Military history

THE END OF THE THIRD REICH

The Third Reich survived the death of its founder by seven days.

A little after 10 o’clock on the evening of the first of May, while the bodies of Dr. and Frau Goebbels were burning in the Chancellery garden and the inhabitants of the bunker were herding together for their escape through a subway tunnel in Berlin, the Hamburg radio interrupted the playing of a recording of Bruckner’s solemn Seventh Symphony. There was a roll of military drums and then an announcer spoke.

Our Fuehrer, Adolf Hitler, fighting to the last breath against Bolshevism, fell for Germany this afternoon in his operational headquarters in the Reich Chancellery. On April 30 the Fuehrer appointed Grand Admiral Doenitz his successor. The Grand Admiral and successor of the Fuehrer now speaks to the German people.

The Third Reich was expiring, as it had begun, with a shabby lie. Aside from the fact that Hitler had not died that afternoon but the previous one, which was not important, he had not fallen fighting “to the last breath,” but the broadcasting of this falsehood was necessary if the inheritors of his mantle were to perpetuate a legend and also if they were to hold control of the troops who were still offering resistance and who would surely have felt betrayed if they had known the truth.

Doenitz himself repeated the lie when he went on the air at 10:20 P.M. and spoke of the “hero’s death” of the Fuehrer. Actually at that moment he did not know how Hitler had met his end. Goebbels had radioed only that he had “died” on the previous afternoon. But this did not inhibit the Admiral either on this point or on others, for he did his best to muddy the confused minds of the German people in the hour of their disaster.

It is my first task [he said] to save Germany from destruction by the advancing Bolshevik enemy. For this aim alone the military struggle continues. As far and as long as the achievement of this aim is impeded by the British and Americans, we shall be forced to carry on our defensive fight against them as well. Under such conditions, however, the Anglo–Americans will continue the war not for their own peoples but solely for the spreading of Bolshevism in Europe.

After this silly distortion, the Admiral, who is not recorded as having protested Hitler’s decision to make the Bolshevik nation Germany’s ally in 1939 so that a war could be fought against England and later America, assured the German people in concluding his broadcast that “God will not forsake us after so much suffering and sacrifice.”

These were empty words. Doenitz knew that German resistance was at an end. On April 29, the day before Hitler took his life, the German armies in Italy had surrendered unconditionally, an event whose news, because of the breakdown in communications, was spared the Fuehrer, which must have made his last hours more bearable than they otherwise would have been. On May 4 the German High Command surrendered to Montgomery all German forces in northwest Germany, Denmark and Holland. The next day Kesselring’s Army Group G, comprising the German First and Nineteenth armies north of the Alps, capitulated.

On that day, May 5, Admiral Hans von Friedeburg, the new Commander in Chief of the German Navy, arrived at General Eisenhower’s headquarters at Reims to negotiate a surrender. The German aim, as the last papers of OKW make clear,27 was to stall for a few days in order to have time to move as many German troops and refugees as possible from the path of the Russians so that they could surrender to the Western Allies. General Jodl arrived at Reims the next day to help his Navy colleague draw out the proceedings. But it was in vain. Eisenhower saw through the game.

I told General Smith [he later recounted] to inform Jodl that unless they instantly ceased all pretense and delay I would close the entire Allied front and would, by force, prevent any more German refugees from entering our lines. I would brook no further delay.28

At 1:30 A.M. on May 7 Doenitz, after being informed by Jodl of Eisenhower’s demands, radioed the German General from his new headquarters at Flensburg on the Danish frontier full powers to sign the document of unconditional surrender. The game was up.

In a little red schoolhouse at Reims, where Eisenhower had made his headquarters, Germany surrendered unconditionally at 2:41 on the morning of May 7, 1945. The capitulation was signed for the Allies by General Walter Bedell Smith, with General Ivan Susloparov affixing his signature as witness for Russia and General François Sevez for France. Admiral Friedeburg and General Jodl signed for Germany.

Jodl asked permission to say a word and it was granted.29

With this signature the German people and the German Armed Forces are, for better or worse, delivered into the hands of the victors … In this hour I can only express the hope that the victor will treat them with generosity.

