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The Last Days Of The Third Reich

July 2024
22min read

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

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.

Later that day Doenitr received a second radio signal from Berlin. This one staggered him. Without mentioning that Hitler was dead, Bormann informed the admiral that the Führer had appointed Doenitz as his successor. Until this moment, Doenitz had never received the slightest hint that he was considered a suitable heir. Now he suddenly found himself president of the Reich, supreme commander of the Wehrmacht…the Führer.


The man who took over this collapsing regime was a fifty-four-year-old career officer who looked, without his resplendent naval uniform, like a shoe clerk. Though perhaps unprepossessing in appearance, Doenitz had gained renown for carrying out one of the deadliest strategies in modern naval warfare, the submarine wolfpack. Using this technique, Doenitz’s two hundred Uboats had sent over fifteen million tons of Allied shipping to the bottom of the sea.

Karl Doenitz, a descendant of squires and magistrates, was an archetypal German of his class. He accepted authority from above without question and expected the same obedience from below. An apolitical monarchist by temperament, he had been scandalized by the disorder of the Weimar Republic. When the Nazis came along, he took their professions of nationalism and idealism at face value. He believed that Hitler had made Germany “Europe’s strongest bulwark against the onslaught of Communism.”

Hitler’s effect on Doenitz, he confessed, had been mystical and hypnotic: “after spending even a few days at his headquarters, I generally had the feeling that I would have to get away from Hitler’s suggestive influence if I were to free myself from it.”

Still, Karl Doenitz was no brown-shirt bully. He had even intervened personally with Hitler to save some “decent Jews” in his navy. But toward the official Nazi racial claptrap and its tragic consequences, he turned a blind eye.

If Hitler had sought slavish loyalty in his heir, he had made the perfect choice. With the war hopelessly lost, Admiral Doenitz was still exhortine his navy to fight on and still signing death sentences for deserters. Before Hitler’s surprise move, all that Doenitz had wanted was to die an honorable death in battle, as his two sons had already done.

But now he was the Führer, and his first concern was to find out how the spurned Himmler would take this news. “Himmler had armed forces at his disposal,” he later observed, adding, “I had none.” He invited Himmler to see him again, this time on his own turf at Plön.

At first Himmler haughtily refused to come. Finally he gave in to Doenitz’s pleas and arrived at the admiral’s headquarters accompanied by six armed SS men. Doenitz received Himmler seated at his desk. Under some papers and within reach, the admiral had concealed a pistol with the safety catch off.

Doenitz handed Himmler the message appointing himself Führer. Himmler read it and turned pale, his features disbelieving. He, the most powerful Nazi next to Hitler, the policeman of Europe, the imolementer of the “final solution,” had been passed over for this colorless sailor? ( Doenitz’s eyes followed Himmler uneasily as the Reichsführer slowly rose to his full height. Then Himmler bowed to Doenitz and said, “Allow me to become the second man in your state.”


Doenitz experienced deep relief. He also managed to put off Himmler on his offer to serve in the new government.

The Nazi empire that Doenitz inherited was now only a remnant of its once vast reach. Days before, the American and Russian armies had indeed linked up at Torgau on the Elbe, splitting Germany in half. German forces in Italy had surrendered unconditionally, and Soviet troops had reached the Berlin Reichstag . German soldiers were surrendering to the West in numbers that suggested a field-gray tidal wave flowing into POW cages. Field Marshal Montgomery’s 21st Army Group had raced across SchleswigHolstein to the Baltic, sealing off Doenitz in an isolated pocket of the country he supposedly led. Doenitz had thus been offered the sea captain’s most glorious fate, the opportunity to go down with his ship. Only this time it was the entire ship of state going under.

The grand admiral nevertheless took up his duties with implausible zeal. Still unaware that Hitler was dead, he radioed Berlin: “My Führer: My loyalty to you will be unconditional. I shall do everything possible to relieve you in Berlin… I shall continue this war to an end worthy of the unique, heroic struggle of the German people.”

The next morning, Doenitz received another message signed by Goebbels and Bormann, who finally informed him that Hitler was dead. That evening Doenitz delivered his first radio address to the German people. The tone of his broadcast was reverential, as he spoke of the “hero’s death” of the Führer. He had not known of Hitler’s suicide. He then explained why he was not immediately ending a hopeless war. “My first task is to save German men and women from destruction by the advancing Bolshevist enemy. It is to serve this purpose alone that the military struggle continues.” He then took a slap at the Western Allies for insisting that Germany surrender to the Russians as well as to the West. “The British and Americans in that case will not be fighting in the interests of their own peoples, but solely for the expansion of Bolshevism in Eurone.”

