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The Last Days Of The Third Reich
Forty years ago, a tangle of chaotic events led to the death of Hitler, the surrender of the Nazis, and the end of World War II in Europe
April/may 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 3
The last time Grand Adm. Karl Doenitz saw his Führer was on April 20, 1945, Adolf Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday. The celebration, held in the Führerbunker , a dank catacomb buried deep beneath the Reich chancellery, twenty feet lower than Berlin’s sewer system, was hardly festive.
Still, most of the princes of the Third Reich were on hand: Hermann Goering, Hitler’s designated heir, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, Josef Goebbels, the propaganda genius, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, Martin Bormann, the perfect bureaucrat, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, chief of the armed forces, and Keitel’s chief of staff, Gen. Alfred Jodl. Doenitz, a man of doglike devotion to Hitler, was present as head of the German navy.
Hitler moved down the line of wellwishers shaking hands, offering a few halting words to each man. Above them Berlin shuddered under another one-thousandplane Allied air raid, while Red Army units completed their encirclement of the doomed capital.
The listless Hitler greeting his lieutenants was a husk of the once mesmerizing figure whom these men had followed for the last twelve years. The Fuhrer’s usually immaculate clothes were wrinkled and food-stained, his shoulders hunched, his face a pallid mask. Doenitz took Hitler’s limp hand and felt deeply moved. The man, he could see, was being crushed by the weight of his burdens. Now, with the perfunctory birthday observance over, Hitler convened a staff meeting. With Russian and American forces soon expected to join hands and cut Germany in two, Hitler announced a top-level command change. He placed the absent Gen. Albert Kesselring in charge of all remaining German forces in the south. The loyal Doenitz was to command all units in the north.
Ten days later Hitler was dead and Nazi Germany had a new leader, not the expected Goering or the dreaded Himmler, but a wholly unpredicted choice. The switch had come about as a result of events two days after Hitler’s birthday, events that rocked the inhabitants of the bunker. At that point, realizing that Hitler intended to stay in Berlin to the death, Goering had sent him a telegram saying that he would assume power and fight on, unless he heard to the contrary from the Führer. The same day, Heinrich Himmler arranged a secret meeting with Count Bernadette of Sweden and offered to surrender Germany to the West. Thereupon, in Himmler’s deluded view, the Western powers would happily join with Germany to fight against Russia.
When an enraged Hitler learned of this double dose of treachery by two of his anointed, he expelled Goering and Himmler from the Nazi party and stripped them of all rights and offices. He then wrote his last will and testament and named a new successor. Thirty-six hours later, Hitler shot himself.
Communications in Germany had become so disorganized that Heinrich Himmler was unaware of his fall from grace or of the Führer’s death. After putting his peace proposal to Count Bernadette, he had retreated to a Red Cross hospital at Hohenlychen, about sixty miles north of Berlin, to await the Allied leaders’ answer.
While there, Himmler was visited by Albert Speer, the youthful Hitler favorite and Reich minister of armaments. Speer found Himmler full of himself, boasting: “Europe cannot manage without me in the future.… After I’ve spent an hour with Eisenhower, he’ll appreciate that fact. They’ll soon realize that they’re dependent on me—or they’ll have a hopeless chaos on their hands.”
On April 27 Himmler’s expectations of becoming a partner of Churchill and Truman received a rude jolt. The Allies, Count Bernadotte informed him, would not touch Heinrich Himmler.
Admiral Doenitz had located his new northern command at Plön in Schleswig-Holstein, the narrow neck of land joining Germany to Denmark. There, on April I 30, Doenitz received a puzzling message from Martin Bormann back in the bunker: “Fresh treachery afoot. According to enemy broadcast, Himmler made offer to surrender via Sweden. Führer expects you to take instant and ruthless action against traitors.”
The admiral was uneasy and as much in the dark about the events in Berlin as was Himmler. How, he wondered, was he to take “ruthless action” against the man who commanded the entire apparatus of terror in Germany, the Gestapo, the concentration camps, the secret intelligence service, even Waffen SS army divisions? Besides engineering the deaths of millions of Jews, Slavs, and other “ untermenschen ,” Himmler, in just the previous nine months alone, had exterminated some five thousand of his fellow German officers and officials—anyone remotely connected to the July 20, 1944, plot on Hitler’s life.
Thus Doenitz dealt with Bormann’s order gingerly, inviting Reichsführer Himmler to meet him at the police barracks in Lübeck. Doenitz arrived first. When Himmler finally appeared, “he seemed already to regard himself as the head of state,” Doenitz later recalled. Doenitz asked Himmler if it was true that he had sought a separate peace with the Western Allies. Himmler lied that he had not. The two men thus parted amicably, and Admiral Doenitz returned to his headquarters at Plön.