Military history

Chapter 6
 
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INEVITABLY, despite the constant bombing, despite the specter of the Red Army on the Oder, despite the very shrinking of Germany itself as the Allies pressed in from east and west, there were those who doggedly refused even to consider the possibilities of catastrophe. They were the fanatical Nazis. Most of them seemed to accept the hardships they were undergoing as a kind of purgatory—as a tempering and refining of their devotion to Nazism and its aims. Once they had demonstrated their loyalty, everything would surely be all right; they were convinced not only that Berlin would never fall, but that victory for the Third Reich was certain.

The Nazis occupied a peculiar place in the life of the city. Berliners had never fully accepted Hitler or his evangelism. They had always been both too sophisticated and too international in outlook. In fact, the Berliner’s caustic humor, political cynicism and almost complete lack of enthusiasm for the Führer and his new order had long plagued the Nazi Party. Whenever torchlight parades or other Nazi demonstrations to impress the world were held in Berlin, thousands of storm troopers had to be shipped in from Munich to beef up the crowds of marchers. “They look better in the newsreels than we do,” wisecracked the Berliners, “and they also have bigger feet!”

Try as he might, Hitler was never able to capture the hearts of the Berliners. Long before the city was demolished by Allied bombs, a frustrated and angry Hitler was already planning to rebuild Berlin and shape it to the Nazi image. He even intended to change its name to Germania, for he had never forgotten that in every free election in the thirties Berliners had rejected him. In the critical balloting of 1932 when Hitler was sure he would unseat Hindenburg, Berlin gave him its lowest vote of all—only 23 per cent. Now, the fanatics among the citizenry were determined to make Berlin, the least Nazi city in Germany, the last Festung (fortress) of Nazism. Although they were in the minority, they were still in control.

Thousands of the fanatics were teen-agers and, like most of their generation, they knew only one god—Hitler. From childhood on they had been saturated with the aims and ideology of National Socialism. Many more had also been trained to defend and perpetuate the cause, using an array of weapons ranging from rifles to bazooka-like tank destroyers, called Panzerfäuste. Klaus Küster was typical of the teen-age group. A member of the Hitler Youth (there were more than one thousand of them in Berlin), his specialty was knocking out tanks at a range of less than sixty yards. Klaus was not vet sixteen.

The most dedicated military automatons of all were the members of the SS. They were so convinced of ultimate victory and so devoted to Hitler that to other Germans their mental attitude almost defied comprehension. Their fanaticism was so strong that it sometimes seemed to have penetrated the subconscious. Dr. Ferdinand Sauerbruch, in Charité Hospital, working on the anesthetized form of a seriously wounded SS man just in from the Oder front, was suddenly, momentarily frozen. In the stillness of the operating theater, from the depths of his anesthesia, the SS man began to speak. Quietly and distinctly he repeated over and over, “Heil Hitler! … Heil Hitler! … Heil Hitler!”

Although these were the real extremists, there were hundreds of thousands of civilians almost as bad. Some were walking caricatures of what the free world thought the fanatical Nazi to be. One of them was 47-year-old Gotthard Carl. Although Gotthard was only a minor civil servant, an accountant on temporary service to the Luftwaffe, he wore the dashing blue air force uniform with all the pride and arrogance of an ace fighter pilot. As he entered his apartment in the late afternoon, he clicked his heels sharply together, shot his right arm out and shouted, “Heil Hitler.” This performance had been going on for years.

His wife, Gerda, was thoroughly bored with her husband’s fanaticism, but she was worried, and anxious to discuss with him some sort of plan for their survival. The Russians, she pointed out, were getting very close to Berlin. Gotthard cut her off. “Rumors!” he fumed, “rumors! Deliberately put out by the enemy.” In Gotthard’s disoriented Nazi world everything was going along as planned. Hitler’s victory was certain. The Russians were not at the gates of Berlin.

