‘Now I finally have the swine who have been sabotaging my work for years,’ raged Hitler as details of the plot against him started to emerge. ‘Now I have proof: the entire General Staff is contaminated.’ His long-standing, deep-seated distrust of his army leaders had found its confirmation. It suddenly seemed blindingly obvious to him why his military plans had encountered such setbacks: they had been sabotaged throughout by the treachery of his army officers. ‘Now I know why all my great plans in Russia had to fail in recent years,’ he ranted. ‘It was all treason! But for those traitors, we would have won long ago. Here is my justification before history’ (an indication, too, that Hitler was consciously looking to his place in the pantheon of Teutonic heroes). Goebbels, as so often, echoed Hitler’s sentiments. ‘The generals are not opposed to the Führer because we are experiencing crises at the front,’ he entered in his diary. ‘Rather, we are experiencing crises at the front because the generals are opposed to the Führer.’ Hitler was convinced of an ‘inner blood-poisoning’. With leading positions occupied by traitors bent on destroying the Reich, he railed, with key figures such as General Eduard Wagner (responsible as Quartermaster-General for army supplies) and General Erich Fellgiebel (chief of signals operations at Führer Headquarters) connected to the conspiracy, it was no wonder that German military tactics had been known in advance by the Red Army. It had been ‘permanent treachery’ all along. It was symptomatic of an underlying ‘crisis in morale’. Action ought to have been taken sooner. It had been known, after all, for one and a half years that there were traitors in the army. But now, an end had to be made. ‘These most base creatures to have worn the soldier’s uniform in the whole of history, this rabble which has preserved itself from bygone times, must be got rid of and driven out.’ Military recovery would follow recovery from the crisis in morale. It would be ‘Germany’s salvation’.
Vengeance was uppermost in Hitler’s mind. There would be no mercy in the task of cleansing the Augean stables. Swift and ruthless action would be taken. He would ‘wipe out and eradicate’ the lot of them, he raged. ‘These criminals’ would not be granted an honourable soldier’s execution by firing-squad. They would be expelled from the Wehrmacht, brought as civilians before the court, and executed within two hours of sentence. ‘They must hang immediately, without any mercy,’ he declared. He gave orders to set up a military ‘Court of Honour’, in which senior generals (including among others Keitel, Rundstedt – who presided – and Guderian) would expel in disgrace those found to have been involved in the plot. Those subsequently sentenced to death by the People’s Court, he ordered, were to be hanged in prison clothing as criminals. He spoke favourably of Stalin’s purges of his officers. ‘The Führer is extraordinarily furious at the generals, especially those of the General Staff,’ noted Goebbels after seeing Hitler on 22 July. ‘He is absolutely determined to set a bloody example and to eradicate a freemasons’ lodge which has been opposed to us all the time and has only awaited the moment to stab us in the back in the most critical hour. The punishment which must now be meted out has to have historic dimensions.’
Hitler had been outraged at Colonel-General Fromm’s peremptory action in having Stauffenberg and the other leaders of the attempted coup immediately executed by firing-squad. He gave orders forthwith that other plotters captured should appear before the People’s Court. The President of the People’s Court, Roland Freisler, a fanatical Nazi who, despite early sympathies with the radical Left, had been ideologically committed to the völkisch cause since the early 1920s, saw himself – a classical instance of ‘working towards the Führer’ – as pronouncing judgement as the ‘Führer would judge the case himself’. The People’s Court was, for him, expressly a ‘political court’. Under his presidency, the number of death sentences delivered by the court had risen from 102 in 1941 to 2,097 in 1944. It was little wonder that he had already gained notoriety as a ‘hanging judge’. Recapitulating Hitler’s comments at their recent meeting, Goebbels remarked that those implicated in the plot were to be brought before the People’s Court ‘and sentenced to death’. Freisler, he added, ‘would find the right tone to deal with them’. Hitler himself was keen above all that the conspirators should be permitted ‘no time for long speeches’ during their defence. ‘But Freisler will see to that,’ he added. ‘That’s our Vyschinsky’ – a reference to Stalin’s notorious prosecutor in the show-trials of the 1930s.
It took little encouragement from Goebbels to persuade Hitler that Fromm, Stauffenberg’s direct superior officer, had acted so swiftly in an attempt to cover up his own complicity. Fromm had, in fact, already been named by Bormann in a circular to the Gauleiter in mid-evening of 20 July as one of those to be arrested as part of the ‘reactionary gang of criminals’ behind the conspiracy. Following the suppression of the coup in the Bendlerblock and the swift execution of Stauffenberg, Olbricht, Haeften, and Mertz von Quirnheim, Fromm had made his way to the Propaganda Ministry, wanting to speak on the telephone with Hitler. Instead of connecting him, Goebbels had had Fromm seated in another room while he himself telephoned Führer Headquarters. He soon had the decision he wanted. Goebbels immediately had the former Commander-in-Chief of the Reserve Army placed under armed guard. After months of imprisonment, a mockery of a trial before the People’s Court, and a trumped-up conviction on grounds of alleged cowardice – despite the less-than-heroic motive of self-preservation that had dictated his role on centre-stage in the Bendlerblock on 20 July, he was no coward – Fromm would eventually die at the hands of a firing-squad in March 1945.
In the confusion in the Bendlerblock late on the night of 20 July, it had looked for a time as if other executions would follow those of the coup’s leaders (together with the assisted suicide of Beck). But the arrival soon after midnight of an SS unit under the command of Sturmbannführer Otto Skorzeny – the rescuer of Mussolini from captivity the previous summer – along with the appearance at the scene of SD chief Ernst Kaltenbrunner and Major Otto Ernst Remer, newly appointed commander of the Berlin guards battalion and largely responsible for putting down the coup, blocked further summary executions and ended the upheaval. Meanwhile, Himmler himself had flown to Berlin and, in his new temporary capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the Reserve Army, had given orders that no further independent action was to be taken against officers held in suspicion.
Shortly before 4 a.m., Bormann was able to inform the party’s provincial chieftains, the Gauleiter, that the putsch was at an end. By then, those arrested in the Bendlerstraße – including Stauffenberg’s brother, Berthold, former senior civil-servant and deputy Police President of Berlin Fritz-Dietlof von der Schulenburg, leading member of the Kreisau Circle Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg, Protestant pastor Eugen Gerstenmaier, and landholder and officer in the Abwehr Ulrich Wilhelm Graf Schwerin von Schwanenfeld – had been led off to await their fate. Former Colonel-General Erich Hoepner, arrested by Fromm but not executed, and Field-Marshal Erwin von Witzleben, who had left the Bendlerstraße before the collapse of the coup, were also promptly taken into custody, along with a number of others who had been implicated. Prussian Finance Minister Popitz, former Economics Minister Schacht, former Chief of Staff Colonel-General Halder, Major-General Stieff, and, from the Abwehr, Admiral Canaris and Major-General Oster were also swiftly arrested. Major Hans Ulrich von Oertzen, liaison officer for the Berlin Defence District (Wehrkreis III), who had given out the first ‘Valkyrie’ orders, blew himself up with a hand-grenade. Major-General Henning von Tresckow, the early driving-force behind the attempts to assassinate Hitler, killed himself in similar fashion at the front near Ostrov in Poland. General Wagner shot himself. General Fellgiebel refused to do so. ‘You stand your ground, you don’t do that,’ he told his aide-de-camp. Well aware that his arrest was imminent, he spent much of the afternoon, remarkably, at the Wolf ’s Lair, even congratulated Hitler on his survival, and awaited his inevitable fate.
Those who fell into the clutches of the Gestapo had to reckon with fearsome torture. It was endured for the most part with the idealism, even heroism, which had sustained them throughout their perilous opposition. In the early stages of their investigations, the Gestapo managed to squeeze out remarkably limited information, beyond what they already knew, from those they so grievously maltreated. Even so, as the ‘Special Commission, 20 July’, set up on the day after the attempted coup, expanded its investigations, the numbers arrested rapidly swelled to 600 persons. Almost all the leading figures in the various branches of the conspiracy were rapidly captured, though Goerdeler held out under cover until 12 August. Reports reached Hitler daily of new names of those implicated. His early belief that it had been no more than a ‘tiny clique’ of officers which had opposed him had proved mistaken. The conspiracy had tentacles stretching further than he could have imagined. He was particularly incensed that even Graf Helldorf, Berlin Police President, ‘Old Fighter’ of the Nazi Movement, and a former SA leader, turned out to have been deeply implicated. As the list lengthened, and the extent of the conspiracy became clear, Hitler’s fury and bitter resentment against the conservatives – especially the landed aristocracy – who had never fully accepted him mounted. ‘We wiped out the class struggle on the Left, but unfortunately forgot to finish off the class struggle on the Right,’ he was heard to remark. But now was the worst possible time to encourage divisiveness within the people; the general showdown with the aristocracy would have to wait till the war was over.
On 7 August, the intended show-trials began at the People’s Court in Berlin. The first eight – including Witzleben, Hoepner, Stieff, and Yorck – of what became a regular procession of the accused were each marched by two policemen into a courtroom bedecked with swastikas, holding around 300 selected spectators (including the journalists hand-picked by Goebbels). There they had to endure the ferocious wrath, scathing contempt, and ruthless humiliation heaped on them by the red-robed president of the court, Judge Roland Freisler. Seated beneath a bust of Hitler, Freisler’s face reflected in its contortions extremes of hatred and derision. He presided over no more than a base mockery of any semblance of a legal trial, with the death-sentence a certainty from the outset. The accused men bore visible signs of their torment in prison. To degrade them even in physical appearance, they were shabbily dressed, without collars and ties, and were handcuffed until seated in the courtroom. Witzleben was even deprived of braces or a belt, so that he had to hold up his trousers with one hand. The accused were not allowed to express themselves properly or explain their motivation before Freisler cut them short, bawling insults, calling them knaves, traitors, cowardly murderers. The order had been given – probably by Goebbels, though undoubtedly with Hitler’s authorization – for the court proceedings to be filmed with a view to showing extracts in the newsreels as well as in a ‘documentary’ entitled ‘Traitors before the People’s Court’. So loudly did Freisler shout that the cameramen had to inform him that he was ruining their sound recordings. Nevertheless, the accused managed some moments of courageous defiance. For instance, after the death sentence had predictably been pronounced, General Fellgiebel uttered: ‘Then hurry with the hanging, Mr President; otherwise you will hang earlier than we.’ And Field-Marshal von Witzleben called out: ‘You can hand us over to the hangman. In three months the enraged and tormented people will call you to account, and will drag you alive through the muck of the street.’ Such a black farce were the trials that even Reich Justice Minister Otto Georg Thierack, himself a fanatical Nazi who in his ideological ardour had by this time surrendered practically the last vestiges of a completely perverted legal system to the arbitrary police lawlessness of the SS, subsequently complained about Freisler’s conduct.
