enabled Germany to gain maximum economic benefit to serve its military interests elsewhere. The initial thrust was anti-British, but since Molotov’s visit to Berlin German policy in the Balkans had developed an increasingly anti-Soviet tendency.
Mussolini’s reckless invasion of Greece the previous October had then brought a major revision of objectives. The threat posed by British military intervention in Greece could not be overlooked. The Soviet Union could not be attacked as long as danger from the south was so self-evident. By 12 November Hitler had issued Directive No. 18, ordering the army to make preparations to occupy from Bulgaria the Greek mainland north of the Aegean should it become necessary, to enable the Luftwaffe to attack any British air-bases threatening the Romanian oil-fields. Neither the Luftwaffe nor navy leadership were satisfied with this, and pressed for the occupation of the whole of Greece and the Peloponnese. By the end of November, the Wehrmacht operational staff agreed. Hitler’s Directive No. 20 of 13 December 1940 for ‘Operation Marita’ still spoke of the occupation of the Aegean north coast, but now held out the possibility of occupying the whole of the Greek mainland, ‘should this be necessary’. The intention was to have most of the troops engaged available ‘for new deployment’ as quickly as possible.
With the directive for ‘Barbarossa’ following a few days later, it was obvious what ‘new deployment’ meant. The timing was tight. Hitler had told Ciano in November that Germany could not intervene in the Balkans before the spring. ‘Barbarossa’ was scheduled to begin in May. When unusually bad weather delayed the complex preparations for ‘Marita’, the timing problems became more acute. And once Hitler finally decided in March that the operation had to drive the British from the entire Greek mainland and occupy it, the campaign had to be both longer and more extensive than originally anticipated. It was this which caused Hitler, in opposition to the strongly expressed views of the Army High Command, to reduce the size of the force initially earmarked for the southern flank in ‘Barbarossa’.
In the intervening months, strenuous efforts had been made on the diplomatic front to secure the allegiance of strategically vital states. Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia had joined the Tripartite Pact in November 1940. Bulgaria, actively courted by Hitler since the previous autumn, finally committed itself to the Axis on 1 March. The last piece in the jigsaw was the hardest to fit in: Yugoslavia. Its geographical position alone made it vital to the success of an attack on Greece. Here, too, therefore, beginning in November, every attempt was made to bring about a formal commitment to the Tripartite Pact. The promise of the Aegean port of Salonika offered some temptation. The threat of German occupation – the stick, as always, alongside the carrot – provided for further concentration of minds. But it was plain that, among the people of Yugoslavia, allegiance to the Axis would not be a popular step. Hitler and Ribbentrop put Prince Paul under heavy pressure when he visited Berlin on 4 March. Despite the fear of internal unrest, which the Regent emphasized, Prince Paul’s visit paved the way for the eventual signing of the Tripartite Pact on 25 March. But within hours of the signing, high-ranking Serbian officers, who had long resented Croat influence in the government, staged their coup.
Hitler was given the news on the morning of the 27th. He was outraged. He summoned Keitel and Jodl straight away. He would never accept this, he shouted, waving the telegram from Belgrade. He had been betrayed in the most disgraceful fashion and would smash Yugoslavia whatever the new government promised. There was still just about time to settle the Balkan issue. But there was now great urgency. Halder had also been peremptorily summoned from Zossen. Hitler asked him forthwith how long he needed to prepare an attack on Yugoslavia. Halder provided on the spot the rudiments of an invasion plan, which he had devised in the car on the way from Zossen.
By one o’clock, Hitler was addressing a sizeable gathering of officers from the army and Luftwaffe. ‘Führer is determined,’ ran the report of the Wehrmacht Operations Staff, ‘… to make all preparations to smash Yugoslavia militarily and as a state-form.’ Speed was of the essence. He ordered preparations to begin immediately. The army and Luftwaffe were to indicate their intended tactics by the evening.
The plans for the invasion of Greece and the build-up to ‘Barbarossa’ were fully revised at breakneck speed to allow for the preliminary assault on Yugoslavia. The operation was eventually scheduled to begin in the early hours of 6 April.
The Yugoslav crisis had caused Hitler’s meeting with the hawkish Japanese Foreign Minister, Yosuke Matsuoka, to be put back a few hours. It also necessitated Ribbentrop being called away from the preliminary talks with his Japanese counterpart to attend Hitler’s briefing. Matsuoka’s visit to Berlin was accompanied by enormous pomp and circumstance. Every effort was made to impress the important guest. As usual on state visits, cheering crowds had been organized – this time waving the little Japanese paper flags that had been handed out in their thousands. The diminutive Matsuoka, invariably dwarfed by lanky SS men around him, occasionally acknowledged the crowd’s applause with a wave of his top-hat.
