Sic Semper Tyrannis Germaniae:
The Assassination of Adolf Hitler
by Chris Oakley
Includes material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
In the first four parts of this series we recounted Adolf Hitler’s death in the July 20th bombing; Hermann Goering’s succession to the chancellorship of the Third Reich and subsequent overthrow by Heinrich Himmler; the liberation of Europe from Nazi occupation; the capture of Benito Mussolini and the demise of many of his fellow European fascists; the birth of the jet age; Himmler’s descent into insanity as Western and Soviet troops drew closer to Berlin; and the anxiety that pervaded Emperor Hirohito’s inner circle as they braced themselves for the Third Reich’s inevitable collapse. In this segment we’ll review the final Allied assault on Berlin proper and how the Reich’s downfall affected the Manhattan Project’s priorities.
There were more than just military and political considerations at work in the decision to continue with the Manhattan Project even though Nazi Germany was on the verge of final collapse. A deep sense of curiosity about whether the project could achieve its stated goals was also at work; having invested so much time and money in the effort to create a functioning atom bomb, the White House wasn’t about to quit at the last moment— especially when the new weapon promised to hasten the end of the war withJapan.
On December 11th, 1944 project director General Leslie R. Groves and his top scientist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, flew to Washington for a secret meeting at the White House with President Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Never one to mince words, Groves got right to the point of his visit: he wanted Roosevelt’s consent to drastically revise the project’s priorities, putting a short-term halt on plutonium research in favor of working towards getting at least one uranium bomb ready for testing within sixty to ninety days after Germany’s final surrender.
Groves and Oppenheimer found a very sympathetic ear in FDR; in fact, by an interesting coincidence their visit to Washington had come just as he was about to cable them with his recommendation that the uranium bomb be henceforth given precedence in their research and development operations. Like Oppenheimer, he held more confidence in the uranium bomb than the plutonium one; not only could it be ready sooner, but theoretically at least it was more capable of having the desired effect on its intended target (in more ways than one).
By the time the meeting was over, President Roosevelt had given his blessing to General Groves’ request, and within 72 hours the Manhattan Project senior staff had been personally informed by Dr. Oppenheimer that all plutonium bomb-related activity was to be suspended until mid-July of 1945. The U-235 bomb would get the lion’s share of the project’s time and attention from the moment Germany surrendered until the day the first experimental device was ready for testing.
The test itself would be held at a remote site in the New Mexico desert code-named "Trinity"; its results would reverberate across the entire world… 1
While Groves and his team were laying the groundwork for the Trinity test, Anglo-American forces in Germany were awaiting the order to begin the final assault on Berlin, Operation Faust. From his temporary field headquarters in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam, General George S. Patton was ready to direct the US 3rd Army in its initial attack against German defenses along the western edge of the Reich capital; in Oranienburg, Field Marshal Montgomery had spent the better part of three days aligning the 21st Army Group along its assigned attack axis in the north; and in Zossen French 1st Army commander General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny was overseeing final preparations for the assault on the southern sectors of Berlin.
At 6:00 AM Berlin time on the morning of December 13th, Patton, Montgomery, and de Tassigny simultaneously received a coded radio message from SHAEF headquarters in Paris directing them to begin Operation Faust immediately. By 6:15 Allied artillery units were bombarding Wehrmacht and Volkssturm positions along the outer neighborhoods of Berlin while Mustangs, Typhoons, Spitfires, and Thunderbolts raided Tempelhof Airport; by 7:30 Allied infantry battalions were engaging German troops along Daimlerstrasse and Hofjägerallee.
Himmler threw the last of his Volkssturm reserves into the fray in a vain attempt to slow the Allied advance. Predictably, these units got cut to ribbons by their better-equipped Allied foes; in one especially crushing tactical defeat, a Volkssturm battalion at the Kurfürstendamm was wiped out by American infantry troops in less than ten minutes.
