NAZIS ON THE RUN

Hitler intended to take his own life when the time came, rather than suffer the humiliation of capture by the Russians. Propaganda minister Josef Göbbels intended to do the same with his wife and children. The only other Nazi leader in the bunker was Martin Bormann, who had no intention of dying and was planning to make his escape at the earliest opportunity. The rest of the leadership was scattered far and wide across the country. Like Himmler, most were still desperately hoping that they could somehow find a way out of the disaster they had brought down on their own heads.

Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz had spent much of the day on the road, returning from the same Wehrmacht conference as Himmler to his own headquarters at Plön, near Kiel. Setting off soon after dawn, he had driven a hundred and fifty miles westward along roads crowded with refugees and strafed continually by Allied aircraft. Dönitz had watched in despair as the farmers in the fields abandoned their ploughs and ran for cover every time an aircraft appeared. It was obvious to him that the war was lost and could not last more than a few days longer at most.

That being so, his primary concern now was to help as many Germans as possible to escape from the east and flee westward before the Russians arrived. The German navy was doing its best to help, but Dönitz was bitterly aware that its few remaining vessels were desperately short of fuel and very vulnerable to attack. His job, as he saw it, was to keep the fight going and hold a corridor open until all the refugees had escaped to the west, either by land or sea, where they could safely surrender to the Anglo-Americans rather than the Russians. But he knew that it was a formidable task, with the countryside in chaos and the Wehrmacht visibly disintegrating with every hour that passed.

Dönitz had worked himself into a state of despair by the time he got back to Plön. He called immediately for his son-in-law, Günther Hessler, a U-boat ace who had once sunk fourteen Allied ships on a single patrol. Taking Hessler aside, Dönitz told him in strictest confidence that he had come to a momentous decision. With the war lost and no hope of a negotiated peace, he intended to surrender the German navy as soon as further resistance became impossible and then seek his own death in battle. He wanted Hessler to know in advance, because he would have to take care of Dönitz’s wife and daughter after he was gone.

Hessler was shocked. Seeking death in battle was a very German idea, but a very foolish one, too, in his opinion. He tried to talk Dönitz out of it, arguing that the country was going to need him in the difficult times that lay ahead, pointing out that a leader of Dönitz’s stature would be far more use to his country alive than dead.

But Dönitz refused to listen. Mulling it over on the way back from the Wehrmacht conference, he had decided that he much preferred death to dishonor. In his view, it was far better to fall in battle than to live with the shame of surrendering his beloved navy to the enemy. If nothing else, Dönitz knew that he would be following his own sons, both of whom had already fallen for the Fatherland at sea.

#

Dönitz’s headquarters were at Plön because it was one of the few remaining places in the north of Germany not immediately threatened by British or Russian troops. It was also very close to the Baltic coast, just a short ferry ride to the safety of neutral Sweden. As such, the town was full of high-ranking Nazis who were converging on it in ever-increasing numbers as their enemies advanced, much as men on a sinking ship converge on the highest point because they have nowhere else to go.

Albert Speer, the minister of armaments and war production, had been in Plön since April 25. He was camping in the woods overlooking Lake Eutin, living in a pair of construction trailers that had been set up for him among the trees. He was protected by troops from a tank regiment, who stood guard around the clock while Speer kept a low profile and waited for events to unfold elsewhere.

Speer had been one of the last Nazi leaders to leave Berlin before the Russians completed their encirclement of the city. He had had a long meeting with Hitler on the evening of April 23, an awkward farewell in the bunker with an abstracted Führer who had treated his once-favorite architect with an indifference bordering on contempt. Afterward, Speer had been summoned to Eva Braun’s room to say goodbye to her, too. They had sat up until the small hours, two old friends speaking with the candor of people who knew they would never see each other again:

We were able to talk honestly, for Hitler had withdrawn. She was the only prominent candidate for death in this bunker who displayed an admirable and superior composure. While all the others were abnormal—exaltedly heroic like Göbbels, bent on saving his skin like Bormann, exhausted like Hitler, or in total collapse like Frau Göbbels—Eva Braun radiated an almost gay serenity. “How about a bottle of champagne for our farewell? And some sweets? I’m sure you haven’t eaten in a long time.”

Speer had been touched by Eva Braun’s concern. In his view, she was the only person in the bunker capable of any humanity, complaining to him about all the killing, asking why so many more people had to die unnecessarily. He had been sorry to leave her when the time had come for him to go.

He had spent a few minutes in the Chancellery before he left, admiring the remnants of the building that he himself had designed. The electricity had gone, so it had been impossible to see much in the dark. Speer had stood in the Court of Honor for a while, trying to picture the splendid architecture above his head. He knew that it lay in ruins, like so much else in Germany. He was worried that there would be very little of the country left, if Hitler in his madness ordered the destruction of the remaining infrastructure before the war’s end in order to deny it to the enemy.

