THERE HAD BEEN THOSE who hoped the war with Germany would be over by the end of 1944. They were doomed to disappointment. Festung Europa, Fortress Europe, had been cracked wide open, but the German war machine was still not destroyed; there seemed no real diminution of German fighting spirit. Though the air forces of the Western Allies ranged at will over the skies of the Reich, the supplies still poured forth; the guns still fired, the troops were still clothed, fed, and armed. Victory for the Allies lay at the end of the road, but it was farther off than they hoped. Goaded by Hitler’s will and the great momentum of the Nazi state, the beast fought blindly on.
Mid-December saw the Russians cross for the first time onto native German territory. In the south they and the Yugoslavs had cleared Belgrade, half of Hungary was theirs, and they were into eastern Czechoslovakia. In unhappy Poland they had closed up to the Vistula, and in the north, parts of East Prussia itself were already under Red control. There began a great flight out of the eastlands; for centuries the Germans had moved east, by sword, by religious conversion, by purchase—the ideas of the Master Race were far older than Adolf Hitler. Now the tide flowed in the other direction, and once-complacent German overlords fled in terror for their lives. In the northern winter women, children, and old men trudged west, or fought for places on the Baltic ships. The millions who had been enslaved and transported as workers for the greater glory of Germany watched them go and hardened their hearts. There was little mercy now for those who in the hour of their triumph had shown none at all.
In Italy the Germans held on the last slopes of the northern Apennines; the Italian theater was definitely second-class now, and everyone there knew it. General Alexander and his army commanders looked at their maps and speculated on what might have been, but they knew that their fleeting moment of glory had passed them by; those hectic, heady weeks in midsummer when Rome had fallen at last and the Allies had streamed northward in pursuit of the battered Germans, only to have their momentum broken by the Allied high command, were the closest the hard-fighting troops in Italy ever came to winning a war. Now they were doomed to fight out the rest of it, and many to give their lives, for mountain peaks that no one but they would ever remember. As the year changed, Alexander went up to command the Mediterranean theater, and Mark Clark took over as the army group commander in Italy; Kesselring too went home, replaced by a subordinate, General Heinrich von Vietinghoff. In the kind of ultimate irony that dogged the whole adventure in Italy, Clark and von Veitinghoff both believed they were fighting to achieve the same objective: Clark said the Allied armies must get to Austria to forestall the Russians; von Vietinghoff said his men must hold at all costs, because only that sort of sacrifice would prevent a Russian takeover of south-central Europe.
In western Europe the great offensive had finally slowed at last. The Allies had not made it across the Rhine. They had cleared France and Belgium, they had taken Antwerp, they had finally managed after costly fighting to clear the seaward approaches to Antwerp, and their supply situation was now satisfactory at least, but they had essentially achieved the Franco-German frontier rather than the Rhine, or the winning of the war, by the advent of winter. Eisenhower’s Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force had now moved to Paris, and from there he planned his coming moves. He had three army groups under him: Montgomery’s in the north and along the coast; Bradley’s from Luxembourg all the way down to Nancy; and Devers’, up from the southern France invasion, on the upper Rhine to the Swiss frontier. With plenty of air support above them and good supply lines behind them, all the field commanders were keen to press forward. The only thin spot was in the center of Bradley’s 12th Army Group, where General Troy Middleton’s VIIIth Corps of Hodges’ 1st Army was battle-weary and weak; fortunately, it was in a relatively quiet area, around the Ardennes Forest, and there could be no heavy fighting in the Ardennes in the middle of winter.
Elsewhere the situation looked good. Eisenhower decided on a three-phase operation: the Allies would close up to the Rhine, they would then seize bridgeheads across it, and finally, they would drive into Germany. Though they would proceed forward together on a “broad front,” priority for material went to Montgomery in the north, headed for the industries of the Ruhr. Bradley and Devers would get along as best they could. This was more or less acceptable to all but Bradley’s 3rd Army commander, George S. Patton. A complex, driven man, Patton was senior on the army list to his superiors, and difficult to handle. Much of his personality he suppressed in favor of the harder, flamboyant side he thought troops needed in a leader. He and Montgomery had become virtually personal rivals and he resented what he regarded as Eisenhower’s truckling to the British. The Supreme Commander might defer to his allies, but Patton and 3rd Army were going to go as far as they could as fast as they could. Patton was a great soldier, but he was not an easy subordinate.
