While Allied commanders encountered the bulk of German forces where they expected to find them – concentrated in the centre of the country blocking the route to Berlin – they still harboured a fear that everything might not be as it seemed.
For some time, murmurings of a Nazi contingency plan had been rippling across Europe. They hinted that Germany’s retreating armies could be set to regroup at an Alpenfestung (also known as the “National Redoubt”), an impregnable Alpine fortress that would function as a final holdout. Many Allied politicians and military planners believed the rumours. The strategy seemed consistent with the Nazi psyche. Moreover, Berlin was not a city with natural defences, and once the Oder had been crossed in the east and the Rhine in the west, there was little to stop a large army taking the capital by force. Southern Germany and Austria, meanwhile, were more easily defended as a result of their mountainous terrain. It was plausible that Hitler – an Austrian by birth – had made plans for a last stand in a landscape more friendly and familiar.
A trickle of intelligence reports were read as indicating German plans for the National Redoubt: the stockpiling of arms, equipment and food; the excavation of tunnels; the building of fortifications; and even the construction of subterranean factories to continue building Messerschmitt planes and V2 rockets. Meanwhile, Goebbels’ propaganda hinted that all was not lost for National Socialism. The National Redoubt grew in the Allied imagination into a potential reality that could not be ignored.
Even the Allied commanders who treated the idea of a last great stand by Hitler with scepticism could not afford to dismiss it completely. If the rumours were true, their clean victory would be frustrated by a determined garrison of well-armed, fanatical troops. Hitler could hole up and rebuild his regime or, at the very least, subject Europe to years of guerrilla warfare.
The task of overwhelming resistance in southern Germany and neutralizing the prophesied National Redoubt was assigned to three Allied armies.
The First French Army under de Lattre was given the extreme southwestern corner of the country, adjacent to France. Having been delayed by the Colmar Pocket, de Lattre’s troops crossed the Rhine later than the other armies, between 31 March and 2 April 1945, at Germersheim and Speyer, before liberating Stuttgart on 21 April and Ulm on 24 April. To its northwest, Patch’s US Seventh Army was directed to work its way along an arc from its Rhine crossing site at Worms through western Bavaria and into Austria. It liberated Nuremberg on 20 April, Dachau concentration camp on 29 April and Munich on 30 April, before its advance eventually came to a halt at the Brenner Pass, where it met American troops of the US Fifth Army heading towards Germany from northern Italy.
Further northwest still, protecting the flank of the US First Army as it made its way across central Germany, was the US Third Army under Patton. Patton travelled quickly, leaving Mainz on 22 March; Frankfurt was reached on 29 March and Linz (Hitler’s hometown) in Austria on 5 May. He was only stopped by Eisenhower when he reached Pilsen, on the border of Czechoslovakia, deep inside the designated Soviet zone of occupation.
German General Hermann Foertsch and American General Jacob Devers signed an instrument of surrender covering the southeastern areas of the Reich at 2.30pm on 4 May 1945.
After a thorough search, the existence of the National Redoubt turned out to be unfounded. It suited the moribund Nazi regime for its enemies to believe it had a final, elusive plan, but the Allies had misread Hitler this time. He had always dismissed his commanders’ pleas for a last stand. Sometimes history leans towards anti-climax, and Hitler remained in Berlin where he let the inevitable run its course.
On 22 March 1933, soon after Hitler came to power as Chancellor, Dachau concentration camp opened to receive political opponents of the new regime, who were incarcerated in indefinite “preventive custody”. They were joined over the following years by Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Roma, Sinti, Poles and Soviet prisoners of war. Dachau spawned 150 subcamps, an empire of misery, exploitation and death. On 29 April 1945, US troops arrived at Dachau and were aghast at the sight of 33,000 starving and mistreated survivors. Some American soldiers were so horrified that they gunned down the SS guards who had already surrendered.
