Bitter end: Hitler's downfall and the end of the war and the Third Reich
The final months of the Second World War witnessed the slow strangulation of the Third Reich: while Allied forces advanced towards Berlin from both east and west, Adolf Hitler’s increasing detachment from reality condemned millions of his compatriots to death. Richard J Evans charts the bloody collapse of Nazi Germany...
In 1943 the fortunes of war began to turn against Nazi Germany. Early that year, the battle of Stalingrad – widely hailed as a turning point in the Second World War – inaugurated a long, steady advance by the Red Army on the eastern front. This was interrupted only briefly by the battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history, which the Germans lost comprehensively.
In the south, Hitler’s Italian ally, Benito Mussolini, was deposed in July 1943 after the Allies launched their invasion of Sicily. The Germans now felt obliged to occupy mainland Italy, diverting much-needed troops from the east, but were steadily beaten back by the Allies from September onwards. The end of July saw the mass bombing of Hamburg, with the damage inflicted on German cities by Allied raids becoming ever more severe.
All the while, morale on the home front began to fall, and the Nazi Party, the Gestapo and the SS started to tighten the screws of the repression that had played such an important part in creating the regime in the first place. Active Nazis rejoiced in the return, as they saw it, of the “time of struggle”, the old days before the Third Reich was securely established, when they were fighting against their enemies, real or imagined, on all sides.
By 1944 growing numbers of middle-ranking army officers, backed by a few more senior figures, had become so despairing of victory that they were plotting to remove Adolf Hitler and sue for peace – a futile enterprise, since the Allies had agreed to demand unconditional surrender early the previous year. On 20 July 1944, Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg detonated a time-bomb in Hitler’s eastern headquarters, but it didn’t kill the Nazi dictator and the coup failed.
Already suspicious of the armed forces and contemptuous of their leadership, Hitler now lost all faith in them. They were either cowards or traitors. Willpower was what mattered in his view, willpower would conquer everything, and willpower was precisely what they lacked.
A failed miracle
In a desperate attempt to shore up morale, the manufacture of “miracle weapons” was trumpeted by Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda apparatus, including nerve gases, flying bombs, ground-to-air missiles, rockets, air-conditioned submarines and even an atom bomb. Hitler placed particular faith in the effects of a jet-engine fighter plane, the Messerschmitt Me 262, but it had little impact on fighting before the end of the war. These projects dissipated resources too widely, and depended on supplies of raw materials that were already drying up.
Hitler ordered a concentration on the V1 flying bomb and the V2 rocket, but they could not be manufactured in sufficient quantities to have a major impact. Moreover, the fact that the “V” stood for Vergeltung, “retribution”, amounted to a confession that they were unlikely to change the course of the war. For a while, however, they gave at least some encouragement to Hitler’s faithful that the tide could still be turned. The public, as the SS reported, were increasingly sceptical.
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In these final months, Hitler looked to history for inspiration. The call-up of men previously exempted from military service, above all because they were too young or too old, into the Volkssturm (People’s Storm) deliberately echoed the legendary popular mobilisation in Prussia against Napoleon Bonaparte. The official date for the launch of the Volkssturm, 18 October 1944, was the anniversary of Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig in 1813.
Goebbels also commissioned and released an expensive new colour movie, Kolberg, telling the fictionalised story of a decision by the people of a town besieged by Napoleon to fight on to the bitter end whatever the cost. It was an implicit invitation to the Germans of Hitler’s day to sacrifice themselves in what was claimed to be the national interest. It had little impact, since it had a very limited release.
The movie also wasted precious resources of manpower for the military scenes, which involved thousands of men who might otherwise have been fighting at the front. The Volkssturm itself, poorly equipped and badly trained, was largely pointless except as a propaganda exercise: 175,000 men and boys were killed before the war came to an end.
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On 16 December 1944, Hitler attempted a last throw of the dice, launching a fresh offensive in the west, where he believed that he could repeat the triumph of 1940 in the Ardennes – another piece of historical wishful thinking. Some 200,000 troops and large quantities of armour and equipment were transferred to the battle of the Bulge, largely from the eastern front.
When Hitler’s acting army chief of staff, Heinz Guderian, told him that the situation on the eastern front was at breaking point, and that it was folly to divert troops to the west, the dictator screamed: “You don’t need to lecture me! I’ve been leading the German armies in the field for five years… I’m better informed than you are!”
