Biographies & Memoirs


Into the Abyss


Hitler was still reeling from the failure of the Ardennes offensive, his last big hope, when all hell broke loose on the eastern front. The Soviet offensive had started. The main thrust, from bridgeheads on the Vistula, south of Warsaw, was aimed at southern Poland, then on to the vital Silesian industrial belt, and the river Oder, the last barrier before Berlin. Marshal Ivan Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front began the attack on 12 January, following a five-hour artillery barrage, from the Baranov bridgehead on the southern Vistula. It was rapidly followed, farther to the north, from the bridgeheads at Polavy and Magnuszev, by an assault from Marshal Georgi Zhukov’s 1st Belorussian Front. A secondary thrust, by the 2nd and 3rd Belorussian Fronts, from bridgeheads on the river Narev to the north of Warsaw, aimed at cutting off German troops in East Prussia.

The Red Army’s superiority in numbers was overwhelming. In the vital central sector of the 900-kilometre front that stretched from the Carpathians to the Baltic, some 2,200,000 Soviet troops were arrayed against 400,000 on the German side. But at the key bridgeheads on the Vistula, from where the offensive was launched, the imbalance was massive. The German general staff calculated that it was 11 to 1 in infantry, 7 to 1 in tanks, and 20 to 1 in guns in favour of the Red Army. Aware from the reports of General Reinhard Gehlen, head of ‘Foreign Armies East’ department, of the huge build-up of Soviet forces and of an impending offensive, Guderian had pleaded with Hitler at Christmas, when the Ardennes offensive had already lost impetus, to transfer troops to the east. Hitler had dismissed Gehlen’s reports as enemy bluff, ‘the greatest imposture since Genghis Khan’. When, on a further visit to Führer Headquarters at Ziegenberg on New Year’s Day 1945 Guderian had wrung the release of four divisions out of Hitler, the Dictator insisted they be sent to Hungary, not to the centre of the eastern front where military intelligence was pointing to the looming peril. On 9 January, Guderian had made a further trip to Ziegenberg to show Hitler diagrams and charts displaying the relative strength of forces in the vulnerable areas on the Vistula. Hitler, in a rage, rejected them as ‘completely idiotic’, and told Guderian that whoever had compiled them should be shut up in a lunatic asylum. Guderian defended Gehlen and stood his ground. The storm subsided as rapidly as it had blown up. But Hitler nevertheless contemptuously refused the urgent recommendations to evacuate parts of the Vistula and Narev, withdraw to more defensible positions, and transfer forces from the west to shore up these weak points of the front. Guderian remarked, prophetically: ‘The Eastern Front is like a house of cards. If the front is broken through at one point, all the rest will collapse.’ Hitler’s reply was that ‘The Eastern Front must help itself and make do with what it’s got.’ As Guderian later commented, it was an ‘ostrich strategy’.

A week later, on 16 January, with the Red Army already making massive advances, Hitler, now back in Berlin, was finally prepared to transfer troops from west to east. But Guderian was outraged to learn that Sepp Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army – brought back from the unsuccessful Ardennes campaign and forming the bulk of the new forces available – was to be sent to Hungary, where Hitler was hoping to force the Russians back across the Danube and relieve Budapest. With German synthetic oil-plants destroyed by air-raids in mid-January, retention of the Hungarian oil-fields and refineries was, for him, the vital consideration. Without them, he argued, the German war effort was doomed anyway. Nor did Guderian have much success in trying to persuade Hitler to evacuate by sea over the Baltic the German troops in grave danger of being cut off in Courland, on the tip of Latvia, for redeployment on the eastern front. Dönitz had been instrumental in persuading Hitler that Courland was a vital coastal area for the new U-boats which, he claimed, were almost ready to be turned against the West. The consequence was that 200,000 desperately needed troops were tied up in Courland until Germany’s capitulation in May.

As Guderian had predicted, the Wehrmacht was wholly incapable of blocking the Red Army’s advance. By 17 January, the Soviet troops had steamrollered over the troops in their path. The way to the German frontier now lay open before them. Overhead, Soviet planes controlled the skies, strafing and bombing at will. Some German divisions were surrounded; others retreated westward as fast as they could go. Warsaw was evacuated by the remaining German forces on 17 January, driving Hitler into such a paroxysm of rage that, at a critical point of the advance when they were needed for vital military operations, he had several officers from the General Staff who had issued signals connected with the withdrawal from Warsaw arrested and – together with Guderian himself – interrogated for hours by the head of the Reich Security Head Office, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, and chief of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller.

On 18 January, Soviet troops entered Budapest. The battles in the city would last until mid-February, bitter fighting around Lake Balaton and in other parts of Hungary for several weeks longer. But however much weight Hitler attached to it, the uneven contest could have only one outcome. And Hungary formed little more than a sideshow to the major catastrophe for the Reich unfolding to the north, where Soviet troops encountered little serious opposition as they advanced at great speed through Poland. Lodz was taken. The towns of Kalisz and Posen in the Warthegau were already in their sights. On 20 January, they crossed the German border in the Posen area and in Silesia.

Still further north, German forces were in disarray in the face of Soviet advances into East Prussia. Colonel-General Hans Reinhardt, commander of Army Group Centre which was defending East Prussia, was sacked by a raging Hitler for evacuating coastal positions when Soviet troops broke through on 26 January, cutting off two German armies. General Friedrich Hoßbach, commanding the 4th Army, was also peremptorily dismissed by a furious Hitler for ignoring orders to hold ground – and not consulting his Army Group about his decision – when faced with a hopeless position and in grave danger of encirclement. In a wild temper, Hitler accused both Reinhardt and Hoßbach of treason. But a change of personnel – the capable Austrian Colonel-General Lothar Rendulic in place of Reinhardt, and General Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller for Hoßbach – could do nothing to alter the disastrous German collapse in the face of hopeless odds, in East Prussia as on the rest of the eastern front. This proved equally true in Hitler’s replacement on 17 January of Colonel-General Josef Harpe, made the scapegoat for the collapse of the Vistula front, by his favourite, Colonel-General Ferdinand Schörner, and his ill-judged appointment on 25 January of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, in the teeth of Guderian’s strident objections, to take command of the newly formed and hastily constituted Army Group Vistula, which aimed to stave off the Soviet advance into Pomerania. The hope that ‘triumph of the will’ and the toughness of one of his most trusted ‘hard’ men would prevail rapidly proved ill-founded. Himmler, backed by courageous but militarily inexperienced Waffen-SS officers, soon found that combating the might of the Red Army was a far stiffer task than rounding up and persecuting helpless political opponents and ‘racial inferiors’. By mid-February, Hitler was forced to concede that Army Group Vistula was inadequately led. After a furious row with Guderian lasting two hours, Hitler suddenly backed down and assigned General Walther Wenck to Himmler’s headquarters to take over effective command of the planned limited counter-offensive on the Oder in Pomerania. The Reichsführer-SS’s failure as a military commander would finally – and belatedly – be recognized by Hitler in his replacement by Colonel-General Gotthard Heinrici on 20 March. It marked a significant point in the growing estrangement of Hitler and his SS chief.

The catastrophe on the eastern front was by that time well-nigh complete. In the south, fired by the fanatical Nazi leadership of Gauleiter Karl Hanke, Breslau held out under siege until early May. Glogau, to the north-west, also continued to resist. But the defiance was of little military significance. By the end of January, the key industrial region of Silesia was lost to Germany. By 23 January Russian troops had already reached the Oder between Oppeln and Ohlau; five days later, they crossed it at Steinau, south of Breslau. Further north, Posen was encircled and most of the Warthegau lost. Its Gauleiter, Arthur Greiser, one of Hitler’s most brutal henchmen, who had imposed a reign of terror on the predominantly Polish population of his fiefdom, had already fled westwards, along with other Nazi leaders from the region, in an attempt – ultimately to prove futile – to save his own skin. His flight, like that of other party representatives, fuelled the anger and contempt of ordinary people at the behaviour of Nazi bigwigs.

By the first days of February, Soviet troops had established a bridgehead over the Oder between Küstrin and Frankfurt an der Oder. Even now, Hitler, waving his fists in a frenzy of rage, refused to listen to Guderian’s entreaties to evacuate forthwith the military outposts in the Balkans, Italy, Norway, and, especially, Courland to free up reserves to defend the capital. All that Guderian could muster was poured into a short-lived German counter-offensive in Pomerania in mid-February. Easily fending this off, the Red Army occupied practically the whole of Pomerania during February and early March. Though the surrounded Königsberg was still holding out, most of East Prussia was by now also in Soviet hands.

