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Ardennes Offensive Survivor’s Account

Seventy-five years ago, the Battle of the Bulge began. It would be the Nazis’ last significant counterattack on the Western Front, with the aim of breaking through to the Channel and disrupting Allied supply chains.

It was December 15, 1944, when 20-year-old Lieutenant Wingolf Scherer stationed in Germany’s western Eifel region with his grenadier division was informed that he and his fellow soldiers would be sent to fight in the Ardennes. Just two hours later, Scherer and his 60 troops were transported across the Belgian border to the Western Front, near Udenbreth. Scherer, who is now 95 years old, remembers the day well. “The mood was really grim,” Scherer says. “We all knew that this was our last chance to put another twist in the tale of the war. But none of us knew if we would make it out alive.”

The next morning at 5:30 a.m., deafeningly loud German artillery fire erupted. Scherer, who had taken up a position in the deep snow, was in awe, briefly forgetting the frigid weather. “The German artillery barrage was frightening and awe-inspiring at once,” he said. “I just thought, maybe we can do this after all.”   

Two hundred and forty thousand German soldiers, Scherer among them, advanced with the support of hundreds of tanks, surprising US forces, who had not expected the attack. The Germans were aiming to retake the Belgian port city of Antwerp to cut off the Allies’ supply line.

One exhibit in the Bastogne War Museum is Hitler’s order to launch the offensive.

Act of Desperation

After their initial wave of euphoria, Scherer and his comrades realized that the Ardennes offensive known in the English-speaking world as the Battle of the Bulge was doomed to fail. “The idiot ordered this,” Scherer remembers a German general telling his field officer. “What else can we do but obey?”

The general was, of course, referring to Adolf Hitler, who had ignored the warnings of his military advisers and, without real preparation and air support, launched the offensive. “We knew nothing about the enemy we were up against,” Scherer said, “and we were essentially attacking into the blue.”

Going was slow in the snowy Ardennes hills and forests. But the Germans’ worst shortage of all was fuel; the tanks were deployed without any reserves, meaning they could not advance more than 60 kilometers (35 miles) before running dry. Scherer recalls the most concerning order for the offensive: “If we needed more fuel, then we should just requisition it from enemy bases.” 

After just one week of fighting, the Allies had halted the German advance in the Ardennes. Six weeks later, when the campaign was called off, the front line had effectively been restored to its previous position.

The offensive “was an act of desperation and a misguided copy of the 1940 campaign,” the military historian Karl-Heinz Frieser said, with the same ultimate goal of reaching the Channel and blocking the Allies off from mainland Europe. But this time, they were trying to do so using the last remnants of their elite fighting units, with scant support and on land only. Frieser notes that Germany’s decimated Luftwaffe, which four years earlier had controlled the airspace, provided very little assistance by late 1944 in Allied-dominated skies.

Almost 7,000 German soldiers are buried in this cemetery in Recogne, near Bastogne.

Huge Losses

Nazi Germany had deliberately launched its Ardennes offensive during a period of bad weather, initially forcing Allied planes to remain on the ground. Though Germany’s 10-day campaign in May 1940 had the advantage of clear blue skies, Frieser said, 1944’s winter Ardennes offensive was about sending German tanks, with little fuel, through dismal weather conditions to mount a surprise attack on Antwerp.

Tens of thousands of soldiers, German and Allied, were killed and went missing in the fighting, with the US losing more men than during their Normandy landings on June 6, 1944.

Why did Hitler send his troops on a suicide mission? Frieser, who for many years worked at Germany’s Military History Research Office in Freiburg and Potsdam, said this was his last-ditch effort to win the war.

Hitler believed his troops could still hold the line along the Eastern Front while mounting a counterattack in the west, Frieser said. The Führer felt his only chance was to repel Allied ground troops from the continent and then swiftly transport his tanks eastward by train to counter the advancing Red Army. But in his desperation, he was spreading his forces too thin.

Given irreplaceable losses and the removal of mechanized and armored units from the Eastern front, the Soviets were able to advance even faster towards Berlin from the east.

Frieser said a successful Ardennes offensive would have had devastating long-term consequences: “If Germany had managed to hold on until the summer of 1945, the US would have surely dropped the first-ever nuclear bomb on a German city.” After all, he said, the weapon had been originally developed out of fear of Germany, not Japan.