Hitler placed great store on the visit. His hope – encouraged by Raeder and Ribbentrop – was to persuade the Japanese to attack Singapore without delay. With ‘Barbarossa’ imminent, this would tie up the British in the Far East. The loss of Singapore would be a catastrophic blow for the still undefeated Britain. This in turn, it was thought in Berlin, would serve to keep America out of the war. And any possible rapprochement between Japan and the USA, worrying signs of which were mounting, would be ended at one fell swoop. Hitler sought no military assistance from Japan in the forthcoming war against the Soviet Union. In fact, he was not prepared to divulge anything of ‘Barbarossa’ – though in his talks with Matsuoka earlier that morning Ribbentrop had indicated a deterioration in Soviet-German relations and strongly hinted at the possibility that Hitler might attack the Soviet Union at some point.
Hitler deployed his full rhetorical repertoire. But he was sorely disappointed at Matsuoka’s reply. An attack on Singapore was, the Japanese Foreign Minister declared, merely a matter of time, and in his opinion could not come soon enough. But he did not rule Japan, and his views had not so far prevailed against weighty opposition. ‘At the present moment,’ he stated, ‘he could not under these circumstances enter on behalf of his Japanese Empire into any commitment to act.’
It was clear: Hitler had to reckon without any Japanese military intervention for the foreseeable future. When Matsuoka returned briefly to Berlin in early April to report on his meeting with Mussolini, Hitler was prepared to give him every encouragement. He acceded to the request for technical assistance in submarine construction. He then made an unsolicited offer. Should Japan ‘get into’ conflict with the United States, Germany would immediately ‘draw the consequences’. America would seek to pick off her enemies one by one. ‘Therefore Germany would,’ Hitler said, ‘intervene immediately in case of a conflict Japan-America, for the strength of the three Pact powers was their common action. Their weakness would be in letting themselves be defeated singly.’ It was the thinking that would take Germany into war against the United States later in the year following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Meanwhile, the Soviet-Japanese neutrality pact which Matsuoka negotiated with Stalin on his way back through Moscow – ensuring that Japan would not be dragged into a conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union, and securing her northern flank in the event of expansion in south-east Asia – came as an unpleasant surprise to Hitler.
While Matsuoka was in Berlin, preparations for ‘Marita’ were already furiously taking shape. Within little over a week they were ready. ‘Operation Marita’ began at 5.20 a.m. on Sunday morning, 6 April. Shortly afterwards, Goebbels read out on the radio the proclamation Hitler had dictated. By then, hundreds of Luftwaffe bombers were turning Belgrade into a heap of smoking ruins. Hitler justified the action to the German people as retaliation against a ‘Serbian criminal clique’ in Belgrade which, in the pay of the British Secret Service, was attempting, as in 1914, to spread the war in the Balkans.
With the campaign in its early stages, Hitler left Berlin on the evening of 10 April, en route for his improvised field headquarters. These were located in his Special Train Amerika, stationed at the entrance to a tunnel beneath the Alps on a single-track section of the line from Vienna to Graz, in a wooded area near Mönichkirchen. The Wehrmacht Operational Staff, apart from Hitler’s closest advisers, were accommodated in a nearby inn.
Hitler remained in his secluded, heavily guarded field headquarters for a fortnight. He was visited there by King Boris of Bulgaria, Admiral Horthy, the regent of Hungary, and Count Ciano – vultures gathering at the corpse of Yugoslavia. His fifty-second birthday on 20 April was bizarrely celebrated with a concert in front of the Special Train, after Göring had eulogized the Führer’s genius as a military commander, and Hitler had shaken the hand of each of his armed forces’ chiefs. While there Hitler heard the news of the capitulation of both Yugoslavia and Greece.
After overcoming some early tenacious resistance, the dual campaign against Yugoslavia and Greece had made unexpectedly rapid progress. In fact, German operational planning had grossly overestimated the weak enemy forces. Of the twenty-nine German divisions engaged in the Balkans, only ten were in action for more than six days. On 10 April Zagreb was reached, and an independent Croatian state proclaimed, resting on the slaughterous anti-Serb Ustasha Movement. Two days later Belgrade was reached. On 17 April the Yugoslav army surrendered unconditionally. Around 344,000 men entered German captivity. Losses on the victors’ side were a mere 151 dead with 392 wounded and fifteen missing.