The immense Soviet gains of January had by then been consolidated, and even extended. Zhukov’s men had advanced almost 300 miles since the middle of January. From the bridgehead on the Oder near Küstrin, Berlin lay open to attack, only forty or so miles away. The last obstacle en route to the capital had been surmounted. But the rapidity of the advance had meant that Soviet supply-lines lagged behind. They needed to be assembled across the wrecked transport routes of a battered Poland. Soviet strategists reckoned, furthermore, that wet spring weather was certain to hamper military manoeuvres. And it was plain that the bloody battles in store to take Berlin would require detailed preparation. The final assault on the capital, they concluded, could wait for the time being.

While this disaster of colossal proportions was unfolding on the eastern front, the Allies in the west were swiftly reasserting themselves after staving off the Ardennes offensive. By early February, some 2 million American, British, Canadian, and French soldiers were ready for the assault on Germany. The attack of the Canadian 1st Army, which began on 8 February south of Nijmegen in the Wesel direction, met stiff opposition and could at first advance only slowly, amid bitter fighting. But in the last week of the month, American troops to the south-west pushed rapidly forwards towards Cologne, reaching the Rhine south of Düsseldorf on 2 March and the outskirts of Cologne three days later. Hitler’s dismissal – again – of Field-Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Commander-in-Chief in the West, who had tried in vain to persuade him to withdraw his forces behind the Rhine, and replacement on 10 March by Field-Marshal Albert Kesselring, the former tenacious defender of German positions in Italy, made no difference.

Retreating German troops had blown up the Rhine bridges everywhere as they went – except Remagen, between Bonn and Koblenz, which was discovered intact, as the retreating Germans failed to detonate in time the explosives they had laid, and immediately secured by American forces of the 1st US Army under General Courtney H. Hodges on 7 March. With a bridgehead swiftly established, the last natural barrier in the way of the western Allies had been crossed. Within a fortnight, American troops had again crossed the Rhine at Oppenheim, south of Mainz. By then, the banks of the Rhine between Koblenz and Ludwigshafen were under American control. Further north, Montgomery now enjoyed a staged moment of glory as, watched by Churchill and Eisenhower, his troops crossed the Lower Rhine on 23–24 March following a massive air and artillery assault on Wesel. The most serious German resistance had by now been largely overcome. A third of all the German forces arrayed on the western front had been lost since early February – 293,000 men captured, 60,000 killed or wounded. Hitler’s insistence on refusing to concede any territory west of the Rhine, rather than retreating to fight from behind the river, as Rundstedt had recommended, had itself contributed significantly to the magnitude and speed of the Allied success.

As German defences were collapsing on both eastern and western fronts and enemy forces prepared to strike at the very heart of the Reich, German cities as well as military installations and fuel plants were being subjected to the most ferocious bombing of the entire war. Pressed by the British Air Chief Marshal Arthur Harris’s Bomber Command, the American and British chiefs of staff had agreed by the end of January to exploit the shock of the Soviet offensive by extending the planned air-attacks on strategic targets – mainly oil-plants and transport interchanges – to include the area-bombing and destruction of Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, and other cities in central and eastern Germany. The aim was to intensify the mounting chaos in the big urban centres in the east of the Reich, as thousands of refugees fled westwards from the path of the Red Army. In addition, the western Allies were keen to demonstrate to Stalin, about to meet Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta, that they were lending support to the Soviet offensive through their bombing campaign. The result was to magnify massively the terror from the skies as the bombs rained down on near-defenceless citizens. Beyond the forty-three large-scale precision attacks on Magdeburg, Gelsenkirchen, Botrop, Leuna, Ludwigshafen, and other targeted installations that laid waste Germany’s fuel production, massive raids directed at civilian centres of population turned German inner-cities into wastelands. Berlin was hit on 3 February by the most damaging raid it had suffered so far during the war, killing 3,000 and injuring a further 2,000 people. Some of its poorer inner-city areas suffered most. Ten days later, on the night of 13–14 February, the beautiful city of Dresden, the glittering cultural capital of Saxony, renowned for its fine china but scarcely a major industrial centre, and now teeming with refugees, was turned into a towering inferno as thousands of incendiaries and explosive bombs were dropped by waves of RAF Lancaster bombers (followed next day by a further massive raid by American B-17s). Up to 40,000 citizens are estimated to have lost their lives in the most ruthless display experienced of Allied air superiority and strength. Other devastated cities included Essen, Dortmund, Mainz, Munich, Nuremberg, and Würzburg. In the last four and a half months of the war, 471,000 tons of bombs were dropped on Germany, double the amount during the entire year of 1943. In March alone, almost three times as many bombs were dispatched as during the whole of the year 1942.

By that time, Germany – militarily and economically – was on its knees. But as long as Hitler lived, there could be no prospect of surrender.


The man at the centre of the rapidly imploding system that had unleashed unprecedented horror and misery on the countless victims of the Nazi regime boarded his special train at Ziegenberg, his western headquarters, on the evening of 15 January 1945 and, with his regular entourage of orderlies, secretaries, and adjutants, left for Berlin. His hopes of military success in the west were definitively at an end. Trying to stave off the Soviet offensive in the east was now the urgent priority. His departure had been prompted by Guderian’s opposition to his order on 15 January to transfer the powerful Panzer Corps ‘Großdeutschland’ from East Prussia to the vicinity of Kielce in Poland, where the Red Army was threatening to break through and expose the way forward through the Warthegau. Not only, Guderian pointed out, was the manoeuvre impossible to execute in time to block the Soviet advance; it would at the same time gravely weaken the defences of East Prussia just as the Soviet attack from the Narev was placing that province in the utmost peril. As it was, the ‘Großdeutschland’ troops sat in railway sidings while the Führer and his Chief of the General Staff argued on the telephone about their deployment. Hitler would not rescind his order. But the dispute helped to persuade him that he needed to direct affairs at closer quarters. It was time to move back to Berlin.

His train, its blinds down, pulled into the capital that night. Triumphant arrivals in Berlin were no more than distant memories. As his car made its way amid the rubble through unlit streets to the Reich Chancellery – now cold and dismal, its pictures, carpets, and tapestries removed to safety in view of the increasing air-raids on Berlin – few inhabitants of the city even knew he had returned; probably still fewer cared. Hitler in any case had no wish to see them. The path to his portals was blocked for all but the few who had the requisite papers and passes to satisfy the intense scrutiny of SS guards armed with machine guns and posted at a series of security checks. Even the Chief of the General Staff had to surrender his weapons and have his briefcase meticulously examined.

Hitler was completely immersed during the next days in the events on the eastern front. Seemingly incapable of acknowledging the objective imbalances in forces and the tactical weaknesses which had left the Vistula front so exposed, he thought he scented betrayal at every point. Frequent rantings about the incompetence or treachery of his generals dragged out the twice-daily military briefings to inordinate length. Guderian reckoned that his trips from General Staff Headquarters at Zossen, south of Berlin, twice a day took up around three hours. A further four to six hours were consumed during the conferences themselves. From the Chief of Staff ’s point of view, it was time wasted.

The regular clashes between Hitler and his one-time admirer Guderian reflected what were by now wholly and irreconcilably conflicting philosophies with no middle-ground between them. For Hitler, capitulation could not be contemplated, even if the price was the total destruction of Germany. For the Chief of Staff, the destruction of Germany must be prevented, even if the price was capitulation – at any rate, in the west. Guderian – and he was far from alone in this – saw the only hope of preventing the complete destruction of Germany as putting everything into blocking the Soviet onslaught and at the same time opening negotiations for an armistice with the West, however poor the bargaining base. Perhaps the West could be persuaded that it was in its own interests to prevent Russian dominance of a post-war Germany by accepting the surrender of the western parts of the country to enable the Reich to defend its eastern borders.

This was the proposition that Guderian outlined on 23 January to Dr Paul Barandon, the Foreign Ministry’s new liaison with the army. It was a faint hope but, as Guderian noted, drowning men clutch at straws. He hoped that Barandon would engineer for him an audience with Ribbentrop, and that the Foreign Minister and he could approach Hitler immediately with a view to ending the war. Barandon arranged the interview. Ribbentrop, when Guderian met him two days later, seemed shocked at the prospect of the Russians at the gates of Berlin within a few weeks. But he declared himself a loyal follower of the Führer, knew the latter’s antipathy to any peace feelers, and was unwilling to support Guderian. As Guderian entered the briefing room that evening, he heard Hitler in a loud and agitated voice say: ‘So when the Chief of the General Staff goes to see the Foreign Minister and informs him of the situation in the East with the object of securing an armistice in the West, he is doing neither more nor less than committing high treason!’ Ribbentrop had, of course, promptly reported to Hitler the content of his talks with Guderian. No action followed. But it was a warning shot across the bows. ‘I forbid most decisively generalizations and conclusions about the overall situation,’ Speer recalled Hitler ranting. ‘That remains my business. Anyone in future claiming to another person that the war is lost will be treated as a traitor to his country with all the consequences for him and his family. I will act without respect for position and standing.’ The head of the Security Police, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, from now on sat silently but menacingly in the background during the briefing sessions.