Wingolf Scherer has written several books about the war.

Foes Become Friends

On March 9, 1945, Scherer surrendered to US troops near the German town of Andernach. He would be a prisoner of the United States, and later of Britain, until September. When a US officer noticed that Scherer was having health issues, he was transferred to a military hospital. Scherer remembers how he had told me that his family had emigrated from Germany to the US and that his father was still fluent in the language.

After the war, Scherer got in touch with the US officer a former bomber pilot and they began sending each other letters. Later, Scherer’s two sons flew to visit the man in Ohio, after which his family came to visit Scherer in Germany. The US officer, meanwhile, never set foot on German soil again.

Scherer said his sons offered to pay for the flights and travel expenses if the former US officer and his wife wanted to visit Germany. But the man declined, saying that as a former bomber pilot, he could not return to the country he had once attacked.

After getting a doctorate, Scherer dedicated his life to preserving the memory of the war. He authored 20 books, among them one titled Die letzte Schlacht (The Final Battle) about Germany’s Ardennes offensive. He also greatly contributed to fostering a culture of remembrance and went to the Belgian town of Rocherath when, for the first time ever, surviving German and US soldiers from the Battle of the Bulge gathered there in the year 2000.

Scherer is one of the very few Battle of the Bulge veterans still alive, and his experience gives him perspective. “Humans are capable of solving their conflicts peacefully,” he said. “Reconciliation between former enemies not only helps us return to normalcy but also prevents something like this ever happening again.”

The Bastogne War Museum houses some remnants of the offensive such as this Hetzer.

WWII: Germany Grapples with Honoring Graf Spee Captain

Captain Hans Langsdorff rescued his crew of more than 1,000 men by scuttling his ship, the Graf Spee, rather than fight a hopeless battle in 1939. His daughter says it’s time to honor his moral courage.

by DW

On Dec.17, 1939,  the battle-damaged German warship Admiral Graf Spee (pictured above) limped out of the port of Montevideo into the estuary of the River Plate for what was expected to be a decisive clash with Britain’s Royal Navy.

But suddenly, to the amazement of the thousands of spectators watching from the roofs and seafront of the Uruguayan capital, she was rocked by a series of explosions. Jets of flame burst from her and a plume of smoke billowed into the reddening evening sky.

The proud ship, which had only four days earlier damaged three British warships in the first sea battle of World War II before steaming to neutral Montevideo for repairs, had scuttled herself in shallow waters. Her wreck burned for three days.

Her commander, Captain Hans Langsdorff, believed he was facing impossible odds against a superior force beyond the horizon and defied Hitler’s order to fight to the last man. Three days later, he committed suicide, shooting himself in the head in a Buenos Aires hotel room. He was lying on Graf Spee’s battle ensign.

Eighty years on, his daughter, Inge Nedden, 82, is calling on Germany to show greater public recognition of his act that saved a crew of more than 1,000 men from almost certain death. They were interned in Argentina during the war and many settled there afterwards.

Every year, hundreds of their descendants gather at his grave in Argentina’s National Cemetery in Buenos Aires to commemorate him.

“The affection, gratitude and unwavering trust of many former Spee soldiers in many encounters over the years have made me proud and defined my joy at the rescue of the many men by my father,” Nedden said. “So I hope one will find a way for him to be honored publicly as well.”

Hero abroad, ignored in Germany

Feted abroad, Langsdorff is largely ignored in Germany even though he would appear to embody the modern army’s stated ethos of encouraging personal responsibility and rejecting the blind obedience of the Nazi era.

The Canadian town of Ajax in 2007 dedicated a street to him — “Langsdorff Drive” — and the Royal Navy, which was also spared casualties by his actions, will honor him in a memorial dinner at its base in Portsmouth in December.

In Germany though, no streets or squares are named after him and there has been no official military representation at the annual ceremonies at his grave.

The German War Graves Commission has not responded to a request from the family that it begin tending his grave, Nedden and her husband Rüdiger said in an emailed statement.

But as the 80th anniversary of the drama approaches, politicians and Hans-Jürgen Kaack, the author of a new biography of Langsdorff due to be published this month, are supporting the Neddens’ call for greater recognition of his actions.

“I want his behavior to be honored, it is an extraordinary feat as a soldier to forego a battle in order to save 1,200 lives,” Kaack, a retired naval officer, said.

