Nearly a year after the beaches of Normandy were stormed, the Allied push across western Europe was nearly complete. American troops had helped to liberate Paris, win the brutal Battle of the Bulge and press the fight into Nazi Germany through a bitter winter. After the Allies had crossed the last major geographic barrier—the Rhine River—in March 1945, the war in Europe was all but over.
The Third Reich was clamped in a rapidly closing vice with the Allies racing from the west and the Soviet Union charging from the east. Gallows humor seized Berlin as residents joked that the optimists among them were learning English, the pessimists Russian. Cloistered in his concrete bunker deep underneath the gardens of the Reich Chancellery, Adolf Hitler retreated from reality and hoped that Nazi scientists would bring him news of a miracle weapon that would change the tide of the war.
“The German army as a military force on the western front is a whipped army,” a confident Allied Supreme Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed at a press conference in Paris on March 27, 1945. Although an Allied victory seemed inevitable, a battle-tested Eisenhower knew that war never ends quietly. “I am not writing off this war,” he said. “No one knows what the German will do in his own country, and he is trying hard.” For the fanatically determined Hitler and millions of his countrymen, unconditional surrender was not an option. The final chapter of the Third Reich would be written in blood as the Nazis prepared for a tenacious last stand on the soil of their homeland.
By early April, the Allies had captured the industrial heart of Germany along the Ruhr River, and many cities such as Dresden had been pulverized to rubble by Allied bombing raids. While Nazi soldiers by the thousands began to shed their uniforms and put down their arms in mass surrender, Hitler’s SS hunted down deserters and hanged them from lampposts with signs saying they were too cowardly to defend women and children.
While some American forces were able to advance 10 miles a day as they passed through villages where white bed sheets billowed in the breeze as a sign of surrender, others encountered pockets of stiff resistance. On April 16, American troops reached the Third Reich’s spiritual heart, Nuremberg, the stage for massive Nazi Party rallies and some of Hitler’s most maniacal speeches. The German chancellor ordered the city protected at all costs, and in once instance when 30 German soldiers approached the enemy with white flags, they were mowed down by machine-gun fire from their fellow Nazis to prevent their surrender. With their manpower decimated, the Nazis enlisted the Hitler Youth to fight on the front lines. Boys as young as 15 mounted some of the strongest defenses of the city until it finally fell after four days of fighting on April 20, Hitler’s birthday.
As the Allies raced the Soviets to Berlin, the true evil of the Nazis became crystal clear, even through the fog of war. On April 4, the U.S. Third Army encountered a series of large industrial buildings in the small town of Ohrdurf that they quickly discovered were factories of death. Inside the first concentration camp liberated by U.S. troops were dead bodies of starvation victims stacked like firewood and a pyre with charred skulls and bones left by Nazis who had attempted to destroy evidence of their genocide.
As they pushed across Germany, the Allies liberated more than 100 concentration camps, including Buchenwald and Flossenburg. Even the most battle-hardened soldiers who thought they had seen it all in a terrible war witnessed depravity of unfathomable proportions. They found still-warm crematoriums and bins filled with hair, eyeglasses, baby shoes and dentures harvested from victims. Even grizzled Lieutenant General George S. Patton became physically sick at the stench and the sights as he toured Ohrdurf with Eisenhower on April 12.
A few hours later, the news crackled over the radio that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had suddenly died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his personal retreat in Warm Springs, Georgia. Some young GIs, who had few recollections of any other president than the American wartime leader, thought at first the bulletin was just Nazi propaganda, but the news was true. By this point, the Americans had reached the Elbe River within 50 miles of Berlin, but Eisenhower ordered them no closer so that the Soviets could capture the symbolic prize of Berlin for themselves. The Red Army would sustain more than 300,000 casualties in the battle for Berlin, and Eisenhower had no stomach to suffer such a toll for territory that he would have to cede to the Soviet Union anyway under the terms of postwar occupation agreed to by Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin at the Yalta Conference months earlier.
On April 20, the first Soviet shells exploded in Berlin. Hitler emerged from his bunker that day and forced a smile as he awarded the Iron Cross to fanatical members of the Hitler Youth for the bravery displayed in fighting the Red Army, which continued to close in. Back underground, however, the decisions being made by the Nazi command inside Hitler’s bunker were no longer about military strategy but whether to end their lives with cyanide capsules or bullets.
The German chancellor had vowed never to see Germany surrender as it did in World War I. He didn’t. As the bombs dropped above his bunker on April 30, Hitler committed suicide. Nazi soldiers gave their Fuhrer a final straight-armed salute as they burned his body on a pyre in the Chancellery garden amid strewn gasoline cans. Berlin fell on May 2, and Germany surrendered six days later. “Nothing is left of Berlin but memories,” said one Soviet officer. Thanks to the Allies, the same could have been said of the Third Reich.