The Collapse of the Third Reich

From the Lecture series: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

In late 1944, the Western Allies came to know about the Nazi atrocities in the death camps. There was the possibility of destroying the railroad lines that were leading into these camps and save the precious lives, but the Allies were too late. Many people had already died in these camps. How, then, did the Third Reich’s reign of terror end in Europe?

The Brandenburg Gate amid the ruins of Berlin, June 1945.
Many German cities, like Berlin seen here, were reduced to rubbles after the collapse of the Third Reich. (Image: Bundesarchiv/Weinrother, Carl/CC-BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

Third Reich leader Heinrich Himmler, who visited a Nazi camp one time, was violently ill and never went back, was reported to have made a top-secret speech to his SS personnel in ’44,

I want to tell you about a very grave matter in all frankness. We can talk about it quite openly here, but we must never talk about it publicly. I mean the evacuation of the Jews, the extermination of the Jewish people…Most of you will know what it means to see 600 corpses piled up, or 500 or 1,000. To have gone through this and, except for a few instances of human weakness, to have remained decent, that has made us tough. That is a never-to-be-written, glorious page of our history.

Here one gets the most vivid description of the skewed, warped sense of morality that Himmler and his colleagues had.

Learn more how Hitler drove the world rapidly toward a global war.

1942: A Turning Point in the War

The invasion of the Anglo-American forces of North Africa in 1942 and then the long battle in Stalingrad, fought between October of 1942 and February of 1943, would seal the German fate in the east.

There would be no more offenses in the east, and after that, there would be a long slog of Russian troops toward Germany. The Germans suffered over half a million casualties at Stalingrad. The end and the surrender of the 6th army in February ’43 signaled the end of Hitler’s designs in the east, and adumbrated the collapse of the Third Reich.

The gradual but steady advance of the Red Army from the east and the remorseless pounding of German cities by the Anglo-American air forces would increase in 1943. The invasion of Italy by the Americans and the British in that year, and the Normandy landings in June of 1944, marked the declining status of German military fortunes in this last phase of the war.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

German Resistance against the Nazis

As Nazi military fortunes sagged, Nazi terror on the homefront intensified, and the concentration camps overflowed. It was in 1944 that a German resistance movement would finally form that would actually take action.

On July 20, 1944, a conspiracy of military officers, clergymen, aristocrats, Socialists attempted a coup d’etat. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb at a table where Hitler was speaking at his East Prussian headquarters. The bomb blew up, and killed other people in the room. Hitler, who was standing six feet from the bomb, survived. It ruptured his eardrum, badly hurt his arm, but he survived to go on.

In the aftermath of that failed coup, Stauffenberg and others were hanged by piano wire or shot, and Germany now entered its last catastrophic phase of the war, as the SS ratcheted up the controls over the local population, where people were hanged from lanterns in the street for defeatist ideas.

The Relentless Push of the Allies

American soldiers marching in Paris.
The Allies liberated Paris from the Nazis in August 1944. (Image: Poinsett/Signal Corpsderivative work:SilkTork/Public domain)

By the turn of the new year, in 1945, the Russians were pressing relentlessly forward from the east, while in the west, the Anglo-American armies pushed out from the Normandy beachheads. Paris was liberated in August of ’44 and then all of France.

The Battle of the Bulge in December ’44 and early ’45 in the West was only a temporary setback for the Western Allies. It was the last gasp of the Third Reich. By the end of January, the Russians had pushed into Germany itself, as did the Western Allies. By April, Berlin stood cut off, the Russians 100 miles on the Oder from the capital city of Germany.

In March, the Ruhr fell to the Americans, and the Rhine was crossed. And now, as the Allied armies moved into Germany itself, the ideological core of National Socialism revealed itself in all its grisly brutality.

Learn more Stalingrad, the turning point on the Eastern Front.

Liberation and the End

In early April, the American third army liberated Buchenwald, five miles from Weimar. In April, British forces freed 55,000 inmates, miraculously still alive in Belsen. Mass graves, bodies piled in heaps, the living little more than skeletons, storage bins of gold from extracted teeth, balls of women’s hair, spectacles by the thousand, dentures, clothing—including, in one camp, thousands of pairs of baby shoes—yielded up the harvest of the Third Reich.

By April 25, the Russians had reached Berlin, and on April 30, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. On May 2, 1945, the Third Reich ceased to exist. The roll call of the dead was unbelievable: 55 million people had perished in the Second World War.

When the last Anglo-American bomb had been dropped on central Europe, and the German people had begun emerging from their hiding places to survey the smoking heaps of rubble that had once been Berlin or Dresden or Hamburg, there must have been a moment, however fleeting, when the grisly reality of all that had happened fell in upon them, and they must have asked themselves the question, “How had it ever come to this?”

For the Germans, the haunting question was accompanied by an enormous burden of guilt, shame, and horror at what had been done by Germans, in the name of the German people.

For them, no less than the victims of National Socialism, victims whose only crime had been to be born a Jew or a Pole or a Russian, there’s another legacy, a legacy that must be ours as well. It is a political, but even more a moral, imperative that this must never happen again.

Common Questions about the Collapse of the Third Reich

Q: When did the Third Reich cease to exist?

On May 2, 1945, the Third Reich ceased to exist.

Q: What happened on July 20, 1944?

On July 20, 1944, a conspiracy of military officers, clergymen, aristocrats, Socialists attempted a coup d’etat against the Third Reich. Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg planted a bomb at a table where Hitler was speaking at his East Prussian headquarters. The bomb killed other people in the room, but Hitler survived.

Q: When and where did Adolf Hitler commit suicide?

On April 30, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker.

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