The Wehrmacht units, on the other hand, put up stiff resistance wherever the Allies encountered them; American and British troops in particular soon found themselves engaged in the same kind of bitter street fighting the Germans had already experienced on the Eastern Front. The worst hazards were snipers firing on the Allied troops from high windows and piles of rubble being used to disguise artillery positions; all too often Allied soldiers would get blasted to pieces by cannons hidden within seemingly abandoned buildings.2
Things were no easier for the Germans, however; in addition to the well-equipped and relentless Allied armies the Wehrmacht was forced to combat a bitingly cold winter that hampered movement and made it difficult to see anything because of snow and fog. For every German soldier killed by enemy action, an equal number succumbed either to the cold or to friendly fire. Complicating things further were the immense clouds of smoke that hung over Berlin as block after block was set ablaze by Allied bombs and shells.
Eventually, the tide of the battle began to shift for keeps in the Allies’ favor. Within 36 hours American advance units had reached the Tiergarten district; by December 16th British, Canadian, and Dutch troops were less than ten yards from the Invalidenstrasse; the day after that French and American forces were engaging Wehrmacht reserves at the edge of the now-ruined Tempelhof Airport. From inside the bomb-scarred Hotel Adlon, Felix Steiner directed one of the last remaining Waffen-SS armor battalions in a frantic and ultimately vain attempt to dislodge Allied divisions from Schönefeld Airport; the few tank crews who weren’t burned alive or disintegrated by armor-piercing shells were soon surrendering en masse to Allied infantry troops.
By the afternoon of December 19th, Himmler, Goebbels, and the rest of the surviving Nazi hierarchy found themselves almost totally cut off from any hope of escape. Not only were Anglo-American forces controlling most of Berlin and its adjacent suburbs, but the Red Army had linked up with American infantry advance units just two miles west of Dresden, surrounding Germany’s capital in a tight and swiftly closing vise.
For Himmler and Goebbels, however, escape was a moot point given that they had already made up their minds to kill themselves. In the last hours before Operation Faust started, Himmler had told his chauffeur Erich Kempka that he wanted to be cremated after he shot himself; Goebbels made arrangements with Himmler’s personal physician, Dr. Ludwig Stumpfegger, to help him and his wife Magda administer lethal cyanide doses to their six children before they took their own lives.3
Thousands of their fellow Germans didn’t share their leaders’ perverse desire for self-immolation; even with Allied shells hitting the Marienkirche and Unter den Linden and bullets from strafing runs by Allied fighters marring the Brandenburg Gate, those who thought that life under Allied occupation might be better than death in the name of the Reich were still trying to get out of Berlin by any means available. One US 3rd Army platoon advancing on Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin found its progress hampered by a tide of civilian refugees trying to get to safety in the west during a lull in the artillery fire.
On December 21st, American forces neutralized the last pockets of resistance inside the Reichstag. It was frankly something of a miracle there was anything left of the old building; between the scars inflicted on it by the infamous 1933 fire and the damage it sustained from four-plus years of round-the-clock bombing, many Allied generals(particularly Eisenhower) had been certain that it would collapse before the battle was over.4
Back at Himmler’s bunker— by now the only patch of ground left in Europe that was still indisputably under Nazi control –the C-in-C of the beleaguered German forces in Berlin, General Karl Helmuth "Smasher Karl" Weidling, urged Himmler to accept a negotiated cease-fire with the Western Allies and the Soviet Union in order to save the city from further devastation. Himmler coldly replied that he would rather see Berlin crumble into dust than capitulate to the Reich’s sworn enemies; by the end of the day Weidling had been relieved of his command and summarily sentenced to death by firing squad at dawn on December 22nd.5
Down in Austria, Hitler’s former retreat, the Berghof, had been captured by the Americans and the Soviets were enforcing martial law in Vienna. The late Führer’s lifelong dream of Anschluss, if it hadn’t been dead before, was certainly finished now, and the vast majority of Austrians were glad to see it go. The only thing to be decided was how Austria would be governed now that it was becoming an independent nation once more.