He said a conservative mindset remained entrenched in the German navy, and that he had received angry letters from several former naval officers in recent weeks.

Awkward debate for modern navy

“People are annoyed with me for addressing something that hasn’t been addressed in 80 years. For the navy, the duty to fight continues to prevail and I have the impression that only a small number of officers have a sense that there can and must also be an ethical judgment of such an approach.”

Jan Korte, a lawmaker from the opposition Left Party, has urged Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer to declare her position on Langsdorff.

He said it was a contradiction that Germany shuns him while commemorating Rear Admiral Rolf Johannesson, who signed five death sentences against resistance members two weeks before the end of the war, with a bust that stands in the navy’s college at Mürwik.

“It is telling that people like Langsdorff, who early on rejected the madness of fighting to the end and saved many people with their actions, are seen as a red rag and others who represent the murderous tradition of the navy continue to be honored,” said Korte.

Praise but no action

The German Defense Ministry, contacted by DW, heaped praise on Langsdorff and denied that the military does not honor him — but it stopped short of pledging a more public form of recognition.

A spokesman said Langsdorff had saved many lives and prevented the ship’s modern and secret technology from falling into the hands of the British.

“In this respect, it is a historical example of timeless soldierly virtues,” the spokesman said. “These are recognized in the Bundeswehr and his example is used at the naval school in Mürwik, in teaching and training, to support the young officer candidates in their personal confrontation with the political, legal and ethical dimensions of the military and naval service.”

Humane treatment of prisoners

Kaack said Langsdorff had been given command of the fast, heavily gunned and well-armored Graf Spee because he regularly topped the navy’s skill rankings.

He had won the Iron Cross in WW I when his duties included commanding minesweepers in the North Sea.

After the outbreak of WW II, the Graf Spee was ordered to disrupt British commerce and sank nine merchant ships in the South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. Langsdorff won respect from British crews for his humane treatment of prisoners.

After being tracked down and engaged by the Royal Navy cruisers Exeter and Ajax and New Zealand’s Achilles in the battle of the River Plate on December 13, Langsdorff made for Montevideo where the authorities only permitted him 72 hours for repairs before the ship would be interned under international rules governing neutrality.

The repairs would have taken at least two weeks, and British intelligence dispatched fake signals to mislead the Germans into believing that fresh Royal Navy warships were closing in even though the nearest ships capable of matching Graf Spee’s firepower were still thousands of miles away.

Kaack said scuttling the ship made military sense because its ammunition was too low for a prolonged battle and it was too damaged for the 11,500 kilometer (7,145 miles) return to Germany.

Inge and Rüdiger Nedden will travel to Montevideo and Buenos Aires in December to take part in 80th anniversary memorial events. They will be joined by a British delegation at a ceremony at Captain Langsdorff’s grave together with families who, without his actions, would not have existed.

Inge, who was only two when her father died and has no memory of him, said she treasured her mother’s reminiscences of him.

“They had great love for each other and absolute trust. That enabled her to accept his decisions amid all the sorrow and in particular during our visit to Argentina in 1954 to feel great joy to see the young families (of the crewmen) and feel their affection.”


Bid to Restore Iron Cross Divides Germany

Adolf Hitler in 1940 wearing the Iron Cross he won for bravery during the Great War.

By the Independent, March 2008 

Germany has launched an anguished and widening debate over proposals to reintroduce the Iron Cross – virtually in its original form – as a military decoration that could be awarded throughout the armed services in recognition of “outstanding bravery”.

The Iron Cross still rates as Germany’s most famous military insignia, but its role has been reduced to that of a black and white emblem on the aircraft, tanks and warships of the post-war armed forces. It was dropped as a medal in 1945.

Adolf Hitler claimed it was the happiest day of his life when he received the familiar black and silver cross and, although banned as a medal for the past 63 years, any Second World War film would be unthinkable without the decoration appearing on the tunic of some jackbooted general.

Ernst-Reinhard Beck, who is a conservative MP in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, an army reserve colonel and president of the Army Reservists’ Association, said reintroducing the cross was justified because of Germany’s new military role abroad.

