Ein Anderer Hitler by Hermann Giesler: After Stalingrad
AFTER STALINGRAD: Jodl Looks Back; Hitler Looks Forward
Translation and Commentaries by Carolyn Yeager and Wilhelm Mann
Copyright 2011 by Carolyn Yeager
Translators' Introduction: In the fall of 1943, the Russians were breaking through at Army Group Center, and General Erich von Manstein was trying to solidify the southern front. The Allies’ demand for “Unconditional Surrender” was being trumpeted, which could only force the Reich’s unconditional resistance. In this atmosphere, Hermann Giesler, who as Hitler’s architect was in charge of an operation of the Organization Todt at the Northeast front, was often at Fuehrer headquarters where he had the opportunity to engage Colonel General Alfred Jodl, Chief of Operations Staff of the OKW [Supreme Command of the Armed Forces] in conversation about the fateful battles at Demjansk and Stalingrad.
We note that both Jodl and Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Commander of OKW, were forced by the “Unconditional Surrender” demand of the Allies to submit to the travesty called the Nuremberg Major War Criminals Tribunal, which resulted in their being put to death by hanging—to the eternal dishonor of that court. Thus, history was deprived of the first-hand account these men would have written—accounts which would have added immensely to our understanding of the decisions made at that time. For this reason, Giesler’s contributions in recording his conversations with Col. General Jodl are a valuable addition to the historical record.
In describing the situations at Demjansk and at Stalingrad, Jodl explains why the first relief operation was successful, but the second was not. We learn some of the difficult strategic considerations behind Hitler’s orders to resist to the end. Many false assumptions and reports can be silenced by learning of Jodl’s analysis. At Nuremberg, he made a strong statement that because of military, political and human considerations, unconditional capitulation was impossible.
In the second part of this installment, we are once again given a look at a more personal side of the Fuehrer. His choice of a successor is something he took seriously almost from the time he became Chancellor of Germany. As the severe strain of the war continued to take its toll on his characteristic enormous energy, this became a more pressing issue to him. We learn from Giesler that Hitler had settled his mind on stuka pilot and war hero Colonel Hans-Ulrich Rudel and, though he tried to get Rudel away from the Eastern Front and in a close working relationship with him without revealing his ultimate plan, he did not succeed.
Finally, under “We will win the war,” we are given a rare glimpse of Hitler utilizing his faith and will power to remain an exemplar of unshakable confidence to his staff in the face of the daily arrival of terrible news and events. Giesler, because he admired Adolf Hitler and had by now spent enough time in his company to know him well, gives a sympathetic and believable portrait of the besieged leader as the end begins to draw nearer. This is compelling reading which we, the translators, are grateful to have the opportunity to bring to you.
The Colonel General talks about Stalingrad
In the fall of 1943, I talked with Col. General [Alfred] Jodl, Chief of Operations Staff of Oberkommando der Wehrmacht [OKW], about “Demjansk”1 and the catastrophe of Stalingrad.
In the winter of 1941-42, a Russian army encircled a German army corps at the Waldai Heights around Demjansk. The six encircled divisions, about 100,000 men, could only be supplied and remain fit for action by continuous daily air support. They repulsed all Russian attacks, and at their wide, extended hedgehog front they kept five Russian armies tied down.2 The divisions in the cauldron [signifying the encircled forces] of Demjansk prevented a decisive breakthrough of the Soviets at the Army Group North.
At that time, I was around Pleskau and Staraja Russia and took special interest in these operations. My friend Schulte-Frohlinde flew a Ju 52, carrying munitions and supply into the cauldron and wounded soldiers out.
My Organization Todt units, together with sappers, were building bridges, roadways, military positions and field railway tracks toward the cauldron as necessary preparations for the attack from the outside and the planned breakout from the inside.
The main battle line on the land-bridge west of the Demjansk cauldron was in the meantime stabilized and fortified. Four German divisions attacked from the Staraja Russa area in order to relieve the encircled army corps. Through mud, swamps and across the Lowat River, the troops fought that battle in an unprecedented manner.
