In the 1930s Adolf Hitler made the most ambitious boasts imaginable about what lay ahead. And just a few years later, it seemed to millions of Germans that Hitler had indeed created a future that belonged to them.
In 1941, Hitler was all but worshipped by his followers. In pursuit of his racist vision Hitler had led the German army to a series of momentous victories. And his promises were taken as gospel. My diary of the time has that line, “come what may, the fuehrer will sort it. ” I wrote that myself.
He has achieved so much already! That was the point, all the things he’d achieved! But as the war progressed, the successes stopped coming. And then the end. We were abandoned. We had to suffer our fate. With insights from those who lived through these times, most of whom were interviewed by the BBC over the last twenty years, this article reveals how Hitler tried to retain his charismatic appeal.
Once the bond between the German people and Hitler was tested as never before. Adolf Hitler loved this landscape. It was here, amidst the mountains of southern Bavaria, that he said his ideas matured. And on 31 July 1940, at his house, the berghof, he announced his most ambitious idea yet to his military leaders. Now that the Germans had conquered much of western Europe, Hitler was thinking in epic terms.
He wanted plans drawn up to invade the soviet union, a country which in his warped view of the world was led by jewish/bolshevik criminals. But it was also a country he’d signed a nonaggression pact with as well as a country twice as large as europe. The generals listened to Hitler’s idea and many thought, shouldn’t be too difficult.
People thought, and the military leaders were among them, that it would be relatively easy to eliminate the Russian army with one short, forceful blow. Based on the information I had about the Russian army, I also believed that it would not be much of a problem. ‘ These soldiers knew that Hitler had been saying for years that the biggest danger Germany faced was the Soviet Union and many thought their leader was right.
German soldiers were full of confidence in Hitler’s judgement. So much so that he was called ‘the greatest military commander of all time‘ by one of his leading generals. Hitler was more than an ordinary leader, by now he was considered by many to be almost superhuman. And it wasn’t just Hitler who was thought to be a superior being.
His connection with those Germans he considered racially pure was based, in part, on a shared sense of superiority. Millions of ordinary Germans, especially the young, had been told that they were special too. ‘they had been taught that only the Germans were valuable human beings.
There was a little booklet called “German inventors, German poets, German musicians“, nothing else existed. And we devoured it, and we were absolutely convinced that we were the greatest. ‘ and since Hitler boasted that the Germans were a superior race, he believed that victory over those he considered racially inferior, like the people of the soviet union, would be relatively straightforward.
And so on 22 June 1941, the Germans launched the largest invasion in the history of the world. Within just a week the Germans had advanced more than 200 miles into soviet territory and reached minsk, capital of Belorussia.
This wasn’t just the biggest invasion in history, it was turning out to be one of the quickest as well. You thought it was a doddle. The Russians were all defecting in droves or were taken prisoner. And we would have a splendid life and the war would be over in six months a year at most.
There were soldiers who advanced singing. It is hard to believe, but it’s a fact. ‘ and soon, German troops were celebrating. Back in Berlin, on 3 October 1941, Hitler publicly gloried in the successes on the eastern front. At the sportpalast, he basked in the adulation of the crowd. Faith in Hitler’s charismatic leadership had been built on his ability to deliver success after success.
And here he was, so it seemed, successful once again. Hitler even went so far as to say explicitly that the red army had been defeated. All this euphoria about the invasion of the soviet union highlighted a key aspect of Hitler’s charismatic leadership. His ability to allow those who worked for him to dream of wildly ambitious schemes.
To work, as their fuehrer did, unhindered by moral restraint. German technocrats knew that Hitler had called for this to be a war of annihilation, and for months before the invasion had been working out how many people in the Soviet Union should be starved to death. These people were ‘surplus’ to nazi requirements and one calculation was that there were thirty million of them.
When the German army occupied the soviet city of Kharkov, they deliberately tried to starve the population. German soldiers, who had been told to steal provisions from the locals in order to feed themselves, sealed the city and only gave food to the small number of people who worked for them.
