Berlin, Germany • April 2, 1945
In the spring of 1945 senior leaders of the Third Reich were growing panicky. In the west, American troops had succeeded in crossing the Rhine River at Remagen 35 miles south of Cologne on March 7 and were advancing into the German heartland. In the east, the tracks of Soviet mechanized armor and the boots of their infantry could be heard approaching the outskirts of the epicenter of Nazism, Berlin.
On this date in 1945 the Nazi leadership made desperate calls on the shrinking population under its control. Martin Bormann, ruthless head of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party Chancellery and, as Hitler’s “shadow” the Fuehrer’s primary connection with the outside world, now called on his countrymen to make a last-ditch stand against the Allied invaders. The hour admitted of only one slogan: “Victory or death.”
Already engaged in sending out peace feelers to the Allies behind his Fuehrer’s back, duplicitous Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, chief of the secret police and lead engineer of the “Final Solution,” decreed that severe measures would be taken against those hanging white sheets off their balconies or out their windows. All male inhabitants of a house displaying a white sheet would be shot. Anyone refusing to serve in the Volkssturm (a home guard of mostly child soldiers and World War I veterans who were under the direct control of the Nazi Party except in combat), or caught removing tank barriers in the streets, or was otherwise believed to be imperiling the Fatherland would be severely dealt with. The Nazi Gauleiter (provincial governor) of Berlin, Joseph Goebbels, who also was Hitler’s Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, spelled out the severity for shirking one’s duty to defend the Reich capital, plastering notices on front doors of every house: “On orders from the Fuehrer . . . all men between the ages of 15 and 70” had to report for military service, no exceptions. “Any coward who slips away into the air-raid shelters . . . will be court-martialed and put to death” (quoted in Joachim Fest, Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich, 28–29).
On the same date, April 2, 1945, round-the-clock work on a vast new Fuehrerbunker southeast of Weimar near the Ohrdruf slave labor camp in Eastern Germany ended when 9,000 inmates were forced-marched to the parent Buchenwald death camp 32 miles away. It was from this still unfinished headquarters in the hills around Ohrdruf that Hitler and other Nazi stalwarts hoped to strike a deal with the Western Allies to join the remnants of the Wehrmacht (German armed forces) in fighting the “Jewish-Bolshevik” Soviet Union.
When covert initiatives such as Himmler’s peace feeler surfaced in Western capitals (Reuters and Britain’s BBC news services leaked Himmler’s test balloon in news reports), they were rejected out of hand. For the Western Allies, coming to terms with Nazi Germany demanded unconditional military surrender, not a negotiated armistice in the style of World War I or updating the Nazi-era anti-Cominterm (anti-Soviet) Pact.
The Two Most Powerful Men in Nazi Germany After Adolf Hitler
Left: Martin Bormann (1900–1945), Chief of the Party Chancellery (Parteikanzlei, May 12, 1941, to May 2, 1945) and private secretary to Adolf Hitler. By using his all-powerful position to control the flow of information and access to Hitler, Bormann earned many enemies, including Heinrich Himmler. After Hitler’s suicide, Bormann left the Fuehrerbunker, where he was a boarder, on May 1, 1945. In attempting to avoid falling into Soviet hands, Bormann likely committed suicide near the site of today’s Berlin Hauptbahnhof. A fellow bunker escapee claimed to have clearly seen Bormann’s body in the moonlight. Bormann’s remains were never recovered by the Soviets, though not for want of trying. In December 1972 construction workers in West Berlin uncovered a decomposed body with a cyanide capsule in its jaw; soon thereafter the remains were forensically confirmed as Bormann’s. Genetic testing later conclusively confirmed the identity of those remains.
Right: Heinrich Himmler (1900–1945), Reichsfuehrer of the Schutzstaffel (SS). From 1943 onward Himmler was both Chief of German Police and Minister of the Interior, overseeing all internal and external police and security forces, including the Gestapo (Secret State Police). Adm. Karl Doenitz, Hitler’s political successor, thoroughly distrusted Himmler and stripped him of all authority in his new government. The Nazi fugitive was captured by the British and during his examination by a doctor bit into a hidden cyanide capsule and died within minutes on May 23, 1945.
Martin Bormann, Head of the Nazi Party Chancellery and Private Secretary to Adolf Hitler