The capital of Bavaria, Munich played a key role in the development of National Socialism; this documentation centre charts the details. It was here that the German Workers’ Party was founded shortly after World War I. In 1920 it changed its name to the National Socialist Workers’ Party (NSDAP), although it had nothing to do with socialism. Initially, the party was a marginal group that struggled for publicity and popularity – it achieved the former on 9 November 1923, when the Nazis attempted a coup d’état known as the Beerhall Putsch. Hitler received a mild jail sentence, during which he wrote Mein Kampf. Even after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 the party headquarters remained in Munich, and the first concentration camp was built at nearby Dachau.
As the Soviets continued their advance into Germany and concentration camps in the occupied territories were evacuated, the number of prisoners in Flossenbürg, northeast of Nuremberg, rapidly increased. By March 1945, there were 15,000 people in the main camp and a further 37,000 in satellite camps. At the beginning of April, the SS executed resistance fighters here, including some high-ranking participants in the attempt to assassinate Hitler on 20 July 1944. An estimated 30,000 other people died at Flossenbürg because of the appalling living conditions and hard labour. The camp was liquidated between 16 and 20 April 1945, and the remaining prisoners organized into “death marches” heading southwards. When the US 90th Infantry and 97th Infantry arrived on 23 April, the camp was mostly empty, except for 1500 critically ill prisoners who had been left behind.
The site for this cemetery to the south of Munich was chosen shortly after hostilities had ceased. The great majority of the 2934 people buried here (93 unidentified) are airmen who were shot down over Bavaria, Württemberg, Austria, Hessen and Thuringia, brought from their scattered graves by the Army Graves Service. The remainder are men who were killed while escaping from prisoner of war camps in the same areas, or who died towards the end of the war on forced marches from the camps to more remote areas.
The city of Nuremberg had great significance for the Nazis. In the 1930s, the famous Nuremberg Rallies were held here, during which Hitler perfected his oratory skills to massed ranks of the faithful. It was here too, during a rally in 1935, that Hitler proclaimed the discrimination and persecution of German Jews in the infamous Nuremberg Laws.
The city’s final service to the Nazis was as a place of postwar trials and executions. The Documentation Center has a permanent exhibition that seeks to explain the hold the Nazis had on German society up until the end of the war.
After his rise to power, Hitler bought a holiday home in Obersalzberg, near the town of Berchtesgaden, with the proceeds of Mein Kampf. He called his house the Berghof. Obersalzberg’s residents were gradually driven out as other Nazi leaders moved in, buying up its properties. Their presence turned this inconspicuous corner of Bavaria into a second seat of Nazi government, close to their powerbase in Munich. From here, Hitler presented himself to the world – often through film – as a dictator at ease, as a good neighbour and as a lover of nature, children and the ordinary people of rural Germany.
On 25 April 1945, while Hitler was ensconced in Berlin, Obersalzberg was bombed by British and American forces and mostly destroyed. When the US 3rd Infantry arrived on 4 May, plunderers had already picked over the ruins, leaving a smattering of memorabilia behind.
A museum was built on this site long after the war, which explains the development of Nazism and its association with Obersalzberg and Bavaria in meticulous detail. Beneath the museum, a bunker complex built in 1943–5 survives. Its dank stairs and passageways give an idea of the realities of war, a stark contrast to the bucolic mountain world above.
The Eagle's Nest or Kehlsteinhaus is a chalet poised atop an 1834m-high rock outcrop near Obersalzberg in Bavaria, designed by Nazi acolyte Martin Bormann and gifted to Adolf Hitler on his 50th birthday in 1939. It was a prized trophy when it was captured by the US 3rd Infantry in early May 1945, and is one of the few monuments to Nazi arrogance that has survived intact. A truly outstanding spot, with breathtaking panoramas over the surrounding mountains, the Eagle's Nest – now a restaurant run by a charitable trust – would be truly idyllic if not for its origins and associations. A guided tour includes an ascent in the original brass elevator.
Top image: Eagle's Nest © iStock