The Soviets were hoping to see Austria become a Marxist state friendly to Moscow, but the presence of American troops at the western end of the Austrian Alps made that a tricky proposition at best. Conversely by the same token, American aspirations of restoring Austria’s prewar democracy were impeded by the massive Red Army presence in the country’s eastern provinces. It would take more than a year to settle the question of Austria’s political future, but in that year the world would be given a foretaste of the divisions that would later set Washington and Moscow at odds over the reconstitution of Germany.
Noted Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte flew back and forth between Washington and Moscow several times during the winter of 1944-45, trying to help the United States and the Soviet Union work out a compromise on the question of Allied postwar policy towards Austria. However, it would take until March of 1946 to finally achieve such a compromise; by then, Bernadotte had died of a brain aneurysm from the combined stress of trying to settle the Austrian situation, negotiating Germany’s final surrender at the end of the Second World War, and overseeing an unsuccessful bid to avert fighting between Jews and Arabs over a British proposal to partition Palestine.
By 5:00 AM on the morning of December 22nd Allied forces had captured the Hotel Adlon and Felix Steiner along with it. Given that all the senior SS officers except for Himmler were either dead, in Allied custody, or fleeing through circuitous escape routes to havens in South America, this effectively meant the end of the Third Reich’s most infamous instrument of terror. It also meant that the already miniscule pool of competent field commanders available to Himmler was diminished even further; if he were to succeed in committing suicide before the Americans and British reached his bunker, he needed someone who could rally the remnants of the Wehrmacht long enough to hold the Allies at bay until he had shot himself and his body had been disposed of.
Less than half an hour after the Hotel Adlon fell, Himmler rescinded the orders for General Weidling’s execution and reinstated him as commander of the German forces in Berlin. Relieved to have been spared, Weidling energetically plunged himself into the task of directing his men in their last stand against the Anglo-American forces.
At about noon, Himmler summoned his personal secretary Gerda Christian to his quarters and began dictating his last will and testament. If he had hoped to inspire a revival of Nazi fervor among his fellow Germans after the war, his testament was an abject failure in that regard— most of its 30-plus pages were a turgid alibi for the atrocities the SS and the Nazi Party had committed during the eleven-odd years of Nazi rule in Germany.
Elsewhere in the bunker, Magda and Joseph Goebbels had already put their six children to death; now it was time to snuff out their own lives. As they had previously agreed on, the German propaganda minister shot his wife through the heart, then took a cyanide capsule which killed him instantly. Goebbels’ own last will and testament, written out the night before, would be found by American troops shortly after the battle for Berlin ended.
Thousands of miles away, the skeleton staff at the German embassy in Tokyo was burning its papers and making preparations to flee the country; with the Third Reich on the verge of final collapse, they knew as well as their Japanese hosts did that it was only a question of time before the Allied powers directed the full wrath of their armed forces against Japan. None of the embassy’s staff had the slightest desire to be around when that happened.
Heinrich Georg Stahmer, Germany’s ambassador to Japan since 1942, spent most of his final hours in Tokyo negotiating asylum for hissubordinates in Spain, Argentina, or Switzerland; he himself had already made arrangements to decamp to Paraguay, where a German- speaking minority had existed since the late 19th century.
At 7:30 AM Tokyo time on the morning of December 23rd, 1944 the ambassador and three of his aides boarded a Swedish freighter bound for the Chilean port of Valparaiso; from there the foursome would fly in secret to the Paraguayan capital, Asuncion. None of them knew as the freighter put to sea that a solemn announcement was being broadcast from inside Himmler’s bunker: "It is reported that our Fûhrer Heinrich Himmler, fighting to the last breath against the enemies of the German people, fell for the Reich at his operational headquarters near the Reichschancellery…"
It was the last lie from a regime whose entire existence had been constructed on lies. Far from dying valiantly in combat, Himmler had shot himself in the head in a craven, self-centered desertion of his nation; his suicide put the last grotesque touch on the disintegration of Hitler’s empire. It would be left to Himmler’s successor, Erich Raeder, to salvage what remained of Germany’s national honor and negotiate the final surrender to the Allies.
