The fall of berlin 1945, p.20
The Fall of Berlin 1945, p.20Antony Beevor
‘Are you aware how the situation is shaping up?’ Stalin asked the two marshals. Zhukov and Konev replied cautiously that they were, as far as the information which they had received.
‘Read the telegram to them,’ Stalin told General Shtemenko. This message, presumably from one of the Red Army liaison officers at SHAEF headquarters, claimed that Montgomery would head for Berlin and that Patton’s Third Army would also divert from its drive towards Leipzig and Dresden to attack Berlin from the south. The Stavka had already heard of the contingency plan to drop parachute divisions on Berlin in the event of a sudden collapse of the Nazi regime. All this was evidently conflated into an Allied plot to seize Berlin first under the guise of assisting the Red Army. One cannot, of course, rule out the possibility that Stalin had the telegram faked to put pressure on both Zhukov and Konev.
‘Well, then,’ Stalin said, eyeing his two marshals. ‘Who is going to take Berlin: are we or are the Allies?’
‘It is we who shall take Berlin,’ Konev replied immediately, ‘and we will take it before the Allies.’
‘So that’s the sort of man you are,’ Stalin replied with a faint smile. ‘And how will you be able to organize forces for it? Your main force is on the southern flank [after the Silesian operation] and you’ll have to do a good deal of regrouping.’
‘You needn’t worry, Comrade Stalin,’ said Konev. ‘The Front will carry out all the necessary measures.’ Konev’s desire to beat Zhukov to Berlin was unmistakable and Stalin, who liked to engender rivalry among his subordinates, was clearly satisfied.
Antonov presented the overall plan, then Zhukov and Konev presented theirs. Stalin made only one amendment. He did not agree with the Stavka demarcation line between the two Fronts. He leaned forward with his pencil and scribbled out the line west of Lübben, sixty kilometres south-east of Berlin. ‘In the event,’ he said, turning to Konev, ‘of severe resistance on the eastern approaches to Berlin, which will definitely be the case… the 1st Ukrainian Front should be ready to attack with tank armies from the south.’ Stalin approved the plans and gave orders for the operation to be ready ‘in the shortest time possible and in any case no later than 16 April’.
‘The Stavka’, as the Russian official history puts it, ‘worked in great haste, fearing that the Allies would be quicker than Soviet troops in taking Berlin.’ They had much to coordinate. The operation to capture Berlin involved 2.5 million men, 41,600 guns and mortars, 6,250 tanks and self-propelled guns and 7,500 aircraft. No doubt Stalin took satisfaction in the fact he was concentrating a far more powerful mechanized force to seize the capital of the Reich than Hitler had deployed to invade the whole of the Soviet Union.
After the main conference on 1 April, Stalin replied to Eisenhower’s message which had provided accurate details of forthcoming American and British operations. The Soviet leader informed the American supreme commander that his plan ‘completely coincided’ with the plans of the Red Army. Stalin then assured his trusting ally that ‘Berlin has lost its former strategic importance’ and that the Soviet command would send only second-rate forces against it. The Red Army would be delivering its main blow to the south, to join up with the Western Allies. The advance of the main forces would start approximately in the second half of May. ‘However, this plan may undergo certain alterations, depending on circumstances.’ It was the greatest April Fool in modern history.
The Kamarilla and the General Staff
During the final phase of the Soviet onslaught on Pomerania, General von Tippelskirch gave an evening reception for foreign military attachés out at Mellensee. They went mainly because it offered a good opportunity to hear something other than the official version of events, which hardly anybody believed. The capital was obsessed with rumours. Some were convinced that Hitler was dying from cancer and that the war would end soon. Many whispered, with rather more justification, that German Communists were rapidly stepping up their activities as the Red Army approached. There was also talk of a mutiny among the Volkssturm.
German officers present that evening were discussing the Pomeranian catastrophe. They blamed it on their lack of reserves. According to the Swedish military attaché, Major Juhlin-Dannfel, conversations ended with German officers saying how much they hoped that serious negotiations would start with the British. ‘The British are partly responsible for the destiny of Europe,’ he was told. ‘And it is their duty to prevent German culture from being annihilated by a Red storm-flood.’ German officers still seemed to believe that if Britain had not been so tiresome holding out in 1940 and the whole might of the Wehrmacht had been concentrated on the Soviet Union in 1941, the outcome would have been decisively different. ‘Some of those present,’Juhlin-Dannfel concluded, ‘became very sentimental and the whole thing seemed quite sad.’
The delusions of the German officer class, although different from those of Hitler’s court circle, were no less deeply held. Their real regret about the invasion of the Soviet Union had been its lack of success. To the German Army’s shame, no more than a small minority of officers had been genuinely outraged by the activities of the SS Einsatzgruppen and other paramilitary formations. In the course of the last nine months, anti-Nazi feelings had developed in army circles partly because of the cruel repression of the July plotters, but mainly as a result of Hitler’s blatant ingratitude and prejudice against the army as a whole. His outright loathing of the general staff, and his attempts to shift the blame for his own catastrophic meddling on to the shoulders of field commanders were deeply resented. In addition, the preference given to the Waffen SS in weapons, manpower and promotion stirred strong feelings of resentment towards the Nazi praetorian guard.
