1945—“I have never wished a man dead,” Clarence Darrow once mused, “but I have read a great many obituaries with a great deal of pleasure.”
The world today may make an exception to Darrow’s first phrase, while obeying the second to the letter: Adolf Hitler’s death, believed to have occurred 30 April, is reported just over four months after der Fuehrer’s own final known radio broadcast.
An American Bulletin (Blue Network)—On the threshold of becoming the original American Broadcasting Company, following its divestment by NBC in an antitrust action a few years earlier, the former NBC Blue reports the BBC bulletin plus an early item saying the strangling German government at first suggested der Fuehrer fell to a stroke “fighting to the last breath.”
News: Death and Succession (Mutual)—America’s original Fourth Network delivers a somewhat more detailed report of Hitler’s death; the early speculation regarding Himmler’s succession attempt and surrender terms; and, an overview of the little-enough-known actual successor, Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz—who is, practically, as last-minute a selection as could be found.
The longtime commander of the Nazi U-boat campaigns is known outside his country barely, if at all. But Doenitz has been named Hitler’s successor hours before der Fuehrer, exercising a choice he denied millions, of course, took his own life in his beseiged Berlin bunker.
Doenitz himself is probably the last person in Nazi Germany who expected to succeed Hitler. Several histories of the Nazi era, particularly William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, will describe Doenitz as believing SS Reichsfuehrer Henrich Himmler would get the job and planning to offer Himmler his direct support.
But now Doenitz has the job, for whatever the job might be worth. The grand admiral delivers an address to Germany as bold as he might be imagined to be (the recording will be long lost, apparently), considering that he may know in his heart of hearts that the war is lost, that the best his Flensburg government (so nicknamed because the Allied advance limits what remains of the Reich government to that area near the Danish border, where Doenitz has made his naval headquarters) can look forward to is winding the war down as swiftly as possible—and on Allied terms.
Doenitz has the job in the first place because the two biggest rats to jump the sinking Nazi ship removed themselves from the prospective succession rather dramatically. Even if one of the pair actually had a lawful (assuming we can apply that word to the Nazi regime) claim to the title.
According to a secret 1941 decree revealed by Shirer, Hitler had designated Field Marshal Hermann Goering as the man to take command in the event of his incapacitation or death. But by early April 1945, the corpulent Goering wasn’t exactly one of the brightest stars in what remained of the Nazi firmament. The Stalingrad debacle hastened a shrinkage in Goering’s influence, if not his bulk. By now, he was probably thanking whatever God he prayed to that Hitler didn’t have the heart to repudiate him publicly, so far.
Goering had relocated to Berchtesgaden with ideas about retiring to private life, so it will be said, until his Luftwaffe chief of staff brought him an item that must have yanked him inside out: Conceding the war is lost, Hitler may have suggested Goering himself would be suited better to negotiate the peace.
Which must have sent Goering from implicit disgrace to impossible dilemna. He was anything but thrilled at the idea of Hitler’s aide de camp Martin Bormann seizing any more windows of power opportunity. But he must have feared accusations of dereliction if he waited too long to make any move . . . when he wasn’t fearful of treason charges if he made any move at all.
Divided or no, Goering reached for that 1941 decree. On that basis—and after serious talk with his top aides, both of whom agreed Hitler was incapacitated (not too difficult to concur, with the Allies closing in from one direction and the Soviets closing in from the other) and Goering by decree had to act or else—the field marshal telegrammed Hitler, asking permission to execute the decree, if there was no response within a certain period of days.
Bearing in mind that subtlety has never been considered one of Goering’s prime qualities in the first place, no amount of care on his part in fashioning the communique could have kept Hitler from taking it precisely as he did take it: as hand-it-over-or-I’ll-take-it-over.
Even so, Hitler, according to Shirer, merely wanted to strip Goering of all official office, power, and party membership, while ordering merely his arrest. That wasn’t quite enough for the devious Bormann, who ordered the SS to bust and execute Goering and his family. The SS captors, for their part, had no intention of executing Goering, moving him instead to a property where he spent much of his childhood, and where he now prepared his own surrender.