Once the verdicts had been pronounced, the condemned men were taken off, many of them to Plötzensee Prison in Berlin. On Hitler’s instructions they were denied any last rites or pastoral care (though this callous order was at least partially bypassed in practice). The normal mode of execution for civilian capital offences in the Third Reich was beheading. But Hitler had reportedly ordered that he wanted those behind the conspiracy of 20 July 1944 ‘hanged, hung up like meat-carcasses’. In the small, single-storey execution room, with whitewashed walls, divided by a black curtain, hooks, indeed like meat-hooks, had been placed on a rail just below the ceiling. Usually, the only light in the room came from two windows, dimly revealing a frequently used guillotine. Now, however, certainly for the first groups of conspirators being led to their doom, the executions were to be filmed and photographed, and the macabre scene was illuminated with bright lights, like a film studio. On a small table in the corner of the room stood a table with a bottle of cognac – for the executioners, not to steady the nerves of the victims. The condemned men were led in, handcuffed and wearing prison trousers. There were no last words, no comfort from a priest or pastor; nothing but the black humour of the hangman. Eye-witness accounts speak of the steadfastness and dignity of those executed. The hanging was carried out within twenty seconds of the prisoner entering the room. Death was not, however, immediate. Sometimes it came quickly; in other cases, the agony was slow – lasting more than twenty minutes. In an added gratuitous obscenity, some of the condemned men had their trousers pulled down by their executioners before they died. And all the time the camera whirred. The photographs and grisly film were taken to Führer Headquarters. Speer later reported seeing a pile of such photographs lying on Hitler’s map-table when he visited the Wolf’s Lair on 18 August. SS-men and some civilians, he added, went into a viewing of the executions in the cinema that evening, though they were not joined by any members of the Wehrmacht. Whether Hitler saw the film of the executions is uncertain; the testimony is contradictory.
Most of the executions connected with the attempted coup of 20 July 1944 followed within the next weeks. Some took place only months later. By the time the blood-letting subsided, the death-toll of those directly implicated numbered around 200. But it was Hitler’s last triumph.
The Stauffenberg plot left its lasting mark on him. The injuries he had suffered in the bomb blast had been, as we saw, relatively superficial. As if to emphasize his own indestructibility and his manliness in surmounting pain, he made light of his injuries and even joked about them to his entourage. But they were less trivial than Hitler himself implied. Blood was still seeping through the bandages from the skin wounds almost a fortnight after the bomb-attack. He suffered sharp pain in especially the right ear, and his hearing was impaired. He was treated by Dr Erwin Giesing, an ear, nose, and throat specialist in a nearby hospital, then by Professor Karl von Eicken, who had removed a throat polyp in 1935 and was now flown in from Berlin. But the ruptured eardrums, the worst injury, continued bleeding for days, and took several weeks to heal. He thought for some time that his right ear would never recover. The disturbance to his balance from the inner-ear injuries made his eyes turn to the right and gave him a tendency to lean rightwards when he walked. There was also frequent dizziness and malaise. His blood pressure was too high. He looked aged, ill, and strained. Eleven days after the attack on his life, he told those present at the daily military briefing that he was unfit to speak in public for the time being; he could not stand up for long, feared a sudden attack of dizziness, and was also worried about not walking straight. A few weeks later, Hitler admitted to his doctor, Morell, that the weeks since the bomb-attack had been ‘the worst of his life’ – adding that he had mastered the difficulties ‘with a heroism no German could dream of’. Strangely, the trembling in Hitler’s left leg and hands practically disappeared following the blast. Morell attributed it to the nervous shock. By mid-September, however, the tremor had returned. By this time, the heavy daily doses of pills and injections could do nothing to head off the long-term deterioration in Hitler’s health. At least as serious were the psychological effects.
His sense of distrust and betrayal now reached paranoid levels. Outward precautions were swiftly taken. Security was at once massively tightened at Führer Headquarters. At military briefings, all personnel were from now on thoroughly searched for weapons and explosives. Hitler’s food and medicines were tested for poison. Any presents of foodstuffs, such as chocolates or caviar (which he was fond of ), were immediately destroyed. But the outward security measures could do nothing to alter the deep shock that some of his own generals had turned against him. According to Guderian, whom he appointed as successor to Zeitzler as Chief of the Army General Staff within hours of Stauffenberg’s bomb exploding, ‘he believed no one any more. It had already been difficult enough dealing with him; it now became a torture that grew steadily worse from month to month. He frequently lost all self-control and his language grew increasingly violent. In his intimate circle he now found no restraining influence.’
In 1918, according to his distorted vision of the momentous weeks of defeat and revolution, enemies from within had stabbed in the back those fighting at the front. His entire life in politics had been aimed at reversing that disaster, and in eliminating any possible repetition in a new war. Now, a new variant of such treachery had emerged – led, this time, not by Marxist subversives at home threatening the military effort, but by officers of the Wehrmacht who had come close to undermining the war-effort on the home front. Suspicion had always been deeply embedded in Hitler’s nature. But the events of 20 July now transformed the underlying suspicion into the most visceral belief in treachery and betrayal all around him in the army, aimed once more at stabbing in the back a nation engaged in a titanic struggle for its very survival.
Alongside the thirsting for brutal revenge, the failed bomb-plot gave a further mighty boost to Hitler’s sense of walking with destiny. With ‘Providence’ on his side, as he imagined, his survival was to him the guarantee that he would fulfil his historic mission. It intensified the descent into pure messianism. ‘These criminals who wanted to do away with me have no idea what would have happened to the German people,’ Hitler told his secretaries. ‘They don’t know the plans of our enemies, who want to annihilate Germany so that it can never arise again. If they think that the western powers are strong enough without Germany to hold Bolshevism in check, they are deceiving themselves. This war must be won by us. Otherwise Europe will be lost to Bolshevism. And I will see to it that no one else can hold me back or eliminate me. I am the only one who knows the danger, and the only one who can prevent it.’ Such sentiments were redolent, through a distorting mirror, of the Wagnerian redeemer-figure, a hero who alone could save the holders of the Grail, indeed the world itself, from disaster – a latter-day Parsifal.
But, once more looking to his own place in history, and to the reasons why the path of destiny had led to mounting tragedy for Germany, instead of glorious victory, he found a further reason, beyond the treachery of his generals: the weakness of the people. If Speer can be believed, Hitler gave at this time an intimation that the German people might not deserve him, might have proved weak, have failed its test before history, and thus be condemned to destruction. It was one of the few hints, whether in public or in private, amid the continued outpourings of optimism about the outcome of the war, that Hitler indeed contemplated, even momentarily, the possibility of total defeat.
Whatever the positive gloss he instinctively and insistently placed upon news of the latest setbacks as he continued to play the role of Führer to perfection, he was not devoid of understanding for the significance of the successful landing of the western Allies in Normandy, the dramatic collapse of the eastern front which left the Red Army in striking distance of the borders of the Reich itself, the ceaseless bombing that the Luftwaffe was powerless to prevent, the overwhelming Allied superiority in weaponry and raw materials, and gloomy reports of a mounting, critical fuel shortage. Kluge and Rommel had both urged Hitler to end the war which he could not win. But he continued to dismiss out of hand all talk of suing for peace. The situationwas ‘not yet ripe for a political solution’, he declared. ‘To hope for a favourable political moment to do something during a time of severe military defeats is naturally childish and naïve,’ he went on, during the military briefing session with his generals on 31 August 1944. ‘Such moments can present themselves when you have successes.’ But where were the successes likely to materialize? All he could point to was a feeling of certainty that at some point the Allied coalition would break down under the weight of its inner tensions. It was a matter of waiting for that moment, however tough the situation was.
‘My task has been,’ he continued, ‘especially since 1941 under no circumstances to lose my nerve.’ He lived, he said, just to carry out this struggle since he knew that it it could only be won through a will of iron. Instead of spreading this iron will, the General Staff officers had undermined it, disseminating nothing but pessimism. But the fight would continue, if necessary even on the Rhine. He once more evoked one of his great heroes of history. ‘We will under all circumstances carry on the struggle until, as Frederick the Great said, one of our damned opponents is tired of fighting any longer, and until we get a peace which secures the existence of the German nation for the next fifty or a hundred years and’ – he was back at a central obsession – ‘which, above all, does not defile our honour a second time, as happened in 1918.’ This thought brought him directly to the bomb plot, and to his own survival. ‘Fate could have taken a different turn,’ he continued, adding with some pathos: ‘If my life had been ended, it would have been for me personally, I might say, only a liberation from worries, sleepless nights, and severe nervous strain. In a mere fraction of a second you’re freed from all that and have rest and your eternal peace. For the fact that I’m still alive, I nevertheless have to thank Providence.’
They were somewhat rambling thoughts. But they were plain enough in meaning: a negotiated peace could not be considered except from a position of strength (which was in realistic terms unimaginable); the only hope was to hold out until the Allied coalition collapsed (but time, and the crass imbalance of material resources, were scarcely on Germany’s side); his historic role, as he saw it, was to eradicate any possibility of a second capitulation on the lines of that of November 1918; he alone stood between Germany and calamity; but suicide would bring release for him (whatever the consequences for the German people) within a split second. In Hitler’s extraordinary perspective, his historic task was to continue the fight to the point of utter destruction – and even self-destruction – in order to prevent another ‘November 1918’ and to erase the memory of that ‘disgrace’ for the nation. It was a task of infinitely greater honour than negotiating a peace from weakness – something which would bring new shame on himself and the German people. It amounted to scarcely less than a realization that the time for a last stand was approaching, and that no holds would be barred in a struggle likely to end in oblivion, where the only remaining monumental vision was the quest for historical greatness – even if Reich and people should go down in flames in the process.
This meant in turn that there was no way out. The failure of the conspiracy to remove Hitler took away the last opportunity of a negotiated end to the war. The horrors of a war which Germany had inflicted on the rest of Europe were rebounding – if, even now, in far milder form – on to the Reich itself. With internal resistance crushed, and a leadership unable to bring victory, incapable of staving off defeat, and unwilling to attempt to find peace, only total military destruction could bring a release.
For Hitler’s countless victims throughout Europe, the human misery had, in fact, still not reached its peak. It would rise in crescendo in the months still to come.
The institutional pillars of the regime – the Wehrmacht, the party, ministries of state, and the SS-controlled security apparatus – remained intact in the second half of 1944. And Hitler, the keystone bonding the regime’s structure together, was still, paradoxically, indispensable to its survival while – by now even in the eyes of some close to the leadership – at the same time driving Germany inexorably towards perdition. The predictable rallying round Hitler following the July assassination attempt could not for long conceal the fact that the regime’s edifice was beginning to crumble as the Nazi empire throughout Europe shrivelled and the increasing certainty of a lost war made even some of those who had gained most from Nazism start looking for possible exit-routes. The aftermath of the bomb-plot saw the regime enter its most radical phase. But it was a radicalism that mirrored an increasingly desperate regime’s reaction to internal as well as external crisis.
Hitler’s own obvious reaction in the wake of the shock of Stauffenberg’s bomb had been to turn to his firm loyalist base, the party leadership, and to his most long-standing and trusted band of paladins. In the backs-to-the-wall atmosphere of the last months, the party was to play a more dominant role than at any time since the ‘seizure of power’, invoking the overcoming of adversity in the ‘time of struggle’, attempting to instil the ‘fighting spirit of National Socialism’ throughout the entire people in the increasingly vain attempt to combat overwhelming Allied arms and material superiority by little more than fanatical will-power.
As had invariably been the case in a crisis, Hitler had lost no time following the attempted coup on 20 July in ensuring the continued loyalty of the Gauleiter, the party’s provincial chieftains. Among them were some who had been among his most dependable lieutenants for close on two decades. Collectively, the Gauleiter constituted now, as before, a vital prop of his rule. His provincial viceroys were now, their party positions enhanced through their extensive powers as Reich Defence Commissars, his insurance against any prospect of army-led unrest or possible insurrection in the regions. Increasingly over the next months, as the threads of state administration started to fray and ultimately fell apart, the party chieftains – especially those who acted as Reich Defence Commissars in their regions – were decisive in holding together in the provinces what was left of Nazi rule.
