On April 20, 1945, Adolf Hitler, Reich Chancellor and Führer of Germany, emerged from his underground bunker in the center of Berlin. The Third Reich was in its death throes, and Hitler’s presence in Berlin only seemed to prolong the agony. Actually, Hitler believed that his presence in the city would inspire the soldiers and civilians to fight on.
Germany was on its last legs, but Hitler refused to accept reality, stubbornly clinging to the notion that victory might still be achieved against the odds. In rare moments of lucidity, he candidly admitted the war was lost. “I am not going to leave Berlin,” he declared to his closest associates. “I will defend the city to the end…. Either I win the battle of Berlin or I die in Berlin. That is my irrevocable decision.” He also ranted and raged about how he had been “betrayed” by all around him.
Even at this late date Hitler couldn’t resist playing the warlord. April 20 was his 56th birthday, and on this special occasion a public appearance might bolster morale for the coming fight. Soviet armies—over two million soldiers—were even now in the process of encircling the beleaguered Nazi capital, and within a day or two Berlin would be completely cut off.
With artillery rumbling ever closer, a group of uniformed boys had assembled in the Reich Chancellery garden, where Hitler could greet them and personally award them Iron Crosses for bravery in combat. Most of them were teenagers, members of the Hitler Youth or the Jungvolk, a literally junior Nazi branch that was composed of 10- to 14-year-olds. German newsreel cameras from the Wochenschau film unit were on hand to record the ceremony, although so few theaters were still open that the viewing audience was bound to be small.
Hitler shuffled forward to the line of boys, a weak smile playing on his lips. For those who only knew him from earlier newsreels, postage stamps, or even propaganda photos, his appearance must have been shocking. At 56, he looked 30 years older, his face puffy and gray, his signature mustache streaked with white. He was wearing a military cap and an army greatcoat, the collar curiously turned up. The ailing Führer was hunched over, and his left hand shook uncontrollably, a symptom of advancing Parkinson’s disease.
Hitler spoke a few words to each boy, but his trembling hand prevented him from actually pinning the medals on their tunics. That job was done by Hitler Youth leader Arthur Axeman, who stood by Hitler’s side. And then Hitler came to the youngest soldier, a 12-year-old with the ironic name of Alfred Czech. After all, Hitler’s rape of Czechoslovakia had helped propel Europe into war.
Czech had rescued some wounded German soldiers under heavy Russian fire near his home in Goldenau, Silesia (now Poland). “So, you are the youngest of all!” a smiling Hitler remarked as he patted the young boy’s cheek. “Weren’t you afraid when you rescued the soldiers?” Czech, dazzled by the honor and Hitler’s presence, could only murmur, “No, my Führer!”
Then Hitler asked the boys if they wanted to go home or to the front. “To the front, my Führer!” they obediently cried. Even as the Reich crumbled around him, Hitler still exerted a certain power over the minds of many Germans.
Young Czech survived, but most of the other lads were later killed in battles with the Russians. The waste of young lives in an obscene cause was one of the great tragedies in these last days of the war. Hitler, blinded by his own delusional megalomania, said to the boys, “Despite the gravity of these times, I remain firmly convinced that we will achieve victory in this [Berlin] battle, and above all for Germany’s youth and you, my boys.”
It was going to take more than Hitler’s fanciful rhetoric to stop the Allies, particularly the encroaching Russians. In fact, the capture of Berlin was going to be a bone of contention among the Allied powers.
In March 1945, the British and Americans were advancing rapidly from the west. By April 1, the U.S. Ninth and Sixth Armies had completed their encirclement of the Ruhr, ultimately bagging 325,000 German soldiers. Farther south, General George S. Patton Jr.’s celebrated Third Army was pushing forward, an advance that would take it into Czechoslovakia and within 30 miles of Prague.