In fact, despite this outburst – and Ribbentrop’s refusal to entertain Guderian’s suggestion – Hitler was aware in early 1945 of his Foreign Minister’s extremely tentative feelers via Stockholm, Bern, and Madrid to the western Allies to end the war with Germany and join the fight against Bolshevism. He knew, too, of Ribbentrop’s consideration of an alternative suggestion: approaching the Soviet Union to help crush Britain. Hitler had first opposed any idea of peace feelers. Then he appeared to change his mind. ‘Nothing will come of it,’ Hitler told Ribbentrop. ‘But if you really want, you can try it.’ However, not only was there no prospect of either the Soviets or the western Allies showing genuine readiness to enter peace negotiations at this stage; Ribbentrop knew that Hitler had not the slightest wish to pursue them. A premiss of any peace-talks, as Hitler well realized, would have been his own removal. That in itself was sufficient to make him dismiss in fury any idea of negotiations. As the Foreign Minister himself later remarked, Hitler ‘regarded any peace feeler as a sign of weakness’. His soundings, so he said, merely ‘showed that no serious peace talk was possible’ as long as Hitler lived.

This was equally plain to Goebbels. The Propaganda Minister was approached by Göring at the end of January, disconsolate at events in the east and despairing of Germany’s military chances. Göring was prepared, he said, to use his Swedish contacts to put out feelers to Britain and sought the help of Goebbels in persuading Hitler that, since any overtures from Ribbentrop (regarded with utter contempt by the Reich Marshal as well as the Propaganda Minister) were doomed to failure, he should try this avenue. Goebbels was not encouraging. Privately, he was unwilling to push the case with Hitler since he ran the risk of losing the Führer’s confidence, which, he added pointedly, ‘is indeed the entire basis of my work’. In any case, Göring could only act, he noted, with Hitler’s approval ‘and the Führer won’t grant him such approval’. Göring thought Hitler too intransigent, and wondered whether he wanted a political solution at all. He did, replied Goebbels, but ‘the Führer does not see such a possibility existing at present’.

Hitler’s lingering hopes, as ever, were in a split in the alliance against him. If Britain and the USA wanted to prevent a bolshevization of Europe, he told Goebbels, they would have to turn to Germany for help. The coalition had to break; it was a matter of holding out until the moment arrived. Goebbels privately thought Hitler too optimistic.

Jodl and Göring played to this illusion, however, at the military briefing on 27 January. However gloomy his attitude had been when speaking to Goebbels, in Hitler’s presence Göring sang to a different tune. The Soviet advance had unquestionably dashed British plans, he and Jodl reckoned. Göring thought that if things went much further they could expect a telegram from the British saying they were prepared to join forces to prevent a Soviet occupation of Germany. Hitler suggested the National Committee of Free Germany, the ‘traitors’ organization’ based in Moscow and linked with General Seydlitz, from the 6th Army lost at Stalingrad, could come in useful. He had told Ribbentrop, he said, to filter a story to the British that the Soviets had trained up 200,000 Communists under the leadership of German officers, ready to march. The prospect of a Russian-led national government in Germany would be certain to stir up anxiety in Britain, he averred. The British did not enter the war to see ‘the East come to the Atlantic’, Göring added. Hitler commented: ‘English newspapers are already writing bitterly: what’s the point of the war?’

He nevertheless saw no opening for overtures to his western enemies, when Goebbels tentatively broached the issue. In discussions with his Propaganda Minister on successive days at the end of January, appearing drained with fatigue, he reflected on the failure of the intended alliance with Britain. This might have been possible, he thought, had Chamberlain remained Prime Minister. But it had been totally vitiated by Churchill, ‘the actual father of the war’. On the other hand, he continued to express admiration for Stalin’s brutal realism as a revolutionary who knew exactly what he wanted and had learnt his method of atrocities from Genghis Khan. Here, too, Hitler dismissed any prospect of negotiations. ‘He wanted,’ he declared to Goebbels, ‘to prove himself worthy of the great examples from history.’ Should he succeed in transforming Germany’s fortunes, thought the Propaganda Minister, without a trace of cynicism, he would be not only the man of the century, but of the millennium.

Goebbels continued to find Hitler over-optimistic about the chances of staving off the Soviet advance. Indeed, however pessimistic or fatalistic he was in dark moments, Hitler was as yet far from ready to give up the fight. He spoke of his aims in the forthcoming offensive in Hungary. Once he was again in possession of Hungarian oil, he would pour in additional divisions from Germany to liberate Upper Silesia. The whole operation would take around two months. The air of unreality did not escape Goebbels. It would take a great deal of luck to succeed, he noted.

Goebbels had been ‘astonished’ that Hitler, after showing such repeated reluctance for two years to speak in public, had so readily taken up a suggestion to broadcast to the nation on 30 January, the twelfth anniversary of the ‘seizure of power’. Hitler presumably felt that at such a point of national crisis, with the enemy already deep inside the Reich, not to have spoken on such an important date in the Nazi calendar would have sent out the worst possible signals to the German people. It was imperative that he strengthen the will to fight, most of all on Germany’s shrinking borders.

His recorded speech, broadcast at 10 p.m. that evening, amounted to little more than an attempt to stiffen morale, to appeal to fighting spirit, to demand extreme sacrifice in ‘the most serious crisis for Europe in many centuries’, and to emphasize his own will to fight on and refusal to contemplate anything other than victory. He referred, inevitably, to a ‘Jewish-international world conspiracy’, to ‘Kremlin Jews’, the ‘spectre of asiatic Bolshevism’, and of a ‘storm-flood from inner Asia’. But the military disasters of the previous fortnight were not touched upon with a single word. And only a single sentence mentioned ‘the horrible fate now taking place in the east, and eradicating people in their tens and hundreds of thousands in villages, in the marches, in the country, and in towns’, which would eventually ‘be fought off and mastered’. The speech could have appealed to few beyond remaining diehards.

That same day, 30 January, Speer had a memorandum passed to Hitler. It told him that the war economy and armaments production were at an end. Following the loss of Upper Silesia, there was no possibility of meeting the needs of the front in munitions, weapons, and tanks. ‘The material superiority of the enemy can, accordingly, no longer be compensated for by the bravery of our soldiers.’ Hitler’s cold response made plain that he did not take kindly to receiving such reports that smacked of defeatism. He forbade Speer to pass the memorandum to anyone, adding that conclusions from the armaments position were his alone to draw. Short of the miracle for which he was still waiting, it must nevertheless have been obvious to Hitler, as to all those around him, that Germany could last out neither economically nor militarily for much longer.

Speer, long after the events, posed the question why even at this point Hitler was not faced with any joint action from those with regular contact to him to demand an explanation of how he intended to bring the war to an end. (He gave no hint of what might have followed from such an unlikely scenario.) Göring, Himmler, Ribbentrop, and even in some ways Goebbels, had, after all, been among the Nazi leaders who at one time or another had broached the question of peace overtures to the enemy, which Hitler had repeatedly dismissed out of hand. Now the end was near, and Germany was facing not just military defeat but total destruction. ‘Surely something must happen,’ Speer whispered to Dönitz during a briefing in early February, when further disasters were reported. Dönitz replied coolly that he was there only to represent the navy. The Führer would know what he was doing.

The reply provided at the same time an answer to the question Speer raised many years later. There was no prospect of any united front against Hitler even now, and even among those who saw with crystal clarity the abyss looming before them. The aftermath of the plot against him the previous year had left none of his entourage in the slightest doubt of the ruthlessness with which he would turn on anyone seen as a threat. But the impossibility of any combined front against Hitler did not rest alone, or even primarily, on fear. The innermost structure of the regime had long depended upon the way Hitler could play off his paladins against each other. Their deep divisions and animosities were reconciled only in their unquestioning loyalty and adherence to the Leader, from whom all remaining shreds of power and authority were still drawn. The Führer cult was still far from dead in this inner part of the ‘charismatic community’. Keitel, Jodl, and Dönitz, among the highest ranks of the military leaders, were still wholly bound to Hitler, their loyalty unshaken, their admiration undiluted. Göring, his prestige at rock-bottom, had long since lost all energy to undertake anything against Hitler, and certainly lacked the will to do so. The same was true of Ribbentrop, who was in any case devoid of friends within the Nazi hierarchy and held by most in contempt as well as loathing. Goebbels, Labour Front leader Robert Ley, and, not least, the party leader in closest proximity to Hitler, Martin Bormann, were among the most radical supporters of his uncompromising line and remained wholly loyal. Speer, for his part, was – whatever his post-war feelings – one of the least likely to lead a fronde against Hitler, confront him with an ultimatum, or serve as focal point of a combined approach to put pressure on him. The scenario contemplated by Speer long after the events was, therefore, utterly inconceivable. The ‘charismatic community’ was compelled by its inner logic to follow the Leader on whom it had always depended – even when he was visibly taking it to perdition.


