The History Place - Defeat of Hitler

Enter the Bunker

The German people were about to learn the harshest lesson of all. The Führer's contempt for human life was not exclusive to the Slavic peoples or the Jews, but would soon be visited upon the Germans themselves, because of their inability to achieve the things he had set out for them.

Throughout his life, Adolf Hitler had never been able to admit a single mistake or accept responsibility for any failure. And as the thousand-year Reich he founded teetered on the brink of collapse in early 1945, he blamed it on the weakness of the German people and a military organization riddled with timid, disloyal and incompetent officers. If only they had really listened to him and let themselves be inspired. If only they had possessed the same will and determination as him – certainly everything would have turned out differently.

Hitler during a briefing at the headquarters of Army Group Vistula in March 1945. Below: German refugees and Army soldiers are seen in motion on a forest road in East Prussia as the Russians approach.
Below: A light moment during an impromptu conference in March 1945 involving Generals Eisenhower (left), Patton (arm raised) Bradley and Hodges--on the verge of victory.

After the Battle of the Bulge, Hitler had fallen into a state of deep despair and wearily returned to Berlin from his headquarters on the Western Front, setting up new headquarters inside the Reich Chancellery building, already partially damaged by Allied bombing. During his daily military briefings he listened to gloomy reports concerning the unstoppable advance of largest combined military force the world had ever seen, now roaring into the Fatherland from East and West.

In the East, the Russian advance of 300 divisions had begun in mid-January. German positions all along the Russian Front collapsed "like a house of cards" just as General Guderian had warned Hitler they would due to the depletion of reserves for his now-failed Ardennes offensive. Russian troops led by Marshal Zhukov had crossed the Vistula River and then took Warsaw. Ten days later, East and West Prussia, the ancient lands of German princes and military aristocrats, were completely cut off from Germany. This was followed by the seizure of the vast mining operations in Upper Silesia which supplied over half of Germany's coal, thus crippling the coal-dependent steel factories and railroads.

And as they roared into Germany, Russian soldiers unleashed their pent-up fury upon German soldiers and civilians alike, exacting a revenge without limits upon Hitler's people for all that the Nazis had done in Russia. One such town caught up in the maelstrom was Demmin in northeastern Germany where women tried to stave off Russian sexual assaults. Waltraud Reski, a schoolgirl at the time, recalled: "The women were disguised, but you can tell if a woman has a good figure, and they found my mother again and again, and treated her terribly. You can't imagine what it was like for her to be raped ten or twenty times a day. You're hardly human anymore. My mother became an entirely different person for the rest of her life."

News of the rapes, random murders and out-of-control plundering quickly spread, causing German civilians to become hysterical as the Red Army approached their locale. Whole families committed suicide rather than allow themselves to be subjected to Russian rule. At Demmin alone, some 900 persons killed themselves upon the Russian occupation, mainly by plunging into the nearby river and drowning along with their children.

Elsewhere, as the Russians approached, families hurriedly grabbed a few belongings and joined the throngs of Germans already on the road, all heading westward toward the advancing Americans, amid the hope of better treatment. Thus began one of the largest mass migrations ever seen on the European continent as millions of Germans abandoned town after town and entire cities as well. And with each passing day, they had less distance to travel to meet up with the steadily advancing Americans.

In the West, eighty-five American and British divisions had invaded Germany in early February, heading for the Rhine River, the natural north-south barrier protecting western Germany. Unwisely, Hitler ignored advice from Field Marshal Rundstedt to position his troops on the right bank of the river, thereby forcing the Allies to cross the water to attack. Instead, he left them as-is on the left bank, nearer the invaders, resulting in the loss of 350,000 soldiers and their equipment by the end of the month. For this, Hitler blamed Rundstedt and sacked him.

The Allies crossed the Rhine River into the heartland of Germany in early March, twenty-five miles south of Koblenz at the town of Remagen. Here the Germans had failed to destroy a huge railroad bridge spanning the river in time to prevent American troops and tanks from seizing it. A furious Hitler ordered the execution of the eight Army officers who had bungled the bridge's defense. This marked the beginning of a do-or-die phase for German troops at the hands of their vengeful Führer. Mishaps and mistakes were now punishable by death.

The growing problem of desertion was similarly addressed. The hopelessness of the overall military situation tempted many a German soldier in the West to surrender to the Americans, considered less hostile than the British, whose cities the Germans had been bombing for five years. To counter this trend, drastic orders were issued by the High Command in the name of the Führer decreeing the punishment of death for anyone traveling on unauthorized leave, or anyone claiming to be lost or separated from their unit. Roving squads of Himmler's SS men also patrolled rear areas looking for stragglers. They were summarily shot or in some cases hanged from a nearby lamp post, left there as a warning with a hand-lettered sign pinned on them saying "I deserted." Himmler also made it known the SS would track down and shoot the entire family of any deserter.

Volkssturm soldiers with anti-tank (Panzerfaust) rocket grenades ready to take their posts at a railway underpass. Below: A 12-year-old junior Hitler Youth member awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class for bravery under fire during fighting involving the Russians in Upper Silesia.

Such drastic measures could not forestall the military outcome however. And as his troops withered in the face of the awesome might of the Russian, American, and British-Canadian armies, Hitler scraped together new units composed of old men and young boys to save what remained of Nazi Germany. Universities, high schools, and even grade schools were emptied as all able-bodied males were grabbed for service in the Volkssturm – the People's Home Guard. In Berlin and elsewhere, elderly World War I veterans now marched off to the east alongside junior Hitler Youth boys to fend off battle-hardened Russians outnumbering them twenty to one. Armed only with rifles and anti-tank grenade launchers, they would lose their lives, blown to bits while serving as human barricades, accomplishing nothing other than to buy a little more time for their Führer.

