|After Action Report 04|
Submitted by Rob Cooper on 14 Oct 2005
DOWNFALL - The View from the Bunker, 1942-1944.
Several of Hitler's secretaries survived the events of mid 1944, and their insights into the actions of Hitler's Henchmen may be of interest to future historians.
During 1942 the Bunker was a place of enthusiasm and optimism. Hitler remained the military genius he had proved to be in 1940 and 1941, and his plans resulted in the capture and destruction of Leningrad in 1942 and Moscow in 1943. Plans were soon underway to construct Hitlerburg on the ruins of Leningrad. During 1942 Martin Bormann convinced Hitler to begin efforts to develop a nuclear weapon in concert with the Finns. However, lack of overall support from Hitler for these efforts based on "Jewish pseudo-science", and the withdrawal of the Finns from the war in 1944 meant that these efforts lagged far behind those of the Americans. As a result Bormann was briefly ostracised by Hitler.
The German military's successes in 1942 and 1943, enhanced by Goebbels' well-crafted messages to the German people1 , resulted in a spontaneous outbreak of popular pro-Nazi support2. For the Henchmen 1942 was a year in which they all focussed on lining their own pockets and enhancing their personal power-bases. Also, during this time Speer took effective control of the German economy. Both he and Ribbentrop3 won considerable praise from Hitler for their efforts to maintain and expand the German military production.
However, by mid-1943 there were some uncomfortable questions
being asked in the Bunker. The loss of North Africa4, and the subsequent
threat of invasion of Italy were beginning to play on their minds. Though
operational plans were in place to occupy Italy if Hitler authorised it,
insufficient forces were in place. This was symptomatic of the growing
isolation in the Bunker, and a feeling that the war was all going so smoothly
it could virtually be left to win itself.
In August 1943 the first blows fell on the Third Reich from the West, and their impact was greater than their strength might have implied. The impact resonated deep inside Hitler's Bunker. First came the air-offensive, something that Hitler had long ordered preparations to be made for. But, the preparations turned out to be more theoretical than practical, and the initial Allied bomber offensives were virtually unopposed. New air defence systems had been established, but these had not yet been made operational. Insufficient ammunition and aircraft were in place to stop the first attacks. The attacks were consequently a lot more effective than would otherwise have been the case. The impact on civilian morale in particular was considerable. Hitler immediately ordered that two-thirds of the Luftwaffe fighters be transferred to defend the Reich.
Then, in September 1943 the Allies launched their invasion of France, against which the Atlantic Wall proved to be nothing more than a minor inconvenience. To analyse the failure of the Atlantic Wall would take a study of its own but two key points emerge. Firstly, like the Maginot Line in 1940, the Allies simply went around the wall rather than through it, by attacking Brittany where the defences were at their weakest. Secondly, the Wehrmacht's attention had still not moved from Russia, and the Atlantic Wall was inadequately manned. It is perhaps apocryphal but nevertheless telling that initial Allied reports suggested that they were capturing more Russian POWs busy constructing the Atlantic Wall, than they captured German soldiers. Though the Nazi's were surprised at the timing of the invasion they were initially confident in holding the line, but as the month progressed it became clear that the Allies were pouring ashore against virtually no opposition.
In November 1943 Hitler's Henchmen, and many of his senior generals, were called into a special meeting in the Bunker. By all accounts Hitler started the meeting calmly, listing the orders he had authorised over the last year or more, subtly emphasising those which had not been followed fully. Glaring at his subordinates he dared them to challenge him. With a vein throbbing in his forehead he asked his generals to return to their posts and consider their positions regarding these orders.
Then, in a closed session with his Henchmen he finally exploded with rage, demanding to know who was responsible for the failings. He recalled not only the recent debacles but also demanded to know who was responsible for earlier decisions which he had previously allowed to pass, such as the withdrawal of the Afrika Korps from Libya. Working around the table, he asked each of his Henchmen in turn who was to blame. Each tried to maintain a common front, denying responsibility and not passing on blame. Finally, it was Goering who released the building pressure, and admitted that they had perhaps all collectively failed their Fuhrer. The subsequent screaming match lasted for two hours, after which no one was in any doubt that their futures were less secure than they had previously felt to be the case.
The December meeting had several consequences. Firstly, Jodl was quickly identified as a likely scapegoat - someone on whose head the Fuhrer's wrath could be focussed. Secondly, each began to look for others to blame, or upon whom to place uncomfortable responsibilities. Consequently, much to his chagrin Himmler was given responsibility for the Eastern Front, making his own status more difficult to maintain.
