Military history

HITLER’S LAST GREAT DECISION

Hitler’s birthday on April 20 passed quietly enough, although, as General Karl Koller, the Air Force Chief of Staff, who was present at the celebration in the bunker, noted in his diary, it was a day of further catastrophes on the rapidly disintegrating fronts. All the Old Guard Nazis, Goering, Goebbels, Himmler, Ribbentrop and Bormann, were there, as well as the surviving military leaders, Doenitz, Keitel, Jodl and Krebs—the last-named the new, and last, Chief of the Army General Staff. They offered the Fuehrer birthday congratulations.

The warlord was not unusually cast down, despite the situation. He was still confident, as he had told his generals three days before, that “the Russians were going to suffer their bloodiest defeat of all before Berlin.” The generals knew better, and at the regular military conference after the birthday party they urged Hitler to leave Berlin for the south. In a day or two, they explained, the Russians would cut off the last escape corridor in that direction. Hitler hesitated; he would not say yes or no. Apparently he could not quite face the appalling fact that the capital of the Third Reich was now about to be captured by the Russians, whose armies, he had announced years before, were as good as destroyed. As a concession to the generals he consented to setting up two separate commands in case the Americans and Russians made their junction on the Elbe. Admiral Doenitz would head that in the north and perhaps Kesselring the one in the south—he was not quite sure about the latter appointment.

That night there was a general getaway from Berlin. Two of the Fuehrer’s most trusted and veteran aides got out: Himmler and Goering, the latter in a motor caravan whose trucks were filled with booty from his fabulous estate, Karinhall. Each of these Old Guard Nazis left convinced that his beloved Leader would soon be dead and that he would succeed him.

They never saw him again. Nor did Ribbentrop, who also scurried for safer parts late that night.

But Hitler had not yet given up. On the day after his birthday he ordered an all-out counterattack on the Russians in the southern suburbs of Berlin by S.S. General Felix Steiner. Every available soldier in the Berlin area was to be thrown into the attack, including the Luftwaffe ground troops.

“Any commander who holds back his forces,” Hitler shouted to General Koller, who had remained behind to represent the Air Force, “will forfeit his life in five hours. You yourself will guarantee with your head that the last man is thrown in.”11

All through the day and far into the next Hitler waited impatiently for the news of Steiner’s counterattack. It was a further example of his loss of contact with reality. There was no Steiner attack. It was never attempted. It existed only in the feverish mind of the desperate dictator. When he was finally forced to recognize this the storm broke.

April 22 brought the last turning point in Hitler’s road to ruin. From early morning until 3 P.M. he had been on the telephone, as he had been the day before, trying to find out from the various command posts how the Steiner counterattack was going. No one knew. General Roller’s planes could not locate it, nor could the ground commanders, though it was supposed to be rolling only two or three miles south of the capital. Not even Steiner, though he existed, could be found, let alone his army.

The blowup came at the daily military conference in the bunker at 3 P.M. Hitler angrily demanded news of Steiner. Neither Keitel nor Jodl nor anyone else had any. But the generals had other news. The withdrawal of troops from the north of Berlin to support Steiner had so weakened the front there that the Russians had broken through and their tanks were now within the city limits.

This was too much for the Supreme Warlord. All the surviving witnesses testify that he completely lost control of himself. He flew into the greatest rage of his life. This was the end, he shrieked. Everyone had deserted him. There was nothing but treason, lies, corruption and cowardice. All was over. Very well, he would stay on in Berlin. He would personally take over the defense of the capital of the Third Reich. The others could leave, if they wished. In this place he would meet his end.

The others protested. There was still hope, they said, if the Fuehrer retired to the south, where Field Marshal Ferdinand Schoerner’s army group in Czechoslovakia and considerable forces of Kesselring were still intact. Doenitz, who had left for the northwest to take over command of the troops there, and Himmler, who, as we shall see, was up to his own game, telephoned to urge the Leader not to remain in Berlin. Even Ribbentrop called up to say he was about to spring a “diplomatic coup” which would save everything. But Hitler had no more faith in them, not even in his “second Bismarck,” as he once, in a moment of folly, had called his Foreign Minister. He had made his decision, he said to all. And to show them that it was irrevocable, he called for a secretary and in their presence dictated an announcement that was to be read immediately over the radio. The Fuehrer, it said, would stay in Berlin and defend it to the end.