If the troops believed in victory, Hitler told his adjutant Nicolaus von Below, then victory would be theirs. To begin with, the German armies scored some successes, enthusing Hitler with a fresh confidence, before the overwhelming superiority of the Allies brought them to a halt. The net effect in the end was to weaken the German defences in the east.
After the Ardennes offensive was broken, Hitler told Below: “I know the war is lost. The enemy’s superiority is too great.” He had been let down by the Luftwaffe and betrayed by traitors in the army. “We won’t surrender, never. We can go under. But we’ll take a world with us.” Death and destruction were all he could think of in his hour of despair.
As one defeat followed another, Hitler began to isolate himself from the German masses, ceasing his visits to the front and refusing to go to the cities to talk to the civilians who had been bombed out of their homes. Once more, he blamed everything that had, in his mind, gone wrong with Germany since the First World War on “the Jewish-international global conspiracy”, in which latterly Franklin D Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill had been no more than willing puppets.
He still insisted on continued uncompromising resistance. When Warsaw was evacuated by the retreating German army, he lost his temper and had the staff officers who had issued the retreat signals arrested by the Gestapo. A crack SS division, the Leibstandarte, suffered heavy losses in its defence of the Hungarian oilfields, and was rewarded for its defeat by Hitler’s sending SS chief Heinrich Himmler to strip its surviving soldiers of their armbands, a very public humiliation that caused some of the troops to shoot themselves.
Hitler did not care. By insisting on fighting to the end, he sacrificed the lives of millions of his soldiers. More than a third of all German troops killed during the war died in January to May 1945, when it was clear to most Germans that the war was already lost.
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By insisting on fighting to the end, Hitler sacrificed the lives of millions of his soldiers. More than a third of all German troops killed during the war died in January to May 1945
The destruction of German towns and cities from the air was turning more and more of them into heaps of rubble. Power cuts and water shortages became more frequent with the destruction of gas and electricity generating plants, power lines and underground pipes. More than half a million civilians were killed in the raids. Living conditions began to worsen. In the autumn of 1944, for the first time, the Nazi authorities began to make serious reductions of food and other rations. The supply situation steadily deteriorated from now on, and was not to recover until many months after the end of the war.
On 19 March 1945, Hitler issued the infamous “Nero order”, commanding local authorities and plant managers to destroy their facilities in the face of the Allied advance in order to prevent them from being used by the enemy. The order, however, was widely disobeyed by local authorities, encouraged by armaments minister Albert Speer.
After reading a memorandum Speer had presented to him rejecting the order because the German people would need the basic necessities if they were to survive after the war, Hitler told him that it was not necessary to worry about the German people, “for the nation has proved to be the weaker, and the future belongs solely to the stronger eastern nation. In any case only those who are inferior will remain after this struggle, for the good have already been killed.”
Losing touch with reality
In Berlin, the bombing of the Reich Chancellery on 3 February 1945, including Hitler’s private apartments, forced him to move permanently into the bunker he had had constructed below. To begin with, he climbed the stairs to the garden quite frequently to walk his dog, Blondi, and on 20 March 1945 he went up to inspect and decorate a small detachment of Hitler Youth who had been defending the city.
But as the Red Army moved into Berlin, it became too dangerous. On 20 April, his 56th birthday, he went up for the last time; a further attempt to come out, a week later, was frustrated by Soviet shelling. Inside the bunker, the foul air and failing latrine system were beginning to make life unbearable. The celebration of Hitler’s birthday in the bunker was muted, with Hitler himself participating only reluctantly. Outside on the surface, the dull thuds of Soviet artillery fire could already be heard, the noise penetrating through the thick concrete into the room.
By this time, Hitler had almost wholly lost touch with reality. He continued in his daily military conferences to move little flags representing army divisions around Berlin on a map, ordering a tank unit led by Felix Steiner, a senior SS officer, to launch a counter-attack, supported by aircraft and infantry, in which he expected that “the Russians will suffer the greatest defeat, the bloodiest defeat in their history before the gates of the city of Berlin”.
But the troops and the tanks simply didn’t exist. Told the attack had not taken place, Hitler lost all self-control, screaming that the army – and now, too, the SS – had betrayed him. Everything was lost, he cried, shaking with rage.