Extended scope for propaganda, mobilization, and tightened control over the population – the overriding tasks of the party as most people looked beyond the end of the regime and looming military defeat into an uncertain future – fell to the Reich Defence Commissars in the last desperate drive to maximize resources for ‘total war’. The shortages of available men to be sent to the front, and workers for the armaments industries, had mounted alarmingly throughout the first half of 1944. Hitler’s authorization in January to Fritz Sauckel, Plenipotentiary for Labour Deployment, to make up the manpower shortages through forced labour extracted from the occupied territories, while at the same time according Speer protection for the labour employed in his armaments plants in France, had done nothing to resolve the difficulty and merely sharpened the conflict between Sauckel and Speer. Apart from Speer, the SS, the Wehrmacht, and the party had also proved adept at preventing any inroads into their personnel. Bormann had even presided over a 51 per cent increase in the number of ‘reserved occupations’, exempt from call-up, in the party administration between May 1943 and June 1944.
Meanwhile, the labour shortage had been greatly magnified through the double military disaster in June of the Allied landing in Normandy and the Red Army’s devastating offensive on the eastern front. This had prompted Goebbels and Speer to link their efforts to persuade Hitler to agree to a drastic radicalization of the ‘home front’ to comb out all remaining manpower for the war effort. Both had sent him lengthy memoranda in mid-July, promising huge labour savings to tide over the situation until new weaponry became available and the anti-German coalition broke up. But before the Stauffenberg bomb, Hitler had, as we noted, shown little readiness to comply with their radical demands. Whatever the accompanying rhetoric, and the undoubted feeling (which Goebbels’s own propaganda had helped feed) among the underprivileged that many of the better-off were still able to escape the burdens of war, and were not pulling their weight in the national cause, such demands were bound to be unpopular in many circles, antagonize powerful vested interests, and also convey an impression of desperation. And, as the state administration rushed to point out, the gains might well be less than impressive; only one in twelve of those in the civil service who had not been called up was under forty-three, and more than two-thirds were over fifty-five years old.
Hitler had told his Propaganda Minister as recently as June that the time was not ripe for ‘a big appeal to total war in the true meaning of the word’, that the crises would be surmounted ‘in the usual way’, but that he would be ready to introduce ‘wholly abnormal measures’ should ‘more serious crises take place’. Hitler’s change of mind, directly following the failed assassination attempt, in deciding to grant Goebbels the new authority he had coveted, as Reich Plenipotentiary for the Total War Effort, was a tacit admission that the regime was faced with a more fundamental crisis than ever before.
Goebbels’s decisive action to put down the uprising on 20 July unquestionably weighed heavily in his favour when Hitler looked for the man to supervise the radicalization of the home front. And where before he had faced a hesitant Hitler, he was now pushing at an open door in his demands for draconian measures. The decision had in effect already been taken when, at a meeting of ministerial representatives along with some other leading figures in the regime two days after Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt, head of the Reich Chancellery Lammers proposed the bestowing of wide-ranging powers on the Propaganda Minister to bring about the reform of the state and public life. Himmler was given extensive complementary powers at the same time to reorganize the Wehrmacht and comb out all remaining manpower. The following day, 23 July, the regime’s leaders, now joined by Göring, assembled at the Wolf ’s Lair, where Hitler himself, heavily leaning on Goebbels’s memorandum of the previous week, confirmed the new role of the Propaganda Minister. Hitler demanded ‘something fundamental’ if the war were still to be won. Massive reserves were available, he claimed, but had not been deployed. This would now have to be done without respect to person, position, or office. He pointed to the party in the early days, which had achieved ‘the greatest historic success’ with only a simple administrative apparatus. Goebbels noted with interest the change in Hitler’s views since their previous meeting a month or so earlier. The assassination attempt and the events on the eastern front had produced clarity in his decisions, Goebbels noted in his diary. To his own staff, the Propaganda Minister laconically remarked that ‘it takes a bomb under his arse to make Hitler see reason’.
Goebbels relished his moment of triumph. He appeared to have finally achieved what he had desired for so long: control over the ‘home front’ with ‘the most extensive plenipotentiary powers … that have up to now been granted in the National Socialist Reich’, with rights – the decisive factor in his view – to issue directives to ministers and the highest-ranking governmental authorities. To his staff, he spoke of having ‘practically full dictatorial powers’ within the Reich.
However, nothing was ever quite what it seemed in the Third Reich. The decree itself limited Goebbels’s powers in some respects. He could issue directives to the ‘highest Reich authorities’. But only they could issue any consequential decrees and ordinances. And these had to be agreed with Lammers, Bormann, and Himmler (in the capacity he had adopted when becoming Interior Minister, as Plenipotentiary for Reich Administration). Any directives related to the party itself had to have Bormann’s support (and, behind Bormann, to correspond with Hitler’s own wishes). Unresolved objections to Goebbels’s directives had to pass to Lammers for Hitler’s own final decision. Beyond the wording of the decree itself, Hitler let Goebbels know that those authorities directly responsible to him – those involved in the rebuilding plans for Berlin, Munich, and Linz, his motor-vehicle staff, and the personnel of the Reich Chancellery, Presidential Chancellery, and Party Chancellery – were also excluded from the directives. The Wehrmacht, its recruitment now under Himmler’s authority, had been exempt from the outset.
Such restrictions on his powers left Goebbels’s enthusiasm for his new task undimmed. The belief that ‘will’ would overcome all problems was immediately put into action as with his usual forceful energy he unleashed a veritable frenzy of activity in his new role. The staff of fifty that he rapidly assembled from a number of ministries, most prominently from his own Propaganda Ministry, prided themselves on their unbureaucratic methods, swift decision-making, and improvisation. As his main agents in ensuring that directives were implemented in the regions, leaving no stone unturned in the quest to comb out all reserves of untapped labour, Goebbels looked to the party’s Gauleiter, bolstering their already extensive powers as Reich Defence Commissars. They could be relied upon, in his view, to reinvoke the spirit of the ‘time of struggle’, to ensure that bureaucracy did not get in the way of action. (In practice, the cooperation of the Gauleiter was assured as long as no inroads were made into the personnel of their own party offices. Bormann ensured that they were well protected.)
Behind the actionism of the party, Goebbels also needed Hitler’s backing. He ensured that this was forthcoming through a constant stream of bulletins on progress (Führer-Informationen), printed out on a ‘Führer-Machine’ – a typewriter with greatly enlarged characters which Hitler’s failing eyesight could cope with – recording successes and couching general recommendations (such as simplifying unnecessary bureaucratic paperwork) in such a way that, given Hitler’s frame of mind, approval would be as good as automatic, thereby opening up yet further avenues for intervention. Nevertheless, Hitler did not give blanket approval to all measures suggested by Goebbels. He could rely upon Bormann to bring to his attention any proposals which his own still sharp antennae would tell him might have an unnecessarily harmful impact on morale, both at home and quite especially among soldiers at the front.
Goebbels certainly produced a new, extreme austerity drive within Germany in the first weeks in his new office as Total War Plenipoteniary. But a large proportion of the 451,800 men sifted out of the administration and economy were too old for military service. Goebbels was forced, therefore, to turn to fit men in reserved occupations – work thought essential for the war-effort, including skilled employment in armaments factories or food production. Their replacement, where possible, by older, less fit, less experienced, less qualified workers was both administratively complicated and inefficient. And the net addition of women workers numbered only little over quarter of a million. Athough, partly through Goebbels’s measures, it proved possible to send around a million men to the front between August and December 1944, German losses in the first three of those months numbered 1,189,000 dead and wounded. Whatever the trumpeting by Goebbels of his achievements as Reich Plenipotentiary for the Total War Effort, the reality was that he was scraping the bottom of the barrel.
And among the most bizarre aspects of the ‘total war’ drive in the second half of 1944 was the fact that at precisely the time he was combing out the last reserves of manpower, Goebbels – according to film director Veit Harlan – was allowing him, at Hitler’s express command, to deploy 187,000 soldiers, withdrawn from active service, as extras for the epic colour film of national heroism, Kolberg, depicting the defence of the small Baltic town against Napoleon as a model for the achievements of total war. According to Harlan, Hitler as well as Goebbels was ‘convinced that such a film was more useful than a military victory’. Even in the terminal crisis of the regime, propaganda had to come first.
The evocation of heroic defence of the fatherland by the masses against the invading Napoleonic army – the myth enunciated in Kolberg – was put to direct use in the most vivid expression of the last-ditch drive to ‘total war’: the launching by Heinrich Himmler of the Volkssturm, or people’s militia, on 18 October 1944, the 131st anniversary of the legendary defeat of Napoleon in the ‘Battle of the Peoples’ near Leipzig, when a coalition of forces under Blücher’s leadership liberated German territory from the troops of the French Emperor once and for all. The Volkssturm was the military embodiment of the party’s belief in ‘triumph of the will’. It was the party’s attempt to militarize the homeland, symbolizing unity through the people’s participation in national defence, overcoming the deficiencies in weapons and resources through sheer willpower.
Though Goebbels continued to harbour the belief that he would incorporate in his ‘total war’ commission the organization of the ‘Volkswehr’ (People’s Defence), as it was initially to be called, leaving the military aspects to the SA, Bormann and Himmler had come to an agreement to divide responsibility between them. Drafts for a decree by Hitler were put forward in early September. He eventually signed the decree on 26 September, though it was dated to the previous day. It spoke of the ‘final aim’ of the enemy alliance as ‘the eradication of the German person’. This enemy must now be repulsed until a peace securing Germany’s future could be guaranteed. To attain this end, Hitler’s decree went on, in typical parlance, ‘we set the total deployment of all Germans against the known total annihilatory will of our Jewish-international enemies’. In each party Gau, the ‘German Volkssturm’ was to be established, comprising all men capable of bearing weapons between the ages of sixteen and sixty. Training, military organization, and provision of weaponry fell to Himmler as Commander of the Reserve Army. Political and organizational matters were the province of Bormann, acting on Hitler’s behalf. Party functionaries were given the task of forming companies and battalions. A total number of 6 million Volkssturm men was envisaged. Each Volkssturm man had to swear an oath that he would be ‘unconditionally loyal and obedient to the Führer of the Great German Reich Adolf Hitler’, and would ‘rather die than abandon the freedom and thereby the social future of my people’.
The men called up had to provide their own clothing, as well as eating and drinking utensils, cooking equipment, a rucksack, and blanket. And since munitions for the front were in short supply, the weaponry for the men of the Volkssturm was predictably miserable. It was little wonder that the Volkssturm was largely unpopular, and widely seen as pointless on the grounds that the war was already lost. Reluctance to serve in the Volkssturm, especially on the eastern front, was well justified. Gauleiter Erich Koch reported severe losses among Volkssturm units in East Prussia already in October. The losses were militarily pointless. They did not hold up the Red Army’s advance by a single day. In all, approaching 175,000 citizens who were mainly too old, too young, or too weak to fight lost their lives in the Volkssturm. The futility of the losses was a clear sign that Germany was close to military bankruptcy.