Up in Norway, the announcement of Himmler’s death took what little fight was left out of the troops manning the besieged German garrison at Tromso. Their morale, already low since Narvik had fallen to the Allies two days earlier, was shattered completely by the news that for the second time in five months Germany’s chancellor had died in office. Sensing that the jig was well and truly up, the city’s Wehrmacht defenders surrendered themselves to the Allies at five past noon on December 24th.
In Italy, meanwhile, SS General Karl Wolff, C-in-C for what was left of the German land forces in that country, met with OSS6 senior official Allen Dulles to formally surrender his troops to the Allies. The two men had been secretly negotiating an end to the fighting in Italy since late September, but Himmler’s death had removed the need for secrecy. Once the surrender was confirmed, orders went out via shortwave radio for the remaining partisan bands in northern Italy to stand down from combat.
Regardless of how vehemently they argued about other matters, the Western Allies and the Soviets agreed unanimously on one significant point: the surviving Nazi leaders had to be put on trial for their actions before and during the Second World War. Mussolini and his Fascist comrades also had to be held to account for the atrocities perpetrated during the twenty-one years that the Fascists had ruled Italy. It was thus decided that war crimes tribunals should be convened in Nuremberg and Verona by early September of 1945. With this in mind, an international team of jurists began assembling for what were anticipated to be the most important criminal cases in human history…
At 5:30 PM Paris time on the afternoon of December 24th, SHAEF Headquarters received a radio message from a representative of Chancellor Raeder’s government indicating that within the hour Germany would formally announce its unconditional surrender to the Allied powers. The message was acknowledged and passed on the Soviets; at 6:15 General Eisenhower’s staff sent a reply informing the Raeder government that arrangements were being made for representatives of the Allied powers to meet with the German High Command in the town of Reims on Christmas Day for the signing of the formal instrument of surrender.
"For better or worse, our people are delivered into the hands of the victors." General Alfred Jodl told an aide as the German High Command delegation boarded a plane at 10:00 AM on December 25th for the journey to France. At that same hour, an officer from STAVKA7 took off from Prague to witness the ceremony on behalf of the Soviet government.
Across the Atlantic, word went out from the Manhattan Project’s headquarters in New Mexico to the White House that the Trinity test would be conducted in early March of 1945. In nearly every major city in the Allied nations, people celebrated the end of the war in Europe in ways ranging from quiet thanksgiving church services to boisterous impromptu street parades; in what later became one of the iconic images of the Second World War, a Life magazine photographer captured a romantic moment in New York City’s Times Square when he snapped a young woman embracing her fiancé as they reacted to the news of Germany’s capitulation.
By contrast, the mood in Tokyo once the news of the surrender broke was grim if not funereal; many among His Majesty’s Imperial Cabinet feared that the Japanese home islands might be invaded any minute. And indeed, even as the American, British, French, and Soviet flags were being raised over the Brandenburg Gate, the US War Department had begun putting the finish touches on their campaign strategy for an amphibious assault on Japan. Code-named Operation Olympic, it was tentatively scheduled to begin in late August or early September of 1945 and would involve at least two million troops…
"Give me ten years," Adolf Hitler had once boasted, "and you will not recognize Germany!" Unfortunately, his prediction turned out to be right; the desolate, war-ravaged Germany of December 1944 was a far cry from the picturesque country over which the Führer had assumed power in January of 1933. Nearly every major city in the country lay in ruins; millions of its citizens faced a winter of hardship and starvation; its industrial base had been so badly damaged that one Swiss economist at the time predicted it would take fifty years for the German people to regain economic self- sufficiency. There was also the matter of how to address the toll which had been taken on the German psyche as the truth about the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jews become increasingly clear.
