In November 1941, Hitler's armies were at the edge of Moscow. "One final heave," he said, "and we shall triumph."
It didn't happen. There was bitter cold and deep snow. On December 6, 100 Soviet divisions, infantry, artillery, tanks, cavalry and planes, attacked the Germans, and, unlike the Germans, they were trained and equipped to fight in the extreme cold. Hitler had thought that the Russians were all but defeated and had not seen the offensive coming.
The German army fell back a hundred miles or so, followed by a stalemate through the rest of winter — the Battles of Rzhev — said to be a meat grinder. The Germans lost between 362,664 and 433,000 killed. The Russians, according to Soviet sources, lost 330,000 killed. There was for Hitler and his generals a new reality to face. Top commanders dropped out. Hitler thought he was better at running their units than they.
His generals had seen a variety of reasons for overrunning Moscow. But Hitler, who was now Commander in Chief of the Army and the Armed Forces gave his directive on April 5 to strike toward the Soviet Union's south. He told one of his generals, Paulus: "If I do not get the oil of Maikop and Grozny then I must end this war" — a bit of realism he would soon forget.
To the south was Stalingrad, a large industrial city by the Volga River. Hitler decided that "the city of Stalin" had to be taken at all costs. In August 1942 the battle for Stalingrad began and the drive toward Baku stopped. Writes Wikipedia:
Hitler proclaimed that after Stalingrad's capture, its male citizens were to be killed and all women and children were to be deported because its population was "thoroughly communistic" and "especially dangerous."
With the Germans were troops from Italy, Hungary, and Romania. The Battle of Stalingrad, lasted six months, from August through another winter, to February. Soviet forces moved forward around the city, Hitler refusing to allow a retreat that would have prevented this. German soldiers in Stalingrad froze to death. Their commander, Paulus surrendered to the Russian. German deaths at Stalingrad were to be counted as a staggering 299,899 (In 57 months in Iraq, 2003-08, the US would suffer 106,743 deaths.)
The German public was told by radio of the disaster at the end of January — Germany's first admission of a wartime failure, accompanied by somber music played. On 18 February, Goebbels gave his speech encouraging the Germans to accept a total war — as if to say "we have just begun to fight." He had been conducting the war in an atmosphere of business and life as usual for Germans. Now, goods for consumers would be curtailed. Germany would move to full wartime production. His audience responded to call for sacrifice and harder work with enthusiasm, often rising to their feet (available on youtube and transcript.
A more realistic policy might have been an attempt to withdraw from the war quickly, preserving something for Germany while still possible — before the Allies decided on unconditional surrender.
After Stalingrad, the Soviet Army was confident that they were winning against Germany, and many around the world now believed that Hitler's defeat was inevitable. Britain's Daily Telegraph proclaimed that the victory at Stalingrad had saved European civilization.
Also, Germans and Italians were losing in North Africa, and these forces surrendered in early May 1943. Also that month, Germany withdrew its U-boats from the Atlantic because of heavy losses from Allied anti-sub actions.
By July, Soviet armies had moved toward the Ukraine. At the Battle of Kursk, with some 1,300,000 men, 3,600 tanks, 20,000 artillery pieces and 2,400 aircraft they defeated the Germans, who lost more than 50,000 men. This, some were to believe, decided the war.
Also in July, the Allies were confronting Italian and German troops in German troops in Sicily. On July 25, Italy's king told Mussolini that he was "the most hated man in Italy." He had Mussolini arrested and imprisoned, and on September 3, Italy signed an armistice and dropped out of the war. On September 12, German paratroopers rescued Mussolini. The Germans controlled Italy farther south than Rome, and a Mussolini became a German puppet in what was called the Italian Social Republic.
The other Italy declared war on Germany on October 13th, while the Soviet army was pushing through Smolensk more than 200 miles southwest of Moscow. And, in November, Soviet forces pushed the Germans out of Kiev.
Hitler saw the possibility of defeat and no possibility of a negotiated settlement. If he had looked at manufacturing figures he might have considered it more than a possibility. Germany and the Soviet Union were about equal in manufacturing, but the Soviet Union's ally, the United States, was producing 2.5 times that of Germany. The US in 1943 produced 85,898 aircraft, the Soviet Union 34,900, the British 26,263 and Germany only 24,807. And the Germans were producing fewer tanks than the Soviet Union, and fewer tanks than the Americans. (Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, pages 253-255.)
Hitler was thinking that it would be nice to go to the theater regularly again and to visit the Artists' Club. He cursed Churchill, blamed him for the war and called him a damned drunkard. He saw Allied bombing as their hypocrisy. The bombing contributed to a view of his own end in a "magnificent pyre." And Goebbels imagined a glorious end of Hitler's regime in fire and destruction that would be the biggest of marks in human history and stir the hearts of people forever after.
In early January 1944, the Soviet army crossed into what had been German-occupied Poland. The Allies landed at Anzio in Italy (north of Naples) on January 16, and they moved into Rome on June 4. The Normandy Invasion began on June 6, while Soviet troops were moving into Romania and Hungary.
Military men accustomed to status and thinking for themselves were viewing Hitler as a menace and were plotting his assassination — the only way they could be rid of him. In July the plot failed, and Hitler spoke by radio, emphasizing what he thought was his importance:
Once again I take this opportunity, my old comrades in arms, to greet you, joyful that I have once again been spared a fate which, while it held no terror for me personally, would have had terrible consequences for the German People. I interpret this as a sign from Providence that I must continue my work, and therefore I shall continue it.
