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A Chacun Son Boche:

The Allied Push On Berlin, 1917

 

by Chris Oakley

 

Part 10

 

 

Summary: In the previous nine segments of this series we followed the events leading from the capture of vital German military papers in 1914 to the folding of the Second Reich in 1917; the Versailles-Geneva peace treaty that ended the First World War; the Spanish flu epidemic that wiped out much of the human race in the first months after the war was over; the establishment of the League of Nations and Woodrow Wilsonís failed attempts to get the United States into the League; the American shift towards isolationism during the 1920s; the start of the Great Depression; the rise to power of fascist regimes in Germany and Italy; the resurgence of Communism in 1930s Russia; the start of World War II; the Soviet campaign in Poland in the spring and summer of 1939; the Allied landings in mainland Italy; the fall of Mussolini; the start of Field Marshal Montgomeryís campaign to liberate Austria; German resistance to Allied efforts to cross the Rhine River; the start of the final breakdown in US-Japan relations following the Japanese invasion of mainland China; the Allied breakout along the Rhine in the spring of 1940; the creation of the Polish Home Army of Liberation; the Anglo-French push on Berlin; the final collapse of the Third Reich; and the escalation of the Home Armyís guerrilla war against the Red Army occupation forces in Poland. In this segment weíll explore the final desperate diplomatic efforts to avert armed hostilities between Japan and the United States, the Munich war crimes trials, and the early stages of Soviet planning for the eventual invasion of Germany.

******

"Give me ten years and I promise you, you wonít recognize Germany!" Adolf Hitler had boasted when he first became chancellor of the Third Reich in 1933-- and alas for the German people and the world at large, he had made good on that promise. Much of Germany lay in ruins and the rest was under threat of attack by the armies of Joseph Stalin, whose pathological distrust of the West was still as strong as ever; even as the last battered remnants of the once-formidable Wehrmacht were surrendering to the Anglo-French alliance, Stalin was contemplating the idea of sending the Red Army across the German border and into western Europe to forestall any attempt by the Allies, real or imagined, to aid the anti-Communist rebellion in Poland.

But before getting into any kind of confrontation with Stalin, military or otherwise, the leaders of the Anglo-French alliance held it necessary to first de-Nazify German society and hold surviving top level Nazis accountable for their actions during the seven long years that Hitler ruled Germany. Number one at the top of the list of those facing prosecution was Hitlerís former top deputy, Rudolf Hess. With Hitler, Goebbels, and Bormann all dead, Himmler on the run after the collapse of his unauthorized peace negotiations with the Allies, and Goering confined to a Bavarian mental hospital in a state of drug-aggravated psychosis,1 Hess became the chief defendant in the impending Allied war crimes trials of what was left of the Nazi elite.

Ironically those trials would be held in the city which had once been ground zero for the Nazi movement, Munich. Originally the Allies had planned to convene them in Nuremberg, where Hitler had staged his massive prewar rallies to stir up pro-Nazi fanaticism in the hearts of the German people, to drive home the message once and for all that the Nazi movement was dead; however, Winston Churchill persuasively argued that this aim would be more effectively achieved by trying the defendants in Munich given that the Nazi movement had been first established there shortly after World War I.

So it was that on July 31st, 1940-- just over a month after Germanyís final surrender to the Allies --that a seventeen-member tribunal including some of the finest legal minds in France, Great Britain, and Italy convened to hear charges against at least three dozen ex-Nazi bigwigs. First on the docket: Rudolf Hess, whose initial testimony before the tribunal left a great many people in the courtroom(including Hessí own defense counsel) scratching their heads at its incoherence. Like Hitler and Himmler, Hess had long been interested in the occult, and in his first statement to the tribunal he claimed "demonic forces" were responsible for the war and the atrocities it had spawned. He neglected to elaborate further on this point or give any solid proof of this alleged intervention by dark powers, though, and in the end only succeeded in reinforcing popular perceptions of himself as a raving lunatic.