In contrast to the punitive attack on Yugoslavia, Hitler’s interest in the conquest of Greece was purely strategic. He forbade the bombing of Athens, and regretted having to fight against the Greeks. If the British had not intervened there (sending troops in early March to assist the Greek struggle against Mussolini’s forces), he would never have had to hasten to the help of the Italians, he told Goebbels. Meanwhile, the German 12th Army had rapidly advanced over Yugoslav territory on Salonika, which fell on 9 April. The bulk of the Greek forces capitulated on 21 April. A brief diplomatic farce followed. The blow to Mussolini’s prestige demanded that the surrender to the Germans, which had in fact already taken place, be accompanied by a surrender to the Italians. To avoid alienating Mussolini, Hitler was forced to comply. The agreement signed by General List was disowned. Jodl was sent to Salonika with a new armistice. This time the Italians were party to it. This was finally signed, amid Greek protests, on 23 April. Greeks taken prisoner numbered 218,000, British 12,000, against 100 dead and 3,500 wounded or missing on the German side. In a minor ‘Dunkirk’, the British managed to evacuate 50,000 men – around four-fifths of its Expeditionary Force, which had to leave behind or destroy its heavy equipment. The whole campaign had been completed in under a month.
A follow-up operation to take Crete by landing parachutists was, while he was in Mönichkirchen, somewhat unenthusiastically conceded by Hitler under pressure from Göring, himself being pushed by the commander of the parachutist division, General Kurt Student. By the end of May, this too had proved successful. But it had been hazardous. And the German losses of 2,071 dead, 2,594 wounded, and 1,888 missing from a deployment of around 22,000 men were far higher than in the entire Balkan campaign. ‘Operation Mercury’ – the attack on Crete – convinced Hitler that mass paratroop landings had had their day. He did not contemplate using them in the assault the following year on Malta. Potentially, the occupation of Crete offered the prospect of intensified assault on the British position in the Middle East. Naval High Command tried to persuade Hitler of this. But his eyes were now turned only in one direction: towards the East.
On 28 April, Hitler had arrived back in Berlin – for the last time the warlord returning in triumph from a lightning victory achieved at minimal cost. Though people in Germany responded in more muted fashion than they had done to the remarkable victories in the west, the Balkan campaign appeared to prove once again that their Leader was a military strategist of genius. His popularity was undiminished. But there were clouds on the horizon. People in their vast majority wanted, as they had done all along, peace: victorious peace, of course, but above all, peace. Their ears pricked up when Hitler spoke of ‘a hard year of struggle ahead of us’ and, in his triumphant report to the Reichstag on the Balkan campaign on 4 May, of providing even better weapons for German soldiers ‘next year’. Their worries were magnified by disturbing rumours of a deterioration in relations with the Soviet Union and of troops assembling on the eastern borders of the Reich.
What the mass of the people had, of course, no inkling of was that Hitler had already put out the directive for the invasion of the Soviet Union almost five months earlier. That directive, of 18 December, had laid down that preparations requiring longer than eight weeks should be completed by 15 May. But it had not stipulated a date for the actual attack. In his speech to military leaders on 27 March, immediately following news of the Yugoslav coup, Hitler had spoken of a delay of up to four weeks as a consequence of the need to take action in the Balkans. Back in Berlin after his stay in Mönichkirchen, he lost no time – assured by Halder of transport availability to take the troops to the east – in arranging a new date for the start of ‘Barbarossa’ with Jodl: 22 June.
Towards the end of the war, casting round for scapegoats, Hitler looked back on the fateful delay as decisive in the failure of the Russian campaign. ‘If we had attacked Russia already from 15 May onwards,’ he claimed, ‘… we would have been in a position to conclude the eastern campaign before the onset of winter.’ This was simplistic in the extreme – as well as exaggerating the inroads made by the Balkan campaign on the timing of ‘Barbarossa’. Weather conditions in an unusually wet spring in central Europe would almost certainly have ruled out a major attack before June – perhaps even mid-June. Moreover, the major wear and tear on the German divisions engaged on the Balkan campaign came less from the belated inclusion of Yugoslavia than from the invasion of Greece – planned over many months in conjunction with the planning for ‘Barbarossa’. What did disadvantage the opening of ‘Barbarossa’ was the need for the redeployment at breakneck speed of divisions that had pushed on as far as southern Greece and now, without recovery time, had rapidly to be transported to their eastern positions. In addition, the damage caused to tanks by rutted and pot-holed roads in the Balkan hills required a huge effort to equip them again for the eastern campaign, and probably contributed to the high rate of mechanical failure during the invasion of Russia. Probably the most serious effect of the Balkan campaign on planning for ‘Barbarossa’ was the reduction of German forces on the southern flank, to the south of the Pripet marshes. But we have already seen that Hitler took the decision to that effect on 17 March, before the coup in Yugoslavia.
The weaknesses of the plan to invade the Soviet Union could not be laid at the door of the Italians, for their failure in Greece, or the Yugoslavs, for what Hitler saw as their treachery. The calamity, as it emerged, of ‘Barbarossa’ was located squarely in the nature of German war aims and ambitions. These were by no means solely a product of Hitler’s ideological obsessiveness, megalomania, and indomitable willpower. Certainly, he had provided the driving-force. But he had met no resistance to speak of in the higher echelons of the regime. The army, in particular, had fully supported him in the turn to the east. And if Hitler’s underestimation of Soviet military power was crass, it was an underestimation shared with his military leaders, who had lost none of their confidence that the war in the Soviet Union would be over long before winter.
