- Historic Sites
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
For Ed Kennedy, the Associated Press chief covering the Western front, sitting on the surrender story for forty-eight hours proved unbearable. Kennedy chose to break Elsenhower’s embargo. At 9:35 A.M. on May 7 his story of the surrender reached New York and raced across the country, a full day before Elsenhower’s release time. Kennedy’s accreditation was yanked and he was sent home. But he had scored the newsbreak of the century.
The next day in Berlin, the second surrender ceremony took place. The gaping omission in the Reims instrument had been corrected. This time the Germans were required to surrender—and to lay down their arms.
A bizarre coda to the surrender remained to be played out. Days after the Reims signing, soldiers of the defeated Wehrmacht still marched the streets of Flensburg fully armed, while the Reichswehr flag flew over Admiral Doenitz’s headquarters. Every morning Doenitz was driven in one of Hitler’s Mercedes five hundred feet from his private quarters to his offices for a 10:00 A.M. cabinet meeting. He brought in a photographer to take pictures of the new government at work. He presented the Knight’s Cross with oak leaves to General Jodl.
His ministers, most of them middleand upper-level Nazis, wrangled for hours over the rules for saluting in the new regime and over the flags and badges of rank to be adopted. They debated, too, whether they should add to the cabinet a minister of religion. They all behaved as though they were building a nation rather than burying one.
Though British troops surrounded the city, they refrained from moving in to take prisoners or arrest Nazis. Allied officers entered Flensburg virtually as visitors—it was as though the Allies did not know how to deal with this tiny appendage of the dead Third Reich.
Two days after the surrender, Heinrich Himmler was still lurking around Flensburg pursuing his deluded visions. He asked Jodl to pass a message to the Allies that, if taken prisoner, he was to be treated not as a hangman but as a bona fide military officer of high rank. Jodl let the request die quietly. Himmler then decided he must escape Flensburg. He shaved off his moustache and led his shrinking entourage south through the shattered countryside. They slept in bombed-out railroad stations or under the stars. Finally the band dwindled to five faithful. They abandoned their last vehicle and slipped across the Elbe on a fishing boat crammed with refugees. Reaching the other shore, Himmler ripped the insignia from his uniform, put on an eye patch, and took out an identification card belonging to one Heinrich Hitzenger, a mailman who had been condemned to death by one of Himmler’s kangaroo courts. Himmler then melted into the refugee throng.
Fifteen days after the surrender, General Elsenhower put an end to the farce at Flensburg. British troops led by tanks swarmed into the city and began rounding up Nazis. Doenitz and Jodl were arrested and sent to a detention camp called Ashcan reserved for major warcrime suspects.
Doenitz’s fantasy bubble at Flensburg may have burst, but his practical objective had succeeded. His stalling had allowed roughly half of the 1,850,000 German troops facing the Russians to surrender instead to the West.
On the same day that the Flensburg government was swept aside, British troops picked up a ragtag party of Germans at a checkpoint on a bridge near Bremerworde. One of the group, described as “small, ill-looking and shabbily dressed,” confessed in a submissive voice that he was Heinrich Himmler.
Capt. C. J. L. Wells, a British army doctor, gave Himmler a routine physical examination. Wells ordered the prisoner to open his mouth. In a gap between Himmler’s teeth, the doctor spotted a small, protruding black object. Instantly Wells thrust his hand into Himmler’s mouth. Himmler jerked his head to one side and bit down on the cyanide capsule. Within fifteen minutes, he was dead. His body was wrapped in army blankets and buried in an unmarked grave by a British soldier who in civilian life had been a trash man.
As for the others, Admiral Friedeburg committed suicide. Doenitz and Jodl were tried at Nuremberg for war crimes; Doenitz served ten years, and Jodl was hanged.
The movement that they had served experienced a fate unusual in history. The Nazi state—for all its once vast and fearful power—had died virtually the instant that its leader, Adolf Hitler, died. Its root structure proved as shallow as its deranged premises. Hitler’s vaunted Thousand Year Reich had lasted twelve years, four months, and eight days. Its legacy was over twenty-five million dead.
With the surrender at Reims, the war on the European continent ceased for the first time since September 1939. Forty years later, that peace, however imperfect, still prevails.