The rest began to die of hunger. In the final stages of starvation, your lips get somehow stretched and it’s what they call a hungry grin. You don’t know whether a person is grinning or crying. But the teeth are bare. Then, diarrhoea, the so-called hungry diarrhoea.
And then comes a bitter taste in the mouth. This murderous policy was based on the belief that the German were superior. But what if they weren’t?
The arrival of the Russian winter brought the first major military setback for the Germans since the end of the first world war. When soldiers during the night had no opportunity to warm up somewhere they got frozen toes and fingers. We were totally under equipped. Hitler and his generals had been so confident of swift victory that soldiers hadn’t been provided with proper cold weather equipment.
And when the red army counter attacked it looked like the whole German offensive might collapse. It was the greatest test yet for Hitler’s leadership. And he responded by telling his soldiers simply to hold their nerve and stand fast. In the cold soviet forests, they might die but that was what soldiers were supposed to do when asked.
Do you think Frederick the Great’s grenadiers were happy to die either? In the same way, I consider myself entitled to ask every German soldier to lay down his life. Hitler’s lack of compassion, lack of pity, hadn’t mattered to most of these German soldiers as long as they were winning easy victories.
But now, Hitler’s Darwinian beliefs meant that he could see his soldiers die without a care. After all, hadn’t he always said that the weak didn’t deserve to live? Ever since he came to power, Hitler had been portrayed as a man of strength. A man who could not make a mistake.
Goebbels, the propaganda minister, had said that building this image had been one of his greatest achievements. Via the creation of the fuehrer myth, Hitler has been given the halo of infallibility. But now Hitler was beginning to appear all too fallible. He’d told the German people that the red army would never rise again. But it just had. To help solve this difficulty, Goebbels turned to history.
In march 1942, a film was released about a charismatic leader from Germany’s past, the Prussian king, Frederick the great and every German knew that Frederick had also suffered setbacks, but had triumphed in the end. Frederick the Great was supposed to symbolize Hitler. The German who watched it was supposed to think that there was a similar situation to the present, that the war could be as desperate as that, that there were still possibilities to turn it round and that it could be brought to victory.
Since the start of the campaign against the soviet union, Germany’s new Frederick the great, Adolf Hitler, had chosen to spend his time here, isolated in a forest in east Prussia. This was his field headquarters, known as the wolf’s lair.
Hitler said to one of his generals that it was important to keep one’s distance from the suffering on the front line so as not to feel pity. But even though he and his staff were hundreds of miles away from the fighting, it still wasn’t possible to hide from the stark realities of this war. Just after the Soviets started their counter-offensive, in December 1941, Hitler had gained a new enemy, the Americans, with their vast industrial capacity.
It was around this time that Hitler held important discussions about increasing the Nazi persecution of the Jews. How Hitler did this reveals a great deal about how his leadership worked. Hitler hated formal government meetings. Even though there was officially still a German cabinet, Hitler had not allowed the cabinet to meet since 1938.
A charismatic leader, like Hitler, didn’t want to take part in some sort of committee meeting, where he might have to listen to the views of others. Instead, at the wolf’s lair, Hitler met Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, on 18 December 1941. And the killing of Jews was discussed.
Just between the two of them unter vier augen – ”under four eyes”. Several hundred thousand Jews had already been killed by the Nazis mostly in the soviet union, but now, starting in 1942, the Nazis tried to round up the Jews of Europe and systematically murder them. Hitler authorized the killings of the holocaust but many others sorted out the detail of how it was to happen.
With the disappearance of the Russians winter, the Germans started to recover their optimism. The red army counter attack had ground to a halt and by the summer of 1942 German units were advancing again, travelling across the steppes in the south of Russia. In less than eight weeks they advanced 500 miles.
In august 1942, the German 6th army reached the river Volga 1,400 miles east of berlin. And then, suddenly, a broad silvery ribbon, the Volga. We knew this was the goal, perhaps the ultimate goal of the war, maybe, to get to the Volga. It was an exciting feeling. But on the bank of the Volga lay a city still occupied by the soviets, a city then called Stalingrad.