He was followed by Himmlerís onetime SD chief Reinhard Heydrich; his cool, understated demeanor on the witness stand was a chilling contrast to Hessí frenzied behavior. In casual tones one might normally use to talk about the weather or order a glass of beer, Heydrich described how the SS had been working to find what Heinrich Himmler called "a final solution to the Jewish problem" before the Third Reichís collapse. One Heydrich revelation which especially chilled the Munich war crimes tribunal was his mention of a proposal by fellow SS officer Adolf Eichmann to take a number of concentration camps inside Germany already being used to detain Jews and other perceived ethnic and political enemies of the Reich and outfit them with special facilities that could kill mass numbers of people in one stroke; such facilities were to have included huge gas chambers utilizing a modified form of a commercial insecticide called Zyklon-B.

Modern historians estimate that had these mass execution complexes ever been put into operation, the Nazis could have killed thousands-- possibly millions --of Jewish prisoners in a matter of months, if not weeks. Such a method of execution would have been a good deal more efficient in eliminating large numbers of Jews than the ad hoc system of crowding Jewish refugees together in unsanitary ghettos and waiting for starvation and disease to kill them off. A confidential SS memorandum captured by British troops, known as "the Wannsee protocol", went into further detail about the proposed mass extermination program and also alluded to a suggestion by Eichmann that the SS use special commando squads known as Einsatzgruppen to hunt down and execute any Jews that had somehow managed to elude the concentration camp dragnet or were caught behind the Wehrmacht front lines.

Heydrich showed no guilt or remorse over his role in the Nazisí proposed Jewish extermination program; if anything, he appeared to take a perverse pride in it. His only regret, he told an Italian prosecutor during cross-examination, was that the war had come to an end before the Reich had had an opportunity to implement all the recommendations outlined in the Wannsee protocol. And his co-author, Adolf Eichmann, exhibited a similarly callous attitude towards the notion of exterminating an entire society. To him the Jews were no more than "vermin" to be eradicated in much the same way that one would wipe out a nest of cockroaches or a colony of rats; the bland way in which he espoused this viewpoint was absolutely infuriating to the prosecution, and they resolved to break him during the cross- examination.

Break him they did. The chief French prosecutor at the Munich trials mercilessly hammered Eichmann on the witness stand, killing his alibis as coldly as the SS had once killed its prisoners. By the time Eichmann finally left the stand, his face was so pallid one of the correspondents in the press gallery would later observe that he looked "very much like a man about to be hanged"2. A highly fitting analogy, given that when sentences were meted out after the Munich trials reached a verdict Eichmann would be condemned to death on the gallows...

******

In Moscow, meanwhile, Stalinís generals were discussing plans for a possible pre-emptive attack on Allied occupation forces in eastern Germany should the lingering and steadily increasing tension between East and West escalate into full-scale war in the not-too- distant future. Stalin, not the most trusting of men to begin with, had directed the Red Army high command to have a battle strategy in place for thwarting what he was convinced would be an imperialistic campaign by the West to attack the Soviets from German soil. That the Soviet dictator could be so certain of imminent invasion by the Anglo-French alliance at a time when those countries had just ended a hard-fought war against the Third Reich and were facing serious threats to their Pacific interests from the Japanese Empire speaks volumes about the near-total paranoia which had infected the halls of the Kremlin since the Kirov assassination. There was little if any enthusiasm in London or Paris for armed conflict with the Soviet Union; even Churchill, that staunch anti-Communist, was of a mind that Japan should be accorded priority over Russia when it came to preparing for future wars involving Britain.

That small detail didnít deter the Red Army from drafting at least three separate battle plans for the invasion of Germany. Nor did it stop Soviet foreign minister Vycheslav Molotov from accusing the French and British governments of "imperialistic and aggressive designs on the Soviet people"3. It certainly did nothing to dissuade Stalin from claiming-- as he did in an article in Pravda in October of 1940 --that the Anglo-French alliance was massing divisions on the German-Polish border in preparation for invading the USSR and planting what he called "the hideous banner of capitalist tyranny" on Russian soil.

So convinced was Stalin of the Western powersí predatory intentions toward Russia that near the end of 1940 he would make two fateful decisions whose consequences would reverberate all throughout the world for decades to come. His first was to have Molotov extend feelers to Japan for a possible Russo-Japanese nonaggression pact; his second was to direct the Soviet Unionís top physicists to start development on a new kind of bomb that would theoretically use atomic fission to do its destructive work. In the end, the Molotov initiative would have the greater short-term payoff for the Kremlin; Soviet science at that time lacked the resources necessary to produce a working atomic device.

