Sic Semper Tyrannis Germaniae:
The Assassinaton of Adolf Hitler
by Chris Oakley
Includes material previously posted at Othertimelines.com
In the previous six chapters of this series we recalled Adolf Hitler’s death in the July 20th bombing, its subsequent effect on the course of the Second World War, and its fundamental role in hastening not only the collapse of the Third Reich but also the use of the atomic bomb on Japan. In this segment we’ll recap the final Japanese surrender, the start of Allied reconstruction efforts in Europe, the Verona and Nuremburg war crimes trials, and the political wrangling between the Soviets and the Western Allies over occupied Germany that would ultimately set the stage for the Cold War.
The first air raid sirens in Kokura went off just before 12:10 PM local time, sending hundreds of people scrambling to reach the nearest shelters. As it turned out, though, they might have done better to stay above-ground-- as had happened in Hiroshima six days earlier, Kokura’s bomb shelters would soon be transformed into crematoriums. The "rain of ruin" Truman had warned about the day after the attack on Hiroshima was about to fall on this Fukuoka coastal town.
At 12:15 Bock’s Car released its single atomic bomb and U-turned back towards the sanctuary of its home base on Tinian. No sooner had the B-29 cleared the Kokura city limits and made the turn for the Suo Sea coast than its tail gunner saw the now-familiar shape of a mushroom cloud on the horizon. Beneath that cloud, the same fires that had scorched Hiroshima were incinerating Kokura; by the cloud had dissipated, there was literally nothing left of the buildings which had previously stood at the epicenter of the bomb blast.
By a tragic irony, Kokura’s population had been temporarily swollen by an influx of Hiroshima refugees; as a result, the death toll from the atom bomb strike on Kokura was even higher than the Hiroshima attack, reaching as high as 110,000 by later estimates1. Surviving refugees reflected sadly on the fact that they had fled from one holocaust only to walk right into another…
If Hirohito and his cabinet had ever doubted that the United States was capable of making good on its nuclear threats, those doubts vanished in the flames sweeping through Kokura in the aftermath of the atomic bomb explosion. It was now readily apparent to all but the most diehard fanatics that further dithering in regard to the Allies’ demand for unconditional surrender would result in further horrific atomic strikes against the home islands-- some of his military advisors even feared the possibility of an A-bomb raid on Tokyo itself.2
At 5:30 PM Tokyo time on the afternoon of June 23rd, foreign minister Mamoru Shigemetsu cabled the Japanese embassy in Zurich with instructions to notify the U.S. State Department, the British Foreign Secretary, and the USSR People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs that at midnight Tokyo time on June 24th Japan would formally announce its unconditional surrender to the Allies. Two hours later he received a reply from the Zurich embassy informing him that the surrender had been accepted and Allied Pacific Supreme Commander General Douglas MacArthur would be arriving in Tokyo on July 2nd to sign the formal cease-fire agreement on behalf of the United States.
The Second World War was over…and the Cold War would soon be starting.
With the war finally ended, the attention of the Allied powers could now be fully directed towards rebuilding the countries which had been devastated by five and a years’ armed conflict and holding the surviving leaders of the Axis powers accountable for their crimes. With Hitler assassinated and Himmler having committed suicide, Hermann Goering had become the main focus for those seeking to punish the Nazis for the atrocities they had perpetrated during their eleven-year rule over Germany.
In the meantime, the eyes of the world were on Verona, where after three months of testimony by Italian civilians and resistance fighters, ex-Fascist officials, and Allied military personnel the two most important figures in the Verona war crimes trial were finally about to take thestand. Communist partisan leader Walter Audisio-- code-named "Colonel Valerio" during his guerilla days --appeared before the court on June 30th and testified in graphic detail about the savage tortures Fascist police had inflicted on himself and his fellow partisans. From the defendants’ box Benito Mussolini, who was scheduled to testify in his own defense the next day, shouted "Liar! Liar!" and had to be physically restrained by his legal counsels from rushing the witness stand to assault Audisio.
"I wish," Audisio said at the end of his testimony, "I could have shot the Duce myself. It would have been nothing less than what he deserved.3" There were many in the courtroom(including, it turned out, at least one member of Mussolini’s own defense team) who agreed with Audisio’s sentiments. Thus when it came time for the deposed Italian dictator to speak on his own behalf on July 1st, 1945, the number of MPs assigned to guard the courtroom was doubled to prevent any assassination attempts on him. "We didn’t want him getting killed on the way to his own funeral." the chief MP would quip to Life magazine a decade later.
Those expecting a downcast, guilty-looking figure to shuffle into the courtroom on the morning of July 1st got a rather rude shock when Mussolini strutted to the witness stand like the all-powerful autocrat he had once been and greeted a handful of cheering supporters over in the spectators’ gallery with the Fascist salute. Some of the judges suspected he might be drunk or insane.
