Oberleutnant Karl Hanke in a Panzerkampfwagen IV, June 1940

Panzerkampfwagen IV ausf D commanded by Oberleutnant (1st Lieutenant) Karl Hanke and assigned to the 25th Panzer Regiment, 7th Panzer Division under Major General Erwin Rommel during the Battle of France. This propaganda photo appeared in Signal magazine in 1940. Hanke was employed by the Ministry for Propaganda until he had an affair with Magda Goebbels.

In July 1939, Hanke was called up for military service, having previously obtained a reserve officer’s commission in 1937. From September to October 1939, he served with the 3rd Panzer Division in Poland under command of Generalleutnant Leo Geyr von schweppenburg.

Hanke and Rommel, who was also a friend of Reichsminister Joseph Goebbels, understood the value of propaganda both for the home front and for their troops. They used each other to further their own aims. Rommel appointed Hanke to the 25th in May 1940. That Rommel was held in high favour had been made plain eight days previously, when one of his own officers, Oberleutnant Karl-August Hanke “acting on behalf of the Führer, ceremonially decorated me with the Knight’s Cross and gave me the Führer’s regards”. It may seem strange that so junior an officer should perform this duty, but Hanke was no ordinary junior officer. Not only had he demonstrated, according to Rommel, exceptional bravery and initiative in action, but he was one of Goebbels’ favourite officials from the Propaganda Ministry, sent quite obviously to keep an eye on one of his master’s proteges and to act as a special Nazi Party link with Berlin. He had brought with him as officers to the 7th Panzer Division several Nazi members of the Reichstag, including Kraus, the Chief of the Nazi Motor Corps (NSKK), and his financial adviser, Koebele, who later succeeded Julius Streicher as Gauleiter of Franken. And there was another man called Karl Holz, who had to remain a sergeant because he had twenty-four ‘previous convictions’-twenty-two of them ‘political’ and two criminal!

But Hanke, was the most important of this liaison team, and to him Rommel extended the greatest favour, awarding him the Iron Cross (without consulting his battalion commander) even though he carried out his duties no more courageously than anybody else. A few days later (again without consultation), he recommended him for the Knight’s Cross-but this application was withdrawn because Hanke refused to take command of a tank company, telling Rommel that he scarcely knew how to lead a troop let alone a company, and that he was not prepared to risk the soldiers’ lives. This snub may well have angered Rommel, for Manfred Rommel inserts a lengthy footnote in The Rommel Papers to explain how unpopular Hanke was with the other officers of the Division, and mentions an incident in the Mess when Hanke boasted that he had, as an official, the power to remove Rommel from command. This, so Manfred says, led Rommel to report the matter to Hitler’s Army adjutant, Rudolf Schmundt, with the result that Hanke was posted away (and, much later, found his way to be Gauleiter of Breslau, where he achieved a certain notoriety). Be that as it may, it is unquestionable that Rommel, in furthering his ambition, saw no impediment to using any means to curry favour within the Nazi Party; subsequent suggestions that he was a Nazi, hotly denied as they are and technically correct though they may be, were by no means groundless.

Hanke was awarded the Iron Cross in Second and First Class. He was discharged from the German Army in 1941 with the rank of 1st lieutenant (Oberleutnant).

Popular with Hitler and Party Secretary Martin Bormann, they appointed him Gauleiter (Governor and Region Leader) of Lower Silesia in Poland, where he signed so many execution orders he was known as the “Hangman of Breslau.” When the Soviets attacked in January 1945, Hanke organized the toughest defense (Festung (Fortress) Breslau) in the area, and the city held out until May 7. The defense had no strategic or tactical value, but it won the respect of Goebbels.

Breslau in January 1945 was a fortress in name only. It had not been a bulwark for more than a century, since Napoleon tore down the city walls. “Breslau is no fortress,” Red Cross volunteer Lena Aschner commented. “It is lost. Everyone knows it. The people, the Wehrmacht and the SS.” A Party diehard disagreed. “We must sell our lives as dearly as possible,” he admonished Aschner.

