Posts tagged William Shirer

April 30, 1945: Hitler Kaput

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Seventy-nine years ago today, Adolf Hitler, aware of the imminent defeat of Germany’s armed forces, and aware of the ignominious end to Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, on May 28th, died by suicide in his underground bunker in Berlin.  He had just turned 56 on April 20.  His body, along with that of Eva Braun, his bride of one day, was quickly brought up to the Reich Chancellery courtyard, doused with gasoline and burned.  Their remains were buried in a shallow crater in the courtyard later that evening.  As Hitler’s biographer, Volker Ulrich, concludes: “There was hardly anything left of the man who at the height of his career had fancied himself the ruler of the world.”

Eight days later Germany surrendered.

It is safe to say that, but for Hitler, upwards of 50 million people might not have met an untimely end in the 12 years that Hitler’s Third Reich existed. “Nor,” as William Shirer wrote the day after Hitler’s death, “will the world he poisoned be purified for a long time.”

Gallons of ink have been spilled analyzing the Hitler phenomena: how a sociopath could acquire complete control over the levers of power in the German Government and military, and how he reaped the uncritical adulation of millions of otherwise ordinary citizens of one of the most advanced and cultured societies in the world, leading them on a path of utter destruction. In his newly published book, Takeover: Hitler’s Final Rise to Power, author Timothy Ryback is at pains to point out that Hitler’s ascent to power was achieved entirely by peaceful means—he was duly appointed Chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg, and granted plenary power by the German Reichstag.  His enablers (such as Vice-Chancellor Franz von Papen) ultimately failed to take seriously his warnings, outlined in his book Mein Kampf, and believed they could control him.

I continue to believe the best, most succinct, description of this phenomena is that provided by French historian François Kersaudy (which I quote in the source notes to From Day to Day).  Here it is again:

“Few destinies can be as amazing as that of the homeless, unemployed painter from Vienna who, in less than two decades, had made himself the absolute master of Germany.  He had certainly been powerfully helped by the rancours [sic] of defeat, the fear of communism, a devastating economic crisis, the near-sightedness of the big German industrialists and the ineptitude of his political rivals.  Yet none of the above would suffice to explain this solitary, uncultured and unbalanced Austrian’s Hitler meteoric rise to power, unless one were to take into account his fanatical singleness of purpose, high degree of opportunism, and complete lack of scruples, added to an astonishing personal magnetism, undeniable talents both as an actor and as a stage manager, and of course an unrivalled ability to browbeat and paralyse [sic] through an expertly balanced combination of secrecy, surprise, verbal abuse and concentrated violence.”

I read the foregoing as both a description of what once was, and as a warning of what can be yet again.

Justice at Nuremberg–or Not?

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“This, then, is the climax!  This is the moment you have been waiting for all these black, despairing years!  To see Justice catch up with Evil.  To see it overtake these barbaric little men who almost destroyed our world.  This, really, is the end of the long night, of the hideous nightmare.

And how the mighty have fallen! . . . Why, the sudden loss of power seems to have stripped them clean of the arrogance, the insolence, the truculence that was their very being in all the years I knew them.  How quickly they have become broken, miserable little men!”

(Written by William L. Shirer, Tuesday, November 20, 1945, Nuremberg, Germany.)

Seventy-eight years ago today, the first Nuremberg war crimes trial, also known as the International Military Tribunal, began.  Twenty-four of the most important political and military leaders of Nazi Germany were on trial for, among other things, crimes against humanity.

The United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union were making good on the promise they had made just over two years earlier, in the so-called Moscow Declaration of November 1, 1943. There, the three big Allied powers did “solemnly declare and give warning . . . as follows: At the time of granting of any armistice to any government which may be set up in Germany, those German officers and men and members of the Nazi party who have been responsible for, or have taken a consenting part in the above . . . atrocities, massacres and executions, will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done in order that they may be judged and punished according to the laws of those liberated countries.”   Where such offenses had no geographic locale, the criminals would be punished by a joint decision of the Allies.

The Judges

The Nuremberg trials were the result.  The prosecution, led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, wanted more than to simply win convictions against the initial 24 defendants.  They wanted the proceedings to 1) provide “irrefutable evidence” of Nazi war crimes, 2) offer a “history lesson” to the defeated German nation, and 3) delegitimize the traditional German elite.  Proceedings began on November 20, 1945, and ended on October 10, 1946. Of the 24 initially charged, 12 were sentenced to death by hanging, 7 received sentences ranging from ten years to life imprisonment, 3 were acquitted, 1 was deemed physically incapable of standing trial, and 1 died by suicide before the trial could begin.

The hangings were all carried out on October 16, 1946.  Among the 10 actually hanged (Martin Bormann had been sentenced in absentia, and Hermann Göring, died by suicide the day prior to his scheduled execution), was Wilhelm Keitel, the head of the OKW (Supreme Command of Armed Forces).

November 20 also marks an anniversary of another sort with particular relevance to Keitel.  Those of you who have heard my lecture on the heavy water war/Vemork raid, have learned of the tragic fate of the 30 British demolition experts who took part in Operation Freshman (November 19/20, 1942), the attempt to destroy the Norwegian heavy water facility at Vemork.  The plan called for the sappers to land in Norway in two gliders, destroy the facility, and try and escape to neighboring Sweden.  Such an escape called for evasion over hundreds of miles of Norwegian terrain (in the middle of winter) despite the fact that the sappers could hardly speak a word of Norwegian. In other words, the odds of a successful evasion were practically nil.  By wearing British uniforms, however, the attackers could feel safe in the knowledge that, under the Geneva Convention, they would, if captured, be interned as POWs for the duration of the war.

What the sappers did not realize, however, was that Hitler had decreed that any enemy soldier caught in a commando operation was to be killed immediately, uniform or no, the Geneva Convention notwithstanding.  On November 20, 1942, those surviving British sappers in glider #2 were executed pursuant to the so-called Commando Order, which had been signed by none other than Keitel in October 1942. It is thus ironic that exactly three years after the deaths of the British commandos, Keitel would stand trial for his actions.  By signing the Commando Order, Wilhelm Keitel had sealed his own fate. Whether he realized the coincidence is unknown, although perhaps the enormity of his crimes finally sank in when his request to be shot by a firing squad was rejected by the Allies in favor of death by hanging.

The Defendants

Subsequent war trials at Nuremberg targeted a further 177 military and party leaders, leading to 142 additional convictions, and 25 death sentences. This represented a small fraction of the almost 100,000 Germans initially arrested as war criminals, and the 2,500 “major” war criminals identified by the Allies.

Although other war trials were also held in subsequent years in various venues outside of Nuremberg, the numbers convicted, and their sentences, like that of General von Falkenhorst* represent an exceedingly small price to pay for the many, many millions of innocent lives lost at the hands of the Nazis during World War II.

* = Nikolaus von Falkenhorst, the Supreme Commander of German forces in Norway, was also sentenced to death in 1946 for his role in the death of the British commandos in Operation Freshman.  His sentence was later commuted to 20 years imprisonment.  In 1953, having served only seven years of his sentence, he was released “for reasons of health.”  He lived for another 15 years, dying in 1968.

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