Unknown to Hitler, Speer had secretly made a radio recording in Hamburg a few days earlier. The recording urged the German people to ignore any order from Hitler requiring them to destroy everything before surrendering. Speer considered that enough damage had been done to Germany already. Any more would simply increase the German people’s misery without achieving anything useful. He had decided that Hitler would have to be overruled if he ordered further destruction as a last act of defiance before killing himself

I wanted to issue a call for resistance, to bluntly forbid any damage to factories, bridges, waterways, railways and communications, and to instruct the soldiers of the Wehrmacht and the home guard to prevent demolitions “with all possible means, using firearms if necessary.” My speech also called for the surrender of political prisoners, including the Jews, unharmed to the occupying troops, and stipulated that prisoners of war and foreign workers should not be prevented from making their way home. It prohibited Werewolf activity and called on villages and cities to surrender without a fight.

The speech had been recorded at Hamburg radio station in conditions of utmost secrecy. Two radio engineers had made a gramophone record of it, worrying Speer with their noncommittal expressions as they listened to the treasonable content. The speech had not yet been broadcast and was not going to be until the last possible moment. The dilemma for Speer was to decide when that moment should be.

Hamburg’s Gauleiter, the local Nazi leader and a personal friend of Speer’s, had offered to have the speech broadcast at once. After seeing Hitler for the last time, however, Speer could not bring himself to give his assent. Still mentally in thrall to the Führer, he had come to the conclusion that there was nothing to be done for Germany and the drama across the country would just have to run its course. Rather than make speeches to the nation, Speer had taken himself off to Plön instead, where he sat now, waiting in his trailer for the announcement of Hitler’s death that must surely come in the next day or two.

#

Joachim von Ribbentrop’s movements were uncertain, but he, too, was somewhere on the way to Plön, traveling by road from Berlin. Like Speer, he had left the city on April 24, just before the Russians arrived. Unlike Speer, though, Ribbentrop had left reluctantly; he would have much preferred to stay behind and share the Führer’s fate in the bunker. But Hitler had refused to allow it. He had no further use for his foreign minister, a man whose advice over the years had rarely been less than disastrous.

The other Nazis had no use for Ribbentrop, either. All the important party members had forsaken him long ago. Dim and pompous, insufferably overbearing, he had made few friends as German foreign minister and had no one to turn to as he headed for Plön. He was so desperate not to be cast out that he had tried to return to Berlin at one point, urgently seeking an aircraft to fly him back to the capital. But his request had been refused, and he had been abandoned to his own devices, no longer the central figure he had once been in the affairs of state.

He had little idea of what to do next as he traveled north. Hitler had told him to make contact with the British and propose an alliance against the Bolsheviks, but his chances of success were almost nonexistent. Hitler had probably only suggested the idea to get rid of him.

Ribbentrop’s immediate plan was to join Dönitz at Plön and wait there until he could contact the British. If all else failed, he was thinking of going to ground in Hamburg after the fighting had stopped, living anonymously in a rented flat for a few months until the dust had settled and he could show his face again. The British were talking of hanging Nazi leaders after the war, but Ribbentrop couldn’t believe they were serious. Hanging was not for people like him. It was for criminals and murderers, not the leaders of a nation. Ribbentrop had never done anything wrong, by his own reckoning. All he had ever done was carry out his orders, and his orders had been given to him by Adolf Hitler.

Hermann Göring had just arrived in Austria, a prisoner at his family castle in Mauterndorf. He was being watched over by the SS, who had orders to shoot him as soon as Berlin fell to the Russians.

Unlike the other Nazi leaders, Göring had gone south after leaving Berlin, heading initially for Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s mountain retreat in Bavaria. He had expected Hitler to join him there, only to discover later that the Führer intended to die in Berlin instead. Disconcerted, Göring wondered if this meant that he was supposed to succeed Hitler as Führer in accordance with the decree of 1941 that required him to take over if Hitler’s freedom of action were restricted or if he were in any other way incapacitated.

Unsure of his ground, Göring had telegraphed Hitler on April 23 to find out:

My Führer! Following your decision to remain in the Berlin fortress, do you agree that I should take command of the Reich, as stipulated in the decree of 29 June 1941, with full powers, both internal and external?

If I receive no reply before 2200 hours, I shall assume that you no longer enjoy freedom of action and I shall act on my own initiative.

Unfortunately for Göring, his telegram had been intercepted in the bunker by Martin Bormann, perhaps his bitterest enemy among the other Nazis. Bormann had wasted no time in persuading Hitler that Göring was plotting to overthrow him and seize power. He had urged Hitler to have Göring shot at once. But Hitler had demurred, responding instead with a telegram to Göring insisting that he, Hitler, remained in full control:

Decree of 29 June 1941 is rescinded by my special instruction. My freedom of action remains total. I forbid any move by you of the kind you have indicated.