As the autumn of 1944 headed towards what would prove the last winter of the war, the fabric of the regime was still holding together. But the threads were visibly starting to fray. The closing of the ranks which had followed Stauffenberg’s assassination attempt had temporarily seen a revitalization of the élan of the party. Hitler had, almost as a reflex, turned inwards to those he trusted. His distance, not just from the army leaders he detested, but also from the organs of state administration, started to extend immeasurably with his increased reliance on a diminishing number of his long-standing paladins. Bormann’s position, dependent upon the combination of his role as head of the party organization and, especially, his proximity to Hitler as the Führer’s secretary and mouthpiece, guarding the portals and restricting access, was particularly strengthened. He was one of the winners from the changed circumstances after 20 July. Another was Goebbels who, like Bormann, had seized the opportunity to enhance his own position of power as the party increased its hold over practically all walks of life within Germany. Mobilization and control had been the essence of party activity since the beginning. Now, as the regime tottered, it returned to its essence.
Another development, from a most unlikely source, provides in retrospect – at the time it was still well concealed – the clearest indication that the regime was starting to teeter. Among the biggest beneficiaries of the failed coup of 20 July 1944 had been Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Hitler had given ‘loyal Heinrich’, his trusted head of the labyrinthine security organization, overall responsibility for uncovering the background to the conspiracy and for rounding up the plotters. And beyond his other extensive powers, Himmler had now also gained direct entrée into the military sphere as Commander of the Reserve Army, with a remit to undertake a full-scale reorganization. He was soon, as we have seen, also to have control over the people’s militia, the Volkssturm. Yet at this very time, Himmler, conceivably now the most powerful individual in Germany after Hitler, was playing a double game, combining every manifestation of utmost loyalty with secret overtures to the West in the forlorn hope of saving not just his skin but his position of power in the event of the British and Americans eventually seeing sense and turning, with the help of his SS, to fend off the threat of Communism. In October, Himmler used an SS intermediary to put to an Italian industrialist with good connections in England a proposal to make twenty-five German divisions in Italy available to the Allies as a defence against Communism in return for a guarantee of the preservation of the Reich’s territory and population. Both the British and the Americans rejected the overtures out of hand. In this scenario, Hitler would have been dispensable. But it was pure self-delusion. Himmler was too centrally implicated in the most appalling facets of the Nazi regime to be taken seriously by the Allies as a prospective leader of a post-Hitlerian Germany. For Himmler, too, there was no way out. Without Hitler’s backing, his power would evaporate like a breath in the chill morning air. This was as true in late 1944 as at any other time during the Third Reich.
Hitler’s authority remained intact. But if they could have found an escape route by removing him or discarding him, there were now those among his closest paladins who would have followed it.
Meanwhile, the vice around Hitler’s Reich was tightening. Between June and September the Wehrmacht lost on all fronts well over a million men killed, captured, or missing. The losses of tanks, guns, planes, and other armaments were incalculable. The war in the air was by now almost wholly one-sided. Fuel shortages left many German fighters unable to take to the air as the British and American bomber armadas wreaked havoc on German towns and cities with impunity by day as well as by night. The war at sea had also by this time been definitively lost by Germany. The U-boat fleet had never recovered from its losses in the second half of 1943, while Allied convoys could now cross the Atlantic almost unmolested. In the meantime, the territories of the Nazi empire were shrinking markedly by the end of the summer following the advances of the Allies on both western and eastern fronts since June.
On the western front, Germany’s military commanders had by then long viewed the continuation of the war as pointless. On replacing Rundstedt in early June, the weak and impressionable Kluge was easily persuaded by Hitler that the western commanders, especially Rommel, had been far too pessimistic in their judgement of the situation. After a two-day visit to the front, however, Kluge had been forced to admit that Rommel was right. In his letter to Hitler of 15 July, Rommel had explicitly stated that, heroically though the troops were fighting, ‘the unequal struggle is heading for its end’. He felt, therefore, compelled to ask Hitler, he wrote, ‘to draw the consequences from this position without delay’. He let the leaders of the conspiracy against Hitler know that he would be prepared to join them if the demands for an end to the war were dismissed. Germany’s most renowned field-marshal was never put to the test. Three days before Stauffenberg’s bomb exploded, Rommel was seriously injured when his car skidded from the road after being strafed by an enemy aircraft.
Five days after the assassination attempt on Hitler, ‘Operation Cobra’, the Allied attack southwards towards Avranches, began with a ferocious ‘carpet-bombing’ assault by over 2,000 aircraft, dropping 47,000 tons of bombs on an already weakened German panzer division in an area of only six or so square miles. It ended on 30 July with the taking of Avranches and the opening not only of the route to the Brittany coastal ports, but also to the exposed German flank towards the east, and to the heart of France.
The significance of the loss of Avranches was still not fully appreciated when Hitler provided Jodl with his overview of the entire military situation on the evening of 31 July. Hitler was far from unrealistic in his assessment. He was well aware of how threatening the position was on all fronts, and how impossible it was in the current circumstances to combat the overwhelming Allied superiority in men and materials, above all in air-power. His main hope was to buy time. Weapon technology, more planes, and an eventual split in the alliance would open up new opportunities. He had to get some breathing-space in the west, he told his Luftwaffe adjutant, Nicolaus von Below, shortly after his briefing with Jodl. Then, with new panzer divisions and fighter formations, he could launch a major offensive on the western front. In common with many observers, Below had thought it more important to concentrate all forces against the Red Army in the east. Hitler replied that he could attack the Russians at a later point. But this could not be done with the Americans already in the Reich. (He led Below to believe at the same time that he feared the power of the Jews in the USA more than the power of the Bolsheviks.) His strategy was, therefore, to gain time, inflict a major blow on the western Allies, hope for a split in the alliance, and turn on the Russians from a new position of strength.
Hitler thought, so he told Jodl, that the eastern front could be stabilized, as long as additional forces could be mobilized. But a breakthrough by the enemy in the east, whether in East Prussia or Silesia, imperilling the homeland itself and bearing serious psychological consequences, would pose a critical danger. Any destabilization on the eastern front would, he went on, affect the stance of Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria, and Hungary. Preventive measures had to be taken. It was vital to secure Hungary, both for vital raw materials such as bauxite and manganese and for communications lines with south-eastern Europe. Bulgaria was essential to securing a hold on the Balkans and obtaining ore from Greece. He also feared a British landing in the Balkans or on the Dalmatian islands, which Germany was scarcely in a position to ward off and which ‘could naturally lead to catastrophic consequences’.
On the Italian front, Hitler saw the greatest advantage in the tying down of significant Allied forces which could otherwise be deployed elsewhere. The withdrawal of German forces into the Apennines would remove tactical mobility, would still not prevent an Allied advance, and would leave only retreat to alpine defence positions as a possibility – thereby freeing up Allied troops for the western front. But as a last resort, he was prepared to give up Italy (and the entire Balkans), pull back German troops to the Alps, and withdraw his main forces for the vital struggle on the western front.
This was for him the decisive theatre of war. The troops would not understand him remaining in East Prussia when valuable western parts of the Reich were threatened, and behind them the Ruhr – Germany’s industrial heartland. Preparations would have to be made to move Führer Headquarters to the west. Command would have to be centralized. Kluge, supreme commander in the west, could not be left with the responsibility. So paranoid was Hitler by now about treachery within the army, that he told Jodl it would be necessary in such an event to avoid communicating such a plan to army command in the west – pointing to Stülpnagel’s involvement in the plot against him – since it would probably be immediately betrayed to the enemy.
Hitler pointed to what he saw as a decisive issue in the west. ‘If we lose France as a war area, we lose the basis of the U-boat war.’ (Though the U-boats were ineffective in the second half of 1944, Hitler was persuaded by Dönitz that new, improved submarines would soon be ready, and would be a vital weapon in the war against the western powers.) In addition, essential raw materials – he singled out wolfram (important for steel production) and electro-technical products – would be lost. If it were not so important to the war effort to hold on to France, he said, he would vacate the coastal areas – still vital for U-boat bases at Brest and St Nazaire – and pull back mobile forces to a more defensible line. But he saw no prospect at present of holding such a line with the forces available, wherever the line might be drawn. ‘We’ve got to be clear,’ he stated, ‘that a change could come about in France only if we succeed – even for a certain time – in gaining air-supremacy.’ But he drew the conclusion that, ‘however bitter it might be at the moment’, everything had to be done to hold back ‘for the most extreme case’ as a ‘last reserve’ whatever Luftwaffe divisions could be assembled in the Reich – though that could take weeks – to be deployed wherever it might be possible ‘at the last throw of the dice’ to bring about a decisive shift in fortunes.
Hitler was desperate to buy time. ‘I can’t operate myself,’ he said, ‘but I can make it colossally difficult for the enemy to operate in the depths of the area.’ For this, it was essential to deprive the enemy of access to ports on the French coast, preventing the landing of troops, armaments, and provisions. (At this point only Cherbourg, with a much-damaged harbour, was in Allied hands.) Hitler was prepared, as he bluntly stated, ‘simply to sacrifice certain troops’ to this end. The ports were to be held, he emphasized, ‘under all circumstances, with complete disregard for the people there, to make it impossible for the enemy to supply unlimited numbers of men’. Should this not happen, a breakthrough could come quickly. Along with this, in an early glimpse of what would become a ‘scorched-earth’ policy targeted finally at the Reich itself, all railway installations, including track and locomotives, were to be destroyed, as were bridges. The ports, too, were in the last resort to be destroyed if they could not be held. If the ports could be held for between six and ten weeks in the autumn, precious time would have been gained.
Time was, however, not on Hitler’s side. Learning of the gravity of the Allied capture of Avranches, he ordered – picking up on an operational plan that had been put forward by Kluge – an immediate counterstrike westwards from Mortain, initially intended to take place on 2 August, aimed at retaking Avranches and splitting the advancing American forces under General George S. Patton. The counter-offensive, eventually launched on 7 August, proved disastrous. It lasted only a day, could not prevent some of Patton’s troops from sweeping down into Brittany (where stiff defence, however, saw the garrison at Brest hold out until 19 September), and ended with the German forces in disarray but narrowly avoiding even worse calamity.
On 15 August Hitler refused Kluge’s request to pull back around 100,000 troops threatened with imminent disaster through encirclement near Falaise. When he was unable to reach Kluge that day – the field-marshal had entered the battle-zone itself in the heart of the ‘Falaise pocket’ and his radio had been put out of action by enemy fire – Hitler, well aware of Kluge’s flirtation with the conspiracy against him and of his pessimism about the western front, jumped to the conclusion that he was negotiating a surrender with the western Allies. It was, said Hitler, ‘the worst day of his life’. He promptly recalled Field-Marshal Model, one of his most trusted generals, from the eastern front, appointed him to take over from Kluge and dispatched him to western front headquarters. Until Model arrived, Kluge had not even been informed by Hitler that he was about to be dismissed. Hitler’s peremptory handwritten note, handed over by Model and ordering Kluge back to Germany, ended with the threateningly ambiguous comment that the field-marshal should contemplate in which direction he wished to go. Model’s arrival was unable to alter the plight of the German troops, but under his command – assisted by tactical errors of the Allied ground-forces commander, General Montgomery – it proved possible to squeeze out at the last minute some 50,000 men from the ever-closing ‘Falaise pocket’ to fight again another day, closer to home. As many again, however, were taken prisoner and a further 10,000 killed.
