As the spring of 1944 approached, German attention was focused on the anticipated Allied invasion of Northern Europe, and it was a time of mounting anxiety in the Reich. In March, the Gestapo reported that “the new developments in the East, the air war, and waiting for the invasion are making it hard to see a realistic way out of this bungled situation and to believe in a good outcome of the war.” The public followed with growing dismay the Russian advance on the Reich’s borderlands, and worries about the anticipated Allied invasion also weighed heavily on the home front. The outcome of that battle, Hitler believed, would be the critical turning point of the war, and in November 1943 he issued Führer Order No. 51. It read:
For the last two and a half years the bitter and costly struggle against Bolshevism has made the utmost demands upon the bulk of our military resources and energies. . . . The situation has since changed. The threat from the East remains, but an even greater danger looms in the West: the Anglo-American landing! In the East, the vastness of the space will, as a last resort, permit a loss of territory even on a major scale, without suffering a mortal blow to Germany’s chance for survival. Not so in the West! If the enemy here succeeds in penetrating our defense on a wide front, consequences of staggering proportions will follow within a short time. For that reason I can no longer justify the further weakening of the West in favor of other theaters of war. I have therefore decided to strengthen the defenses in the West.
His calculation was largely political, for if the invasion failed, the Western Allies would not try again for at least a year, and the Russians might seek a separate peace, especially since even if they reached the border of 1941, they would still be a thousand miles from Berlin. He named Field Marshal von Rundstedt, whom he had dismissed in 1942, to command all German forces in the West but placed Rommel, the most popular military figure in Germany, in command of all ground units in the key coastal areas of northern France and the Low Countries. It was an unorthodox arrangement, though perfectly consistent with Hitler’s leadership, and would guarantee that the essential unity of command would be in question from the very beginning. Both Rommel and Rundstedt agreed that the Pas-de-Calais in the north of France was the most likely site for the Allied landing—only twenty miles across the Strait of Dover, the narrowest part of the Channel. Initially Hitler agreed but then suddenly decided that the invasion would come in Normandy, a most unlikely spot due to its distance from Paris. It was exactly the sort of surprise that always delighted Hitler, something that he would do. The generals agreed to beef up defenses along the Normandy coast, but continued to believe that a landing in the Pas-de-Calais area offered the shortest route into France, and then a quick drive through the Low Countries into Germany and the Ruhr. That had to be prevented at all costs.
While Rundstedt and Rommel were confident that the invasion would come in Pas-de-Calais, their agreement ended there. Rommel was convinced that the Allies had to be stopped immediately on the beaches; if they were to get ashore and establish a beachhead, the battle would be lost. The first twenty-four hours of the invasion would, therefore, be what he called “the longest day,” the day on which the fate of Germany would hinge. Rundstedt, on the other hand, certainly wanted a vigorous defense on the beaches, but believed that attempting to defend a coastline of several hundred miles, building up defenses on all possible landing areas, was simply impossible. Rundstedt was keenly aware of Frederick the Great’s dictum that he who defends everything defends nothing. Instead, he favored mounting a mobile defense with a powerful strike force to counterattack after the main thrust of the invasion had been identified. Complicating matters further, Hitler insisted on his sole control of the so-called OKW reserves, consisting of four key panzer divisions that would be essential for a successful defense. Whether Rommel’s “halt them at the beaches” or Rundstedt’s mobile defense strategy was adopted, these four armor divisions would be essential to thwart the main Allied assault, and only Hitler could release them.
When at last the invasion came on the blustery dawn of June 6, it was in Normandy, and it caught the Germans by surprise. Due to a prevailing bad weather front estimated to last a week, German commanders in the West assumed that the attack would not come at that time and thought it safe to attend war games in Rouen. Rommel took the opportunity to travel home to Germany for his wife’s birthday. But the Allies, who could track weather fronts across the Atlantic while the Germans could not, had detected a break in the storm and gambled that it would hold for thirty-six crucial hours on June 5–6. Although Rundstedt was at first convinced that the reported landings in Normandy were a diversion, he tried to contact Hitler in Berchtesgaden to request that the Führer release the reserve panzer divisions. But Hitler was asleep—he had taken sleeping pills—and Jodl refused to wake him. Precious hours were lost until he was awakened and briefed on the situation. Much has been made of this failure, but it is unlikely that under the circumstances Hitler would have released the panzers on June 6. In fact, for a month after the invasion began both he and Rundstedt remained convinced that a second landing would be attempted and continued to assume that it would come to the north, somewhere between the Scheldt and the Seine.
In July, a full month after the landings, the Allied breakout from Normandy finally occurred, and German forces began falling back in a disorderly retreat. American troops raced to the south-southeast; Paris fell in August, Belgium in September. To the Allies’ great surprise, German forces managed to regroup, and in September repulsed a major offensive in Holland (Operation Market Garden) that would have allowed Allied forces to cross the Lower Rhine. The failure of that operation meant that the war would not be over by Christmas, as many in the West had come to believe, and it gave the Germans a chance to recover and prepare for the next Allied lunge forward. The Germans had averted disaster, but as summer turned to fall, the Wehrmacht was staggering, on the cusp of defeat.
As the vise closed on the Third Reich, grumbling on the home front mounted. Complaints were widespread, and criticism of local party officials was rampant, but given the repressive nature of the regime, such dissent, if it can be called that, did not rise to the level of systemic opposition, to say nothing of organized resistance. In the last year of the war, the Gestapo did, however, report that top leaders were increasingly coming under attack, especially Goebbels and Göring. Juvenile delinquency, which was surprisingly high in the prewar Third Reich, increased as the bombing and attendant blackouts offered ample opportunities for looting, robbery, and assault, but troubling as these developments were for the regime, they were not in the end political in nature. During the war, Gestapo, police, and judicial agencies stepped up their efforts to root out possible sources of dissent, making organized resistance virtually impossible. Any hint of dissent provoked a furious response; arrests and executions multiplied; paranoia flourished.
Despite the dangers involved, some individuals and groups did manage to engage in acts of resistance to the regime. Among the most active oppositional groups were the Communists. Although they had been hounded relentlessly since the Nazi Machtergreifung and their organizations were honeycombed with Gestapo spies, Communist cells remained, especially in the large cities. A network of more than twenty cells run by Robert Uhrig and Josef Römer was active in Berlin. The group printed a monthly “Information Service” pamphlet, which was distributed to Communist cells around the city as well as across Germany, calling for sabotage against industrial and military targets. Uhrig, Römer, and 150 other Communists were swept up in a Gestapo dragnet in 1942, and after two years’ imprisonment in a series of prisons and concentration camps, both men were guillotined in 1944. That same sweep led to the arrest of Anton Saefkow, who had taken up where Uhrig and Römer left off, distributing leaflets and aiding fugitives. Sixty members of his group were also arrested at that time, and all were executed in 1944.
The largest of the Communist groups active in Berlin was the “Red Orchestra,” led by Harro Schulze-Boysen, Arvid Harnack, and his American wife, Mildred Fish Harnack. Its primary activity was espionage, sending coded radio messages to Moscow. Because resistance radio operators were referred to as “pianists,” the Gestapo gave the group its musical name. The group was tracked down by the Gestapo in 1942, and Schulze-Boysen, the Harnacks, and the majority of its members were arrested. Most were tried before a military court and executed as spies. Isolated Communist cells continued their shadowy existence into the last months of the Third Reich, printing leaflets, painting anti-Nazi slogans on city walls, and trying to stay one step ahead of the Gestapo.
The Gestapo also expressed a growing concern about a significant uptick in church attendance, which it interpreted as a symptom of growing disaffection with National Socialism. The churches, both Protestant and Catholic, had been a source of trouble for the regime since the early days, and their protest against the euthanasia program had forced the regime to suspend that operation, if only briefly. During the war, sermons in both Catholic and Protestant churches, always monitored by the Gestapo, often expressed veiled criticisms of the regime, and as the war dragged on and Germany’s military fortunes sagged, many saw the church as a haven, an institution with some claim to independence. It was not the major figures of the churches that concerned the Nazis during the war, but local priests and ministers, whose sermons drew larger and larger audiences. As Germany’s military situation deteriorated, Nazi authorities throughout Catholic Germany had grown increasingly concerned about “competition with the clergy.” People were crowding into the churches “far more than in past years,” one report to Munich party headquarters noted, especially the rural population, and the regime was groping for “an effective counterweight to the increasing influence of the church.” One response was repression: more than four hundred priests were arrested and sent to Dachau.
On the whole the universities, with their starkly reduced enrollments, were quiet. But in 1942 a small group of students in Munich took bold—and suicidal—action against the regime. Calling themselves the White Rose, siblings Hans and Sophie Scholl, together with their friends Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst, Willi Graf, and philosophy professor Hans Huber, wrote a series of anti-Nazi leaflets, printing, and distributing them around the city. They painted slogans on walls—“FREEDOM,” “HITLER MASS MURDERER,” and “DOWN WITH HITLER.” They mailed copies of the leaflets to students in Hamburg, Berlin, and Vienna, urging them to make copies and distribute them in their communities. Hans Scholl and Alexander Schmorell were medical students and, as required of all medical students, had spent three months serving in Russia, where they were appalled by the slaughter of young German soldiers as well as the murderous SS actions against the Jews—an experience that gave them a deepened sense of urgency and purpose.
