On the eastern front, the Red Army, in its massive offensive ‘Operation Bagration’, launched just over a fortnight after D-Day, had smashed through the defences of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Centre (an immense formation of 48 divisions, in four armies, and pivotally placed over a 700-kilometre stretch of the enormous front), inflicting huge losses, and had advanced more than 300 kilometres.
It was the beginning of the end for the Third Reich. By late July 1944, the D-Day landings of the western Allies that had taken place in Normandy on 6 June 1944 had been consolidated. Troops and arms were being shipped over to the Continent in ever greater numbers. Direct ground attack on the Reich itself was now in prospect. On the eastern front, the Red Army, in its massive offensive ‘Operation Bagration’, launched just over a fortnight after D-Day, had smashed through the defences of the Wehrmacht’s Army Group Centre (an immense formation of 48 divisions, in four armies, and pivotally placed over a 700-kilometre stretch of the enormous front), inflicting huge losses, and had advanced more than 300 kilometres. To the south, Rome had fallen to the Allies and German troops were engaged in fierce rearguard fighting near Florence. Meanwhile, ever more German towns and cities were exposed to relentless devastation from the air. With resources and manpower stretched to the limit and hugely inferior to the combined might of the enemy, now forcing back the Wehrmacht from the east, west and south, the writing was on the wall for the Hitler regime.
At least, that was how the western Allies saw it. They were confident that the war would be over by Christmas. Viewed from Germany, it was a different matter. Here, attitudes about the state of the war and Germany’s prospects varied widely, whether at the elite level, among the civilian and military Reich leadership, or among the public on the ‘home front’ and the millions of men under arms. Defeatism, reluctant acceptance that the war was lost, realistic acknowledgement of overwhelming enemy strength, waning belief in Hitler, and fears for the future were more evident by the day. On the other hand, support for the regime, not just among Nazi fanatics, was still widespread. And many in high places and low still refused to contemplate the prospect of defeat. Their thinking ran along the following lines. The enemy – the unholy coalition of the western democracies and the Communist Soviet Union – could still be repulsed if the war effort could be revitalized; in the event of a serious reverse, the enemy could split apart; new, devastating weapons were on the way and would bring a sharp turn in war fortunes; and, if subjected to significant military setbacks, the Allies would be forced to entertain a settlement, leaving Germany some of her territorial gains and peace with honour. Such thoughts were by no means moribund in the summer of 1944.
Among the mass of the population, however, the predominant feeling in mid-July 1944 was one of mounting worry and anxiety. Whatever their carefully couched criticisms of the regime’s leaders (including Hitler himself) and, in particular, of the Nazi Party and its representatives, the great majority of ordinary citizens were still unhesitatingly loyal in their support for the war effort. The mood was anxious, not rebellious. There was no trace of anything similar to the growing unrest that eventually burst into open revolution in 1918, despite Hitler’s pathological fixation with the internal collapse of that year. There were contingency plans to cope with the possibility of an uprising by foreign workers (numbering by this time, together with prisoners of war, more than 7 million). But there was no serious expectation of revolution by the German population.
Regional reports of the SD (Sicherheitsdienst; Security Service) indicated an increasingly apprehensive mood, falling to ‘zero point’, producing ‘deep depression’, and amounting to an ‘anxiety psychosis’ and ‘creeping panic’, in the light of the Red Army’s advance in the east. There was intense worry about the likely fate of East Prussia. People feared that, once on German soil, the Russians would never be forced out. Women in particular were profoundly apprehensive. ‘The eastern front will probably soon collapse,’ ran one reported comment. ‘If the Bolsheviks get in, we might as well all hang ourselves, with our children. The Führer should make peace with England and America. The war can no longer be won.’ It was not an isolated sentiment.
Though overshadowed by events in the east, attitudes towards the western front were also gloomy, with widespread acknowledgement of the enemy’s overwhelming superiority in men and resources. There were still hopes of the promised ‘miracle weapons’, though earlier exaggerated expectations of the impact of the V1 missile in air raids on London had left disappointment and scepticism about propaganda claims. And the inability of the Luftwaffe to offer protection against the ‘terror raids’ which were taking place in broad daylight offered a constant source of anger, as well as constant and mounting anxiety. The collapse of the Wehrmacht in the east left many searching for both explanations and scapegoats. Reports from soldiers on leave of the morale of the troops, alleging their lack of belief in victory, and of the inability of their officers, used to material comfort in their rear positions, to provide proper defence, also had a negative impact on mood. And more and more families were receiving the dreaded visit from the local Party leader with the news that their loved one had fallen at the front. ‘How long can we still hold out?’ was a question frequently asked.