Kluge must have reckoned with the near certainty that he would be promptly arrested, expelled from the Wehrmacht, and put before the People’s Court for his connections with the plotters against Hitler. On the way back to Germany on 19 August, in the vicinity of Metz, he asked his chauffeur to stop the car for a rest. Depressed, worn out, and in despair, he swallowed a cyanide pill.
The day before, he had written a letter to Hitler. The field-marshal, who (as Hitler knew) had had prior knowledge of the bomb-plot, and who had even the year before Stauffenberg’s attempt shown sympathy for Tresckow and the oppositional group in Army Group Centre, used his dying words to praise Hitler’s leadership. ‘My Führer, I have always admired your greatness,’ he wrote. ‘You have led an honest, an entirely great struggle,’ he continued, with reference to the war in the east. ‘History will testify to that.’ He then appealed to Hitler now to show the necessary greatness to bring to an end a struggle with no prospect of success in order to release the suffering of his people. This dying plea was as far as he would go to distance himself from the Dictator’s war leadership. He ended with a final vow of loyalty: ‘I depart from you, my Führer, to whom I was inwardly closer than you perhaps imagined, in the consciousness of having carried out my duty to the very limits.’
Hitler’s direct reaction to the letter is not known. But Kluge’s suicide merely convinced him not only of the field-marshal’s implication in the bomb-plot, but also that he had been trying to surrender his forces in the west to the enemy. Hitler found it difficult to comprehend, as he bitterly reflected. He had promoted Kluge twice, given him the highest honours, made him sizeable donations (including a cheque for RM 250,000 tax-free on his sixtieth birthday, and a big supplement to his field-marshal’s salary). He was anxious to prevent any news seeping out about Kluge’s alleged attempt to capitulate. It could seriously affect morale; it would certainly bring further contempt on the army. He let the generals know about Kluge’s suicide. But for public consumption the field-marshal’s death – from a heart-attack, it was said – was announced only after his body had lain in the church on his Brandenburg estate for a fortnight. Kluge’s funeral was a quiet affair. Hitler had banned all ceremonials.
On the day that Kluge had temporarily been out of contact, 15 August, the Allies undertook ‘Operation Dragoon’, the landing of troops on the French Mediterranean coast. Quickly capturing Marseilles and Toulon, they pushed northwards, forcing Hitler reluctantly to agree to the withdrawal to the north of almost all his forces in southern France in the attempt to build a cohesive front along the upper Marne and Saône stretching to the Swiss border. The end of the German occupation of France was now in sight. Though it would take several more weeks to complete, the symbolic moment arrived when, prompted by strikes, a popular uprising, and attacks by the French Resistance against the German occupiers, and by the eventual readiness of the German Commander, General Dietrich von Choltitz, to surrender (despite orders from Hitler to reduce Paris to rubble if it could not be held), the Allied Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, gave a French division the honour of liberating the French capital on 24 August.
By now, the western Allies had over 2 million men on the Continent. Advancing into Belgium, they liberated Brussels on 3 September and next day captured the important port of Antwerp before the harbour installations could be destroyed. Only Cherbourg, of the major Channel ports, had up to this point been in Allied hands, and supplies through that route were seriously hampered by the level of destruction. Antwerp was vital to the assault on Germany. But it was as late as 27 November before the Scheldt estuary was secured and before the approaches to the harbour were fully cleared of mines. In the interim, the Allied drive towards the German borders suffered a major setback with the serious losses suffered, especially by British troops, in ten days of bitter fighting in the combined airborne and land operation – ‘Market Garden’ – launched on 17 September, to seize the river-crossings at Grave, Nijmegen, and Arnhem. Beyond supply problems, battle fatigue, and replacing the men lost, the Allied advance was stalling because of the stiff German defence, aided by shortened supply-lines, redeployment of the men extricated from the Falaise Pocket, and reinforcements drawn from the east. In the west, it was plain, despite the dramatic Allied successes since D-Day, the war was far from over.
In the east, following the Red Army’s big summer offensive, the German network of alliances with Balkan countries started to unravel in August much as Hitler had feared. On 2 August, Turkey announced that it was breaking off relations with Germany. Economically, it meant the loss of chrome supplies. Militarily, it was clear that Turkey would at some point join the Allies. On 20 August, when the Soviets attacked Army Group South Ukraine, Romanian units deserted en masse, many of them joining the enemy and turning on their former allies. Reaching the Danube before the retreating Germans, Romanian troops closed the river-crossing. Sixteen German divisions, exposed to the onslaught of the Red Army, were totally destroyed. It was a military calamity of the first order. Three days later, Antonescu was deposed following a coup in Bucharest. His successor, King Michael, sued for peace. Romania swapped sides, declaring war on Germany – and on Hungary (from which it now intended to regain the territory in Transylvania that it had been compelled to give up in 1940). The Red Army, joined by Romanian units, was now free to sweep across the Danube. The Wehrmacht, meanwhile, had lost 3 80,000 indispensable troops within a fortnight.
Bulgaria, a country which since 1941 had played a careful diplomatic hand, was by this time hopelessly exposed. Soviet troops crossed its borders on 8 September (the USSR having declared war three days earlier), and on the same day Bulgaria rapidly switched sides and declared war on Germany. The German control over the entire Balkan region now held by the most slender of threads. The collapse of Romania and Bulgaria, followed by rapid Soviet occupation, meant the urgent withdrawal of German troops from Greece was imperative. This began in September. In mid-October British airborne troops were able to occupy Athens. By then, Tito’s partisan army was on the verge of entry into Belgrade. German troops were meanwhile engaged in the brutal suppression, finally accomplished by the end of October, of a rising, undertaken in the main by Soviet-inspired indigenous partisans alongside a sizeable minority of the 60,000-strong army, in the puppet state of Slovakia. Most important of all, from Hitler’s point of view, in the gathering mayhem in south-eastern Europe, Hungary, his chief ally but long wavering, had immediately following the volte-face in Romania begun urgent soundings for peace with the Soviet Union.
In these same critical weeks, Hitler was also losing a vital ally in northern Europe. The danger signals about Finland’s position had been flashing brightly for months. On 2 September, State President Mannerheim informed Hitler that Finland was unable to continue the struggle. Relations were to be broken off immediately. German troops were to leave the country by 15 September. On 19 September, Finland signed an armistice with the Soviet Union.
In these same momentous months, throughout the whole of August and September, the German leadership was also faced with suppressing the dangerous rising in Warsaw, which had begun on 1 August, two days after tanks of the Red Army had pushed into the suburbs of Warsaw on the east of the Vistula and Soviet radio had encouraged the city’s inhabitants to rise against their occupiers. The Poles were aware that they could reckon with little help from the western powers. But they were unprepared to be left in the lurch by the Soviet Union. However, the Red Army halted at the Vistula and did not enter the city while Stalin – cynically conscious of containing hopes of Polish independence in a post-war order – neither aided the Poles nor, until it was too late, facilitated attempts by the British and Americans to supply the insurgents with weapons and munitions.
Unaware of Stalin’s ploy, the German Chief of Staff Guderian, fearing cooperation between the insurgents and the Red Army, asked Hitler to include Warsaw – still under the aegis of Hans Frank as Governor General – in the military zone of operations and place it thereby under Wehrmacht control. Hitler refused. Instead, he handed over full responsibility for the crushing of the rising to SS chief Himmler, who ordered the total destruction of Warsaw. Men, women, and children were slaughtered in their thousands while Warsaw burned. By the time General Bor-Komorowski, head of the Polish underground army, surrendered on 2 October, the savage repression had left Polish civilian victims numbering around 200,000. German losses amounted to some 26,000 men killed, wounded, or missing. On 11 October, Hans Frank received notification that all raw materials, textiles, and furniture left in Warsaw were to be removed before the smouldering remains of the city were razed to the ground.
As the news from all parts of his empire turned from appalling to disastrous, Hitler fell ill. On 8 September, he complained to Morell, his doctor, of pressure around his right eye. In his notes, Morell indicated blood-pressure. Six days later, he recorded fluctuating blood-pressure ‘following great agitation’. Next day, 15 September, Morell noted: ‘Complains of dizziness, throbbing head, and return of the tremor to his legs, particularly the left, and hands.’ His left ankle was swollen. Again, ‘much agitation’ was registered by Morell. Hitler’s blood-pressure was regularly too high, sometimes worryingly so. It was an indication that he had a cardiac problem, and an electrocardiogram on 24 September did indicate progressive arteriosclerosis (though no acute anginal danger).
During the night before his cardiogram, Hitler’s acute stomach spasms returned. They were so bad the following night that he was unable to get up in the morning – an extremely rare occurrence – and seemed unusually apathetic. By 27 September, his skin had a yellowish appearance. By now he was quite ill. The jaundice, accompanied by high temperature and severe stomach cramps, kept him in bed during the following days. It was 2 October before the yellow skin-colouring finally disappeared and Hitler felt well enough to get out of bed, dress himself, and make his way to the first situation briefing since he had fallen ill. He still seemed lifeless, however, to those in his company. By the middle of the month, when he felt himself again, he had lost sixteen pounds in weight.
While Hitler was suffering from jaundice, Dr Giesing, the ear, nose, and throat specialist who had been brought in to treat him after Stauffenberg’s bomb had exploded, began to be suspicious about Morell’s treatment. He started to wonder whether the little black tablets that Hitler took each day on Morell’s prescription, ‘Dr Koester’s Anti-Gas Pills’, were in fact a contributory cause of the Dictator’s chronic stomach complaint rather than a satisfactory medicine for it. Whatever his concern for Hitler, Giesing’s own ambitions to oust and displace Morell probably played a part in what he did next. He managed to lay hands on a number of the pills, had them analysed, and discovered that they contained strychnine. Giesing dosed himself with the pills and found they had mildly harmful effects – effects he associated with those on Hitler. Giesing made mention of his findings, and his suspicions, to Hitler’s other attendant doctors, Dr Karl Brandt and Dr Hans-Karl von Hasselbach, who passed on the sentiments to others in Hitler’s entourage. When Hitler found out, he was furious. He announced his complete faith in Morell, and dismissed Brandt and Hasselbach, who had both been with him since the early years of his rule. Giesing, too, was requested to leave Hitler’s service. Their replacement was one of Himmler’s former staff doctors, SS-Obersturmbannführer Ludwig Stumpfegger.
Morell’s diagnoses and methods of treatment were indeed often questionable. Many of the innumerable tablets, medicines, and injections he prescribed for Hitler were of dubious value, often useless, and in some instances even exacerbated the problem (particularly relating to the chronic intestinal disorder). But allegations that Morell was intentionally harming Hitler were misplaced. The fat, unctuous, heavily perspiring Morell was both physically unattractive and, through his privileged access to Hitler, provoked much resentment in the ‘court circle’. That he visibly exploited the relationship to his patient to further his own power, influence, and material advantage simply magnified the ill-feeling towards Morell. But, whatever his considerable limitations as a medical practitioner, Morell was certainly doing his best for the Leader he so much admired and to whom he was devoted.