The government quarter of Berlin, like much of the rest of the city, was already a dismal and depressing sight even before, in broad daylight on 3 February, a huge American fleet of bombers unleashed a new hail of destruction from the skies in the heaviest raid of the war on the Reich capital. The Old Reich Chancellery, the neo-baroque palace dating back to Bismarck’s time, was ruined, now little more than an empty shell. The New Reich Chancellery, designed by Speer, also suffered a number of direct hits. Bormann’s headquarters in the Party Chancellery were severely damaged, and other buildings at the hub of the Nazi empire were demolished fully or in part. The whole area was a mass of rubble. Bomb craters pitted the Chancellery garden. For a time there was a complete power-failure, and water was available only from a water-cart standing in front of the Reich Chancellery. But unlike most of the population in the bombed-out districts of Berlin and elsewhere, at least the leaders of the Third Reich could still find alternative shelter and accommodation, however modest by their standards.

His apartments in the Reich Chancellery largely gutted by incendiaries, Hitler now moved underground for much of the time, shuffling down the seemingly unending stone steps, flanked by bare concrete walls, that led to the claustrophobic, labyrinthine subterranean world of the Führer Bunker, a two-storey construction deep below the garden of the Reich Chancellery. The enormous bunker complex had been deepened in 1943 – extending an earlier bunker (originally meant for possible future use as an air-raid shelter) dating from 1936 – and heavily reinforced during Hitler’s stay at his western headquarters. The complex was completely self-contained, with its own heating, lighting, and water-pumps run from a diesel generator. Hitler had slept there since returning to Berlin. From now on, it would provide a macabre domicile for the remaining weeks of his life.

The bunker was far removed from the palatial surrounds to which he had been accustomed since 1933. An attempt to retain a degree of splendour at least remained in the corridor leading up to his bunker, which had been converted into a type of waiting-room, laid with a red carpet, and provided with rows of elegant chairs lined against walls hung with paintings brought down from his apartments. From here, a small ante-room gave way to the curtained entrance to his study. This was only around nine by twelve feet in size and seemed oppressive. A door on the right opened on to his bedroom, which had doors leading into a small briefing room, into his bathroom, and a tiny dressing room (and from there into what was to become Eva Braun’s bedroom). A writing-desk, a small sofa, a table, and three armchairs were squeezed into the study, making it cramped and uncomfortable. A large portrait of Frederick the Great entirely dominated the room, offering a constant reminder to Hitler of the seeming rewards for holding out when all appeared lost until the tide miraculously turned. ‘When bad news threatens to crush my spirit I derive fresh courage from the contemplation of this picture,’ Hitler was heard to remark.

At first, even after he had moved his living quarters into the bunker, Hitler continued to spend part of the day in the undamaged wing of the Reich Chancellery. He lunched each day with his secretaries behind closed curtains in a dingy room lit by electric light. Since the operations room in the Old Reich Chancellery building was no longer usable, the afternoon military conferences, usually beginning about 3 p.m. and lasting two to three hours, were at this time held around the map-table in Hitler’s imposing study in the New Reich Chancellery, with its polished floor, thick carpet, paintings, leather armchairs and couch, and – remarkably – still intact grey-curtained ceiling-high windows. The circle of participants had by now been widened to include Bormann, Himmler, Kaltenbrunner, and often Ribbentrop. Afterwards, Hitler would usually drink a cup of tea with his secretaries and adjutants before returning to the safety of his underground abode. For the evening meal his entourage trekked through kitchens and corridors, past machine rooms, ventilation shafts, and toilets, through two heavy iron gates, and down to the Führer Bunker. The first time he ventured down to visit Hitler, Goebbels spoke of finding his way through the corridors ‘just like in a maze of trenches’. Over the next weeks, Hitler transferred almost all of his activities to the bunker, leaving it only for occasional snatches of fresh air to let Blondi out for a few minutes in the Chancellery garden or to take lunch with his secretaries above ground. From then on, he seldom saw daylight. For him and his ‘court’, spending almost their entire existence in the confines of the underground headquarters, night and day lost most of their meaning.

Hitler’s day usually began around this time with the sound of air-raid sirens in the late morning. Linge was instructed to wake him, if he were not already awake, at noon, sometimes as late as 1 p.m. Often – probably affected by the unholy concoction of pills, potions, and injections he had daily (including stimulants as well as sedatives) – he had slept, so he claimed, for as little as three hours. The air-raids made him anxious. He would immediately dress and shave. The outer appearance of the Führer had to be maintained. He could not face his entourage unshaven and in night clothes even during an air-raid. The afternoons were almost exclusively taken up with lunch and the first of the lengthy twice-daily military briefings. The evening meal, usually not beginning until eight o’clock, sometimes later, frequently dragged out until late in the evening. Hitler sometimes retired for an hour or two, taking a sleep until it was time for the second military briefing. By now, it was usually 1 a.m. By the end of the briefing – invariably stressful in the extreme for all who attended, including Hitler himself – he was ready to slump on the sofa in his room. He was not too tired, however, to hold forth to his secretaries and other members of his close circle, summoned to join him for tea in the middle of the night. He would regale them, as he had done throughout the war, for up to two hours with banalities and monologues about the Church, race problems, the classical world, or the German character. After fondling Blondi and playing for a while with her puppy (which he had named ‘Wolf’), he would at last allow his secretaries to retreat and finally retire himself to bed. It was by then, as a rule, according to Linge’s planned schedule, around five o’clock in the morning, though in practice often much later.

A piece of pure escapism punctuated at this time Hitler’s daily dose of gloom from the fronts: his visits to the model of his home-town Linz, his intended place of retirement, as it was to have been rebuilt at the end of the war, following a glorious German victory. The model had been designed by his architect Hermann Giesler (who had been commissioned by Hitler in autumn 1940 with the rebuilding of Linz), and was set up in February 1945 in the spacious cellar of the New Reich Chancellery. In January 1945, as the failure of the Ardennes offensive became apparent, as the eastern front caved in under the Red Army’s assault, and as bombs rained down also on the Danube region in which Linz was situated, Giesler’s office was repeatedly telephoned by Hitler’s adjutants, and by Bormann. The Führer kept speaking of the model of Linz, they told Giesler; when would it be ready for him to inspect?

Giesler’s team worked through the nights to meet Hitler’s request. When the model was finally ready for him to see, on 9 February, Hitler was entranced. Bent over the model, he viewed it from all angles, and in different kinds of lighting. He asked for a seat. He checked the proportions of the different buildings. He asked about the details of the bridges. He studied the model for a long time, apparently lost in thought. While Giesler stayed in Berlin, Hitler accompanied him twice daily to view the model, in the afternoon and again during the night. Others in his entourage were taken down to have his building plans explained to them as they pored over the model. Looking down on the model of a city which, he knew, would never be built, Hitler could fall into reverie, revisiting the fantasies of his youth, when he would dream with his friend Kubizek about rebuilding Linz. They were distant days. It was soon back to a far harsher reality.

He spoke with Goebbels early in February about the defence of Berlin. They discussed the possible evacuation of some of the government offices to Thuringia. Hitler told Goebbels, however, that he was determined to stay in Berlin ‘and to defend the city’. Hitler was still optimistic that the Oder front could be held. Goebbels was more sceptical. Hitler and Goebbels spoke of the war in the east as a historic struggle to save the ‘European cultural world’ from latter-day Huns and Mongols. Those would fare best who had burnt their boats and contemplated no compromises. ‘At any rate we never entertain even a thought of capitulation,’ noted Goebbels. Nevertheless, with Hitler still adamant that the coalition against him would collapse within the year, Goebbels recommended putting out feelers for an opening to the British. He did not embroider upon how this might be achieved. Hitler, as always, claimed the time was not conducive to such a move. Indeed, he feared that the British might turn to more draconian war methods, including the use of poison gas. In such an eventuality, he was determined to have large numbers of the Anglo-American prisoners in German hands shot.