The leaflets—there were six in all—took the form of short essays, sprinkled with literary and philosophical references, and were aggressively antiwar and anti-Nazi. They created a stir among students when they surfaced in late 1942 and early 1943; they were, after all, the first open expressions of opposition against Hitler and his regime anyone had seen. “Don’t wait for someone else to take action,” the first leaflet urged. It was “the responsibility of every individual as a member of Christian and western culture” to guard against “the scourge of humanity, against Fascism, and every similar system of the absolutist state. Practice passive resistance—resistance wherever you are, prevent the continued functioning of this atheistic war machine before it is too late, before the last cities are reduced to rubble, like Cologne, and before the last of the Volk’s youth is bled to death for the hubris of a subhuman. Don’t forget, that every people deserves the regime it gets.” Although the group did not focus on Nazi crimes against the Jews, its second leaflet informed the public that “since the conquering of Poland 300,000 Jews in that country have been murdered in the most bestial way. Here we see the most frightful crimes against the dignity of man, crimes like no other in the whole of human history.” Its third leaflet called for “sabotage in armaments factories, sabotage of all meetings, demonstrations, celebrations, organizations of the National Socialist Party. Prevent the smooth functioning of the war machine that works for a war that only serves for the preservation and maintenance of the National Socialist Party and its dictatorship.”
On February 18, 1943, the day of Goebbels’s Total War speech, the Gestapo arrested the Scholls. It had been only a matter of time. They had taken a suitcase full of leaflets to the university, left stacks of them outside the lecture halls, and finally tossed them from the top floor into the atrium below. They were observed by a maintenance man who reported them to the Gestapo. Four days later they were tried before the infamous Judge Roland Freisler of the People’s Court, who screamed furious imprecations at them, rarely giving them an opportunity to utter a word. They were not afforded an attorney. At one point in the proceedings, Sophie Scholl managed to say to Freisler, “You know as well as we do that the war is lost. Why are you so cowardly that you won’t admit it?” It came as no surprise when they were found guilty of treason and, together with Christoph Probst, were beheaded in Stadelheim Prison that very day. Trials of others associated with the White Rose dragged on into October; the six most closely involved with the group shared the Scholls’ fate. The activities of the White Rose were courageous and idealistic; they were martyrs, living manifestations of a growing discontent in German society, and their activities added to the nervousness of the regime in the aftermath of Stalingrad. But their story did not end there. Helmut James von Moltke, leader of the Kreisau Circle, another resistance group, managed to smuggle a copy of the sixth leaflet to Scandinavia, where it made its way to London. In July, at the height of the bombing, RAF aircraft dropped tens of thousands of copies over Germany under the title “Manifesto of the Munich Students.”
Since the late 1930s, a group of nationalist conservatives who wished to see the downfall of the Third Reich had gathered around Carl Goerdeler, the well-connected former mayor of Leipzig and until 1936 Reich commissar for prices. His circle included former Prussian finance minister Johannes Popitz, Ulrich von Hassell, ambassador to Rome, and other establishment conservatives. They hoped to bring about the overthrow of the Nazi regime and the establishment of a conservative government with the return of the Hohenzollern dynasty. They were mistrustful of mass democracy, which they held responsible for the rise of the populist Nazis, and in a proposed constitution advocated elections that balanced the popular vote with representatives from local councils and others nominated by the churches, trade unions, universities, and business groups. They also insisted that a post-Nazi state should include Austria, the Sudetenland, and West Prussia, all territories annexed by the Nazis, a position unlikely to find favor in Allied capitals. Goerdeler even wrote letters to Hitler and Himmler attempting to convince them that they were on the wrong course, and until late in the day believed that if only he could have a serious conversation with Hitler, he could convince the Führer to step aside.
It was clear to all involved in the resistance that their activities could not bring about the fall of the regime and that Hitler could be overthrown only by force—and that force would have to be provided by the army. Since 1936 Goerdeler had been a leading figure in efforts to recruit senior military men to join with him and his conservative allies to overthrow the Nazis. Even before the war, a number of high-ranking officers had come to the conclusion that Hitler’s reckless foreign policy was leading Germany into certain catastrophe and that he must be removed. Foremost among them was General Ludwig Beck, chief of staff of the army until August 1938. Beck had supported Hitler’s revitalization of the military, though he was concerned by the Führer’s SS and its threat to the army.
In 1938, he was in close contact with other military leaders who were convinced that Hitler’s brinkmanship over the Sudetenland would plunge Germany into a European-wide war. Beck was not opposed to smashing Czechoslovakia or Hitler’s expansive plans for Lebensraum, but he believed that Hitler’s determination to go to war in 1938 was premature. When it became clear that Hitler was not to be moved, Beck undertook a clandestine campaign for a mass resignation of army commanders, forcing Hitler to abandon his plans for an invasion. His efforts proved futile, and he resigned in August. After his resignation he kept in touch with many senior military figures, men who shared his conviction that the Nazis were pushing Germany into certain disaster. Among them was Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, head of Military Counter Intelligence (the Abwehr), who allowed his command to become a magnet for dissenters in the military. Beck also came into contact with a more activist group of army officers—Colonel Hans Oster, Friedrich Olbricht, Erwin von Witzleben, and Hans Bernd Gisevius—who were not only determined to prevent war in 1938 but were convinced that Hitler and his regime must go.
Hitler’s dramatic diplomatic successes between 1936 and 1938 and his spectacular triumphs of the early war years deflated hopes for a successful military conspiracy, but the mounting disasters in 1942–43 gave new life to the regime’s military opponents. Top-ranking officers were difficult to recruit, although many, including Halder and Brauchitsch, listened sympathetically but in the end took no part in the conspiracy. The fact that the conspirators could approach other officers without fear of being reported was a remarkable reflection of the code of solidarity within the military. Colonel Henning von Tresckow of Army Group Center was tireless in attempting to bring down Hitler, and in early 1944 he was behind a number of assassination attempts, but each failed to come off for one reason or another.
Things came to a head in the summer of 1944 when a young colonel, Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg, appeared on the scene. Badly wounded in Tunis—he lost an eye, an arm, and several fingers on his remaining hand—Stauffenberg was assigned to a post in Berlin where he came into contact with Beck and other like-minded military men. He also met the leaders of the conservative group around Goerdeler, whom he considered hopeless reactionaries. He was far more attracted to another set of younger resistance figures who had gathered around his cousin Peter Yorck von Wartenburg and Helmut James von Moltke. Both men were appalled by the sheer brutality of the regime, its anti-Semitism, and by the barbarism of the SS in the Soviet Union. Theirs was a moral rejection of the regime and its leader. During the course of 1943 these aristocratic scions of two renowned Prussian military families formed a heterogeneous group of civil servants, socialists, Protestant and Catholic clerics, and young aristocrats. They held meetings at Kreisau, Moltke’s estate in Upper Silesia, and Yorck’s small house in Berlin Lichterfelde. There they developed plans for a post-Hitler government but with a more progressive mixture of socialist and Christian ideas. They had no illusions about holding on to Hitler’s annexed territories and endorsed the idea of war crimes trials. Like Stauffenberg, they considered the Goerdeler group backward-looking and far too conservative, and in 1944 Socialist members of the group sought to make contact with the Communist underground. Although some in the group, especially Moltke, were opposed to assassination on moral grounds, others, Yorck in particular, became participants in the plot to kill the Führer.
Several attempts had been made to get close to Hitler but each time the attempt was aborted. Either security was too tight or Hitler failed to keep to the anticipated schedule or Himmler was not present. The conspirators agreed that it was crucial to eliminate the Reichsführer-SS along with Hitler if the plot was to have any chance of success. In January and February 1944 the Gestapo seemed to be closing in on the conspirators. Moltke was arrested in January and Admiral Canaris a month later; Julius Leber, a Socialist leader close to the Kreisau Circle, was seized after attempting to make contact with the Communist underground. Stauffenberg’s arrival—and the precipitous decline in Germany’s military position—galvanized the military conspiracy anew. Although neither he nor Goerdeler liked one another, they managed to work together to bring about a Putsch that planned to remove Hitler and then establish a new post-Hitler Germany. They sounded out men they hoped would join a new German government, and Goerdeler, who was not the most cautious of men, made lists. General Beck would be the head of a provisional government, and Goerdeler would be Reich chancellor. Others would be mortified to discover that he committed these things to paper. The list included Hans Oster, Erwin von Witzleben, Henning von Tresckow, all military men as well as representatives from the Socialists (Leber), several Zentrum members, and a number of men from the conservative DNVP. Rommel, though not directly involved in the conspiracy, was aware of it, and indicated that although he would not participate in the plot to assassinate Hitler, he would support it at the appropriate time.
General Olbricht in the Reserve Army headquarters had developed a scheme to subvert an existing plan approved by Hitler to deal with the possibility of an uprising by the millions of foreign workers in Germany. Olbricht believed it possible to use the plan, code-named Valkyrie, to stage a coup once Hitler was dead. The order would be given to mobilize the Reserve Army and to use it not against rebelling foreign workers but against the SS and the Nazi elite. But first, the Führer had to be eliminated. Several abortive attempts had already been made. Then, on July 1, Stauffenberg was appointed chief of staff to General Friedrich Fromm, commander of the Reserve Army, headquartered in the Bendlerstrasse in Berlin. That not only put him at the command center of the Reserve Army but also meant that he was able to attend Hitler’s military conferences as Fromm’s deputy. Four times in the first weeks of July Stauffenberg attended these briefings in both the Obersalzburg and Hitler’s East Prussian headquarters, the Wolf’s Lair, carrying a bomb in his briefcase, but in each case he was unable to detonate the explosives. On July 20, Stauffenberg was scheduled to attend a Führer conference at the Wolf’s Lair. By this time, the conspirators had decided that the assassination had to take place whether Himmler was present or not. Besides, with the Gestapo apparently closing in, the time to take action had come. Again he carried a bomb.
The conference began just after noon. Stauffenberg carried two bombs in his briefcase, but he had time to activate the timer on only one, and his aide, Werner von Haeften, took the other away. Upon entering the conference room, he placed his briefcase under the heavy oak conference table on which the situation map was spread. About twenty officers were in attendance, standing or sitting around the table. About ten minutes into the briefing, while Hitler was bent over the table studying the map, Stauffenberg said that he had to make an important call and left the room. This was not unusual at such briefings, and no suspicion was aroused. He quickly left the building and made his way toward the airfield. He and Haeften had to bluff their way through two security checkpoints at the inner and outer rings of the complex. As they reached the second checkpoint, a tremendous blast resounded, and a pall of black smoke swirled into the air, but the guard let them pass. They raced to the waiting aircraft and took off for Berlin. The explosion shattered the flimsy wooden conference building, killing four officers and critically wounding several others. But Hitler miraculously survived. At the time of the blast, he was leaning over the table, and someone had apparently shifted Stauffenberg’s briefcase to the outside of the thick wedge of the table support, channeling the force of the blast away from Hitler. His right arm was wrenched, an eardrum perforated; he had cuts and bruises on his arms and legs, but he was alive.