Hermann Göring must negotiate a peace deal with the Allies. He would stay in the bunker and take his own life. Informed by telephone of Hitler’s breakdown, Goebbels moved into the bunker with his wife and children, determined to stay with him until the end, then create a heroic myth, just as he had tried to do after Stalingrad, of self-sacrifice for posterity.
Hitler’s breakdown on 22 April 1945 inaugurated the final act in the squalid and pointless drama being played out in the bunker. At last, the spell broken, his lieutenants, with the exception of Goebbels, began to desert him. Told of Hitler’s rant, Göring sent a telegram to Berlin assuming his rights as his nominated successor unless he heard otherwise. Hitler had already lost faith in him because of the failure of the Luftwaffe, and now he reacted by instructing the Reich Marshal to resign all his offices. Within a few hours, Göring was under house arrest, an SS unit stationed outside his house.
Worse than any of this, Hitler discovered that Himmler had been negotiating with neutral Sweden behind his back for Germany’s surrender to be conveyed to the Allies. Declaring this to be “the most shameful betrayal in human history”, Hitler dismissed him from all his offices.
Death in a bunker
On 29 April 1945, after being shown photographs of Mussolini’s corpse, hanging upside-down from a petrol station gantry next to that of his mistress, Clara Petacci, Hitler told his staff over dinner that he was determined to avoid a similar fate. His body was to be burned until no trace of it remained, he said.
Summoning a local Berlin official to the bunker, he now underwent a formal, legal ceremony of marriage with Eva Braun. Dictating his last will and testament, he appointed Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz as his successor, and blamed the bombing of German cities on the Jews, who he believed were steering the Allies from behind. They had been forced to “expiate their guilt, though through more humane means”.
Such an admission expressed a belief that the gas chambers of Auschwitz and other extermination camps were a “humane” method of killing, as well as a feeling of triumph that, with the Holocaust, he had exacted on the Jews what he imagined to be a justified revenge.
Privately, Hitler admitted to his secretary Traudl Junge that “National Socialism is dead”. Unrestrained in his boundless egotism, he told her that the Germans had not been ready to carry out the tasks he had allotted to them.
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On 30 April 1945, after saying farewell once more to his secretaries, Hitler retired with Eva to his study at half-past three in the afternoon. A few minutes later a single shot was fired. Gingerly opening the door, Hitler’s valet, Heinz Linge, saw the dictator’s lifeless body slumped on the sofa, blood oozing from a gunshot wound in his right temple. Eva Braun (now Hitler) was beside him, a strong smell of bitter almonds coming from her corpse. She had taken cyanide.
Linge and Hitler’s adjutant, Otto Günsche, wrapped the bodies in blankets and, with the help of SS guards, carried them up the long staircases to the Reich Chancellery garden, where they doused them with petrol and set them alight. So thoroughly were the bodies burned that only the teeth remained among the ashes, later to be identified by a technician who had worked for Hitler’s dentist.
Hitler left only death and destruction behind him. Many ordinary Germans had gradually lost faith in his regime as defeat followed defeat, and life in Germany’s devastated cities had progressively become more difficult for them to sustain. Instead of being restored to greatness, as Hitler had proclaimed, the country lay in ruins.
Yet there had been no general rising against the regime. By the last months, any kind of dereliction of duty, open defeatism, or attempt to negotiate a local surrender to the advancing Allied forces incurred public execution at the hands of the SS and other fanatics. Many Germans carried on resisting the enemy out of fear of what might happen to them, justified enough in the case of the Red Army, whose troops carried out innumerable shootings and rapes of civilians as they advanced into Germany.
By 1945 most Germans were motivated above all by nationalism, the feeling that what they were defending was their country rather than the Nazi regime that had taken it over. Civil servants and administrators continued with their daily bureaucratic routines more out of a sense of duty or ingrained habit than anything else.
Hitler’s charismatic authority endured almost to the end. More than a decade of his rule had left people unable to imagine life without him – in thousands of cases literally so, as a huge wave of suicides rolled across Germany, particularly among government ministers, generals and Nazi Party officials. When Hitler’s death became known, and the war ended, allegiance to the Third Reich among the people of Germany vanished almost overnight.
This article was first published in the November 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine