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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
As he spoke, British forces were drawing within twenty miles of Plön. Fearing capture, Doenitz moved his government farther north to the naval college near Flensburg, almost on the Danish border. The new Führer had virtually run out of German soil from which to govern.
Heinrich Himmler, driving a Mercedes, wearing a crash helmet, and leading a motorcade of over one hundred and fifty SS loyalists, followed Doenitz to Flensburg. The roads were jammed with columns of retreating troops and refugees. Burned-out hulks of wrecked vehicles littered the route. Himmler and his entourage dove repeatedly into the mud to seek cover as British aircraft bombed and strafed the countryside.
Droenitz moved his government to a naval college near the Danish border. The new Führer had virtually run out of German soil from which to govern.
The present headquarters of the Allied supreme commander was a far cry from what Gen. Dwieht Elsenhower had occupied at Versailles. But as Allied forces swept onward, Eisenhower had moved his headquarters forward to the ancient cathedral city of Reims, where his staff had taken over the Boys’ Professional and Technical School, a modern, quadrangular, redbrick building, to serve as the new Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF).
Here Elsenhower occupied a nondescript office that looked out on a vista of six-by-sixes churning up the earth. For his private quarters Ike had chosen something more fashionable—the nearby chateau of a wealthy champagne baron.
By Saturday, May 5, Elsenhower had received word that Adm. Hans Georg von Friedeburg, Doenitz’s successor as chief of the German navy, was en route to Reims to negotiate a surrender of all German forces. Actually, Friedeburg’s unspoken mission was to put into play Admiral Doenitz’s final strategy of stalling for a week to ten days so that the maximum number of German troops and civilians could get behind the AngloAmerican lines and out of the grasp of the advancing Russians.
Arrived in Flensburg, Heinrich Himmler’s mood swung between despair and optimism. “What is to become of me?” he asked Count Schwerin-Krosigk, the man Doenitz had chosen as minister of foreign affairs. The count enumerated Himmler’s alternatives. He could adopt a disguise and try to disappear. He could shoot himself. Or he could do the honorable thing—turn himself in and take full responsibility for the actions of the SS.
Himmler instead gathered his staff around him and began to set up his own government to make another try for an independent peace with the West. He still talked of getting that hour alone with Elsenhower in which he would persuade the American to become his comrade-in-arms in the inevitable war against the Soviets. As the meeting ended, Himmler handed out titles in his new Nazi government among his cronies.
At SHAEF, excitement mounted as the hour of Admiral Friedeburg’s arrival approached. If the staff members crowding the windows of the headquarters were expecting a strutting Hollywood Nazi, Hans Georg von Friedeburg proved a severe disappointment. At 5:00 P.M. a slight, nervous little man with a sallow complexion and sunken cheeks stepped out of a staff car. Friedeburg and his party were greeted by no honor guard, no salutes, no gesture of military courtesy. His first words upon entering Allied headquarters were to ask if he might take a moment to put on a clean collar. He was taken to a washroom and hummed softly to himself as he made the change.
General Elsenhower had no desire to involve himself personally in the negotiations with the Germans. He entrusted that role to his chief of staff, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith. Elsenhower had recently returned from his first visit to a concentration camp, which may have influenced his decision to keep the Nazis at arm’s length. More to the point, he suspected that they would try to wring concessions from him that he had no intention of granting.
His clean collar in place, Friedeburg was taken to General Smith’s office by SHAEF’s intelligence chief, Britain’s Maj. Gen. Kenneth W. D. Strong. Strong, a former military attaché in Berlin, served as translator.
Smith’s staff had hastily prepared a map in anticipation of Friedeburg’s arrival. To the authentic battle lines they had added bold red arrows tracing the thrust of two fictitious armies, one from the east and one from the west, designed to make a desperate situation appear even more hopeless. The map had been spread on Smith’s desk where Friedeburg could not miss it.
Friedeburg immediately threw the two Allied officers off balance. He was not there, he announced, to sign a general surrender. He had come only to work out local surrenders of German units facing the Western Allies. He had no authority over troops fighting the Russians. As the discussion dragged on, he kept injecting conditions that he knew the Allies could not accept, buying time with each gambit.
General Smith, growing impatient, gestured toward the map on his desk: “Obviously you do not entirely realize the hopelessness of the German position.” Friedeburg, well versed in map tricks, remarked that he was not fooled by this one.
Smith then decided to make clear to Friedeburg that the German did not hold a weak hand. He held no hand. Eisenhower would accept no surrender, Smith told him, that did not include capitulation on all fronts to all the Allies simultaneously—unconditional surrender.