Hitler ordered the commander of the German 6th army, Fredrich Paulus to take Stalingrad at once. And in a speech a few weeks later Hitler said, you can rest assured, no human being can remove us from this place. But there was a growing disconnect between the promises Hitler was making and the ability of his troops to achieve them. The basis of his charismatic leadership had always been his certainty that his vision was attainable.
But now, with supply lines stretched almost to breaking point, German generals questioned whether their troops had the resources to do what their fuehrer wanted. A meeting, here in berlin in august 1942, at the aviation ministry, showed just how Hitler’s unrealistic style of leadership influenced those Nazis closest to him.
Reich Marshall Hermann Goering met Nazi officials from the occupied territories. And Goering, attempting to manage them in the same way Hitler would, simply told them what he wanted. I have here reports from you on how much you expect to deliver. This is nothing in view of your territories. Last year France delivered 550,000 tons of grain and now I demand 1.2 million.
There will be no discussion about it. They were unobtainable demands. And Goering was constantly making them. So much so some people who worked directly for him chose to kill themselves when they couldn’t deliver what was asked of them. Luftwaffe general Ernst udet shot himself in 1941 as did Hans Jeschnonnek, chief of the Luftwaffe general staff in 1943.
Jeschonnek left a suicide note in which he said, “It is no longer possible to work with the Reich Marshall Long live the fuhrer”. Also desperate, as autumn turned to winter in Stalingrad, were soldiers of the German sixth army.
They were finding that fulfilling Hitler’s order to take the city was all but impossible. This was street fighting, at close quarters, and the Germans were used to driving their tanks across the steppes. You had to make your way to the frontline ducking, crouching, kneeling, shots rang out from all sides.
Each attack resulted in such a high number of losses, that it was easy to calculate how long it would be before there was no one left. In November 1942, Hitler learnt that the red army had launched a huge offensive near Stalingrad and the German sixth army, fighting inside the city, was now cut off. But he wouldn’t let them make a fighting retreat.
He ordered them to stay where they were. Hitler’s stubbornness, his intransigence, his refusal to listen to the advice of others, qualities that had helped make him seem a strong leader before the war were now revealed as weaknesses. Weaknesses compounded during the Stalingrad crisis by Hitler’s willingness to rely on the promises of Herman Goering.
Goering had boasted that the Luftwaffe could supply the sixth army from the air. So all these soldiers had to do in Stalingrad, desperate, freezing and surrounded by their enemy, was to rely on Hermann Goering to keep his word. Back in Germany, the population was largely ignorant of what was happening in Stalingrad.
This was the film that Goebbels’s propaganda ministry chose to release in Christmas 1942. An emotional attempt to show how German women and children still believed in victory and stood behind, husbands and fathers at the front line, and, crucially, their fuehrer. But, increasingly it was a fantasy, and this was the reality.
On 2 February 1943 the last German soldiers surrendered to the red army at Stalingrad. Goering’s Luftwaffe hadn’t been able to provide the sixth army with adequate supplies, and all attempts to rescue them had failed. The red army took more than 90,000 prisoners. The commander of the sixth army, Friedrich Paulus, also fell into Soviet hands. He had been promoted by Hitler to the rank of field marshal just before the German surrender.
It was a hint that Hitler wanted paulus to commit suicide. German field marshals were not expected to be captured alive in battle. Hitler was furious when he heard that paulus hadn’t killed himself. At his headquarters he raged against him, it hurts me so much because the heroism of so many soldiers is obliterated by one single spineless weakling. What does this mean, “life”? The individual has to die anyway.
What lives on is the people. Hitler also spoke of how he wanted those around him to behave if the situation ever seemed hopeless. You stand together, form an all-round defense, and shoot yourself with the last bullet. It was another sign of the potential downside of having faith in Hitler.
