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The Führer’s Immolation: April 30, 1945

In January 1945, the Russians began their last great offensive against the German lines in the east. On January 17, forces under the command of General Georgy Konstantinovich Zhukov captured Warsaw and from there, over the next two weeks, pushed westward toward Brandenburg and Pomerania. By January 31, Zhukov’s forces were on the Oder River, only 40 miles from Berlin. Less than two weeks later, another Russian army under General Ivan Stepanovich Kunev reached Sommerfeld on the Elbe River, 80 miles from Berlin.

The Allied leaders (left to right) Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and Josif Stalin at Yalta

While his Red Army moved ever closer to capturing Berlin, Josif Stalin met with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt at Yalta, a city on the Black Sea, to discuss the future of Europe after the war. Stalin had become indispensable to the Allied war effort. His army, numbering 12 million men, was three times larger than the army commanded by the American general, Dwight Eisenhower. With this army, Stalin kept 125 to 200 German divisions from fighting the Allies in the west. Churchill and Roosevelt needed Stalin, and he knew it. And because they needed him, Stalin also knew that they could not refuse to give him an important role in deciding the future of Europe.

Russian General Georgy Zhukov

Churchill and Stalin had in 1944 already come to some agreements on what to do with Eastern Europe after the war. They agreed that Greece would fall under Great Britain’s “protection,” but Russia could dominate Romania. Churchill and Stalin also decided to split Yugoslavia and Hungary between them. Though Roosevelt objected to this deal, he did nothing to hinder it. He could not risk losing Stalin as an ally.

In their meeting at Yalta from February 4 to 11, 1945, Churchill and Roosevelt gave in to more of Stalin’s demands. In return for a promise that he would respect democracy and “free elections,” Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to allow Stalin to form a new government for Poland. Stalin also won the right to use forced German labor for a period of 10 years after the war. The Allies agreed to divide Germany into four zones, each controlled by one of the Allied powers — the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France. Neither Roosevelt nor Churchill was happy with the results of the Yalta conference. Afterward, when he was criticized for the Yalta agreements, Roosevelt said, “I didn’t say the result was good. I said it was the best I could do.”

Adolf Hitler and his mistress, Eva Braun

Meanwhile, on the Western Front, the Allies broke through German defensive lines and, in late March, began crossing the Rhine. In April, the German war effort collapsed. Allied armies marched through Bavaria in the south and, in eastern Germany, reached the Elbe River on April 11. They were now only 60 miles from Berlin. From the east, Zhukov and Konev on April 16 resumed their advance on Berlin; by April 25, their armies completely encircled the city.

Throughout April, Hitler had remained in Berlin, hoping that some miracle would save him and his Third Reich from destruction. By April 28, however, he knew all was lost. That night, he married his longtime mistress, Eva Braun, and appointed Admiral Karl Dönitz as head of the German state and Josef Goebbels as chancellor. (Hitler could not know that on that very day, Communists in Italy had shot Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci.) On April 30, Hitler retired to his rooms in the chancellery and shot himself. Eva Braun took poison and died. The bodies of both were burned in the garden.

With Hitler dead, Admiral Dönitz asked General Eisenhower for terms of surrender, but the American general said Dönitz had instead to surrender to the Russians. This was what Dönitz had wanted to avoid; but, since the Russians had been the first to reach Berlin, it was Stalin’s right to accept Germany’s surrender. By May 4, all the German forces in northwestern Europe and Italy had surrendered and, four days later, a formal armistice was signed at Eisenhower’s headquarters in Reims, France. At midnight on May 8, 1945, the war in Europe formally came to an end.

In Memoriam

These are the words inscribed near the end of the score of this piece, Metamorphosen, by the German composer, Richard Strauss. The work, scored for “23 solo strings” (ten violins, five violas, five cellos, and three double basses) has been thought to be a musical act of mourning for the destruction of Germany. Strauss wrote it in the closing months of the Second World War.

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