“An amazing achievement of men and leadership,” Col. General Jodl said. “Unique also in the history of war is the fact that a whole army corps, encircled, withstood for a long time an all-around attack of far superior forces. And unique also, and a first, that for months an army corps was supplied with all its needs for military operation solely by transport airplanes.”
I said, “Beyond its description in the war histories, Demjansk and Stalingrad will stand as a saga—even with all the bitterness—as a soldier’s Nibelungen epos.”
The Col. General replied, “I know where you want that talk to lead me, but it’s not the time for it yet. [Here are] only a few military points. The Stalingrad disaster began with the collapse of the North flank, and also a part of the South flank, of the 6th Army. Those forces could not withstand the attacking thrusts of the Russian elite armies.3 Encirclement of the 6th Army at Stalingrad was not the only intention of the Russians. Their strategic goal was larger; their thrust was directed toward Rostow.”
I asked, “Don’t Demjansk and Stalingrad show a certain analogy?”
Jodl answered, “Certainly they have a lot in common.” However he [Jodl] sees the fortress [festung] Stalingrad as a double-faced Janus head—“on the one hand it did not concern the position on the Volga and the encircled 6th army only , but also the fate of the Army Group South with more than one million solders and all the area they controlled. On the other hand, you should consider that for six months the 6th Army tied up seven Russian armies at Stalingrad. The rapid release of those enemy forces would certainly have meant a disaster for Army Group A, but it also would have greatly endangered Army Group Don and part of Army Group B. Large parts of the Romanian, Italian and Hungarian armies were already run over by the Russians.3 The breakthroughs had to be dammed, and defense fronts along the Don built. The fight of the 6th Army preconditioned the stabilization of the South flank of the East front where giant gaps were obvious. The situation was extremely threatening.
“Something else is connected with Stalingrad—the Volga, the most important waterway for transporting the Baku oil and the American war deliveries from the Persian Gulf. Looking at the military situation of the South flank—the Volga front is for the time being of secondary importance. But Stalingrad, by its special strategic dimension, is much larger than Demjansk, even if you include Cholm and the Wolchow break-through. From both of those gigantic operations one can clearly conclude that the Russians recognized our strategic plans.
"Still some more indications: It surely makes a difference if 100,000 or 250,000 are supplied and made battle-ready by air. The distance and the depth of the enemy’s encirclement played a role; its flak and fighters caused serious problems for the flights of our slow Ju 52 transports. To what an extent and for how long the supply could be secured was a decisive, but unanswerable, question.”
NEED FOR A CORRIDOR
"Because of operative reasons, a relief from the West along the Don could not be considered,” Jodl continued. “Therefore all hope of such a relief was based on Army Group Hoth (Group B) opening a corridor from the southwest. That would have meant freedom of the decision for our combined effort by forces from inside and outside the encirclement.
"It would have been irresponsible to break the Stalingrad encirclement from inside with weakened troops, leaving behind the wounded, without the support of heavy weapons. Operative considerations, and not thoughts about prestige, kept the 6th Army in Stalingrad. The insufficient and weather-dependent supply by the Luftwaffe could not keep the Army in a fighting capability. To have enough food, fuel, and ammunition for the heavy weapons, and also for the break out of the 6th Army with support from outside, a corridor was absolutely necessary.
"An isolated break-out, without heavy weapons, from an unprotected icy-snowy steppe, and through a deeply staggered ring of the Russian armies, would have been an act of despair and led to total destruction. It would have meant the end of the 6th Army, and freed the enemy forces tied down there before the Army Groups at the South flank were secured.
"Around January 9th or 10th, the Russians actually offered the possibility for the 6th army to surrender. However, the purpose and goal of that offer was transparent: they wanted to free their tied-down army in order to move it, together with the other armies, against the not-yet secured defense front of the Army Groups. With regard to the conditions of the surrender, we were well aware what to expect. We were, however, still hoping to organize a sufficient supply line and a break-out through a corridor.