By the time Stauffenberg reached Berlin shortly before 3:00 p.m. and phoned the conspirators in the Bendlerblock to report that Hitler was dead, he discovered that a phone call from the Wolf’s Lair had already informed them that Hitler had survived. Stauffenberg did not believe it, but it was clear already that a major element of the plot had miscarried—communications between the Wolf’s Lair and the outside world were to have been cut. Despite this critical setback, General Olbricht set Valkyrie in motion. Military forces acting under that plan moved against the SS in Vienna, Prague, and Paris, where the commanding officers of the SS were arrested. But soon Hitler’s staff at the Wolf’s Lair were phoning army commands around Europe, assuring them that the Führer was alive and that a small clique of disgruntled officers in Berlin had undertaken a Putsch. Army troops and Waffen-SS personnel descended on the Bendlerblock and after a brief exchange of gunfire, the leaders of the conspiracy were seized. Beck was allowed to commit suicide, though he botched the job and had to be finished off by an SS man. Stauffenberg, Haeften, Olbricht, and Mertz von Quirnheim were led into the courtyard and shot by a firing squad, Stauffenberg shouting out “Long live sacred Germany” just as the shots were fired.
Throughout the night and into the following day members of the conspiracy were hunted down by the Gestapo and arrested. Many, like Tresckow, committed suicide before the Gestapo came for them. Beginning on August 7, the regime staged show trials in the People’s Court, with Roland Freisler serving as presiding judge. Before being led into the courtroom the accused had been tortured for days, and to humiliate them, they were dressed in ill-fitting civilian clothes, no ties or belts allowed, so that some had to tug at their trousers to keep them from falling down. In the proceedings Freisler, perched beneath an enormous swastika banner, heaped abuse on them, bullying them, shrieking so shrilly that the film crew assigned by Goebbels to record the trials reported that his screaming interfered with the recording. One of the defendants did manage to slip in a retort when Freisler roared that he would soon roast in hell. Bowing, the defendant shot back, “I’ll look forward to your own imminent arrival, your honor!” Even the Nazi minister of justice complained about Freisler’s outrageous conduct.
The condemned were taken directly from the courtroom to Plötzensee Prison, where they were hanged by piano wire from meat hooks. It was a slow agonizing death, in some cases taking twenty minutes before the victim finally strangled. While they were writhing in unbearable pain, guards pulled down their trousers, adding a last dose of humiliation to their horrific misery. Hitler, seething with rage and a bloodthirsty desire for vengeance, had the executions filmed. “Now I finally have the swine who have been sabotaging my work for years,” Hitler raged. “Now I have proof: the whole General Staff is contaminated.” The failures of the generals to produce the victories he had foreseen could now be explained. “Now I know why all my great plans in Russia had to fail in recent years. It was treason! But for these traitors we would have won long ago.”
In the aftermath of the failed Putsch, more than two hundred people directly implicated in the conspiracy were arrested and executed. Yorck, Witzleben, Goerdeler, Moltke, Leber, Oster, and others were murdered over a matter of months. Goerdeler was put to death in February 1945, while Canaris and Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the Confessing Church were hanged in April. In a major police operation that followed the show trials, more than five thousand persons, many who had no connection whatsoever with the plot, were arrested. The most prominent among them was Rommel. As mentioned, Rommel knew about the plot but refused to take part. The conspirators thought that he signaled that he would support a new German government once Hitler was removed, and his name had emerged from Gestapo interrogations of the conspirators. On July 23 Rommel was recovering at home from wounds suffered in an Allied strafing when he received word that he had been implicated in the conspiracy. He was an enormously popular commander, a genuine military hero, and the regime was willing to offer him a choice: he could commit suicide and be given a state funeral with all the military honors, and his wife and children would not be separated and sent to concentration camps (as were Stauffenberg’s). If he refused the offer of suicide, he would be tried before the People’s Court. He chose suicide.
Hitler drew two paradoxical conclusions from the events of July 20. On the one hand, he was convinced that his survival was an act of providence, a sign from the fates that he was meant to complete the great work of his life. It contributed massively to his already overdeveloped messianic self-perception, reaffirming his conviction that his chosen path was preordained. It also reinforced Hitler’s deep-seated suspicion—turning it into an almost primeval conviction—that he was surrounded by treachery and betrayal on all sides, but especially in the army and its High Command. Second, and not so reassuring, he had believed at the outset that the Putsch was the work of a tiny clique of officers, many of whom were aristocratic and hence remote from the people. That was the official interpretation of the conspiracy spun by Goebbels after July 20, but the results of the Gestapo’s far-reaching investigation and the mass arrests revealed something quite different. Most Germans were shocked by the attempted assassination and rallied to their embattled Führer, and support for the conspirators within the Wehrmacht was minimal at best. Still, the extent of the conspiracy and the evidence of widespread disaffection with the regime was troubling, especially at a juncture in the war when the Reich’s military fortunes were in sharp decline. The conspirators were themselves aware that most Germans would hate them as traitors and that the plot would in all probability fail, but it was important to demonstrate to the world that there were Germans willing to take a stand against this evil regime. As Henning von Tresckow said to Stauffenberg, “The assassination must be attempted at any cost. Even should that fail, the attempt to seize power . . . must be undertaken. We must prove to the world and to future generations that the men of the German resistance movement dared to take the decisive step and to hazard their lives upon it. Compared with this object, nothing else matters.”
Throughout the summer the Allied air forces escalated their assault on the German homeland. Although the Anglo-American bombing campaign had had an undeniable effect on German morale in 1943, its impact on German war production was less obvious. In fact, German munitions production actually increased in 1942–43, especially after Hitler’s appointment of Albert Speer to head the Ministry of Armaments and Munitions in February 1942. In an effort to rationalize German production, Speer, using his access to Hitler as leverage, was able to supplant Göring’s Four Year Plan and the Wehrmacht’s War Economy and Armaments Office, headed by General Georg Thomas. He launched a drive to standardize production, tighten control over the uses of raw materials, factory, and labor, and to reduce the number of different types of weapons. Rationalization of production did not begin with Speer, but working with the powerful Erhard Milch, in charge of Luftwaffe production, as well as industrialists and local officials, he was able to bring the disparate elements of war production under something that approached central control. By 1943 this strategy was paying huge dividends, and by early 1944 Germany was producing twice as many rifles as in 1941, over three times as many hand grenades, over seven times as many howitzers, and more than three times as many aircraft. Speer was a star, his achievements touted as the “Speer miracle.” At a time when the Nazis had few military triumphs to parade before the public, the striking upward curve of munitions production served as a propaganda tool to demonstrate to the German people that the war could still be won. In the process, Speer, already a Hitler favorite, became a public darling.
But Speer’s reputation—and German war production—peaked in the first half of 1944 and began a drastic slide thereafter. Following the invasion of France, the Allies were at last able to execute a sustained air assault against German industry, especially oil and transportation, staging raids of five, six, seven hundred planes against synthetic fuel complexes, railyards, and other related targets. Over half the bomb tonnage dropped by the Allies on Germany fell between D-Day and the end of the war, and German industrial output plunged precipitously in every important category—aircraft production by 62 percent; armor by 54 percent; motor vehicles by 72 percent; ammunition by 62 percent; and weapons by 42 percent. From its peak in 1944 to March 1945, total munitions production fell by 55 percent.
The main thrust of the Allied air campaign between May and September 1944 was directed against Germany’s synthetic oil installations, which produced 90 percent of the Reich’s aviation fuel and 30 percent of its motor gasoline. As a result of the bombing, synthetic oil production plummeted from an average of 359,000 tons in the four months preceding the onset of the raids to 24,000 tons in September. The output of aviation fuel from these plants tumbled from 175,000 tons in April to 5,000 tons in the same period, while oil and aviation fuel stocks fell by two thirds. By the close of the year, the German war machine was literally running on empty.
After September 1944, the focus of the air offensive shifted to Germany’s transportation and communication system. Raids on rail, road, and water transport were, in many respects, more effective than the assault on oil, reducing traffic by 50 percent during the last year of the war. Since 1943, much of German production had been dispersed to different sites to prevent a single blow from destroying a key industrial choke point. By the close of 1944, however, even if crucial parts or weapons were produced, they could not reach assembly areas or soldiers at the front. With the transportation system in tatters, the national economy dissolved into a handful of relatively isolated regional economic zones. The Ruhr was largely severed from the remainder of Germany, and total coal shipments, on which so much of German industry depended, were reduced from 75,000 carloads in June 1944 to 39,000 in January 1945, to 28,000 in March. “Our entire military trouble can be traced back to the enemy’s air superiority,” Goebbels noted forlornly in his diary in March 1945. “In practice a coordinated conduct [of the war] is no longer possible in the Reich. We no longer have control over transportation and communication links. Not only our cities, but also our industries are for the most part destroyed. The result is a deep break in Germany’s war morale.”
Resentment against the Nazi authorities, especially Göring and the Luftwaffe, simmered. With a cynicism born of bitter experience, many Germans recalled that there was a time early in the war when the bombing actually seemed to have bonded the people with the regime. Party and state agencies rushed to provide all sorts of services, collecting relief, distributing food and blankets, finding shelter for families whose homes were destroyed in the raids. Even the skeptics, and there were many, had to admit that life beneath the bombs created a sense of communal closeness, of shared hardship, as people found themselves increasingly thrown back on one another, on family and neighbors. But as the bombing escalated to almost apocalyptic proportions that sense of solidarity with the regime was steadily eroded by mass suffering and the increasingly obvious failure of the regime to protect its people.
