Hitler feared America

When the allies came

The hail of bombs turned cities into rubble, chaos and confusion reigned everywhere. About the end of the Second World War in Westphalia.

On May 8, 1945 at 11:01 p.m. Central European Time, the guns fell silent. In Reims, France, and, laterally, in Berlin-Karlshorst, high German military officials signed the unconditional surrender. The Second World War, a previously unprecedented war of robbery, race and extermination with more than 50 million dead, was - at least on European soil - just as history as the "Thousand Year Reich" itself, which now, after twelve murderous years, was over went.

The downfall of the Nazi Reich had actually begun eleven months earlier, namely in the early morning of June 6, 1944. A gigantic armada of Allied units had landed on the comparatively poorly fortified Norman coast and within a very short time had declared the propagandistically impregnable “ Atlantic Wall ”, which was supposed to protect“ Fortress Europe ”from an invasion, was overcome. The German defenders had little to counter the force of this attack.

Now it was here, the two-front war that German strategists had always feared. And the countdown was on. Paris was liberated in August, and large parts of Belgium and the southern Netherlands followed in September. The Allied combat troops moved inexorably towards the German western border. Aachen was the first German city to fall into Allied hands in October 1944. German counterattacks in the Ardennes and the Eifel turned out to be pointless.

Americans on the Rhine

At the beginning of March 1945, American units stood on the Rhine and crossed it at Remagen. Just two weeks later, the British troops under Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery succeeded in doing the same at Wesel. Strong forces from the south and north now grabbed Army Group B, which was supposed to defend the empire in the west, in a pincer grip. When the Allied combat units united near Lippstadt on April 1, the Ruhr basin with more than 300,000 German soldiers and five million civilians was closed.

Inside the cauldron there were hundreds of thousands, mostly Soviet and Polish prisoners of war, prisoners and forced laborers who had suffered years of hardship and humiliation in industry and agriculture and were now roaming the country freely. Among them, Gestapo, SS and Wehrmacht members carried out bloody massacres in the last weeks of the war, for example in Warstein, Lüdenscheid, Hagen and Dortmund, where almost 300 people in Rombergpark and in Bittermark were shot in the neck.

"Last came the foot troops"

Here in Westphalia, between Siegen, Paderborn and the Ruhr area, one of the last battles of the Second World War took place on European soil. The Allied advance was accompanied by massive bomber and low-flying attacks. The “miracle weapons” that Hitler and Goebbels had promised did not materialize, as did the “final victory” itself. Fanatical functionaries and the military threw the “Volkssturm” against the Allied combat troops, the last badly armed contingent, consisting of old men and hardly any adult youth . Many of them met a pointless death in the last few days, as the film "Die Brücke" by Bernhard Wicki from 1959 impressively shows.

American soldiers on the road in April 1945 at the intersection of Geiststrasse and Weseler Strasse. At the end of the war in 1945, the city of Münster put together an exhibition that can also be seen online. Photo: City of Münster / City Museum Collection.

All resistance turned out to be in vain. In Arnsberg the end looked like this: “On April 12th around 3 p.m.”, noted the 14-year-old Hartmut Jaeckel, who later became a lawyer and political scientist, in his diary, “Arnsberg was taken by American troops after three days of artillery bombardment.” The Junge reported of death and ruin, but also of friendly GIs who soon distributed chocolate and chewing gum to children and young people.

In the Olper district of Neger in the southern Sauerland, the teacher Otto Dick commissioned the pupils of his one-class elementary school to record their experiences and observations during the invasion of the Americans on April 10th. Gerda Brune wrote: “The foot troops came last; there were blacks. How often had I seen Negroes in pictures and now I saw real Negroes ... Negroes march through our Negro country! ”This entry reveals witty language and - despite all the drama - situational comedy.

Devastating dogfight

On April 17, 1945 the war between the Rhine, Ruhr and Weser was over - three weeks before the unconditional surrender. Around 1,500 American soldiers and over 10,000 Germans died in the last few fighting.

But from the beginning there was a second, parallel war that was no less fateful and murderous. A war that came from the air. He too had started out from Germany. In September 1940, Hitler had sounded that after Guernica, Warsaw and Rotterdam he was now also deliberately "erasing" English cities.

Hamm during World War II: Destroyed locomotives on the site of the freight yard after an Allied air raid on December 5, 1944. From the estate of Josef and Werner Viegener, Hamm. Photo: LWL media center for Westphalia

When Joseph Goebbels asked a fanatical crowd in the Berlin Sports Palace after the lost battle at Stalingrad in February 1943, “Do you want total war?” There was frenetic jubilation. That was a staged propaganda event, but the majority of the “Volksgenossen” were still loyal to the Führer and the leadership. Just a month earlier, the Allies in Casablanca had agreed to intensify the bombing war. One German city after another fell into ruins. In Hamburg alone, more than 30,000 people died in the firestorm within a few days during "Operation Gomorrah" in the hot summer of 1943.

Bomb war in Westphalia kills 37,000

And this fate also met Westphalian cities, Dortmund, Münster, Soest, Siegen, Bielefeld and many others. Hundreds of thousands, who had lost everything and were now left with nothing, looked for new homes in the country, often in stables and barns. "He who sows the wind will reap the storm," says the Old Testament. And so it happened. The result: the bombing war in Westphalia killed around 37,000 people. 254,000 apartments out of a total of 1,518,000 in 1939 were completely destroyed, 95,000 heavily, 110,000 moderately and 205,000 slightly damaged.

