Berlin, Germany · March 29, 1945

By 1945 everything was falling apart for the Nazi regime. Most of the con­quered areas in the Soviet Union and West­ern Europe had been re­cap­tured from the Germans. The Wehr­macht’s last gam­bit in the west, the Ar­dennes Offen­sive, better known as the Battle of the Bulge (mid-Decem­ber 1944 to mid-Janu­ary 1945), had failed with the loss of hun­dreds of pre­cious German air­craft and tanks and up­wards of 100,000 killed, missing/­captured, or wounded. As the Soviet Army approached the Nazi capi­tal and epi­center of the tot­tering regime from the east and Amer­i­can units from the west neared the Elbe River, 60 miles south of Ber­lin, Adolf Hitler issued his “Nero Decree” (“Nero­befehl, or scorched earth decree) on March 19, 1945. The decree was offi­cially titled “Demo­li­tions on Reich Terri­tory” (“Befehl be­treffend Zer­stoerungs­mass­nahmen im Reichsgebiet”).

The first time Albert Speer, Nazi Minis­ter for Arma­ments and War Pro­duc­tion, had heard the words “scorched earth” in refer­ence to Hitler was nearly eleven months before. Hitler had been im­pressed with Soviet dic­ta­tor Joseph Stalin’s use of “scorched earth” in suc­cess­fully halting the Ger­man drive on Moscow in 1941. Hitler’s sec­ret in­struc­tions of March 19 ordered the de­struc­tion of all mili­tary trans­port and com­mu­ni­ca­tion facili­ties, in­dus­trial estab­lish­ments, and supply de­pots that had not yet been de­stroyed by the Allies, as well as the de­struc­tion of any­thing else of value with­in Reich terri­tory that could in any way be used by the enemy. The Fuehrer of the Thou­sand Year Reich was resolved that, were he taken down, Germany would be destroyed too, leaving “a desert, void of civili­za­tion.” The war, he decreed, was to “be fought fanat­i­cally. No consid­er­a­tion can be given to the civilian popu­la­tion at this time.” Reich Minister of Public Enlighten­ment and Propa­ganda Joseph Goeb­bels told a press con­fer­ence that March: “If we go down, then the German people will go down with us, and they will do it so glori­ously that even after a thou­sand years the heroic defeat of the Germans will be at the forefront of world history.”

On this date, March 29, 1945, ten days after the scorched earth decree was issued, Speer con­vinced Hitler to appoint him (Speer) to imple­ment the draco­nian measure. Unknown to Hitler until his final days, Speer—at consid­er­able personal risk—worked at cross-pur­poses to per­suade senior gen­erals and Nazi Party admin­is­trators to evade the Nero Order. (It helped that Nazi Germany, its destruc­tive powers finally spent, lacked the resources to realize Hitler’s order. Besides, the scale of devas­ta­tion already inflicted on Germany by Allied air­craft and artil­lery was mind-boggling enough.) Forty-two days after its issu­ance, the Nero Order was moot: Hitler was dead by his own hand, one among 200,000 Ber­liners who were casual­ties of his war of per­di­tion. Speer him­self was arrested on May 23, 1945, con­victed by the post­war Inter­national Mili­tary Tribu­nal in Nurem­berg for his role in the Nazi regime, prin­cipally for using forced labor (mainly from Nazi-occupied countries) in the German armament industry, and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.

Albert Speer, Hitler Protégé, Reich Architect, and Minister of Armaments and War Production

Albert Speer and Hitler in Paris, June 28, 1940

Above: Standing before a kneeling news cameraman, “Architect of the Reich” Albert Speer (left), Adolf Hitler, and German sculptor Arno Breker take in the sites of conquered Paris, June 28, 1940. Hitler, in a Mercedes convert­i­ble, and his fellow tourists visited the Opéra to marvel at its lavish archi­tec­ture, Napoleon’s tomb at the Hôtel National des Inva­lides to pay their respects, and of course the Eiffel Tower before returning to the Fuehrer’s tempo­rary field quarters in a Northern French village. Vacated by nearly four million Parisians, the capital’s streets, cultural landmarks, and public buildings were eerily empty.

Hitler presents Speer with Engineering Award, 1943Speer observes weapons testing, 1943

Left: In a May 1, 1943, ceremony, Hitler presented Reich Minister for Arma­ments and War Pro­duc­tion Speer the Fritz Todt Ring for Ger­man Engi­neering in grati­tude for the “extraor­di­nary in­crease in wea­pons, ar­mored vehi­cles, and muni­tions pro­duc­tion during the pre­vious year.” With no back­ground in eco­no­mics or pro­duc­tion planning, Speer made himself czar of Ger­many’s war­time eco­no­my. Pro­pa­ganda Minis­ter Goebbels called Speer “a genius with organ­i­za­tion.” Despite the Allies’ stra­te­gic bombing cam­paign of Ger­man in­dus­trial cen­ters, war pro­duc­tion in­creased until the latter half of 1944, when arma­ments pro­duc­tion ex­ceeded nearly twice the capa­bility of the in­creas­ingly pressed Wehr­macht to con­sume manu­fac­tured out­put. By then Speer considered the war lost.

Right: Behind pro­tective shielding Speer (arms folded with swastika armband) and Luftwaffe Field Marshal Erhard Milch (hand on support) observe a demon­stra­tion of a newly developed wea­pon (eines neu­entwickel­ten Kampf­mittels). The demon­stra­tion took place in Octo­ber 1943 at an “air­port in the East” during a sym­po­sium of leading German armament experts called together by Speer.

Armaments and War Production Minister Albert Speer: Third Reich Revisionist