May 8, 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe, or VE Day, the day Nazi Germany signed the instrument of surrender, bringing a formal end to World War Two in Europe. In Russia, Victory Day is celebrated on May 9, because of the time difference.
The death, on April 12, 1945, of President Roosevelt was for Adolf Hitler his last shot of adrenaline. The Fuehrer’s world had been crumbling all around him, unrelentingly, as he lay holed up in his bunker under the Reich Chancellery. And he now clutched at Roosevelt’s death with the demented fury of the addict who has stumbled upon a cache of his favourite drug by chance.
Waving a newspaper clipping at Albert Speer, his minister of armaments, Hitler announced that this was ‘the miracle’ he had always predicted; that Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, would gladly sign for peace with Hitler and that would be the end of all of Germany’s troubles.
As he raved and rambled like a man possessed, Hitler looked up at the picture of Frederick the Great that hung from the wall of his ‘situation room’. It must have crossed his mind just then that the Prussian emperor, whom Hitler considered his guardian angel, had come to his rescue once again. Frederick’s own luck had smiled upon him miraculously when the sudden death of Tsarina Elizabeth persuaded the Tsar to take Russia out of the anti-Prussian coalition in the Seven Years’ War. Berlin had already been occupied and Frederick was on the brink of disaster, but now the tide had turned in his favour. Hitler was convinced that this was his Frederick moment.
Relentless advance of the Red Army
It didn’t take long for the euphoria to be dissipated, however. President Truman didn’t seem the least inclined to renege on his predecessor’s policies. On April 16, the Red Army began its final thrust towards Berlin. The battle at the Seelow Heights on the Oder, just sixty-odd kilometres to the east of the German capital, pitted a little over 112,000 German troops against a million Soviet and Polish men who were backed by more than 3000 tanks and nearly 17,000 artillery pieces to the Germans’ 600 tanks and 2,700 guns.
With a field gun placed every four metres of the Front, the Red Army’s firepower was staggering in its intensity. Over 1.2 million artillery shells were hurled at the German lines in the span of a single day. Led by General Gotthard Heinrici, the Germans fought desperately, but were pushed relentlessly until they fell back to Berlin’s suburbs on April 19 The next day, which happened to be Hitler’s 56th birthday, saw the battle for Berlin get underway in right earnest as the heart of ‘The Thousand Year Reich’ was pummelled by a ferocious barrage of Soviet artillery fire.
There were no celebrations on this birthday, though Hitler’s staff lined up in the bunker to congratulate their Fuehrer and many of the front-ranking Nazis arrived to pay their respects in the early afternoon. After that, Hitler emerged briefly into the Chancellery garden to review and reward a small detachment of the Hitler Youth, boys no older than fourteen who were increasingly being thrown into the battle to save Berlin in which they were often tasked with launching panzerfausts at Russian tanks.
This was Hitler’s last public appearance. Physically, he was now a shambling wreck who found it hard to keep his left arm from shaking uncontrollably. So he walked gripping it behind his back with his right hand, making it impossible for him to present any of the medals himself. There is a picture of him, his last formal photo, patting one of the boys on his cheek even as Artur Axmann, leader of the Hitler Youth, looks on. Soon, he vanished into his bunker – for good.
In course of the next few days, the remaining senior members of the Nazi establishment – Speer, Himmler, Donitz, Ribbentrop and Rosenberg among them – began to leave Berlin, driving out before the ring of the Russian attack closed irrevocably around them. Hermann Goering had managed to ship his enormous loot of art treasures out of his private hunting lodge at Karinhall near Berlin to the relative safety of Bavaria before he called on Hitler to greet him on his birthday. Now Goering’s cavalcade also wound its way, through the smouldering rubble on the few roads still left open, towards Germany’s south. Hitler had made up his mind to stay behind, and to go down ‘fighting’, and he energetically repulsed all requests to leave for a safer location.
Martin Bormann was the only notable Nazi functionary who insisted on staying on with Hitler till the end, until Joseph Goebbels also arrived on April 22 with his wife and six young children to make the bunker their home for the final days. But before that, Hitler had begun to give way to hysteria. He ranted at everybody: at the generals (Keitel and Jodl had to be present at the Fuehrer’s delusional ‘situation conferences’ every day through that final week) who had ‘betrayed’ him by not being decisive enough; at the SS whose forces had, Hitler thought, frequently picked the wrong causes to fight with the army; at the senior Nazi leaders who seldom gave their Fuehrer their complete allegiance, although Hitler always had their back. He threw a terrible fit at his doctor, Theodor Morell, threatening to have him shot for trying to ‘drug him with morphine’. And even through these last few days of his life, he deluded himself into believing that the Reich could still be saved; that the Red Army could be pushed back across the Oder and even across the Vistula if only the Wehrmacht held firm; that a peace with the US and Britain was still possible if only they realised that Germany could be their ally against ‘Jewish Bolshevism’…..
In his afternoon ‘situation conferences’, he pored over his map, as always, and moved imaginary armies around for ‘best results’, and gave instructions for battalions which scarcely existed to punch through the Soviet encirclement, beat back the Red Army, and save Berlin. On April 25, Speer came again for a few hours, and Hitler checked with him if he concurred with the Fuehrer’s plan to kill himself rather than suffer the ignominy of surrendering to the Russians. Apparently, Speer’s reply confirmed Hitler’s own intentions. As Speer got out of Berlin for the last time, the Red Army was advancing through the suburbs towards the governmental area at the city centre. Five days of unimaginably brutal, but largely uncoordinated street-fighting lay ahead before it would be curtains for the European theatre of the Second World War.
