General Koller had stayed away from the Fuehrer’s military conference on April 22. He had the Luftwaffe to look after, and “besides,” he says in his diary, “I should never have been able to tolerate being insulted all day long.”
General Eckard Christian, his liaison officer at the bunker, had rung him up at 6:15 P.M. and in a breathless voice had said, “Historical events, the most decisive of the war, are taking place here!” A couple of hours later Christian arrived at Air Force headquarters at Wildpark-Werder on the outskirts of Berlin to report to Koller in person. “The Fuehrer has broken down!” Christian, an ardent Nazi who had married one of Hitler’s secretaries, gasped, but beyond saying that the Leader had decided to meet his end in Berlin and was burning his papers, he was so incoherent that the Luftwaffe Chief of Staff set out, despite a heavy British bombing that had just begun, to find General Jodl and ascertain just what had happened that day in the bunker.
At Krampnitz, between Berlin and Potsdam, where the now Fuehrerless OKW had set up temporary headquarters, he found him, and Jodl told his Air Force friend the whole sad story. He also revealed something which no one else had yet mentioned to Koller and which was to lead to a certain denouement during the next few frantic days.
“When it comes to negotiating [for peace],” Hitler had told Keitel and Jodl, “Goering can do better than I. Goering is much better at those things. He can deal much better with the other side.” Jodl now repeated this to Koller.14
The Air Force General felt that it was his duty to immediately fly to Goering. It would be difficult and also dangerous, in view of the enemy’s monitoring, to try to explain this new development in a radio message. If Goering, who had been officially named by Hitler years before as hissuccessor-designate, were to take over peace negotiations, as the Fuehrer had suggested, there was no time to lose. Jodl agreed. At 3:30 on the morning of April 23 Koller took off in a fighter plane and sped toward Munich.
At noon he arrived on the Obersalzberg and delivered his news to the Reich Marshal. Goering, who had been looking forward, to put it mildly, to the day when he might succeed Hitler, was more circumspect than might have been expected. He did not want to lay himself open, he said, to the machinations of his “deadly enemy,” Bormann, a precaution which, as it turned out, was well founded. He perspired under his dilemma. “If I act now,” he told his advisers, “I may be stamped as a traitor; if I don’t act, I’ll be accused of having failed to do something in the hour of disaster.”
Goering sent for Hans Lammers, the State Secretary of the Reich Chancellery, who was in Berchtesgaden, for legal advice and also fetched from his safe a copy of the Fuehrer’s decree of June 29, 1941. The decree was quite clear. It stipulated that if Hitler died Goering was to be his successor and that if the Fuehrer were incapacitated Goering was to act as his deputy. All agreed that by remaining in Berlin to die, cut off in his last hours from both the military commands and the government offices, Hitler was incapacitated from governing and that it was Goering’s clear duty under the decree to take over.
Nevertheless the Reich Marshal drafted his telegram to Hitler with great care. He wanted to make sure of the delegation of authority.
In view of your decision to remain in the fortress of Berlin, do you agree that I take over at once the total leadership of the Reich, with full freedom of action at home and abroad as your deputy, in accordance with your decree of June 29, 1941? If no reply is received by 10 o’clock tonight, I shall take it for granted that you have lost your freedom of action, and shall consider the conditions of your decree as fulfilled, and shall act for the best interests of our country and our people. You know what I feel for you in this gravest hour of my life. Words fail me to express myself. May God protect you, and speed you quickly here in spite of all.
That very evening several hundred miles away Heinrich Himmler was meeting with Count Bernadotte in the Swedish consulate at Luebeck on the Baltic. Der treue Heinrich—the loyal Heinrich, as Hitler had often fondly referred to him—was not asking for the powers of succession; he was already assuming them.
“The Fuehrer’s great life,” he told the Swedish count, “is drawing to a close.” In a day or two, he said, Hitler would be dead. Whereupon Himmler urged Bernadotte to communicate to General Eisenhower immediately Germany’s willingness to surrender to the West. In the East, Himmler added, the war would be continued until the Western Powers themselves had taken over the front against the Russians—such was the naïveté, or stupidity, or both, of this S.S. chieftain who now claimed for himself the dictatorship of the Third Reich. When Bernadotte asked that Himmler put in writing his offer to surrender, a letter was hastily drafted by candlelight—for an R.A.F. bombing that night had shut off the electricity in Luebeck and driven the conferees to the cellar. Himmler signed it.15
Both Goering and Himmler had acted prematurely, as they quickly found out. Although Hitler was cut off from all but a scanty radio communication with his armies and his ministries—for the Russians had nearly completed their encirclement of the capital by the evening of the twenty-third—he was now to demonstrate that he could rule Germany by the power of his personality and prestige alone and quell “treason,” even by the most eminent of his followers, by a mere word over his creaky wireless transmitter suspended from a balloon above the bunker.
