Gradually Hitler grew accustomed to defeat. It had become so habitual that it no longer offered any surprises. He still relied on the V-bombs and the still more dangerous V-2 weapons to stave off ultimate defeat and surrender. London would vanish from the map; then it would be the turn of Moscow, and perhaps New York. But these were the hopes of a man clutching at straws.
Finally on November 20, 1944, with the sound of the Russian guns already within earshot, he was compelled to leave the Wolf’s Lair, where he had spent the greater part of the war years. General Warlimont commented wryly that they were leaving the East Prussian command post just about the time it was becoming habitable. The concrete was drying out at last, and there was no longer a sour, sickly smell hanging over the place.
The new command post had the code name Adlerhorst (Eagle’s Eyrie). It was situated near Bad Nauheim and consisted of a series of deep underground shelters beneath a wooded hillside on the edge of a grassy valley. Built in 1940, it was surrounded by fortified posts. Here Hitler worked on the finishing touches for his last great gamble—the Ardennes offensive, which originally bore the code name Wacht am Rein (Watch on the Rhine) and later came to be known as Herbstnebel(Autumn Mist).
The idea, the decision, and most of the strategic plans were Hitler’s own. It was not an especially brilliant concept and was riddled with flaws. Essentially the plan consisted of a sudden massive breakthrough in the Ardennes with sixteen armored divisions preceded by a great wave of English-speaking commandos in American uniforms and riding American jeeps, with orders to sow confusion and terror behind the American lines. Once the front was pierced, telephone lines would be cut, signposts would be turned around, dispatch riders would be intercepted, radio stations would be shot up, military policemen directing convoys would be killed, and German military policemen in allied uniforms would direct the convoys in the wrong directions. The refinements of warfare by disguise and trickery had been studied in great detail by Hitler with the help of Otto Skorzeny, who had rescued Mussolini from his mountain captivity and was now placed in charge of the commando units which would carry out the first stage of the operation.
The chief flaw in the stratagem was an obvious one: a German soldier in an American uniform remains a German soldier. Once the Americans had recovered from their initial surprise, they had little difficulty in recognizing the enemy, who spoke English better than he spoke American, and spoke neither language with familiarity. Skorzeny’s commandos knew very little about baseball scores and the private lives of film stars, and this was their undoing, for they were unable to answer the simple questions asked of them. Caught wearing American uniforms, they were liable to be shot out of hand.
Although the intelligence files of the allies were filled with reports of the coming offensive, little attention was paid to them. As Hitler said: “The enemy is so obsessed with his own offensives that he will pay no attention to ours.” The mustering yards of the armored divisions for the Ardennes offensive were the woods and forests of the Eifel region. There, where the autumn mists clung to the trees, they were able to assemble in secrecy. There was a low cloud cover, and no allied airplanes detected them.
As usual Hitler kept postponing the offensive. In October, he spoke of an offensive in November, and in November he spoke of an offensive at the beginning of December. On December 7 he postponed it to December 14. On December 12 he postponed it to December 16. It was the last throw of the dice, and he spent a month shaking them in his cupped hands.
On December 12 Hitler invited all the generals taking part in the offensive to a briefing in the underground bunker at Adlerhorst. Security precautions were stricter than ever. Stripped of their briefcases and their weapons, they were driven to the secret command post in a bus, which deposited them before a double line of SS guards near the bunker entrance. There was something frightening and intimidating about these guards, who descended into the bunker with the generals and then stood guard behind their chairs. General Bayerlein, soon to be leading a panzer division through the Ardennes forests, was so terrified of the glowering SS officer behind him that he was hesitant even to reach for a handkerchief.
Hitler appeared at six o’clock in the evening. He had written out some notes for his two-hour speech, and his hand shook as he turned the pages. For what was probably the last time, he addressed a full assembly of generals and gave a consecutive and reasoned account of his plans and stratagems. His chief argument was that the Allies were divided among themselves, that it was inconceivable that the Russians, the Americans, and the English would ever agree politically, and therefore Germany could still hope to hold them at bay. German forces were relatively stronger than they had been in 1939. With one ferocious blow on a thinly defended front, he intended to hurl back the Western Allies. Later, with another ferocious blow he would drive the Russians back to Moscow.
The stenographic report of the speech survives with only a few omissions. Although he unconsciously betrays his fears, his corroding despairs, and his lack of any real knowledge of the strength of the Allied forces, the speech must be counted among the most impressive speeches he ever delivered. He said:
The enemy must realize that under no circumstances will he achieve success. Once he realizes this—by observing the behavior of his people and of the armed forces and the severe reverses suffered in the field-then the day will come when it is abundantly clear that his nervous energy has collapsed.
Then there will take place what happened to Frederick the Great in the seventh year of his war when he achieved the greatest success of his life. People may say: Yes, that was another situation altogether. But, gentlemen, it was not another situation. At that time all his generals, including his own brother, were near to despairing of success. His Prime Minister and deputations of ministers came from Berlin and begged him to end the war because it could no longer be won. The steadfastness of one man made it possible for the battle to be carried through to victory and thus bring about a miraculous change. The argument that all this would never have happened except for the change of sovereign in Russia is quite irrelevant. For if he had surrendered during the fifth year of the war, then a change of sovereign in the seventh year, two years later, would have meant nothing. One must always wait for the right time.
Gentlemen, there is something else which must be considered. In all history there has never been a coalition composed of such heterogeneous elements with such widely divergent aims as that of our enemies. Those who are now our enemies stand at the farthest extremes: ultra-capitalist states on one side, and ultra-Marxist states on the other; on one side a dying empire—Britain; on the other side a colony, the United States of America, waiting day to day for the moment when it will claim its inheritance, and their interests constantly diverging.