For the Germans the situation looked unrelievedly grim. The satellites were gone, the Reich itself was being systematically bombarded from the air, the manpower pool was failing; boys of fourteen and men of sixty were appearing in the ranks of the Volks-sturm, the so-called People’s Army that was supposed to defend the homeland in its extremity. Hitler put his hope in new weapons, and such was the magic of his repetitive oratory that some Germans still believed him. Yet the V-l flying bomb, and even the V-2, first of the true missiles, did not deter the Allies from their course. Other magic answers failed to materialize, or fell short of their promises when they did. The new jet fighters were sidetracked into useless bombing roles; newer rocket fighters proved as dangerous to their pilots as to the enemy. The race to complete an atomic bomb was long lost in shortsightedness and internecine rivalries and bickerings.
With the failure of the miracle weapons to achieve miracles Hitler fell increasingly back on illusion. He was sure the Allies would fall out. As the war progressed downhill for Germany, he put more and more emphasis on the anti-Bolshevik nature of his Russian war. The Germans had not invaded Russia because they wanted to wipe out the Slavs and take their territory for the Germans, but because Germany had recognized her duty to save western civilization from the Red menace. Surely the Western Powers would wake up to their danger, would realize the true nature of their ally, and would change sides. Ideologically, Hitler was probably right; though they were all basically antithetical, fascism and capitalism perhaps had more points of contact than capitalism and communism. Emotionally, he could not have been more completely wrong. To assume that the Allies would fall out and that the West would side with Germany against the East was to ignore the mountain of hatred the Germans had created for themselves. In the context of 1944-45, it was utterly inconceivable to anyone outside Germany that the Germans were preferable to the Russians. Hitler, however, clung to that fiction, and more and more his thoughts turned to the closing days of the Seven Years’ War, when Frederick the Great had managed to stave off disaster and survive because his enemies fell to quarreling with each other.
Meanwhile, there was work to be done. Already some of his generals were hinting that the Western Front should be allowed to collapse, and that all of Germany’s efforts should be bent to holding back the Russians. Better that Germany be overrun by the Western Allies than the Reds, and the farther east the British and Americans got, the more desirable at the ultimate end of the war. This was anathema to Hitler; if he were to be defeated, it would be because the Germans were unworthy of his genius. That being the case, there was no reason why Germany and Germans should survive him. He was not concerned with easing the postwar situation for the cowardly remnant who lacked his courage or his convictions. He insisted that all was not lost anyway. If Germany could gain time, much might happen: the Allies might break up, the new weapons might become available, miracles might still happen. Deep in his lair he looked at his maps, he mused, he plotted, he raved, he saw an opportunity.
That weak Allied sector in Luxembourg; the Ardennes again. Suppose the Germans were to fight—and win—the campaign of 1940 all over again! Using its incredible improvisatory and organizational skills, the high command scraped up a strategic reserve of twenty-five divisions and two Panzer armies. Hitler planned to break the Allied line in the Ardennes, race through and wheel northwest to Antwerp; all the northern Allied armies would be cut off and destroyed. They were too strong to be driven out of France, but they could be badly knocked about, their timetables seriously disrupted. While they reeled back, the Germans could race back across Germany and defeat the Russian offensive that must be coming early in 1945. After that, who knew what might happen. It was a great mishmash—part Frederick the Great at Rossbach-Leuthen, part Schlieffen Plan, part Sichelschnitt.
The generals demurred. Von Rundstedt, cautious and professional, said it would not work; even Model agreed with him: the Germans simply did not have the men and material to do the job. Hitler overrode them; it could work, it must work. Out of his illusions coupled with the Wehrmacht’s recuperative powers was launched the last great German offensive of the Second World War.
The Allies knew something was in the wind. As professional intelligence evaluators, however, they believed correctly that the Germans did not have the matériel for a major counteroffensive, and that therefore they would have sense enough not to launch one. It was Hitler rather than the German Army that surprised them.