But these five days were packed with some of the most bizarre episodes of the War. When Goering was told that the Fuehrer was determined to kill himself, he assumed that Hitler’s 1941 decree naming Goering as Hitler’s successor would automatically kick in after Hitler’s death.
Unaware of the timeline of the proposed suicide, Goering wired the bunker stating that if he heard nothing to the contrary by 10 pm of April 24, he would assume charge as chancellor. Hitler flew into a rage, rescinding his earlier decree immediately and asking that Goering resign all his positions in the government and the party forthwith. Goering complied, and was placed under house arrest. Himmler, on the other hand, was discovered trying to engage in secret talks with Britain, through the Swedish Red Cross, for a negotiated surrender. Little headway had been made in these efforts, but Himmler’s overture to the enemy, however perfunctory, was enough for Hitler to brand it ‘the most shameful betrayal in human history’.
Retribution had to be swift. Himmler was not at hand, but one of his subordinates – the SS officer Hermann Fegelein – was, by virtue of his being part of Hitler’s entourage at the moment. Fegelein was married to Gretl, the younger sister of Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress. He was known to be corrupt, and Hitler had no compunctions about having him shot after a drumhead court-martial proclaimed him guilty of dereliction of duty. The execution happened in the evening of April 28, barely hours before Hitler married Eva, Fegelein’s sister-in-law, in another improvised social event held inside the bunker. The marriage was to last all of forty hours. By 3.30 pm on April 30, both Braun and Hitler were dead.
On April 29, two important pieces of news reached Hitler, and their effect on him, though not recorded, is not hard to guess. First, the news from Milan of Mussolini’s death at the hands of Italian partisans. More than the death, perhaps what followed sent shudders down Hitler’s spine. After their execution, the corpses of Mussolini, his mistress Clara Petacci and their companions were dumped in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto, where an angry crowd spat and stamped and urinated on them, before hanging them upside-down from the gantry of a petrol station by meat-hooks. Hitler is unlikely to have relished such a prospect for himself, and if there had been even a shadow of doubt about his own resolve to kill himself, this incident dispelled it completely.
The other news was from Hitler’s adoptive hometown, Munich, and it related to the Dachau Concentration Camp, the oldest in the vast network of Nazi death camps (and the last to be freed – on April 29), also the ‘model camp’ over which every senior Nazi gushed unabashedly. A camp inmate was to later recount how
“as the first American officer, a major, descended from his tank, the young Teutonic lieutenant, Heinrich Skodzensky, emerged from the guard post and came to attention before the American officer. The German is blond, handsome, perfumed, his boots glistening, his uniform well-tailored. He reports, as if he were on the military parade grounds near Unter den Linden during an exercise, then very properly raising his arm he salutes with a very respectful “Heil Hitler!” and clicks his heels. “I hereby turn over to you the concentration camp of Dachau, 30,000 residents, 2,340 sick, 27,000 on the outside, 560 garrison troops”. The American major does not return the German lieutenant’s salute. He hesitates for a moment, as if he were trying to make sure that he remembers the adequate words. Then he spits into the face of the German, “Du Schweinehund!”. And then, “Sit down here!”—pointing to the rear seat of one of the jeeps which in the meantime have driven in. …. The major gave an order, the jeep with the young German officer in it went outside the camp again…. A few minutes went by… Then I hear several shots. ‘The bastard is dead’, the American major says to me.”
If Hitler’s sources were conscientious, they would have told the Fuehrer that not only one officer, but, as Martin Gilbert writes,
“all five hundred of the garrison troops were killed within an hour, some by the inmates themselves, but more than three hundred by the American soldiers who had been literally sickened by what confronted them at Dachau: rotting corpses and desperately sick, horribly emaciated inmates.”
On April 29, the Red Army, now over 2 million strong, stormed Potsdamer Platz, at the very heart of Berlin. This was also when General Heinrici, entrusted with the defence of the capital, resigned out of exasperation with Hitler’s increasingly more absurd injunctions. By the evening, shells were crashing down around the Reich Chancellery garden above the bunker. Hitler’s game was up and he now knew it.
His marriage to Eva Braun was another grotesque comedy. The man summoned to conduct the nuptials at the Fuehrer’s bunker was a Berlin city councillor who had to excuse himself from his guard duty at a city observation post nearby. The midnight wedding was duly followed by a champagne breakfast at which everyone present congratulated the newly-weds. Hitler then took one of his secretaries aside to dictate to her his last testaments. While the personal ‘will’ is mostly unremarkable, the political testament is macabre in the lurid fantasies scattered about its text, and in the delusions that a man whose world was falling inexorably apart held fast to. By the evening of April 30, Hitler’s and Braun’s bodies, charred beyond recognition – as the Fuehrer had wanted them to be – were buried in a corner of the Chancellery garden.
The same evening, Viktor Temin, one of Russia’s leading war photographers, persuaded Marshal Zhukov to let him photograph the Reichstag from the air. As he flew towards the building he saw, and photographed, a Red Army soldier placing the Red Flag on top of one of the Reichstag’s balustrades. He then flew on, without permission, to Moscow. On the following morning, May 1, Pravda carried that dramatic picture on its front page. Russia had managed to crush Nazi Germany.