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, head of Adolf Hitler’s Reich 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 who refused 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 who was caught removing tank barriers in the streets, or who 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, 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 (the Reu­ters news service and the BBC 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

Party Chancellery chief and Hitler’s private secretary, Martin BormannReichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler

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 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 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, short for the Nazi Party’s paramilitary “Protection Squadron”). 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 suc­ces­sor, stripped Himm­ler of all author­ity in his new govern­ment. The 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 (Skip first 40 seconds)