He couldn’t have made it clearer, this war was all or nothing. Life or death. And death now seemed the more likely option as the boasts of victory on the eastern front rang ever more hollow. But despite the war going so badly for the Germans, Hitler still tried to sell the fantasy to those around him that all these difficulties could be overcome. And to do this he relied almost until his last breath, on his remaining charismatic powers. I experienced examples of it, of men who came to tell him it could not go on any longer and they did tell him.
And then he talked for an hour and then they went and said “i want to give it another try“. Well, he had an enormously strong will, you know, and he had powers of persuasion that could gloss over any rational arguments. This amateur footage of Hitler with general Manstein gives a rare opportunity to see Hitler interacting with his military commanders. At the end of every meeting he would always personally turn to the field marshal in charge and say, ”but you’re not going to abandon me, ” and he took both his hands and shook them.
He had an immense ability to manipulate and influence people. When Hitler said goodbye to Manstein, he looked him straight in the eye and held on to his hand for longer, much longer, than normal. But Hitler’s motivational tricks were falling increasingly flat. On 6 june 1944 came d day, the allied landings in normandy. Fast rocket boats showered the enemy with their rain of death.
Two weeks later the red army launched a massive offensive on the eastern front. All this demonstrated the sheer scale of the resources at the disposal of the allies. Resources the Germans could not hope to match. It was against the background of these military catastrophes that the most famous attempt on Hitler’s life was made here at the wolf’s lair on 20 july 1944.
Paradoxically, it would also show the lingering power of Hitler’s charismatic authority. Count claus von stauffenberg, appalled at the way Hitler was leading germany, planted a bomb under the table at Hitler’s midday conference. Stauffenberg then hurried to the nearby military airfield and flew to Berlin intending to help coordinate the coup there. Ahead of stauffenberg, a number of other plotters had arrived here, at these offices of the german army, on the bendlerstrasse in berlin.
Amongst the conspirators in the building was the man who was supposed to be the new German head of state, Ludwig Beck, former chief of staff of the army. He waited to see how many other officers would pledge their support for the coup. But the question they asked was this. Did Hitler still live? And the answer was yes.
Hitler had survived the bomb attempt with only minor injuries. The wooden walls of the conference room had blown out, dissipating the explosion. That evening, major remer, commander of the berlin guard battalion, was uncertain what to do, until he spoke to Adolf Hitler on the phone. Hitler told him to suppress the coup at once. (speaking in german language) it was the sound of Hitler’s voice that made remer act. Forces loyal to Hitler re-took the army offices on the bendlerstrasse.
Stauffenberg and three other plotters were taken out into this courtyard and immediately shot. Over the next weeks, several thousand other suspects were arrested, and 200 killed. In the early hours of 21 july Hitler spoke on the radio, to tell the German people that he still lived. But public reaction to the attempt on Hitler’s life showed how deep the roots of his charismatic power still reached. This response was typical. I was outraged, I was totally outraged that something like this could happen. It was a horrible experience for me.
There was widespread relief that the attack had failed and Hitler gained a lot of sympathy because of it. But this feeling of gratitude that Hitler had survived the assassination attempt didn’t mean that people had faith that the war could still be won. Despite the image goebbels’ propaganda tried to project of an idyllic world peopled by perfect germans nazi internal intelligence reports detected a growing disenchantment with the regime. And real fear about what lay ahead. And by the autumn of 1944, the Germans had a great deal to be fearful about. The red army was advancing into germany.
The countryside of east prussia was the first german land to be occupied by the soviets. And in some of the towns and villages the red army committed atrocities. For nazi propaganda it was a gift the reason to keep fighting was clearer than ever to stop people Hitler called ‘animals from the steppes of asia’ from gaining control of germany. What the nazi propaganda didn’t say, of course, was that a strong motivation for this terrible soviet revenge, was the countless horrors the germans had perpetrated in the soviet union.
Further inside Germany, faith in Hitler was being eroded. Charismatic leadership relies on a connection between the leader and the leader, a connection based on faith that the leader knows best. That was now all but broken. In large part because towns and cities were being bombed to destruction, and many blamed not just the nazis in general, but Hitler in particular. The fuehrer has it easy.