Meanwhile, Hitler was once more forced by events outside his control, this time close to home, to divert his attention from ‘Barbarossa’.
When he stepped down from the rostrum at the end of his speech to Reichstag deputies on 4 May, he took his place, as usual, next to the Deputy Leader of the party, his most slavishly subservient follower, Rudolf Heß. Only a few days later, while Hitler was on the Obersalzberg, the astonishing news came through that his Deputy had taken a Messerschmitt 110 from Augsburg, flown off on his own en route for Britain, and disappeared. The news struck the Berghof like a bombshell. The first wish was that he was dead. ‘It’s to be hoped he’s crashed into the sea,’ Hitler was heard to say. Then came the announcement from London – by then not unexpected – that Heß had landed in Scotland and been taken captive. With the Russian campaign looming, Hitler was now faced with a domestic crisis.
On the afternoon of Saturday, 10 May, Heß had said goodbye to his wife, Ilse, and young son, Wolf Rüdiger, saying he would be back by Monday evening. From Munich he had travelled in his Mercedes to the Messerschmitt works in Augsburg. There, he changed into a fur-lined flying suit and Luftwaffe captain’s jacket. (His alias on his mission was to be Hauptmann Alfred Horn.) Shortly before 6 p.m. on a clear, sunlit evening, his Messerschmitt 110 taxied on to the runway and took off. Shortly after 11 p.m., after navigating himself through Germany, across the North Sea, and over the Scottish Lowlands, Heß wriggled out of the cockpit, abandoning his plane not far from Glasgow, and parachuted – something he had never practised – to the ground, injuring his leg as he left the plane.
Air defence had picked up the flight path, and observers had seen the plane’s occupant bale out before it exploded in flames. A local Scottish farmhand, Donald McLean, was, however, first on the scene. He quickly established that the parachutist, struggling to get out of his harness, was unarmed. Asked whether he was British or German, Heß replied that he was German; his name was Hauptmann Alfred Horn, and he had an important message to give to the Duke of Hamilton. When Hamilton was informed in the early hours that a captured German pilot was demanding to speak to him, there was no reference to Heß, and the name of Hauptmann Alfred Horn meant nothing to the Duke. Puzzled, and very tired, Hamilton made arrangements to interview the mysterious airman next day, and went to bed.
The Duke, a wing-commander in the RAF, did eventually arrive from his base to talk to the German captive by mid-morning on 11 May. ‘Hauptmann Horn’ admitted that his true name was Rudolf Heß. The discussion was inconsequential, but convinced Hamilton that he was indeed face to face with Heß. By the evening he had flown south, summoned to report to Churchill at Ditchley Park in Oxfordshire, frequently used by the British Prime Minister as a weekend headquarters. By the following day, Monday 12 May, the professionals from the Foreign Office were involved. It was decided to send Ivone Kirkpatrick, from 1933 to 1938 First Secretary at the British Embassy in Berlin and a strong opponent of Appeasement, to interrogate Heß. Kirkpatrick and Hamilton left to fly to Scotland in the early evening. It was after midnight by the time they arrived at Buchanan Castle, near Loch Lomond, to confront the prisoner.
The first Hitler knew of Heß’s disappearance was in the late morning of Sunday, 11 May, when Karl-Heinz Pintsch, one of the Deputy Führer’s adjutants, turned up at the Berghof. He was carrying an envelope containing a letter which Heß had given him shortly before taking off, entrusting him to deliver it personally to Hitler. With some difficulty, Pintsch managed to make plain to Hitler’s adjutants that it was a matter of the utmost urgency, and that he had to speak personally to the Führer. When Hitler read Heß’s letter, the colour drained from his face. Albert Speer, busying himself with architectural sketches at the time, suddenly heard an ‘almost animal-like scream’. Then Hitler bellowed, ‘Bormann immediately! Where is Bormann?!’
In his letter, Heß had outlined his motives for flying to meet the Duke of Hamilton, and aspects of a plan for peace between Germany and Britain to be put before ‘Barbarossa’ was launched. He claimed he had made three previous attempts to reach Scotland, but had been forced to abort them because of mechanical problems with the aircraft. His aim was to bring about, through his own person, the realization of Hitler’s long-standing idea of friendship with Britain which the Führer himself, despite all efforts, had not succeeded in achieving. If the Führer were not in agreement, then he could have him declared insane.