At the other end of the opinion spectrum, among the regime’s elite, such views were unspoken, whether tacitly entertained or not. Leading Nazis continued to give their full support and loyalty to Hitler, not least since their own power was solely dependent upon his. But there were frustrations, as well as the continuous jockeying for position that was endemic to the Third Reich. Hermann Göring was still Hitler’s designated successor. His earlier popularity had, however, vanished, and, within the Nazi elite, his star had been waning for months in the light of the Luftwaffe’s failings. Hitler fell into repeated paroxysms of rage at the impotence of the Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe to prevent the destruction of Germany’s cities. Characteristically, however, he was unwilling to dismiss Göring, conscious as usual of the loss of prestige this would constitute and the gift it would provide to enemy propaganda. Another who had lost his earlier prominence was the once influential Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, whose every prediction and initiative had proved catastrophically mistaken. He, too, was now little called upon – not least since there was, in effect, no longer any foreign policy to conduct.
As some Nazi paladins lost face, others profited from the adversity. Martin Bormann, head of the Party Chancellery, could exploit more than ever his constant proximity to Hitler, controlling the portals to the Dictator’s presence and serving as his master’s mouthpiece. Bormann, born in 1900, an unpretentious figure in his ill-fitting Party uniform, short, squat, bull-necked, with thin, receding hair, was hated and feared in equal measure by leading Nazis, well aware of his ruthlessness, capacity for intrigue, and his opportunities to influence Hitler. He had long been Hitler’s indispensable man behind the scenes, for years managing his private financial affairs and in the mid-1930s organizing the building of the Berghof, the Dictator’s palatial retreat on the Obersalzberg, near Berchtesgaden. His absolute trustworthiness in Hitler’s eyes was his prize asset. Bormann had risen almost unnoticed in the Party’s central office in Munich, where, through tireless energy and efficiency, along with the necessary ‘elbow power’, he attained mastery of the Party’s bureaucratic apparatus. He was, however, no simple functionary. He had been involved in anti-Semitic and paramilitary organizations in the 1920s before he found his way to Hitler, and had served time in prison for his involvement in a political murder. His ideological fanaticism never wavered to the end.
In 1929 he had married Gerda, herself a fanatical Nazi and daughter of the head of the Party Court (which adjudicated on matters of Party discipline), Walter Buch. Together they had ten children (nine of whom survived, all but one of them after the war becoming Catholics, one even a priest, despite – or because of – their parents’ radical detestation of the Church). The Bormanns appear, from their surviving letters, to have been devoted to each other. Yet the marriage was far from conventional. Gerda positively welcomed Martin’s news in January 1944 that he had succeeded in seducing the actress Manja Behrens, hoped that she would bear him a child, and even went so far as to draft a proposed law to legalize bigamy.
By this time Bormann was one of the most powerful men in Germany. In the immediate aftermath of Rudolf Hess’s flight to Britain in May 1941, he had been the obvious choice to take over the running of the Party and, once Hitler made him head of the Party Chancellery, rapidly consolidated his control over its bureaucracy. His role as Hitler’s trusted factotum finally gained its formal recognition when in April 1943 he was granted the title of ‘Secretary of the Führer’. As Germany’s fortunes declined, Bormann used his command of the Party’s central administration, backed by the fanatical Robert Ley, the Reich Organization Leader (and head of the German Labour Front), to reinvigorate the Party and extend its reach, underpinning his second source of power and making him a figure of crucial importance.