He conceded that “terror and fear” had been inflicted on nations under the sign of the Iron Cross during the Second World War, but added that the symbol was now a “sign of help and solidarity” as a result of the German army’s presence in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

Avoiding mention of the criticism to which Germany is subjected by some of its Nato allies because of its reluctance to commit troops to fight in southern Afghanistan, he added: “Soldiers abroad are always ready to risk their lives and their health to ensure their mission is fulfilled. I can well imagine a new medal taking the form of the Iron Cross as an award for special courage, bravery and achievements.”

He said the desire to see the return of the cross was widespread in the armed forces. Soldiers felt that existing military medals were not good enough as many were simply awarded for length of service. More than 5,000 Germans signed a petition last year which called for return of the Iron Cross.

Although its reintroduction is opposed by the Greens and many Social Democrats, supporters point out that the emblem is not synonymous with Nazism. The award was introduced in 1813 by King Frederick Wilhelm III as an outstanding-bravery medal for Prussian soldiers engaged in a “war of liberation” against Napoleon. The medal was awarded during the subsequent Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and during the First World War, when its most infamous recipient was Private Adolf Hitler, decorated with the Iron Cross second class for bravery as a dispatch runner in the trenches. Hitler described the day of the award as the happiest of his life and as Nazi leader he was rarely seen without it.

Although the medal fell out of favour after 1918, Hitler revived it in 1939 – albeit with a Nazi swastika embossed on its middle. Despising Germany’s other First World War medal, the Blue Max, as it could only be awarded to officers, he favoured the Iron Cross which was open to all.

Franz Josef-Jung, Germany’s conservative Defence Minister, said yesterday he was in favour of introducing a medal for “extraordinary bravery”. However, politicians from the other parties were less enthusiastic. Rainer Arnold, a leading Social Democrat, dismissed bringing back the cross. “Given the legacy of Hitler and the Second World War, the medal is too burdened by the past for it to be reintroduced,” he said.

Elke Hoff, a military specialist for the liberal Free Democrats party, referred to surveys on the German armed services which showed that many soldiers smoked too much, were unfit and were inadequately equipped in the field: “It would be better to provide soldiers abroad with the equipment they really need,” she said.

Whether German soldiers will soon be sporting the Iron Cross again remains an open question. Although proposals for a medal to reward outstanding bravery were officially sanctioned by President Horst Köhler, the Defence Ministry’s position was unclear. “We have not decided what the new medal should look like,” a spokesman said, “However at no time did we consider reintroducing the Iron Cross that was awarded during the Second World War.”


How Nazi Policies of Expansion led to World War II

by DW 

On September 1, 1939, the Wehrmacht invaded neighboring Poland without warning. Hitler had been planning the Blitzkrieg since 1933. DW takes a look at the events leading up to WWII.

The war did not come as a surprise. Hitler was not secretive about his aggressive expansion policies.

But again and again, says Klaus Hesse from the Topography of Terror Documentation Center in Berliner, he maintained publicly that he was taking the peaceful route.

“Everything Hitler did was geared toward war ever since he came to power in 1933. From the very beginning, his aim was to revise the post-war order ordained in the Treaty of Versailles – to regain hegemony in Europe through an enlarged Germany. Everything was aimed at creating a large-scale economy that would allow Germany to wage a vast and long-term war in Europe.”

Domestic war

The extent of Nazi brutality became obvious after the progrom of 1938.

The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 forced Germany and its allies to accept sole responsibility for causing the First World War and committed it to making territorial concessions, disarming and paying reparations. As Hitler saw it, this was a great humiliation, and he made it his mission to rectify it.

The so-called “stab-in-the-back” conspiracy theory was particularly convenient for Hitler’s plans. And it wasn’t very difficult to convince the public that the Social Democrats and the Jews had “stabbed the Reich in the back.” And so a new war began within the country’s own boundaries.

Just a few days after he gained power, Hitler called for a country-wide boycott of Jewish shops on April 1, 1933. After that, he passed the “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service,” which forced all non-“Aryans” and those not loyal to the National Socialist (NS) Party to retire from civil service.

From the very beginning, it was also about securing the financial means to wage war. Before the Nazis created a legal framework to regulate the pillaging of Jewish property and possessions, Jewish businesspeople were put under pressure to make profits off others fleeing the country. Emigrants had to pay 25 percent of their taxable assets to the German government, which in the first two years of NS rule alone earned the government 153 million reichsmarks. On all bank transfers abroad, there was a fee that had to be paid to a state banking institution, the “Deutsche Golddiskontbank.”