He doesn’t have to look after a family. If the worst comes to the worst in the war, he’ll leave us all in a mess and put a bullet through his head. It’s always claimed that the fuehrer was sent to us from god. I don’t doubt it. The fuehrer was sent to us from God though not in order to save Germany but to ruin it. In the face of such criticism nazi terror increased against the general population and thousands of germans were shot for defeatism.
With much of Germany in ruins, in january 1945, Adolf Hitler, spoke on the radio. And he revealed the gap that had grown between him and the German people. They knew the war was lost. He didn’t appear to. Amidst this crisis, Joseph Goebbels thought he knew how to raise the morale of the German people.
He released Kolberg, a historical epic about the heroic resistance of a small Prussian town to the invasion of the french, 140 years before. Goebbels was so keen on this film that he ordered thousands of German soldiers to act in it as extras. Goebbels even said to me that it was more important that the soldiers act in his film rather than fight at the front, which was no longer worth doing since we were in the middle of a total collapse.
And the message Goebbels wanted the German people to take from the film could scarcely have been more obvious. By january 1945 the red army had reached here, the river oder, just 40 miles east of berlin. They now outnumbered the German defenders more than three to one.
Over the next weeks the Soviets gathered their strength before crossing the border in april 1945, and launching two and a half million soldiers against the German capital. In Berlin, Hitler was living in a bunker underneath the Reich chancellery, which stood on this site on the Voss Strasse.
As his empire crumbled, he tried to control what was left of the German army. But he also spent his time dreaming of this. The city of Linz in austria. Hitler had gone to school here and his parents were buried in one of Linz’s suburbs. Hitler had huge plans for linz. A large-scale model of the new, Hitler approved linz had been assembled in a cellar room of the Reich chancellery in Berlin early in 1945.
So that Hitler, as the red army closed in on him, could fantasise about what the new city would look like. Hitler had planned to retire to Linz, and a giant Adolf Hitler museum was to be built here. He also wanted the bodies of his parents to be dug up from their existing graves and re-interred in a specially constructed bell tower in the centre of the city. His ability to construct visions of the future had always been a central part of his charismatic appeal.
But by now, his visions had parted company completely with reality. Close by, worked another fantasist. This was Joseph goebbels’ propaganda ministry. And here, in april 1945, this was on his mind. The power of film to alter history. Goebbels tried to convince his staff to stay and make a last stand because, he said, in a ‘hundred years time’ a film would be made about this epic period.
Gentlemen, don’t you want to play a part in this film. To be brought back to life in a hundred years time. I can assure you that it will be a fine and elevating picture. And for the sake of this prospect it is worth standing fast. Hold out now so that a hundred years hence the audience does not hoot and whistle when you appear on the screen. Goebbels planned what he thought was a heroic ending for himself, his wife and six children.
They all came with him to Hitler’s bunker where Goebbels had his children killed. After these children had been murdered, Goebbels and his wife committed suicide. Hitler had killed himself the day before, on 30 April 1945. And his body was taken by other Nazis and burnt here in what was then the garden of the Reich chancellery.
Just over a week later, Germany surrendered. In his last days here, underground in this bunker, Hitler had composed a final testament, one that revealed his views of the world had not altered. He still blamed the Jews for everything, and possessed unshakeable confidence in himself.
In these three decades all my thoughts, my actions and my life have been guided solely by the love and loyalty to my people. Even in his last hours, Hitler had not changed. Almost all the elements that had enabled him to become a charismatic leader still existed within him until his last breath.
What had changed was other people’s perception of him. This was Hitler’s legacy, one of unparalleled destruction. 7 million Germans died around 34 million dead in the countries that fought Nazism, with six million Jews alone killed in the holocaust Hitler had said that those he considered racially pure Germans were better than anyone else, and many had believed him.
Hitler had not hypnotized these people into supporting him. They had chosen to follow a leader they felt had charisma. And this, in the end, was where their belief in Hitler had led them.