There was no response from the Allied side. But perhaps Jodl recalled another occasion when the roles were reversed just five years before. Then a French general, in signing France’s unconditional surrender at Compiègne, had made a similar plea—in vain, as it turned out.

The guns in Europe ceased firing and the bombs ceased dropping at midnight on May 8–9, 1945, and a strange but welcome silence settled over the Continent for the first time since September 1, 1939. In the intervening five years, eight months and seven days millions of men and women had been slaughtered on a hundred battlefields and in a thousand bombed towns, and millions more done to death in the Nazi gas chambers or on the edge of the S.S. Einsatzgruppen pits in Russia and Poland—as the result of Adolf Hitler’s lust for German conquest. A greater part of most of Europe’s ancient cities lay in ruins, and from their rubble, as the weather warmed, there was the stench of the countless unburied dead.

No more would the streets of Germany echo to the jack boot of the goose-stepping storm troopers or the lusty yells of the brown-shirted masses or the shouts of the Fuehrer blaring from the loudspeakers.

After twelve years, four months and eight days, an Age of Darkness to all but a multitude of Germans and now ending in a bleak night for them too, the Thousand-Year Reich had come to an end. It had raised, as we have seen, this great nation and this resourceful but so easily misled people to heights of power and conquest they had never before experienced and now it had dissolved with a suddenness and a completeness that had few, if any, parallels in history.

In 1918, after the last defeat, the Kaiser had fled, the monarchy had tumbled, but the other traditional institutions supporting the State had remained, a government chosen by the people had continued to function, as did the nucleus of a German Army and a General Staff. But in the spring of 1945 the Third Reich simply ceased to exist. There was no longer any German authority on any level. The millions of soldiers, airmen and sailors were prisoners of war in their own land. The millions of civilians were governed, down to the villages, by the conquering enemy troops, on whom they depended not only for law and order but throughout that summer and bitter winter of 1945 for food and fuel to keep them alive. Such was the state to which the follies of Adolf Hitler—and their own folly in following him so blindly and with so much enthusiasm—had brought them, though I found little bitterness toward him when I returned to Germany that fall.

The people were there, and the land—the first dazed and bleeding and hungry, and, when winter came, shivering in their rags in the hovels which the bombings had made of their homes; the second a vast wasteland of rubble. The German people had not been destroyed, as Hitler, who had tried to destroy so many other peoples and, in the end, when the war was lost, themselves, had wished.

But the Third Reich had passed into history.

* “For all writers of history,” Speer told Trevor-Roper, “Eva Braun is going to be a disappointment,” to which the historian adds: “—and for readers of history too.” (Trevor-Roper, The Last Days of Hitler, p. 92.)

* Who these relatives were Hitler did not say, but from what he told his secretaries he had in mind his sister, Paula, and his mother-in-law.

* Trevor-Roper, in The Last Days of Hitler, has given a graphic account of their adventures. But for an indiscretion of Heinz Lorenz, the farewell messages of Hitler and Goebbels might never have become known. Major Johannmeier eventually buried his copy of the documents in the garden of his home at Iserlohn in Westphalia. Zander hid his copy in a trunk which he left in the Bavarian village of Tegernsee. Changing his name and assuming a disguise, he attempted to begin a new life under the name of Wilhelm Paustin. But Lorenz, a journalist by profession, was too garrulous to keep his secret very well and a chance indiscretion led to the discovery of his copy and to the exposure of the other two messengers.

* Colonel Below destroyed the message when he learned of Hitler’s death while he was still making his way toward the Allied Western armies. He has reconstructed it from memory. See Trevor-Roper, op. cit., pp. 194–95.

* The children and their ages were: Hela, 12; Hilda, 11; Helmut, 9; Holde, 7; Hedda, 5; Heide, 3.

* The bones were never found, and this gave rise to rumors after the war that Hitler had survived. But the separate interrogation of several eyewitnesses by British and American intelligence officers leaves no doubt about the matter. Kempka has given a plausible explanation as to why the charred bones were never found. “The traces were wiped out,” he told his interrogators, “by the uninterrupted Russian artillery fire.”

* Not Marshal Zhukov, as most accounts have had it.

 May I was the traditional Labor Day in Europe.

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