By the end of 1944 German air defenses were simply overwhelmed. The flak continued to shoot down bombers in large numbers—and sometimes the Luftwaffe, starved for fuel, mustered the new jet fighters, the Me 262 Dusenjäger—to attack the formations. After almost every raid the charred fuselages and rudders and wings of enemy bombers were scattered among the boughs of trees or jutted from devastated buildings, bits of bodies strewn among the debris. Children played in the wreckage; scavengers stripped away boots or heavy jackets from the dead; they took parachutes for the silk. But always the bombers came back, more and more of them.
Of the Nazi leaders, only Goebbels toured the devastated city neighborhoods. He talked to the thousands left homeless by the bombs. The Führer was nowhere to be seen. People still heard his voice on rare occasions, rasping through the static of the Volksempfänger, but he avoided the bombed-out cities. Even the great war criminal Churchill had gone out among the people of London during the Blitz, people noted. They had seen it in the newsreels. But Hitler had vanished. He appeared rarely in public and he spoke only rarely on the radio. When on November 9 he did not give his annual speech on the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, the disappointed public worried that he was ill, or dead, or held captive by the SS. Goebbels begged him to speak to the people, to show himself; it would be a tremendous boost to morale. But he would not, and his absence was deeply felt. He was safe, many assumed, deep in a bunker in Berlin or in the Alps or in his secret headquarters in East Prussia, directing the war. “The Greatest General of All Times,” people whispered in scorn.
For a time in the summer and fall of 1944, with the war sliding unmistakably toward catastrophe on all fronts, spirits were briefly raised by the prospect of new “wonder weapons” that would turn the tide of the war. The regime sought to boost sagging morale by promising retaliation with new, secret weapons. The V-1 rockets, the first of the “vengeance weapons,” began landing in England in June 1944, and their use was closely followed by the German public. But within weeks it became obvious that the new wonder weapons had no deterrent effect on the Anglo-American air forces and could not impede the Allied advance in the West. The much heralded introduction of the V-2 rocket in the fall was again met with great anticipation, but by December Nazi regional officials had to report that “it has had as yet no real effect on morale. The people have also grown skeptical about the introduction of more weapons.” The general feeling was that it was simply too late.
As the bombing intensified and the regime proved itself helpless to protect the populace, uneasiness, fatigue, and resentment against the Nazis mounted. The RAF’s nighttime raids were more unnerving than the American daylight attacks, but the sight of large formations of enemy bombers sweeping across the midday sky, apparently unmolested by the Luftwaffe, had a particularly demoralizing effect. An SD report of July 14, 1944, sounded what would become a characteristic refrain: “The fact that the Terror Fliers could make their way in broad daylight to their targets in important war industries without being hindered by German fighters . . . has had quite a negative impact on morale and strengthened the feeling that we are delivered over to the whims of the enemy.”
By the close of 1944 reports from regional districts were punctuated with worries about the debilitating effects of the bombing in cities and strafing in the countryside. “Signs of war weariness and apathy concerning the course of the war can be detected,” the authorities commented in December 1944, “especially in the rural population.” There was widespread fear that “the small towns and villages will soon be sought out by terror fliers.” By spring of 1945 that fear had become a grim reality. Commenting on the mood of the people in early 1945, a similar report concluded that “an upswing in general morale will only come about if success can be attained in breaking the enemy’s air superiority, thus . . . protecting the homeland from the actions of the enemy air forces.” The reasons given for the military defeats were “everywhere attributed to Russian tank superiority as well as enemy air superiority. Especially the air superiority of the enemy leads again and again to the sharpest condemnation of the German Luftwaffe, in which the person of the supreme commander of the Luftwaffe himself has increasingly come in for criticism.”
“The people are beginning to suffer from what is called Bunker fever and inability to work,” the Wuppertal Gestapo reported in January 1945. “The faith in our leading men, including the Führer, is rapidly disappearing. They are thoroughly fed up with Goebbels’ articles and speeches and say that he too often has lied to the German people and talked too big. The attitude towards National Socialism is characterized by the following saying: ‘If we have not yet collapsed, it is not because of National Socialism but in spite of National Socialism.’ ” An elderly Hamburg woman who worked with her husband as a hotel manager remembered that “the most remarkable thing one noticed when one sat in the air raid shelter was how the people cursed the Nazis more and more as time went on, without inhibitions or reservations. . . . Never was the cursing about England or America. Always it was about the Nazis. And it got worse and worse.” Watching his city consumed in flames, a Lübeck man and his neighbors “were all of the opinion that we had Hitler to thank for all this misery.”
Earlier in the war, the regime organized evacuations of children from the cities to small towns and rural retreats. Bewildered children from Munich and Nuremberg or as far away as Hamburg appeared in the streets of bucolic villages, sometimes accompanied by a teacher and an official from the Reich Air Defense League. No longer. In the spring of 1945, low-flying Allied fighters were everywhere. Day and night Thunderbolts and Mustangs and twin-engine Lightnings would roar in just above the treetops, strafing the roads and rail lines. They fired at farmers plowing their fields, at tractors and horse-drawn wagons on nearly deserted country lanes. No one was safe.
German morale did not crack under this onslaught—given the oppressive nature of the National Socialist state, serious unrest was unlikely, an uprising hardly possible—but the bombing did have a corrosive, demoralizing effect on civilian attitudes. Repeated heavy bombardment did not engender feelings of rebellion but a mood of sullen apathy and a devouring absorption with the basic task of survival. Deeply ingrained work habits, Nazi propaganda, and fear of the regime all played a role to keep weary Germans at their jobs. “During the last months of the war,” a woman from Wetzlar explained, “my only thought was to keep alive, to keep safe in the cellar, and to get a little food cooked.” Survival was the order of the day—a sentiment reflected in the common Berlin farewell of 1944–45: “Bleib übrig!” (Survive!)
By fall 1944 Germany’s strategic situation was desperate. Allied troops had penetrated the border territory of the Reich in both the East and West and were poised for a drive into the heart of the Third Reich. Hitler decided that one last dramatic stroke in the West might yet save the situation. His plan called for a massive counterattack in the Ardennes area, then sending armored spearheads dashing across the Meuse to Antwerp, depriving the Allies of their most important port and driving a wedge between the British forces in the north and the Americans farther south. To accomplish this he would deploy thirty new and rebuilt divisions, including two reoutfitted panzer armies—a larger force than 1940. Guderian, now chief of the General Staff, objected to the entire undertaking, which, he argued, would waste Germany’s last armored reserves for a dubious objective in the West when all available forces were desperately needed in the East as the Soviets prepared a major winter offensive. Both Rundstedt and General Alfred Model, Rommel’s replacement, were also wary of deploying these important armored formations in the West and preferred a more limited operation. They were overruled by Hitler.
On December 16, under overcast skies, the Germans launched Operation Autumn Fog. Two hundred thousand German troops and six hundred tanks were thrown into the offensive against approximately eighty thousand unsuspecting American troops backed by four hundred tanks. The surprise was complete. German troops sliced through the overmatched Americans along a seventy-mile front and headed for the Meuse River, creating a bulge in Allied lines sixty-five miles deep and forty miles wide. Fighting was intense and conditions terrible—a heavy, wet snow fell as the coldest winter in half a century settled over Western Europe. Among the forces marshaled for the attack were SS units that had been transferred from the Eastern Front, and on December 17 the First SS Panzer Division brought a taste of the Russian campaign to the West. In what had been a common procedure in Russia, the SS massacred eighty-six American prisoners in a field at Malmedy. Until then the Wehrmacht had for the most part fought what one historian has called “a war with rules” against Anglo-American forces, largely adhering to the Geneva Conventions. But in the East, the Germans had engaged in a vicious “war without rules.” At Malmedy that distinction was erased.
Much of the early success of the German offensive came as a result of bad weather that neutralized Allied airpower, but on Christmas Eve the skies cleared, and Allied aircraft decimated the German spearheads. The German thrust was also slowed by stiffening American resistance and a serious shortage of fuel. Military planners had counted on seizing American oil depots, but that proved impossible. The panzers literally ran out of gas. The offensive was a total failure. The Germans had failed to reach the Meuse, and Antwerp, the main objective of the offensive, was still more than a hundred miles away. By mid-January, the Allies had eliminated the “bulge” in their lines. Casualties on both sides were heavy, roughly 80,000 Germans and 70,000 Americans, but Hitler had exhausted the last of the Wehrmacht’s reserves on a wildly ambitious project that from the start virtually all the High Command thought had little chance of success. In the process, it desperately weakened the German defensive position in the East on the eve of a massive Russian offensive in Poland. It was the last desperate gasp of the Third Reich.
In the aftermath of the catastrophic Ardennes offensive, Hitler realized that the war could not be won militarily. “I know the war is lost,” he confided to his military aide Nicolaus von Below. But, he added, “We’ll not capitulate. Never. We can go down. But we’ll take a world with us.” His only hope was to achieve a political settlement, which he thought might be possible by inflicting such devastating losses on the Western Allies that they would seek a separate peace or even agree to join Germany in its “heroic struggle to save Western Civilization from the ravages of Bolshevism.” But even that fanciful hope was extinguished by the failure of the Ardennes offensive.
The drumbeat of bad news continued into February and March. On February 13, Allied aircraft dropped 2,658 tons of bombs on Dresden, 1,181 of which were incendiaries, turning that beautiful Renaissance city into an inferno and killing 25,000 civilians. Among those in the city that night was the Jewish philologist Viktor Klemperer. As he and his wife made their way through the burning city trying to reach the Elbe, he saw that “fires were still burning in many of the buildings on the road above.” The dead, “small, and no more than a bundle of clothes . . . were scattered across our path. The skull of one had been torn away, the top of the head was a dark red bowl. Once an arm lay there with a pale, quite fine hand, like a model made of wax.” Crowds streamed unceasingly between “the corpses and smashed vehicles, up and down the Elbe, a silent, agitated procession.” At one point his wife wanted to light a cigarette but had no matches. “Something was glowing on the ground, she wanted to use it—it was a burning corpse.” The city was not a major industrial center, but the Allies claimed that it was an important transit center for German troops moving east and so they attacked as a sign of the West’s willingness to help the advance of Stalin’s forces.