By September 1939, that fee had risen to 96 percent of the transfer sum.

Berlin 1936 – Olympic Games and war plans

Up to 1939, the majority of Germans saw Hitler as someone who could fix the country. His dictatorship brought about a positive change in the economic situation for many people. Unemployment sank, consumerism increased.

“So in this sense, Hitler was quite a populist – he knew you had to give the people butter along with guns,” Hesse told DW.

But weapons were, in fact, more important for the government.

While Berlin was hosting the Olympic Games, Hitler was busy solidifying his war plans. In four years, the Nazi armed forces, the Wehrmacht, were to be fit to carry out the war in the east. Hitler’s plan as noted in his classified “Four-Year Plan” was to make Germany self-sufficient in many areas so it could isolate itself from the world market and invest all its resources in arms and military buildup. Soon, half of the state’s expenditures were going towards weapons.

The same year, the Wehrmacht occupied the demilitarized Rheinland in the west of the country – in clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles. In November 1937, Hitler told his secret plans to a select circle of the Wehrmacht’s top generals: Germany needs more space, or “Lebensraum,” for the “preservation and growth of the German people.”

Berlin won the bid to host the ’36 Summer Olympics two years before the Nazis came to power.

September 1938 – war postponed

In the year 1938, Hitler annexed his birth country Austria. Shortly thereafter, he threatened to invade Czechoslovakia because the local German population there supposedly suffered from discrimination.

British and French politicians feared a European war – and tried to avoid one through politics of appeasement. By giving Hitler what he understood to be his nation’s right, he would calm down – that was the hope.

In the Munich Agreement, the Sudetenland, the German-speaking border regions of Czechoslovakia, were ceded to Germany.

“Chamberlain let Hitler get away with a whole lot of territorial expansion without letting it come to war,” says historian Antony Beevor.

As for the what would have happened had an anti-appeasement Winston Churchill already been prime minister at the time, the historian can’t say.

“Would the British and the French have been in a stronger position in September 1939? We will never know.”

Hesse says the fear of war was palpable in Germany in 1938. “It became evident that the transformation from a weak Germany to a strong one was not going to be possible without war.”

The Munich Agreement was packaged by Nazi propaganda and sold to the German public as one of Hitler’s successful peace policies. But in reality, Hitler was upset about the agreement because he would have preferred to go to war then.

The Munich Agreement gave German-speaking parts of Czechoslovakia to Germany.

In September 1939 – no coup

What is tragic about the events around this time in history was that, as of September 1938, Hitler was very alone with his plans for war. His generals wanted to avoid a war at any cost. Chief of the German General Staff Franz Halder, who was a top commander in and around Berlin, along with Berlin’s chief of police had already formed a new government with civil service workers critical of the NS and former Social Democrat politicians. A secret brigade of assault troops was prepared to overrun the Reich Chancellery as soon as Hitler declared war.

But a year later, a coup was no longer on the agenda. Though no one cheered on September 1, 1939, most Germans stood behind Hitler nonetheless. And they were prepared to wage war for their “Führer.”

Sixty million people lost their lives in the Second World War. The National Socialists killed six million Jews. For Antony Beevor, the Second World War was the “biggest disaster caused by man in all of history.”


German WWII Wreck Poses Threat of Eco-Disaster in Poland

by DW

Experts say a German tanker that sank in the Baltic Sea at the end of World War II will sooner or later cause an environmental catastrophe. But getting authorities to take action is proving difficult.

The Franken was a floating gas station. The ship supplied the German navy operating in the Baltic Sea with fuel during World War Two. The tanker had a capacity of up to 10,000 tons (11,000 US tons) of fuel. Hit by Russian torpedoes, it sank near the Hel Peninsula off Gdansk on April 8, 1945, some of its tanks still well-filled.

After the war, international law of the day stipulated that the wreck was now Polish property. At the time, recovering the Franken was unprofitable. “It just sat there and wasn’t in anyone’s way,” says Benedykt Hac of the Maritime Institute in Gdansk.

But that has now changed, Hac, an experienced navigator and captain, says. The question is not whether a disaster will happen, but when, he warns.

Several of the fuel tanks, shown here in pink, are still full.

