Military history

31. GOETTERDAEMMERUNG: THE LAST DAYS OF THE THIRD REICH

HITLER HAD PLANNED to leave Berlin on April 20, his fifty-sixth birthday, for Obersalzberg and there direct the last stand of the Third Reich in the legendary mountain fastness of Barbarossa. Most of the ministerial offices had already moved south with their trucks full of state papers and of frantic officials desperate to get out of doomed Berlin. The Fuehrer himself had sent most of the members of his household staff to Berchtesgaden ten days before to prepare his mountain villa, the Berghof, for his coming.

He was destined, however, never to see his beloved Alpine retreat again. The end was approaching faster than he had thought possible. The Americans and Russians were driving swiftly to a junction on the Elbe. The British were at the gates of Hamburg and Bremen and threatening to cut off Germany from occupied Denmark. In Italy Bologna had fallen and Alexander’s Allied forces were plunging into the valley of the Po. The Russians, having captured Vienna on April 13, were heading up the Danube, and the U.S. Third Army was sweeping down that river to meet them in Hitler’s home town of Linz in AustriaNuremberg, where work had been going on throughout the war on the great auditorium and stadiums which were to mark the ancient town as the capital of the Nazi Party, was besieged and part of the U.S. Seventh Army was sweeping past it towardMunich, the birthplace of the Nazi movement. In Berlin the thunder of Russian heavy artillery could be heard.

“All through the week,” Count Schwerin von Krosigk, the puerile Minister of Finance and former Rhodes scholar, who had scooted out of Berlin for the north at the first word of the approaching Bolsheviki, noted in his diary on April 23, “there was nothing but a succession of Job’s messengers. Our people seem to be faced with the darkest fate.”1

Hitler had left his headquarters in Rastenburg in East Prussia for the last time on the previous November 20, as the Russians approached, and had remained in Berlin, which he had scarcely seen since the beginning of the war in the East, until December 10, when he had gone to his Western headquarters at Ziegenberg near Bad Nauheim to direct the great gamble in the Ardennes. After its failure he had returned on January 16 to Berlin, where he was to remain until the end, directing his crumbling armies from the underground bunker fifty feet below the Chancellery, whose great marble halls were now in ruins from Allied bombing.

Physically he was fast deteriorating. A young Army captain who saw him for the first time in February later recalled his appearance.

His head was slightly wobbling. His left arm hung slackly and his hand trembled a good deal. There was an indescribable flickering glow in his eyes, creating a fearsome and wholly unnatural effect. His face and the parts around his eyes gave the impression of total exhaustion. All his movements were those of a senile man.2

Since the July 20 attempt on his life he had grown distrustful of everyone, even of his old party stalwarts. “I am lied to on all sides,” he fumed to one of his women secretaries in March.

I can rely on no one. They all betray me. The whole business makes me sick … If anything happens to me, Germany will be left without a leader. I have no successor. Hess is mad, Goering has lost the sympathy of the people, and Himmler would be rejected by the Party—besides, he [Himmler] is so completely inartistic … Rack your brains and tell me who my successor is to be …3

   One would have thought that at this stage of history the question of succession was academic, but it was not—not in this Nazi cuckoo land. Not only the Fuehrer was obsessed by it but the leading candidates to succeed him, as we shall shortly see.

Physical wreck though Hitler now was, with a disastrous end staring him in the face as the Russians approached Berlin and the Western Allies overran the Reich, he and a few of his most fanatical followers, Goebbels above all, clung stubbornly to their hopes of being saved at the last minute by a miracle.

One fine evening early in April Goebbels had sat up reading to Hitler from one of the Fuehrer’s favorite books, Carlyle’s History of Frederick the Great. The chapter he was reading told of the darkest days of the Seven Years’ War, when the great King felt himself at the end of his rope and told his ministers that if by February 15 no change for the better in his fortunes occurred he would give up and take poison. This portion of history certainly had its appropriateness and no doubt Goebbels read it in his most dramatic fashion.

“Brave King! [Goebbels read on] Wait yet a little while, and the days of your suffering will be over. Already the sun of your good fortune stands behind the clouds and soon will rise upon you.” On February 12 the Czarina died, the Miracle of the House of Brandenburg had come to pass.

The Fuehrer’s eyes, Goebbels told Krosigk, to whose diary we owe this touching scene, “were filled with tears.”4

With such encouragement—and from a British source—they sent for two horoscopes, which were kept in the files of one of Himmler’s multitudinous “research” offices. One was the horoscope of the Fuehrer drawn up on January 30, 1933, the day he took office; the other was the horoscope of the Weimar Republic, composed by some unknown astrologer on November 9, 1918, the day of the Republic’s birth. Goebbels communicated the results of the re-examination of these two remarkable documents to Krosigk.