Then there were the enthusiastic and impressionable—those who had never considered defeat possible—like Erna Schultze. The 41-year-old secretary in the headquarters of the Oberkommando der Kriegsmarine (Navy High Command) had just realized her life’s ambition: she had been made an admiral’s secretary and this was her first day on the job.

Shell House, where the headquarters was located, had been badly bombed in the previous forty-eight hours. Still, the dust and wreckage did not bother Erna—neither was she perturbed by the order that had just reached her desk. It stated that all Geheime Kommandosache (Top Secret) files were to be burned. But Erna was saddened on this first day of her new job to be told at closing time that she and the other employees were to take “indefinite leave” and that their pay checks would be forwarded.

Still Erna remained unshaken. Her faith was so strong that she even refused to believe the official communiqués when defeats were reported. Morale was good throughout Berlin, she believed, and it was only a question of time before the Reich triumphed. Even now, as she left the building, Erna was quite certain that within a few days the Navy would call her back.

There were others so trusting and so involved with the upper clique of the Nazi hierarchy that they thought little of the war or its consequences. Caught up in the heady atmosphere and glamor of their privileged positions, they felt not only secure, but in their blind devotion to Hitler, totally protected. Such a person was attractive, blue-eyed Käthe Reiss Heusermann.

At 213 Kurfürstendamm the blond and vivacious 35-year-old Käthe was immersed in her work as assistant to Professor Hugo J. Blaschke, the Nazi leaders’ top dentist. Blaschke, because he had served Hitler and his court since 1934, had been honored with the military rank of SS Brigadeführer (Brigadier General) and placed in charge of the dental staff of the Berlin SS Medical Center. An ardent Nazi, Blaschke had parlayed his association with Hitler into the largest and most lucrative private practice in Berlin. Now he was preparing to parlay it a step farther. Unlike Käthe, he could clearly see the writing on the wall—and he planned to leave Berlin at the earliest opportunity. If he remained, his SS rank and position might prove embarrassing: under the Russians, today’s prominence might well become tomorrow’s liability.

Käthe was almost completely oblivious of the situation. She was much too busy. From early morning until late at night she was on the move, assisting Blaschke at various clinics and headquarters or at his private surgery on the Kurfürstendamm. Competent and well liked, Käthe was so completely trusted by the Nazi elite that she had attended nearly all of Hitler’s entourage—and once, the Führer himself.

That occasion had been the highlight of her career. In November, 1944, she and Blaschke had been urgently summoned to the Führer’s headquarters in Rastenburg, East Prussia. There they had found Hitler in acute pain. “His face, particularly the right cheek was terribly swollen,” she later recalled. “His teeth were extremely bad. In all he had three bridges. He had only eight upper teeth of his own and even these were backed by gold fillings. A bridge completed his upper dental work and it was held securely in place by the existing teeth. One of them, the wisdom tooth on the right side, was badly infected.”

Blaschke took one look at the tooth and told Hitler that it had to come out, there was no way he could save it. Blaschke explained that he would need to remove two teeth—a false tooth at the rear of the bridge as well as the infected one next to it. That meant cutting through the porcelain and gold bridge at a point in front of the false tooth, a procedure that called for a considerable amount of drilling and sawing. Then, after making the final extraction, at some later date he would either make an entirely new bridge or reanchor the old one.

Blaschke was nervous about the operation: it was intricate and there was no telling how Hitler would behave. Complicating matters even further was the Führer’s dislike of anesthetics. He told Blaschke, Käthe remembered, that he would accept “only the bare minimum.” Both Blaschke and Käthe knew he would suffer excruciating pain; furthermore the operation might last as long as thirty to forty-five minutes. But there was nothing they could do about it.

Blaschke gave Hitler an injection in the upper jaw and the operation began. Käthe stood by the Führer’s side with one hand pulling back his cheek, the other holding a mirror. Swiftly Blaschke’s rasping drill bored into the bridge. Then he changed the bit and began sawing. Hitler sat motionless—“as though frozen,” she recalled. Finally Blaschke cleared the tooth and quickly made the extraction. “Throughout,” Käthe said later, “Hitler neither moved nor uttered a single word. It was an extraordinary performance. We wondered how he stood the pain.”