Hitler then sent for Goebbels and invited him, his wife and their six young children to move into the Fuehrerbunker from their badly bombed house in the Wilhelmstrasse garden. He knew that at least this fanatical and faithful follower, and his family, would stick by him to the end. Next Hitler turned to his papers, sorted out those he wished to be destroyed, and turned them over to one of his adjutants, Julius Schaub, who took them up to the garden and burned them.

Finally that evening he called in Keitel and Jodl and ordered them to proceed south to take over direct command of the remaining armed forces. Both generals, who had been at Hitler’s side throughout the war, have left vivid accounts of their final parting with the Supreme Warlord.12

When Keitel protested that he would not leave without the Fuehrer, Hitler answered, “You will follow my orders.” Keitel, who had never disobeyed an order from the Leader in his life, not even those commanding him to commit the vilest war crimes, said nothing further, but Jodl, less a lackey, did. To this soldier, who, despite his fanatical devotion to the Fuehrer whom he had served so well, still retained some sense of military tradition, the Supreme Warlord was deserting the command of his troops and shirking his responsibility for them at a moment of disaster.

“You can’t direct anything from here,” Jodl said. “If you don’t have your Leadership Staff with you how can you lead anything?”

“Well, then,” Hitler retorted, “Goering can take over the leadership down there.”

When one of them pointed out that no soldier would fight for the Reich Marshal, Hitler cut in. “What do you mean, fight? There’s precious little more fighting to be done!” Even for the mad conqueror the scales at last were falling from the eyes. Or, at least, the gods were giving him moments of lucidity in these last nightmarish days of his life.

There were several repercussions to Hitler’s outbursts on April 22 and to his final decision to remain in Berlin. When Himmler, who was at Hohenlychen, northwest of Berlin, received a firsthand account on the telephone from Hermann Fegelein, his S.S. liaison officer at headquarters, he exclaimed to his entourage, “Everyone is mad in Berlin! What am I to do?”

“You go straight to Berlin,” replied one of Himmler’s principal aides, Obergruppenfuehrer Gottlob Berger, the chief of the S.S. head office. Berger was one of those simple Germans who sincerely believed in National Socialism. He had no idea that his revered chief, Himmler, under the prodding of S.S. General Walter Schellenberg, was already in touch with Count Folke Bernadotte of Sweden about surrendering the German armies in the West. “I am going to Berlin,” Berger said to Himmler, “and it is your duty to go too.”

Berger, but not Himmler, went to Berlin that night and his visit is of interest because of his firsthand description of Hitler on the night of his great decision. Russian shells were already bursting near the Chancellery when Berger arrived. To his shock he found the Fuehrer “a broken man—finished.” When he ventured to express his appreciation of Hitler’s resolve to remain in Berlin—“one couldn’t desert the people after they had held out so loyally and long,” he says he declared—the very words touched off the Leader again.

All this time [Berger later recounted] the Fuehrer had never uttered a word; then suddenly he shrieked: “Everyone has deceived me! No one has told me the truth! The Armed Forces have lied to me!” … He went on and on in a loud voice. Then his face went bluish purple. I thought he was going to have a stroke any minute …

Berger was also the head of Himmler’s Prisoner-of-War Administration, and after the Fuehrer had calmed down they discussed the fate of a group of prominent British, French and American prisoners as well as of such Germans as Halder and Schacht and the former Austrian Chancellor, Schuschnigg, who were being moved southeast to keep them out of the hands of the Americans advancing through Germany. Berger was flying to Bavaria that night to take charge of them. The two men also talked of reports that there had been outbreaks of separatism in Austria and Bavaria. The idea that revolt could break out in his native Austria and in his adopted Bavaria once more convulsed Hitler.

His hand was shaking, his leg was shaking and his head was shaking; and all that he kept saying [Berger reported] was: “Shoot them all! Shoot them all!”13

Whether this was an order to shoot all the separatists or all the distinguished prisoners, or both, was not clear to Berger, but apparently to this simple man it meant the whole lot.

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