Ticking time bomb

According to the most recent report on the tanker’s condition, there are still 3,136 m³ (828,444 liquid gallons) of fuel onboard. A significant amount, about 60 percent of the ship’s cargo, was lost during the attack, but there is still a lot left, says Hac. Thanks to “good German engineering,” he says, some of the tanks are still intact.

But even the best engineering can’t change the laws of physics. The saltwater is causing the steel of the tanks to corrode at a rate of 1 millimeter (0.039 inch) per decade. Over the past seven decades, 7 of the 12 millimeters of the tank walls may very well have vanished. If the hull corrodes even further, the wreck could collapse under its own weight, which could trigger an uncontrolled leak, Hac asserts — with dramatic consequences for the environment.

To make things worse, the Baltic Sea is an inland sea that is currently experiencing an unusually slow exchange of water with the neighboring North Sea. “As a scientist, I can’t remain silent,” Hac says.

‘Extremely important project’

Hac and his team unsuccessfully sought help in the matter for years. The cost of salvaging the fuel load is estimated at between €8 million ($9.4 million) and €20 million, which includes insurance and ordnance disposal. Poland’s Mare foundation launched an information campaign, and theGerman Baltic Sea Conservation Foundation (Baltcf) sponsored a pilot project to raise public awareness of the eco-threat. However, funds covered only the examination of the wreck from the outside and the development of methods and guidelines for the recovery of the hazardous materials on board and of standard procedures and implementation strategies for the authorities.

There’s no time to lose, says Baltcf Managing Director Peter Torkler, adding that in view of the dynamic economic development in Gdansk Bay and the advancement of tourism in the area, it should be regarded as an “extremely important project.”

In February of this year, the Baltcf decided to help with the Polish project, and on April 23, 2018, two Polish research ships from the Baltic Sea dive base, the IMOR, and the LITORAL, joined in. Divers spent about 60 hours underwater, 13 of them on the wreck. An information campaign was launched and an online petition to the Polish government to clean the Franken’s tanks was posted by the Mare foundation, with more than 45,000 people signing so far.

Saving the ecosystem

“We’re not out to condemn anyone, but are trying to mobilize people to save the ecosystem of Gdansk Bay,” says Olga Sarna, president of the board of the Mare foundation.

It’s also about “breaking the silence,” adds Peter Torkler, pointing out the Gdansk Marine Institute’s unsuccessful attempts to gain the interest of authorities.

However, in July, the Polish shipping minister, Marek Grobarczyk, at least set up a special team to solve the problems caused by the Franken, and the environmental activists are hoping, with his ministry’s backing, to receive EU emergency financing for the salvage operation.

The Franken is a disaster waiting to happen, experts say.

Avoiding a precedent

German authorities, for their part, have been guarded in their response to the Franken case.

The wreck is in Polish waters, says Carolin Zerger from the Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU). She has suggested that Poland contact the expert group “SUBMERGED” from the Helsinki-based marine protection commission HELCOM, which assesses the environmental risks of hazardous objects submerged in the Baltic Sea.

Peter Torkler is not surprised at the German authorities’ attitude.

“Nobody wants to set a precedent,” he says. “Wrecks are a huge problem because there are thousands of them. This is something people don’t like to talk about in public.”

Cooperation is key

All the same, at an event in May, Germany’s Federal Foreign Office International Club (ICAA), an association of current and former German diplomats, put the issue on their agenda.

Peter Torkler believes that is a good sign. “After we saw how well the campaign is doing in Poland, we are now wondering what forums and institutions might take on the project in Germany,” he says.

It may be a major enterprise, Torkler says, but he is confident that “if everyone affected by this problem works together, we can achieve a lot together with Germany and Poland.”


Hitler Exhibition Asks: How Could This Happen?

The reconstructed office is on display at a former air-raid shelter just south of Berlin’s city center.

by DW

More than 70 years after Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker, an exhibition in the capital examines how he became a Nazi and what turned ordinary Germans into murderers during the Third Reich.

For decades it was taboo in Germany to focus on Hitler, although that has begun to change with films such as the 2004 “Downfall”, chronicling the dictator’s last days, and an exhibition about him in 2010.

More than 70 years after Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker in the final days of World War Two, the new exhibition “Hitler – how could it happen” is set in a bunker in Berlin that was used by civilians during World War Two bombing raids – close to the bunker where Hitler lived while Berlin was being bombed and which is not accessible to the public.

