Victory!


Already since the autumn of 1944 some Nazi leaders were trying to probe the possibility of surrendering to the Western Allies, excluding the Soviet Union from the peace accord. The chief of the German security forces, Heinrich Himmler, contacted in that matter count Folke Bernadotte af Wisborg, a member of the Swedish royal family. Bernadotte visited Germany and met Himmler several times - their last meeting took place at night from 23 to 24 April 1945 in Lubeck. The basement of the Swedish consulate, where they met, was lit by only two candles, and the engines of the Allied bombers roared over the city. Nevertheless, Himmler hoped against hope. The Fuehrer's great life, he told the Swedish count, is drawing to a close. In a day or two Hitler will be dead. [Shirer W. L. (1990).] Therefore Himmler urged Bernadotte to communicate immediately to General Dwight Eisenhower Germany's willingness to surrender in the West. In the East, according to Himmler, the war would be continued until the Western democracies themselves had taken over the front against the Russians.

Was it a naïveté, or stupidity, or both, that this SS chieftain, who now claimed for himself the dictatorship of the Third Reich, expected that the leaders of the great powers would negotiate with him as equal, and respect whatever he said? The leaders of the free world handled him for who he was - a wanted bandit. And Allied governments had loyally informed Moscow that they would only accept unconditional surrender to all three Allies, including the Soviet Union.

Shortly before that, on 23 April, the commander-in-chief of the non-existing now German air force, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, send to Adolf Hitler a letter, in which he actually broke up with the German leader. In that letter, full of loyal trivialities, he stated that Hitler, closed in Berlin, had lost the freedom of action, and therefore he, Göring, had to take over the total leadership of the Reich, with full freedom of action at home and abroad. Adorned with more and more twinkles, and ordering more and more incredible uniforms - and simultaneously the biggest art robber ever, stealing pieces of art from musea and galleries throughout Europe - he probably imagined that the Allied leaders would negotiate with him on equal footing. Hitler, in his underground bunker, burst in fury and ordered to arrest and shoot Göring - once his deputy and personal pet. But there was no more executive power in Germany, capable of carrying this order out.

On 28 April Soviet forces took Potsdam. All efforts of the loyal Field-Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, who five days later left Berlin for the headquarters of the 12th Army, in order to synchronize its operations with the 9th Army of Gen. Theodor Busse, deployed in the eastern approaches to the German capital, were ineffective.

After the fall of Potsdam, the forces defending Berlin were literally cut into three pieces, isolated one from another. The German command did not control the defence any more. The centre of Berlin became a battlefield. On 30 April 1945 soldiers from the 150th Infantry Divisions of the 3rd Assault Army (Gen. Vasiliy Kuznetsov) hoisted a red banner on the buildings of the Reichstag. On the same day, about half past four in the afternoon, Hitler committed suicide in his underground bunker. His closest aides had dragged his body outside the underground, poured petrol over, and burnt it.

The most faithful of Hitler's consorts, minister for propaganda Dr. Josef Göbbels, also had committed suicide in the same bunker, having first killed his wife and six children.

The person, who became the next, and last, chancellor of the German Reich was Admiral Karl Dönitz, thereto commander-in-chief of the German navy, appointed to that post by Hitler's political last will. He assumed his office immediately. Similarly like Himmler he imagined that he would manage to strike a deal with the Western Allies against the Russians. And this time those dreams were not completely unreal.

Fugitive Himmler was exposed, arrested and locked in a British stockade. There he probably realised his fate as a war criminal, and at the moment, when his captors eased surveillance, poisoned himself to death. Dönitz felt more confident about his own fate. He was a militaryman, and resided in Flensburg, on the Danish frontier. That part of Germany was occupied by the British forces, and their commander, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, left them to the German administration. Nazi authorities and commands operated there till the end of May. It was not until a categorical Soviet protest that they were disbanded.

On 1 May the Germans were holding only the complex of state buildings in the centre of Berlin, and the adjacent quarter Tiergarten. At dawn the German command tried to contact the Soviet command regarding conclusion of a cease-fire. Marshal Georgiy Zhukov, the commander of the 1st Byelorussian Front and the Deputy Supreme Commander, in return demanded unconditional surrender. The demand was rejected. Nazi leaders, with Hitler's deputy, Martin Bormann, obviously tried to procrastinate, and hoped against hope for a miracle. In that situation Zhukov ordered to continue fights. At 11 a.m. Soviet artillery covered the last German strongholds with powerful barrage. The Chancellery, wrote Bormann, is already in ruins. [Shirer W. L. (1990).] At half past six in the afternoon infantry supported by tanks began the last assault on the central quarters of the city.