The hypochondriac Hitler was, in turn, dependent upon Morell. He needed to believe, and apparently did believe, that Morell’s treatment was the best he could get, and was beneficial. In that way, Morell might indeed have been good for Hitler. At any rate, Morell and his medicines, were neither a major nor even minor part of the explanation of Germany’s plight in the autumn of 1944. That Hitler was poisoned by the strychnine and belladonna in the anti-gas pills or other medicaments, drugged on the opiates given him to relieve his intestinal spasms, or dependent upon the cocaine which formed 1 per cent of the ophthalmic drops prescribed by Dr Giesing for conjunctivitis, can be discounted. Probably by now he was indeed dependent upon the noxious cocktail of drugs dispensed by Morell. These included regular stimulants to combat his tiredness and sustain his energy and may well have intensified his violent mood-swings and physical decline. However, his physical problems in autumn 1944, chronic though they were, had largely arisen from lifestyle, diet, lack of exercise, and excessive stress, on top of likely congenital weaknesses (which probably accounted for the cardiac problem as well as Parkinson’s Syndrome). Mentally, he was under enormous strain, which magnified his deeply embedded extreme personality traits. His phobias, hypochondria, and hysterical reactions were probable indicators of some form of personality disorder or psychiatric abnormality. An element of paranoia underwrote his entire political ‘career’, and became even more evident towards the end. But Hitler did not suffer from any of the major psychotic disorders. He was certainly not clinically insane. If there was lunacy in the position Germany found itself in by the autumn of 1944, it was not the purported insanity of one man but that of the high-stakes ‘winner-takes-all’ gamble for continental dominance and world power which the country’s leaders – not just Hitler – backed by much of a gullible population had earlier been prepared to take, and which was now costing the country dearly and revealed as a high-risk policy without an exit-clause.
That all ways out were closed off was made plain once again during these weeks. Hints had come from Japan in late August that Stalin might entertain ideas of a peace settlement with Hitler’s Germany. Japan was interested in brokering such a peace, since it would leave Germany able to devote its entire war effort to the western Allies, thereby, it was hoped, draining the energies of the USA away from the Pacific. With massive casualties on the Soviet side, the territories lost since 1941 regained, and a presumed interest in Stalin wishing to harness what was left of German industrial potential for a later fight with the West, Tokyo thought prospects for a negotiated peace were not altogether negligible. On 4 September, Oshima, the Japanese Ambassador in Berlin, travelled to East Prussia to put the suggestion to take up feelers with Stalin directly to Hitler. The response was predictable. Germany would soon launch a fresh counter-offensive with new weapons at its disposal. And there were, in any case, no signs that Stalin was entertaining thoughts of peace. Only a block on his advance might make him change his mind, Hitler realistically concluded. He wanted no overtures to be made by the Japanese for the present.
Oshima evidently did not give up. Later in the month, he used the pretext of a discussion with Werner Naumann, State Secretary in the Propaganda Ministry, about the ‘total war’ effort to bring the suggestion of a separate peace with the Soviet Union to Goebbels’s ears. He could be certain that by this route the proposal would again reach Hitler, perhaps with the backing of one who was known to carry influence at Führer Headquarters.
Naumann’s report was plainly the first Goebbels had heard of the Japanese suggestion. The Propaganda Minister called the discussion between his State Secretary and the Japanese Ambassador ‘quite sensational’. Oshima told Naumann, according to Goebbels’s summary, that Germany should make every attempt to reach a ‘special peace’. Such an arrangement would be possible, he led Naumann to believe. He was frank about the Japanese interest, forced by its own problems in the war, in giving Germany a free hand in the west. He thought Stalin, a realist, would be open to suggestions if Germany were prepared to accept ‘sacrifices’, and criticized the inflexibility of German foreign policy. Goebbels noted that Oshima’s proposal amounted to a reversal of German war policy, and was aware that the position of the pro-German Japanese Ambassador at home had been seriously weakened as the fortunes of war had turned. But, as Oshima had presumed, Goebbels immediately passed on the information to Bormann and Himmler, for further transmission to Hitler himself.
Goebbels decided that more must be done. But rather than try to put the case verbally to Hitler, he decided to prepare a lengthy memorandum. By midnight on 20 September, after he had worked all afternoon and evening on it, the memorandum was ready. Rehearsing what he had heard from Oshima, he suggested that Stalin’s cold realism, knowing that he would sooner or later find himself in conflict with the west, offered an opening, since the Soviet leader would not want either to exhaust his own military strength or allow the German armaments potential to fall into the hands of the western powers. He pointed to Japan’s self-interest in brokering a deal. An arrangement with Stalin would provide new prospects in the west, and place the Anglo-Americans in a position where they could not indefinitely continue the war. ‘What we would attain,’ he stated, ‘would not be the victory that we dreamed of in 1941, but it would still be the greatest victory in German history. The sacrifices that the German people had made in this war would thereby be fully justified.’
Goebbels waited impatiently for Hitler’s reactions to his memorandum. Eventually, he learnt that Hitler had read it, but then put it away without comment. A promised audience to discuss it with him never materialized. Hitler’s illness intervened. But in any case, there is no indication that Hitler took the slightest notice of his Propaganda Minister’s suggestion. His own plans ran along quite different lines. The idea of a western offensive, which he had hatched in mid-August, was taking concrete shape. He was contemplating a final attempt to turn the tide: using the last reserves of troops and weapons for an offensive through the Ardennes in late autumn or winter aimed at inflicting a significant blow on the western Allies by retaking Antwerp (depriving them of their major continental port) and even forcing them ‘back into the Atlantic’. ‘A single breakthrough on the western front! You will see!’ he told Speer. ‘That will lead to a collapse and panic among the Americans. We’ll drive through in the middle and take Antwerp. With that, they’ll have lost their supply harbour. And there’ll be a huge encirclement of the entire English army with hundreds of thousands of prisoners. Like it was in Russia!’
The objective was to gain time to develop new weapons. From a new position of strength, he could then turn against the Russians. He was well aware that the ‘wonder weapons’ were, in their current state of deployment, incapable of bringing any decisive change in war fortunes, or of satisfying the exaggerated hopes that incessant propaganda had raised in them among the German public. When he had first seen the prototypes of the V2, Hitler had envisaged 5,000 of the rockets being directed against Britain in a massive initial onslaught. But when the eventual launch took place on 8 September, it proved possible only to dispatch twenty-five rockets in a period of ten days. They were little more than a pin-prick in the Allied thrust against Nazi Germany. Even so, Hitler expected a great deal from the further deployment of the weapon. By the end of the war, through the brutal exploitation of foreign workers, it had proved possible to aim over 3,000 V2s mainly at London, Antwerp, and Brussels. There was no defence against the missiles. Their terroristic effect was considerable, causing the deaths of 2,724 persons in England and many more in Belgium. Their military effect was, however, negligible.
Meanwhile, the development of the one secret weapon certainly capable of affecting Germany’s war fortunes, the atomic bomb, had been worked on since the start of the war (though with only slow progress). The research was given special support by Speer in 1942 but, despite his offer of increased funding, was still nowhere near completion and – though the German nuclear scientists were unaware of it – lagged far behind advances made in the USA. There had seemed no need to force research on such a weapon during the early, triumphant phase of the war. By the time of Speer’s meeting with leading atomic scientists, including Otto Hahn and Werner Heisenberg, in mid-1942, a nuclear weapon was – as the Armaments Minister was told – theoretically possible but in practice several years off. Hitler, already aware in a general sense of the feasibility of an atomic bomb in the more distant future, took Speer’s report as confirmation that he would never live to see its deployment, that it could play no part in the present war. Consequently, he took no great interest in it. By this time, in any case, the resources needed to deploy it were not simply not available – and were diminishing fast. It is as well that the bomb was not on offer: Hitler would not have hesitated for an instant to drop it on London and Moscow.
A key part of Hitler’s strategy was the deployment of large numbers of fighters on the western front to regain the initiative in the air. He had emphasized this in his briefing with Jodl at the end of July. In August, when Speer and Adolf Galland, the flying ace who headed the Luftwaffe’s fighter arm, tried to persuade him to use the fighters in the Reich rather than at the western front, he had exploded in such a frenzy of rage that he had ordered a stop to all aircraft production in favour of total concentration on flak. Speer had ignored the outburst of frustration. In September, fighter production reached a record 2,878 aircraft – a two-and-a-half-fold increase over production in January. Hitler had his fighters.
Whether they would have any fuel was another question. Hitler knew that raw materials and fuel had sunk to perilous levels. Speer sent him a memorandum on 5 September pointing out that the loss of chrome from Turkey meant that the entire armaments production would grind to a halt within sixteen or so months, by 1 January 1946. Hitler took the news calmly. It can only have encouraged him in the thought that there was nothing to lose, and that everything had to be staked on the new western offensive. He was also informed by Speer that the fuel situation was so critical that fighter squadrons were being grounded and army movements restricted. To make 17,500 tons of fuel – what had formerly been two-and-a-half days’ production – available for the Ardennes Offensive, delivery to other parts of the front had to be seriously curtailed.
Together with Jodl, Hitler pored over maps of the Ardennes while lying on his sick-bed at the end of September. He later told Goebbels that he had spent the weeks of his illness almost exclusively brooding over his revenge. Now he was well again, he could begin to put his intentions into effect. It would be his final gamble. As he knew, it was a long shot. ‘If it doesn’t succeed,’ he told Speer, ‘I see no other possibility of bringing the war to a favourable conclusion.’ ‘But,’ he added, ‘we’ll pull through.’
Before he could fully focus his attention on operational preparations for the coming offensive, a lingering remnant of the July bomb-plot momentarily detained him. Hitler had suspected since early August that Rommel had known about the plot against him. This had been confirmed by the testimony of Lieutenant-Colonel Cäsar von Hofacker, a member of Stülpnagel’s staff in Paris implicated in the plot, who had provided a written statement of Rommel’s support for the conspiracy. Hitler showed the statement to Keitel and had Rommel summoned to see him. The field-marshal, recuperating from his injuries at home near Ulm, claimed he was not fit to travel. At this, Keitel wrote Rommel a letter, drafted by Hitler, suggesting he report to the Führer if innocent. Otherwise, he would face trial. He should weigh up the consequences and if necessary act on them. Hitler ordered the letter and Hofacker’s incriminating statement to be taken to Rommel by General Wilhelm Burgdorf (the replacement for Schmundt, who had died of the injuries he received in the bomb-blast on 20 July, as his chief Wehrmacht adjutant).
Burgdorf, accompanied by his deputy, General Ernst Maisel, drove to Rommel’s home at Herrlingen on Saturday, 14 October, and handed over the letter together with Hofacker’s statement. Rommel inquired whether Hitler was aware of the statement. He then requested a little time to think matters over. He did not take long. Hitler had given orders to Burgdorf that Rommel should be prevented from shooting himself – the traditional mode of suicide among officers – and should be offered poison so that the death could be attributed to brain damage following the car accident. Mindful of Rommel’s popularity among the German public, Hitler offered him a state funeral with all honours. Faced with expulsion from the army, trial before the People’s Court, certain execution, and inevitable recriminations for his family, Rommel took the poison.
Hitler was represented by Rundstedt at the state funeral in the town hall at Ulm on 18 October. Rundstedt declared in his eulogy that Rommel’s ‘heart belonged to the Führer’. Addressing the dead field-marshal, he intoned: ‘Our Führer and Supreme Commander sends you through me his thanks and his greetings.’ For public consumption, Hitler announced the same day that Rommel had succumbed to his severe wounds following his car-accident. ‘With him, one of our best army leaders has passed away … His name has entered the history of the German people.’