There were limits, nevertheless, to Bormann’s power. He could not prevent other leading figures in the regime having direct access to Hitler and exerting their own influence on him. And even within the Party organization, he faced constraints. He was not wholly successful in extending his power over the forty or so regional Party bosses, the Gauleiter. Though nominally his subordinates, some of the Gauleiter, trusted ‘old fighters’ who had proved their worth since the early days of the Party, in many cases had a direct line to Hitler which limited Bormann’s control. One Gauleiter who epitomized the difficulties in imposing any centralized control – or any control at all, for that matter, even from the Wehrmacht authorities in his region – was Erich Koch, who ran his domain in East Prussia as if it were his personal fiefdom. Like most other Gauleiter, Koch had been appointed a Reich Defence Commissar, giving him extensive powers in the organization of civil defence and the possibility, therefore, which he readily exploited, to interfere in non-Party matters in his province. Already in mid-July 1944 Koch was using his direct access to Hitler to block a proposal by Goebbels, which the Propaganda Minister and Gauleiter of Berlin had negotiated with the railway authorities, to evacuate from the endangered East Prussia around 170,000 Berliners who had taken refuge there from the bombing in the capital city. Koch gained Hitler’s approval to restrict the evacuation to 55,000 women and children from a small number of districts most threatened by Soviet air raids. It was the first of a number of interventions by Koch to prevent evacuation from his region, causing administrative confusion and, more importantly, with fateful consequences for East Prussians.
The massive accretion of power by Heinrich Himmler (head of the SS, Chief of the German Police, Reich Commissar for the Strengthening of German Nationhood, and Reich Minister of the Interior) had given him mastery of the regime’s entire elaborate repressive apparatus throughout occupied Europe. The sinister figure wielding such immense power was still only in his early forties, a strange, cranky individual – but also a fanatical ideologue. He was unimpressive in appearance, no more than medium height, slender in build, his pale face dominated by his trimmed moustache, rimless glasses, receding chin and extreme variant of the short-back-and-sides haircut. He treated his SS leaders with fussy paternalism and urged upon them the virtues of ‘decency’ at the same time as presiding over the orchestrated murder of millions of Jews in the ‘Final Solution’. As the most feared Nazi leader beneath Hitler, Himmler had even expanded his power within Germany itself when he replaced Wilhelm Frick as Reich Minister of the Interior in August 1943. This move had rendered redundant his aim to create a Reich Ministry of Security, detaching the police from the Ministry of the Interior and placing them under his leadership. In July 1944, the power-hungry Reichsführer-SS was edging towards new important extensions of his empire, this time in the sphere of the Wehrmacht. Rivalry with the Wehrmacht had always held in check the growth of Himmler’s own military wing, the Waffen-SS. But on 15 July, Hitler gave Himmler responsibility for the indoctrination in Nazi ideals and control over military discipline of fifteen planned new army divisions. It was a significant inroad into the domain of the Wehrmacht.
Joseph Goebbels (Reich Minister of Propaganda, and head of the Party’s propaganda organization), and Albert Speer (Reich Minister for Armaments and War Production) had utilized the needs of the war to emphasize their own indispensability to Hitler. Losses at the front had left troop numbers severely depleted. Destruction of equipment urgently required a concentrated armaments drive. Labour had to be combed from all possible sources for Wehrmacht recruitment as well as for armaments work. Not least, new efforts in propaganda were vital to mobilize the population, compelling them to recognize the need for utmost self-sacrifice in the interests of the war. Yet here the frustrations with Hitler’s leadership, within a framework of unquestioned loyalty, were evident. They centred on Hitler’s unwillingness to move to the requirements of all-out ‘total war’, meaning much more drastic measures to maximize recruitment to the Wehrmacht and war production.
Goebbels – a diminutive figure in his late forties with a pronounced limp in his right foot (a deformity of which he was very self-conscious), one of the most intelligent Nazi leaders, possessed of a cruel wit, ruthless and dynamic, organizationally able, a fervent Hitler acolyte who in his mastery of propaganda managed to combine utter cynicism with extreme, brutal ideological fanaticism – had been pressing for a move to ‘total war’ (to maximize every conceivable resource of hitherto unused manpower and drastically curtail any activity not essential to the war economy) since February 1943, in the immediate aftermath of the disastrous defeat at Stalingrad. Speer had joined him at that time in urging a reorganization and revitalization of the war effort at home. Goebbels most of all aspired to take over the running of the home front, leaving Hitler to concentrate on military matters. But Hitler had commissioned little beyond token steps and total war had remained largely a propaganda slogan. In a long private meeting with Hitler on 21 June 1944, just before the Soviet breakthrough on the eastern front, but with the successful Allied landings in northern France plainly constituting a major threat, Goebbels once more vehemently pressed the case for total war and a drastic overhaul of the political and military command structure. Again Hitler demurred. He wanted, he said, to proceed for the time being ‘along the evolutionary, not revolutionary, way’.