"The detachment of a large fighting force from the enemy, specifically in winter, carries all kinds of risks—it loses its fortified places/positions, and the coverage and protection by heavy weapons. Within the battle area, a detaching move by a division from North to South was carried out. It ended in total destruction—without any cover, the rapidly attacking Russians tore it apart and ran over it. That breakout of one division should be an example of the risk for the breakout of the whole 6th Army.”
Was that the action, as we learned it later, that General Seydlitz ordered by his own decision? Very strange. At Demjansk, he was in charge of the attack divisions breaking the cauldron from outside.
"I have to go to work,” the Col. General said with a serious face. The discussion about Demjansk-Stalingrad was never carried to an end. Yet the Col. General said the essential about the unavoidable development of that fateful battle.
JODL AT NUREMBERG
Whenever I had a chance, I enjoyed talking to the Col. General because of his realism and his precise description of military affairs.
That heroic fight, and the sacrifice of the Stalingrad soldiers, was to be followed up by triumphant noises from the Allies. Out of their arrogance and blind hate came the harsh and rigid demand of the “Unconditional Surrender.”
Regarding that, in November 1944 I heard some critical observations by the Col. General: “No soldier with responsibility could undergo such a capitulation—it is dishonorable. Knowing all those conditions and the intentions of the enemy, only enraged resistance remains. That has nothing to do with fanaticism; despotism you can counter only with decisiveness, even in hopeless situations.”
Many years later, when I read the Nuremberg protocols, I realized what military considerations were behind his words. When questioned why Hitler did not capitulate in 1944-45, Jodl answered:
Then, to advise to surrender I did not. That was totally out of question; no soldier would have done that; it would not have been of any value […] Not even after the failure of the Battle of the Bulge […] the Fuehrer was as well aware of the over-all situation as we were and he probably saw it clearer much sooner than we did […] also nothing needed to be said to him in that matter anyway […]
Apart from the fact that the question of a capitulation or giving up the resistance is above all a matter for the supreme commander, there were, in the winter of 1944, many reasons against it. One major point—we had no doubt that it could only be an unconditional surrender; at that time the enemy did not leave us in doubt about it. And if we still would have had any doubt about what we had to expect, it was completely eliminated when we got hold of the English “Eclipse.” The English members of the commission will know what that is. It was the exact order of what the occupying power was going to do in Germany after the capitulation. The capitulation required the stand-still on the fronts at the spot where they were, and their capture by the adversaries who stood across the line. The same thing that happened the winter of 1941 at Wjasma had to happen. Millions of prisoners had to camp in the middle of the winter in open fields. Death would have reaped an immense harvest, and above all, those nearly three and one-half million still standing at the Eastern front would have fallen completely into the hands of the Eastern adversary. It was our desire to bring as many people as possible to the West. One could do that only if the two fronts moved closer to each other. Anyway, those were the mainly military considerations we deliberated towards the end of the war. I believe that more will be said about that in later years than I can or will tell today.
Götterdämmerung at Headquarters
It was late at night when Adolf Hitler read the last reports. One received his special attention. Again and again he recognizes, he said to me, that modern weapons give brave men the chance to excel. “If they risk their life, those weapons will lead them to supreme success.” But he [Hitler] has to watch out that the infantryman—the Panzergrenadier, who often has to endure much harder battles, does not come out short when his high achievement is evaluated.
"For quite some time I’ve been aware that only a soldier of great status will be entitled to lead the nation once I retire after the end of the war. That’s why I tried to get acquainted with anyone whose soldierly achievement and manly deed was extraordinary. By having the chance to present the awards for brave soldiers personally, I gained an immediate impression of many. Regardless of his military rank or which part of the armed forces he belonged to, I was open and attentive to him. I talked to everybody in order to find the value of his personality—always searching for the outstanding soldier who could one day lead the nation.
"To his calm audacity and courage, personal charisma has to be added. Thoughtful and logical thinking, combined with an interest in modern technologies and cultural openness, was absolutely necessary. I looked for the solder with imagination and leadership qualities. That naturally spoke for an officer of inborn authority. He had to be convinced this struggle is not only for Germany but for the whole of Europe. Steady he must be, and of strong character.”