In the third week of January 1945, Karl Hanke and his fortress commander began summoning what forces they could. The Gauleiter drafted every male Breslauer aged sixteen to sixty into the Volkssturm. Johannes Krause went even further, demanding every inhabitant of the city aged ten and above help “the final preparations for the battle for your home city”. Those final preparations meant gnawing at the very vitals of Breslau. Trees were felled, bushes pulled up, rubble, monuments, wrecked vehicles, overturned trams piled up, barbed wire laid across streets to form makeshift barriers. “Even the dead have no peace in their graves,” electrician Hermann Nowack noted as gravestones were uprooted to feed the barricade moloch. “It’s one of those tragicomedies – these barricades actually hinder our movements more than they put a stop to the Soviets,” wrote schoolboy Horst Gleiss. On the right bank of the Oder trams went no further than the Scheitniger Stern. Beyond there, Breslauers needed special passes – and a good deal of agility – to negotiate the forest of fallen trees blocking the streets. Tarmac and paving slabs were ripped up so foxholes five feet deep could be dug for soldiers and Volkssturm to combat Russian tanks with Panzerfaust. “Russian tank crews will need just fifteen minutes to get past such a barrier,” one Landser sneered. “Fourteen minutes to stop their belly laughs, one minute to push the junk away.” All sixty-four bridges over the Oder and its tributary, the Weide, were prepared for demolition, their approaches mined. Slogans were daubed on the walls at every street corner: ‘Every house a fortress’, ‘If you retreat, death will march towards your home’, ‘Today the front is everywhere – fight against the cursed spirit in the rear’

Every day new Volkssturm were sworn in – and almost every day Karl Hanke addressed them, sometimes in a square, sometimes in a courtyard, sometimes on Schlossplatz, sometimes as many as 2,000 at a time. His watchword? “Harm the enemy wherever possible!” The enemy was on foreign soil, men in the Volkssturm knew “every nook and cranny” of Breslau and its suburbs. “Use each night to creep up on the enemy and harm him!” the Gauleiter urged, invoking the memory of Erwin Rommel by repeating the late field marshal’s battle cry. “Meine Herren, there is no shame in dying for Greater Germany. Attack!” The freshly sworn-in soldiers would shout a few ‘Sieg Heils’ for their Führer, sing the national anthem, then march off to the front. Among them was Otto Rothkugel. Having seen his family leave the city, the retired union official reported to his Volkssturm company. An aged Italian rifle was thrust into his hands, plus ten rounds of ammunition. There was no instruction, no order. The company, Rothkugel observed, was “a shapeless mass. Everything looked so disorganised. And on the opposite bank of the Oder were the Russians.”

Hanke escaped Breslau on May 5 by air. He learned he was to replace Himmler at Hitler’s orders and to command the SS. It was light by the time Karl Hanke arrived in the grounds of the Jahrhunderthalle where a young Leutnant was waiting for him. Helmut Alsleben had wheeled a small Fieseler Storch reconnaissance aircraft out of one of the hall’s side buildings and unfolded its wings. The Storch was the only airworthy aircraft in the fortress, held in storage for Hermann Niehoff to use at his discretion. He never did.

The Storch’s only passenger was the Gauleiter of Breslau, dressed in the ill-fitting uniform of an ordinary soldier. Karl Hanke had commandeered Niehoff’s aircraft to reach Hirschberg, sixty miles to the southwest, before crossing the border to join German forces in Bohemia and Moravia. Around 5.30am, Alsleben and Hanke took off, flying south, low over the ruins of Breslau. For the first ten miles, the flight passed without incident. But then the Storch was struck by machine-gun fire. The engine stuttered on for another mile before Alsleben set the aircraft down on the slopes of the Zobten to effect emergency repairs. With the fuel tank patched up, the Storch was airborne again for a flight of no more than a dozen miles to the airfield at Schweidnitz, where a panzer officer was waiting for Breslau’s Gauleiter.

Breslauers were waking to a beautiful spring morning. “A peaceful calm ruled,” recalled chemist Hanns Hoffmann. “No shell fire, no bombs exploding, and Nature had put on her Sunday best.” Pale figures crawled out of cellars and filled their lungs with the fresh May air.

In the basement of the Staatsbibliothek, Hermann Niehoff was feeling harassed. “Have you any idea where the Gauleiter is?” his officers asked him. Then came the telephone calls, finally a visit from one of Karl Hanke’s staff. As officers, soldiers and Party officials searched the fortress for Karl Hanke, a breathless soldier reported to his commander. “Herr General, your Fieseler Storch has gone.” There was further confirmation in the form of a terse signal from Hirschberg handed to Niehoff: Gauleiter Hanke, lightly wounded, has just landed here with faulty machine

Hanke received word of his promotion on 5 May 1945. He flew to Prague and attached himself to the 18th SS-Freiwilligen-Panzer-Grenadier-Division “Horst Wessel”. Hanke chose to wear the uniform of an SS private, to conceal his identity in the event of capture. The group attempted to fight its way back to Germany but, after a fierce battle with Czech partisans, surrendered in Neudorf, southwest of Komotau. His true identity was not discovered by his captors, and Hanke was thus placed in a Prisoner of War (POW) camp alongside other low-ranking SS members. There were a total of 65 POWs when the Czechs decided to move them all by foot in June 1945. When a train passed the march route, Hanke and several other POWs made a break for it and clung on to the train. The Czechs opened fire, with Hanke falling first while two other POWs slumped on the track. They were then beaten to death with rifle butts by the Czechs.

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