Gradually the certainty of victory began to crumble. Doom and gloom spread, fear and misery. In the east, the "Red Army" crossed the German border in January 1945. Millions left their homeland in East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia, often involuntarily, and set off into an uncertain future in the icy winter. Many came to Westphalia in this way. A great migration of biblical proportions, which made for further confusion and created new problems.

Cities in ruins

While the Soviets were marching on Berlin, Allied combat troops liberated one city after another in the west. On Easter Monday 1945, April 2nd, American and British troops occupied Münster. Of the 145,000 inhabitants that Münster had in 1942, only 25,000 remained and vegetated in cellars and ruins. The journalist Paulheinz Wantzen, an avowed partisan of the regime, noted on that day: “It was horrible to see German women running into the streets and the Americans begging for cigarettes and coffee ... And 'German' boys climbed on the tanks and sat down to the Americans on the guns. Only Germans can be so undignified! "

For Soest, the old town on Hellweg, the war ended four days later. The archivist Wolf-Herbert Deus lamented the destruction of the city and wrote on April 7th: “Now we are servants of the Americans. I saw four armed soldiers enter Dr. Michaelis invaded and plundered valuables at gunpoint ... “The historic old town, which had grown over centuries, was transformed into a desert of rubble.

One of the earliest aerial photos after the Second World War documents the devastating destruction in Münster - here at the Prinzipalmarkt and Lambertikirche. You can access the online exhibition of the city of Münster at the end of the war 75 years ago here. Photo: City of Münster press office.

A little later the British army reached Bergen-Belsen, and the mountains of corpses there once again revealed the murderous character of the National Socialist regime. On April 15, American and Soviet associations met with media coverage near Torgau on the Elbe. The images of this encounter went around the world. The man who triggered all of this, Adolf Hitler, shot himself on April 30, 1945 in the bunker of his Reich Chancellery.

Days later the guns were silent everywhere. Germany was down. Politically, militarily, morally. The land of poets and thinkers had mutated into a land of judges and executioners. A pariah among the peoples, hated and despised. The images of jubilation after the "lightning victories" in the West were just as little forgotten in the now liberated Europe as the jubilation of those who had longed for total war.

A divided country

But did it really exist, the “zero hour” that has been invoked over and over again? Yes and no is the answer. Yes: This is where the German Empire, founded in 1871, perished in a gruesome way. The state order had collapsed, chaos and confusion reigned everywhere. No: Because life, sheer survival, went on. The author Harald Jähner put this in his readable book "Wolfszeit", which is dedicated to Germany and the Germans in the early post-war period, in the following words: "There was never so much beginning, and not so much end either."

Unlike after the lost First World War, the victorious powers now occupied German territory. The eastern provinces on the other side of the Oder and Neisse were subordinated to a Polish or Russian administration, while the rest of Germany was divided into four zones of occupation in accordance with the Casablanca and Yalta conferences, three in the west and the Soviet in the east. But the alliance of the winners soon proved to be fragile, the ideas of a new order for Germany and Europe were too controversial. The “hot” war was replaced by a cold but long-lasting one. Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, soon spoke of an “iron curtain” that separated two worlds (and worldviews) that were drifting apart.

The big cleanup

On June 5, 1945, the victorious powers had formally taken over the supreme power of government in defeated Germany. Westphalia now - like all of north-west Germany - became a British occupation area. "Zone" as it was then called. Field Marshal Montgomery moved into the villa of a cigar manufacturer in Lübbecke. The command of the British Rhine Army was established at the nearby Rothenhoff manor, and from then on it was responsible for exercising power in Westphalia. What followed was a summer of anarchy: the old was no longer valid, the new was not yet.

The many tasks that had to be mastered at the same time turned out to be almost unsolvable. The big cleanup began. Not only did the debris in the war-torn cities have to be cleared so that rebuilding was possible, the Germans also had to reinvent themselves and say goodbye to megalomania. Denazification and re-education was the name of the ambitious program. But: How do you turn subjects who believe in authority into democratic citizens? It became a long, painful process.

Read about the places and people that keep memories of the war years and the crimes of the National Socialists alive even 75 years after the end of the war.

First of all, the main war criminals had to be tracked down, who were then also judged in Nuremberg in 1946. At the same time, the Allies collected the lower-ranking Nazi functionaries in their respective zones, the district administrators, mayors, police presidents, SS and Gestapo charges, who had benefited greatly from unlimited power and made the system so efficient at all levels. Now they came - at least in the British zone - to the very same camps in the Senne, in Eselheide and Staumühle, in which their henchmen had previously tortured hundreds of thousands of prisoners of war. Here they now had the opportunity to collect “Persilscheine” and to prepare for the upcoming processes. Most of them got away as followers and were then able to start new careers. Wolfgang Staudte's film "The Murderers Are Among Us", shot in Berlin in 1946, points out a problem that should continue to occupy the Federal Republic.

But things were looking up. There were no major epidemics or epidemics. Agriculture recovered surprisingly quickly, and so did industry, thanks to the Marshall Plan. In 1947 the British established the art state of North Rhine-Westphalia, which Lippe soon joined. In 1949 the Basic Law was passed and the Federal Republic of Germany was founded. An important stage in the new beginning was the currency reform, which brought the Germans the "D-Mark", which was soon to become the engine of reconstruction and the economic miracle. The federal Germans were again who.

Volker Jakob

This text first appeared in issue 1/2020 of WESTFALENSPIEGEL. You can find the table of contents here.

The article is part of the series “Places of Remembrance - Against Forgetting”. Here you can find all the articles in the series.