While they bled, the Führer decided he had time to do one more big thing before the end. On March 19, 1945, he ordered a massive scorched-earth campaign throughout Germany so that absolutely nothing of value would be left for the victors. This included the complete destruction of all German industry, communications, agriculture, mines, food stuffs, railways, ships, roads, bridges, stores, shops and utility plants.

“If the war is lost," Hitler told his Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer, "the nation will also perish. This fate is inevitable. There is no necessity to take into consideration the basis which the people will need to continue even a most primitive existence. On the contrary, it will be better to destroy these things ourselves, because this nation will have proved to be the weaker one and the future will belong solely to the stronger eastern nation. Besides, those who will remain after the battle are only the inferior ones, for the good ones have all been killed."

It amounted to a virtual death sentence for the entire German population who would lack even bread and water after the war. Fortunately for them, the mad directive was never fully obeyed. Using his considerable authority as a Nazi Minister, Speer rushed from place to place, preventing its enactment, aided by sympathetic Army officers, along with the blazing speed of the Allied advance.

By the end of March, tank troops led by Patton and Montgomery had fully crossed the Rhine River and were roaring eastward, shrinking the borders of Hitler's Germany by several miles each day.

Meanwhile, in the East, Zhukov's troops were massing for their final attack on Berlin, a city already 90-percent destroyed by the continuing thousand-bomber air raids. Among the bombing victims was People's Court Judge, Roland Freisler, killed by a direct hit. Also hit again was the Reich Chancellery building, which had been serving as Hitler's military headquarters. By this time, Hitler had abandoned it for the safety of an underground bunker complex fifty feet below the adjacent garden.

And there he would remain for the final month of his life, protected by a reinforced concrete ceiling thirty feet thick. The bunker had an upper level with twelve small rooms for Hitler's staff, with a middle hallway functioning as a common dining area. The lower level, or Führerbunker, was larger with twenty rooms on either side of a center sitting room and conference area, with an adjacent map room. In the far left corner were six sparsely furnished private rooms for Hitler and Eva Braun, his longtime companion, who had traveled from Berchtesgaden to join him, determined to stay by his side, come what may.

But the man she loved was only a shadow of his former self. Presently he had trouble walking, needing to balance himself by grabbing hold of furniture or the wall for support. He was very pale, with cloudy blue eyes and stooped shoulders, while his left hand now trembled uncontrollably. At times he was absent minded, repeating himself without ever knowing it.

However, none of this diminished the rage he demonstrated during his daily military conferences when confronted with grim reality. These days there were insufficient soldiers and equipment to carry out just about any of his orders.

The inferno of Berlin during one of numerous air raids. Below: Soviet artillery of the 1st Byelorussian and 1st Ukrainian Armies in position outside Berlin in April 1945.

Regardless, even at this late stage, Hitler insisted there was still good reason to fight on, despite the heavy cost in German lives. He now believed the Western democracies, America and Britain, would soon see the light and join with Nazi Germany to fight the Russians in order to prevent Stalin from expanding the Soviet Union, and thereby Communism, into Europe. Therefore, the Führer had convinced himself, the solution to Germany's dire predicament would be a political one after all – if his troops could just hold out.

In reality, the Allies had seen the light already and it only concerned the magnitude of Nazi barbarism and its tragic human toll. This became apparent when American, British and Russian soldiers liberated concentration camps and saw gas chambers, ovens, piles of ashes, and stacks of dead bodies along with starved survivors who looked like walking corpses.

After a visit to Ohrdruf Camp near Buchenwald, General Eisenhower himself would comment, “I never dreamed that such cruelty, bestiality, and savagery could really exist in this world!”

Nevertheless, Hitler and those around him in the bunker clung to the hope of a falling out among the Allies, buoyed in part by the memory of Frederick the Great, the German military leader who had heroically held out against overwhelming odds, until the alliance against him abruptly dissolved back in 1761. A painting of Frederick the Great was fondly kept by Hitler in his private quarters in the bunker and he liked to gaze at it, finding inspiration – one great leader to another.

A further hope those in the bunker clutched onto as everything fell apart was astrology. Encouraged by his Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, the Führer requested to see the two horoscopes that Himmler, who dabbled deeply in such things, had stored away for him. And according to the star charts, Hitler would experience victory through 1941, then a series of setbacks through the first half of April 1945, when something great would happen to bring him unexpected success.

Coincidently, on Thursday, April 12, 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt fell ill and died from a cerebral hemorrhage while visiting Warm Springs, Georgia. Upon hearing the news, Goebbels telephoned Hitler and congratulated him. This had to be the turning point. Without Roosevelt, the delicate British-American-Russian alliance would surely disintegrate. After this, the less hostile Harry Truman would be open to the possibility of talks with Nazi Germany.

But nothing happened. President Truman continued all of Roosevelt's war policies and alliances. When this became apparent, Hitler's elation over Roosevelt's death evaporated, followed by the darkest mood of his life as he listened to the worst-ever military reports. By now, all of his armies in the Ruhr industrial area had collapsed upon the capture of 325,000 men, following their encirclement by the American 1st and 9th Armies.

Berlin itself was now endangered. American advance units were about 50 miles west of the city while the Russians were already on the outskirts. In response to it all, Hitler issued frantic orders to reposition armies that were either already wiped out or presently surrounded. And as his orders went unheeded, the Führer became increasingly enraged.

Everything came to head on Sunday, April 22nd. During a three-hour military conference in the Führerbunker, Hitler let loose a shrieking denunciation of the German Army and the "universal treason, corruption, lies and failures" of all those who had let him down.

"The war is lost!" shouted the exasperated Führer. The Third Reich was a failure. And, he said, there was nothing left for him to do, but stay in Berlin and die.

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