But one thing above all drove home to Germans the fact that they had lost the war: their ancient and historic capital, Berlin, had been divided into four separate occupation zones along with the rest of Germany. Straddling the boundary line between the Soviet and American occupation sectors, the former heart of the Third Reich would become a sore spot between the USSR and the Western Allies as they tried to resolve the matter of Germany’s political future.
The demarcation lines for the Allied postwar occupation zones were finalized in early January of 1945 when Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill met in Glasgow for what would turn out to be their final wartime summit. The entire eastern half of Germany, with the exception of the East Prussian territories being incorporated into Poland, would fall under Soviet jurisdiction; the French would control most of the southern part of the country; Britain and the United States would jointly administer the northern and western sections. Though Molotov was frustrated in his bid to have Berlin put fully under Moscow’s authority, he succeeded in pressuring Washington and London into guaranteeing unrestricted Soviet access to the eastern part of the German capital.
In Berlin, an invisible line extending between the Pankow and Neukölln districts divided the Soviet zone in the city from the three zones controlled by the Western Allies. Reineckendorf, Mitte, Spandau, and the western part of Pankow were American territory; Charlottenburg and Steglitz-Zehlendorf fell under British sway; Tempelhof, Friederichshain, and the western half of Neukölln would be governed by the French.
The same week that the Glasgow summit was held, the US Congress passed legislating providing for housing and education aid to returning war veterans; the new act, dubbed the "GI Bill" by the American press, had been drafted and advocated by Roosevelt’s 1944 running mate and soon-to-be-vice president, Missouri senator Harry S. Truman. He was not yet well-known within public circles, although he had chaired a Senate investigation of alleged defense contract fraud; soon, however, he would become the face of the federal government.
When Roosevelt was sworn in for his fourth term as President on January 20th, he did so flush in the euphoria of Allied victory over Nazi Germany and the satisfaction of being close to an end to the war with Japan. That joy, however, was tempered by the toll that nearly twelve years in office had taken on his health; he had already confided to Truman and many of his own family— and intended to publicly announce within a year –that he would not seek a fifth term in the White House in 1948. Once he left the Oval Office, he planned to take an extended vacation and begin writing his memoirs.
In the meantime, there was much still to be accomplished both at home and abroad. His wife Eleanor had of late been urging him to be more assertive in ending racial discrimination within the ranks of America’s armed forces; Secretary of State Cordell Hull had warned him that the Soviets were getting steadily more intransigent on the fate of postwar Germany; and Army chief of staff General George C. Marshall had sent him a memo expressing concern about whether the recently liberated countries of Europe were getting adequate help in reviving their economies.
And of course there was the war with Japan to be finished. In early February of 1945, Roosevelt directed the Army Air Corps to begin attacking known and suspected kamikaze outposts throughout the Japanese home islands; regardless of what happened with the Trinity tests or Operation Olympic, FDR was determined to force Hirohito’s government to surrender to the Allies by whatever means it took.
A month later, Robert Oppenheimer’s scientific team gathered at the Trinity site to test-detonate their experimental atomic bomb; on the success or failure of this test would lie the future of Allied strategy for the remainder of the Pacific war…
To Be Continued
1 The site later became part of property that’s owned today by the White Sands Missile Range.
2 Cornelius Ryan, The Last Battle: The Allied Campaign To Take Berlin.3 Magda’s son from a previous marriage, Harald Quandt, had been shot down while on a Luftwaffe air defense patrol in late November of 1944 and was in an Allied POW camp at the time of her death; consequently, he survived the war and later served as a flight instructor in the new West German air force before joining Lufthansa’s board of directors in the mid-1960s. He died of heart failure in 1985 at the age of 63.
4 It finally did collapse in mid-January of 1945 as Allied occupation forces were attempting to renovate it for use as a command headquarters; 137 US servicemen were killed in the collapse, making it one of the worst peacetime tragedies in the history of the American armed forces.
5 Ryan, The Last Battle.
6 Office of Strategic Services, America’s primary counterintelligence service during the Second World War and the immediate ancestor of the modern CIA.
7 The general staff of the Soviet armed forces.