His world was literally crashing down in flames around him. Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich, which he had created out of nothing but his own will—an empire that he had once boasted would last for a millennium—was on fire and being torn apart by shot and shell, besieged on all sides. It was an apocalyptic scene straight out of the Wagnerian opera Die Götterdämmerung—The Twilight of the Gods.
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The once stately city of Berlin was little more than flaming husks of buildings. Worse, the enemy Hitler hated and feared —the Red Army—was practically at his doorstep.
It was the end of April 1945. As he sat in the dank gloom of the Führerbunker deep beneath the garden of the Chancellery in Berlin, Hitler no doubt reflected on all that had happened to him and to Germany in the past 12 months, almost all of it bad.
Back in April 1944, the British and Americans in Italy were still bottled up at Anzio and along the Gustav Line that ran through Monte Cassino, but his commanders had warned him that the situation would not remain a stalemate for much longer; the German troops no longer had the strength to destroy the enemy there.
On the Eastern Front, defeat followed defeat. Hundreds of thousands of German soldiers lay dead or were in Soviet POW camps where most of them would starve to death. As the German Army in the East became weaker, the Red Army became stronger.
Then, in June, the Western Allies had poured across the English Channel in unstoppable waves and had crashed through the so-called “Atlantic Wall” that Germany had spent years and millions of Reichsmarks building as though it had been made out of cardboard.
In July, some of his own traitorous officers had tried to kill him with a bomb at his East Prussia headquarters.
Then came the disasters, thick and fast in the West: the loss of France, Belgium, Holland, and Luxembourg. Only in Holland in September did Hitler win a brief reprieve.
The winter of 1944-1945 was no better. Operation Wacht am Rhein—the German counteroffensive that the Allies called the Battle of the Bulge—had petered out without achieving its goals; tens of thousands of irreplaceable men (not to mention irreplaceable guns and tanks) had been lost.
The once mighty German Navy was hors d’combat, either holed up in ports or lying at the bottom of the sea. The deadly U-boats no longer dominated the waves.
Food and other supplies for the civilian population were also rapidly running out, and the country’s infrastructure was a shambles.
The British and American air forces continued to decimate German cities and industries from the sky, badly crippling tank and aircraft production. Fuel for the planes and panzers was in such short supply that synthetic fuel manufacturing plants had been built deep inside mountains. In May 1944, the Germans had produced 156,000 tons of aviation fuel; by January 1945, thanks to Allied bombing, it had dropped to 11,000 tons.
Germany’s “wonder weapons” that had once seemed so promising—the V1 and V2 rockets and the jet planes—had failed to achieve that promise. And the development of an atomic bomb was barely beyond the experimental stage.
And, despite the SS’s best efforts, not all of the Jews had been exterminated.
Yet, Hitler and a few of his minions still clung to hope—hope that the Americans and British would come to their senses and realize that their common enemy was not Nazi Germany but Stalin’s Soviet Union. Perhaps, Hitler believed, they could still be persuaded to join forces with Germany and throw back the Slavic hordes before they overran all of civilization.
Hitler’s armies, which had once been within striking distance of Moscow, had seen the tables turned. Wehrmacht forces had been steadily pushed back until their remnants were now fighting at a place called Seelow Heights, 40 miles east of Berlin.
Long rows of Russian cannons sitting hub to hub fired their projectiles into German positions. Soviet tanks, accompanied by infantrymen, sprang from their hiding places and pushed forward, steamrolling over all opposition in their way. The handwriting was on the wall, and it was written in blood.
Studying the situation map during his daily meetings with the few officers who remained in the bunker, Hitler, living in “cloud coo-coo land,” as one officer once put it, demanded that so-and-so general or field marshal move such-and-such division or army from there to here.
His sycophantic entourage had not the courage to explain that so-and-so general or field marshal had been killed or captured or could no longer be reached by radio or courier. Similarly, no one dared mention that such-and-such division or army no longer existed. The officers, knowing the end was near, merely clicked their heels and said, “Jawohl, mein Führer,” and pretended to carry out the hopeless orders.
On April 13 Hitler received word that the Red Army of Marshal Fyodor Tolbukhin had taken Vienna. Countering the bad news that day was a shot of good news: American President Franklin Roosevelt had died. Joseph Goebbels, the Third Reich’s propaganda minister, phoned Hitler, crowing, “Mein Führer, 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.”
The next day, however, Goebbels’ elation dissipated as reports came in from the various fronts showing that nothing had really changed on the battlefield. He confessed to his staff, “Perhaps Fate has again been cruel and made fools of us. Perhaps we counted our chickens before they hatched.”
General Dwight D. Eisenhower had already decided to leave the capture of Berlin to the Russians. For one thing, as he told U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall, the Red Army was already closer to Berlin than either the American or British armies were.
For another, Ike knew that the Germans were likely to defend their capital to the last cartridge and could not see expending hundreds of thousands of American or British lives in taking an objective that had more political than military value.
“I regard it as militarily unsound,” Eisenhower told Marshall. “I am the first to admit that a war is waged in pursuance of political aims, and if the combined chiefs of staff should decide that the Allied effort to take Berlin outweighs purely military considerations in this theater, I would cheerfully readjust my plans and my thinking so as to carry out such an operation.”
Ike was not ordered to readjust his plans or thinking. In the end, it would be the Soviets who would pay a tremendous price for the “honor” of taking Berlin.
Hitler swung between two moods. Part of the time he was delusional, believing that somehow some unforeseen event would tilt the war in Germany’s favor. On other days he was rational and realistic, fully realizing that the war was lost.
To prepare for the latter, on April 15 Hitler wrote out orders that, in the event the enemy severed communication between him and the rest of the command, Admiral Karl Dönitz would take command of the northern forces while Field Marshal Albert Kesselring would take command in the west and south.
It was not the first time Hitler had made a realistic assessment of the situation. Six months earlier, when Operation Wacht am Rhein was crumbling, he had told an aide, “I know the war is lost. The enemy superiority is too great.”
He now dictated a proclamation addressed to the “Soldiers of the German Eastern Front.”
It read in part, “For the last time, our deadly Jewish-Bolshevik enemy has lined up his masses for the attack. He is trying to smash Germany and exterminate our people. To a great degree, you soldiers of the East know yourselves what fate is threatening all German women, girls, and children. While the old men and children will be murdered, women and girls will be degraded to barrack whores. The rest will be marched off to Siberia …
“He who fails to do his duty at this time commits treason against our people. Any regiment or division that abandons its position acts so disgracefully that it should be ashamed before the women and children who are enduring the terror bombing against our cities …
“Above all, be aware of the few treacherous officers and soldiers who, in order to save their own lives, will fight against us…. Whoever orders you to retreat must be immediately arrested and, if necessary, killed on the spot, no matter what his rank may be.
“If, in the coming days and weeks, every soldier does his duty at the Eastern Front, then the last Asian attack will be broken, just as the invasion of our enemies in the West will be broken in spite of everything.