That had been five months ago; as yet nothing had been done about the Führer’s dangling bridge. Outside of Hitler’s immediate circle, few knew the details of the operation. One of the cardinal rules for those who worked for the Führer was that everything about him, especially his illnesses, remain top secret.

Käthe was good at keeping secrets. For example, she knew that a special denture was being constructed for the Reich’s acknowledged, but unwed first lady. Blaschke intended to fit the gold bridge next time she was in Berlin. Hitler‚s mistress, Eva Braun, certainly needed it.

Finally, Käthe knew one of the most closely guarded secrets of all. It was her responsibility to send a complete set of dental tools and supplies everywhere the Führer went. Moreover, she was preparing a new bridge with gold crowns for one of Hitler’s four secretaries: short, stout, 45-year-old Johanna Wolf. Soon Käthe would fit “Wolfie’s” new bridge, over in the surgical room of the Reichskanzlei. She had been traveling back and forth between Blaschke’s surgery and the Reichskanzlei almost daily for the last nine weeks. Adolf Hitler had been there since January 16.

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THE CIVILIANS
 
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The wagon with the two horses, Lisa and Hans. “Each day now Poganowska watched for certain signs that helped keep him from losing heart.”

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Milkman Richard Poganowska, photographed in 1945.
Unless otherwise credited, all photographs are from the author’s private collection.

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Robert and Ingeborg Kolb in 1945.

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The Kolbs’ house in Spandau. “The war will pass us by,” Robert told Ingeborg. The first sign that it would not was when an army field kitchen pulled up in front of their door.

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Dr. Arthur Leckscheidt, Evangelical pastor of the gutted Melanchthon Church. “… eyes filled with tears, he played his farewell. As bombs burst all over Kreuzberg people sheltering in adjacent shelters heard the organ pealing out the ancient hymn, ‘From Deepest Need I Cry to Thee.’”

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Carl Johann Wiberg. “… this Swede who was more German than the Germans was also an Allied spy.”

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Mother Superior Cunegundes, head of the Haus Dahlem, the orphanage and maternity home run by the Mission Sisters of the Sacred Heart. “How do you tell sixty nuns and lay sisters that they are in danger of being raped?”

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Erna Saenger (center) with her daughters-in-law and grandchildren, in 1945. “To believe faithfully means to be stupid and blind … we’ll stay in Berlin. If everyone left like the neighbors the enemy would have what he wants.”

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Juliane Bochnik in 1945. “The first pair of Russian boots I see, I’m going to commit suicide,” a friend confided to her.

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Pia van Hoeven, who waited for the end in “a resplendent shelter, complete with Oriental rugs….”

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Hildegard Radusch, left, and her friend Else Kloptsch. Hildegard, a Communist, was on the Nazi “Wanted” list, and eagerly awaited the arrival of the Red Army.

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Bruno Zarzycki (second from left), with the Russians who entered his village. “He suffered so badly from ulcers he could hardly eat, but the day the Red Army arrived his ulcers would disappear; he knew it.”

THE PRISONERS

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Herbert Kosney.

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Kurt Kosney.

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Captain Helmuth Cords, who, like Herbert Kosney, awaited execution for his complicity in the July 20th plot against Hitler.

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Cords with his fiancée, Jutta Sorge, also imprisoned. Cords was released in the last days of the war, and married Jutta.

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Lehrterstrasse Prison.                                                      BERLIN SENATE ARCHIVES

THE ZOO-KEEPERS

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Dr. Lutz Heck, the zoo director, and a good friend of Hermann Goering, shown in 1945.

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Walter Wendt (shown here with Dr. Heinroth), who was in charge of the cattle and survived the fighting in and around the zoo.

THE ZOO-KEEPERS

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Gustav Riedel, the lion-keeper who was forced to kill his animals, but found some of them “good eating.”

