Why did the Nazis fight to the death?
Hundreds of thousands of Germans were killed fighting for the Nazi regime long after defeat had become inevitable. Sir Ian Kershaw explains why so many were willing to follow Hitler to the end...
On 18 April 1945, a 19-year-old theology student, Robert Limpert, decided to act to prevent the senseless destruction of the picturesque town of Ansbach in Franconia. He had already taken big risks by circulating leaflets pleading for the surrender of the town without a fight. Now he went further, cutting communication wires to a Wehrmacht unit outside the town, but was spotted doing so by two boys from the Hitler Youth. Following arrest by the local police, he was brought before the local military commandant, a Luftwaffe colonel with a doctorate in physics – and a fanatical Nazi. The commandant immediately set up a three-man tribunal which lost no time in sentencing Limpert to death.
As a noose was placed round his neck outside the town hall, the young man struggled free, but was caught within a hundred yards, kicked, punched and pulled by the hair before being hauled back to the place of execution. No one in the small crowd that had gathered and witnessed the scene stirred to help him. After further moments of torment when the rope broke, Limpert was finally hoisted to his death. The commandant said the body had to be left hanging “till it stinks”. He then fled from the town on a requisitioned bicycle. Four hours later, the Americans entered Ansbach without a shot being fired and cut down Robert Limpert’s body.
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The Limpert tragedy was not just a matter of the rabid fanaticism of the Nazi town commandant. The local constabulary and civilian administration played their part, choosing to carry out what they saw as their duty even though they knew that American occupation could only be a few hours away. Civilians showed Limpert no sympathy. As in many other places, while most people were desperate to avoid futile destruction in what were obviously the dying days of the regime, some were even now prepared to back the savage repression of real or presumed opponents of Nazism. Similar horror stories were registered in numerous German towns and cities in the last weeks of Nazi rule.
Amid mounting military collapse, in areas not occupied by enemy forces the regime still somehow functioned in limited fashion even in April 1945. The Reich had shrunk by now to little more than a sliver of territory. Communications and transport were near total breakdown, millions were without gas, electricity and water. But there was no descent into anarchy.