Göring – residing at the time in his castle at Veldenstein near Nuremberg – was telephoned straight away. Hitler was in no mood for small-talk. ‘Göring, get here immediately,’ he barked into the telephone. ‘Something dreadful has happened.’ Ribbentrop was also summoned. Hitler, meanwhile, had ordered Pintsch, the hapless bearer of ill tidings, and Heß’s other adjutant, Alfred Leitgen, arrested, and spent his time marching up and down the hall in a rage. The mood in the Berghof was one of high tension and speculation. Amid the turmoil, Hitler was clear-sighted enough to act quickly to rule out any possible power-vacuum in the party leadership arising from Heß’s defection. Next day, 12 May, he issued a terse edict stipulating that the former Office of the Deputy Leader would now be termed the Party Chancellery, and be subordinated to him personally. It would be led, as before, by Party Comrade Martin Bormann.
Hitler persuaded himself – taking his lead from what Heß himself in his letter had suggested – that the Deputy Führer was indeed suffering from mental delusion, and insisted on making his ‘madness’ the centre-point of the extremely awkward communiqué which had to be put out to the German people. There was still no word of Heß’s whereabouts when the communiqué was broadcast at 8 p.m. that evening. The communiqué mentioned the letter which had been left behind, showing ‘in its confusion unfortunately the traces of a mental derangement’, giving rise to fears that he had been the ‘victim of hallucinations’. ‘Under these circumstances,’ the communiqué ended, it had to be presumed that ‘Party Comrade Heß had somewhere on his journey crashed, that is, met with an accident.’
Goebbels, overlooked in the first round of Hitler’s consultations, had by then also been summoned to the Obersalzberg. ‘The Führer is completely crushed,’ the Propaganda Minister noted in his diary. ‘Whata spectacle for the world: a mentally-deranged second man after the Führer.’ Meanwhile, early on 13 May, the BBC in London had brought the official announcement that Heß indeed found himself in British captivity.
The first German communiqué composed by Hitler the previous day would plainly no longer suffice. The new communiqué of 13 May acknowledged Heß’s flight to Scotland, and capture. It held open the possibility that he had been entrapped by the British Secret Service. Affected by delusions, he had undertaken the action of an idealist without any notion of the consequences. His action, the communiqué ended, would alter nothing in the struggle against Britain.
The two communiqués, forced ultimately to concede that the Deputy Führer had flown to the enemy, and attributing the action to his mental state, bore all the hallmarks of a hasty and ill-judged attempt to play down the enormity of the scandal. Remarkably, Hitler had not turned to Goebbels for propaganda advice on how to present the débâcle, but had relied instead at first on Otto Dietrich, the press chief. Goebbels was highly critical from the outset about the ‘mental illness’ explanation. A real difficulty had to be faced: how to explain that a man recognized for many years as mentally unbalanced had been left in such an important position in the running of the Reich. ‘It’s rightly asked how such an idiot could be the second man after the Führer,’ Goebbels remarked.
Goebbels felt the blow to prestige so deeply that he wanted to avoid being seen in public. ‘It’s like an awful dream,’ he remarked. ‘The Party will have to chew on it for a long time.’ Hitler himself was occasionally caught in the line of fire of popular criticism. But, generally, much sympathy was voiced for the Führer who now had this, on top of all his other worries, to contend with. As ever, it was presumed that, while he was working tirelessly on behalf of the nation, he was kept in the dark, let down, or betrayed by some of his most trusted chieftains.
This key element of the ‘Führer myth’ was one that Hitler himself played to when, on 13 May, he addressed a rapidly arranged meeting of the Reichsleiter and Gauleiter at the Berghof. There was an air of tension when Göring and Bormann, both grim-faced, entered the hall before Hitler made his appearance. Bormann read out Heß’s final letter to Hitler. The feeling of shock and anger among those listening was palpable. Then Hitler came into the room. Much as in the last great crisis within the party leadership, in December 1932, he played masterfully on the theme of loyalty and betrayal. Heß had betrayed him, he stated. He appealed to the loyalty of his most trusted ‘old fighters’. He declared that Heß had acted without his knowledge, was mentally ill, and had put the Reich in an impossible position with regard to its Axis partners. He had sent Ribbentrop to Rome to placate the Duce. He stressed once more Heß’s long-standing odd behaviour (his dealings with astrologists and the like). He castigated the former Deputy Führer’s opposition to his own orders in continuing to practise flying. A few days before Heß’s defection, he went on, the Deputy Führer had come to see him and asked him pointedly whether he still stood to the programme of cooperation with England that he had laid out in Mein Kampf. Hitler said he had, of course, reaffirmed this position.
When he had finished speaking, Hitler leaned against the big table near the window. According to one account, he was ‘in tears and looked ten years older’. ‘I have never seen the Führer so deeply shocked,’ Hans Frank told a gathering of his subordinates in the General Government a few days later. As he stood near the window, gradually all the sixty or seventy persons present rose from their chairs and gathered round him in a semi-circle. No one spoke a word. Then Göring provided an effusive statement of the devotion of all present. The intense anger was reserved only for Heß. The ‘core’ following had once more rallied around their Leader, as in the ‘time of struggle’, at a moment of crisis. The regime had suffered a massive jolt; but the party leadership, its backbone, was still holding together.
All who saw Hitler in the days after the news of Heß’s defection broke registered his profound shock, dismay, and anger at what he saw as betrayal. This has sometimes been interpreted, as it was also by a number of contemporaries, as clever acting on Hitler’s part, concealing a plot which only he and Heß knew about. Hitler was indeed capable, as we have noted on more than one occasion, of putting on a theatrical performance. But if this was acting, it was of Hollywood-Oscar calibre.
That the Deputy Führer had been captured in Britain was something that shook the regime to its foundations. As Goebbels sarcastically pointed out, it never appears to have occurred to Heß that this could be the outcome of his ‘mission’. It is hard to imagine that it would not have crossed Hitler’s mind, had he been engaged in a plot. But it would have been entirely out of character for Hitler to have involved himself in such a hare-brained scheme. His own acute sensitivity towards any potential threat to his own prestige, towards being made to look foolish in the eyes of his people and the outside world, would itself have been sufficient to have ruled out the notion of sending Heß on a one-man peace-mission to Britain. Moreover, there was every reason, from his own point of view, not to have become involved and to have most categorically prohibited what Heß had in mind.
The chances of the Heß flight succeeding were so remote that Hitler would not conceivably have entertained the prospect. And had he done so, it is hard to believe that he would have settled on Heß as his emissary. Heß had not been party to the planning of ‘Barbarossa’. He had been little in Hitler’s presence over the previous months. His competence was confined strictly to party matters. He had no experience in foreign affairs. And he had never been entrusted previously with any delicate diplomatic negotiations.
In any case, Hitler’s motive for contemplating a secret mission such as Heß attempted to carry out would be difficult to grasp. For months Hitler had been single-mindedly preparing to attack and destroy the Soviet Union precisely in order to force Britain out of the war. He and his generals were confident that the Soviet Union would be comprehensively defeated by the autumn. The timetable for the attack left no room for manoeuvre. The last thing Hitler wanted was any hold-up through diplomatic complications arising from the intercession by Heß a few weeks before the invasion was to be launched. Had ‘Barbarossa’ not taken place before the end of June, it would have had to be postponed to the following year. For Hitler, this would have been unthinkable. He was well aware that there were those in the British establishment who would still prefer to sue for peace. He expected them to do so after, not before, ‘Barbarossa’.
Rudolf Heß at no time, whether during his interrogations after landing in Scotland, in discussions with his fellow-captives while awaiting trial in Nuremberg, or during his long internment in Spandau, implicated Hitler. His story never wavered from the one he gave to Ivone Kirkpatrick at his first interrogation on 13 May 1941. ‘He had come here,’ so Kirkpatrick summed up in his report, ‘without the knowledge of Hitler in order to convince responsible persons that since England could not win the war, the wisest course was to make peace now.’
Heß’s British interlocutors rapidly reached the conclusion that he had nothing to offer which went beyond Hitler’s public statements, notably his ‘peace appeal’ before the Reichstag on 19 July 1940. Kirkpatrick concluded his report: ‘Heß does not seem … to be in the near counsels of the German government as regards operations; and he is not likely to possess more secret information than he could glean in the course of conversations with Hitler and others.’ If, in the light of this, Heß was following out orders from Hitler himself, he would have had to be as supreme an actor – and to have continued to be so for the next four decades – as was, reputedly, the Leader he so revered. But, then, to what end? He said nothing that Hitler had not publicly on a number of occasions stated himself. He brought no new negotiating position. It was as if he presumed that the mere fact of the Deputy Führer voluntarily – through an act involving personal courage – putting himself in the hands of the enemy was enough to have made the British government see the good will of the Führer, the earnest intentions behind his aim of cooperation with Britain against Bolshevism, and the need to overthrow the Churchill ‘war-faction’ and settle amicably. The naïvety of such thinking points heavily in the direction of an attempt inspired by no one but the idealistic, other-worldly, and muddle-headed Heß.
His own motives were not more mysterious or profound than they appeared. Heß had seen over a number of years, but especially since the war had begun, his access to Hitler strongly reduced. His nominal subordinate, Martin Bormann, had in effect been usurping his position, always in the Führer’s company, always able to put in a word here or there, always able to translate his wishes into action. A spectacular action to accomplish what the Führer had been striving for over many years would transform his status overnight, turning ‘Fräulein Anna’, as he was disparagingly dubbed by some in the party, into a national hero.
Heß had remained highly influenced by Karl Haushofer – his former teacher and the leading exponent of geopolitical theories which had influenced the formation of Hitler’s ideas of Lebensraum – and his son Albrecht (who later became closely involved with resistance groups). Their views had reinforced his belief that everything must be done to prevent the undermining of the ‘mission’ that Hitler had laid out almost two decades earlier: the attack on Bolshevism together with, not in opposition to, Great Britain. Albrecht Haushofer had made several attempts to contact the Duke of Hamilton, whom he had met in Berlin in 1936, but had received no replies to his letters. Hamilton himself strenuously denied, with justification it seems, receiving the letters, and also denied Heß’s claim to have met him at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
By August 1940, when he began to plan his own intervention, Heß was deeply disappointed in the British response to the ‘peace-terms’ that Hitler had offered. He was aware, too, that Hitler was by this time thinking of attacking the Soviet Union even before Britain was willing to ‘see sense’ and agree to terms. The original strategy lay thus in tatters. Heß saw his role as that of the Führer’s most faithful paladin, now destined to restore through his personal intervention the opportunity to save Europe from Bolshevism – a unique chance wantonly cast away by Churchill’s ‘warmongering’ clique which had taken over the British government. Heß acted without Hitler’s knowledge, but in deep (if confused) belief that he was carrying out his wishes.
By the middle of May, after a week preoccupied by the Heß affair, Hitler could begin to turn his attention back to ‘Barbarossa’. But the end of what had been a troubled month brought further gloom to the Berghof with the news on 27 May of the loss of the powerful battleship Bismarck, sunk in the Atlantic after a fierce clash with British warships and planes. Some 2,300 sailors went down with the ship. Hitler did not brood on the human loss. His fury was directed at the naval leadership for unnecessarily exposing the vessel to enemy attack – a huge risk, he had thought, for potentially little gain.
Meanwhile, the ideological preparations for ‘Barbarossa’ were now rapidly taking concrete shape. Hitler needed to do nothing more in this regard. He had laid down the guidelines in March. It was during May that Heydrich assembled the four Einsatzgruppen (‘task groups’) which would accompany the army into the Soviet Union. Each of the Einsatzgruppen comprised between 600 and 1,000 men (drawn largely from varying branches of the police organization, augmented by the Waffen-SS) and was divided into four or five Einsatzkommandos (‘task forces’) or Sonderkommandos (‘special forces’). The middle-ranking commanders for the most part had an educated background. Highly qualified academics, civil servants, lawyers, a Protestant pastor, and even an opera singer, were among them. The top leadership was drawn almost exclusively from the Security Police and SD. Like the leaders of the Reich Security Head Office, they were in the main well-educated men, of the generation, just too young to have fought in the First World War, that had sucked in völkisch ideals in German universities during the 1920s. During the second half of May, the 3,000 or so men selected for the Einsatzgruppen gathered in Pretzsch, north-east of Leipzig, where the Border Police School served as their base for the ideological training that would last until the launch of ‘Barbarossa’. Heydrich addressed them on a number of occasions. He avoided narrow precision in describing their target-groups when they entered the Soviet Union. But his meaning was, nevertheless, plain. He mentioned that Jewry was the source of Bolshevism in the East and had to be eradicated in accordance with the Führer’s aims. And he told them that Communist functionaries and activists, Jews, Gypsies, saboteurs, and agents endangered the security of the troops and were to be executed forthwith. By 22 June the genocidal whirlwind was ready to blow.
‘Operation Barbarossa rolls on further,’ recorded Goebbels in his diary on 31 May. ‘Now the first big wave of camouflage goes into action. The entire state and military apparatus is being mobilized. Only a few people are informed about the true background.’ Apart from Goebbels and Ribbentrop, ministers of government departments were kept in the dark. Goebbels’s own ministry had to play up the theme of invasion of Britain. Fourteen army divisions were to be moved westwards to give some semblance of reality to the charade.
As part of the subterfuge that action was to be expected in the West while preparations for ‘Barbarossa’ were moving into top gear, Hitler hurriedly arranged another meeting with Mussolini on the Brenner Pass for 2 June. It was little wonder that the Duce could not understand the reason for the hastily devised talks. Hitler’s closest Axis partner was unwittingly playing his part in an elaborate game of bluff.
Hitler did not mention a word of ‘Barbarossa’ to his Italian friends. The published communiqué simply stated that the Führer and Duce had held friendly discussions lasting several hours on the political situation. The deception had been successful. When he met the Japanese Ambassador Oshima the day after his talks with Mussolini, Hitler dropped a broad hint – which was correctly understood – that conflict with the Soviet Union in the near future was unavoidable. But the only foreign statesman to whom he was prepared to divulge more than hints was the Romanian leader Marshal Antonescu, when Hitler met him in Munich on 12 June. Antonescu had to be put broadly in the picture. After all, Hitler was relying on Romanian troops for support on the southern flank. Antonescu was more than happy to comply. He volunteered his forces without Hitler having to ask. When 22 June arrived, he would proclaim to his people a ‘holy war’ against the Soviet Union. The bait of recovering Bessarabia and North Bukovina, together with the acquisition of parts of the Ukraine, was sufficiently tempting to the Romanian dictator.