A senior Kriegsmarine officer told Juhlin-Dannfel about a recent conference where senior military officers discussed the possibility of a last-ditch attack on the Eastern Front to force the Red Army back to the frontier of 1939. ‘If the attempt were successful,’ the naval officer said, ‘then this would provide the right opportunity to open negotiations. In order to do this, Hitler must be removed. Himmler would take over and be the guarantor of maintaining order.’ This idea revealed not just a stupendous lack of imagination. It also shows that Wehrmacht officers in Berlin seemed to have no understanding of the state of affairs at the front. The Vistula—Oder operation had smashed the German Army’s capacity to launch another sustained offensive. The only question which remained was the number of days it would take the Red Army to reach Berlin from the front along the Oder, the line which – they now heard to their horror – might become the future frontier of Poland.
The events which brought the conflict between Hitler and Guderian to a head were linked to the rather grim fortress town of Küstrin, which stood between the two main Soviet bridgeheads across the Oder. Küstrin was known as the gateway to Berlin. It was situated on the confluence of the rivers Oder and Warthe, eighty kilometres east of Berlin and astride Reichsstrasse 1, the main road from the capital to Königsberg.
Küstrin was the focal point of operations for both sides. Zhukov wanted to merge the two bridgeheads – Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army had the northern one and Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army the southern one – to prepare a large forming-up area for the forthcoming Berlin offensive. Hitler, meanwhile, had insisted on a counter-attack with five divisions from Frankfurt an der Oder, to encircle Chuikov’s army from the south.
Guderian had tried to put a stop to Hitler’s plan, knowing that they had neither the air and artillery support nor the tanks necessary for such an enterprise. The débâcle which happened on 22 March, the day Heinrici had been lectured by Himmler at the headquarters of Army Group Vistula, had taken place as divisions were redeployed for the offensive. The 25th Panzergrenadier Division withdrew from the Küstrin corridor before its replacement was ready. Berzarin’s 5th Shock Army and Chuikov’s 8th Guards Army advanced inwards on previous orders from Marshal Zhukov and managed to cut off Küstrin.
Guderian, however, still hoped that peace n
‘My dear Colonel General,’ Himmler replied. ‘It is still too early for that.’ Guderian persisted, but either Himmler was still afraid of Hitler, as Guderian thought, or he was playing his cards carefully. One of his confidants in the SS, Gruppenführer von Alvensleben, sounded out Colonel Eismann at Army Group Vistula, and told him in the strictest confidence that Himmler wanted to approach the Western Allies through Count Folke Bernadotte of the Swedish Red Cross. Eismann replied that first of all he thought it too late for any western leader to consider terms, and secondly Himmler struck him as ‘the most unsuitable man in the whole of Germany for such negotiations’.
During the evening of 21 March, just after Guderian’s approach to Himmler, Hitler told the army chief of staff that he should take sick leave, because of his heart trouble. Guderian replied that with General Wenck still recovering from his car crash, and General Krebs wounded in the heavy bombing raid on Zossen six days before, he could not abandon his post. Guderian states that while they were talking, an aide came in to tell Hitler that Speer wanted to see him. (He must have confused the date or the occasion, because Speer was not in Berlin at this time.) Hitler exploded and refused. ‘Always when any man asks to see me alone,’ he apparently complained to Guderian, ‘it is because he has something unpleasant to say to me. I cannot stand any more of these Job’s comforters. His memoranda begin with the words, “The war is lost!” And that’s what he wants to tell me now. I always just lock his memoranda away in the safe, unread.’ According to his aide, Nicolaus von Below, this was not true. Hitler did read them. But as Hitler’s reaction to the loss of the bridge at Remagen had shown, he had only one reaction to disaster. It was to blame others. On that day, 8 March, Jodl had come in person to the conference to tell Hitler of the failure to blow the bridge. ‘Hitler was very quiet then,’ said a staff officer who had been present, ‘but the next day he was raging.’ He ordered the summary execution of five officers, a decision which horrified the Wehrmacht.
Even the Waffen SS soon found that it was not exempt from the Führer’s rages. Hitler heard from either Bormann or Fegelein, both eager to undermine Himmler, that Waffen SS divisions in Hungary had been retreating without orders. As a humiliating punishment, Hitler decided to strip them, including his personal guard, the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, of their prized armband divisional titles. Himmler was forced to implement the order himself. ‘This mission of his to Hungary,’ Guderian noted with little regret, ‘did not win him much affection from his Waffen SS.’
The attack to relieve Küstrin, which Hitler still refused to give up, took place on 27 March. General Busse, the commander of the Ninth Army, was its reluctant orchestrator. The operation was a costly failure, even though it initially took the 8th Guards Army by surprise. German panzer and infantry troops in the open were massacred by Soviet artillery and aviation.
