A Chacun Son Boche:
The Allied Push On Berlin, 1917
by Chris Oakley
Summary: In the previous eight 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 Wilson’s 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 Montgomery’s 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; and the creation of the Polish Home Army of Liberation. In this chapter we’ll focus on the Anglo-French drive toward Berlin, the final collapse of the Third Reich, and the escalation of the Home Army of Liberation’s guerrilla war against Red Army occupation forces in Poland.
Austria’s Nazi overlord Artur Seyss-Inquart was in a panic bordering on blind terror when he phoned Adolf Hitler on the morning of May 6th, 1940 seeking the Führer’s aid in turning back the Anglo-Italian forces marching up from the south. As if having an Allied invasion force on Austrian soil wasn’t bad enough a disturbingly large number of Seyss-Inquart’s fellow countrymen, exhilarated at the prospect that the Nazi jackboot would soon be taken off their necks, were starting to rise up in opposition to his regime; even some Austrian Nazis, either out of fear of being hanged once Seyss-Inquart was overthrown or out of disgust with an ideology which had promised more than it could deliver, were deserting the party ranks. Seyss-Inquart pleaded with Hitler to send additional ground troops to Austria to thwart the Allied offensive.
By this time, however, Hitler was more or less in a world of his own; his psychological collapse greatly matched the physical deterioration that was besetting his Third Reich as the Anglo-French alliance pressed towards Berlin. The fascist superstate he had once boasted would last for a thousand years was now only weeks, if not days, away from its ultimate ruin. Publicly Joseph Goebbels kept on boasting that the Nazis would prevail in the end in spite of all the reverses they’d endured of late, but secretly the propaganda chief confided to his personal diary that he was beginning to fear for his life if the British or French army got hold of him. And it couldn’t have helped the little doctor’s nerves much when Winston Churchill gave a speech to the House of Commons on May 8th in which he called for Goebbels to be executed by hanging the moment the British army got hold of him.
If anybody in Britain needed proof that the Nazi war machine was coming apart like a piñata, they got it on May 10th, 1940 when Hitler’s chief deputy Rudolf Hess commandeered a Messerschmitt 110 fighter plane and flew to Scotland to see an old friend in hopes of arranging a cease-fire between Britain and Germany. Hess, whose mental state had been questionable at best long before the Allied breakout along the Rhine, had met the man in question at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and been convinced this individual’s pro-German sympathies would help bring about an end to the hostilities between the Anglo-French alliance and the German Reich.
But the only thing Hess succeeded in accomplishing was to end up becoming Germany’s most prominent POW; shortly after he arrived in Scotland, the deputy Führer was arrested by members of the Home Guard1 and interned in a prison camp in Wales. When Hitler learned of his second-in-command’s rash act, it was the final shattering blow to a psyche that had been steadily disintegrating for weeks. On May 11th he denounced Hess, the Wehrmacht general staff, and his own people in a tirade lasting more than two and a half hours. Once the tirade was over, Hitler baldly told his aides that he would fight the British and French only as long as the faithful fought next to him and then use his last remaining bullet to commit suicide.
Goebbels tried to reassure his Führer that all wasn’t lost, but Hitler would have none of it. He’d already made up his mind that if the Reich was going to be destroyed, he would perish with it. He might have even ordered all of Germany’s infrastructure obliterated had it not been for the swift pace at which the Anglo-French armies advanced across German soil following the Allied breakout from the Rhine. Hermann Goering, who happened to be inspecting Luftwaffe air bases near the Polish-German border when Hitler had his psychotic outburst, was convinced that his old friend and political associate had lost his ability to lead the German people; that conviction led Goering to make a decision that would cost him everything short of his life-- and might well, under certain circumstances, have cost him that too. He attempted to assume the post of acting chancellor of the Reich under the provisions of an emergency succession decree signed by Hitler in the late summer of 1939.
An infuriated Hitler reacted to Goering’s actions by having him sacked as Luftwaffe C-in-C and stripping him of his right to succession. He would have had Goering hanged as well had Goebbels not persuaded him such an act could offer the Anglo-French alliance the opportunity to make more propaganda against National Socialism; the Führer chose instead to place Goering under house arrest. The ink had barely dried on Goering’s arrest warrant before Hitler was dealt what he considered a betrayal even worse than Hess’: on May 12th the Associated Press bureau in Stockholm reported that Heinrich Himmler had met with Swedish diplomats seeking their assistance in negotiating a cease-fire with Britain and France.