On 14 June Hitler held his last major military conference before the start of ‘Barbarossa’. The generals arrived at staggered times at the Reich Chancellery to allay suspicion that something major was afoot. Hitler went over the reasons for attacking Russia. Once again, he avowed his confidence that the collapse of the Soviet Union would induce Britain to come to terms. He emphasized that the war was a war against Bolshevism. The Russians would fight hard and put up tough resistance. Heavy air-raids had to be expected. But the Luftwaffe would attain quick successes and smooth the advance of the land forces. The worst of the fighting would be over in about six weeks. But every soldier had to know what he was fighting for: the destruction of Bolshevism. If the war were to be lost, then Europe would be bolshevized. Most of the generals had concerns about opening up the two-front war, the avoidance of which had been a premiss of military planning. But they did not voice any objections. Brauchitsch and Halder did not speak a word.
Two days later Hitler summoned Goebbels to the Reich Chancellery – he was told to enter through a back door in order not to raise suspicions – to explain the situation. The attack on the Soviet Union would be the most massive history had ever seen, he stated. There would be no repeat of Napoleon (a comment perhaps betraying precisely those subconscious fears of history indeed repeating itself ). The Russians had around 180–200 divisions, about as many as the Germans, he said, though there was no comparison in quality. And the fact that they were massed on the Reich borders was a great advantage. ‘They would be smoothly rolled up.’ Hitler thought ‘the action’ would take about four months. Goebbels estimated even less time would be needed: ‘Bolshevism will collapse like a house of cards,’ he thought.
On 21 June Hitler dictated the proclamation to the German people to be read out the next day. He was by this time looking over-tired, and was in a highly nervous state, pacing up and down, apprehensive, involving himself in the minutiae of propaganda such as the fanfares that were to be played over the radio to announce German victories. Goebbels was called to see him in the evening. They discussed the proclamation, to which Goebbels added a few suggestions. They marched up and down his rooms for three hours. They tried out the new fanfares for an hour. Hitler gradually relaxed somewhat. ‘The Führer is freed from a nightmare the closer the decision comes,’ noted Goebbels. ‘It’s always so with him.’ Once more Goebbels returned to the inner necessity of the coming conflict, of which Hitler had convinced himself: ‘There is nothing for it than to attack,’ he wrote, summing up Hitler’s thoughts. ‘This cancerous growth has to be burned out. Stalin will fall.’ Since July the previous year, Hitler indicated, he had worked on the preparations for what was about to take place. Now the moment had arrived. Everything had been done which could have been done. ‘The fortune of war must now decide.’ At 2.30 a.m., Hitler finally decided it was time to snatch a few hours’ sleep. ‘Barbarossa’ was due to begin within the next hour.
Goebbels was too nervous to follow his example. At 5.30 a.m., just over two hours after the German guns had opened fire on all borders, the new fanfares sounded over German radios. Goebbels read out Hitler’s proclamation. It amounted to a lengthy pseudo-historical justification for German preventive action. The Jewish-Bolshevik rulers in Moscow had sought for two decades to destroy not only Germany, but the whole of Europe. Hitler had been forced, he claimed, through British encirclement policy to take the bitter step of entering the 1939 Pact. But since then the Soviet threat had magnified. At present there were 160 Russian divisions massed on the German borders. ‘The hour has now therefore arrived,’ Hitler declared, ‘to counter this conspiracy of the Jewish-Anglo-Saxon warmongers and the equally Jewish rulers of the Bolshevik headquarters in Moscow.’ A slightly amended proclamation went out to the soldiers swarming over the border and marching into Russia.
On 21 June, Hitler had at last composed a letter to his chief ally, Benito Mussolini, belatedly explaining and justifying his reasons for attacking the Soviet Union. Hitler ended his letter with sentences which, as with his comments to Goebbels, give insight into his mentality on the eve of the titanic contest: ‘In conclusion, let me say one more thing, Duce. Since I struggled through to this decision, I again feel spiritually free. The partnership with the Soviet Union, in spite of the complete sincerity of the efforts to bring about a final conciliation, was nevertheless often very irksome to me, for in some way or other it seemed to me to be a break with my whole origin, my concepts, and my former obligations. I am happy now to be relieved of these mental agonies.’
The most destructive and barbaric war in the history of mankind was beginning. It was the war that Hitler had wanted since the 1920s – the war against Bolshevism. It was the showdown. He had come to it by a roundabout route. But, finally, Hitler’s war was there: a reality.