Hitler’s war against the Soviet Union, of course, did not turn out the way he and many others had predicted. Instead of a swift victory, the Wehrmacht found itself fighting a long battle of attrition. One which became all but impossible to win once America entered the war in December 1941.
But there was one war that Hitler still felt was very much in his control – the Nazi war against the Jews. And this war had intensified in the wake of the invasion of the Soviet Union. ‘What happens when you begin to think about the war in the East,’ says Professor Adam Tooze, ‘is that you can begin to realise visions of Lebensraum and if you are a conspiratorial anti-Semite you also, of course, encounter the brute geographical fact that the vast bulk of European Jewry lives in what used to be the Tsarist pale, in the space between Poland and western Russia.
‘Bolshevism was seen as the ideological arch-enemy,’ says Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, ‘and the people who were envisaged as being behind Bolshevism were the Jews who were, of course, the racist enemy number one for Germany for this Nazi regime. And so there, right from the very beginning, racial annihilation – genocide – was built into the equation... The aim of destroying the power of the Jews, shall we say, was there right from the very beginning.’
Once the war against the Soviet Union was launched, Hitler authorized a whole series of measures that escalated the persecution of the Jews. To begin with, special killing squads murdered selected male Jews behind the lines, and this then was extended over the summer of 1941 to include the murder of whole Jewish families. Then, after his infamous private speech to leading Nazis in December 1941 in which he called for the annihilation of the Jews, murder camps like Treblinka and Sobibor were put into operation, and the biggest camp of all – Auschwitz – started to kill Jews en masse.
After the German defeat at Stalingrad it was obvious that Germany had lost the war. But Hitler knew that he could only exit the war personally by his own suicide. And so the fight continued until the bitter end. The fact that Hitler was able to convince so many people to carry on the struggle – notwithstanding the attempt on his life on 20 July 1944 – speaks volumes about the sense of a lack of any alternative option for the German people that Hitler had created.
Or, as Ian Kershaw puts it: ‘I think authoritarian regimes, even quite terroristical authoritarian regimes, are usually ended in one of two ways – either by some sort of revolution from below as happened, say, in Russia in 1917, or by some coup d’état, some putsch from within the leadership of the regime. Now in this case, revolution from below I think is an impossibility in 1944-45. The terroristic repression was of such a kind then that it made it impossible for people from below to organise to bring down that regime if that’s what they wanted to do.
'Then there’s the massive dislocation that has to be taken onboard, so people are scattered all over, they’re being moved around, they’re in and out of the army, so the notion that there is a sort of stable population who could organise a revolution is, I think, a hopeless notion in Germany in 1944-45. The putsch idea was of course attempted in July 1944 by Stauffenberg in the attempt to assassinate Hitler and failed. Once that’s failed then the notion of another coup from within is extraordinarily difficult to organise, and in this the fear element there, even amongst the leadership of the Army and Corps, has to be reckoned with. Also the fact that now these people are showing themselves to be 110% because of what’s happened in the Stauffenberg plot. So that type of a repeat of the conspiracy that almost killed Hitler in ‘44 I think can be ruled out.
'And then the other thing is that this type of leadership system that Hitler had represented in Germany since 1933, what we call ‘charismatic authority’, had actually resulted in this disintegration of the system of government, fragmentation of that, so there is no unit there which can come together as they did, for example, in Italy where you have the figurehead of the king which there isn’t in Germany, another source of loyalty beyond Mussolini, and where you have the Fascist Grand Council that Mussolini had set up which comes together and actually deposes him. Nothing like that happens in Germany – Hitler rules out the idea of a senate of the Nazi party so there is no body that can come together and ever do this.
‘And then in one way or another these Nazi leaders such as Bormann and Goering and Goebbels and Speer and so on, they can never come together to form an entity which is seen to break Hitler down. Therefore both at the top and at the bottom there is actually a lack of alternative to what is really taking place. And the final thing on that is that only one person, and this was acknowledged by everybody, could decide on a negotiated end to this. If you were going to actually bring about an end to the war through negotiation, Hitler was the only who could do it, and he ruled that out time and time and time again, when all these other people were talking about it, Goebbels, Goering, Himmler and the rest of them.
‘And maybe one last point is that of the Nazi leaders, all of them knew what they’d got into in the East, so there’s a sort of ‘we burnt out bridges behind us.’ It’s like a conspiracy of a gang of criminals in a way, that they knew what they’d done and so there was no future for them once that regime was over. So hence that led to the actions of desperados in this regime in the very last phase, which increased at the same time the terror, and made it impossible for anybody to act against the regime.’
Hitler took his own life on the afternoon of 30 April 1945 as soldiers of the Red Army were just yards from his bunker. Until his last breath he believed that he had done the right thing by trying to create a vast Nazi Empire based on racist – and murderous – concepts. He had, he thought, just been let down by the people he had charged with implementing the task.