Hitler's Order of 19 March 1945

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Roberto
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Hitler's Order of 19 March 1945

Post by Roberto » 17 Oct 2002 11:48

Hi everybody,

One of the issues that came up on the thread

Can the bombing of cities be considered as "Warcrimes..
http://www.thirdreichforum.com/phpBB2/v ... 66102fec58

was the contents and background of Hitler’s order of 19 March 1945, by which he instructed his troops and administration officials to destroy all infrastructure and other material assets that might be of use to the enemy troops advancing on the territory of the Reich.

I’ve had a look at two assessments of this order and found them interesting enough to deserve a thread of their own, especially as they conflict with each other in several aspects.

One is that of American journalist William Shirer:

[…]It was in this state of mind that the German Fuehrer made one of the last momentous decisions of his life. On March 19 [1945] he issued a general order that all military, industrial, transportation and communications installations as well as all stores in Germany must be destroyed in order to prevent them from falling intact into the hands of the enemy. The measures were to be carried out by the military with the help of the Nazi gauleiters and “commissars for defense.” “All directives opposing this,” the order concluded, “are invalid”.
Germany was to be made one vast wasteland. Nothing was to be left with which the German people might somehow survive their defeat.
Albert Speer, the outspoken Minister of Armament and War Production, had anticipated the barbarous directive from previous meetings with Hitler and on March 15 had drawn up a memorandum in which he strenuously opposed such a criminal step and reiterated his contention that the war was already lost. He presented it to the Fuehrer personally on the evening of March 18.

In four to eight weeks [Speer wrote] the final collapse of the German economy must be expected with certainty … After that collapse the war cannot be continued even militarily. … We must do everything to maintain, even if only in a most primitive manner, a basis for the existence of the nation to the last … We have no right at this stage of the war to carry out demolitions which might affect the life of the people. If our enemies with to destroy this nation, which has fought with unique bravery, then this historical shame shall rest exclusively upon them. We have the duty of leaving to the nation every possibility of insuring its reconstruction in the distant future. …[Footnote: Speer, TMWC, XVI, pp. 497-98. This section, including the quotations from Hitler and Speer, is taken from the latter’s testimony on the stand at Nuremberg on June 20, 1946, the text of which is given in TMWC, XVI; and from the documents which he presented in his defense, which are given in Volume XLI.]

But Hitler, his own personal fate sealed, was not interested in the continued existence of the German people, for whom he had always professed such boundless love. He told Speer:

If the war is lost, the nation will also perish. This fate is inevitable. There is no necessity to take into consideration the basis which the people will need to continue a most primitive existence. On the contrary, it will be better to destroy these things ourselves because this nation will have proved to be the weaker one and the future will belong solely to the stronger eastern nation [Russia]. Besides, those who will remain after the battle are only the inferior ones, for the good ones have been killed.

Whereupon the Supreme Warlord promulgated his infamous “scorched earth” directive the next day. It was followed on March 23 by an equally monstrous order by Martin Bormann, the Fuehrer’s secretary, a mole-like man who had now gained a position at court second to none among the Nazi satraps. Speer described it on the stand at Nuremberg.

The Bormann decree aimed at bringing the population to the center of the Reich from both East and West, and the foreign workers and prisoners of war were to be included. These millions of people were to be sent upon their trek on foot. No provisions for their existence had been made, nor could it be carried out in view of the situation. It would have resulted in an unimaginable catastrophe.

And had all the other orders of Hitler and Bormann – there were a number of supplementary directives – been carried out, millions of Germans who had escaped with their lives up to then might well have died. Speer tried to summarize for the Nuremberg court the various “scorched earth” orders. To be destroyed, he said, were

all industrial plants, all important electrical facilities, water works, gas works, food stores and clothing stores; all bridges, all railway and communications installations, all waterways, all ships, all freight cars and all locomotives.

That the German people were spared this final catastrophe was due to – aside from the rapid advances of the Allied troops, which made the carrying out of such a gigantic demolition impossible – the superhuman efforts of Speer and a number of Army officers who, in direct disobedience (finally!) of Hitler’s orders, raced about the country to make sure that vital communications, plants and stores were not blown up by zealously obedient Army officers and party hacks.[...]