On the evening of 12 February, ‘the Big Three’ – Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill – put out a communiqué from Yalta on the Crimea, where they had been conferring for a week, spending much of the time on the post-war shape of Germany and Europe. The communiqué left the Nazi leadership under no illusions about Allied plans for Germany: the country would be divided and demilitarized, its industry controlled, reparations paid; war criminals would be put on trial; the Nazi Party would be abolished. ‘We know now where we are,’ commented Goebbels. Hitler was immediately informed. He seemed unimpressed. He needed no further confirmation of his unchanging view that capitulation was pointless. The Allied leaders, he commented, ‘want to separate the German people from its leadership. I’ve always said: there’s no question of another capitulation.’ After a brief pause, he added: ‘History does not repeat itself.’

The following night, the city centre of Dresden was obliterated. Hitler heard the news of the devastation stony-faced, fists clenched. Goebbels, said to have been shaking with fury, immediately demanded the execution of tens of thousands of Allied prisoners-of-war, one for each citizen killed in air-raids. Hitler was taken with the idea. Brutal German treatment of prisoners-of-war would, he was certain, prompt retaliation by the Allies. That would deter German soldiers on the western front from deserting. Guderian recalled Hitler stating: ‘The soldiers on the eastern front fight far better. The reason they give in so easily in the west is simply the fault of that stupid Geneva convention which promises them good treatment as prisoners. We must scrap this idiotic convention.’ It took the efforts of Jodl, Keitel, Dönitz, and Ribbentrop, viewing such a reaction as counter-productive, to dissuade him from such a drastic step.

A few days later, Hitler summoned the Gauleiter, his most trusted party viceroys, to the Reich Chancellery for what would prove to be a final meeting. The last time they had assembled had been in early August of the previous year, shortly after Stauffenberg’s attempt on Hitler’s life. The present occasion was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the proclamation of the Party Programme in the Hofbräuhaus in Munich on 24 February 1920.

Hitler had frequently addressed the Gauleiter at moments of crisis during the past years. The real purpose of the present gathering was to rally the core of his support as the regime faced its gravest crisis. He had nothing resembling good news to impart. In the west, the Allies were pressing towards the Rhine. In the east, the counter-offensive launched a few days earlier in Pomerania offered no more than a fleeting ray of light in the deep gloom. Himmler’s Army Group Vistula was encountering that very day a renewed assault from the Red Army. The absence of Erich Koch, whose East Prussian Gau was almost completely cut off by the Red Army, and Karl Hanke, besieged in Breslau, was a reminder of the fate of the eastern provinces. And the cluster of Gauleiter pressing Martin Mutschmann, Gauleiter of Saxony, for news about Dresden, or their party comrades from the Rhineland about the failure of the Ardennes offensive and the fighting in the west, told its own tale.

Hitler’s appearance, when he entered the hall at 2 p.m. that afternoon, was a shock to many of the Gauleiter, who had not seen him for six months or so. His physical condition had deteriorated sharply even during the space of those six months. He was more haggard, aged, and bent than ever, shuffling in an unsteady gait as if dragging his legs. His left hand and arm trembled uncontrollably. His face was drained of colour; his eyes bloodshot, with bags underneath them; occasionally a drop of saliva trickled from the corner of his mouth.

Bormann had warned the Gauleiter in advance not to raise any criticism. There was, as ever, little likelihood of confrontation. But the sympathy at Hitler’s outward appearance did deflect from the initial critical mood. Perhaps playing on this, he gave up at one point an attempt to raise a glass of water to his mouth in a trembling hand, without spilling it, and made reference to his own debilitation. He spoke sitting down at a small table for an hour and a half, his notes spread out in front of him. He began, as so often, with the ‘heroic’ party history. With present and future so bleak, he had come more and more to take refuge in the ‘triumphs’ of the past. He looked back now once more to the First World War, his decision to enter politics, and the struggle of National Socialism in the Weimar Republic. He lauded the new spirit created by the party after 1933. But his audience did not want to hear of the distant past. They were anxious to know how, if at all, he would overcome the overwhelming crisis currently sweeping over them. As usual, he dealt only in generalities. He spoke of the approaching decisive hour of the war, which would determine the shape of the coming century. He pointed as usual to the ‘new weapons’, which would bring about the change in fortune, praising the jets and new U-boats. His main aim was to fire up his sturdiest supporters for a final effort, to stiffen their morale and enthuse them to fight to the end so that they in turn would stir up the people in their region to selfless sacrifice, indomitable defence, and refusal to capitulate. If the German people should lose the war, he declared (in a further demonstration of his unchanged social-Darwinism), then it would indicate that it did not possess the ‘internal value’ that had been attributed to it, and he would have no sympathy with this people. He tried to persuade the Gauleiter that he alone could judge the course of events correctly. But even in this circle, among the party chieftains who for so many years had been the backbone of his power, few could share his optimism. His ability to motivate his closest supporters by the force of his rhetoric had dissolved.

This was even more the case for the mass of the population, where the words of the greatest demagogue known to history had by this time been drained of all impact, and were generally regarded as little more than empty phrases, bearing the promise of nothing other than further suffering until the war could be ended. The anniversary of the promulgation of the Party Programme had, until 1942, been traditionally the date of a big speech by Hitler in the Festsaal of the Hofbräuhaus in Munich. In 1945, as in 1942 and 1943, Hitler confined himself to a proclamation. Read out by Hermann Esser, one of his Munich cronies from the early days of the party, the proclamation was to prove Hitler’s final public statement to the German people.

It amounted to no more than yet a further repeat of the long empty phrases of the old message. National Socialism alone had given the people the toughness to combat the threat to its very existence of an ‘unnatural alliance’, ‘a diabolical pact between democratic capitalism and Jewish Bolshevism’. The atrocities of Bolshevism – ‘this Jewish plague’ – were now being experienced directly in the eastern parts of the Reich. Only ‘extreme fanaticism and resolute steadfastness’ could ward off the peril of ‘this Jewish-Bolshevik annihilation of peoples and its west European and American pimps’. Weakness would and must perish. It was a ‘duty to maintain the freedom of the German nation for the future’ and – the unmistakable attempt to shore up fighting spirit through instilling fear – ‘not to let German labour be shipped off to Siberia’. Its fanatical hatred for ‘the destroyer of mankind’ bolstered by the suffering it had endured, National Socialist Germany would continue the fight until ‘the historical turning’ came about. It would be that year. He ended on a note of pathos. His life had only the value it possessed for the nation. He wanted to share the suffering of the people, and almost regretted that the Berghof had not been bombed, which would have enabled him to share the sense of loss of possessions. (On this, the Allies were ready to oblige a few weeks later.) ‘The life left to us,’ he declared at the close, ‘can serve only one command, that is to make good what the international Jewish criminals and their henchmen have done to our people.’

A poignant commentary was voiced in the routine report of the SD station in Berchtesgaden, where once thousands of ‘pilgrims’ had poured in to try to catch a glance of the Führer during his stays at the Berghof. ‘Among the overwhelming majority of people’s comrades,’ the report ran, ‘the content of the proclamation whistled by like the wind in the empty boughs.’

It was presumably Hitler’s sensitivity to his public image that made him refuse Goebbels’s request for a press report to shore up morale. He must have been alert to the inevitable derision that would be induced by reports of soldiers – many of them by now no more than boys – cheering him on a brief visit he and a small entourage had paid on 3 March to troops at Wriezen, some forty miles north-east of Berlin, just behind the Oder front. The news from the eastern front had left Hitler in a depressed mood, the shaking left hand more noticeable than ever, when the Propaganda Minister saw him the following evening. In Pomerania, Soviet tanks had broken through and were now outside Kolberg, on the Baltic. (When the town finally had to be evacuated later in the month, Goebbels suppressed the news because of the blatantly contradictory image of the nationalist epic colour-film he had had made on the town’s stand against Napoleon, meant to stir modern-day defiance against the Red Army.) Himmler, the commander of Army Group Vistula, responsible for Pomerania’s defence, had taken to his sick-bed – suffering, it seems, from nothing worse than a heavy cold on top of overwrought nerves – and retreated to the clinic at Hohenlychen, sixty or so miles north of Berlin, for convalescence. Hitler, as always, blamed the General Staff for the debacle. He was still hopeful of blocking the Red Army’s advance; Goebbels had his doubts. Further south, the Czech industrial areas were under dire threat. Without them, Goebbels could not see how minimal armaments demands could any longer be met. Hitler hoped they could hold out, there and in Silesia, and inflict serious reverses on the Red Army with a counter-offensive – to prove the last of the war – beginning on 6 March.