In Bradley’s Army Group, Patton to the south of the Ardennes was preparing a drive eastward toward the Rhine. General William Simpson’s 9th Army, north of the Ardennes, was preparing to move in support of Montgomery on their left when he got past the Roer River dams. In the middle, Hodges was left weak, his 1st Army assigned an essentially subordinate role. Having had heavy fighting all the way from Normandy, it now contained tired units low on manpower, or new ones just getting their feet wet.
The Germans had prepared as carefully as they could. They had created two new Panzer armies, 6th SS under General Sepp Dietrich, and 5th under General Otto Manteuffel. Advance units included a commando group under Colonel Otto Skorzeny, the man who had rescued Mussolini from his mountain prison in Italy. Since then Skorzeny had become Hitler’s jack of all trades. Now his commandos included a group of English-speaking Germans dressed in captured American uniforms and equipment. Their task was to confuse the enemy and to take and hold the bridges over the Meuse, the river whose successful crossing would shake the Germans loose on the road to Antwerp. After waiting for a period of bad weather to come in and ground the Allied air forces, the Germans struck early on the morning of December 16.
The immediate success was impressive. The opening drive shattered two American divisions spread along the Schnee Eifel ridge in the north and along the Our River in the south. Routed and overwhelmed, both divisions broke up into component parts, with battalions, companies, and even platoons wandering about the wintry forests, fighting Germans when they bumped into them, or looking desperately for friends. The Germans capitalized on the confusion, which Skorzeny’s commandos compounded. As soon as the news got out that there were enemy soldiers abroad in American uniforms, informal but strict security measures sprang into being; the soldier who faced a squad of grim-looking infantrymen and could not immediately tell who played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, or who was Betty Grable’s husband, was in serious trouble.
Pushing on through the hills and forests, the Germans made for the road junction at Bastogne. Here they encountered and surrounded the U. S. 101st Airborne Division, which had been ordered up and told to hold on at all costs. Summoned to surrender, the American commander, General MacAuliffe, replied with one word “Nuts!” which then had to be interpreted as well as translated for a German emissary unfamiliar with American slang.
Bastogne not only slowed the German 5th Army down, it stopped them, for they expected to capture American fuel dumps, which were now denied them. On the northern side of the drive Dietrich was making even less headway. Mishandling his armor, he had passed the Schnee Eifel but he could not lever the Americans off the shoulder of the Eisenborn Ridge. With a narrow front he pushed west; at one point his troops began to break northward, west of Malmédy, but were thrown back after a hard fight. As they retreated, the Germans massacred a hundred American prisoners they could not take with them.
The Allied response was far swifter than the Germans had hoped it would be. Eisenhower canceled all his prospective drives and concentrated every effort on pinching out the German attack. The German irruption was such that Bradley’s communications were cut with his northern troops, so Eisenhower gave temporary command in the north to Montgomery; in the south Patton’s 3rd Army did a ninety-degree turn to the north and drove toward Bastogne, a feat of sudden improvisation to match anything in the war. Montgomery arrived in the north, “tidied up the front” as he termed it, and ordered the Americans to do what they were doing anyway, hold hard and counterattack as soon as possible. By Christmas Day—not the Christmas many had hoped to spend—the Germans had gone as far as they were going. They had created a long narrow salient, forty miles wide at its base, and about sixty miles deep. The very point of their advance was five miles short of the Meuse, so they never even really achieved their first objective, let alone distant Antwerp. The next day several Allied armored divisions crashed into their northern flank, and Patton’s tankers fought their way through to the surrounded troops at Bastogne. Even more portentous, the sky cleared.
The minute the bad weather front moved off, the air was full of Allied planes. The fighter-bombers ranged everywhere over the battlefield, and nothing that moved and looked German escaped their attention. Hitler refused to be deterred by the pleas of his generals and frantically shuffled pins about on the battle map, as if that would relieve the plight of his soldiers, now fighting desperately to escape the trap their initial success had created for them. More than twenty Allied divisions pounded at the eleven German ones inside the salient, and slowly, the Bulge disappeared. The Germans fought hard and tenaciously, but by mid-January, though they were not cut off and trapped, they were back where they had started from. When the Battle of the Bulge ended, six weeks after it began, Hitler had succeeded only in delaying the Allies by that much time. He had lost 200,000 men and 600 tanks and most of his remaining aircraft. He had used up his last disposable strategic reserve, nothing remained to use against the Western Allies, and nothing against the Russians. As the front subsided into temporary quiet, and the dead were gathered off the blackened snow of the Ardennes, the Russians opened their main drive into Germany.