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.

Friedeburg protested that he lacked the authority to take such sweeping action. He asked if he might send a message to Doenitz requesting permission to accept the Allied terms. Smith agreed. Friedeburg drafted the message, handing it to the American with tears in his eyes.

Smith thereafter briefed an angry General Eisenhower on Friedeburg’s performance. Ike was convinced that the Germans were deliberately stalling.

It was late. Doenitz’s reply could not be expected for hours. The SHAEF staff glumly closed their offices. Peace would not come that night.

Actually, the surrender terms were not yet ready. John Counsel!, an Oxford graduate who had been an actor and theater manager, was trying to draft them. Until recently Counsell’s principal duty on the SHAEF staff had been to ghost Elsenhower’s dispatches. But lately he had also been assigned to work with an Allied board trying to write a surrender acceptable to America, Britain, Russia, and France. The moment of surrender had apparently arrived, and agreement on the terms had still not been reached. Colonel Counsel! was thus called into the office of Maj. Gen. Harold R. Bull, the SHAEF chief of operations, and told to come up with a suitable surrender instrument in ninety minutes.

Counsell had left, “tingling with the same kind of excitement” that he felt on a first night in the theater. Counsell also apparently suffered from stage fright in the role. After several failed attempts, he suddenly remembered reading the text of the German surrender in Italy the day before in the U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes . Counsel! sent for a copy and cribbed the terms of Germany’s unconditional surrender in longhand from the GI newspaper, had it translated into German, and met his deadline. He entitled the document “Act of Military Surrender.”

As Americans conceived a proper Junker , Gen. Alfred Jodl was right out of central casting. He lacked only a monocle to fulfill the stereotype.

Friedeburg’s message from Reims shocked Admiral Doenitz. Like Himmler, Doenitz clung to a belief that despite their official belligerency, the Americans, British, and Germans were brothers under the skin in their common hatred of the Soviet Union. Friedeburg, Doenitz concluded, had evidently not been forceful or clever enough to make that point clear to Elsenhower. Doenitz decided to send a tougher, shrewder advocate to Reims.


If Admiral Friedeburg had failed to satisfy the SHAEF staff’s idea of a proper Junker , Gen. Alfred Josef Ferdinand Jodl was right out of central casting. Erect in bearing, stern of demeanor, gruff in speech, the operations chief of the German High Command lacked only a monocle to fulfill the stereotype. Albert Speer described Jodl as “typical of the general staff officers who were so fascinated by Hitler that they largely cast aside the moral traditions of their class.” Jodl, like Doenitz, fiercely opposed unconditional surrender. This was the man the admiral now dispatched to Reims.

On the same Sunday that he sent Alfred Jodl to SHAEF, Doenitz finally found the nerve to kill off Heinrich Himmler’s lingering ambitions. He summoned the SS chief to his office and handed him a letter that read: “I now regard all of your offices as abolished.” Doenitz could not, however, resist a last kindness to the Nazi butcher. His letter concluded, “I thank you for the services which you have given to the Reich.” Himmler, now rankless, still continued to skulk around Flensburg, haunting government offices.

Sunday afternoon, May 6, a Royal Air Force plane took off from Field Marshal Montgomery’s headquarters carrying General Jodl to Reims. Escorting him was Monty’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Francis de Guingand. During the flight, Guingand found himself staring in fascination at his charge. After nearly six years of fighting a faceless enemy, he found it unreal “to be in the same aircraft with the man who had for so long worked in the closest association with Hitler.”

Jodl and his party arrived at SHAEF a little after 5:00 P.M. The general stepped from the car, his uniform crisp, his collar and cuffs spotless, his boots gleaming, his stride purposeful, his stance arrosant. Jodl’s manner proclaimed that he came not as the agent of a despised and defeated regime, but as a respectable adversary, a brother officer with the Americans and British in the honorable profession of arms. But save for a couple of casually tossed salutes by junior officers, Jodl, too, was greeted with stony silence and lack of ceremony.

Friedeburg had led the Allies to believe that Jodl was coming merely to sign an immediate surrender. Instead Jodl also began to implement Doenitz’s delaying tactics. He would surrender only to the West, he said, and not to the Russians. After two hours of fruitless wrangling, General Smith informed Eisenhower of the German’s intransigence.