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Dr. Katherina Heinroth, who was later to become director of the zoo, with her pet monkey.

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PHOTO BY THE AUTHOR
Käthe Heusermann today.

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Käthe and Professor Hugo Blaschke operate on Propaganda Minister Dr. Joseph Goebbels. “… she knew one of the most closely guarded secrets of all—the whereabouts of Adolf Hitler.”

As the spring night closed in, the city took on a deserted look. The ruined colossus of Berlin, ghostly and vulnerable, stretched out in the pale moonlight, offering a clear target for the nighttime enemy. Below ground, Berliners waited for the bombers and wondered who among them would be alive by morning.

At 9 P.M. the R.A.F. came back. The sirens wailed for the fourth time in twenty-four hours, and the 317th attack on the city began. At his military headquarters on the Hohenzollerndamm, Major General Hellmuth Reymann, working steadily at his desk, paid scant attention to the hammering of anti-aircraft fire and the explosion of bombs. He was desperately fighting for time—and there was little of it left.

Only sixteen days before, the telephone had rung in Reymann’s Dresden home. General Wilhelm Burgdorf, Hitler’s adjutant, was on the line. “The Führer,” said Burgdorf, “has appointed you military commander of Dresden.” At first Reymann could not even reply. The 16th-century Saxony capital with its fairy-tale spires, castles and cobbled streets, had been almost totally destroyed in three massive air attacks. Reymann, heartbroken by the destruction of the lovely old city, lost his temper. “Tell him there’s nothing here to defend except rubble,” he shouted, and hung up. His angry words were a rash indulgence. An hour later Burgdorf called again and said, “The Führer has named you commander of Berlin instead.”

On March 6 Reymann assumed command. Within a few hours he made an appalling discovery. Although Hitler had declared Berlin a Festung, the fortifications existed only in the Führer’s imagination. Nothing had been done to prepare the city against attack. There was no plan, there were no defenses and there were virtually no troops. Worse, no provision had been made for the civilian population; an evacuation plan for the women, children and old people simply did not exist.

Now, Reymann was working around the clock trying feverishly to untangle the situation. His problems were staggering: where was he to get the troops, guns, ammunition and equipment to hold the city? Or the engineers, machinery and materials to build defenses? Would he be allowed to evacuate the women, children and aged? If not, how would he feed and protect them when the siege began? And again and again his mind returned to the big question: time—how much time was left?

Even securing senior command officers was difficult. Only now, at this late date, had Reymann been assigned a chief of staff, Colonel Hans Refior. The able Refior had arrived several hours earlier, and he was more startled than Reymann by the confusion in Berlin. A few days before in the illustrated magazine Das Reich, Refior had seen an article which claimed that Berlin was virtually impregnable. He recalled particularly one line: “Hedgehog-position Berlin simply bristles with defenses.” If so, they must be carefully hidden. Refior had not been able to spot more than a few.

In all his years as a professional soldier, the gray-haired, 53-year-old Reymann had never imagined being faced with such a task. Yet he had to find answers for each problem—and quickly. Was it possible to save Berlin? Reymann was determined to do all he could. There were numerous examples in military history where defeat had seemed inevitable and yet a victory was achieved. He thought of Vienna which had been successfully defended against the Turks in 1683, and of General Graf von Gneisenau, Blücher’s Chief of Staff, who defended Kolberg in 1806. True, these were pale comparisons, but perhaps they offered some hope. Yet, Reymann knew that everything would depend on the German armies holding the Oder front, and on the general commanding them.

The great ones were gone—Rommel, Von Rundstedt, Von Kluge, Von Manstein—the victorious leaders whose names were once household words. They had all disappeared, were all dead, discredited or forced into retirement. Now, more than ever, the nation and the armies needed a master soldier—another dashing Rommel, another meticulous Von Rundstedt. Berlin’s safety and perhaps even the survival of Germany as a nation would depend on this. But where was that man?

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