So one might say that the spider sitting in his web watches these developments and sees how, hour by hour, these antitheses are increasing If he succeeds in striking a couple of hard blows, this artificially constructed common front may collapse with a mighty thunderclap at any moment. Each of these partners in the coalition has entered it in the hope of realizing his own political aims either to cheat the others out of something or to win something out of it. The aim of the United States is to be the heir of England. Russia aims to secure the Balkans, the Dardanelles, Persia Persian oil, the Persian Gulf, England aims to maintain her position, to strengthen her position in the Mediterranean. In other words—it can happen at any moment, for history, we must agree, is made by mortal men—the coalition may dissolve, but only on condition that under no circumstances does the battle bring about a moment of weakness in Germany.
Hitler’s theory that all coalitions against him were liable to dissolve in a clap of thunder if he struck hard enough had served him well during his political career. In the past he had never failed to break them. But the theory no longer had any validity: the Allies were drawn together in a common determination to destroy him, and for a little while longer they would remain united.
Hitler’s speech to his generals was therefore a brilliant defense of a hopeless position. If will power alone could have won the war, he would have won it long before. The Ardennes offensive was doomed to failure, as Rundstedt predicted. Ironically, the Allies believed that Rundstedt was chiefly responsible for planning the campaign, when in fact he had almost nothing to do with it.
About this speech there hovers a strange light, gleaming fitfully, like the phosphorescence of a decaying corpse. Hitler, brooding in his subterranean cavern, was dreaming of the dissolution of empires other than his own. To the operation led by Otto Skorzeny, with the disguised German soldiers clawing their way through the allied lines, he gave the code name Greif, the German word for the mythological Griffin, half eagle, half lion, guardian of the gold and precious stones of Scythia, the mysterious land in Central Asia. Mythologies had always fascinated him, and now he was living among them.
When General Guderian visited him at Adlershorst on Christmas Eve with ominous news that the Russians were about to mount a huge offensive, Hitler simply refused to believe the intelligence reports. “It’s the greatest imposture since Genghiz Khan!” he shouted. “Who is responsible for producing all this rubbish?” Hitler did not explain why he regarded Genghiz Khan as an impostor. General Guderian stayed for the evening meal and found himself sitting next to the weak-chinned Heinrich Himmler, who by this time had accumulated a formidable array of titles. He was commander-in-chief of the Home Army, commander of Army Group Upper Rhine, Minister of the Interior, Chief of the German Police and Reichsfuehrer of the SS. Like Goering, Himmler concealed his essential nullity behind a façade of titles. Turning to General Guderian, Himmler gave his verdict on the Russians. “You know my dear colonel-general,” he said, “I don’t really believe the Russians will attack at all. It’s all an enormous bluff. The figures given by your ‘Foreign Armies East’ department are grossly exaggerated. They’re far too worried. I’m convinced there is nothing going on in the East.”
Himmler had evidently discussed the matter with Hitler and was merely repeating what he had heard.
Although Hitler regarded the Ardennes offensive as the turning point of the war and believed that in a few weeks he would have the initiative on the Western front, there were many aspects of the war that deeply troubled him. The Americans were incompetent fighting men, the Russian Army had exhausted its strength, and therefore he had little to fear from America and Russia. He was more disturbed by the English, for he believed they had learned all there was to know about the V-bombs and were beginning to produce them in large numbers. He was sure they would soon be hurling their own V-bombs against the Ruhr, which would be reduced to ashes. There was no protection against these deadly weapons, and it was therefore all the more necessary to win the war quickly. Hitler composed a complete scenario for the English discovery of an unexploded V-bomb. He imagined that V-bombs had been examined and taken to pieces by English scientists, who then produced exact blueprints and set to work manufacturing them on a vast scale. The genius of German scientists was being perverted, and their discoveries would soon be employed for the destruction of Germany. Just as Hitler was wrong about the Russians and the Americans, so he was wrong about the English, who were too busy building bombers to have time for building V-bombs.
Again and again Hitler returned to the example of Frederick the Great. Early in the morning of December 30 he summoned General Wolfgang Thomale, Chief of the Inspectorate General of the Armored Forces, and told him that he had found a letter written by Frederick during the fifth and most hopeless year of the Seven Years War. The letter read: “I entered this war with the most wonderful army in Europe; now I have a pile of manure. I have no leaders any more, my generals are incompetent, my officers cannot lead, and my troops are wretched.” Yes, that was how it was, and yet Frederick won the war. And so it always happened when world-historical figures appeared, dominating everyone by their fanatical energy, courage and will power.
For a while Hitler continued in this vein, for it always gave him the greatest pleasure to contemplate Frederick the Great. Abruptly a more sobering thought occurred to him. He said:
We have everything at stake in this war. If one day the other side says, “We’ve had enough,” then nothing happens to him. If America says, “All over, finish, no more young men for Europe,” then nothing happens. New York will still be New York, Chicago will still be Chicago, Detroit will still be Detroit, San Francisco will still be San Francisco. It changes nothing. But if we say, “We’ve had enough, we want out,” then Germany would cease to exist.
Day after day the Germany that Hitler had known was ceasing to exist. The Ardennes offensive was petering out. Finally, on January 14, the Operations Staff war diary noted: “The initiative in the area of the offensive has passed to the enemy.”
On the following day Adlershorst was abandoned and Hitler returned to the Reich Chancellery in Berlin. For just over a hundred days he would continue to give orders, hold military conferences, and discuss the terrible fate reserved for his enemies. But his mind had lost its grip on reality, his enemies were advancing from all directions, and he knew that only a miracle would save him.