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Five Minutes In Berlin: July 19, 1940 — The Day That Decided The Fate Of Europe

Five Minutes In Berlin: July 19, 1940 — The Day That Decided The Fate Of Europe

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Five Minutes In Berlin: July 19, 1940 — The Day That Decided The Fate Of Europe

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Dec 2, 2015


HITLER’S conquest of Norway, France and the Low Countries in the first six months of 1940 left Britain facing the German threat alone, and with Winston Churchill, its new prime minister, preaching defiance to the world. Britain, he pledged, would never surrender, and the English- speaking world, including the United States, would join together in the struggle to free the occupied territories from the Nazi grasp.
But was a long-drawn struggle the only way in which peace could be restored, and Europe’s future secured? After the fall of France and the ‘miracle’ of Dunkirk which rescued the British army from surrender, Churchill’s answer to that was unequivocal: despite the imminent danger of German invasion — ‘Hitler must break us in this island or lose the war’ — there was no alternative for the free world, led by Britain, but to fight on until final victory.
Or was there a better way? The British-born royal duke damned as ‘the traitor peer’ by his cousin King George V in the last war certainly thought there was, if only he could somehow persuade Hitler to heed his advice...and change the course of history.
Dec 2, 2015

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Five Minutes In Berlin - Donald Crawford



The Rise of Nazi Germany


The Coburg Connection

GRAND Duke Charles Edward, once reigning Grand Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, appeared supremely confident that Friday, May 10, 1940, after he woke to the news that Hitler had launched his long-awaited offensive in the West. ‘A very good morning’ he called out cheerfully as he walked into the dining room of his spaHaus Duch time as he could at his substantial palace in Coburg, 300 kilometres south-west of Berlin, his Behrenstraße house was well situated between the Brandenburg Gate and the luxury Hotel Adlon, a popular meeting place for many in the Reichstag, the German parliament, and within the Nazi hierarchy. He was very comfortable there and with six bedrooms and two bathrooms it was large enough to fit in family who would sometimes join him in Berlin.

His personal servant Franz Lehmann, who had been with him since becoming his wartime batman or Offiziersbursche in 1916, poured him a cup of coffee, his trained eye running over his master’s dark-grey suit and the waistcoat with its last button open in the English-style which the Old Etonian Grand Duke still favoured.

The Grand Duke when they first met had been in the Prussian Guards serving on the Russian front, with his royal title ensuring that at only 32 he was ranked as a general, but a staff officer not a battlefield commander. Lehmann, four years older, had been badly wounded the year before during the German advance through the Austrian Carpathians so on recovery he was glad to find himself in a ‘safe’ job. After the war he had stayed on with the Grand Duke, returning with him to a defeated Germany where thrones had been swept away and royals no longer privileged, their titles a thing of the past.

Grand Duke Charles Edward had been born posthumously in 1884 four months after his father, Queen Victoria’s youngest and haemophiliac son Leopold had been fatally injured falling down the stairs at Nice yacht club. He had therefore at birth inherited his father’s British title as His Royal Highness the Duke of Albany.

Brought up with his elder sister Alice by his German-born mother Helene at the family house in Surrey he had been a 16-year-old pupil at Eton when his grandmother Victoria decided to send him to Coburg to take over the throne of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, vacant with the death of his predecessor, his uncle the Duke of Connaught. The Queen’s husband Prince Albert came from Coburg and thereafter she believed it belonged to the British crown, not the Kaiser.

No one then in 1900 could imagine for a moment that fourteen years later Britain and Germany would be at war with each other. The problem which then faced Charles Edward was that whichever country he sided with he’d have been a ‘traitor’ to the other. As reigning grand duke, his duty told him it had to be Germany — on condition, which the Kaiser guaranteed, that he never fought the British but only the Russians.

He was a bitter man at the end of that war for not only did he lose his two German grand duchies but he had also been stripped of his birthright, his title as Duke of Albany, by his cousin King George V. At the height of the war in 1917, when even dachshunds were kicked in the street, the British royals, desperate to conceal their own German connections — and changing their house name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor — diverted the mob by throwing them the unfortunate Grand Duke Charles Edward, custodian of the family’s German links, and branding him as ‘traitor’.

Now, a quarter-century later, the disappointments of that vanished world no longer mattered to him. As he said to his faithful Lehmann, ‘what counts is not where we have been but where we are going’. Which, on this morning of May 10, 1940, meant the German offensive into the Low Countries.

‘So the real war has begun Großherzog,’ said Lehmann, still addressing him as Grand Duke as he had always done throughout the chaotic civil turmoil which followed the end of the last war. He had also heard the news when he got up and switched on his kitchen wireless. As his master sat down Lehmann’s voice was anxious as he reached for the bowl of sliced fruit on the sideboard. ‘I hope this is not another 1914.’

The Grand Duke shook his head. He had believed like everyone else that year the High Command’s boast that they would knock out France in six weeks, and then do the same to Russia. Their Schlieffen plan said so. The war would be over by Christmas. Instead, four years later, Germany found itself defeated at a cost of two million dead.

But this new war was going to be different, he was certain of that. Tanks and Stuka dive-bombers, not trenches and spades — the blitzkrieg, which nine months earlier had overwhelmed the Poles in just 36 days, was its own evidence for that.

‘Don’t worry yourself, Franz,’ he laughed as he sat down at the breakfast table. ‘Der Führer knows what he’s doing, and this time it will all be very different, believe me. We shan’t make the same mistake twice.’

Lehmann shrugged, deciding to keep his doubts to himself. Until her death eight years earlier his wife, who had lost two brothers in the last war, could not believe that Germany would ever go to war again. Once was more than enough. He could only pray that this time his master was right.

