Colonel-General Heinrich von Vietinghoff-ScheelHigh-ranking military officers had possibilities of a wider perspective on the war than might be expected among the rank-and-file. What did the generals see as the purpose of still fighting on at this stage? Was there any sense of rationality, or was nothing left beyond a fatalistic dynamic that could not be halted short of total defeat? Was there any clear-sightedness at all?
Colonel-General Heinrich von Vietinghoff-Scheel, in the last phase of the war Commander-in-Chief of the German forces in Italy, pointed out a few years later that, following the great increase of size of the army in the course of the conflict, the number of generals by 1945 had risen to around 1,250, though he estimated that only about fifty had any insight into the overall strategic position.
Addressing the question of potential political power of the generals to block the disastrous course of the war, he took the view, naturally involving more than a tinge of apologetics, that ‘even among the field-marshals, the slightest attempt to bring together a majority to unified action against Hitler would have been condemned to failure, and become known to Hitler, apart from the fact that the troops would have refused to go along with such a move’. He rejected the notion that generals serving at the front could have resigned in protest. This would simply have meant abandoning their troops, and would have flown in the face of all sense of comradeship and honour. It would have been cowardice. Finally, voluntary capitulation would have been feasible only if the troops had been prepared to follow the order, which they would not have done, he claimed.
The war, Vietinghoff wrote on release from captivity, was unquestionably lost once the Rhine front had collapsed in March 1945. Ending it at that point would have spared countless victims and massive destruction. It was the duty of the Reich leadership to draw the consequences and negotiate with the enemy. Since Hitler refused to entertain such a proposition, this duty fell to everyone in a position of responsibility able to do something to achieve that end. ‘In this situation, the duty of obedience reached its limits. Loyalty to the people and to the soldiers entrusted to him was a higher duty’ for the commander. However, in taking such action he had to be sure that the troops would follow him. This Vietinghoff still felt, at the beginning of April, with German troops holding a line south of Bologna, unable to guarantee. The majority of the troops, he claimed – an exaggerated claim at this stage, in all probability – still had faith in Hitler. And the regime would swiftly have blamed the commander for treachery, exhorting the troops not to obey him. Solidarity among the fighting troops would have collapsed, as some would have wanted to carry on the fight, others to surrender. It would be some weeks yet before Vietinghoff finally agreed to a capitulation in Italy. Even then, he was unsure until late in the day, so he later implied, about the readiness of the troops to surrender.
Post-war memoirs by former military leaders frequently, like Vietinghoff’s, have a self-serving flavour. They can nonetheless still illustrate ways of thinking that shaped behaviour. Vietinghoff shared the sense of obedience, honour and duty that had long been bred into the officer corps and posed a psychological barrier to anything that smacked of treason. He at least did eventually act, though by then the Red Army was almost literally at the portals of the Reich Chancellery. His uncertainty about the readiness of the troops to follow orders to surrender also sounds plausible. And whether he would have sought a partial capitulation even at such a late stage had he been serving on the eastern or western front might reasonably be doubted. For all its apologetics, Vietinghoff’s account gives an indication of why German generals could not contemplate breaking with the regime.
Though numerous generals confided their opinions to paper after the end of the war, contemporary expressions of their private views are relatively rare. Few generals in those hectic weeks had time to compile diary entries or other current reactions to events. They had in any case, like everyone else, to be wary of expressing any critical, let alone defeatist, comments that might fall into the wrong hands. Penetrating their public stance is, therefore, difficult.
Some insight into the mentality of German generals in the last phase of the war can be gleaned from the private conversations – which they did not know were being bugged – of those in British captivity. These were, of course, by now viewing events from afar and without any internal insights into developments. On the other hand, they could express their views freely without fear that they would be denounced as traitors or defeatists and suffer for their criticism of the regime. Strikingly, despite recognition that the war was undoubtely lost, these high-ranking officers drew quite varied conclusions – depending, in part, on their susceptibility to Nazi thinking and propaganda. Some of the more Nazified officers believed that ‘if Bolshevism triumphs today, then it will be a question of the biological annihilation of our people’. Speculation after the failure of the Ardennes offensive that Rundstedt might surrender in the west in order to fight on in the east was dismissed as impracticable. The western Allies would not accept a partial surrender; Rundstedt could in any case do nothing because SS panzer divisions among his Army Group would not allow it; and there was the fear that anyone attempting such unilateral action would be killed immediately. Non-Nazi, relatively critical, officers were still in February and March 1945 evoking ‘elementary military honour’ in demanding that ‘nobody in the front line, not even the commander-in-chief, can even consider whether or not he should carry on fighting’. Honour was a crucial consideration. ‘Whatever defeats they may yet suffer,’ ran another comment, ‘this nation can only go down with honour.’
A lower-ranking officer, captured at Alzey (between Worms and Mainz) in mid-March 1945, gave his Allied interrogators his own views, based on what he had gleaned at Army General Staff headquarters at Zossen, on why the Germans kept on fighting. The ‘realists’ in the General Staff, he said, ‘expected the Rhine and Elbe lines to collapse and meant to go down fighting. Whilst Hitler was in power it was not considered possible for the German forces to lay down their arms.’ Any attempt to overthrow him was presumed out of the question after the failure of the Stauffenberg plot the previous July. The intentions were to hold the line of the Oder as long as possible and when this was no longer tenable to make a fighting withdrawal to the Elbe. In the west, the priority was to wipe out the Remagen bridgehead. It was not anticipated that the Allies would be able to cross the Rhine anywhere else. In the north, troops would be withdrawn from western Holland to hold the line on the Lower Rhine. ‘It was believed’, he added, ‘that the line of the Elbe in the east and of the Rhine in the west could be held for as long as proved necessary. It was envisaged that sooner or later a split would occur between the US and UK on the one hand and the USSR on the other, which would enable Germany to restore her position.’ The re-emergence of the Luftwaffe, with production of jet-fighters as a first priority, was seen as a prerequisite for the strategy, so oil refineries and other vital installations were provided with especially heavy anti-aircraft defences.