After eliminating the Ruhr pocket, the U.S. Ninth Army reached the banks of the Elbe River on April 11. Earlier, it had been decided that the Elbe would be the future demarcation line between the Western Allies and the Soviets. Nevertheless, the Americans initially didn’t let politics stand in the way of their advance. At Magdeburg the U.S. 2nd Armored Division created a bridgehead across the Elbe, and the U.S. 83rd Infantry Division established another at Barby.
American tank crews were certain that the Ninth Army would push on to Berlin, regardless of what Prensident Frankin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, or anyone else had agreed to. The bridgehead across the Elbe was enlarged, until the Americans were at Tangmunde, a scant 50 miles from the German capital. General William H. Simpson, commander of the Ninth Army, asked General Omar Bradley for permission to go on to Berlin. The request was forwarded to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme commander of Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe.
On paper, at least, it seemed very feasible. The only German force blocking the road to Berlin was General Walther Wenck’s Twelfth Army. Wenck, nicknamed “the boy general” because he was the youngest general in the Wehrmacht, was nevertheless competent and generally liked by his men.
His command, a fairly new formation, was a mixed bag typical of the late-war German Army. Wenck had young cadets, 16- and 17-year-old soldiers, and units of the RAD (Reichsarbeitdienst, or the State Labor Service). The RAD men performed similar functions for the German Army as the U.S. Navy’s “Seabees” did for the Marines and soldiers in the Pacific—building roads and fortifications and doing general construction work. In this crisis, they had to trade their shovels for rifles.
Perhaps even more telling was the fact Wenck had no tanks and virtually no air cover. He explained, “If the Americans attack they’ll crack our positions with ease. After all, what’s to stop them? There’s nothing between here and Berlin.” But in the end it wasn’t German resistance that stopped the American advance, but orders from Eisenhower himself.
General Eisenhower was reluctant to risk American lives for “prestige” or political purposes. There was also a concern that the Nazis might stage a last stand in southern Germany. It seemed best to mop up remaining resistance as soon as possible and end the war. Though Eisenhower had made the decision, not everyone agreed with it.
Winston Churchill was strongly in favor of the Western Allies taking Berlin ahead of the Russians. Earlier in the war Churchill cautiously welcomed the Russians, operating under the old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” but the Red Army’s rapid advance into Eastern Europe was a cause for alarm. Churchill rightly feared that the Russians would set up puppet Communist regimes in the countries they liberated from the Germans.
The prime minister felt that the Anglo-Americans should go as far east as possible. Demarcation lines like the Elbe River could always be sorted out and renegotiated if necessary. Churchill expressed his concerns in a letter to Roosevelt. “If the Russians take Berlin,” Churchill explained, “will not their impression that they have been the overwhelming contributor to the common victory be unduly imprinted in their minds, and may this not lead them into a mood that will raise grave and formidable difficulties in the future?”
Eisenhower sent a personal message to Josef Stalin, telling the Communist dictator about the American intention to focus on southern Germany and asking him what the Russian plans were. Duplicitous as always, Stalin lied about the coming Soviet offensive. He agreed that Berlin had “lost its former strategic importance,” so the main Russian objective would be Dresden. Some “secondary” forces might start moving on Berlin, but in any event the offensive would probably begin in May.
Stalin’s assertions were in fact a pack of lies. Furtive, devious, and paranoid, always suspicious of people’s motives and intentions, the Soviet leader automatically assumed that the Western Allies were as treacherous as he was. Stalin was certain that Eisenhower’s message was a clever ruse and that the Allies were going to make a dash to Berlin in spite of American assurances.
In fact, Stalin had every intention of taking Berlin before the British and Americans. First, there was the question of national prestige and honor. The Russian people had suffered more than any other nation, with the possible exception of China. The figures are disputed, but the Soviet Union lost somewhere between 20 and 25 million dead during World War II. Perhaps five to seven million of these were military deaths, and the rest were civilians. After so much suffering the Russians felt they deserved to capture the ultimate prize.