Hitler’s telegram had been followed by another, drafted by Bormann, who had ambitions to become Führer himself if anything happened to Hitler:

Hermann Göring. Your action represents high treason against the Führer and National Socialism. The penalty for treason is death. But in view of your earlier services to the party, the Führer will not inflict this supreme penalty if you resign all your offices. Answer yes or no.

Göring had not had time to reply before the SS arrived to arrest him. More than a hundred soldiers had surrounded his house at Berchtesgaden, confining Göring to his room at gunpoint and refusing to let him see his wife and daughter. The men almost certainly had orders from Bormann to shoot Göring out of hand, but were reluctant to comply. Instead, they had contented themselves with keeping him under close arrest, as his wife bitterly recalled:

Armed SS men invaded the house and I had to go to my room. I sat down, almost paralysed, unable to collect my thoughts. For the second time that day I had the impression of dreaming and of having left reality behind me. Some twenty minutes went by. Unable to bear it any longer, I tried to rejoin my husband but a guard was standing in front of the door of his study and prevented me from entering. After about an hour, Hermann came out to dine with us, under the watchful eyes of the SS. It hardly needs to be said that none of us were able to swallow a mouthful. But at least we were still together. From my seat at the table I could see the photograph of Adolf Hitler hanging on the wall. I had a sudden desire to tear it down and throw it out!

A day later, Berchtesgaden had been bombed by the Allies. Escorted by U.S. Mustangs, Lancasters of the Royal Air Force had appeared shortly after first light, targeting Hitler’s house at the Berghof. They had flown so low that Flight Sergeant Cutting, a rear gunner on one of the Lancasters, had seen the flash of the bombs as they hit the Berghof, and Flying Officer Coster had watched the neighboring SS barracks going up in smoke. Göring’s house had been damaged, too, the roof collapsing and the stairs giving way as he and his family huddled together in the cellar. Emmy Göring had prayed without success for a direct hit to kill them all and put them out of their misery.

The damage had been so extensive that it had proved impossible to remain in Berchtesgaden after the raid. Göring had persuaded the SS to move them to Mauterndorf instead, fifty miles away in Austria. He owned the castle there, which he had inherited from his Jewish stepfather. Formerly the summer palace of the archbishops of Salzburg, it stood on a promontory high above the town, heavily restored in medieval style by his stepfather.

The move had been traumatic. One of the SS had discreetly advised Emmy Göring to insist on traveling in the same car as her husband for the journey, to prevent him from being executed on the way. A chauffeur had taken charge of her jewel case, only to abscond with it en route. Other people had deserted too, quietly abandoning the Görings to their fate. The castle itself had been cold and forbidding when they arrived, a cheerless place that Emmy Göring had never liked. It was said to have a secret passage that led underground to the market square in Mauterndorf, but that was little comfort to the Görings with an SS guard gazing unblinkingly at them from every corner.

The Görings were waiting on events now, in common with everyone else. The SS had orders to shoot Göring in due course, but their orders might easily be overridden by developments in Berlin. The SS were in several different minds about what to do. The Luftwaffe was a factor as well, outraged at the idea of its erstwhile commander being murdered by a gang of thugs. The Luftwaffe had little time for Göring, but even less for the SS.

There was talk, some of it encouraged by sympathizers in the SS, of the Luftwaffe making an attack on the castle to rescue Göring and protect him from his captors if the worse should come to the worst. But that was a bridge they would only cross when they came to it.

#

For Rudolf Hess, far away in South Wales, there were no bridges to cross anymore. Following his dramatic flight to Scotland in 1941, he had been a prisoner at Maindiff Court, an outpost of Abergavenny’s mental hospital, since June 1942. Hess had spent the day in his room, as usual, hard at work on his memoirs. He had been writing all afternoon, covering sheet after sheet of foolscap with his ramblings, pausing only at half past six to call for a hot water bottle to ease the stomach pains, perhaps imaginary, that were causing him so much distress.

It was a race against time for Hess. He knew the war was almost over. He had known it ever since the American army crossed the Rhine at Remagen, using specially trained Jews to hypnotize the Germans and prevent them from defending the bridge. Hess was determined to get his memoirs down on paper before the end came. It was most important that he did:

I had been imprisoned for four years now with lunatics; I had been at the mercy of their torture without being able to inform anybody of this, and without being able to convince the Swiss Minister that this was so; nor of course was I able to enlighten the lunatics about their own condition …

Outside my garden lunatics walked up and down with loaded rifles! Lunatics surrounded me in the house! When I went for a walk, lunatics walked in front of and behind me—all in the uniform of the British army.

Hess kept scribbling until it was time for dinner. He ate a hearty meal and then began writing again immediately afterward. He continued writing far into the night. It was the only agreeable occupation that remained to him, now that the lunatics had taken over the asylum.

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