Saturday, April 25, 2015

April 1945: Germany's End, Germany April 1945 from

On April 25, 1945 American and Soviet troops met near the town of Torgau on the Elbe River, cutting the remaining and rapidly shrinking Nazi held lands in half.  Two weeks later the war in Europe would be over. & Soviets at Torgau, from

The path to that historic meeting began in an April twenty eight years before.  On April 6, 1917 the United States declared war on Germany and entered World War One and three days later Vladimir Ilyich Lenin began his journey via a sealed railcar from exile in Switzerland across Germany to Russia.  Both events occurred because of massive miscalculations by German military leadership.  In the first instance it was the unleashing of unrestricted submarine warfare against all shipping to Great Britain, including that of the neutral United States, the Germans understanding it would trigger American entry into the war but gambling they could starve England out of the war before the United States could bring its military to Europe in any meaningful numbers.

In the case of Lenin, the German strategy was to insert a virus into the ongoing chaos of revolution in Russia following the abdication of the Czar in March 1917 and thus knock Russia out of the war.  In the short-term the strategy worked; under Lenin's direction the Bolsheviks outmaneuvered their fellow, more moderate revolutionaries who were reluctant to use force against the violent Bolsheviks.  Lenin, perfectly willing to use force against his enemies, organized a coup and took over the reigns of government, dismissing the Constituent Assembly and establishing the Bolsheviks as the revolutionary vanguard and within a year of taking power setting up the initial prison camps for political prisoners that later became known as the Gulag.  By March 1918, the Bolsheviks had accepted a humiliating peace treaty with the Germans.  But it was too late for Germany.  The submarines failed to starve the British, the last German offensives in France ground to a halt, the Allies (including the Americans) counterattacked, German army morale collapsed and the German High Command panicked beseeching the Kaiser and politicians to seek a truce.  And longer term, the new Soviet Union was to arise as a much more formidable opponent than the old Russian Empire.

In 1941, Germany's Fuhrer, Adolph Hitler, made his own miscalculations about the same two countries.  On June 22, 1941 he launched a surprise attack on the Soviet Union, Germany's ally since August 1939, confident that his armies could easily overwhelm the Soviet military before the onset of winter but, along with his military commanders, drastically underestimating the resiliency of the Red military, the ruthlessness of Joseph Stalin and Soviet leadership in their conduct of the war and how the atrocious Nazi occupation policies would alienate many potential supporters in the recently occupied borderlands and The Ukraine.  The result was the largest and murderous military campaign in human history leading to the deaths of up to thirty million soldiers and civilians.

Later that year, Hitler compounded his mistake when he declared war on the United States only four days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an attack of which he had no prior knowledge and an action he was not required to take under his loose alliance with Japan.  The reasons for his decision remain unclear and controversial among historians but what is true is that it rescued President Franklin Roosevelt and U.S. military leaders from a dilemma.  They viewed war with Germany and Japan as inevitable but they saw Germany as by far the bigger threat and had already agreed that in the event of war with both countries the United States would direct 85% of its resources against Germany.  During those four days when Japan, but not Germany, was at war with the U.S., Roosevelt and his military commanders knew that public opinion would require all efforts to be directed against the Japanese, taking away from American military capabilities for what they still saw as the inevitable war against Germany.  With Hitler's decision, the bulk of the American war effort was directed against Germany and the opening of a Second Front landing in Western Europe became a possibility, something that Britain alone could never have done (it's also the most effective practical rebuttal to continuing conspiracy theories that FDR knew in advance of the Japanese attack and wanted the war; in reality it complicated his foreign policy).

June of 1944 again saw critical miscalculations by Hitler regarding the U.S. and the Soviet Union.  In the West he was convinced that the long-anticipated Allied landing would take place at the Pas de Calais region of France where he concentrated his best armored and infantry units but the invasion instead took place in Normandy against weaker German opposition and the Allies gained a foothold from which they could not be dislodged.

That same month, the Germans were anticipating a large Soviet offensive on the Eastern Front.  They believed the attack would come either in the Baltic region or in The Ukraine and made their dispositions accordingly.  Instead the massive assault, begun on June 22 (the third anniversary of Hitler's surprise attack), took place against the undermanned Army Group Center in what is now the country of Belarus resulting in a catastrophic defeat for the Nazis with Soviet armies advancing hundreds of miles into Poland and reaching the outskirts of Warsaw, where Stalin cynically ordered a halt (for more as to why, read Volunteering For Auschwitz).