The great Russian summer offensive of 1944 had halted at the gates of Warsaw. Through the fall and into the winter there was savage fighting for the city of Budapest, but the northern front remained relatively quiescent. In this lull Hitler transferred substantial units westward to take part in the Ardennes offensive. He tried to fortify the Eastern Front but lacked matériel to create any real depth in his defensive positions.
The Red Army was now a fighting machine with few equals either for numbers or proficiency. German intelligence gave them numerical superiority of eleven to one in men, seven to one in tanks, and twenty to one in artillery and aircraft. Hitler refused to believe such figures, but he was not in the front line facing the ominous masses of Soviet soldiers. For the Reds the long hard road was nearly at an end. They were about to enter German territory, had already done so in East Prussia, and the Germans were now to be repaid in their own kind for their Russian policies. Where American and British tanks sported names like “Daisy Mae” and “Donald Duck,” the Russians carried slogans “For the Motherland!” and “Death to the Germans!” The long harvest of bitterness was ripe for reaping.
The Russian offensive started January 12 when General Ivan Konev’s First Ukrainian Front—a “front” being the equivalent of a Western Army Group—launched its attack just north of the Carpathian Mountains. Two days later General Zhukov picked up the gauge north of him, and the next day the entire front was aflame. The Germans cracked before the onslaught, and within ten days the Russians had leaped forward nearly 200 miles, from Warsaw almost to Poznan, from the Vistula River to the Oder River. They were only fifty miles from Berlin.
Late February was spent in the clearing of the remainder of Prussia, the taking of Danzig, and the occupying of parts of Pomerania. The Germans fought hard to hold on to these ancient Germanic lands, but there was nothing more they could hope to achieve than a temporary stemming of the tide. Behind the thin line of fighting troops was a gigantic sauve qui peut, as more hundreds of thousands of refugees fled in terror to the westward. To the south, in the Danube Valley, the Soviets at last broke past ruined Budapest; Vienna fell in April and by the middle of that month, Nazi Germany consisted of a long narrow strip, roughly fifty miles to a hundred miles wide, running from the Baltic coast down into Yugoslavia and northern Italy. Once more the Russians paused momentarily for breath, brought up their supplies, and gathered for the final leap that would carry them into Berlin.
In the west the fighting went on through the early months of 1945. Hitler still refused to believe that the Allies were as strong as they were, or the Germans as weak as they were. He now directed that there be a second offensive, this time farther south in Alsace-Lorraine against General Devers’ 6th Army Group. Launched on New Year’s Day, it made steady if slow going. The Americans were prepared to sacrifice territory for time, and the gravest problem presented by the whole offensive was political. American troops of General Patch’s 7th Army, and French of General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny’s 1st French Army, had occupied the great city of Strassbourg. In Paris, de Gaulle feared Eisenhower was willing to give it up if tactically desirable and he absolutely refused to countenance the surrendering of a major French city to the Germans again, no matter how temporarily, or however sound the reason. The Americans held on the Moder River, and the Germans ran out of steam before the month was out. Once more they had frittered away badly needed troops; indeed, one of the reasons for the abortion of their offensive was the overriding necessity of drafting units off to the Eastern Front to try to stem the rampaging Russians.
Eisenhower then turned his attention to a large body of Germans still west of the upper Rhine around Colmar. Hitler refused to let them retreat in time, so American and French units surrounded them, and the “Colmar pocket” was effectively wiped out by the first week of February. It was some measure of the seriousness of Hitler’s Alsace offensive, and how much damage he could really do now, that the one Allied army group involved could both withstand the attack and undertake offensive operations of its own at the same time. The Germans had bought time, but to what purpose? so that more thousands of Jews and Slavs could be sent to the gas chambers and ovens? Now, in mid-February, their time was gone, and the Western Allies were ready for their drive into and over the Rhine.