The next day, during the ninety-minute drive from Zossen into Berlin for the situation conference, Guderian made his intentions clear to his aide, Major Freytag von Loringhoven. ‘Today I am really going to give it to him straight,’ he said in the back of the huge Mercedes staff car.
The atmosphere in the Reich Chancellery bunker was tense even before General Burgdorf announced Hitler’s arrival with his usual call – ‘Meine Herren, der Führer kommt!’ This was the signal for everyone to come to attention and give the Nazi salute. Keitel and Jodl were there, and so was General Busse, whom Hitler had had summoned along with Guderian to explain the Küstrin fiasco.
While Jodl displayed his usual ‘ice-cold lack of emotion’, Guderian was clearly in a truculent frame of mind. Hitler’s mood was evidently not improved by having just heard that General Patton’s tanks had reached the outskirts of Frankfurt am Main. General Busse was told to present his report. As Busse spoke, Hitler demonstrated a mounting impatience. He suddenly demanded why the attack had failed. And before Busse or anyone else had the chance to reply, he began another tirade against the incompetence of the officer corps and the general staff. In this case he blamed Busse for not using his artillery.
Guderian stepped in to tell Hitler that General Busse had used all the artillery shells available to him. ‘Then you should have arranged for him to have more!’ Hitler screamed back at him. Freytag von Loringhoven observed Guderian’s face turn red with rage as he defended Busse. The chief of staff turned the subject to Hitler’s refusal to withdraw the divisions from Courland for the defence of Berlin. The row escalated rapidly to a terrifying intensity. ‘Hitler became paler and paler,’ noted Freytag von Loringhoven, ‘while Guderian became redder and redder.’
The witnesses to this dispute were deeply alarmed. Freytag von Loringhoven slipped out of the conference room and put through an urgent call to General Krebs at Zossen. He explained the situation and suggested that he must interrupt the meeting with some excuse. Krebs agreed and Freytag von Loringhoven went back into the room to tell Guderian that Krebs needed to speak to him urgently. Krebs spoke to Guderian for ten minutes, during which time the chief of staff calmed down. When he went back into Hitler’s presence, Jodl was reporting on developments in the west. Hitler insisted that everyone should leave the room except Field Marshal Keitel and General Guderian. He told Guderian that he must go away from Berlin to restore his health. ‘In six weeks the situation will be very critical. Then I shall need you urgently.’ Keitel asked him where he would go on leave. Guderian, suspicious of his motives, replied that he had made no plans.
Staff officers at Zossen and at Army Group Vistula headquarters were shocked by the day’s events. Hitler’s dismissal of Guderian threw them into a deep gloom. They were already suffering from what Colonel de Maizière described as ‘a mixture of nervous energy and trance’ and a feeling of ‘having to do your duty while at the same time seeing that this duty was completely pointless’. Hitler’s defiance of military logic reduced them to despair. The dictator’s charisma, they had finally realized, was based on a ‘kriminelle Energie’ and a complete disregard for good and evil. His severe personality disorder, even if it could not quite be defined as mental illness, had certainly made him deranged. Hitler had so utterly identified himself with the German people that he believed that anybody who opposed him was opposing the German people as a whole; and that if he were to die, the German people could not survive without him.
General Hans Krebs, Guderian’s deputy, was appointed the new chief of staff. ‘This short, bespectacled, somewhat bandy-legged man,’ wrote one staff officer, ‘had a perpetual smile and the air of a faun about him.’ He had a sharp, often sarcastic, wit and always had the right joke or anecdote for any moment. Krebs, a staff officer and not a field commander, was the archetypal second-in-command, which was exactly what Hitler wanted. Krebs had been military attaché in Moscow in 1941 shortly before the German invasion of the Soviet Union. And for an officer of the Wehrmacht, he enjoyed the unusual distinction of having been slapped on the back by Stalin. ‘We must always remain friends, whatever should happen,’ the Soviet leader had then said to him, when saying farewell to the Japanese foreign minister on a Moscow railway platform early in 1941. ‘I’m convinced of it,’ Krebs had replied, quickly recovering from his astonishment. Field commanders, however, had little respect for Krebs’s opportunism. He was known as ‘the man who can make white out of black’.
Staff officers from Zossen and Army Group Vistula observed the court of the Third Reich with a horrified fascination. They also watched Hitler’s treatment of his entourage in case it signified a change in favour and therefore in the power struggle. Hitler addressed the discredited Göring as ‘Herr Reichsmarschall’ in an attempt to prop up what little dignity he had left. Although he remained on familiar ‘du’ terms with Himmler, the Reichsführer SS had lost power since his moment of glory after the July plot. At that time, Himmler, as commander of the Waffen SS and the Gestapo, had appeared to be the only counterweight to the army.
Goebbels, although his propaganda talents were essential to the Nazi cause in its eclipse, had still not been accepted back to the same degree of intimacy he had enjoyed before his love affair with a Czech actress. Hitler, appalled that a leading member of the Nazi Party should consider divorce, had sided with Magda Goebbels. The Reichsminister for Propaganda was forced to uphold the family values of the regime.
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