None of that proved anything much compared to Heinrich Himmler, believed to be the single most loyal Hitler henchman behind Joseph Goebbels himself.
Like Goering, Himmler by April 1945 believed Hitler was a tote ente. Unlike Goering, as Shirer would describe it, Himmler didn’t trouble himself to inquire about succeeding Hitler—he acted as though he had the job, period. Reaching to the Allies by way of Scandinavian intermediaries, Himmler offered to surrender Germany to the Allies lock, stock, and barrel.
In fact, der treue Heinrich (Hitler’s fond nickname for him), presenting himself as Germany’s provisional leader, reached out to Sweden’s Count Folke Bernadotte near the Danish border. Predicting Hitler’s death within two days of their meeting, Himmler asked the Count to tell Allied commander Dwight Eisenhower that Germany was ready to surrender, hoping the British and the Americans would join what was left of the Wehrmacht and fight the Soviets.
The Count had only one request to the Reichsfuehrer: put it in writing. Which Himmler did. Days after Goering’s “betrayal,” on 28 April, the news hit the BBC running. Hitler had to be peeled from the ceiling when the news reached his beseiged ears. After that, he stripped der treue Heinrich likewise and ordered his arrest. Hitler didn’t live long enough, however, to see what his absolute most stubborn loyalist of all would do once he was dead.
Written in a white hot fury following the Himmler news, Hitler’s last will and testament named Goebbels Chancellor, Doenitz Reich President, and Bormann Party Minister.
The only problem was Goebbels. He was in no mood to keep the office he’d been willed. The propaganda minister figured (correctly, we may presume) that, if the Soviet forces captured him, his chances of mercy wavered between none and less. Moreover, Goebbels genuinely believed life was worthless “if I cannot spend it in the service of der Fuehrer at his side.” Finally, he also believed—with surrender all but given, the terms yet to be negotiated and settled (at least, from the separate points of view of both Doenitz and Goebbels)—that the last thing Doenitz might want or need was his, Goebbels’s, notorious self heading a new government.
Goebbels commits only one official act in his extremely brief tenure as the big boss. He dictates a letter to Soviet General Vasily Chuikov, commander of the Eighth Guards Army in central Berlin, in which he reveals Hitler’s death. Goebbels also calls for a cease fire . . . and for a new Nazi-Soviet alliance against “Western plutocracy” that might do the Soviets a big favour, he believes, in light of Himmler’s and Goering’s treacheries suggesting (to Goebbels’s mind, anyway) that Nazi elements that were anti-Soviet might tie to the West.
The suggestion isn’t exactly received with hearts and flowers, telling the former propaganda minister and Fuehrer for a day the proverbial jig is proverbially up. Thus Goebbels says a goodbye or two to visitors at his own bunker. Then, he has his children poisoned before he and his wife commit suicide. Some would come to believe Goebbels shot his wife and then himself. “To the end,” Joachim Fest will write in The Face of the Third Reich, “he was what he had always been: the propagandist for himself. Whatever he thought or did was always based on this one agonising wish for self-exaltation, and this same object was served by the murder of his children . . . the last victims of an egomania extending beyond the grave . . . [It] failed to make him the figure of tragic destiny he had hoped to become; it merely gave his end a touch of repulsive irony.”
Thus does Karl Doenitz take command of a government now stripped of its founder and three of its most notorious executioners, and left bereft of a fourth by choice. Martin Bormann, who first gave Doenitz the news he was to succeed der Fuehrer, has left Hitler’s bunker, on Hitler’s pre-suicide approval. He will get so far as crossing the Spree and arriving at the Lehrter railway station over the tracks on foot. It will be, reputedly, the last place Bormann will be seen alive.
Goering and Himmler, of course, will choose their own deaths. Himmler will bite on a vial of poison he smuggles into his cell awaiting trial at Nuremberg; Goering will be convicted at Nuremberg but will likewise take smuggled poison rather than face the executioner. Choices both, like Hitler, denied millions.