Another, more far-reaching, problem preoccupied Hitler in the middle of October: Hungary’s attempt to defect from its alliance with Germany. Hitler had feared (and expected) this eventuality for weeks. The feelers, known to German intelligence, put out both to the western Allies and to the Soviet Union after Romania’s defection gave a clear sign of the way things were moving. At the beginning of October, Horthy had sent a delegation to Moscow to begin negotiations to take Hungary out of the war. Tough conditions laid down by Molotov, on behalf of the Allies, for Hungary to change sides, including an immediate declaration of war on Germany, were accepted by Horthy and signed by the Hungarian delegation in Moscow on 11 October. Their implementation had to await the coup being prepared in Budapest against the German forces in Hungary. Pressed by the Soviet Union to act, Horthy informed the German envoy Edmund Veesenmayer on 15 October that Hungary was leaving the German alliance and announced the armistice in a radio broadcast in the early afternoon.
Hitler had not stood idly by while these developments were taking place. Both strategically, and also on account of its economic importance for foodstuffs and fuel supplies, everything had to be done to prevent Hungary going the way of Romania and Bulgaria. For weeks, Hitler had been preparing his own counter-coup in Budapest, aimed at ousting Horthy, replacing him with a puppet government under Ferencz Szalasi – fanatical leader of the radical Hungarian fascist party, the Arrow Cross – and thus ensuring that Hungary did not defect. Already in mid-September Otto Skorzeny, Hitler’s leading trouble-shooter (since his daring rescue of Mussolini a year earlier), had been called to the Wolf ’s Lair and ordered to prepare an operational plan to seize by force the Citadel in Budapest – the fortress which was the residence of Horthy and his entourage – should Hungary betray its alliance with Germany.
Skorzeny immediately began detailed planning of the complex operation. It involved the kidnapping of Horthy’s son, Miklós (who, as German intelligence knew, had been working through Yugoslav contacts to promote a separate peace with the Soviet Union) in order to blackmail his father into abandoning intentions to defect. In a daring ambush on the morning of Sunday, 15 October, Skorzeny’s men, following a five-minute flurry of shooting with Hungarian bodyguards, carried off the younger Horthy, rolled up in a carpet, bundled him into a waiting lorry, whisked him to an airfield, and put him in a plane bound for Vienna and his eventual destination, Mauthausen concentration camp.
Admiral Horthy was faced with the fact of his son’s kidnap when Veesenmayer arrived for their prearranged meeting at noon. Veesenmayer told Horthy that at the first sign of ‘treason’, his son would be shot. The Regent’s response was a combination of furious protestation and near nervous collapse. Neither was, of course, to any avail. But nor could German threats deter him from making his radio announcement two hours later of the separate peace with the Soviet Union. No sooner had he finished speaking than the radio building was seized by Arrow Cross men, who put out a counter-declaration avowing Hungary’s continuation of the fight against the Soviet Union on Germany’s side. A little later Szalasi announced his takeover of power. That evening, the blackmail on Horthy came into full effect. He was told that if he resigned and formally handed over power to Szalasi, he would be given asylum in Germany, and his son would be freed; if not, the Citadel would be taken by force. Horthy buckled under the extreme pressure. He agreed to step down from office and make way for Szalasi. Skorzeny met little resistance when, accompanied by units of ‘Panther’ and ‘Goliath’ tanks, he entered the Citadel early next morning. Two days later, on 18 October, Horthy was on his way to Germany in a special train, accompanied by Skorzeny and a German army escort. He would spend the remainder of the war ‘as the Führer’s guest’, in Schloß Hirschberg, near Weilheim, in Upper Bavaria. Under its new, fanatical fascist leadership, Hungary’s fate remained tied to Germany’s until the encircled defendants of Budapest gave up the struggle on 11 February 1945. Only a few hundred succeeded in breaking through to German lines. It was the end of Hitler’s last remaining ally in south-eastern Europe.
With the failure of Horthy’s attempt to take Hungary out of the war, the final torment of the largest Jewish community still under German control began. As we noted earlier, Horthy had halted deportations – mainly to Auschwitz – in July. By that date, 437,402 Jews – more than half of the entire community – had been sent to their deaths. By the time of the deposition of Horthy and takeover of power by Szalasi in mid-October, Himmler was halting the ‘Final Solution’ and terminating the killings at Auschwitz. But the desperate labour shortage in Germany now led to plans to deploy Hungarian Jews as slave labourers in the underground assembly sites of V2 missiles. Without trains to transport them, they would have to walk. Within days of Szalasi taking over, tens of thousands of Jews – women as well as men – were being rounded up and, by the end of the month, beginning what for so many would turn into death marches as they succumbed to exhaustion, cold, and the torture of both Hungarian and SS guards. So high was the death rate among Jewish women, in fact, that Szalasi, probably concerned for his own skin as the war fortunes continued to worsen for Germany, stopped the treks in mid-November. Subsequent attempts of the SS to remove more Jews by rail were vitiated by lack of transport. Meanwhile, for the 70,000 remaining Budapest Jews, crammed into a ghetto within range of Soviet guns, deprived of all property, terrorized and killed at will by Arrow Cross men, the daily nightmare continued until the surrender of the city in February. It is estimated that the bodies of up to 10,000 Jews were lying unburied in the streets and houses of Budapest by that time.
Meanwhile, on 21 October a delighted Hitler, recovered from his recent illness, was welcoming Skorzeny with outstretched arms as he led him into his dimly-lit bunker at the Wolf’s Lair to hear the story of his triumph in Budapest and reward him with promotion to Obersturmbannführer. When Skorzeny stood up to leave, Hitler detained him: ‘Don’t go, Skorzeny,’ he remarked. ‘I have perhaps the most important job in your life for you. So far very few people know of the preparations for a secret plan in which you have a great part to play. In December, Germany will start a great offensive, which may well decide her fate.’ He proceeded to give Skorzeny a detailed outline of the military operation which would from now on occupy so much of his time: the Ardennes Offensive.
Hitler had laid out his demands for an Ardennes offensive on 16 September. Guderian voiced grave misgivings because of the situation on the eastern front, the theatre for which he was directly responsible. Jodl warned of air supremacy and the likelihood of parachute landings. Hitler ignored them. He wanted, he said, 1,500 fighters by 1 November, when preparations for the offensive must be complete. The launch of the offensive would take place in bad weather, when enemy aircraft were badly handicapped. Enemy forces would be split and encircled. Antwerp would be taken, leaving the enemy without an escape route.
By this time, the enemy was already on German soil in the west. By mid-September, American soldiers from the 1st US Army had penetrated the Westwall and reached the outskirts of Aachen, which was finally taken on 21 October.
A few days earlier, the enemy had also burst into German territory in the east. On 16 October, the ‘3rd White Russian Front’, led by General Ivan Tscherniakowski, had broken through into East Prussia as far as Nemmersdorf, Goldap – the first sizeable town in the province – and the fringes of Gumbinnen, heading for Königsberg. The roads were full of refugees fleeing in panic from the oncoming Russians. The Red Army was within striking reach of Führer Headquarters. For the time being, Hitler resisted pressure to leave the Wolf ’s Lair. A move to the Berghof or to Berlin, he thought, would send the wrong signals to his fighting men at the front. He gave strict instructions that there should be no talk of leaving. But the staff was reduced, while Schaub packed all Hitler’s files and possessions, ready to depart at any moment. It proved possible to delay the moment. Gumbinnen was recaptured – revealing horrifying scenes of atrocities (including untold cases of women raped and murdered, and houses plundered at will by Soviet troops). The Red Army was forced on the defensive in East Prussia. Goldap, too, was retaken by the Wehrmacht a fortnight or so later. The immediate danger was contained.
When Nicolaus von Below returned to the Wolf’s Lair on 24 October, after recuperating for several weeks from the effects of the bomb-blast on 20 July, he found the Dictator heavily involved in preparations for the Ardennes offensive, expected to take place in late November or early December. The big anxiety, as ever, was whether by then the Luftwaffe would be in any position to provide the necessary air cover. The failure of the Luftwaffe, Below was told by naval adjutant Karl-Jesko von Puttkamer, was still the ‘number one topic’, and there was permanent tension between Hitler and Göring. Though he put the best face on it, Hitler was well aware that air-power was his weakest suit; hence, the constant tirades against Göring. The odds in the coming offensive were far more heavily stacked against him than he was prepared to acknowledge.
Immersed in military matters and facing calamity on all sides, Hitler was in no mood to travel through a war-weary Reich to address the party’s Old Guard as usual on 8 November, the anniversary of the putsch in 1923 and the most sacred date in the Nazi calendar. Instead, a pale shadow of the normal event was scheduled to take place for the first time not on the actual anniversary of the putsch, but on the following Sunday, 12 November, in Munich. Its centrepiece was a proclamation by Hitler to be read out by Himmler. As Goebbels pointed out, this had nothing like the effect of hearing Hitler himself, particularly when read out in Himmler’s cold diction.
The proclamation itself could only have been a disappointment for those hoping for news of some reversal of war fortunes or – the desire of most people – a hint that the war would soon be over. It offered no more than the old refrain that eventual triumph would come. And Hitler made it clear that as long as he was alive, there would be no capitulation, no end to the fighting. He was, he said, ‘unshakeable in his will to give the world to follow a no less praiseworthy example in this struggle than great Germans have given in the past’. It was a veiled hint that what now remained for him to fight for was his place in history. The ‘heroic’ struggle he envisaged, one of Wagnerian proportions, ruled out any contemplation of capitulation, the shameful act of 1918. The fight to the last, it seemed clear, was destined to drag down to destruction the German people itself with the ‘heroic’ self-destruction of its warlord.
The warlord’s own end was now starting to occupy his mind. Perhaps a renewed bout of illness, now affecting his throat, prompted his depressed mood. It may also have encouraged him to agree with Bormann that the time had indeed finally come to move his headquarters from East Prussia, since it had been established that he needed a minor operation in Berlin to remove a polyp from his vocal cords. On the afternoon of 20 November, Hitler and his entourage boarded his special train bound for Berlin and left the Wolf ’s Lair for good.
So little was Hitler a real presence for the German people by this time that, as Goebbels had to note, rumours were rife that he was seriously ill, or even dead. Goebbels had the opportunity to speak at length with him at the beginning of December. He found him recovered from his stomach troubles, able to eat and drink normally again. He was also over the operation to his vocal cords, and his voice was back to normal. Hitler told him he had come to Berlin to prepare for the coming attack in the west. Everything was prepared for a major blow to the Allies which would give him not just a military but also a political success. He said he had worked day and night on the plan for the offensive, also during his illness. Goebbels thought Hitler back to his old form.
Hitler outlined the grandiose aim of the offensive. Antwerp would be taken within eight to ten days. The intention was to smash the entire enemy force to the north and south, then turn a massive rocket attack on London. A major success would have a huge impact on morale at home, and affect attitudes towards Germany abroad. Hitler, in Goebbels’s judgement, was like a man revived. The prospect of a new offensive, and of regaining the initiative, had evidently worked on him like a drug.