As it happened, however, neither was the case-- Mussolini had received a letter from longtime mistress Clara Petacci which had heightened his morale considerable degree. In the letter, Petacci asserted her undying love for him and predicted that when the trial was over the Duce would be acquitted of all charges. Mussolini’s euphoria lasted the whole time he was being questioned by his chief defense attorney.
It began to crumble, though, when it was time for the prosecution to cross-examine him. The lawyer that carried out the cross-exam was a U.S. Army JAG4 officer who in civilian life had handled dozens of murder cases for the New York City district attorney’s office; with ruthless efficiency he demolished Mussolini’s weak alibis like wet paper, pouncing on even tiny contradictions like a hungry cat devouring a mouse. By the time it was over the ex-dictator had been reduced to a catatonic shell, and one French journalist covering the trial would later recall that Mussolini "tottered back to the defendants’ table like a robot".5
The tribunal then retired to chambers to begin deliberating on the verdict; their ruling was announced six days later. Of the eleven counts of crimes against peace and crimes against humanity with which Mussolini had been personally charged, the tribunal unanimously found him guilty on ten and deadlocked on the eleventh. (He would also be convicted as a co-conspirator in Marshal Rodolfo Graziani’s attempt to conquer Egypt in 1940.) Mussolini, along with five of his co-defendants, was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison for his actions during the 21 years he had ruled Italy.
His wife Rachele had little outward reaction to the tribunal’s decision; by sharp contrast, Clara Petacci wept openly when the tribunal’s verdict was announced over the radio. Two Milan carabineri found her dead a week later, victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the skull-- the grim fate her lover had been dealt had plunged her into a depression from which she never recovered. "Life without the Duce," she said in a suicide note written the night before her death, "is intolerable."
The docks of Tokyo Bay were crowded to the brim as the U.S.S. Missouri arrived early on the morning of July 2nd, 1945 bearing the Allied delegation led by Douglas MacArthur that would formally accept Japan’s surrender. The general was not the only high-ranking U.S. military leader present at the cease-fire signing ceremony, but he was indisputably the most well-known.
Just as Eisenhower and Patton had symbolized the American military presence in Europe during the Second World War, MacArthur was for all intents and purposes the face of the US war effort in the Pacific; it seemed almost pre-ordained by God that he would dominate the proceedings.
At 8:15 AM, the Japanese delegation to the signing ceremony boarded the Missouri and was personally received by MacArthur. The moment was captured on film by a Paramount newsreel crew; seconds later, the Japanese delegates and their Allied counterparts gathered around a folding table which had been set up on the battleship’s quarterdeck. In a simple procedure lasting just five minutes, the delegates signed the papers officially ending the war between Japan and the Allied powers. When the signing was finished, General MacArthur closed the proceedings with a short speech in which he voiced the hope that the new peace would last and Japan would one day soon be able to reclaim its rightful place among the world’s modern societies.
The words and tone of MacArthur’s speech were surprisingly modest, but behind them lay grand ambition-- the postwar Allied occupation of Japan would start in ten days, and during that occupation MacArthur aimed to achieve nothing less than a top-to-bottom conversion of the largely feudal Japanese government into a Western-style capitalist democracy...
Back in Europe, the gap between Soviet and Western interests was being reflected in the increasingly strained atmosphere of AAC meetings in Berlin. On one matter, however, there was unanimous agreement-- Goering and his fellow Nazi bigwigs should be prosecuted vigorously and without further delay. Accordingly, on August 6th, 1945 opening arguments were heard in the Nuremburg war crimes trial. The former Luftwaffe C-in-C was just one of the prominent defendants in the dock-- nearly thirty onetime Third Reich senior officials, including Hitler’s former second-in-command Rudolf Hess, would be facing the bar of Allied justice.
Chief British prosecutor Hartley William Shawcross, in his opening remarks to the court, laid out in no uncertain terms what was at stake in these hearings: "The souls of those murdered by Hitler’s death machine, and the living victims still haunted by its nightmarish memory, demand that we hold the Nazis to account and reassert the rule of law in the civilized world. On our words and deeds hinges the fate of humanity itself..."6
Shawcross’ American counterpart, Justice Robert Jackson, reinforced the British barrister’s point during the second week of the trial by showing the court films made by Allied medical personnel of the horrific conditions they found when they examined the surviving inmates at the Nazi death camps in Europe. The defendants turned away from these films, unable to face the truth of the heinous acts they’d been part of. Once the films were over, Jackson called his star witness to the stand-- Anne Frank.