As 1944 wore on the military situation worsened, as did the political positions of Jodl and Himmler who were both rapidly falling out of favour with the Fuhrer. Himmler, who had bullied his way to the top of the party during 1942 and 1943, focussing his efforts on developing an alternative power-base under his SS5 , was increasingly the target of efforts to loosen his grip on Hitler's time. His effort to share power with Martin Bormann by granting him control of the Gestapo in 19436 was later to prove a costly error.
Hitler was quick to react to the military situation, with orders throwing large forces into France to stem the growing tide of Allied forces, and concentrating very large numbers of fighters over the Reich. The months of pre-planning proved particularly effective in the latter instance as the nascent air defences swiftly grew into an umbrella of steel over Germany, which the Allied bombers found it virtually impossible to breach. Despite the temporary stabilisation Jodl resigned from the inner circle in mid-1944 and was replaced by Keitel, who brought a new vigour to the post.
As the military pressure on the Reich increased in 1944 there was an increasingly frantic and chaotic approach to handling the war. Rocket production was commenced, the Hitler Youth was mobilised to man Flak batteries, hostages were taken in France, and all new panzers were deployed west. Amongst these efforts Himmler persuaded Hitler to free up men and resources from the Final Solution for the war effort7. This undermined his remaining credibility with Hitler and started his final rapid decline from power. As Hitler turned increasingly against him, and his former colleagues froze him out of the inner circle, Himmler began plotting against them. But time was not on Himmler's side, and the Gestapo (and Bormann) soon became aware of his plans. Bormann immediately brought the plot to the attention of Hitler and his colleagues and in June 1944 orders were prepared to have Himmler arrested and shot.
The attentions of both the SS and of the Gestapo were distracted by Himmler's activities, and Bormann's efforts to track what was going on. Had this not been the case they would both have become aware of Jodl's movements since he left the inner circle. Under the pretence of stabilising the front lines, Jodl was travelling amongst senior officers to gauge the feelings towards Hitler. He was shocked to find that the majority of senior Generals were increasingly discontented and were supportive of plans for a military takeover. Some had already pre-positioned troops in case they were needed for such a move. Jodl returned to Berlin with three divisions of seasoned troops "passing through" on their way to reinforce the western front8.
In July 1944 Himmler, now under immediate threat of arrest and execution, issued orders to the SS to launch a takeover. Not fully prepared, and divided even within their own ranks, the SS attacks were poorly coordinated. But, with excellent access to senior officials they were initially very successful. Within the Bunker chaotic shooting left Hitler and several others seriously injured. Jodl, recognising the opportunity, immediately launched his own counter-coup. Wehrmacht infantry and even some panzers debarked from trains straight into gunfights in Berlin itself. The bulk of the fighting lasted for two full days9. As the fighting died down and the military resumed control Goering made it clear that he hoped Hitler would soon be able to resume power.
However, Jodl suggested Goering should perhaps retire to his estates to avoid any further unpleasantness. On his own admission Jodl then killed Hitler in his hospital bed and established a Military Government, with von Runstedt, and Model as his immediate cabinet. The chaos in Germany resulted in two months in which the Army was distracted from the war. This confusion coincided with renewed large-scale Allied offensives and despite the Military Government's efforts to negotiate a conditional surrender10 with the western-Allies Germany was rapidly overrun from both East and West.
Whatever happened to ?
> Jodl served four years as interim Chancellor, having avoided being called to the Geneva Trials. But his 1941 orders to the Army to support the SS in the Final Solution continued to haunt his leadership until his assassination in 1949, probably by the Israelis.
> Bormann was arrested by the new Military Government, and executed on the day after Hitler was killed.
> Ribbentrop was arrested by the new Military Government and imprisoned. He was subsequently tried at the Geneva Trials and sentence to life imprisonment. He committed suicide in 1946.
> Goering fled to Helsinki, and from there to America, in an attempt to sell technical and scientific secrets. He was returned to Geneva for the war-trials, sentenced to death, but granted life imprisonment on appeal. He died from a drug overdose in 1946.
> Himmler, who survived the fighting in Berlin, handed himself over to the Americans, also offering technical and scientific secrets. The Americans subsequently handed him to the Soviets who, after a brief show trial, executed him.
> Goebbels fled with his family to Helsinki. From there he travelled under a Finnish passport to Switzerland, and the vanished from public view. In 1967 he was located and assassinated by the Israeli secret service.
> Speer was made Economics Minister under the new Military Government, but was captured by the British in Hamburg. He was tried at Geneva and sentenced to 20 years. He was released in 1965 and went on to write a best selling book on the Third Reich.
1. Goebbels and Goering convinced Hitler, and members of his
inner circle, to be seen at or close to the front line for propaganda