Aside from Hitler’s office, visitors to the exhibit can see a reconstruction of the Führerbunker complex built between 1934-44.

It examines Hitler’s life from his childhood in Austria and time as a painter to his experience as a soldier during World War One and his subsequent rise to power. Other exhibits focus on concentration camps, pogroms and the Holocaust that killed 6 million Jews. It ends with a controversial reconstruction of the bunker room where Hitler killed himself on April 30, 1945 – replete with grandfather clock, floral sofa and an oxygen tank. The exhibit is behind glass and is monitored by camera, with visitors forbidden to take photographs.

Hitler’s office.

Exhibition curator Wieland Giebel, 67, said he had been accused of “Hitler Disney” for putting the room on show. But he defended the decision, saying the exhibition focused on the crimes carried out by Hitler’s regime, adding: “This room is where the crimes ended, where everything ended, so that’s why we’re showing it.” He said he had been asking how World War Two and the Holocaust came about ever since playing in the rubble of post-war Germany as a child and said the exhibition attempted to answer that question. “After World War One a lot of Germans felt humiliated due to the Versailles Treaty,” Giebel said, referring to the accord signed in 1919 that forced defeated Germany to make massive reparation payments. “At the same time there was anti-Semitism in Europe and not just in Germany … and Hitler built on this anti-Semitism and what people called the ‘shameful peace of Versailles’ and used those two issues to mobilize people,” he added. Giebel, who has a personal interest in the topic because one of his grandfathers was part of a firing squad while the other hid a Jew, said he also wanted the exhibition to show how quickly a democracy could be abolished and make clear that undemocratic movements needed to be nipped in the bud.

He said the exhibition showed some Germans became Nazis as they stood to gain personally when the property of Jews was expropriated, while others were attracted to the Nazis because they were unhappy about the Versailles Treaty and “followed Hitler because he promised to make Germany great again”.

The exhibition, which features photographs, Hitler’s drawings, films portraying his marriage to longtime companion Eva Braun, and a model of Hitler’s bunker, has attracted around 20,000 visitors since opening two months ago.

A clock, books and other artifacts adorn a desk in the replica office.

How Did Hitler’s Armored Limo End Up in Manhattan?

Hitler in a W150 cabriolet in Bad Godesberg, 1938.

Some 100,000 people paid to see Hitler’s personal Mercedes.


Nobody knew who tipped them off, but the reporters were everywhere. They’d come from the Herald Tribune, TheNew York Sun and TheNew York Times; from the Associated Press, the United Press and the International News Service, too. On that balmy Monday, they clustered below the cast-iron girders of Pier 97 on the west side of Manhattan, gazing expectantly at the soaring white hull of the M.S. Stockholm. At 525 feet long and boasting a passenger capacity of 385, the Swedish-American liner was minuscule compared to imperious liners like the Nieuw Amsterdam and Queen Mary. But the reporters and photographers had not come to see any passengers: They were here for a piece of cargo.

The drum winches began to turn, and a deck crane whined as its cable hoisted its charge from the cargo hold below. Emerging into the sunlight was an automobile, one unlike any on American roads. It was a Mercedes-Benz limousine: 20 feet long and weighing 10,000 pounds, a chrome-plated convertible painted a shade of cobalt blue so dark it read as black, with fat exhaust hoses snaking from its engine. Beautiful but sinister, the car looked like something the devil himself might have driven and, indeed, he essentially had.

It was June 28, 1948, and Adolf Hitler’s car had arrived in New York City.

As the photographers popped their magnesium flashbulbs, reporters gathered around a tall, dark-haired man in a summer suit. His name was Christopher Janus, and the Mercedes belonged to him. This was the first he was seeing the car, too, and he was as surprised as anyone. Janus tugged at the limousine’s driver’s side door, which swung open like the hatch of a tank. The car, he knew, essentially was a tank: The Nazis had armored the limousine to withstand a land mine and installed 13 secret compartments for firearms. Janus scampered into the front seat and hammed for the cameras.

“What do you plan to do with it?” a reporter asked. Janus smiled. “I don’t know what I am going to do with it,” he said.

It was a fluke that Janus even found himself in this situation. Several weeks earlier, the exporter had gotten into trouble with a shipment of ball bearings he’d sent to Sweden. Told that the recipient could not pay the invoice in American dollars, Janus demanded a trade to avoid losing his money. The man on the phone from Stockholm said he had a car. “It’s not just a car,” he’d added. “It is Hitler’s.”