In the west, Hitler was still optimistic about holding the Rhine. In reality, US troops were on the verge of entering Cologne, and only days later would take the bridge at Remagen and secure a foothold across the mighty artery. Goebbels, ready as so often to counter Hitler’s instinctive optimism with cautious hints of realism, pointed out that, should the western defences not hold, ‘our last political war argument would collapse’, since the Anglo-Americans would be able to penetrate to central Germany and would have no interest in any negotiations. The growing crisis in the Alliance remained a straw to clutch at. But Goebbels was aware that Germany might be prostrate before it materialized.

Hitler still thought Stalin more likely than the western powers to show interest in negotiations. Whereas Roosevelt and Churchill would have difficulties with public opinion, Stalin could ignore it in reversing his war-policy overnight. But, as always, Hitler emphasized that the basis of any ‘special peace’ could only be military success. Pushing the Soviets back and inflicting heavy losses on them would make them more amenable. A new division of Poland, the return of Hungary and Croatia to German sovereignty, and operational freedom against the West would, Hitler hoped, be the prize. Thereafter, his aim, according to Goebbels, was to ‘continue the struggle against England with the most brutal energy’. Britain, he thought, turning on the country that had spurned his earlier advances, was the ‘eternal trouble-causer in Europe’. Sweeping it out of the Continent for good would bring Germany – at least for a while – some peace. Goebbels reflected that the Soviet atrocities were a handicap for Hitler’s way forward. But he noted laconically that Europe had once survived the ravages of the Mongols: ‘The storms from the east come and go, and Europe has to cope with them.’

Goebbels remained the fervent devotee of Hitler that he had been for twenty years. Though often frustrated and critical behind his leader’s back at what he saw as undue reluctance to take measures necessary to radicalize the home front, and weakness in personnel matters – particularly the repeated unwillingness to dismiss Göring and Ribbentrop (both of whom he saw as bearing undue responsibility for Germany’s plight) – Goebbels never ceased to be enthused once more by Hitler after spending time in his company. For Goebbels, Hitler’s determination and optimism shone through the ‘desolate mood’ of the Reich Chancellery. ‘If anyone can master the crisis, then he can,’ the Propaganda Minister remarked. ‘No one else can be found who is anywhere near touching him.’

But, though his personal subordination for the father-figure he had for so long revered remained, even Goebbels was no longer persuaded by Hitler’s apparent confidence in turning the tide. He was anticipating the end, looking to the history books. Magda and the children would join him and stay in Berlin, come what may, he told Hitler. If the struggle could not be mastered, then at least it had to be sustained with honour, he wrote. He was gripped by Thomas’s Carlyle’s biography, glorifying the heroism of Frederick the Great, and presented Hitler with a copy. He read out to him the passages relating the King’s reward for his unbending resolution in circumstances of mounting despair during the Seven Years War by the sudden and dramatic upturn in his fortunes. Hitler’s eyes filled with tears. Hitler, too, was looking to his place in history. ‘It must be our ambition,’ he told Goebbels on 11 March, ‘Heroes’ Memorial Day’, ‘also in our times to set an example for later generations to look to in similar crises and pressures, just as we today have to look to the past heroes of history.’ The theme ran through his proclamation to the Wehrmacht that day. He declared it his ‘unalterable decision … to provide the world to come with no worse example than bygone times have left us’. The sentence that followed encapsulated the essence of Hitler’s political ‘career’: ‘The year 1918 will therefore not repeat itself.’


To rule this out, no price – even self-destruction – was too high. In his characteristic ‘either-or’ way of thinking, Hitler had invariably posed total destruction as the alternative to the total victory for which he had striven. Inwardly convinced that his enemies were intent on bringing about that total destruction – the Morgenthau Plan of 1944, envisaging the reduction of a defeated Germany to the status of an agricultural country with a pre-industrial economy had given sustenance to this belief – no measure was for him too radical in the fight for survival. Consistent only with his own warped and peculiar brand of logic, he was prepared to take measures with such far-reaching consequences for the German population that the very survival he claimed to be fighting for was fundamentally threatened. Ultimately, the continued existence of the German people – if it showed itself incapable of defeating its enemies – was less important to him than the refusal to capitulate.

Few, even of his closest acolytes, were ready to follow this self-destructive urge to the letter. Albert Speer was one of those looking to the future after a lost war. Perhaps the ambitious Speer was still hoping to have some part to play in a Germany without Hitler. At any rate, he knew the war was irredeemably lost. And he was looking to save what could be saved of the economic substance of the country. He had no interest in a Germany going down in a maelstrom of destruction to satisfy the irrational and pointless principle of ‘heroic’ self-sacrifice rather than capitulation. He knew only too well that the preservation of Germany’s material substance for a post-Hitler future had long been the aim of the leading industrialists with whom he had worked so closely. He had hindered the implementation of Hitler’s orders for the destruction of French industry. And in recent weeks, he had arranged with Colonel-General Heinrici in Upper Silesia, Field-Marshal Model in the Ruhr (now on the verge of being taken by the western Allies), and Colonel-General Guderian for the entire eastern front that factories, mines, railways, roads, bridges, waterworks, gasworks, power-stations, and other installations vital to the German economy should be spared destruction wherever possible.

On 18 March, Speer passed to Below a memorandum he had drafted three days earlier. Below was to choose a favourable moment to hand it to Hitler. The memorandum stated plainly that the final collapse of the German economy would occur within four to eight weeks, after which the war could not be continued. The prime duty of those leading the country must be to do what they could for the civilian population. But detonating bridges, with the consequent major destruction of the transport infrastructure, would signify ‘the elimination of all further possibility of existence for the German people’. Speer concluded: ‘We have no right, at this stage of the war, to undertake destruction which could affect the existence of the people … We have the duty of leaving the people every possibility of establishing a reconstruction in the distant future.’

A strong hint of Hitler’s likely response could be gleaned at the military briefing that evening, when the topic arose of evacuation of the local population from the combat zone in the Saar. Despite an almost total lack of transport, Hitler’s express order was that the complete evacuation should be undertaken forthwith. Consideration could not be given to the population. A few hours after the briefing ended, just before Speer left for a tour of the threatened areas on the western front, Hitler summoned him. According to Speer’s recollection, noted down ten days later, Hitler told him coldly that should the war be lost, the people would also be lost, and that there was no need to take consideration even of its most primitive survival. The German people had proved the weaker in the struggle. Only those who were inferior would remain.

Hitler had promised Speer a written reply to his memorandum. It was not long in coming, and was predictably the opposite of what Speer had recommended. Whatever the cost, in Hitler’s view, intact vital installations for industrial production could not be allowed to fall into enemy hands as had happened in Upper Silesia and the Saar. His decree of 19 March, headed ‘Destructive Measures on Reich Territory’, was consistent with a philosophy by now wholly at odds with Speer’s. ‘The struggle for the existence of our people,’ his decree ran, ‘compels the use of all means, also within the territory of the Reich, to weaken the fighting power of our enemy and its further advance. All possibilities of imparting directly or indirectly lasting damage to the striking power of the enemy must be exploited. It is an error to believe that undestroyed or only temporarily disabled transport, communications, industrial, and supplies installations can again be made operational for our own purposes at the recapture of lost territories. The enemy will leave us only scorched earth at its retreat and drop any consideration for the population. I therefore order: 1) All military transport, communications, industrial, and supplies installations as well as material assets within Reich territory, which the enemy can render usable immediately or within the foreseeable future are to be destroyed. 2) Those responsible for the implementation of this destruction are: military command authorities for all military objects, including transport and communications installations, the Gauleiter and Reich Defence Commissars for all industrial and supplies installations and other material assets. The troops are to provide the necessary aid to the Gauleiter and Reich Defence Commissars in the implementation of their task …’

The decree was never put into practice. Though, initially, several Gauleiter – prominent among them Gauleiter Friedrich Karl Florian in Düsseldorf – were eager to carry out Hitler’s orders to the letter, Speer was eventually successful in persuading them of the futility of the intended action. In any case, the Gauleiter agreed that it was in practice impossible to implement the order. Model was one of the front-line military commanders also prepared to cooperate with Speer in keeping destruction of industrial plant to a minimum. By the end of March, with difficulty, Speer had managed to convince Hitler – aware though he was of the Armaments Minister’s effective sabotage of his order – that he should be granted overall responsibility for implementing all measures for destruction. This took the key decisions out of the hands of the Gauleiter, Hitler’s key representatives in the regions. It meant, as Hitler knew, that everything possible would be done to avoid the destruction he had ordered.

The non-implementation of the ‘scorched earth’ order was the first obvious sign that Hitler’s authority was beginning to wane, his writ ceasing to run. ‘We’re giving out orders in Berlin that in practice no longer arrive lower down, let alone can be implemented,’ remarked Goebbels at the end of March. ‘I see in that the danger of an extraordinary dwindling of authority.’