Operational plans for the Ardennes offensive had been devised by the OKW in September and put to Hitler on 9 October. The objective of the operation – the sweep through the Eifel and Ardennes through Belgium to the Channel coast, taking Antwerp – was finalized at this point. The detailed plans of the offensive were outlined by Jodl to senior western commanders on 3 November. Sixteen divisions, eight of them armoured, would form the focal point of the attack. SS-Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich would lead the 6th SS-Panzer Army; General Hasso von Manteuffel the 5th Panzer Army. Without exception, the assembled military commanders thought the objective – the taking of Antwerp, some 125 miles away – quite unrealistic. The forces available to them were simply inadequate, they argued, especially in winter conditions. At best, they claimed, a more limited objective – recovery of Aachen and the adjacent parts of the Westwall, with perhaps the base being laid for a later westward push – might be attained. Jodl ruled out the objections. He made clear to the commanders that limited gains would not suffice. Hitler had to be in a position, as a result of the offensive, to ‘make the western powers ready to negotiate’. On 10 November, Hitler signed the order for the offensive. He acknowledged in the preamble that he was prepared ‘to accept the maximum risk in order to proceed with this operation’.
Hitler left Berlin on the evening of 10 December and moved his headquarters to Ziegenberg, not far from Bad Nauheim, close to the western front. Bunkers and barracks had been constructed in a woodland area by the Organization Todt earlier in the war. Rundstedt and his staff were quartered in a stately residence nearby.
In two groups, on the day of his arrival, 11 December, and again the following day, Hitler spoke to his military commanders at the ‘Adlerhorst’ (‘Eagle’s Eyrie’), as the new headquarters were called, to brief them on the coming offensive. After a lengthy preamble giving his own account of the background to the war, he outlined his thinking behind the offensive. Psychological considerations, as always, were paramount for Hitler. War could only be endured as long as there was hope of victory. It was necessary, therefore, to destroy this hope through offensive action. A defensive strategy could not achieve this goal. It had to be followed by successful attack. ‘I have striven, therefore, from the beginning to conduct the war wherever possible in the offensive,’ he stated. ‘Wars are finally decided through the recognition by one side or the other that the war as such can no longer be won. To get the enemy to realize this is therefore the most important task.’ If forced back on to the defensive, it was all the more important to convince the enemy that victory was not in sight. Hitler came to another unalterable premiss of his conduct of the war. ‘It is also important to strengthen these psychological factors in letting no moment pass without making plain to the enemy that whatever he does he can never reckon with capitulation, never, never. That is the decisive point.’ He referred, almost inevitably, to the reversal of Frederick the Great’s fortunes in the Seven Years War. Here, he had reached another constant in his thinking: the will of the heroic leader, which alone made triumph out of adversity possible when all around him despaired of success.
This brought him to the fragility (he thought) of the coalition he was facing. ‘If a few really heavy blows were inflicted,’ he argued, ‘it could happen any moment that this artificially sustained common front could suddenly collapse with a huge clap of thunder.’ The tensions between the Soviet and western Allies had, indeed, become more apparent during the second half of 1944. But Hitler was certainly rational enough to know that his own destruction, and that of the regime he headed, provided sufficient common ground to hold the coalition together until Germany’s defeat. He knew, too, that neither the western Allies nor – despite what Oshima had told him – the Soviets would look for peace with Germany while they were militarily so totally in the ascendancy.
As the supreme propagandist of old, he could always summon up absolute conviction when addressing an audience and needing to persuade them that what he was proposing was the only alternative on offer. It had proved his greatest strength since the early 1920s. The hints of pessimism – or greater realism – to Below and others in the weeks before the Ardennes offensive, even though only momentary slips of his guard, suggest, however, that Hitler was well aware of the size of the gamble in the Ardennes. He had to take it because, indeed, from his perspective, there was no alternative way out. If the long-shot were to come off, he reasoned, and a serious defeat were to be inflicted on the western powers while new German weaponry started to come into operation and before the expected Soviet winter offensive could begin, then new options could open up. At any rate, the only alternative to the gamble, as he saw it, was to fight for every inch of German soil in a rearguard struggle certain ultimately to end not just in defeat but in Germany’s total destruction – and his own. The gamble had to be taken.
‘Operation Autumn Mist’ – the Ardennes offensive – began in the early morning of 16 December. All possible reserves had been mustered. Around 200,000 German troops backed by 600 tanks were launched against a front comprising around 80,000 American soldiers with 400 tanks. The weather was perfect for the German attack, with heavy cloud hindering enemy aircraft. The American forces were taken by surprise. Sepp Dietrich’s SS-Panzer Army soon encountered strong defence on the north of the front and could make only slow progress. Manteuffel’s 5th Panzer Army broke through in the south, however, and pressed forward in a deep cut of some sixty-five miles to within a few miles of the river Meuse, laying siege to the town of Bastogne, an important communications point. But Bastogne held out, tying down three German divisions in the process before eventually being relieved by General Patton’s 3rd US Army.
Manteuffel’s advance had meanwhile slowed, handicapped by difficult terrain, bad weather, broken bridges, and fuel shortages as well as increasingly stiff American resistance. On 24 December, the weather lifted, exposing the German troops to relentless air attacks by some 5,000 Allied aircraft. Troop movements could now only take place at night. Supply-lines and German airfields were heavily bombed. German fighters suffered serious losses. Once Patton had broken through the German front to relieve Bastogne on 26 December, Manteuffel had to give up any hopes of advancing further. ‘Operation Autumn Mist’ had failed.
Hitler was still not prepared, however, to bow to the inevitable. As a diversion, he ordered a subsidiary offensive in the north of Alsace (‘Operation North Wind’). The aim was to cut off and destroy the American forces in the north-eastern corner of Alsace, enabling Manteuffel to continue the main offensive in the Ardennes. Once more Hitler addressed the commanders of the operation. And once more he laid the stress on the all-or-nothing nature of the struggle for Germany’s existence. Again, he ruled out the possibility of Germany fighting indefinitely a defensive war. For strategic and psychological reasons it was essential to return to the offensive, and to seize the initiative. The operation would be decisive, he claimed. Its success would automatically remove the threat to the southern part of the Ardennes offensive, and with that the Wehrmacht would have forced the enemy out of half of the western front. ‘Then we’ll want to have a further look,’ he added.
One slip of the tongue seemed to reveal, however, his realization that the ambitious aim he had placed in the Ardennes offensive could no longer be attained; that he knew he could no longer force the Allies off the Continent; and that, therefore, defensive operations would have to continue in the west as in the east. He spoke at one point of ‘the unshakeable aim’ of the operation as producing merely ‘in part’ a ‘cleansing’ of the situation in the west. It implied that his speech to the commanders had been little more than the elevation of hope over reason.
‘North Wind’ began on New Year’s Day. It was Hitler’s last offensive – and his least effective. German troops were able to advance no more than about twenty kilometres, making a few minor gains and causing Eisenhower to pull back forces in the Strasbourg area for a time. But the offensive was too weak to have much effect. It proved possible to halt it without the Americans having to withdraw troops from the Ardennes. ‘North Wind’ had proved to be little more than a momentary stiff breeze.
Even more devastating was the death-blow to the Luftwaffe, imparted on 1 January, the same day that ‘North Wind’ had commenced. It had finally proved possible to launch a German air-offensive – though with disastrous consequences. Around 800 German fighters and bombers engaged in mass attacks on Allied airfields in northern France, Belgium, and Holland. They succeeded in destroying or seriously damaging almost 300 planes, limiting Allied air-power for a week or more. But 277 German planes were also lost. There was no possibility of the Luftwaffe recovering from such losses. It was effectively at an end.
On New Year’s Day 1945, German radios broadcast Hitler’s traditional address to the German people. It held nothing new for them. Hitler offered them not a sentence on the effect of ‘wonder weapons’, steps to counter the terror from the skies, or anything specific on military progress on the fronts. Above all, he gave no hint that the end of the war was near. He spoke only of its continuation in 1945 and until a final victory – which by now only dreamers could imagine – was attained. His audience had heard it all many times before: the reaffirmation that ‘a 9 November in the German Reich will never repeat itself’; that Germany’s enemies, led by ‘the Jewish-international world conspiracy’, intended to ‘eradicate’ its people; that Germany’s plight had been caused by the weakness of its allies; that the combined effort of front and homeland showed the ‘essence of our social community’ and an indomitable spirit, incapable of destruction; and that ‘the Jewish-international world enemy’ would not only fail in its attempt ‘to destroy Europe and eradicate its peoples, but would bring about its own destruction’.
Few remained convinced. Many, like some observers in the Stuttgart area, were probably ready to acknowledge that ‘the Führer has worked for war from the very beginning’. Far from being the genius of Goebbels’s propaganda, such observers remarked, Hitler had ‘intentionally unleashed this world conflagration in order to be proclaimed as the great “transformer of mankind” ’. It was belated recognition of the catastrophic impact of the leader they had earlier supported, cheered, eulogized. Their backing had helped to put him in the position where his power over the German state was total. By now, in the absence of either the ability or the readiness – especially since the events of 20 July – of those with access to the corridors of power to defy his authority, let alone oust him, this man quite simply held the fate of the German people in his own hands. He had again avowed, as he always had done, his adamant refusal to contemplate capitulation in any event. This meant that the suffering of the German people – and of the countless victims of the regime they had at one time so enthusiastically supported – had to go on. It would cease, it was abundantly clear, only when Hitler himself ceased to exist. And that could only mean Germany’s total defeat, ruin, and occupation.
With the petering out of the Ardennes offensive, all hope of repelling the relentless advance from the west was gone. And in the east, the Red Army was waiting for the moment to launch its winter offensive. Hitler was compelled by 3 January to accept that ‘continuation of the originally planned operation [in the Ardennes] no longer has any prospect of success’. Five days later came the tacit acknowledgement that his last gamble had been a losing throw of the dice with his approval of the withdrawal of the 6th Panzer Army to the north-west of Bastogne, and next day, his order to pull back his SS panzer divisions from the front. On 14 January, the day before Hitler left his headquarters on the western front to return to Berlin, the High Command of the Wehrmacht acknowledged that ‘the initiative in the area of the offensive has passed to the enemy’.
Hitler had stated categorically in his briefings before the Ardennes and Alsace offensives that Germany could not indefinitely sustain a defensive war. By now, he had used up his last precious reserves of manpower, lost untold quantities of weaponry, and exhausted his remaining divisions in an offensive that had cost the lives of about 80,000 German soldiers (at the same time weakening the eastern front and paving the way for the rapid inroads of the Red Army in the coming weeks). He had also seen the remnants of the Luftwaffe devastated to the point of no return; while rapidly dwindling supplies of fuel and other supplies essential for the war effort held out in any case the prospect of continuing the struggle only for a few more months. The logic was plain: the last faint glimmer of hope had been extinguished, the last exit route cut off. Defeat was inevitable. Hitler had not lost touch with reality. He realized this. Below found him one evening after the failure of the offensive in his bunker after air-raid sirens had sounded, deeply depressed. He spoke of taking his own life since the last chance of success had evaporated. He was savage in his criticism of the failure of the Luftwaffe, and of the ‘traitors’ in the army. According to Below’s later recollection, Hitler said: ‘I know the war is lost. The superior power is too great. I’ve been betrayed. Since 20 July everything has come out that I didn’t think possible. Precisely those were against me who have profited most from National Socialism. I spoilt them all and decorated them. That’s the thanks. I’d like most of all to put a bullet through my head.’ But, as so often, Hitler rapidly pulled himself together, saying: ‘We’ll not capitulate. Never. We can go down. But we’ll take a world with us.’
This was what kept him going. It had underpinned his political ‘career’ since the beginning. There would be no repeat of 1918: no stab-in-the-back; no capitulation. That – and his place in history as a German hero brought down by weakness and betrayal – was all that was left to him.