STUKA PILOT HANS-ULRICH RUDEL
Adolf Hitler stood up, made a few steps and said, “I found him—the stuka pilot Rudel!”
I was not surprised, for he had been known to the nation for his courage, his fighting spirit and his success for some time. He was an officer of high reputation and an example of its soldiers.
"I wanted to take him in as my assistant,” Adolf Hitler continued. “He should participate in all my sorrows and hopes—not only of military affairs. Rudel’s humanistic education is a favorable qualification for further tasks.
"As a confidant, he should assist me. I wanted to introduce him to all the areas of responsibility and make him familiar with my ideas. I would then have had the opportunity to know him still better, to be sure that he will grow into the leadership of the Reich.
"I had to see in him more steadiness than I should expect—that he showed an iron will and knew how to use it. He said to me, ‘I belong to the front line! As long as there is fighting, my place is there.’ Up to now, I haven’t succeeded. I really can’t tell him I want to take him in as my successor.
"He has a great ability to evade my wish. Straightforwardly, he told me, ‘I can accept that honor only when you allow me to return again to the front.’ He felt that I understand him, yes, that I admire him and that I will not tie him down with an order. I hope he will stay alive!”
WE WILL WIN THE WAR
One evening I witnessed an event that impressed me very much. He put a bunch of reports on the working table, reading as usual standing up, and then walked resolutely up and down the room. He said, “We will win the war!” And he repeated it. After a time I heard him again, “We will win the war, I am very certain of that.” It was self talking, not addressed to me.4
He rang for an adjutant, took the bunch of reports again into his hand, and turned towards me, “Giesler, I expect you after the Lage.” I had the feeling Adolf Hitler stood under a great strain. Just before, during dinner, I noticed his absent-minded pondering. I thought he was still feeling the tension of the previous military discussions, still thinking about decisions. I’m sure those reports were responsible now for that ‘We will win the war.’
For quite awhile I noticed a change in his nature, the slight trembling of his left hand, played down by some joking words. His restlessness is all the way to nervousness; he was overworked. On the previous night, he gave me a hint: “It is very hard for me to find sleep. Sleeping pills, certainly—but they make me only more tired, they do not give me sleep. Only after a long time awake, mostly around five or six o’clock, I fall asleep. Even in darkness or quietness—I’ve become accustomed to the humming of the air conditioning—I cannot fall asleep.
"I have the maps of front lines before of my eyes, from the armies to the divisions to the regiments. Anxiously, my thoughts are touching the front lines, something can happen here, something must happen there.
"I simply cannot switch off after the night Lage and give in to the demand for rest. I wait for incoming reports either from the front, from bombing attacks or of a world political event. At the nightly tea, talking about matters which interest me, I think I might be able to relax. Yes, sometimes it depends what the day had demanded from me. At the relaxing discussions, I am very picky: city construction, architecture and technology are my favorites…well, you know it!”
Worries and doubts overwhelmed me, also, after Stalingrad—the fateful collapse of Army Group Center, the failed defense of the invasion, and also after the assassination of July 2oth. But whenever I talked to Adolf Hitler, worries and doubts were eliminated by the immense fascination and radiation of his personality. His authority, the enormous power as the chief of state combined with his supreme command over the Armed Forces—all that was increased by his simple modesty. His matter-of-fact attitude impressed me, when, in the middle of hard war campaigns, he was thinking about reconstructing cities, as: “We are going to build that this way”—and it sounded like “too bad we can not start tomorrow because adverse matters do not allow it.”
That is what made my worries and doubts disappear, because he was so convinced and believed, “We will win the war.” I was not able to resist his conviction and willpower. Again, it seems to me important to repeat: When we discussed plans for city reconstruction, Adolf Hitler combined unexpected ideas with matter-of-fact considerations before he made any decision. Everything was well thought out—in my own realm I could judge it—by his pragmatic evaluation of any problem. It was clear deliberation, well argued and finally, the assuring word, “That’s the way we are going to build.” Was it different in military matters? I can not imagine that his high intelligence, his ever-awake senses did not see and consider military situations by the same clear observation and judgment.