Eisenhower blew up. Thus far, the invasion of Germany was costing unexpectedly high American casualties. Men were still dying, and Eisenhower wanted the bloodshed stopped. He instructed Smith to tell Jodl that “unless they immediately ceased all pretense and delay, I would close the entire Allied front and would,’ by force, prevent any more German refugees from entering our lines.” The surrender was to be signed immediately and become effective within forty-eight hours, giving the Germans just enough time to get the word out to their troops. With that, the supreme commander, who had been pacing impatiently in his office waiting for the war to end, went home to his chateau.

Smith presented Elsenhower’s ultimatum to Jodl. The German asked if he might be left alone to meditate. Jodl emerged an hour later and sent a message to Doenitz: “Eisenhower insists we sign today. If not, the Allied fronts will be closed to persons seeking to surrender individually, and negotiations will be broken off. I see no alternative—chaos or signature.”

Elsenhower’s demand outraged Admiral Doenitz. It was blackmail. Doenitz informed his ministers, with disbelief, that Eisenhower “would order his men to fire on any German troops who approached the American lines, even if they came unarmed with the intention of surrendering.” The head of a regime that had taught the world new definitions of barbarism observed that “such an action constitutes a breach of the Geneva Convention.”

But, Doenitz’s aides argued, if even the hard-nosed Jodl now accepted the inevitability of unconditional surrender, what choice did they have? Still, a twohour discussion ensued at Flensburg.

In the school at Reims there was a large room where, before the war, French boys played Ping-Pong and chess and took their final examinations. Eisenhower had made this area his war room. Here he held daily staff conferences. The room was an undistinguished site for an epic event in history, but Ike had nevertheless chosen it for the pending surrender signing. He wanted to get the matter over as quickly and with as little fuss as possible. When the fighting in Europe ended, there was still a war to be fought against Japan.

The pale blue walls of the war room were papered over with maps, reports of troop dispositions, casualty lists, locations of stores, and charts depicting railroad and communication networks. A huge graph, shaped like a thermometer, showed the rising numbers of German prisoners pouring into Allied hands. An old, cracked table, twenty by eight feet, stood at one end of the room. At this table the Act of Military Surrender was to be signed.


Seventeen war correspondents and photographers, chosen as the press pool to cover the event, milled around the war room. A signing had first been announced for 7:00 P.M. , then canceled and rescheduled for 11:00 P.M. , then canceled again, as Reims awaited Admiral Doenitz’s reply. The reporters spent this time griping about another Elsenhower decision. News of the surrender was to be embargoed for forty-eight hours. Eisenhower wanted the press blackout so that a second ceremony could be held in Berlin on May 8 to satisfy the Russians. The end of the war would then be announced simultaneously by the Allied heads of state in Washington, London, and Moscow to take effect at one minute past midnight on May 9.

Elsenhower had been exquisitely sensitive to Russian feelings as the war’s end approached. He had invited the Soviet High Command in Moscow to designate a Red Army officer to come to Reims and represent the Soviet Union. The Russians had assigned the role to the genial, longtime Soviet liaison officer to SHAEF, Maj. Gen. Ivan Sousloparov. Ike had also transmitted an advance text of the Act of Military Surrender to Moscow. But as the hour for the signing drew near, no response had yet been received from the Russians.

With no word yet from Doenitz, Dwight Elsenhower had gone to bed. But soon after midnight on May 7, his telephone rang. His staff secretary was on the line saying that word had just been received from Flensburg. Doenitz was ready to sign. Capt. Harry C. Butcher, Eisenhower’s naval aide, arrived at the Reims schoolhouse at one-thirty that morning. Butcher, a former CBS official, advised Ike on public relations matters. The general had also asked him to act as “custodian of fountain pens” during the ceremony. Butcher had been given two pens, one solid gold, the other gold-plated. The pens had been sent to Eisenhower by a friend, Kenneth Parker, head of the Parker Pen Company. Parker had asked Eisenhower if he would use these pens for the Nazi surrender. Eisenhower planned to send the gold-plated pen back to Parker and give the solid gold pen to President Truman. “What about Prime Minister Churchill?” Butcher had asked. “Oh, Lord,” Ike said, “I hadn’t thought of that.”

As Butcher entered the school, the press pool was alerted that the surrender would take place momentarily. The war room, cluttered with cameras and banks of klieg lights, its floor treacherous with cables, now resembled a movie set. The photographers moved the table to give themselves better camera angles.