Source of quote:

William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, 1960 Simon and Schuster, New York, pages 1103 to 1105

The other assessment is that of German historian Max Domarus:

[…]Am 18 März abends empfing Hitler Speer, der ihm eine Denkschrift überreichte. Speer wußte genau so gut wie Hitler selbst und alle Unterführer, daß der Krieg verloren war. Sein Optimismus unterschied sich jedoch von dem Hitlers. Dieser erwartete, wenn es bis zum “letzten Bataillon” und bis “fünf Minuten nach zwölf” würde weiterkämpfen lassen, das “Wunder der göttlichen Vorsehung”: Sie würde ihm zum Lob für sein Durchhalten, für sein “Nicht-kapitulieren-wollen” den Siegeslorbeer überreichen. Sie würde – allen normalen Erwägungen zum Trotz – die Russen zusammenbrechen lassen und die feindlichen Engländer in Freunde verwandeln!
Speer dagegen wollte die Zerstörungsmaßnahmen, die auf Anordnung Hitlers bei militärischen Rückzügen in den feindlichen Ländern durchgeführt worden waren oder hätten durchgeführt werden sollen, auf deutschen Boden nicht angewandt haben. Solche Zerstörung bedeute “die Beseitigung jeder weiteren Lebensmöglichkeit des deutschen Volkes”, so erklärte Speer.
Vor dem Militärtribunal in Nürnberg las er später ein Schreiben vor, das er Hitler am 29. März angeblich geschickt hatte und das u.a. folgendes besagte:
“Sie machten mir jedoch am Abend [des 18. März] Ausführungen, aus denen – wenn ich Sie nicht mißverstanden habe – klar und eindeutig hervorgeht: Wenn der Krieg verloren ist, wird auch das Volk verloren sein. Dieses Schicksal ist unabwendbar. Es sei nicht notwendig, auf die Grundlagen, die das Volk zu seinem primitivsten Weiterleben braucht, Rücksicht zu nehmen. Im Gegenteil sei es besser, selbst diese Dinge zu zerstören. Denn das Volk hätte sich als das schwächer erwiesen, und dem stärkeren Ostvolk gehöre dann ausschließlich die Zukunft. Was nach dem Kampf übrigbleibe, seien ohnehin nur die Minderwertigen, den die Guten seien gefallen.”
Diese Worte Hitlers sind in der genannten Form nur von Speer überliefert und können daher nur bedingt als authentisch gelten. [Fußnote: Speer hatte ein Interesse daran, bei der Verteidigung sich selbst herauszustreichen und Hitlers Rolle möglichst düster erscheinen zu lassen. Er zitierte außerdem die Worte Hitlers mit der Einschränkung: “wenn ich Sie nicht mißverstanden habe.” Selbst wenn dies nur eine Höflichkeitsfloskel gewesen sein sollte, so mindert sie doch die Authentizität herab. Guderian (Erinnerungen eines Soldaten, Heidelberg 1951, S. 375) behauptet allerdings, ähnliche Äußerungen Hitlers gehört zu haben, doch haftet auch seinem Buch der Verteidigungscharakter an.] Offizieller Charakter ist ihnen nicht beizumessen, zumal der Hinweis auf das “stärkere Ostvolk” sonst nirgends vorkommt und im Gegensatz zu Hitlers Überzeugung von der Primitivität der Russen steht.
Hitler hat zwar bei anderen Gelegenheiten mehrfach abfällige Bemerkungen über das deutsche Volk gemacht, besonders für den Fall des “Versagens”. Außerdem besteht kein Zweifel, daß ihm das Schicksal des deutschen Volkes im Grunde gleichgültig war. Er bediente sich seiner, um seine Machtgier zu befriedigen. Doch legte er auch in den letzten Monaten seines Lebens Wert darauf, nach wie vor als Heros des deutschen Volkes behandelt und anerkannt zu werden.