On March 7, 1945, American troops found the only remaining intact bridge over the Rhine at Remagen, fifteen miles south of Cologne, and poured across. Three weeks later all Allied armies were across the Rhine—the last natural barrier to the interior of the Reich. In the first days of April the Ruhr was encircled by British and American forces, trapping 430,000 German troops. The Ruhr pocket held out until April 12–13 before surrendering. Allied commanders were eager to launch a drive for Berlin, to beat the Russians into the capital of the Third Reich. They were fifty miles from Berlin, but General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of allied forces, refused to give the order to advance on the city. In February at Yalta, the Big Three—Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin—had come to an agreement about zones of occupation for defeated Germany, and Berlin was deep inside the Soviet zone. Eisenhower was not about to sacrifice thousands of British and American lives to take the Nazi capital only to turn it over to the Russians. He also understood that while the Americans were only fifty miles from Berlin, they were overextended and at a troop strength of only fifty thousand. The Soviets, with a far greater force, were forty miles from Berlin and would have launched their offensive earlier had the Western Allies pressed on. As events later in the month would demonstrate, the price the Soviets paid for taking the city would be extremely high.
From January onward, German roads were clogged with long straggling columns of Allied POWs and concentration camp inmates herded on desperate marches deeper into the dwindling territory of the Reich. A flood tide of panicked civilians fleeing the rampaging Red Army surged westward, inundating Germany’s already ravaged cities and exacerbating the mounting chaos. They brought with them hair-raising tales of rape, wanton destruction, and uncontrolled pillaging by the marauding Red Army. The barbarian hordes were approaching, pushing before them a wave of suicides by local Nazi leaders and ordinary party members. In East Prussia, Silesia, and Pomerania, ancient German cities fell to the Soviets. Instead of allowing German forces there to retreat to more realistic defensive lines, Hitler called for Königsberg, Breslau, and other cities to become fortresses to hold back the Russians. His generals thought this foolish but, as usual, they complied. The Red Army simply bypassed them and continued toward Berlin.
At the same time, the Allied bombing of Germany reached its deadly crescendo. Massive raids by the Anglo-American air forces devastated Dresden, Pforzheim, Würzburg, Magdeburg, Nuremberg, and other cities, large and small, laying waste to much of the country and leaving hundreds of thousands of German civilians dead or homeless. Most of the Germans killed by Allied bombing in the war died in 1945. In fact, January and February were the deadliest months of the Second World War; in addition to the civilian casualties, 1.4 million German soldiers fell in the last four months of the war, roughly 14,000 every day. Soldiers of the once-mighty Wehrmacht also deserted in alarming numbers, discarding their uniforms, hoping to be swallowed up in the torrent of refugees. Thousands were caught and summarily shot or hanged. By mid-1944 more than 26,000 death sentences had been imposed on Wehrmacht personnel for desertion or undermining of the war effort, although the exact number of those executed is impossible to determine with confidence. But between January and May 1945 the number of soldiers sentenced to death in the regular military court system stood at approximately 4,000, while the figures for those executed by the “flying courts-martial” may have been closer to 6,000 or 7,000. As the troops quickly realized, these “flying courts” were little more than roaming death squads.
Nor were such draconian measures reserved for the military. Civilian morale was in a free fall. One report from regional authorities in early February spoke for many when it stated that in December morale had improved due to the Ardennes offensive and the New Year’s radio address by the Führer. But then the Soviet winter offensive in January sent Russian troops deep into Germany, producing in the public “deep disappointment and . . . a great horror. Because of these developments the public has been gripped by strong disappointment . . . as well as fear and worry. Many consider the war already lost.” The situation was so dire that the regime felt compelled to create special courts that operated on roughly the same principles as the military drumhead tribunals but were intended for civilians. Any German—man, woman, or child—who in any way failed to support the war effort, disrupted military operations, or showed “defeatist tendencies” could be tried and executed on the spot as a traitor. In these final, increasingly chaotic months more than ten thousand civilians were executed by such tribunals for “defeatism,” treason, or “undermining military operations.”
Faced with festering resentment from the exhausted population and gripped by a mounting sense of desperation, the Nazis issued fanatical appeals—and threats—to fight “to the last bullet.” The only hope for the Reich, Hitler believed, was to hold out until the “unnatural” alliance against him broke apart and a separate peace with either the Western powers or with the Soviets could be negotiated. Consequently, as the ground war moved into Germany, every farm and hamlet, every village, town, and city was to be turned into a fortress; soldiers and civilians were exhorted to fight fanatically to the last man, woman, and child, inflicting maximum casualties on the enemy and slowing the Allied advance. In an appeal typical of this apocalyptic policy, the Nazi Gauleiter of Upper Franconia warned his beleaguered population that “if coal, gas, and electricity are in short supply now, what is all that compared to our enemies’ sadistic Jewish plans for our destruction. And even if our food rations were cut still further, we would look back at these reduced living conditions as a paradise if the Bolshevik and his plutocratic helpers become masters of the Reich. . . . All our men will be taken to Siberia. Our women will be violated, our children dragged away.” There could be only one answer: “Fight, Fight, and Fight still more.” Defeatism would not be tolerated. “Cowards, trouble makers and traitors,” he warned, would be ruthlessly “exterminated.”
To augment the army now fighting on German soil, the Nazis mobilized a home guard, the Volkssturm, pressing all males between the ages of sixteen and sixty into military service. Poorly equipped and hardly trained at all, some of these ragtag units did fight with dogged determination, especially in the East, but most were quickly crushed; many simply evaporated in the heat of battle, melting away before the enemy. It is estimated that 50 percent of German military losses in 1945 were from Volkssturm personnel.
As the vise gradually closed on the Third Reich in the first four months of 1945, the cataclysmic violence of Hitler’s war engulfed the German heartland with unimaginable force, and life in the Third Reich assumed an apocalyptic, almost surreal quality. The war-weary population found itself trapped between the onrushing Allied armies, a remorseless assault from the air, and a fanatical regime that in its death throes turned on its own people. The vicious Nazi reign of terror that had spread across Europe since 1939 came home to the Reich, and Germans discovered that they had as much to fear from their own criminal regime as from their onrushing enemies. “Now Hitler has declared war on us,” one woman dolefully observed.
On April 7, Himmler sounded the alarm, issuing an order that reflected the desperate state of affairs: “At the present moment in the war everything depends above all else on the stubborn, unflinching will to hold on. Hanging out white sheets, opening already closed tank barriers, failing to report to the Volkssturm and other displays [of defeatism] are to be met with the harshest measures. If a white flag appears on any dwelling, all men of that house are to be shot. There can be not a moment of hesitation in carrying out this action.” But in these final weeks of madness, a volatile compound of fatalism, fear, and desperation ignited a spark of open rebellion in a number of towns in western and southern Germany. Localized clashes between Nazi officials and German civilians occurred in numerous villages and towns, as ordinary Germans tried to save their communities from certain destruction in what was clearly a futile effort to stave off the invaders. In many locales, it was women, accompanied by their children, who confronted the Nazi leadership, marching into village squares to demand that their town or village be spared. These uprisings were not ideological in nature. They were not protests against the Nazi system or Hitler’s leadership. They were inspired by a desire to survive, to save their towns or villages from needless destruction.
Although citizen revolts had taken place in a number of villages and small towns, by far the largest of these women’s revolts took place in the cathedral city of Regensburg on April 23, 1945. Responding angrily to the Gauleiter’s call for fanatical resistance, some one thousand women accompanied by their children, many in baby carriages, and a sprinkling of men gathered in the market square, demanding that the city be handed over to the Americans without resistance. The Nazis broke up the demonstration and arrested about thirty of the protesters, many more or less at random. By evening all had been released except for a local timber merchant and Johann Maier, a Catholic priest who spoke at the demonstration. The agitated Gauleiter phoned from his headquarters south of the city and ordered that “the leaders of these rabble rousers be hanged immediately.” When the local party leader objected that, legally speaking [!], a special tribunal must be held, the Gauleiter bellowed, “Fine. Hang them first, then convene the tribunal!” The priest was hanged in the dead of night, and his body left dangling on the gallows in the market square throughout the following day. Around his neck the Nazis had hung a sign reading: “Here dies a saboteur.” Two days later the Nazi leadership slipped quietly out of town, and on April 27 the Americans entered the city. Not a shot was fired.
In the spring of 1945 towns and cities over the Reich were falling one after another, overrun by Allied forces or surrendered by the local military authorities. Just a day before the women’s demonstration in Regensburg American troops staged a victory parade through the ruins of Nuremberg, site of the huge Nazi rallies of prewar days. The city was a desolate sight. More than 90 percent of its buildings lay in ruins, a grisly testament to the devastating Allied air raids and the savage house-to-house fighting as the city fell. To mark the defeat of this city so closely associated with Hitler, the American 3rd Infantry Division marched into the main arena of the party congress grounds, moving in formation beneath the speaker’s tribunal where Hitler had mesmerized mammoth crowds before the war. Following the parade, American engineers exploded the huge stone wreath and swastika that looked down over the grounds. It was a moment of high symbolism.