On 2 May 1945, at 6:30 the last commandant of the Berlin garrison, and the last commander of the Berlin Defence Area, Gen. Helmuth Weidling, surrendered together with his staff. Liquidation of the last nests of resistance lasted till the end of the day. As many as 70,000 men were taken prisoners; unknown number of them fled earlier, without desire to give their lives for the fallen Reich and its possessed Führer.

After that came the time to search for Hitler and other Nazi ringleaders.

After the capture of the Imperial Chancellery I went there with Colonel -General Berzarin, Lieutenant-General F. E. Bokov, member of the Military Council of the army, and others who had taken part in the attack in order to get first-hand evidence of the suicide of Hitler, Goebbels and other leaders. When we arrived we were told that the bodies of the suicides had been buried by the Germans and no one knew who did it or where. Different suggestions were offered.

The prisoners, mostly wounded, knew nothing about Hitler and his entourage. They told us they had seen none of the leaders and knew no one except their company commanders. In the Imperial Chancellery only a few score prisoners were taken. Apparently, at the last moment the SS men, the officers and the remnants of the leadership had gone into hiding in the city, having escaped by secret tunnels. We started looking for the bonfires on which the bodies of Hitler and Goebbels were supposed to have been burned, but could not find them. It's true we saw the ashes of some fires but they were obviously too small. Probably the German soldiers had been boiling water there.

After some time, when we had about finished inspecting the Imperial Chancellery it was reported to me that the bodies of Goebbels's six children had been found in an underground room. I must admit I had not the heart to go down and look at the children ruthlessly killed by their mother and father. The next day the bodies of Goebbels and his wife were found close to the bunker. Dr. Fritsche was brought to identify the bodies and he testified that they were those of Goebbels and his wife.

Circumstances made me doubt at first the truthfulness of the account of Hitler's suicide, all the more so because we could not find Bormann either. I thought then that perhaps Hitler had escaped at the last moment when there was no hope of any outside help for Berlin.

I stated that conjecture in Berlin at a press conference for Soviet and foreign correspondents. Some time later, after careful investigation and questioning of Hitler's personal medical staff, etc., we began to receive additional and more concrete evidence confirming Hitler's suicide.

Personally I am inclined to believe there are no grounds for doubting that Hitler committed suicide. [Zhukov G. KI. (1971).]

On 4 May capitulated German forces in front of the British 21st Army Group. On 5 May capitulated German forces in Bavaria, Austria, Italy and Yugoslavia. But Dönitz's group still tried to make an impression that it controlled Germany as a legitimate government. In name of that "government" General Alfred Jodl went to Eisenhower's headquarters in Reims to seek agreement with the Western Allies. His mission was preceded by hectic manoeuvres, during which Montgomery agreed to accept capitulation of the German troops coming from the east. On 5 May Dönitz, after a conference in Flensburg, asked to issue to the fighting troops a dispatch, which stated that the war with Western powers had lost its sense, ordered their surrender in north-western Germany, Denmark and Holland. At the same dispatch he ordered to continue fighting in the east. But in Reims Jodl was ordered to sign just the preliminary act of surrender, and he was sent to Berlin, where the proper unconditional surrender of the German state and army had to take place in front of representatives of all four Allies.

For such an important event there was chosen a relatively less damaged suburb Karlshorst, where Zhukov had his headquarters in the buildings of the military engineers' school. The Allied powers were represented by Marshal Zhukov as the deputy of the Supreme Commander of the Red Army for the USSR; commander-in-chief of the US Strategic Air Forces, General Carl Spaatz, for the USA; Deputy Supreme Allied Commander, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, for Great Britain; and the commander of the 1st Army, General Jean de Lattre de Tassigny, for France.

Half an hour before the midnight from 8 to 9 May 1945 four representatives of the Allied powers, appointed by their governments, entered the former officers' mess crowded by commanders of the Soviet units, which took part in the battle for Berlin, and journalists from all the world. Then came representatives of the German armed forces: Keitel for the Army, Colonel-General Hans-Jürgen Stumpff for the Air Force, and Admiral Hans-Georg von Friedeburg for the Navy, with accompanying staff officers.