By late March 1945, American, British and Canadian armies were crossing the Rhine and moving into the heart of Germany against crumbling, but occasionally fanatical, resistance (particularly from SS units).  To the east the Soviets began their final assault on Berlin on April 16, still desperately defended by the German army.  Though the war was clearly lost Hitler felt that Germany was not worthy of him and rather than surrendering deserved total destruction in a final orgy of bloodletting.  It took three days for Soviet armies to encircle the German capital and launch their final assault to capture the city.

Hitler emerged from his bunker in Berlin on April 20 making his last appearance above-ground to award Iron Crosses to members of the Hitler Youth. Two days later Hitler was advised by his military staff that his plan to have Berlin relieved by an Army Group under General Steiner had failed, or to be more accurate, his fantasy that there ever was a Steiner Army Group capable of relieving the Nazi capital was finally punctured.

The failure of the Steiner attack was the basis for one of the most memorable scenes in the 2004 German film Downfall, which recounts the final days in the bunker, much of it told from the perspective of Traudl Junge, a young secretary to the Fuhrer.  The film is stunning in its grim account of the end of an evil era and Bruno Granz, in the role of Hitler, is astonishing.  Ian Kershaw, the author of an excellent two-volume biography of Hitler (Hubris and Nemesis) wrote of the performance:
Of all the screen depictions of the F├╝hrer, even by famous actors, such as Alec Guinness or Anthony Hopkins, this is the only one which to me is compelling. Part of this is the voice. Ganz has Hitler's voice to near perfection. It is chillingly authentic.
You can watch the scene by clicking here; it's well worth your time.  In the room with Hitler at one point we see two men standing, one thin and odd looking in a brown uniform. The figure in brown is Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda.  Next to him is Martin Bormann, the Fuhrer's Chief Secretary and nominal head of the Nazi Party - they are the primary political figures left in the bunker as both Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Goering had fled the city.  Outside the room are two women standing next to each other.  The taller one on the right is Traudl Junge.  Towards the end of the scene another woman moves forward in the crowd; Eva Braun, Hitler's long-time mistress.

[This scene has since been adopted for hundreds of parodies along the lines of "Hitler finds out . . . ".  You can sample a recent and well done one here: Hitler finds out about Brian Williams.]

The fighting for the city ground on day after day with the Soviets inching forward towards the Reichstag and the Chancellery under which the Fuhrer's command bunker was located.  This video contains footage of the street fighting as recorded by Soviet cameramen.
Hitler and Eva Braun were married on April 29 and killed themselves the following day.  Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda killed their six young children by having a doctor inject them with morphine and then crush cyanide capsules between their teeth.  Goebbels and his wife then committed suicide.

The burned remains of Hitler, Braun and the Goebbels were discovered and identified by the Russians (though they did not inform the British or Americans), reburied and reexcavated several times, winding up at a Soviet security base in Magdeburg, East Germany.  In 1970 the KGB conducted a final excavation, smashing and burning the remains and scattering them in a river (though part of Hitler's skull may have been preserved in the Moscow archives of the KGB).

Martin Bormann attempted to escape the bunker on the night of May 1-2 but likely committed suicide when trapped by Russian patrols.  His fate remained uncertain for many years until remains were found at a West Berlin site in 1972 and identified as his (later confirmed by genetic testing in 1998).  Himmler committed suicide on May 23 after being captured by the British and Goering killed himself the following year at Nuremburg just hours before his scheduled hanging.

The formal German surrender of the city took place on May 2, 1945 and the overall capitulation of Germany took place on May 7 (US and British front) and May 8 (Russian front) though severe fighting continued in the area around Prague, Czechoslovakia until May 11.

Stalin ordered the Soviet military commanders to take Berlin as quickly as possible and not to be concerned about casualties (not that the Soviet leaders ever appeared to be concerned about casualties).  The cost was about 350,000 Soviet soldiers killed or wounded in the Battle of Berlin (for comparison, American losses for the entire war were about one million) along with an indeterminable but probably similar number of German soldiers and civilians.  The city, already heavily damaged by British and American bombing raids, was reduced to rubble and significant reconstruction did not begin  until after the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948-9 and the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949.

Traudl Junge was among those that left the bunker on the night of May 1-2 and was one of the few who escaped death or Russian captivity.  Just before her death in 2002 she gave an interview, parts of which are included at the beginning and end of Downfall.  This excerpt from the close of the movie shows her escape (the depiction of which is largely fictional unlike much of the rest of the movie which is factually accurate) and then at the 4 minute mark the elderly Junge speaks about her actions.
For the returning Russian soldiers, of whom 8 to 9 million had died in the war, the hopes of many for a better life and less arbitrary cruelty by their rulers were destroyed by Stalin's suspicion as told in the greatest and most factually accurate of rock/pop history songs, Roads To Moscow by Al Stewart, of which THC has written before, with its haunting and poignant closing verse.

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