In January, Soviet forces had encountered the virtually deserted camp at Auschwitz. In the sprawling complex where more than a million human beings had been murdered, they discovered 7,500 prisoners miraculously still clinging to life and some 600 corpses. Ten days earlier Himmler had ordered the evacuation of all the camps in the East, stressing that “not a single prisoner from the concentration camps falls alive into the hands of the enemy.” He also ordered the destruction of the gas chambers and crematoria, in fact, all traces of the vast crimes committed there. They were not successful in this, but on January 17 roughly 60,000 inmates of the camp were evacuated, sent on forced marches in the bitter cold and snow to the west. Two thirds of them never reached their destination, first at the camp at Gross-Rosen, then the giant camp at Bergen-Belsen in Germany.
As Anglo-American forces moved deeper into Germany, they encountered the Nazi concentration camps located on German soil—Ohrdruf (April 9), Buchenwald (April 11), Bergen-Belsen (April 15), and Flossenbürg (April 23). The Soviets had come upon Majdanek in the previous July, with its gas chambers and crematoria still in place, though that information was not widely shared. The horrors they found in these hellholes revealed the raw ideological core of the Third Reich—mass graves, bodies piled in heaps, the living little more than skeletons, crematoria, some still clogged with bodies, storage bins of gold extracted from teeth, bags of women’s hair, spectacles, suitcases, dentures, clothing, including in one camp thousands of pairs of baby shoes. In between Allied troops stumbled upon scores of smaller satellite camps where the horrors were as gruesome as in the larger main camps; only the scale of suffering was smaller. The hideous scenes that greeted the soldiers sent shockwaves through the Allied High Command, the political establishment in the United States and Britain, and a dazed international public numbed by five years of total war. Unlike Auschwitz, which was no longer in operation when the Russians reached it in January, the camps inside Nazi Germany had not been evacuated. In fact, in the spring of 1945 their populations were swollen by arrivals from the extermination camps in the East. By mid-April, Dachau, built to hold 5,000 inmates, was swamped by 30,000 men and women, all existing in conditions of unimaginable filth, disease, and starvation. More than 10,000 prisoners had already died in Dachau and its subsidiary camps since January; hundreds were dying each day.
The camp’s Jewish prisoners were for the most part recent arrivals, survivors of the death camps in the East. Most had been evacuated to Buchenwald just days before its liberation, and then marched on foot or crammed into boxcars and open coal cars to begin a long nightmarish journey south. Throughout central and western Germany, in the ever-shrinking territory controlled by the Reich, the SS forced tens of thousands of prisoners on torturous “death marches” from concentration camps, large and small. Barely clinging to life, the exhausted new arrivals found themselves delivered into a filthy, hellish compound literally overflowing with the living and the dead. Among the thousands of inmates who milled listlessly about, hundreds of bodies littered the grounds; corpses were stacked like cordwood beside the long rows of squalid barracks and were piled high against the walls of the crematorium, which had long since ceased to operate. There were simply too many dead to burn. Since the beginning of April transports from Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, and other camps to the north and east had swamped the SS authorities, who no longer bothered to record the thousands of new prisoners that were dumped inside the gates.
On a railway siding just beside the main gate the Americans came upon some fifty boxcars. The transport had arrived on April 27 from Buchenwald via Flossenbürg. Its cargo, two thousand men and women, piled in a ghastly tangle of skeletal limbs and shrunken torsos, had died en route or were left to starve at the very gates of Dachau. The American colonel in command recalled that “the first thing I saw was that terrible train. I walked past car after car. It was all I could do to believe it. Suddenly, a soldier about ten or fifteen yards behind me, yelled, ‘Hey, Colonel! Here’s a live one!’ Immediately, I ran back to the car. There, almost buried under a mass of dead bodies, was a hand that was waving so feebly you could hardly notice it. But it was moving!” One survivor among the two thousand. When he was finally untangled from the bodies around him, the man, hardly more than a skeleton, looked frantically from one soldier to another, repeating in sheer disbelief, “Frei? Frei?”
As the Red Army breached the frontiers of the Reich and charged westward, a wave of terror swept over the German population. A stampede of panicked refugees poured into the roads, some two million in all, fleeing the Russians. With them they carried hair-raising tales—many of them true—of rape, random violence, summary executions, and barbaric behavior. By February Soviet spearheads were within sixty miles of Berlin, preparing for a titanic assault on the German capital. Three giant army groups—fronts, the Russians called them—were assembled along the Oder—1.5 million troops, 3,300 tanks, 10,000 aircraft, and 28,000 heavy guns and the dreaded Katyusha rocket launchers—“Stalin Organs,” they were called. Arrayed against them were 600,000 German troops, composed for the most part of old men and boys from the Volkssturm and the Hitler Youth. In April 1945 Berlin was a city of women, old men, and children. Military units were drained of personnel, so that what appeared on the briefing maps as divisions or regiments were mere shells, some only phantoms.
Hitler did not trust his generals, especially after the attempted Putsch, and they, even the most loyal, were appalled at his lack of judgment. Virtually all agreed that Autumn Fog had been an “incomprehensible” disaster, followed by his order for German troops to fight on the west bank of the Rhine. In January, as the Red Army approached Berlin, he ordered the Sixth Panzer Army to Hungary, where he argued he would surprise the Russians and inflict on them a game-changing defeat. Madness, the generals believed, but they complied. On January 21 he appointed Himmler, who despite his abiding affection for uniforms, had no military experience, as the commander of the newly formed Army Group Vistula.
Since Stalingrad, Hitler had had no comprehensive military strategy. Neither did the professionals of the General Staff. All that Hitler had to offer was an apocalyptic “fight to the last man.” His generals recognized the awful consequences of such a death wish, but nonetheless acquiesced in Hitler’s suicidal decisions. Hitler’s judgment was rarely challenged, and when it was, his reaction was unbridled fury. When at a military conference in early February, Guderian had confronted the Führer, questioning the wisdom of appointing Himmler to lead Army Group Vistula, he was treated to one of the colossal outbursts that all close to the Führer had witnessed before. To the horror of Keitel and others in Hitler’s entourage, Guderian refused to back down, and Hitler completely lost control. How dare the general speak to him in such a manner, how dare he contradict his strategic judgment! “His fists raised, his cheeks flushed with rage, his whole body trembling, [Hitler] stood there in front of me,” Guderian remembered, “beside himself with fury and having lost all self-control. After each outburst of rage Hitler would stride up and down the carpet edge, then suddenly stop immediately before me and hurl his next accusation in my face. He was almost screaming, his eyes seemed about to pop out of his head, and the veins stood out on his temples.” Himmler, as Guderian predicted, was quickly overwhelmed by the responsibility of command and resigned after only a few weeks, unable to master the deteriorating military situation and the attendant stress. Guderian was sacked in March.
One feeble ray of hope did manage to pierce the gloom of the Führerbunker. On April 12, Franklin Roosevelt died. When Goebbels received the news, he telephoned the Führer. Only days before he had read to Hitler Thomas Carlyle’s depiction of Frederick the Great’s apparently hopeless position in the Seven Years’ War. A mighty alliance was arrayed against him; defeat was certain. But suddenly the czarina Catherine of Russia, a key figure in the anti-Prussian alliance, died, the coalition against Frederick frayed, and, against all odds, he emerged victorious. Hitler was so moved that he sent for his horoscopes (there were two), which were kept in Himmler’s research departments. Both predicted great triumphs in 1941, followed by a series of setbacks, and near catastrophe in the first half 1945. But then would come a turnaround in the second half of April and a respite until peace would be attained in August. Hard times were in store for the Reich, but Germany would rise again; it would again find greatness. When Goebbels now spoke to Hitler, he gushed, “My Führer, I congratulate you. Roosevelt is dead. It is written in the stars that the second half of April will be the turning point for us.” The Grand Alliance did not collapse, as Hitler predicted it would, but this is what passed for good news in April 1945.
On April 16, the Russians crossed the Oder at Küstrin, initiating the opening phase of the battle for Berlin. At 3 a.m. a massive barrage of a thousand heavy guns broke the silence; the bone-jarring concussions from the bursting shells could be felt in the eastern suburbs of Berlin forty-five miles away. German forces put up a tenacious defense on the Seelow Heights east of the city, inflicting terrible losses on the advancing Soviets, but after a four-day battle, the German defenses were overrun and the Red Army advanced on Berlin in a sweeping pincer movement. Meanwhile, on April 20, deep beneath the surface of the bomb-shattered Reich Chancellery, Adolf Hitler was marking his fifty-sixth birthday in the bunker to which he had retreated. All the major figures of the Third Reich—Goebbels, Göring, Himmler, Speer, Bormann, Admiral Karl Dönitz, Keitel, and Jodl—made their way through the ruins of the city to Hitler’s subterranean headquarters to pay their respects. In previous years, the Führer’s birthday had been an occasion for national celebration—parades, concerts, public tributes. Not today. There was no fanfare, no talk of victory.
After greeting a group of Hitler Youth in the cratered Chancellery garden (the boys had distinguished themselves in combat against the Russians; the youngest was twelve), he descended again into the dank concrete chambers of the bunker for a review of the military situation. The Russians were closing fast on the capital of the Reich. Soon the city would be completely encircled. His cronies and commanders urged him to escape to the south, to continue leading the war from Alpine Berchtesgaden. Hitler refused. The others could go, he insisted, but he would remain at his post in Berlin. To his chief of operations, General Alfred Jodl, he confided, “I will fight as long as the faithful fight next to me and then I will shoot myself.” That afternoon convoys of government bureaucrats, high-ranking soldiers, and party officials—“the golden pheasants,” ordinary Berliners called them scornfully—began a frantic exodus from the doomed city. Time was running out.