At 2:29 A.M. ten Allied representatives entered the war room, followed five minutes later by General Smith. They took their places around three sides of the old examination table, seated on cheap white chairs commandeered from the German army. Before each place was a name card, a pad, and a pencil. In the middle of the table was a large, black, double pen holder and a microphone for recording the historic moment. Silence settled over the war room.

Six minutes passed. General Strong appeared in the doorway. With him were General Jodl, Jodl’s aide, Maj. Friedrich Wilhelm Oxenius, and Admiral Friedeburg. The three Germans marched up to the table, stood at attention, clicked their heels, and bowed. No salutes were exchanged. General Jodl’s eyes looked glazed. General Smith wordlessly gestured the Germans to the three empty chairs opposite him. They sat facing a huge map showing the almost completed subjugation of their homeland.

General Smith’s flat voice broke the silence. The surrender document, he informed Jodl, was before him. The Act of Military Surrender was starkly simple, five short paragraphs, four of them consisting of one sentence each. General Strong, standing behind Jodl, read the surrender in German, seemingly for the benefit of the enemy, but actually for the cameras.

Smith next asked Jodl if he was ready to sign. Jodl gave a brief nod. Jodl picked up the gold-plated pen that Captain Butcher had set in front of him. He signed Jodl in bold letters. Butcher immediately retrieved the pen. Jodl also had to sign a supplementary document. Butcher handed him his own Schaeffer pen. Strong then placed the surrender document before General Smith, who signed it with the solid gold pen that he returned to his pocket to give to’Eisenhower.

Next to sign was the Soviet representative, General Sousloparov, and, lastly, Gen. François Sevez, for France.

General Smith had signed both for the United States and Britain in his capacity as representative of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, which commanded all Western Allied military forces. Thus no British signature appeared on the surrender document of an enemy that the British had fought for nearly six years.

General Jodl rose, his face drawn. “I want to say a word,” he said in English. On his tunic the Knight’s Cross and Iron Cross glistened, and his well-pressed uniform showed hard wear. He switched to German. “With this signature the German people and the German Armed Forces are, for better or worse, delivered into the hands of the victors.… In this hour I can only express the hope that the victor will treat them with generosity.” Strong translated. Otherwise, Jodl’s statement was received in silence.

General Smith led Jodl down the hall to the office of the supreme commander, where, for the first time, Eisenhower was to come face-to-face with a leading Nazi.

General Smith got up and led Jodl down the hall to the supreme commander’s office, where, for the first time, Dwight Eisenhower was to come face-toface with a leading Nazi.

Eisenhower stood erect and unsmiling. He wore his service dress uniform. Jodl saluted him. Eisenhower did not return the salute. If the victor of Europe felt any profound emotion at this moment, he concealed it utterly. He asked Jodl in a toneless voice if he understood the provisions of the surrender. Strong translated. Jodl answered yes. Eisenhower went on in the same cold manner: “You will, personally and officially, be held responsible if the terms of the surrender are violated, including its provisions for German commanders to appear in Berlin at the moment set by the Russian High Command to accomplish formal surrender to that government. You will get details of instructions at a later date. You will be expected to carry them out faithfully. That is all.” In the silence that followed, Jodl saluted again, made a quick bow, and left the room. As soon as he was gone, Elsenhower broke out in the famous ear-to-ear grin. He invited the photographers in as he posed with the signature pens held aloft in a “V for victory” sign.

At eight-thirty that morning, an alarming message arrived from Moscow. No one in the presumably atheistic Communist regime had been available over that Russian Orthodox Easter weekend to approve the surrender document. Consequently, the Soviet response had not arrived in Reims until six hours after the signing had taken place. The note was blistering. Sousloparov was instructed not to sign the instrument of surrender. Furthermore, the Russians wanted only one signing to take place—in Berlin. The Red Army chief of staff, Gen. I. A. Antonov, virtually accused Elsenhower of arranging a separate peace with the Nazis so that the Western Allies could then make war against the Soviet Union. Most alarming to the Russians was an inconceivable omission in the Act of Military Surrender. The document made no mention of the laying down of arms by the Germans.

That evening, the luckless General Sousloparov was recalled to Moscow. Col. John Counsel! described his sudden departure from the officers’ mess in Reims: “the jocund, upright figure now an old man, sagging at the knees, his face drained of all color, his eyes expressionless.”

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.

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