And I am convinced that the sober-thinking Col. General Jodl did not have to tell him in late fall 1944 that the military catastrophe was approaching from day to day and cannot be stopped.
Adolf Hitler saw the situation clearly, better and sharper than anybody else, because he was able to comprehend the whole scope, from raw materials to weapons, from the fighting strength of the soldiers to the strategic planning. I am also convinced that if it would have concerned only him, he would not have hesitated one day longer. What prevented him? Relentless stubbornness? No, much more—the “Unconditional Surrender.”
That cold formula of destruction he could only counter with his unconditional resistance. That “Unconditional Surrender” was not targeted and limited to the removal of Hitler and the National Socialists, nor the “system,” nor the Wehrmacht and its officers—but the German Nation. Germany, its substance and Lebensraum, was the target.
Even if the leadership of the nation would have been formed by the men of the Resistance, or even by those “men of God,” annihilation on a much bigger scale than the continuance of the war could have taken place. Unconditional Surrender—with that merciless formula the enemy powers not only prolonged the war but recklessly sacrificed German soldiers, civilians, women and children. They also sacrificed their own soldiers.
An additional idea also dominated Adolf Hitler—he felt far superior to Churchill and Roosevelt. To him, both of them were rudimental appearances from the past era of the 19th century. Stalin, however, he considered as a revolutionary who took Lenin’s communism to its final peak. Now he became the European threat—still good Uncle Joe, but for how long could that self-deceit of the Western Powers last? That alliance had to break down. That it did not happen does not speak against Hitler.
But all that means nothing against those defiant, forceful words: “We will win the war, I am certain about that!” Inconceivable for all who did not know Hitler and thought of him as a nihilist—he was a deeply believing man! His road led him through a changing era and he was convinced that it was his task to walk that road, predestined by Providence.
Even more than his penetrating intelligence, his faith determined his thinking, his trust in Germany, himself and his mission, but also his belief in Providence. That belief, enforced again and again on his long way from zero to the Fuehrer of the nation, gave him the strength to be an example of steadfastness and optimism for his staff.
Adolf Hitler was well aware of the superior strength and recklessness of his adversaries, and the dangerous war situation. Any sign of weakness he must have seen as a deadly failure for all. That unbelievable strength to resist this weakness was not based on rational sources, but he gained it by his belief in Providence. How many nights did sleep evade him until he could find rest.
1. This refers to the the encirclement of German troops by the Red Army around the city of Demyansk (German: Demjansk), southeast of Leningrad. Called the Demyansk Pocket or Kessel von Demjansk, it existed mainly from early February until April 21, 1942.
2. This makes the Russian to German advantage in manpower at least 3 to 1!
3. Paul Carell explains in his book Operation Barbarossa, Schiffer Publishing Ldt., 1991, 495 pgs.: “Catastrophe was already looming by noon on the 19th [November]. Whole divisions from the Rumanian front, above all the 13th, 14th and 9th Infantry Divisions, broke and fled to the rear in panic. The Soviets pushed after them towards the west to the Chir and then to the south and southwest. It became clear that they [Soviets] wanted to break into the German Sixth Army’s rear …” Further explanation is found in Stuka Pilot, Hans-Ulrich Rudel by Guenther Just (1990), page 25: “A promising relief attempt got to within thirty km. of the pocket but the main force had to be pulled back to avert the threat to the entire southern front caused by the Italians’ failure near Bogoduchov.”
4. A possible insight into Hitler’s belief and hope that he could still “win the war” is his admiration for Friedrich the Great, whom he personified as an example of will power and endurance. On the brink of disaster again and again during a seven year war, Friedrich held on, refusing to sign a cowardly peace after the lost battles of Kunersdorf in 1757 and Hochkirch in 1758, thus saving his Prussian kingdom. At the Chancellery in Berlin and in Hitler’s Wolfsschanze and Berlin bunkers, Adolf von Menzel’s painting of Friedrich the Great was the only decoration adorning his simple room.