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, April 2, 1945, the Nazi leader­ship made des­perate calls on the shrinking pop­u­lation still 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. In a rapid series of uncon­di­tional surren­ders, begin­ning in Reims, France, on May 4 and ending on May 8, 1945, in the former Nazi capital of Berlin, the beaten German military did just that.

Martin Bormann and Heinrich Himmler: The Two Most Powerful Men in Nazi Germany After Adolf Hitler

Party Chancellery chief and Hitler’s private secretary, Martin Bormann Reichsfuehrer-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 all-powerful posi­tion to con­trol the flow of infor­ma­tion and access to Hitler (his nick­name was “His Brown Emi­nence”), 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). On account of his decades-long loyalty and syco­phancy, Hitler referred to Himm­ler as “the faith­ful Hein­rich” (der treue Hein­rich). On the other hand, Adm. Karl Doenitz, Hitler’s polit­i­cal suc­ces­sor, thoroughly distrusted Himm­ler and stripped him of all author­ity in his new admin­is­tra­tion. Disguised in shabby civilian clothing and with a new iden­tity, the Nazi fugitive was cap­tured by a British mili­tary patrol and, hours later, during his exam­i­na­tion by a medi­cal doctor bit into a hidden cyanide capsule and died within minutes on May 23, 1945. Three days later the body of the rogue Nazi big­wig was buried in an unmarked grave someplace in Lueneburg Heath, Lower Saxony.

Martin Bormann, Head of the Nazi Party Chancellery and Private Secretary to Adolf Hitler