Hitler’s old Mercedes. Janus was stunned by the offer, and more stunned when he heard himself accepting. But now, sitting in the limousine’s black leather interior, Janus—not for the first time—was pondering what to do with a car this big, this heavy, this weighed down by its own past. But he had an inkling: “I thought that Hitler’s car would be a great attraction to raise money for charity, and, incidentally, to get my investment back,” he later wrote in his memoirs. Janus was in the hole for $27,000—roughly $279,000 in today’s dollars. The car would need to earn its keep.

While the slender, handsome Chicagoan was only 34 years old, he’d already lived a colorful life. The son of Greek immigrants, Janus grew up poor but wound up at Harvard before stints as a reporter and ad-man. Rejected for wartime naval duty because of poor eyesight, Janus went to work for the State Department. He was a gifted PR man with a sharp mind and a progressive streak. Understanding that the 1941 Mercedes-Benz 770K Model W150 offener tourenwagen possessed a rare combination of monumentality and notoriousness, Janus drew from his past to formulate a spectacle that would dominate New York that summer: He would make Hitler’s car into a public event, and funnel the proceeds to worthy causes (including himself).

The following morning’s newspapers made the 770K’s arrival national news. The Los Angeles Times called the Mercedes “a getaway car…of the arch gangster of all time,” while the Chicago Tribune marveled that the car’s bullet-proof glass was “thick as a cheese sandwich.” The following day, Janus took three writers from The New Yorker on a ride around Central Park. In a subsequent “Talk of the Town” piece, the magazine couldn’t help but compare the excursion to the scene from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which showed Hitler riding his car past thousands of cheering Germans. But as the limousine prowled the leafy lanes of the park there were “no crowds, no salutes, no heils,” the magazine reported. “It was a funny feeling.”

Janus had already received offers to buy the car from everyone from a circus owner to a mobster. He turned them all down. But when Rockefeller Center invited Janus to exhibit the mammoth convertible at its Museum of Science and Industry, he accepted.

The crane required to lift the 770K through a window opening on the second floor of the RCA Building closed 50th Street. Once the car was safely behind velvet ropes, New Yorkers came in droves, paying the 30-cent admission for a glimpse at “the most famous used car in the world,” as the publicity materials dubbed it.

One of Janus’ close associates, 20th Century Fox president Spyros Skouras, had tried to dissuade him from displaying the Mercedes. “Who is going to pay to see Hitler’s automobile?” Skouras had challenged. “He is the worst person who ever lived.” But Janus understood something his movie-mogul friend did not: The fact that Hitler was the worst person who’d ever lived is exactly why New Yorkers would pay to see his car. It didn’t hurt that the proceeds would be going to war orphans, among other charitable causes. In the 30 days the limousine spent at Rockefeller Center, no fewer than 100,000 people came to gaze at it—including the biggest TV star of the day: A surviving photograph from the exhibit shows a bunch of kids with balloons piled into the massive convertible and, sitting in the front seat, in the place reserved for Hitler, was Howdy Doody.

The car was a keeper of secrets—some of them automotive (it had taken a mechanic four hours just to figure out how to start the engine), and some historical. Though Janus had billed his limousine as Hitler’s personal car, the truth was that the Mercedes had carried the dictator only a couple of times. Prior to its arrival in New York, the 770K had spent most of its time in the garage of the Finnish military leader Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, who would go on to serve as Finland’s president near the end of the war, and to whom Hitler had given the limousine in hopes of keeping Finland in a frail military alliance with Germany. How much of this Janus knew remains unclear.

For better or worse, facts took a back seat to the imperatives of the time. As a publicist and patriot, Janus understood that Americans healing from four long years of war would be eager to look at relic of the defeated Nazis. By putting the car on exhibit and funneling the proceeds to charities home and abroad, Janus sought to reverse the car’s moral polarity: To turn a five-ton symbol of evil into a machine for reparations. And in that endeavor, he succeeded. Wire dispatches with headlines like HITLER’S CAR WILL BENEFIT NAZI VICTIMS were common. Years later, looking back on his ownership of the notorious limousine—one that would raise $1 million (over $10 million in today’s dollars) for 150 different charities—Janus would write in his memoirs that the whole point “was to have the car do some good.”