Albert Speer and a remarkable lady witness whose dramatic appearance in the last act of the drama in Berlin will shortly be noted have described Hitler’s reaction to Goering’s telegram. Speer had flown into the besieged capital on the night of April 23, landing in a cub plane on the eastern end of the East–West Axis—the broad avenue which led through the Tiergarten—at the Brandenburg Gate, a block from the Chancellery. Having learned that Hitler had decided to remain in Berlin to the end, which could not be far off, Speer had come to say his farewell to the Leader and to confess to him that his “conflict between personal loyalty and public duty,” as he puts it, had forced him to sabotage the Fuehrer’s scorched-earth policy. He fully expected to be arrested for “treason” and probably shot, and no doubt he would have been had the dictator known of Speer’s effort two months before to kill him and all the others who had escaped Stauffenberg’s bomb.
The brilliant architect and Armament Minister, though he had always prided himself on being apolitical, had had, like some other Germans, a late—a too late—awakening. When he had finally realized that his beloved Fuehrer was determined through his scorched-earth decrees to destroy the German people he had decided to murder him. His plan was to introduce poison gas into the ventilation system in the bunker in Berlin during a full-dress military conference. Since not only the generals but invariably Goering, Himmler and Goebbels now attended these, Speer hoped to wipe out the entire Nazi leadership of the Third Reich as well as the High Command. He procured his gas, inspected the air-conditioning system and then discovered, he says, that the air-intake pipe in the garden was protected by a twelve-foot-high chimney, recently installed on Hitler’s personal orders to discourage sabotage, and that it would be impossible to inject his gas into it without being interrupted by the S.S. guards in the garden. So he abandoned his project and Hitler once again escaped assassination.
Now on the evening of April 23 Speer made a full confession of his insubordination in refusing to carry out the wanton destruction of Germany’s remaining installations. To his surprise Hitler showed no resentment or anger. Perhaps the Fuehrer was touched by the candor and courage of his young friend—Speer had just turned forty—for whom he had long had a deep affection and whom he regarded as a “fellow artist.” Hitler, as Keitel also noted, seemed strangely serene that evening, as though having made up his mind to die in this place within a few days had brought a peace of mind and spirit. But it was the calm not only after the storm—of the previous day—but before the storm.
For Goering’s telegram had meanwhile arrived in the Chancellery and after being held up by Bormann, who saw his opportunity at last, was presented to the Fuehrer by this master of intrigue as an “ultimatum” and as a treasonous attempt to “usurp” the Leader’s power.
“Hitler was highly enraged,” says Speer, “and expressed himself very strongly about Goering. He said he had known for some time that Goering had failed, that he was corrupt and a drug addict”—a statement which “extremely shook” the young architect, since he wondered why Hitler had employed such a man in so high a post so long. Speer was also puzzled when Hitler calmed down and added, “Well, let Goering negotiate the capitulation all the same. It doesn’t matter anyway who does it.”16 But this mood lasted only a few moments.
Before the discussion was finished, Hitler, prompted by Bormann, dictated a telegram informing Goering that he had committed “high treason,” for which the penalty was death, but that because of his long service to the Nazi Party and State his life would be spared if he immediately resigned all his offices. He was ordered to answer with one word: Yes or No. This did not satisfy the wormlike Bormann. On his own hook he got off a radiogram to the S.S. headquarters in Berchtesgaden ordering the immediate arrest of Goering, his staff and Lammers for “high treason.” Before dawn the next day the Number Two man of the Third Reich, the most arrogant—and opulent—of the Nazi princes, the only Reich Marshal in German history and the Commander in Chief of the Air Force, found himself a prisoner of the S.S.
Three days later, on the evening of April 26, Hitler expressed himself even more strongly on the subject of Goering than he had in the presence of Speer.