In halting testimony that was interrupted more than once by bouts of tears, Frank described the abuses she and her fellow camp inmates had endured at the hands of the SS. She also read several passages from her soon-to-be-famous diary about the torment she had been personally subjected to during the time between her family’s capture by the Nazis and their incarceration at Auschwitz; by the time she left the witness stand, many in the courtroom, including Shawcross and Jackson, were themselves blinking back tears. General Roman A. Rudenko, the chief Soviet prosecutor at the trials, erupted in a fit of what he himself later described as "volcanic"7 rage; he leaped across the defendants’ table and tried to throttle the main defense counsel. It took the combined efforts of three MPs, two civilian police officers, and Rudenko’s own chief aide to pry the infuriated general off the unfortunate defense attorney.8
Two weeks after Anne Frank’s appearance, Rudolf Hess took the stand. U.S. Army psychiatrists had previously certified him as psychologically fit to take the stand; his testimony, however, called that judgment into question.
The erstwhile deputy Führer’s accounts of his tenure as Hitler’s second-in-command from the start of the Nazi era until May of 1941 were riddled with turgid mysticism and paranoid assertions that the German people in general and himself in particular were victims of a conspiracy by alleged ‘dark entities’ to enslave the human race. (Just who or what those dark powers were Hess could never satisfactorily explain to the court-- or anyone else, for that matter).
By contrast, the next defendant to take the stand, Dr. Josef Mengele, was almost chillingly calm in his clinical accounts of the medical experiments he performed at Auschwitz with Berlin’s approval. The detached, almost conversational way with which he outlined and justified his cruelty toward the camp’s inmates gave rise to author Hannah Arendt’s famous expression "the banality of evil". He spoke as if the unprecedented program to wipe out the Jews in Europe was nothing more than a vast sanitation project.
Former Abwehr head Wilhelm Canaris appeared before the tribunal in early September as a character witness regarding Goering and the rest of the Nazi elite.9 His testimony further illustrated the spiritual and moral rot that had lain at the heart of the Third Reich from its earliest days; he was particularly harsh in his assessment of Goering, labeling him "a corrupt pig" and a "gangster". Aloud the fallen Reichsmarschall said nothing, but in private he later fumed to one of the defense counsels that Canaris had slandered him.
Finally, it was time for Goering himself to take the stand. On September 8th, the ex-Luftwaffe C-in-C and former chancellor of the Third Reich spoke in his own defense before a courtroom packed not only with spectators but also with radio and newsreel correspondents eager to capture for posterity the once-in-a-lifetime spectacle of Hitler’s heir being grilled like any common criminal.
Robert Jackson personally handled the prosecution’s cross-exam of Goering. The Reichsmarschall expected to easily outwit Jackson, who had very little experience in such matters; however, the Supreme Court justice shattered this belief with his line of questioning-- having watched his peers at work interrogating Goering’s fellow defendants, Jackson anticipated many if not all of the tricks Goering might try to weasel his way out of trouble and countered them with the tenacity and ability of a veteran prosecutor. When Goering finally returned to the defendants’ table after the cross-exam had ended, he looked, in the words of one of the defense attorneys, "like a man whose doctor has just told him he has six months to live."
His gloom was well-founded-- in February of 1946, the Nuremburg tribunal found all but one of the 30 defendants guilty of crimes against humanity. Goering and ten of his co-defendants were sentenced to death by hanging; the other 18 defendants were given prison sentences ranging from 15 years to life. The world press hailed the verdicts as "a triumph for the rule of law in human affairs"10, barely noticing(or caring in some instances) that none of the Soviet military or political leaders who’d been involved in the 1939 invasion of Finland had been brought before the dock.
The end of the Nuremburg trials was not by any means the end of war crimes hearings against those who’d served or collaborated with the Nazis; indeed, as recently as 2003 cases were still being heard against against ex-SS men in some parts of Europe. But it was Nuremburg which set the precedent for all subsequent war crimes courts and lingered in the public’s imagination.11
The Nuremburg trials represented the last major instance of co-operationbetween the United States, Britain, and the Soviet Union. Thereafter, the three wartime allies would be pushed increasing far apart as long-dormant tensions between the Communists and the West reawakened.
It started with the implementation of George C. Marshall’s proposals for economic aid to Europe; his program, dubbed "the Marshall Plan" by the American press, was correctly perceived by Stalin as a severe threat to Moscow’s plans for imposing Communist rule throughtout eastern Europe. Thus the Soviet dictator banned Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Soviet-occupied sectors of Germany from participating in the Marshall Plan.
By contrast, the program was eagerly embraced by Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Italy, and Luxembourg. The economic boost the Marshall Plan provided was matched by a renewal of political vitality in those countries-- which dealt a grave blow to Soviet subversion efforts in the West.