That night an exhausted Hitler retired early, but Eva Braun, Hitler’s long time mistress, who had joined him in the bunker earlier in the month and was intent on staying until the end, had other ideas. She wanted to have a good time, perhaps her last, a break in the almost suffocating tension and claustrophobia of life in the bunker. With the sound of Russian artillery thudding dully around them, she moved through the narrow corridors of the bunker, gaily inviting all within earshot to a party in her room above in the Chancellery. As Hitler’s longtime secretary Traudl Junge recalled, “Eva Braun wanted to deaden the fear that had grown in her heart. She wanted to celebrate, when there was nothing more to celebrate—dancing, drinking, forgetting.” Wehrmacht officers and orderlies, secretaries, Dr. Theodor Morell, Hitler’s portly physician, even humorless Martin Bormann happily climbed the stairs for a bit of revelry. A number of SS men arrived with young women in tow. Flowers adorned the large circular table Speer had designed for her, champagne flowed, cigarette smoke, unheard of in the Führerbunker, clouded the room; giddy laughter bubbled throughout the crowd. An ancient phonograph materialized, but only one record could be found: “Blood Red Roses Speak to You of Love.” It played over and over again. Dancing and intimacies were everywhere, interrupted only briefly by a loud explosion nearby. Eva wanted to dance, and it didn’t matter with whom. The determination to release the oppressive tension that jangled their nerves was an almost physical presence in the room. Artillery fire continued to thump all around them. “Blood Red Roses” could not drown it out. Watching the frantic scene, joining in at times, Traudl Junge felt a surge of nausea and fled to her room in the bunker below. This sort of frivolity seemed out of place under the circumstances.
On April 21, amid fierce fighting, Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s First White Russian Front reached the northern suburbs of the Reich capital. The fighting was intense, street by street, house to house. Buildings crumbled. Masonry and glass covered the streets. Bodies lay in the rubble. Casualties were high. Four days later, Russian forces completed the encirclement of the city. On that same day, eighty miles to the south, Russian and American troops met at Torgau on the Elbe. The Third Reich was now cut in half. Hitler listened to the reports at his daily military briefing, but seemed not to grasp the seriousness of the situation. While his generals presented the dire predicament they confronted, the military situation, they implied but would not express directly, was hopeless. Hitler resisted the obvious conclusion. Instead he clung to the fantasy that Walther Wenck’s Twelfth Army to the southwest could wheel about, join with Theodor Busse’s Ninth Army, and relieve the city while Felix Steiner’s Waffen-SS units to the north would launch a counterattack against Zhukov’s spearhead. Together they would crush the Russians and save Berlin. None of the military men present at the briefings dared state the obvious. Expecting salvation from these much depleted forces was utter fantasy.
At the situation briefing the next day, General Hans Krebs, Guderian’s successor as army chief of staff, had reluctantly to confess that Steiner had not yet begun to move. He was unable to marshal the necessary forces. At first Hitler sat motionless, reeling from the news. In a subdued voice, he ordered everyone out, except his close circle, Bormann, Krebs, Keitel, and Wilhelm Burgdorf, Hitler’s ranking military adjutant. When the door was closed, he exploded in a quivering rage. He spewed venom on the army and its generals, liars and traitors all. They had no understanding of his grand design, his historic mission, he shrieked, his voice crackling with fury. They were responsible for this disastrous turn of events. He shook violently, his pallid face white as a corpse. Then, exhausted, he dropped abruptly into his chair and uttered words that none had ever expected to hear from him: “The war is lost!” The Third Reich had ended in failure and all that was left for him was to die. “Gentlemen,” he said, “this is the end. I shall remain here in Berlin and shoot myself when the time comes. Each of you must make his own decision on when to leave.”
All pleaded with him to escape to the Obersalzberg, to lead the fight from there, but he again refused. “Everything is falling to pieces anyway and I can do no more.” Göring would now act as his personal representative. There was little fighting left to be done, and if it came to negotiating with the Allies, Göring could do a better job of it than he could. He would either fight and win the Battle of Berlin or die in Berlin. He could not risk falling into Russian hands, and would shoot himself at the last minute. It was his “final, irrevocable decision.” When someone pointed to the portrait of Frederick the Great and mentioned the “miracle” that had saved him, Hitler could only shake his head. “The Army has betrayed me, my generals are good for nothing. My orders are not carried out. It is all finished. National Socialism is dead and will never rise again!” The German nation had failed him, and now “Germany is lost. It actually was not quite ready or quite strong enough for the mission I set for the nation.”
The next day, April 23, a cable from Göring arrived. The Reich Marshal had taken up residence on the Obersalzberg, where most of the party’s and state’s ministries were now located. He was officially second in command of the National Socialist state, Hitler’s designated successor, and he interpreted Hitler’s outburst on the previous day as meaning that the Führer had, in effect, abdicated. The cable asked if that was correct and concluded by saying that if he did not hear back by 10 p.m. (eight hours) he would assume that Hitler had lost freedom of action and was no longer in a position to lead. He would therefore assume leadership of the Reich. When Hitler read through the cable he erupted in a volcanic rage, stoked by Bormann’s insistence that the message was clear evidence of Göring’s treachery. Hitler immediately ordered the SS to place the Reich Marshal under house arrest, expelled him from the party, and stripped him of all state offices. Bormann, always scheming, pressed for execution, but Hitler could not do it. Göring had been with him since the early days of the party, had marched with him in the Beer Hall Putsch, and played a critical role in creating the Nazi police state.
With bad news cascading all around him, Hitler was increasingly out of touch with reality. He had retreated into the bunker beneath the old Reich Chancellery on January 16 and emerged only twice in the remaining months of the war—105 days lived fifty feet beneath the surface of the Chancellery garden. A penumbra of the surreal surrounded him and all he did. He was living on a diet of amphetamines and sedatives, and ever since the bomb attack on July 20, 1944, his health had deteriorated and his paranoia mounted. Those who had not seen him for a period of time were shocked at his appearance. His eyes were swollen and red, his skin pasty, his shoulders stooped, his uniform, always so immaculate, now bore stains, and his left arm visibly trembled—an early sign of Parkinson’s. He had, Albert Speer remarked, “reached the last stage in his flight from reality, a reality he had refused to acknowledge since his youth. At the time I had a name for this unreal world of the bunker: I called it the Isle of the Departed.”
Hitler was convinced that he was surrounded by traitors and liars, but Speer, Hitler’s favorite, was not among them. A bond of mutual admiration bound them together, but on April 23 the Führer received another unwelcome surprise. In March he had issued an order stating that if the Allies should enter the Reich, Germany’s infrastructure—bridges, factories, the communications and transportation systems, as well as all material assets, everything that might be of use to the enemy—was to be destroyed. Speer had protested that such actions would eliminate “all further possibility for the German people to survive,” to which Hitler responded: “If the war is lost, the people will also be lost [and] it is not necessary to worry about their needs for elemental survival. On the contrary, it is best for us to destroy even those things. For the nation has proved to be weak, and the future belongs entirely to the strong people of the east. Whatever remains after this battle is in any case only the inadequate, because the good ones will be dead.” He was determined to die in Berlin. So complete was Hitler’s identification with the German people that if he had no future, neither did they. Since receiving the “Nero order,” as it came to be called, Speer had done everything possible to sabotage Hitler’s plans. He had worked with industrialists, military leaders, and local officials to ensure that Hitler’s scorched-earth policy would not be carried out. He had even contemplated assassinating Hitler by introducing poison gas into the bunker’s ventilation system. Now he had come to Berlin for a last leave-taking and to admit that he had disobeyed his Führer’s order. It was a tense situation, but Hitler received the news with an air of resignation. The man who had ruled Germany for twelve years, who had created a vast European empire, who was one of the most powerful men in the world, was now “empty, burned out, lifeless.”
Speer’s admission of disobedience was disappointing and Göring’s “betrayal” was a shock, but they were as nothing compared to the news that reached him on April 27. From a foreign press report he discovered that Himmler, his “loyal Heinrich,” was attempting to negotiate peace with the Western Allies. He had been carrying on secret talks with Count Folke Bernadotte, head of the Swedish Red Cross in Germany, in hopes of arranging a peace deal with the West while continuing the fight against the Soviets in the East. He was convinced that the Allies would need him and the SS to maintain order in Europe. Besides, he knew more about the Communist underground all over the continent than any Allied intelligence service. His assistance would be invaluable. He even wondered at one point whether when he met Eisenhower, he should offer the general his hand or give him the Nazi salute. Hitler was not the only one in the top echelons of the Third Reich whose grip on reality was tenuous.
Hitler was stunned. He immediately dismissed Himmler from his position as chief of the SS, voided his party membership, and ordered his arrest. Himmler managed to evade arrest, but for Hitler his “betrayal” was a terrible blow, the final straw. Alone among the Führer’s inner circle whose loyalty remained unshakable was Goebbels. He had earlier moved into the Führerbunker, and days later, Hitler invited Magda and their six children to take up residence in the bunker as well. They had come, Goebbels told Speer, “in order . . . to end their lives at this historic site.” Hitler had always been solicitous of Frau Goebbels and was happy to have her and the children join the dwindling group in the bunker. In these final days he gave her his gold party pin as a token of his appreciation for her loyalty and commitment.
April 29 was a day of dramatic developments. The Russians were now only a half mile away and would be at the bunker within a day. Hitler decided that the time had come for him to put his affairs in order: he would marry his longtime mistress, Eva Braun, and would compose his last will and testament. A festive table, with fine “AH” monogrammed linen, silver service, and champagne glasses, had been placed in the corridor where the wedding ceremony would be held. But before the wedding ceremony got under way, Hitler retreated to the small conference room, where he dictated his last will and testament. It contained no confessions or explanations or revelations. For the most part, he reprised the recriminations and accusations of the previous days. But he did return to the theme that had obsessed him throughout his political life: the Jews and their nefarious world conspiracy. In one last scalding blast of hate, he wrote:
It is untrue that I or anyone else in Germany wanted war in 1939. It was wanted and provoked solely by international statesmen either of Jewish origin or working for Jewish interests. I have made too many offers for the limitation and control of armaments, which posterity will not be cowardly always to disregard, for responsibility for the outbreak of this war to be placed on me. Nor have I ever wished that, after the appalling First World War, there would be a second against either England or America. Centuries will go by, but from the ruins of our towns and monuments the hatred of those ultimately responsible will grow anew against the people whom we have to thank for all this: international Jewry and its henchmen.