Hitler continued to see himself as indispensable. ‘If anything happens to me, Germany is lost, since I have no successor,’ he told his secretaries. ‘Heß has gone mad, Göring has squandered the sympathies of the German people, and Himmler is rejected by the party,’ was his assessment.

Hitler had been absolutely dismissive of Göring’s leadership qualities in ‘turbulent times’ in speaking to Goebbels in mid-February 1945. As ‘leader of the nation’, he was ‘utterly unimaginable’. Tirades about the Reich Marshal were commonplace. On one occasion, fists clenched, face flushed with anger, he humiliated Göring in front of all present at a military briefing, threatening to reduce him to the ranks and dissolve the Luftwaffe as a separate branch of the armed forces. Göring could only withdraw to the ante-room and swallow a few glasses of brandy. But despite regular exposure to Goebbels’s vitriol about the Reich Marshal and impassioned entreaties to dismiss him, Hitler persisted in his view that he had no suitable replacement.

Hitler’s attitude towards Himmler had also hardened. His blind fury at the retreat of divisions – including that specially named after him, the Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler – of Sepp Dietrich’s 6th Panzer Army in the face of heavy losses and imminent encirclement in bitter fighting on the Danube was directed at Himmler. The Reichsführer-SS was in despair at the breach with Hitler, symbolized in the order he was forced to carry to Dietrich commanding his four Waffen-SS divisions, among them the élite Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, to remove their armlets in disgrace. With Hitler now feeling betrayed even by his own SS commanders, Himmler’s waning star sank steeply through his own evident failings as Commander of Army Group Vistula. Hitler held the Reichsführer-SS personally responsible for the failure to block the Soviet advance through Pomerania. He accused him of having immediately fallen under the influence of the General Staff – a heinous offence in Hitler’s eyes – and even of direct disobedience of his orders to build up anti-tank defences in Pomerania. Blaming others as usual, he took the view that Pomerania could have been held if Himmler had followed his orders. He intended, he told Goebbels, to make plain to him at their next meeting that any repetition would lead to an irreparable breach. Whether the rift was further deepened through rumours abroad – in fact, close to the truth – linking Himmler’s name with peace soundings is unclear. But there was no doubt that Himmler’s standing with Hitler had slumped dramatically. The Reichsführer-SS remained, for his part, both dismayed at the rupture in relations, and cautious in the extreme, aware that even now his authority hinged solely on Hitler’s continued favour. But after being relieved of his command of Army Group Vistula on 20 March, Himmler increasingly went his own way.

The circle of those Hitler trusted was diminishing sharply. At the same time, his intolerance of any contradiction of his views had become as good as absolute. The one remaining voice among his generals which had been increasingly outspoken in its criticism was that of Colonel-General Guderian. Where Keitel spoke with so little authority that younger officers scornfully dubbed him the ‘Reich Garage Attendant’, and Jodl carefully attuned his briefings to Hitler’s moods and anticipated his wishes, Guderian was terse, pointed, and frank in his remarks. The conflicts, which had mounted since Christmas in their intensity, were ended abruptly at the end of March with Guderian’s dismissal. By that time, the final German offensive near Lake Balaton in Hungary, started on 6 March, had failed and the Soviets were marching on the last remaining oil reserves open to Germany; the Red Army had meanwhile cut off Königsberg in East Prussia, broken through at Oppeln in Upper Silesia, taken Kolberg on the Baltic coast, opened up German defences close to Danzig, and surrounded the SS battalions fiercely defending the strategically important stronghold of Küstrin on the Oder. In the west, outside Guderian’s sphere of responsibility, the news was at least as sombre. General Patton’s 3rd US Army had taken Darmstadt and reached the river Main; and American tanks had entered the outskirts of Frankfurt. Hitler had not expected the western front to collapse so rapidly. As always, he smelled betrayal. And, characteristically, he was now ready to make Guderian the scapegoat for the dire situation on the eastern front.

Guderian had been expecting a stormy meeting when he arrived at Hitler’s bunker on 28 March for the afternoon briefing. He was determined to continue his defence of General Theodor Busse against the accusation that he held responsibility for the failure of his 9th Army to relieve the encircled troops at Küstrin. But Hitler was not prepared to listen. He peremptorily adjourned the meeting, keeping only Keitel and Guderian back. Without demur, the Chief of Staff was told that his health problems demanded he take with immediate effect six weeks’ convalescent leave. He was replaced by the more compliant General Hans Krebs.

Reports were by now coming in from Kesselring’s headquarters that the western front in the region of Hanau and Frankfurt am Main was showing serious signs of disintegration. White flags were being hoisted; women were embracing American soldiers as they entered; troops, not wanting to fight any longer, were fleeing from any prospect of battle or simply surrendering. Kesselring wanted Hitler to speak without delay to shore up the wavering will to fight. Goebbels agreed. Churchill and Stalin had both spoken to their nations at times of utmost peril. Germany’s position was even worse. ‘In such a serious situation, the nation cannot remain without an appeal from the highest authority,’ Goebbels noted. He telephoned General Burgdorf, Hitler’s chief Wehrmacht adjutant, and impressed upon him the need to persuade Hitler to speak to the German people. Next day, walking for an hour among the ruins of the Reich Chancellery garden alongside the bent figure of Hitler, Goebbels tried to exert all his own influence in pleading with him to give a ten- or fifteen-minute radio address. Hitler did not want to speak, however, ‘because at present he has nothing positive to offer’. Goebbels did not give up. Hitler finally agreed. But Goebbels’s evident scepticism proved justified. A few days later, Hitler again promised to give his speech – but only after he had gained a success in the west. He knew he should speak to the people. But the SD had informed him that his previous speech – his proclamation on 24 February – had been criticized for not saying anything new. And Goebbels acknowledged that, indeed, he had nothing new to offer the people. The Propaganda Minister repeated his hope that Hitler would nevertheless speak to them. ‘The people were waiting for at least a slogan,’ he urged. But Hitler had by now even run out of propaganda slogans for the people of Germany.

Goebbels remained puzzled – and, behind his admiration, irritated and frustrated – at Hitler’s reluctance to take what the Propaganda Minister regarded as vital, radical steps even at this later hour to change Germany’s fortunes. In this, he privately reflected, Frederick the Great had been far more ruthless. Hitler, by contrast, accepted the diagnosis of the problem. But no action followed. He took the setbacks and grave dangers, thought Goebbels, too lightly – at least, he pointedly added, in his presence; ‘privately, he will certainly think differently.’ He was still confident of the split among the Allies he had so long been predicting. ‘But it pains me,’ Goebbels noted, ‘that he is at present not to be moved to do anything to deepen the political crisis in the enemy camp. He doesn’t change personnel, either in the Reich government or in the diplomatic service. Göring stays. Ribbentrop stays. All failures – apart from the second rank – are retained, and it would in my view be so necessary to undertake here in particular a change of personnel because this would be of such decisive importance for the morale of our people. I press and press; but I can’t convince the Führer of the necessity of these measures that I put forward.’ It was, Goebbels pointed out, ‘as if he lived in the clouds’.

Not only Hitler held on to a make-believe world. ‘One day, the Reich of our dreams will emerge,’ wrote Gerda Bormann to her husband. ‘Shall we, I wonder, or our children, live to see it?’ ‘I have every hope that we shall!’ jotted Martin, between the lines. ‘In some ways, you know, this reminds me of the “Twilight of the Gods” in the Edda,’ Gerda’s letter continued. ‘The monsters are storming the bridge of the Gods … the citadel of the Gods crumbles, and all seems lost; and then, suddenly a new citadel rises, more beautiful than ever before … We are not the first to engage in mortal combat with the powers of the underworld, and that we feel impelled, and are also able, to do so should give us a conviction of ultimate victory.’

An air of unreality also pervaded, in part, the administrative machines of party and state. Though, certainly, the state bureaucracy – now mostly removed from Berlin – was confronted with the actualities of a lost war in trying to cope with the acute problems of refugees from the east, housing the homeless from bomb-damaged cities, and ensuring that public facilities were kept running, much of what remained of civil administration – massively hampered through repeated breakdowns in postal and rail communications – had little to do with the everyday needs of the population. The sober-minded and long-serving Finance Minister, Lutz Graf Schwerin von Krosigk, for instance, completed at the end of March his plans for tax reform – criticized by Goebbels (as if they were about to be implemented) for their ‘unsocial’ emphasis on consumer tax, which would affect the mass of the population, rather than income tax. That much of the country was by this time under enemy occupation seemed irrelevant.

