Monday, March 2, 2015

German Generals Fight to the Last… II

Colonel-General Gotthard Heinrici
One contemporary glimpse of the thinking of a high-ranking officer based inside the Reich, away from the front lines, is afforded by letters (cautiously couched to avoid anything smacking of defeatism) of Colonel Curt Pollex, from 9 January 1945 Chief of Staff to the head of Wehrmacht Armaments. Pollex was a cultured individual and no Nazi. But he was fatalistic and passive, accepting that he could do nothing other than continue with his duties – which, of course, helped the regime in his own sphere still function – and brace himself for the hurricane soon to come. He had a realistic sense of impending disaster, but felt in his way as helpless as the millions of soldiers and civilians in lowly positions to do anything to prevent it, or see any alternative.

‘Everything is carrying on at present as if it would be all right at the end,’ he wrote on 5 March. He mentioned hopes in the U-boats, but was evidently sceptical. He did not know how anyone could still believe Goebbels, still proclaiming the impact of V-weapons. He was equally dubious about talk of ‘an aeroplane that they call Germany’s bird of fate’, something to change the course of the war. If a change was to come, it had to be very soon, he remarked drily. He just carried on with his duties. ‘My people understand me,’ he added. He immersed himself in his work, ‘acting as if everything were as it is written in the newspaper’. But he refrained from criticizing Goebbels’ speech at the end of February, leaving open the outcome of future developments and whether the Führer and Goebbels might prove right in the end. Perhaps there would after all be a change in fortune. ‘The Führer claims it will be so. I’m just a poor fool with no sixth sense who unfortunately sees nothing,’ he remarked, with scarcely veiled sarcasm. He had not imagined the Americans crossing the Rhine so quickly. ‘But it’s not fully out of the question that we could still master this situation,’ he added, again seeming to doubt his own words. There were still those, he acknowledged, who shared Hitler’s confidence in final victory; plainly, he was not among their number. It was obvious to him that Hitler would not capitulate. He thought it would end with a battle on the Obersalzberg. There were ‘wonderful things in preparation’, but they would come too late. Even now, however, there were signs that he had not altogether given up hope. Conflict between the Russians and the Americans would still give Germany a chance, just as a motor-race could be decided by a puncture 100 metres from the finishing line. Away from such reveries, work seemed pointless. He was just going through the motions. Orders by now had in any case little effect. An ‘ostrich-policy’ operated as people buried their heads in the sand.

Pollex could entertain his quasi-philosophical reflections, well away from the front. Colonel-General Gotthard Heinrici, brought in on 20 March by Hitler to replace Himmler – whose command of Army Group Vistula had laid bare his evident incapacity for military leadership – and use his recognized abilities as a defensive strategist to try to hold the front in Pomerania, made his assessments much closer to the action. An archetypal Prussian career officer who had served in the First World War and had long experience of command in the Second, Heinrici was a strong patriot but had always kept his distance from the Party. Soon after the war, in British captivity, he provided his own explanation for the continued fight down to the end, however despairing the situation. He praised the fighting spirit, determination and resolute defence of German troops on the Oder against greatly superior enemy might. He was well aware of the deficiencies in armaments, the lack of fighting experience of around half his troops, and the fact that some of the more experienced soldiers, having narrowly survived so many battles, had lost the will to fight to the last as the end approached. None of this overshadowed, however, the overall strategic picture, which, he said, was clear both to the leadership and to the ordinary soldier. As long as German forces could hold the Rhine, the defence of the Oder did not seem hopeless, and was certainly worth fighting for. Once the enemy was over the Rhine and pressing on towards the Elbe, however, ordinary soldiers inevitably asked themselves whether there was any point to carrying on. What made them do so he attributed primarily to their sense of ‘patriotic duty to halt the advance of the Russians’. It was clear to every soldier what could be expected from the Russians. And it was seen as imperative to protect the civilian population as far as possible from the sort of horror that had occurred east of the Oder. Beyond that, he said, the military leadership believed that it could not undermine any possible bargaining position in negotiations through premature collapse. When hopes that the Oder could be held proved vain and German defences were smashed, disintegration swiftly followed. ‘If the soldier decided to fight on, then this was no longer to halt the enemy but to save his own life or not to fall into Soviet captivity.’ Terror, he stated, was no longer sufficient to compel soldiers to fight. Survival alone was now the driving force.

After the war, Dönitz argued – attributing much responsibility to the Allied insistence on unconditional surrender – that ‘no one in authority could have signed an instrument of capitulation without knowing full well that its terms would be broken’ by soldiers in the east refusing to accept orders to stay and enter Soviet captivity and instead, like the civilian population, choosing to flee westwards. Whatever his self-justificatory motivation in such remarks (which clash with his contemporary demands for a fanatical fight to the last), Dönitz did have a point in the implication that the millions still serving on the eastern front would have felt betrayed and might well have taken matters into their own hands in trying to get to the west. Whether this would have been worse for them than what did actually happen is a moot point.

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