The next hint of the ideological struggle that was about to erupt between East and West in the postwar era came in April of 1946, when the entire Soviet delegation to the Allied Administration Council for Germany walked out in protest after a proposal to reunify the country under a Walter Ulbricht-headed regime was voted down. Stalin took the defeat as a personal insult; already in a foul humor after a speech in which Winston Churchill accused the Soviets of seeking to impose "an iron curtain of tyranny" across eastern Europe, the Soviet ruler almost went berserk when the Western Allies vetoed the Kremlin’s bid for a Communist-dominated German government.
It seemed like just a matter of time before what was left of the wartime alliance between the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States would crumble into dust. The only unsettled question was whether Berlin, the last battleground of World War II, would turn out to be the starting point of World War III...
At the same time that Goering and his fellow Nazi overlords were meeting their fates, a private charity organization known as CARE was stepping in to aid Allied relief efforts in western Europe. Food, clothes, and medical supplies were gathered by this association in the US and placed on American transport planes for delivery to Europe; combined with the relief shipments already making their way across the Atlantic as part of the Marshall Plan, CARE’s activities did a great deal to enhance America’s standing overseas.
By sharp contrast, the prestige of Britain and France was on the wane. In spite of Churchill’s vow that he had not become prime minister to witness the dissolution of the British Empire, the stark reality was that Britain no longer had either the financial resources or the political strength to maintain its far-flung kingdom. France, meanwhile, was beset by internal political crisis; the psychic and emotional wounds that had been inflicted on the country during the German occupation were translating into bitter antagonism between various French parties as each traded accusations with the others that it had not done enough to oppose the Nazis.
As for Italy, it too was undergoing upheaval. The once-revered King Victor Emmanuel III, widely blamed for the horrors fascism and Nazi occupation had inflicted on the country, had become a pariah in the eyes of his fellow Italians; having seriously restricted the broad powers the monarchy had once enjoyed, they now made up their minds that the time had come at last to get rid of the monarchy altogether. On May 13th, 1946, in a binding national referendum, they overwhelmingly approved a law formally declaring Italy a republic.
In the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin had begun one last descent into the kind of madness which had brought about the hideous purges of the 1930s. Though the massive bloodletting of those days was thankfully not repeated, there were substantial numbers of arrests and detentions on charges whose legal basis was at best open to question. Irked that the American atomic raids on Hiroshima and Kokura had forced him to abandon his plans for occupying Hokkaido, and bitter over the fact that American troops controlled major sections of Germany and Korea, the Soviet dictator made up his mind that sooner or later there would be a settling of accounts with what he called "glavnii vrag (the main enemy)".
On June 16th, 1947 a Red Army transport truck was stopped by US military police while approaching the demarcation line of the Soviet sector of Berlin; its driver had failed to present proper identification and the MPs had orders to check all vehicles entering or leaving the Soviet zone as a precaution against spy infiltration. The driver protested what he considered a personal insult, but that of course could have been predicted.
What could not have been predicted was Stalin's response when he learned of the incident. 24 hours after the truck search, the Soviet ruler made a bitterly angry speech before the CPSU Central Committee that essentially accused the Western Allies of trying to blockade the Soviet sector of Berlin. New US Secretary of States James F. Byrnes and British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin issued stern denials of Stalin's charges, but the Kremlin wasn't listening....
To Be Continued
1 Figure compiled by Red Cross officials sent to Japan in July of 1945 assess the damage from the A-bomb raids.
2 They were unaware that Truman had already categorically ruled out any use of the atomic bomb against Tokyo.3 Audisio’s testimony and Mussolini’s violent reaction to it are described in further detail in Richard Collier’s Duce!(copyright 1971 by Viking Press, New York).
4 Judge Advocate General; this is the official legal arm of all the U.S. military services and thus naturally plays a key role in all war crimes hearings involving the United States.
5 Quoted from the September 8th, 1945 edition of Le Soir.
6 Quoted from The Official Transcript of The Opening Statement by Baron Shawcross at the Nuremberg Trials, copyright 1946 by His Majesty’s Stationery Office.
7 From his autobiography Servant of the Motherland, copyright 1970 by Novosti Press Agency, Moscow.
8 For obvious reasons, the defense was reluctant to cross-examine Frank until Rudenko had left the courtroom.
9 In recognition of his aid to Stauffenberg’s efforts to overthrow the Nazi regime, and in exchange for his assistance in locating suspected Nazi chemical and biological weapons stockpiles, Canaris had been granted immunity from prosecution; he would later be credited along with Anne Frank as being one of the most important witnesses at the Nuremburg trials.
10 "29 of 30 Ex-Nazis Found Guilty by Nuremburg International Court", New York Times, February 11th, 1946.
11 Assisted in some part, no doubt, by the 1961 release of the Spencer Tracy film Judgement at Nuremburg, which would win the 1962 Academy Award for Best Cinematography by virtue of its uncannily accurate re-creation of Anne Frank’s testimony.