Fall of the Third Reich

Fall of the Third Reich

The turning point of World War II came in the winter of 1942, in the smoldering ruins of the Soviet city known as Stalingrad. Named after the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, the city had both strategic importance and symbolic value, and Hitler gambled Nazi Germany’s future on taking the city.

Fighting in horrifi c winter conditions, the stubborn Soviets turned back the German onslaught at Stalingrad, winning a stunning victory in February 1943 and taking more than 90,000 Axis prisoners.

The battle was the costliest in human history, and the combined casualties suffered by the Soviet and the Axis armies likely numbered around 2 million. To Hitler’s disgust, the Wehrmacht had failed to conquer Russia, and German forces on the eastern front began a slow and inexorable retreat. Meanwhile, on the heels of the Allied defeat of the Germans in North Africa, an Anglo-American invasion force landed in Sicily in July 1943.

Germany’s Italian allies crumbled, but the Wehrmacht stood fast, slowing the Allied advance on Rome. On June 4, 1944, American troops entered Rome, and several days later, a massive Allied invasion force landed in Normandy during the famous D-day landings. The Normandy landings were the largest amphibious operation in history, and almost 200,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of northern France on D-day.

These soldiers overwhelmed the German troops defending the beaches and established an invaluable foothold on French soil. Soon Allied tanks and infantry columns were fighting their way across occupied France, advancing on Germany.

Having brought the war to the European mainland, the Western Allies began a steady advance toward the German frontier, over-whelming the Germans with fresh troops and war matériel shipped over from the United States.

The Germans were now on the defensive on both the eastern front, where they faced the resurgent Soviets and the western front, where they faced the Allies. Running short of men and supplies, by 1944, the Germans were fighting a losing battle on both fronts as massive fleets of Allied bombers demolished Germany’s cities. By the beginning of 1945, the Soviet Red Army was poised to invade Germany from the east and British and American forces from the west.

In his fortifi ed command post, Hitler, shaken by the defeats of the previous year and increasingly delusional about the reality of Germany’s dire situation, railed at his officers with insane plans to turn the tide of war and dreamed of a wonder weapon that would bring ultimate victory.

It never came, and by late February 1945, the Soviets were closing in on Berlin, as British and American forces approached the Rhine. Germany’s leader, Adolf Hitler, committed suicide with his new bride, Eva Braun, on April 30, 1945, in his subterranean bunker beneath the ruins of Berlin.

The dead führer’s thousand-year Reich had barely lasted a decade. The German capital fell to the Russians two days later, and the tattered remains of the once-proud German Wehrmacht began to surrender on both the eastern and western fronts.

Hitler’s successor, Admiral Karl Dönitz (1891–1980), offered an unconditional surrender to the American commander General Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969) on May 7 and surrendered to the Soviets the following day.

World War II, the product of Adolf Hitler’s megalomania and racial paranoia combined with the unresolved issues of World War I, had devastated Europe. Once-glittering European cities had been reduced to smoldering ruins; rail yards, ports, and factories had been destroyed; and entire peoples had been uprooted and made refugees.

More than 35 million Europeans had died in the course of the war. For Germany, the Nazi years had proved an unmitigated disaster. Defeated and disgraced, Germany had lost more than 4.5 million soldiers and an unknown number of civilians, perhaps as many as 2 million, during the conflict. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Germans residing outside of Germany died as well.

Traumatized and hungry, German civilians in eastern Germany suffered under a brutal Soviet occupation marked by pillaging, rape, and murder. In the wake of this catastrophe, the shocked German people, deluded by wartime propaganda, also had to confront the atrocities their nation had committed during the war, including the extermination of more than 6 million of Europe’s Jews.