It was the end of April, 1945. And, very soon it would be V-E Day: the end for the German dictator Adolf Hitler, his despotic Nazi regime, and the war in Europe.
by Flint Whitlock
Within his reinforced concrete bunker, 50 feet below the garden of the New Reichs Chancellery on Berlin’s Wilhelmstrasse, German dictator Adolf Hitler, his soon-to-be bride Eva Braun, and several hundred friends, SS guards, and staff members could feel the concussion and hear the unending drumroll of thousands of Soviet artillery shells reducing the already-battered capital city of the Third Reich to unrecognizable rubble.
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Outside in the city’s shattered streets, ragtag elements of Wehrmacht and SS units, augmented by ill-trained Volkssturm troops—mostly old men and young boys—were doing their best to hold off determined brigades of Soviet infantry, but it was an unequal fight. With 180 Soviet divisions, 9,000 Russian tanks, and 9,000 warplanes pushing through Poland against only 80 German divisions, and the Yanks and Tommies having penetrated Germany from the west, V-E Day and the Third Reich’s demise was clearly in sight.
Hitler Ever Delusional
Hitler, living in his netherworld of unreality, swung between moods of rage, self-pity, confidence, and despair. He could only count on his closest associates; everyone else had let him down. During the Third Reich’s final days, Hitler especially held no love for the German people, for whom he had gone to war and who now, he was convinced, were unworthy of his efforts.
In March, as the enemy closed in on Berlin from all sides and pounded it from the air, Hitler told his favorite architect Albert Speer, “If the war is lost, the nation will also perish. This fate is inevitable. There is no necessity to take into consideration the basics which the people will need to continue a most primitive existence. On the contrary, it will be better to destroy those things ourselves because this nation will have proved to be the weaker one and the future will belong solely to the strong eastern nation [Russia]. Besides, those who will remain after the battle are only the inferior ones, for the good ones have been killed.”
Issuing the “Scorched Earth” Order
The following day, Hitler issued a “scorched earth” order: everything of value within Germany was to be destroyed to keep it from the hands of the conquerors—an order Speer did his best to contravene. Hitler was determined that he, too, would be utterly destroyed so that he would not wind up as a war trophy, stuffed and mounted and hanging in some Moscow museum.
Hitler and the other surviving Nazi officials had good reason to fear their fate. Ever since Operation Barbarossa, Germany’s massive invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Germans had laid waste to vast regions of the communist nation. Einsatzgruppen, or Special Action Units, following in the wake of the shock troops, rounded up innocent civilians and ruthlessly slaughtered them, putting whole villages to the torch. Millions of Russians—some say as many as 20 million—perished during what the Soviets called the “Great Patriotic War.”
“General Winter” Stops the German Advance
Shoved back nearly to the gates of Moscow in December 1941, Josef Stalin’s desperate troops and “General Winter”—the worst weather in a century—stopped the relentless German advance. While they waited and waited for the United States and Britain to invade the European continent and open a second front, the Soviets held on heroically. Slowly, the Russians began to turn back the tide of the war, inflicting enormous casualties on the Germans in the process.
In January 1943, while Field Marshal Friedrich von Paulus was surrendering 91,000 frozen, starving men at Stalingrad—all that was left of his once mighty, 200,000-man Sixth Army—President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill were meeting in Casablanca, where they discussed the idea of demanding the unconditional surrender of Germany. Stalin, who was not present, voiced his support of the idea. Only through eschewing negotiation and requiring capitulation without condition could the Allies hope to drive a permanent stake once and for all through the black heart of Nazi Germany.
Jet Fighters, U-Boats and Ballistic Missiles
Now, in 1945, more than two years after Casablanca, Germany’s railroads had been smashed, most of the still-serviceable warships of the Kriegsmarine and the warplanes of the Luftwaffe lay idle for lack of fuel, and rations for both the military and civilian population stood barely at subsistence levels. Units that tried to hold back the Allies were overwhelmed and annihilated.
But, like a cornered and wounded beast, Nazi Germany was still a dangerous adversary. One of Hitler’s “wonder weapons,” the revolutionary Me-262 jet fighter, was tearing through Allied bomber formations and wreaking havoc; fortunately for the Allies, there were too few jets and their overall effect was minimal. The V-1 flying bombs and V-2 ballistic missiles, however, remained a constant, if inaccurate, menace. A whole new class of submarines, known as electro U-boats, were designed to pose a danger to Allied shipping, but only two of the 126 planned or partially constructed boats had been commissioned. There were plans for new and devastating rifles and flamethrowers. Some in the Allied camp fretted about persistent rumors of a Nazi atomic bomb.
A Hard Fall for the German Dictator
From the west, the Americans and British approached with 85 divisions; the Soviets in the east had more than double that number. In April 1945, the German high command issued a decree that any commander failing to stand and fight to the last man would be executed. As his world crumbled around him, Hitler fired any general he thought was disloyal or defeatist and took the defense of the Reich directly into his own hands.
How had it come to this? Things had started so promisingly for the Nazi regime in January 1933. After scheming, bluffing, and bullying his way into the respected office of chancellor, Hitler initially made good on his campaign promises. Millions of unemployed workers found jobs, created for the most part by a giant government works program similar to Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps. Runaway inflation was brought under control, and the economy staged a miraculous comeback.
The gangs of Communists that had been agitating for the overthrow of the Weimar government and causing chaos in the streets were brutally crushed. Hitler’s promises to restore Germany’s military might and regain the territory lost via the Treaty of Versailles accords had also come true. Men such as king Edward VIII, of England the aviation hero Charles Lindbergh, and United States Olympic Committee Chairman Avery Brundage were, in the 1930s, in awe of the law-abiding order the Nazis had brought to Germany.
But Hitler had his heart set on other goals, mainly revenge—both against Germany’s neighbors and against the Jews, on whom he blamed Germany’s defeat in the Great War; the lives of the Jews would grow steadily worse.
This article is from the May 2005 issue of WWII History Magazine. If you would like to read the rest of this and other articles, visit our order page to see which digital editions we have on offer.