Er beschimpfte zwar die Intellektuellen, die Offiziere und sonstige führende Persönlichkeiten, das sogenannte “Volk” aber strich er bis zuletzt heraus, bedachte es mit Lobsprüchen und prophezeite in seiner letzten Proklamation, im politischen Testament vom 29. April 1945, die “strahlende Wiedergeburt der nationalsozialistischen Bewegung und damit Verwirklichung einer wahren Volksgemeinschaft”.
Auch der vielzitierte und verdammte “Zerstörungsbefehl” Hitlers vom 19. März wahrte in dieser Beziehung das Gesicht. Alle Zerstörungsmaßnahmen sollten angeblich nur den vorrückenden Feind schädigen, ja sogar notwendig sein, um den “Kampf um die Existenz des Volkes” zu gewinnen. Der Feind sei es, der später, wenn er wieder zurückgeschlagen werde, “bei seinem Rückzug uns nur eine verbrannte Erde zurücklassen und jede Rücksichtnahme auf die Bevölkerung fallen lassen” werde. Hitler’s Befehl vom 19. März hatte folgenden Wortlaut [Fußnote: Wiedergegeben in Hubatsch, Hitlers Weisungen für die Kriegsführung 1939-1945, Frankfurt a.M. 1962, S. 103; vgl. auch IMT, Beweisstücke Speer, 25, 26, 28, 29. Warum sich Shirer (Aufstieg und Fall des Dritten Reiches, a.a.O. S. 1009) über diesen “niederträchtigen” Befehl Hitlers so erregt, ist nicht ganz verständlich. Die Deutschen konnten innerhalb der Reichsgrenzen von 1937 doch wirklich machen und zerstören, was sie wollten. Es hat viel “niederträchtigere” Befehle Hitlers gegeben (Kommissarbefehl, Kommandobefehl usw) durch die andere Völker vergewaltigt und Grundsätze des Völkerrechts mißachtet wurden. Der Befehl Hitlers v. 19.3.1945 was sowohl völker – als auch staatsrechtlich und militärisch durchaus in Ordnung]:
“Der Kampf um die Existenz unseres Volkes zwingt auch innerhalb des Reichsgebiets zur Ausnutzung aller Mittel, die die Kampfkraft unseres Feindes schwächen und sein weiteres Vordringen behindern. Alle Möglichkeiten, der Schlagkraft des Feindes unmittelbar oder mittelbar den nachhaltigsten Schaden zuzufügen, müssen ausgenutzt werden. Es ist ein Irrtum, zu glauben, nicht zerstörte oder nur kurzfristig gelähmte Verkehrs -, Nachrichten -, Industrie – und Versorgungsanlagen bei der Rückgewinnung verlorener Gebiete für eigene Zwecke wieder in Betrieb nehmen zu können. Der Feind wird bei seinem Rückzug uns nur eine verbrannte Erde zurücklassen und jede Rücksichtnahme auf die Bevölkerung fallen lassen. Ich befehle daher:
1. Alle militärischen, Verkehrs-, Nachrichten-, Industrie- und Versorgungsanlagen sowie Sachwerte innerhalb des Reichsgebiets, die sich der Feind für die Fortsetzung seines Kampfes irgendwie sofort oder in absehbarer Zeit nutzbar machen kann, sind zu zerstören.
2. Verantwortlich für die Durchführung dieser Zerstörung sind die militärischen Kommandobehörden für alle militärischen Objekte einschl. der Verkehrs- und Nachrichtenanlagen; die Gauleiter und Reichsverteidigungskommissare für alle Industrie- und Versorgungsanlagen sowie sonstige Sachwerte. Den Gauleitern und Reichsverteidigungskommissaren ist bei der Durchführung ihrer Aufgabe durch die Truppe die notwendige Hilfe zu leisten.
3. Dieser Befehl ist schnellstens allen Truppenführern bekanntzugeben, entgegenstehende Weisungen sind ungültig.”[...]