During the weeks that followed, a furious Hitler had the Gestapo round up nearly everyone who had the remotest connection with the plot. The discovery of letters and diaries in the homes and offices of those arrested revealed the plots of 1938, 1939, and 1943, and this led to further rounds of arrests. More than 7,000 people were arrested and 4,980 were executed, the Gestapo using the assassination attempt to strike against those they merely suspected of opposition sympathies.
The former head of the Afrika Korps, Rommel, was among the accused. Today he is described as having been convinced that victory for Germany was a lost cause, ousting Hitler and negotiating a separate peace with the western allies. Because of Rommel's popularity with the German people Hitler gave him the option of committing suicide with cyanide or face a humiliating trial and the murder of his family and staff. Rommel chose suicide.
Alfons Heck, former Hitler Youth member and later a historian, describes the reaction many Germans felt to the punishments of the conspirators:
When I heard that German officers had tried to kill Adolf Hitler ... I was enraged. I fully concurred with the sentences imposed on them, strangling I felt was too good for them; this was the time, precisely, when we were at a very ... precarious military situation. And the only man who could possibly stave off disaster ... was Adolf Hitler. That opinion was shared by many Germans, Germans who did not adore Hitler, who did not belong to the Party.
Those who didn't question still wanted their national hero and were viewing Hitler with hope. An accurate determination of blame was difficult for many, and the public tended to blame people around Hitler. They blamed the military. And they aimed their disgust and bitterness at enemy bomber pilots.
In August (1944) the German people were outraged when they learned that Romania had taken itself out of the war by signing an armistice with the Soviet Union. They saw it as Romania's betrayal.
Also in August, Paris was taken by the Allies. Some Germans had begun hoping for a miracle to save them from defeat. Some were no longer talking about an inevitable victory, and some hoped for a quick and negotiated peace.
In September, Allied bombing was crippling Germany's economy. Hitler was thinking of fighting to the end rather than saving the German people from suffering. He still saw the war's outcome as a matter of will regardless of circumstances. Hitler had a plan for a counter-offensive on his western front. He was under the illusion that he could strike a hard enough blow against the Americans that they would want to withdraw from the war, and he believed he could drive the British to evacuation similar to the one at Dunkirk.
On October 8 he sent a telegram to the Hitler Youth:
With pride and joy I have noted your enlistment as war volunteers of the 1928 age-group [sixteen years-old]. In this hour in which the Reich is threatened by our enemies who are filled with hatred, you set a shining example of fighting spirit and fanatical readiness for action and sacrifice.
On November 12, Hitler gave a speech containing the following:
The Jew is always behind the stupidity and weakness of man ... The Jew is the wire-puller in the democracies, as well as the creator and driving force of the Bolshevik international beast of the world... I do not doubt for a minute that, in the end, we will successfully survive this time of trial and that the hour will come when the Almighty again grants us His blessings as before. [transcript]
Hitler had postponed his offensive and finally struck on December 16 with 30 rebuilt divisions that he believed would have made little difference on the Eastern Front. His forces had deliberately waited for bad weather to shield their ground operations from overwhelming British and US air superiority. The attack became known as the Battle of the Bulge. It lifted the morale of the German nation – Hitler's illusions being contagious.
By January the counter-offensive was halted. The Germans were hampered by a desperate shortage of fuel. Allied air power returned to its effectiveness, battering German troop convoys and knocking down German planes and transporting supplies. On January 7, Hitler's wishful thinking was over, his offensive withdrawing. The Germans had lost another 80,000 killed, wounded or missing. The Americans had suffered 70,000 similar losses. And each side had lost about 700 tanks.
On March 7, US forces made it across the Rhine River and captured the city of Cologne, while German forces were pulling back from Danzig. The Germans in March were sending rockets to England. And Soviet forces knocked Hungary out of the war. On the 31st General Eisenhower broadcast a demand the Germany surrender.
On April 12, Roosevelt died unexpectedly. Goebbels and Hitler believed that Roosevelt's death would somehow make a difference — as had the death of the Russian Empress Elizabeth in 1762, which had saved Frederick the Great. Goebbels spoke of divine intervention. He inspired Hitler with his congratulations, telling Hitler that a turning point had been "written in the stars." Horoscopes, Goebbels declared, had predicted the outbreak of war in 1939 and Germany's subsequent victories and reversals.
Allied forces had been pushing into northern Italy, and, on April 25, Mussolini with his mistress Clara Petacci left Milan. They joined a small convoy headed for Switzerland, Mussolini hoping for refuge in Franco's Spain. That same day, partisans declared that fascist leaders guilty of having suppressed constitutional guarantees were to be punished with the penalty of death.
Partisans stopped and searched the convoy and discovered Mussolini, his disguise having failed to work. He, Petacci and others were taken to the town of Dongo. To avoid an attempted rescue, Mussolini and Petacci moved to a farm to spend the night. The next day, the 28th, the two were put against a wall and shot. Their bodies were dumped in suburban square in Milan, kicked, spat upon, strung up by the ankles at a gas station and then given more abuse.
Hitler didn't want his beloved Germans doing the same to him, and two days after Mussolini's death, he and his mistress, Eva Braun, got married and took poison together. Outside, Hitler's body was doused with gasoline and burned.
The next day, May 1, Joseph Goebbels killed himself, and joining him in death were his wife Magda, their six children and his dogs.
On May 2, soldiers placed the Soviet flag on the Reichstag.
Hitler had believed that he understood Europe and that he had created a new German Reich that would last one thousand years. He had said that "Success is the sole earthly judge of right and wrong." And now his success was now ashes and the common people of Germany were about to have new experiences and the past to re-evaluate, including the benefits of democracy and support for leaders with a modesty of self and purpose.
CONTINUE READING: Allied Strategies and Denazification
Copyright © 2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.