In the second week of February the Western Allied armies fell on the Germans like an avalanche. It started in the north, where the British and Canadian troops of Crerar’s 1st Canadian Army drove into the heavily fortified and forested area of the Reichswald. Germans, including new SS units that seemed to the Canadians to consist largely of young fanatics, fought for every inch, and died in their holes as the tanks and infantry ground steadily forward. On Crerar’s right Dempsey launched a pincer movement, and to the right again Hodges’ Americans, after more than a week of fierce bludgeoning, fought their way past the Roer River dams, only to find that the Germans had wrecked them at the last minute, creating floods to the northward that temporarily slowed the British troops. But now the tempo increased on down the line, until battle raged from Nijmegen all the way up the Rhine to the Moselle. Twist, turn, and writhe as they might, there was no way the Germans could withstand the weight and ferocity of the Allied attack. Eisenhower’s “broad front” plan did not have initially a great deal of strategic finesse, but at the tactical level, the Allies were now far superior to their enemies. The stereotyped gum-chewing American or Canadian farmboy had become a careful, cool professional aware of his matériel predominance, calculating in his use of it. Not since the days of Napoleon and Robert E. Lee, not even in 1940, had there been such sophisticated and successful application of all arms of war. Tanks, artillery, air support, the indispensable infantry, the endless logistical train—all combined harmoniously. The Allied war machine worked like a great orchestra under the hands of a master conductor, playing a majestic and terrible symphony of war. By the first week of March they were closed up to the Rhine as far south as Coblenz.
The main axis of the advance was to have been north of the Ruhr, into Germany across the Hanoverian Plain. On March 7, however, after heavy fighting in the Huertgen Forest, tanks of the 9th Armored Division in Hodges’ 1st Army dashed forward to the Rhine and took the great bridge at Remagen before the Germans could blow it up. Suddenly, the Allies were over the Rhine, and the great river barrier was breached. As American units poured across, the Germans mounted shaky and piecemeal counterattacks. Meanwhile, all the way back to Eisenhower in Paris the cry went out that the Allies had a bridge, then a bridgehead. Plans and movement orders were quickly shuffled about, and the long columns of trucks and tanks turned in their tracks and headed for Remagen. By the time the Germans did succeed in blowing the bridge the Allies were on the other side to stay. At the same time, Patton’s infantry fought its way across the Moselle, working hand in hand with Devers’ troops on the right. Within a couple of days Patton shook loose his armor, which tore great swaths through the disintegrating Germans facing them, and on the 21st, 3rd Army too was over the great river, at Oppenheim. By the time the smoke cleared west of the Rhine, more than a quarter of a million Germans had been taken prisoner, and another 50,000 to 60,000 killed, for about 10,000 Allied casualties. The German Army in the west had ceased to exist; the heart of Hitler’s Germany lay open before the Allied armies.
Now at last the long trail that had begun years ago, when many of the British or American soldiers were still playing rugger or football in school, neared its end. In places the Germans held hard; but they could muster only about twenty-five real divisions against more than eighty Allied. As in 1918, more and more Americans were arriving, and behind them was an immense and ever-growing weight of armor and air power. The air forces were finally running out of targets, as Germany lay in ruins beneath the black wings of the Lancasters and the silver B-17s. Hitler issued the usual standfast orders, but there were fewer and fewer troops to obey him. Again he played musical generals, recalling Kesselring from Italy to take over the west; even Smiling Albert could find little to lift his spirits as the Allied advance picked up momentum. Within a week of its crossing, Patton’s armor was seventy-five miles into Germany and Hodges had come the same distance from Remagen. Now Montgomery leaped the wider lower Rhine, and his troops too took off to the east. Within another week they had closed up to the Weser; even more important, they and the Americans to the south had closed a great ring around Model’s Army Group B, trapped in the industrial area between the Rhine and the Ruhr. Model kept on fighting long after any hope of relief or breakout was gone. Not until the middle of April was the Ruhr Pocket finally overrun, after Model had committed suicide; more than 300,000 German troops surrendered, the largest single surrender in the war.