The testament concluded with low Hitlerian melodrama, stating that “My wife and I choose to die in order to escape the shame of overthrow or capitulation. It is our wish that our bodies be burned immediately, here where I have performed the greater part of my daily work during the twelve years I served my people.” A bit later Hitler surprised his inner circle and married Eva Braun in a brief civil ceremony. The nervous official who performed the ceremony was plucked from a nearby Volkssturm unit and had, by law, to ask both parties if they were of pure Aryan heritage. The situation was awkward—the bride wearing black as if for a funeral; halfhearted toasts; the rumbling of artillery fire; the signing of the legal documents, to which the new bride could at last write “Eva Hitler.”
Hitler had already decided that this was his day to die, but the news of Mussolini’s execution by partisans was perhaps the final straw. It is not clear whether Hitler was informed of the details of the Duce’s demise—his pummeled body and that of his mistress strung up by the feet in front of a gas station in Milan—but they could have only confirmed the decision he had already made. He and his wife would commit suicide in the bunker and their bodies would be burned in the Chancellery garden. He still held a final military briefing, where he was told that there would definitely be no rescue. The Russians were at the Reichstag, in the Tiergarten, at the Potsdamer Platz. They would be at the Chancellery no later than May 1.
At a little past 2 a.m., Hitler bade farewell to the two dozen or so guards, servants, and medical personnel still in the bunker; he shook hands with each of them, and released them from their oaths of loyalty. He hoped that they could escape to American or British lines. Around noon he ordered his SS adjutant Otto Günsche to collect as much petrol as possible. Shortly after 3 p.m. he disappeared into his study along with Eva Braun. Goebbels, Bormann, and Günsche gathered in the eerily quiet corridor and waited. No noise escaped the study. Finally, after ten minutes Günsche and Bormann pushed open the door. Hitler and his bride were slumped on the sofa. A strong odor of cyanide rose from Eva’s body. To her right on the sofa was the body of Adolf Hitler. His head drooped forward. Blood spilled from a bullet hole in his right temple; his pistol lay at his feet.
The loyal Günsche carried the Führer’s body, wrapped in a dark army blanket, into the Chancellery garden, placed it into a shallow shell hole, brimming with gasoline. Then Hitler’s chauffeur and Günsche struggled up the four flights of stairs with the body of Eva Braun, now Eva Hitler. She was placed alongside Hitler and their bodies doused by more gasoline. Then, during a lull in the artillery barrage, the chauffeur tossed a lighted rag into the depression, igniting a towering fireball—one of hundreds around the blasted city. From the entrance to the bunker stairwell, Bormann and Goebbels witnessed the scene. Günsche returned every three hours or so to pour gasoline onto the corpses.
One last macabre event remained for the denizens of the Führerbunker. Early on that same day, Goebbels had attempted to negotiate with the Russians, who were having none of it. They had conquered the city at a great loss of life. The Third Reich was destroyed, its leader, as Goebbels informed them, was dead. What was there to negotiate? The Russians insisted on unconditional surrender. Upon hearing this, Goebbels moved decisively. This was the moment for him to join his Führer in a “hero’s death.” Frau Goebbels woke their six children from their beds, told them not to be afraid, that a doctor was going to give them an injection, a kind that was now given to all children and soldiers. It was morphine, which made the children drowsy. Then Frau Goebbels, moving methodically from one child to the next, placed a vile of cyanide in their mouths and crushed it. “My children should die rather than live in shame and scorn,” she had told Traudl Junge. “In a Germany as it will be after the war, there will be no place for our children.” She could not imagine a world without Hitler, without National Socialism. Immediately thereafter Joseph and Magda Goebbels climbed the stairs to the Chancellery garden. Stories of exactly how they died vary, but they either took cyanide together or were shot by Goebbels’s aide. In either case, they were gone. The sorcerer’s apprentice who from the early days of the NSDAP had tirelessly, fanatically promoted the National Socialist cause had come to an ignominious end. Their bodies were hurriedly burned, though not beyond recognition, and left unburied. The Russians found them the next day.
On May 1, a red flag flew over the battered Reichstag, and Russian troops at last reached the devastated Reich Chancellery. They discovered, then entered, the bunker. There they found the bodies of adjutant Burgdorf and General Krebs in the deserted corridor. They, too, had committed suicide. Nothing remained but the shabby wreckage of the Führer’s last headquarters, papers strewn about, furniture overturned, bottles, scraps of food. And ghosts. Although they were later to deny it, the Russians soon discovered Hitler’s corpse. What they did with it remains something of a mystery, though a skull with a bullet hole in the right temple, discovered by Russian troops in the Chancellery garden, resides in a shoebox in a Moscow archive. The Battle of Berlin was over. A tidal wave of rape swept the ruined city. It is estimated that between 95,000 and 130,000 women and girls were raped, some 10,000 of whom died, mostly by suicide. The Russians paid a very high price for their victory: more than 300,000 casualties; the heaviest losses suffered by the Red Army in any battle of the war. Upward of 150,000 Germans perished in the ruined city and its environs, while Hitler waited in vain for the miracle that would save his profoundly evil regime.
The war in Europe did not end on May 1. Hitler had chosen Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz to be his successor, and from his headquarters in Flensburg in Schleswig-Holstein, the admiral held out for another week in the hope of allowing as many of his countrymen as possible to flee to the West ahead of the Russians. In that time, he flushed the leading Nazis out of his government, although he retained Speer. He was especially eager to rid himself and the country of Himmler, who had moved to Flensburg with a large retinue of chauffeurs, secretaries, and SS guards. Still suffering from the abiding delusion that he would be indispensable to the new post-Hitler government, he was stunned to discover that Dönitz wanted no part of him. Astonished, he contemplated reaching out to General Bernard Montgomery, whose British forces were nearby and closing, in an attempt to negotiate a peace agreement—and to hold on to power. He was dissuaded from that fantastical move by his embarrassed aides. When it became painfully obvious that he was not wanted, that he had been stripped of his power and position, he shaved his mustache, donned the uniform of a simple soldier, and tried to pass as a displaced person. He did not, however, dispose of the rimless spectacles that more than anything else identified him as the Reichsmarschall SS. Still incredulous, he had no intention of taking his own life, no martyr he. But on May 21, he was captured by the British and was passed on for interrogation near Lüneburg. Before he could be questioned properly, he bit into a cyanide capsule he had hidden behind his teeth, and died convulsing on the dusty floor of a British interrogation camp.
In the south, Hermann Göring was freed from house arrest by a passing Luftwaffe unit, and on May 5 he was taken into custody by the Americans. His arrest probably saved his life since Bormann had ordered his execution as a traitor. At first treated as something of a celebrity, he gave an interview to the international press. Eisenhower quickly called a halt to that, and Göring was sent to a prisoner of war camp in Luxembourg, where he was held until he was transferred to Nuremberg to stand trial as a war criminal. He was tried by the Allied Military Tribunal and condemned to death in 1946 along with Rosenberg, Ribbentrop, Seyss-Inquart, Julius Streicher, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Hans Frank, and Wilhelm Frick. Robert Ley was also sentenced to death but took his own life before his execution could take place. Walther Funk and Rudolf Hess were given life sentences. Dönitz was condemned to ten years in prison, Speer to a term of twenty years. On the morning Göring was to be hanged, he cheated the hangman by biting into a cyanide capsule he had managed to conceal. Martin Bormann had disappeared in an effort to escape the bunker but was killed in the ruins of the city. His body was not discovered until 2002. Trials of other Nazi criminals would stretch out across decades, tried first by the victorious Allies and then later by German courts.
On May 8, General Jodl signed the unconditional surrender at Reims; a day later Keitel signed a similar capitulation with the Russians, and Hitler’s war came at last to an end. Much of Europe was in ruins, thousands upon thousands of bewildered, uprooted persons roamed the devastated continent, many finding their way into crowded displaced persons camps. The roll call of the dead began—in Germany, 1,800,000 military dead, 500,000 civilians, and 1,240 missing; in the Soviet Union, 11,000,000 military dead, 2,500,000 POWs killed in German captivity, and 7,000,000 civilians—10 percent of the population. In the slaughterhouse that was Poland, 4,520,000 dead, over 4,000,000 of whom were civilians, 20 percent of the prewar Polish population. Six million Jews perished in what has come to be called the Holocaust. British, French, and American losses were lower, France 810,000, Britain 300,000, and the United States 259,000. Sixty million more were wounded or maimed, either mentally or physically. It was the largest, most destructive war in human history.
There are many lessons to be drawn from the Nazi experience, lessons about nationalism and racism, about ideological fanaticism and the fragility of democracy, about the dark recesses of human nature that are implicit in the preceding pages, but I would like to close with this thought. On May 9, 1945, the Third Reich ceased to exist. When the last Anglo-American bomb had exploded on Central Europe, and the last Russian shell had detonated, and the German people began emerging from their hiding places to survey the smoking heaps of rubble that had once been Berlin, Dresden, or Hamburg, there must have been a moment, however fleeting, when the grisly reality of all that had happened fell in upon them and they asked themselves the question, How had it ever come to this? It was a question that must also have come to the ghostlike human shells that had suffered the unspeakable agonies of Auschwitz or Buchenwald or Treblinka. It must have come to them in countless ways, in the endless days and nights in boxcars or barracks or prison cells, standing naked on the cusp of mass graves, or in the gas chambers. For the Germans that haunting question, if they dared confront it, was accompanied by an enormous burden of guilt, shame, and horror at what was done in the name of the German people. For them, no less than for the victims of National Socialism whose only crime was to have been a Jew or a Pole or a Russian, there is another legacy, a legacy that must be ours as well. It is a political, but even more a moral imperative: that this must never happen again. Be vigilant about your rights; when the rights of any group, no matter how small or marginal, are threatened, everyone’s liberty is put at risk. Let there never come a time when we must cast about and ask how it ever came to this.