The depletion of labour resources as a consequence of the enemy inroads from the west and the east had prompted Albert Speer temporarily to join forces with Goebbels in July in the attempt to persuade Hitler to adopt total-war measures aimed at dredging out remaining reserves of manpower. Speer, only thirty-nine years of age, good-looking, cultured and highly intelligent, a superb manager and organizer, and from the outset intensely ambitious, had rapidly established himself in the 1930s as a ‘court favourite’ by exploiting Hitler’s passion for grandiose building projects. Before he was thirty he gained Hitler’s commission to design the Reich Party Rally stadium at Nuremberg. In 1937 he was given responsibility for turning Berlin into a capital befitting a master-race. In the last year of peace he delivered, on time and at breakneck speed, Hitler’s imposing new Reich Chancellery. Hitler saw in Speer the architect of genius he himself had wanted to become. Speer for his part revered Hitler; and he was intoxicated by the power that the favour of the Dictator brought.
When Fritz Todt, in charge of weapon and munitions production, mysteriously died in an air crash in February 1942, Hitler, somewhat surprisingly, appointed Speer to be his new Armaments Minister, endowed with extensive powers. Since then, Speer had masterminded an astonishing rise in armaments production. But he knew the limits had been reached. He could not compete with Allied superiority. In a memorandum written to Hitler on 12 July, Speer purported to accept the Dictator’s claim that the current crisis could be overcome within some four months through new weapons, notably the A4 rocket (soon to be renamed the V2). And he agreed that, despite all difficulties, new recruits were potentially available from different sectors of the economy, including armaments, to replenish the Wehrmacht. At the same time, Speer argued, everything had to be done to strengthen the workforce in the armaments industry, and not simply through more foreign workers conscripted from across the Nazi empire. It was essential to make total-war demands on the population. People were ready to make the necessary sacrifices to their daily lives, he stated – a point that internal SD opinion reports seemed to back up. He suggested that women could be freed up for work in great numbers and that organizational improvements could produce new labour supplies. He recommended tough measures to ‘revolutionize’ living conditions. A proclamation on the mobilizing of last reserves would produce enthusiasm of a kind not experienced since the Wars of Liberation from Napoleon in the early nineteenth century, he thought.
Hitler finally gave an indication that he accepted the need for action. The somewhat colourless head of the Reich Chancellery, Hans-Heinrich Lammers, gave notice on 17 July that Hitler wanted a meeting of ministerial representatives most directly concerned about ‘a further strengthened deployment of men and women for defence of the Reich’ to take place four days later.
Leaving no stone unturned in the pressure for total-war measures, Goebbels took up the charge on 18 July, following Speer’s lead, in a manoeuvre plainly coordinated with the Armaments Minister, and pushing in the same direction. In his memorandum to Hitler, Goebbels urged wide-ranging powers to be invested in one man (meaning himself, of course), who would work through the Gauleiter at regional level to galvanize action. He claimed that through the rigorous measures he had in mind he could produce fifty new divisions for the Wehrmacht in under four months.
Speer then added his own second memorandum just over a week after the first, providing figures on current manpower in armaments, administration and business, pointing out the organizational mistakes that had allowed large-scale unproductive hoarding of labour, and indicating potential sources of recruitment to strengthen the Wehrmacht. He estimated (though the figures were hotly contested by those who would have to yield manpower) that as many as 4.3 million extra men could be found for the Wehrmacht through an efficiency drive. Though there was a need to protect the skilled workforce in armaments – a self-interested plea – he was adamant that the manpower problem for the needs of the front could be solved, but only if responsibility were given to a ‘personality’, endowed with plenipotentiary powers, and prepared to work with energy and dynamism to overcome vested interests and coordinate the necessary organizational changes in the Wehrmacht and Reich bureaucracy to allow for a rigorous exploitation of available human resources.
Speer was making a scarcely veiled request to be handed control over the coordination of armaments and personnel within all sections of the Wehrmacht to add to his existing powers over the production of arms. Had this ambition been fulfilled, Speer would, through his armaments empire, have become the supremo of the total-war drive. What impact this memorandum might have had on Hitler, and on the meeting planned for 21 July to discuss total war, at precisely this juncture cannot be known. For there was no time to present this second memorandum to Hitler before events on the very day it had been composed, 20 July 1944, concentrated the Dictator’s mind.