By then the Canadians had cleared Holland, where they were so enthusiastically welcomed by the population that Canada and Holland still retain fond memories of each other more than thirty years later. The British were driving for Hamburg and the Elbe. Hodges was surrounding thousands more Germans in the Harz Mountains, and Patton, Patch, and de Lattre were heading toward the upper Elbe, the Danube Valley from the north, and the borders of Czechoslovakia. The great German highways, the Autobahnen, provided arteries for the endless columns of tanks roaring into the heart of the Reich. Stunned civilians, fed on the lies of unending victories, came out of their ruined homes to watch unbelievingly as the conquerors swept by.
The whole edifice was collapsing now. Down in northern Italy the U. S. 5th and British 8th armies, who had painfully inched their way forward to the last positions of the Gothic Line all winter, gathered their strength for the last battle. The Germans had, as usual, methodically strengthened their position; it seemed to matter little to them that they were fighting a hopeless war as the Russians were but forty miles from Berlin. On April 2 the Allied drive began, 8th Army leading off on the Adriatic coast. Twelve days later, with German reserves fully committed in the east, 5th Army began its attack. The Germans held hard for a week, then could stand the pressure no longer, and rolled back into the Po Valley. As they rushed northward in a desperate attempt to salvage what they might out of the wreckage, the 5th Army at last entered Bologna and Modena, then flowed out into the plain after them. For the next two weeks there was once more, as the summer before, a pursuit in open country, with the Allies fanning out over the flat river valley, heading for the distant mountains, Alps this time, no longer Apennines. The British pushed into and past Venice, heading toward Trieste. Americans reached the French frontier along the Riviera, then Turin, and drove toward the Brenner Pass and Austria.
In the midst of the confusion and the surrenders and the fighting, the Italian partisans, who had controlled considerable stretches of territory behind German lines for the winter, came out in the open at last. Mussolini’s Salo Republic collapsed like the house of cards it was, and the ex-dictator thought now only of how to get away. He did not succeed. On April 28 he, some last supporters, and his mistress, Clara Petacci, were caught by the partisans near Lake Como. They were quickly tried and as quickly shot, and Benito Mussolini, once Il Duce, ended up hanging by his heels from a lamppost in front of a Milan gas station.
The next day the remnants of the Italian Fascist Army surrendered, and General von Veitinghoff negotiated a complete surrender of all the German forces in Italy, to take effect at noon on May 2. The long thankless task was over at last, and the Allies had finally won their victory, one that tied down countless German troops, but one that fell far short of Churchill’s initial hopes and expectations.
As the Allied armies raced across western Germany several things preoccupied their attention. One was the rumor of a mountain fastness, the National Redoubt, deep in the heart of the Bavarian Alps. There were dark, troll-like yearnings in the mythology of nazism, and out of them Goebbels had created the idea of a stronghold where the last and greatest of the Nazis would gather, in the event of the Götterdämmerung, and fight on forever. The Allies knew only enough of this to worry about it and to orient some of their advance toward southern Germany in an effort to forestall it.
A second problem was Berlin itself. The Russians were now driving hard for it and were determined that they and not the Western Allies would conquer the enemy’s capital. The Allied leaders had already agreed on the postwar disposition of Germany: it was to be divided into zones of occupation; Berlin was to be well inside the Russian zone but was to be garrisoned by all the Allies jointly. Churchill began to have second thoughts on this matter and privately wanted the Western Allies to get to Berlin first if at all possible. He was ultimately upstaged both by the speed of the Russian advance and by a decision made apparently unknowingly by Eisenhower. Aware that the Russian occupation zone would extend west to the Elbe, that anything taken east of the Elbe would cost American or British casualties and then have to be turned over to the Russians, Eisenhower agreed in an exchange of telegrams with Stalin that Berlin was not an objective of the Western Allies, and that his troops would make no attempt to take it. Out of the exigencies of this military decision was born the series of “Berlin crises” that has been a marked feature of the postwar world.
It was a time when decisions made in an ostensibly purely military context were foreshadowing the shape of the postwar political settlement. Thwarted in his intuition about Berlin, Churchill directed Montgomery to make sure that British forces crossed the Elbe and got as far as the Baltic coast. They eventually reached Lubeck on May 2, thus effectively sealing off the Danish Peninsula from the Russian advance. Meanwhile, as the American armies dashed on into south-central Germany, their political leadership was thrown into disarray by the death of President Roosevelt on April 12. He left the presidency and its problems to his vice-president, an all but unknown named Harry S Truman, a man whom Roosevelt had taken as vice-president purely for domestic political reasons, and who came to high office deliberately kept ignorant of most of Roosevelt’s plans and problems. Truman was required to learn fast.