Meanwhile, Martin Bormann was still working feverishly on restructuring the party to control the new, peacetime Germany that would emerge from the war. And as the Reich shrank, lines of communication disintegrated, and directives became increasingly overtaken by events, he sent more circulars, decrees, and promulgations than ever – over 400 in the last four months of the war – cascading down to lower functionaries of the party. ‘Again a mass of new decrees and orders pour in from Bormann,’ noted Goebbels on 4 April. ‘Bormann has made a paper chancellery out of the Party Chancellery. Every day he sends out a mountain of letters and files which Gauleiter at present in the midst of the struggle can in practice not even read. In part, it’s a matter of completely useless stuff of no value for the practical struggle.’ A party bureaucracy in overdrive poured out regulations on provision of bread grain, small-arms training of women and girls, repair of railways and road communications, eking out additional food from wild vegetables, fruit, and mushrooms, and a host of other issues.

Alongside such miscellanea went the constant demands and exhortations to hold out, whatever the cost. Bormann informed party functionaries on 1 April that summary and draconian punishment for desertion awaited ‘any scoundrel … who does not fight to the last breath’. He detailed functionaries to work with Wehrmacht units in stiffening morale in areas close to the front and to set up quasi-guerrilla organizations such as the ‘Freikorps Adolf Hitler’ (drawn from the party’s functionaries) and the ‘Werwolf ’ (to be made up largely of Hitler Youth members) to carry on the fight through partisan activity in the occupied areas of the Reich. German propaganda sought to convey the impression to the Allies that they were endangered by an extensively organized underground resistance-movement. In practice, the ‘Werwolf ’was of scant military significance, and was mainly a threat, in its arbitrary and vicious retribution, to German citizens revealing any traces of ‘defeatism’.

On 15 April Bormann put out a circular to Political Leaders of the Party: ‘The Führer expects that you will master every situation in your Gaue, if necessary with lightning speed and extreme brutality …’ Like more and more of his missives, it existed largely on paper. Correspondence to reality was minimal. It was a classic illustration of the continuing illusory and despairing belief in the triumph of will alone. But even the unconstrained and arbitrary violence of a regime patently in its death-throes could not contain the open manifestations of disintegration. Ever fewer brown party uniforms were to be seen on the streets. And ever more party functionaries were disappearing into the ether as the enemy approached, looking more to self-preservation than to heroic last stands. ‘The behaviour of our Gau and District Leaders in the west has led to a strong drop in confidence among the population,’ commented Goebbels. ‘As a consequence, the Party is fairly played out in the west.’

During early April, the last German troops pulled out of Hungary. Bratislava fell to the Red Army as it advanced on Vienna. To the north, the German troops cut off in Königsberg surrendered the city on 9 April. In the west, Allied troops pushed through Westphalia, taking Münster and Hamm. By 10 April, Essen and Hanover were in American hands. The vice was tightening on the Ruhr, Germany’s battered industrial heartland. A sudden shaft of optimism penetrated the dense gloom enveloping Hitler’s bunker: the news came through of the death on 12 April, at his winter retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia, of one of his greatest adversaries, and linchpin in the unholy coalition of forces against him, President Roosevelt.

Goebbels rang up, elated, to congratulate Hitler. Two weeks earlier, the Propaganda Minister had been given a file of astrological material, including a horoscope of the Führer. It prophesied an improvement in Germany’s military position in the second half of April. Goebbels’s sole interest in the material, he said, was for propaganda purposes, to give people something to cling on to. It served this purpose now, for the moment, for Hitler. ‘Here, read this!’ Hitler, looking revitalized and in an excited voice, instructed Speer. ‘Here! You never wanted to believe it. Here! … Here we have the great miracle that I always foretold. Who’s right now? The war is not lost. Read it! Roosevelt is dead!’ It seemed to him like the hand of Providence yet again. Goebbels, fresh from his reading of Carlyle’s biography of Frederick the Great, reminded Hitler of the death of the Czarina Elisabeth that had brought a sudden change of fortune for the Prussian King in the Seven Years War. The artificial coalition enemies aligned against Germany would now break up. History was repeating itself. Whether Hitler was as convinced as he seemed that the hand of Providence had produced the turning-point of the war is uncertain. One close to him in these days, his Luftwaffe adjutant Nicolaus von Below, thought him more sober at the news than Goebbels – whose cynical eye was, as always, directed at the possible propaganda advantages.

Even for those who saw him at close quarters, it was difficult to be sure of Hitler’s true feelings about the war. Field-Marshal Kesselring, who saw Hitler for the last time on 12 April, the day of Roosevelt’s death, later recalled: ‘He was still optimistic. How far he was play-acting it is hard to decide. Looking back, I am inclined to think that he was literally obsessed with the idea of some miraculous salvation, that he clung to it like a drowning man to a straw.’

Whether genuine or contrived, Hitler’s jubilation did not last long. On 13 April, the news was given to him that Vienna had been taken by the Red Army. The following day, American attacks succeeded in splitting German forces defending the Ruhr. Within three days, the fighting in the Ruhr was over. Field-Marshal Model, a long-standing favourite of Hitler, dissolved his encircled Army Group B rather than offer formal capitulation. It made no difference. Around 325,000 German troops and thirty generals gave themselves up to the Americans on 17 April. Model committed suicide four days later in a wooded area south of Duisburg.

On 15 April, in anticipation of a new Soviet offensive – which he thought, probably taken in by Stalin’s disinformation directed at the western Allies, would first sweep through Saxony to Prague to head off the Americans before tackling Berlin – Hitler had issued a ‘basic order’ for the eventuality that the Reich might be split in two. He set up a supreme commander – in effect his military representative – to take full responsibility for the defence of the Reich, should communications be broken, in whichever part he himself was not situated. Grand-Admiral Dönitz was designated for the northern zone, Field-Marshal Kesselring for the south. The implication was that Hitler was keeping the option open of carrying on the fight from the south, in the fastness of the Bavarian Alps.

On the same day, Hitler issued what would turn out to be his last proclamation to the soldiers on the eastern front. It played heavily on the stories of Soviet atrocities. ‘For the last time, the Jewish-Bolshevik mortal enemy has set out with its masses on the attack,’ it began. ‘He is attempting to demolish Germany and to exterminate our people. You soldiers from the East know yourselves in large measure what fate threatens above all German women, girls, and children. While old men and children are murdered, women and girls are denigrated to barrack-whores. The rest are marched off to Siberia.’ It went on to alert the troops to the slightest sign of treachery, particularly – the long-standing exaggeration of the influence of the National Committee for a Free Germany, established in Moscow by captured German officers – troops fighting against them in German uniforms receiving Russian pay. Anyone not known to them ordering a retreat was to be captured and ‘if need be immediately dispatched, irrespective of rank’. The proclamation had its climax in the slogan: ‘Berlin stays German, Vienna will be German again, and Europe will never be Russian.’

It was to no avail. In the early hours of 16 April, a huge artillery barrage announced the launch of the awaited assault from the line of the Oder and Neisse rivers by over a million Soviet troops under Marshal Zhukov and Marshal Konev. The German defenders from the 9th Army and, to its south, the 4th Panzer Army fought tenaciously. The Soviets suffered some significant losses. For a few hours, the front held. But the odds were hopeless. During the afternoon, after renewed heavy artillery bombardment, the German line was broken north of Küstrin on the west bank of the Oder. The gap between the 9th Army and the 4th Panzer Army quickly widened. Soviet infantry poured through, rapidly followed by hundreds of tanks, and over the next two days extended and consolidated their hold in the area south of Frankfurt an der Oder. From then on the Oder front caved in completely. There could now be only one outcome. The Red Army drove on over and past the lingering defences. Berlin was directly in its sights.

General Busse’s 9th Army was pushed back towards the south of the city. Hitler had ordered Busse to hold a line which his Army Group Commander, Colonel-General Heinrici, had thought exposed the 9th Army to encirclement. Ignoring Hitler’s orders, Heinrici nevertheless commanded withdrawal westwards. By that time, only parts of Busse’s army could evade imminent encirclement. Meanwhile, the German General Staff was forced to flee from its headquarters in secure bunkers at Zossen to the Wannsee – its column of retreating vehicles mistaken by German planes for part of a Soviet unit and attacked from the air as they went. To the north, the forces under Colonel-General Heinrici and SS-Obergruppenführer Felix Steiner were the last barrier to the ever more menacing prospect of encirclement of the city as the Red Army pushed through Eberswalde to Oranienburg. By 20 April, Soviet tanks had reached the outskirts of the capital. That afternoon, Berlin was under fire.

The rumble of artillery fire could be plainly heard from the Reich Chancellery. There, with the Red Army on the doorstep, and to the accompaniment of almost non-stop bombing by Allied planes, leading Nazis gathered for what they knew would be the last time – to celebrate Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday, and, in most cases, to say their farewells. It was the start of the last rites for the Third Reich.

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