Any hope Hitler’s inner circle might have had of convincing him to reverse his suicide decision vanished when the Himmler peace feelers to Sweden became public knowledge. The Führer told those who were still in the Reichschancellery with him that they could go when and where they pleased; he would fall as a martyr in the defense of the Reich. Though Hitler might have convinced himself-- and a few die-hard loyalists staying by his side --that what he was doing was a grand and heroic sacrifice, in reality it was the ultimate selfish act by a man for who selfishness had been a way of life since his first days in the Nazi Party.
While Hess languished in prison and Hitler got ready for his own personal Götterdammerung, the British and Italian troops under Montgomery’s command were crushing what remained of German military strength in Austria. By May 17th Allied ground forces had advanced to within shelling distance of Graz and Allied bombers were making daily air raids on Vienna. Seyss-Inquart tried desperately to make the Viennese hate the Allies for ruining their beautiful, historic city, but most of Vienna’s citizenry rightly laid the responsibility for the destruction squarely at his feet.
On May 20th Seyss-Inquart met the same fate that would soon befall his patron Hitler: he blew his brains out, unable to bear the prospect of being tried as a war criminal or the knowledge that the Nazi empire was on the brink of final defeat. With Seyss-Inquart’s demise, the era of fascist rule in Austria was effectively over. A handful of Austrian Nazi stalwarts gathered on the outskirts of Vienna for a last-ditch stand, but the vast majority of troops just put down their guns and surrendered to Allied forces without firing a shot.
Four days later former Austrian chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg, who’d been in prison since the Nazi takeover of his country just before the start of the Second World War, returned to Vienna in triumph to re-assume his old post and to begin the long, difficult task of purging the fascist stain from his homeland. One of his first official acts following his restoration as chancellor of Austria was to declare war on Germany-- a moot gesture to be sure, considering the Third Reich was on the verge of total collapse, but it nonetheless served to drive home the message that Austria was no longer tied to Hitler’s dying Nazi state.
By June 1st the last German divisions had pulled out of Austria and British bombers were flying from Austrian airfields to attack strategic targets in southern Germany. The Czech air force also took part in these raids, dispatching its own bomber force from bases in the Sudetenland; while not as large or powerful as its RAF cousin, the Czech bomber corps was still capable of inflicting considerable hurt on the Reich. One Czech bomber squad raided Munich on June 5th and noted with satisfaction that two of their bombs landed less than a foot from the beer hall where Hitler had staged his bungled 1922 putsch.
On June 10th, Allied infantry, tanks, and artillery would begin writing the Third Reich’s final bloody chapter in the streets of a besieged Berlin...
Meanwhile, in Poland, the Home Army of Liberation was writing a few grim chapters of its own in its relentless quest to free the Polish people from Soviet occupation. Stalin was frustrated beyond words that his armies could not crush Bor-Komorwski’s guerrillas-- a frustration shared by his generals. Every time the Soviets crushed a Home Army resistance cell, three more seemed to spring up to take its place; every time the Red Army thought they had Bor-Komorowski in their grasp, he always somehow managed to give them the slip at the last minute.
On June 5th, 1940 the Home Army mounted what was its boldest strike yet against the Soviet occupation forces in Poland, making a predawn attack on the occupation forces’ western regional staff headquarters in Gdansk2. The Gdansk HQ was the second most heavily guarded Soviet military facility in Poland, and the guerrilla forces knew that they were taking a considerable risk with this operation. But they also knew that if they could pull it off, it would strike a massive blow to Soviet morale while simultaneously inspiring their fellow Poles to join the resistance to Stalin’s tyranny.
The attack was time to coincide with a change in guard shifts at the Gdansk HQ. This was intended not only to inflict the maximum possible casualties on the Soviets but also to exploit weaknesses in the HQ’s defenses at a moment when the guerrillas knew the Soviets’ alertness would be at its lowest point. At a hand signal from the leader of the main assault party, the guerrillas began their attack with a massive burst of grenades and machine gun fire. Sure enough, half the building’s defenders were cut down within minutes and the senior officers found themselves scrambling to thwart the Polish insurgents from inflicting any further damage. Such efforts were in vain, however, as the guerrillas proceeded to follow their initial grenade and machine gun attacks with a barrage of Molotov cocktails which set the Gdansk HQ on fire. While the surviving guards tried to douse the flames, the guerrillas fled into the countryside, content that they had given the Red Army a bloody nose.