Marshal Zhukov addressed the Germans with the official question, whether they had the text of the instrument of surrender with them, and whether they were authorized to sign it. Tedder repeated the same question in English. Upon the the affirmative answer from Keitel, spoken with muffled voice, Zhukov asked the German delegation to come over to the table of the representatives of the anti-fascist coalition.

Keitel quickly rose from his seat and turned his eyes on us. He then lowered his gaze and slowly picking up from the table his Field -Marshal's baton, walked unsteadily to our table. His monocle dropped and dangled by its cord. Keitel's face was covered with red blotches.

With him Colonel-General Stumpff, Admiral of the Fleet von Friedeburg and the German officers accompanying them approached our table. Putting his monocle in place, Keitel sat down on the edge of a chair and slowly signed five copies of the instrument of surrender. After Keitel, Stumpff and Friedeburg affixed their signatures.

After signing the document, Keitel rose, put on his right glove and again attempted to show his military bearing. But nothing came of it and very slowly he went over to the small table placed for him.

At 0:44 on 9 May 1945 the procedure of signing of the instrument of surrender was over. Zhukov asked the German delegation to leave the place. The Second World War ended. Keitel left with his head bent. The war was not over to him yet. There was still the International Military Tribunal ahead, which found him guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to death by hanging.

Also on 9 May surrendered last German groupings in Courland, East Prussia and Silesia. Only Field-Marshal Ferdinand Schörner fought in Czechoslovakia. Schörner had under his command nearly 900,000 soldiers from the Army Group Centre (in Czechoslovakia, east of Prague) and Army Group Austria (on the Austro-Czechoslovak border). He counted on delivering resistance long enough to see the Americans entering Prague; he seriously hoped to come to terms with the American command. But on 5 May an uprising that broke out in Prague cut his forces' retreat routes. Schörner decided to throw his troops against the insurgents, crush them, and open the way to the west.

With the aid to the Czechoslovak capital rushed forces of three Soviet fronts: 4th Ukrainian from Austria, 2nd Ukrainian from Slovakia, and 1st Ukrainian from Saxony. The offensive commenced at night from 6 to 7 May. The main thrust was driven on the right wing, from the north, across the Ore Mountains. The enemy had no time to prepare there solid fortifications, but German units resisted in the rough terrain, behind mine-fields, and forest log-jams. On 6 May the forces of the Soviet 1st Ukrainian Front finished liquidation of the  40,000-strong enemy grouping in Breslau. On 7 May they took Meissen and started fights for Dresden. On the same day retreating German troops stormed into Prague, reaching the city centre, and breaking resistance with brutal force and savage reprisals. The decisive days of the Prague operations were 8 and 9 May; while signing of the unconditional surrender was under way in Berlin, forces of the 4th Ukrainian Front broke through the enemy defences and liberated Olomouc. At the same time forces of the 1st Ukrainian Front waged heavy fights for the passes across the Ore Mountains. At the end of the day their advanced units reached Karlovy Vary, destroyed Schörner's headquarters, and disrupted command and communications of the Army Group Centre.

On 8 May Dresden was finally taken; in the out-of-the-city caves Soviet special units discovered priceless paintings and other items from the famous Dresden galleries. The German counter-attack at Bautzen was repelled, and the centre and left wing of the 1st Ukrainian Front went to pursuit across the Lower Silesia. In the evening the Soviet command demanded unconditional surrender of the German forces in Prague before 23:00. Although the Germans already knew about the capitulation, Schörner still deluded himself with the hope that he would hold long enough to surrender to the Americans. Those hopes proved futile as at night of 9 May Soviet forces closed the ring around Prague, and made contact with the advanced American units along the line Chemnitz - Plzen - Ceske Budejovice.

Last German units capitulated after the failed attempt to break through the encirclement ring near Rokycany. Only Field-Marshal Schörner escaped from the "cauldron"; he abandoned his troops and flew on his personal plane to the areas under the American control. Yet, his plane had to make crash-landing on the way to southern Germany. There he tried to hide, but he was recognized and handed over to the Americans.

On 5 June 1945 representatives of the Allied powers signed the Declaration Regarding the Defeat of Germany, in which they announced assumption of the supreme authority with respect to Germany, including all the powers possessed by the German Government, the High Command and any state, municipal, or local government or authority.

The war in Europe was over. The military victory was politically complemented with the peace conference convened on 17 July - 2 August 1945 in relatively well-preserved Potsdam. The Potsdam conference shaped European political relations for the next 45 years. At the same time the war in the Far East and the Pacific Ocean was coming to the end as well.