Roosevelt’s death was perhaps Hitler’s last surge of joy. In 1762 it had been Elizabeth of Russia’s death that had saved Frederick the Great from being overrun, and by now Hitler, living out his life in a huge underground bunker in the center of Berlin, was convinced of the reality of historical parallels. After the news of the President’s death Hitler and his entourage waited for the immediate change of sides they confidently expected.
Of course none came. The United States was not Germany, where one man’s will could turn the world upside down. By now, too, the Allies were fully aware of the true nature of the Greater Reich. They had started to liberate the first of the concentration camps. They had come across the gas chambers, the crematoriums, the piles of shoes, of extracted gold fillings, the evidence of “scientific” experiments, the trenches filled with starved bodies, the barracks still filled with starvelings who could barely lift their hands to beg for water. The liberators were horrified, sickened—and hardened—by what they encountered. The first soldiers into German concentration camps would never think the bombing of Hamburg or Dresden to be morally reprehensible.
The final Russian drive of the war began on April 16. They reached Berlin on the 22nd and surrounded it on the 25th. The Germans continued to fight, with no hope of ultimate victory or rescue. Hitler remained in his underground bunker, summoning vast armies that lay face down on the Russian steppes, or dead on the slopes of the Apennines. Above ground the Russian artillery blasted away, building by building. The machine guns chattered in the night, and soldiers who had come all the way from Siberia worked their way into the ruined halls from which so much sorrow had emanated. One by one the blocks fell. Civilians huddled in cellars and shrank from the invaders; in the midst of the chaos life went on: the postal service continued to function, and while there was fighting on one side of a block, the mail was still being delivered on the other side. But the end could only be put off, not changed. On May 2 resistance collapsed, and the Russians began mopping up the die-hard survivors.
By then Americans and Russians had met at Torgau on the Elbe, and the Red armies had closed up to Wismar on the Baltic, where the British had just arrived. Germany no longer existed. The meetings that both sides had come so far to achieve went off amicably, even triumphantly, with toasts of vodka and wine, impromptu music, and a great deal of backslapping and fumbling phrases in foreign languages. There were some embarrassments. Eisenhower had agreed that Patton would not advance beyond Pilsen in Czechoslovakia. The Russians were slow; the Czech underground rose in Prague and then found the Americans for reasons unknown would not advance to their aid. The Czechs felt it was only a marginal improvement on their situation to be liberated by the Russians, but once again they had become pawns in the affairs of the greater powers.
Strange things happened in the confusion of the end of the war. Years ago Hitler had designated Hermann Goering as his successor; Goering had faded badly through the war, but now he came out of his sybaritic near-retirement; he sent Hitler a telegram, pointing out that Hitler could no longer direct events and asking if he were now free to take over. Hitler reacted with rage, sacked him, for whatever that was worth, and appointed Admiral Karl Doenitz as his successor instead. On May 1, as the resistance in Berlin was falling apart at last, Hitler married his mistress of many years, Eva Braun, and the two of them, followed by the Goebbels family—children and all, faithful sycophants to the end—committed suicide. Retainers burned and buried the bodies of the Fuehrer and his bride outside the bunker, disguising them successfully enough that for years there were rumors of Hitler being alive somewhere, usually in South America. The survivors of the bunker filtered away, some to be caught and shot by the Russians, some to make good their escape, to disappear into the shadows along with the Thousand-Year Reich. The next day Russian soldiers hoisted the red flag with the hammer and sickle on the landmarks of devastated Berlin.
Grand Admiral Doenitz, the second leader of Nazi Germany, did not last long. The only possible task for him was to end it all as quickly as possible. The Germans still hoped that somehow they could play one side off against the other. In the last week of the regime there was a great effort to hold on the eastern side, and to encourage the Western Allies to come as far as they could. It came to nothing, since the Germans no longer had the power to hold anywhere. They then tried to surrender only to the Western Allies; this too was refused, and finally, on May 8, “V-E Day” for victory in Europe, German representatives signed the act of unconditional surrender. The European phase of World War II was over.