An amazing fact has become evident, both horoscopes predicting the outbreak of the war in 1939, the victories until 1941, and the subsequent series of reversals, with the hardest blows during the first months of 1945, particularly during the first half of April. In the second half of April we were to experience a temporary success. Then there would be stagnation until August and peace that same month. For the following three years Germany would have a hard time, but starting in 1948 she would rise again.5

Fortified by Carlyle and the “amazing” predictions of the stars, Goebbels on April 6 issued a ringing appeal to the retreating troops:

The Fuehrer has declared that even in this very year a change of fortune shall come … The true quality of genius is its consciousness and its sure knowledge of coming change. The Fuehrer knows the exact hour of its arrival. Destiny has sent us this man so that we, in this time of great external and internal stress, shall testify to the miracle …6

Scarcely a week later, on the night of April 12, Goebbels convinced himself that “the exact hour” of the miracle had come. It had been a day of further bad news. The Americans had appeared on the Dessau–Berlin autobahn and the High Command had hastily ordered the destruction of its last two remaining powder factories, which were in the vicinity. Henceforth the German soldiers would have to get along with the ammunition at hand. Goebbels had spent the day at the headquarters of General Busse on the Oder front at Kuestrin. The General had assured him that a Russian breakthrough was impossible, that (as Goebbels the next day told Krosigk) he was “holding out until the British kick us in the ass.”

In the evening [Goebbels recounted] they had sat together at headquarters and he had developed his thesis that according to historical logic and justice things were bound to change, just as in the Seven Years’ War there had been the miracle of the House of Brandenburg.

“What Czarina will die this time?” an officer asked. Goebbels did not know. But fate, he replied, “holds all sorts of possibilities.”

When the Propaganda Minister got back to Berlin late that night the center of the capital was in flames from another R.A.F. bombing. The remains of the Chancellery and the Adlon Hotel up the Wilhelmstrasse were burning. At the steps of the Propaganda Ministry, a secretary greeted Goebbels with a piece of urgent news. “Roosevelt,” he said, “is dead!”

The Minister’s face lit up, visible to all in the light of the flames from the Chancellery across the Wilhelmsplatz.

“Bring out our best champagne!” Goebbels cried. “And get me the Fuehrer on the telephone!”

Hitler was in his deep bunker across the way sitting out the bombing. He picked up the telephone.

“My Fuehrer,” Goebbels said. “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. This is Friday, April the thirteenth. [It was already after midnight.] It is the turning point!”

Hitler’s reaction to the news was not recorded, though it may be imagined in view of the encouragement he had been receiving from Carlyle and the stars. But that of Goebbels was. “He was,” says his secretary, “in ecstasy.”7

The fatuous Count Schwerin von Krosigk too. When Goebbels’ State Secretary phoned him that Roosevelt was dead he exclaimed—at least in his faithful diary:

This was the Angel of History! We felt its wings flutter through the room. Was that not the turn of fortune we awaited so anxiously?

   The next morning Krosigk telephoned Goebbels with his “congratulations”—he affirms it proudly in his diary—and, as if this were not enough, followed it with a letter in which he hailed Roosevelt’s death, he says, as “a divine judgment … a gift from God.”

   In this atmosphere of a lunatic asylum, with cabinet ministers long in power and educated in Europe’s ancient universities, as Krosigk and Goebbels were, grasping at the readings of the stars and rejoicing amidst the flames of the burning capital in the death of the American President as a sure sign that the Almighty would now rescue the Third Reich at the eleventh hour from impending catastrophe, the last act in Berlin was played out to its final curtain.

Eva Braun had arrived in Berlin to join Hitler on April 15. Very few Germans knew of her existence and even fewer of her relationship to Adolf Hitler. For more than twelve years she had been his mistress. Now in April she had come, as Trevor-Roper says, for her wedding and her ceremonial death.

She is interesting for her role in the last chapter of this narrative but not interesting in herself; she was not a Pompadour or a Lola Montez. * Hitler, although he was undoubtedly extremely fond of her and found relaxation in her unobtrusive company, had always kept her out of sight, refusing to allow her to come to his various headquarters, where he spent almost all of his time during the war years, and rarely permitting her even to come to Berlin. She remained immured at the Berghof on the Obersalzberg, passing her time in swimming and skiing, in reading cheap novels and seeing trashy films, in dancing (which Hitler disapproved of) and endlessly grooming herself, pining away for her absent loved one.

“She was,” says Erich Kempka, the Fuehrer’s chauffeur, “the unhappiest woman in Germany. She spent most of her life waiting for Hitler.”8

Field Marshal Keitel described her appearance during an interrogation at Nuremberg.

She was very slender, elegant appearance, quite nice legs—one could see that—reticent and retiring and a very, very nice person, dark blond. She stood very much in the background and one saw her very rarely.9

The daughter of lower-middle-class Bavarian parents, who at first strenuously opposed her illicit relation with Hitler, even though he was the dictator, she had been employed in the Munich photograph shop of Heinrich Hoffmann, who introduced her to the Fuehrer. This was a year or two after the suicide of Geli Raubal, the niece of Hitler, for whom, as we have seen, he had the one great passionate love of his life. Eva Braun too, it seems, was often driven to despair by her lover, though not for the same reasons as Geli Raubal. Eva, though installed in a suite in Hitler’s Alpine villa, couldn’t endure the long separations when he was away and twice tried to kill herself in the early years of their friendship. But gradually she accepted her frustrating and ambiguous role—acknowledged neither as wife nor as mistress—content to be sole woman companion of the great man and making the most of their rare moments together.

She was now determined to share his end. Like Dr. and Frau Goebbels, she had no desire to live in a Germany without Adolf Hitler. “It would not be fit to live in for a true German,” she told Hanna Reitsch, the famed German woman test pilot, in the shelter just before the end.10 Though Eva Braun had a birdlike mind and made no intellectual impression on Hitler at all—perhaps this is one reason he preferred her company to that of intelligent women—it is obvious that his influence on her, as on so many others, was total.

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