Source of quote:

Max Domarus, Hitler Reden und Proklamationen 1932 – 1945, Leonberg 1973, pages 2213 – 2215.

Footnotes were included in the transcription only insofar as I considered them of particular interest or necessary to the understanding of the text.

My translation:

[…]On 18 March [1945] in the evening Hitler received Speer, who handed him a memorandum. Speer knew as well as Hitler himself and all subordinate leaders that the war was lost. His optimism differed from that of Hitler, who expected that, if he ordered the fight to continue to the “last battalion” and until “five minutes past twelve”, the “miracle of Divine Providence” would occur and hand him the laurels of victory as a reward for his holding out, for his “refusing to capitulate”. It would – contrary to all reasonable considerations – make the Russians break down and turn the British enemy into an ally!
Speer, on the other hand, didn’t wish to see carried out on German soil the destructive measures which at Hitler’s orders had been carried out or expected to be carried during military retreats in enemy countries. Such destruction would mean “the removal of any further means for the German people to live”, as Speer declared.
Before the military tribunal in Nuremberg he later read a letter that he allegedly had sent to Hitler on 29 March and that, among other things, stated the following:
“You, however made statements to me on the evening [of 18 March], from which – if I did not misunderstand you – the following becomes clearly and unequivocally apparent: If the war is lost, the nation will also perish. This fate is inevitable. There is no necessity to take into consideration the basis which the people will need to continue a most primitive existence. On the contrary, it will be better to destroy these things ourselves because this nation will have proved to be the weaker one and the future will belong solely to the stronger eastern nation [Russia]. Besides, those who will remain after the battle are only the inferior ones, for the good ones have been killed.”
These words of Hitler’s have been transmitted in the mentioned form only by Speer and can thus only conditionally be deemed authentic. [Footnote: Speer had an interest in presenting himself in a most favorable light in his defense and making the part played by Hitler seem as sinister as possible. He furthermore quoted Hitler’s words with the restriction: “if I did not misunderstand you.” Even if this should have been a mere phrase of courtesy, it still diminishes the authenticity. Guderian (Erinnerungen eines Soldaten, Heidelberg 1951, page 375) also maintains, on the other hand, to have heard similar utterances of Hitler’s; but his book also has a self-apologetic character.] They have not official character, especially as the reference to the “stronger eastern nation” appears nowhere else and runs contrary to Hitler’s conviction on the primitiveness of the Russians.
It is true that on several other occasions Hitler made derogatory comments about the German people, especially for the case of its “failure”. There is also no doubt that the fate of the German people was principally indifferent to him; he used it only to satisfy his greed for power. Yet even in last months of his life he placed a value on continuing to be treated and acknowledged as the hero of the German people.
While he insulted the intellectuals, the officers and other leading personalities, the so-called “people” he placed on top until the last, covered it with praise and prophesized in his last proclamation, in the political testament of 29 April 1945, the “shining rebirth of the National Socialist movement and thus the implementation of a true people’s community”.
Hitler’s widely cited and condemned “destruction order” of 19 March also kept the appearances in this respect. All destruction measures should allegedly harm only the advancing enemy, even be necessary to win the “fight for the people’s existence”. It was the enemy who later, after having been beaten back, would “in its retreat leave us only scorched earth and drop any consideration for the population”. Hitler’s order of 19 March had the following wording [Footnote: Transcribed in Hubatsch, Hitlers Weisungen für die Kriegsführung 1939-1945, Frankfurt a.M. 1962, page 103; see also IMT, evidence Speer, 25, 26, 28, 29. Why Shirer (Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, as mentioned, page 1009) gets so excited about this “infamous” order of Hitler’s is not quite understandable. Within the Reich’s borders of 1937 the Germans could do and destroy what they wanted, after all. There were much more “infamous” orders of Hitler’s (Commissar Order, Commando Order, etc.) by which other peoples were raped and the principles of international law disrespected. Hitler’s order of 19.3.1945 was quite in order from the point of view of international and public law and from a military point of view]:
“The fight for the existence of our people forces us to take advantage also on the territory of the Reich of all means that weaken the enemy’s striking power and hinder its further advance. All means causing the greatest damage possible to the enemy’s striking power must be taken advantage of. It is an error to assume that transportation, communication, industrial and supply installations not destroyed or only temporarily paralyzed can be restored to operation for our purposes when territory lost is taken back. The enemy will in its retreat leave us only scorched earth and drop any consideration for the population. I therefore order the following:
1. All military, transportation, communications, industrial and supply installations as well as material assets within the territory of the Reich that the enemy can avail itself of in any way immediately or within a foreseeable time for the continuation of its fight, are to be destroyed.
2. The responsible for carrying out this destruction are the military command authorities for all military objects including transportation and communications installations; the Gauleiter and Reich Defense Commissars for all industrial and supply installations and other material assets. The Gauleiter and Reich Defense Commissars are to be given the assistance required to carry out their task by the troops.
3. This order is to be made known to all troops commanders as fast as possible. All directives to the contrary are invalid.”[...]


I have comments of my own about both assessments, but before I write then down I would like to see our readers’ opinion as to which of them they consider more convincing and why.

Cheers,

Roberto

Xanthro
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Post by Xanthro » 17 Oct 2002 19:11

I think the order in a cold and calculated military thinking makes sense.

Hitler wasn't an idiot. He knew what had happened in East Prussia. He could fully expect that the whole of Germany would suffer the same fate. He probably also attributed to the Soviets what he would have done to the conquered people, in otherwords destroyed or enslaved them. I don't think that at the time this was a mistaken assumption.

By destroying everything, nothing is left for the Soviets to destroy or take. It's basically what the Soviets did when the German invaded.

I think Speer did the right thing in opposing the order, but I personally don't think the order was in order to punish the German people for losing the war, as much as Hitler felt the German people were going to be destroyed, so either go down fighting or commit suicide. As you know, I'm not a big Hitler fan.

Xanthro

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Scott Smith
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Post by Scott Smith » 17 Oct 2002 19:33

Xanthro wrote:I think the order in a cold and calculated military thinking makes sense.

Hitler wasn't an idiot. He knew what had happened in East Prussia. He could fully expect that the whole of Germany would suffer the same fate. He probably also attributed to the Soviets what he would have done to the conquered people, in otherwords destroyed or enslaved them. I don't think that at the time this was a mistaken assumption.

By destroying everything, nothing is left for the Soviets to destroy or take. It's basically what the Soviets did when the German invaded.

I think Speer did the right thing in opposing the order, but I personally don't think the order was in order to punish the German people for losing the war, as much as Hitler felt the German people were going to be destroyed, so either go down fighting or commit suicide. As you know, I'm not a big Hitler fan.

Thank you, Xanthro. A very reasonable post.
:)

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