And Doenitz will learn, soon enough, that any hope of protracting Germany’s surrender is futile. He will sign the official Nazi surrender document six days after the world learns of der Fuehrer’s death.
FURTHER CHANNEL SURFING . . .
mr. ace and JANE: Did You Ever See a Dream Walking (CBS, 1948)—I’m sure at one time or another all of you have gotten a tip on a racehorse. Somebody told you he’d walk in. And he does walk in. The only trouble is, the other horses ran. So muses (Goodman) Ace, who can’t wait for the nightmare to place when Jane (Ace) can’t wait to get down a can’t-lose bet on the horse of her dreams. Paul: Leon Janney. Norris: Eric Dressler. Ken: Ken Roberts (announcer). Writer/director: Goodman Ace.
Our Miss Brooks: The Grudge Match (CBS, 1949)—When Walter (Richard Crenna) learns who joined Harriet (Gloria McMillan) when she went to the movies alone the night before, he insists on settling it in a grudge match . . . with Conklin (Gale Gordon) insisting not just on setting aside his usual professions against school violence but on refereeing the bout himself—he’s that anxious to watch whatever passes for Walter’s brains get turned into tapioca pudding. Connie: Eve Arden. Mrs. Davis: Jane Morgan. Stretch: Leonard Smith. Boynton: Jeff Chandler. Announcer: Bob LaMond. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Writer/director: Al Lewis.
The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show: Cleaning the Chimney (NBC, 1949)—It leaves the Harris household one flue over the cuckoo’s nest, when Phil (Harris), Remley (Elliott Lewis), and Julius (Walter Tetley) attempt it, in one of Walter Tetley’s greatest turns among many such over the life of this show. Herself: Alice Faye. Little Alice: Jeanine Roos. Phyllis: Ann Whitfield. Willie: Robert North. Announcer: Bill Forman. Music: Walter Scharf, Phil Harris Orchestra. Director: Paul Phillips. Writers: Ray Singer, Dick Chevillat.
Our Miss Brooks: Spring Garden (CBS, 1955)—Redemption for her previous year’s mishaps doesn’t come too easily for Connie (Eve Arden), when Conklin (Gale Gordon) lets her take over supervising the annual student spring garden project. Even approaching the end of its line, the show manages not to lapse into doldrums or indifference. Mrs. Davis: Jane Morgan. Walter: Richard Crenna. Boynton: Jeff Chandler. Harriet: Gloria McMillan. Miss Enright: Mary Jane Croft. Announcer: Bob LaMond. Music: Wilbur Hatch. Writer/director: Al Lewis.
Box 13: Much Too Lucky (Mutual, 1949)—From another state where gambling is legal, betting agent Bert Hendrix (possibly Alan Reed) asks Holliday (Alan Ladd) to investigate whether a sudden rise in big-winning, long-shot racing bets is mere coincidence or potential race-fixing involving less than legitimate bookmakers, a set pattern of races, and a suddenly-lucky nightclub singer (Betty Lou Gerson). Additional cast: Luis Van Rooten, Herb Vigran, John Beal. Suzy: Sylvia Picker. Announcer: Vern Carstensen. Music: Rudy Schrager. Director: Richard Sandville. Writers: Robert M. White, Richard Sandville.
Broadway is My Beat: The Mary Murdock Murder Case (CBS, 1949)—A visiting conventioneer (John Fosythe) asks Clover (Anthony Ross) to intervene when he fears being blackmailed by a young woman as his wife (Jean Carson) is due to join him in New York—a woman who had herself photographed to look as though she’s the man’s lover. This episode is one solid example as to why this series would need Elliott Lewis, Morton Fine, and David Friedkin in Los Angeles to make its impression of New York come to genuine life. Additional cast: Unidentified. Announcer: Vern Bennett. Music: Robert Stringer. Director: John Dietz. Writer: Joseph Roscoe.