******

Meanwhile, the United States had its hands full attempting to defuse another kind of bomb: the geopolitical time bomb represented by Japanís expansionist policy in the Far East. By the time Molotov began his non-aggression pact negotiations with Tokyo, most foreign policy experts believed the primary question in American-Japanese relations wasnít if or even when the two countries would go to war, but where the first shots would be fired. One potential flashpoint for armed conflict between Japan and America: the Philippines, where the U.S. had maintained a substantial naval presence since the end of the Spanish-American War and there were numerous ports which the Imperial Japanese Navy could use as staging areas for operations in other parts of the Pacific region.

Another potential starting point for a US-Japanese war: Midway, an island atoll in the northern Pacific when the United States had maintained a naval outpost for years. Midway was about one-third of the way between Hawaii and Japan, and therefore uncomfortably close to the home islands should the United States choose to undertake a concerted naval campaign against the Japanese Empire. Strategists in Tokyo sketched out at least three different battle plans for taking out the islandís military outposts(and if necessary, occupying the island itself).

But not everyone in the Imperial Court in Tokyo was itching for a confrontation with the Americans. In fact, there was a substantial faction within the Japanese foreign ministry that sought to reach an accommodation with Washington, partly from anxiety over the possible consequences war with the United States might have for the survival of Japan as a nation and partly from a hope the United States could be persuaded to support Japan against the Soviet Union. Towards that end, in late January of 1941 President Roosevelt gave his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, the green light to commence a new series of bilateral discussions with the Japanese in hopes of bringing about a diplomatic solution to the China impasse.

Unfortunately for all parties concerned, these 11th-hour talks ultimately came to nothing. Washington and Tokyo were far too deeply entrenched in their respective positions; the negotiations dragged on for weeks without anything of significance being achieved. Things finally came to a head in late April when Japanese prime minister Hideki Tojo imposed a deadline of May 16th for the United States and Japan to reach an agreement on China. Once that deadline passed, he warned bluntly, "things are automatically going to happen". Sensing that the time for talking was about to come to an end, the Roosevelt Administration accelerated its efforts to strengthen its defenses in the Pacific region.

They got an unexpected temporary reprieve when Prime Minister Tojo, on the recommendation of his senior military and diplomatic advisors, extended the deadline to June 5th. It was a reprieve that couldnít have come a minute too soon, because within seventeen days after Tojoís second deadline expired the Imperial Japanese Navy and the U.S. Pacific Fleet would be tangling head-to-head just a short flying distance from Honolulu.

******

During those same seventeen days Hermann Goering would finally stand trial for his role in the Nazisí brutalities during their long reign of terror in Germany. By the time he lumbered onto the witness stand, most of his fellow ex-Nazi VIPs had either followed Hitler, Bormann and Goebbels to the grave or were serving harsh prison terms that would ensure they didnít see the light of day for years-- if at all. The only man not dead or incarcerated was former SS commander- in-chief Heinrich Himmler, who was continuing to elude the dragnet of international justice despite a manhunt that stretched over three continents. While Goering had never cared much for the former SS overlord-turned-fugitive war criminal, he was unnerved by the idea of Himmler winding up in an Allied jail. The ex-Luftwaffe C-in-C knew just as well as the Allies did that Himmlerís arrest would be a death blow to the morale of those Nazis who still believed in the movement and wanted to see the Reich restored.

As it turned out, however, Goering should have worried more about his own situation than Himmlerís. Previous witnesses at the Munich war crimes trials had painted a damning picture of him in their testimony, and his own arrogant demeanor did nothing to help his case. When the tribunal convened for sentencing following the former Luftwaffe commander and Reich interior ministerís conviction for crimes against humanity, they voted unanimously to condemn him to death by hanging. But the Grim Reaper decided not to wait for the hangman before claiming the Reichsmarschallís doomed soul: on June 20th, 1941 Goering was found dead in his cell of a brain aneuryism.

48 hours later the United States was at war with Japan.

 

To Be Continued

 

Footnotes

[1] Goering was addicted to morphine and cocaine for most of his adult life; some historians have speculated that his hospitalization may have been the result of either an accidental overdose or a suicide attempt.

[2] From a  Manchester Guardian report on the trials dated August 3rd, 1940.

[3] From a speech given before the Politburo on September 28th, 1940.

 

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