(WAR in EUROPE, 1941-45 – continued)
Before the conference at Yalta, the British had hoped to bomb Dresden. Dresden was the hub of various German railways but of little importance in war production. The main purpose of the bombing was to demonstrate to the Russians that the British were doing their part in the war.
Bad weather had canceled the attack. Although part of the original purpose of the attack had passed, Dresden remained on the books as a target – while refugees fleeing from the Russians were filling the city. On February 13, 1945, the British attacked, and on the 15th they were joined by the Americans. Some bombs from US planes fell into residential areas unintentionally. Some escort fighter planes strafed the banks of the Elbe River, killing civilians. Another firestorm was created, and people died in the tens of thousands, perhaps close to 100,000 if not more.
The difficulties that Stalin had spoken of at Yalta arrived in March. Roosevelt complained of the Soviet Union's slowness in releasing American prisoners-of-war liberated by the Russians and of the Russians not allowing these men visitors. Also upsetting was the arrest of 16 Polish Underground Army leaders in Poland, whom the Russians had promised safe conduct. And discomfort with the Soviet Union came with Ambassador Harriman reporting to Washington that advancing Soviet troops were robbing people and committing wholesale atrocities against civilians, especially women.
Stalin believed that the British and Americans might be working on a separate treaty with the Germans that would end fighting on the Italian front but leave the Russians fighting on their front. On April 3, Stalin publicly attacked Roosevelt, accusing him of treachery or lying or being the dupe of his advisors. Here was Stalin being Stalin. Roosevelt was shocked, but he suppressed his anger and hoped that it might be a misunderstanding that would pass.
With the approval of Washington, Eisenhower was attacking toward the southeast, foregoing any opportunity to reach Berlin before the Russians. He was leaving to the Russians what he knew had been agreed to as their zone in Germany. Eisenhower was heading for what would be the American zone. Eisenhower had been annoyed by British criticism, including Churchill's, of his broad-front strategy, the British having preferred a reinforced breakthrough straight to Berlin and capturing Berlin before the Russians could. But that had been an argument earlier in the year, before the Allied crossing of the Rhine in early March. Now it was early April, 1945, and Soviet forces were just outside Berlin and about to launch their final offensive. On April 12, while trying to rest in Warm Springs Georgia, Roosevelt died, at the age of sixty-two. He had been working long hours and aging quickly.
News of Roosevelt's death was another straw grabbed by a drowning Hitler and Dr. Goebbels. They believed that Roosevelt's death would somehow make a difference – as had the death of the Russian empress, Elizabeth, in 1762, which had saved Frederick the Great. Goebbels spoke of divine intervention. He inspired Hitler with his congratulations, telling Hitler that a turning point had been "written in the stars." Horoscopes, Goebbels declared, had predicted the outbreak of war in 1939 and Germany's subsequent victories and reversals.
In Russia, Stalin saw a great outpouring of grief over Roosevelt's death expressed by the Russian masses.
Stalin, meanwhile, had been expressing his opinions to his Yugoslav comrades - the Communist leader Tito and his second in command, Milovan Djilas – opinions that Djilas would eventually make public. Stalin was upset by of a comment by Djilas critical of Soviet troops entering Yugoslavia. The issue raised by Djilas was rape. "The Red Army is not ideal," said Stalin. "The important thing is that it fights Germans and it is fighting them well." Stalin asked Djilas what was "so awful" about a Soviet soldier "having fun with a woman, after such horrors." note81
Stalin spoke to Djilas about Britain and the United States imposing their social system in the areas that their army occupied and the Soviet Union imposing its social system in the areas its armies occupied. Stalin was pessimistic. He said that the Soviet Union would recover from the war in fifteen or twenty years and that then there would be another war between the Soviet Union and the anti-Communist forces in the West. Of the Germans he said, "Give them twelve to fifteen years and they'll be on their feet again." And this, he told his Slavic comrades, is why the unity of the Slavs is important. "If the Slavs keep united and maintain solidarity," he said, "no one in the future will be able to move a finger against them. Not even a finger!" note82
Between early February and mid-April, 1945, the Allies bombed Berlin eighty-three times. Berliners were living without water or electricity and little food. The bombs were accomplishing little strategically, but making rubble bounce and killing more civilians. In mid-April, Hitler continued with his illusions, drawing from history, using a statement by Frederick the Great that "whoever throws his last battalion into the struggle wins."
On April 22 as Soviet armies were completing their encirclement of Berlin, Hitler declared to those in his bunker, "The war is lost. Everybody can go." This is what his bodyguard Ruchus Minch was to tell the Associated Press in 2005. Hitler has been described as apparently having a change of mind on that same day, after having been given a report that the Western Allies had called upon Germany to hold Berlin for two more weeks against the Soviets so that they could battle Communism together. According to Misch, "Hitler liked England ... and didn't think that a people like the English would bind themselves with the Communists to crush Germany." note83
Hitler refused the suggestion that he withdraw to his mountaintop retreat at Berchtesgaden. Meeting his end at Berchtesgaden was not the dramatic end that he wanted for himself, at his post, going down in a blaze of glory.
By April 29 the Russians were overrunning Berlin. He did not want the Russians to get a hold of him or his body the way that Mussolini's enemies got a hold of Mussolini. Hitler's end was less glorious than he wanted. He shot himself, taking his dog Blondi and his mistress Eva Braun with him. Goebbels also committed suicide, killing all his dogs and taking with him in death his children and his wife. (Hitler's death was witnessed by Rochus Misch and others. Misch, the last of the surviving witnesses was to die on September 5, 2013.)
On May 2, German forces in northern Italy and southern Austria surrendered. In northern Germany, German units rushed westward to surrender to the British, angering the Russians, who were deprived thereby of retribution and compensation in the form of prisoner-labor – slave labor – for the Russian homeland. Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower was still trying to get along with the Russians and informed them that all German troops would be handed over to the Red Army, which pleased the Russians.
The Germans signed a document of surrender on May 8. German military men dead or missing were listed as 2,850,000 (one in every 25 of its 1940 population). More than a half million Germans civilians had died. Germany's cities were in ruin, much of the buildings of more than 131 towns and cities had been turned to rubble. Its railway and road bridges were destroyed and its economy devastated. And many Germans were near starvation.
Wikipedia has Poland as having lost around 5,000,000 people (18.51 percent of its population), Yugoslavia 1,027,000 (6.67 percent of its population) and the Soviet Union the far greatest number: 23.6 million (more than 13 percent of its population). Six million Jews are reported also as having died – more than a majority of the Jews that had been living in Europe. The air war against Germany cost Britain 55,000 airmen, dead or missing. The United States Eighth Air Corps in Europe lost 43,742 of its airmen. Commonwealth soldiers and the United States still had a war to fight in the Pacific, and in the whole of World War II, according to Wikipedia, the United States lost 450,400 (0.32 percent of its population).
Hitler's National Socialist Party comrade, Julius Streicher, editor and publisher, is reputed to have said that a nation that does not respect the purity of its race cannot survive. It was Hitler's Third Reich that would not survive. Some had claimed that it would last a thousand years. It lasted twelve.
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