What hopes Germans still harboured as they reeled from the events on the western then the eastern front in summer 1944 crystallized in what had emerged as the last remaining war aim: defence of the Reich. The grand, utopian ideas of German rule stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals had long since been forgotten, except by lingering fantasists. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, and almost surreptitiously, the once heady vistas of a glorious ‘final victory’, however inchoate they had been, had yielded to bitter reality and to a limited and defensive objective: keeping the enemy from German soil. The time of the devastating blitzkrieg offensives, when the Wehrmacht would cut through weaker enemies like a knife through butter, was long past. In a war that had become a protracted rearguard against powerful enemies with immense resources, Hitler’s limitations as a warlord became ever clearer. At the same time, what he saw as the aim of the war, or how it might end, had become utterly opaque.
He symbolized, of course, an indomitable will to hold onto every inch of territory, never to capitulate. And he could still enthuse those in his presence with the strength of his own will, and with his unquenchable optimism. Hardened military commanders could begin an audience with Hitler sceptically and come out of it reinvigorated. Others, however, were struck by the absence of clear thinking on strategy and tactics. When General Friedrich Hoßbach met Hitler on the evening of 19 July 1944, to be given command of the 4th Army, he saw the Dictator, whose Wehrmacht adjutant he had once been, as ‘bent and prematurely aged’, unable to offer any far-reaching strategic goal and highly superficial in his comments on the tactical position. Hoßbach simply accepted the commission, told Hitler he would act on his judgement when he assessed the situation, and would do his utmost to recover a position lost in the destruction of Army Group Centre.
Numerous military commanders had by this time contested Hitler’s decisions to no avail. It was impossible to sustain a reasoned counter-argument in his domineering presence. As supreme leader, he would brook no opposition. His right of command was accepted by all. And those in positions of authority continued to try to implement his orders. But heady rhetoric, and sacking generals for failing to achieve the unachievable, hardly amounted to a strategy, let alone a clearly defined set of aims. In particular, and crucially, he had no exit strategy from the war in which he had embroiled his country. Repelling the Allied invasion, he had once told his military advisers, would be decisive for the war. When the invasion proved successful, however, he drew no conclusions, other than to fight on. Outright victory was no longer attainable. Even Hitler could see that. But negotiating with the enemy from a position of weakness could not be entertained for a second. That left fighting on and hoping something would turn up. And that meant playing for time.
Hitler’s military right hand and mouthpiece, General Alfred Jodl, head of the Wehrmacht Operations Staff, reflected the absence of clear strategic goals in addressing his staff on 3 July 1944:
Our own war leadership, on all fronts: focuses now on gaining time. A few months can prove simply decisive for saving the Fatherland…. Our own armaments justify great expectations…. Everything is being prepared, with results in the foreseeable future. So the demand is for fighting, defending, holding, psychological strengthening of troops and leadership. Nail down the front where it now stands.
There were many in high positions in the Wehrmacht who shared such a stance. Shoring up stretched defences, holding on, keeping the enemy at bay, rebuilding lines while feverish attempts were made to maximize armaments production, find troop reinforcements and produce new weapons, became ends in themselves, rather than stages on the way to a accomplishment of a preconceived military and political strategy. Colonel-General Heinz Guderian, the redoubtable tank commander, now Inspector-General of Panzer Troops, thus approvingly remarked that, in replacing Field-Marshal Ernst Busch (an ultra-loyalist, but made the scapegoat for grave mistakes in the disaster that had befallen Army Group Centre) by the tough Field-Marshal Walter Model, Hitler had found ‘the best possible man to perform the fantastically difficult task of reconstructing a line in the centre of the Eastern Front’. This was, however, not a strategic goal, but merely a ‘fire-fighting’ operation by the man who, for the number of difficult positions he was asked to rescue, became known as ‘Hitler’s fireman’. Most military commanders, whatever their varied level of enthusiasm for Hitler’s regime, acted similarly to Model in doing their utmost to carry out their duties professionally, and with iron discipline, to the limits of their ability and, at least publicly, to ask no questions about political objectives. Those bold enough to voice any views that, however realistic, did not fit the prescribed optimism demanded by Hitler found themselves replaced, as did the highly experienced Commander-in-Chief West, Field-Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, and the able Commander of Panzer Group West, General Geyr von Schweppenburg, at the beginning of July.