While publicly Stalin dismissed the Gdansk raid as a mere pinprick on the arm of Soviet power, privately he was terrified that the attack might signal the beginning of a new and more aggressive campaign to dislodge the Red Army from Poland. And sure enough, within hours of the Gdansk attack Polish anti-Communist insurgents had struck at Soviet military and political targets near Warsaw, Krakow, Lublin, Brest-Litovsk, and Lodz. Sharp as they were, the Russian bear’s claws were turning out to be not sharp enough to keep the Polish resistance from lashing out at the occupiers.
While one dictatorship was confronting a newly emboldened uprising, another was gasping out its last breaths. Once the Anglo-French alliance commenced its final assault to take Berlin any hope of the Nazi elite being able to escape the German capital was, if not gone, then certainly severely diminished. And even if they could have gotten out, many of them didn’t want to-- such was the depth of their fanatical loyalty to Hitler. Case in point: Reichsleiter Martin Bormann, a longtime Hitler adjutant who the Führer had named to replace Rudolf Hess as head of the Party Chancellery after Hess’ ill-fated peace mission to Great Britain. Bormann refused to leave Hitler’s side even when Hitler himself explicitly ordered Bormann to evacuate Berlin. The Reichsleiter would pay a steep price for his devotion to the Führer; on June 15th, 1940, he fell victim to an RAF bomb during one of the last British wartime air raids on the German capital.3
Within two days after Bormann’s death, Allied troops held most of Berlin and were making a determined effort to capture the rest. The once tightly regimented social and political order in the Reich capital had degenerated into a chaos just one iota shy of complete anarchy; ordinary Germans were openly defying the wrath of the SS and the Gestapo, venting months or even years of suppressed anger at the Nazi regime for the miseries it had brought upon Germany. People who just a year earlier would not have dared even tell an SS man his hat was on crooked were now shouting insults at him whenever they got the chance. Obscenities and unflattering epithets of all kinds mingled in the Berlin air with the smoke and the smell of decaying corpses and burning buildings which hung over the doomed city.
On June 19th Hitler dictated his last will and testament. True to form, he showed no remorse for his brutal actions and policies, nor did he offer even a grudging admission that his miscalculations had helped push Germany to the brink of disaster. To the contrary, he spent almost the entire document justifying his tyrannical rule and blaming external enemies for all of Germany’s misfortunes along with his own. His last official act as chancellor of the Third Reich was to appoint Kriegsmarine commander-in-chief Grand Admiral Erich Raeder as his successor.
The next day, with British and French advance platoons less than two hundred yards away from his bunker, Adolf Hitler shot himself through the head. Just hours after Hitler was cremated4 his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, also committed suicide, taking cyanide after helping his wife Madga smother their children and then shoot herself through the temple. With the two men most responsible for creating the monstrosity that was the Third Reich dead, it was just a matter of time before the Reich itself perished. And in fact, within 48 hours of the official announcement of the deaths of Hitler and Goebbels, Admiral Raeder would open cease-fire negotiations with the British and French governments.
On June 28th, 1940 diplomatic representatives of the Reich and the Anglo-French-Italian coalition met in Brussels for the signing of the official articles of surrender under which Germany would end hostilities with the Allied powers. In Moscow, Joseph Stalin cast a wary eye on the surrender ceremonies, suspicious as ever of others’ intentions and behavior. Thus even as one phase of the Second World War in Europe was drawing to a close, the Soviets were getting ready to start the next phase...
To Be Continued
 An internal security force created on Churchill’s recommendation shortly after the Second World War began; after the war ended, the Home Guard was disbanded and its functions absorbed by regular British police and intelligence services.
 Formery Danzig; the port city, previously been part of what was once East Prussia, was renamed when the Soviets conquered Poland.
 By this time strategic bombing attacks had halted due to a decreasing number of viable targets; however, tactical air raids were still being carried out in support of Anglo-French ground operations in the Berlin area.
 Hitler had specifically ordered that his body be burned to prevent it from falling into Allied hands and becoming, as he put it, “a London museum showpiece”.