He knew how loyal he was to Adolf Hitler and had been since the days when the Nazis were a national party in name only with scarcely any members and with no reason to suppose they would have any more. Beyond Munich, they were just the ‘Bavarian fascisti’, a bunch of nobodies trying to ape Mussolini’s powerful ‘blackshirt’ movement in Italy.

Thanks in large part to Charles Edward, his recognition of the Nazis as a party to reckon with gave them the start they desperately needed. In the ten years which followed there were many who had helped the Nazis rise to power, but none more so than the man who would always be Hitler’s trusted supporter, Grand Duke Charles Edward.

HITLER and the Grand Duke had first met on the famous ‘Coburg weekend’ in 1922 when the confident Bolsheviks thought the former duchy capital belonged to them — until Charles Edward invited their enemy, the Nazis as the still-infant National Socialist German Workers Party was known, to show them otherwise. The ostensible reason would be a right-wing patriotic festival organised by the Grand Duke and billed as ‘German Day’ — in itself a direct challenge to local Bolsheviks and left-wing activists set on turning conservative Coburg into a socialist fortress.

Seven weeks earlier, after a holiday with her son in Coburg, his mother had suddenly died aged 61. Charles Edward had been given permission to return to Windsor for her funeral, albeit incognito, on a brief and private visit where, other than his sister Alice, he and his wife Victoria were met by the other members of the royal family with embarrassed courtesy — but also with anxious concern that he would not be staying long. He was still the ‘traitor peer’.

But with that sorrow behind him — and his bitterness at having been made to feel so unwelcome by his wider family — Charles Edward returned home and went ahead with his own plans to discomfort his greater enemies, the local Bolsheviks.

At 2.45 on the afternoon of Saturday October 14 the new party leader Adolf Hitler arrived in a swastika-bedecked train, after a slow seven-hour trip from Munich, with the train stopping at every station to pick up more ‘stormtroopers’ as the Nazis called them, each wearing a swastika armband — the Buddhist religious symbol Hitler had adopted for the party two years earlier.

By the time the train reached Coburg, 225 kilometres north of Munich, Hitler had a force aboard of some 850 men as well as a 42-strong ‘military band’. The Grand Duke had funded the train costs, when as one senior Nazi put it, ‘we scarcely had money enough to hire a horse!’

Met at the railway station by top-hatted black-coated local officials — ordered there by Charles Edward — they were also met by a large and jeering crowd of socialist and Bolshevik protesters as they marched out behind their band into the station square.

What followed was a long street-battle with the stormtroopers, armed only with sticks and truncheons, forcing their way forward through a hail of rocks and paving stones to the large but empty shooting gallery which Charles Edward had arranged as their weekend base.

Once there they turned on the Bolshevik crowd which had followed them and set about them with fists and sticks, driving them back into the city centre as they were joined by hundreds of other stormtroopers from places not on the train-route. With some 2,000 Nazis now in the city the police, supposedly neutral, gave up their attempt to keep the two sides apart, many of them in fact welcoming the sight of the Nazis ‘giving that rabble a taste of their own medicine’.

By 8 p.m. the Bolsheviks had effectively lost the fight and the ceremonies to mark ‘German Day’ began at Coburg’s Haufbrauhaus, the largest beer hall in the city, and one of the Grand Duke’s investments. With he and his wife in the front row the evening began with performances by artists from the Coburg State Theatre and speeches by spokesmen of various other right-wing organisations supported by Charles Edward. Hitler, the last to speak, was given a standing ovation as he walked onto stage.

Later that evening a jubilant Grand Duke, in his wartime general’s uniform with all his decorations across his chest, took the salute as the band played Deutschland Über Alles, and Hitler, standing next to the Grand Duke paraded his men beneath blazing torches and Nazi swastika flags across the massive courtyard of the Schloss Ehrenburg, the magnificent 16th-century ducal palace on a hillside just above the city.

‘You have done magnificently’, Charles Edward praised Hitler, grasping his hands at the end of it.

Proud of that day, a thrilled Hitler thanked him. ‘That’s the only way to deal with these Bolshevik scum. We’ll make sure that if they make trouble again they know we’ll be back and throw them out again.’ He then turned to his stormtroopers and called on them to mark their own thanks to Charles Edward by raising their arms in the new Nazi salute and calling out Sieg Heil, their party chant at political rallies.

Hitler then came over to him. ‘As I promised I shall leave 50 men here to protect you and the palace in case that Bolshevik rabble think to come back and make trouble. They have their orders and you can rely on them.’

He then pointed to the group of men, armed with large sticks, standing at the end of the palace square. ‘You said they could be housed somewhere?’

Charles Edward beckoned to Lehmann, standing a few yards away. ‘Franz here will show them where they can set up base. He’s been with me since Russia. Look, over there, in the gatehouse. Plenty of room for all of them and there’s food and drink waiting. I’m sure they will be comfortable enough overnight.’ He held out his hand. ‘I thank you again, Herr Hitler, and wish you well tomorrow.’

Hitler then led the rest of his small army back down the hall to their overnight base in the shooting gallery. The stormtroopers were all ex-soldiers, used to roughing it for a night. They went off cheerfully. They’d had a good day and were looking forward to more of the same before they departed home the following evening.

The Bolsheviks had threatened to disrupt the Nazi parades planned next day by bringing in ‘thousands’ of supporters, but in the end there were only some 150 men gathered to bellow defiance at the Nazi column as they marched to the marketplace on Sunday afternoon. Old imperial flags hung from many windows and there were cheers and flowers as the Nazis passed by. Coburg showed it did not belong to the Bolsheviks and their followers and in the event it never would.

Even some of the protesters seemed to switch sides after they accepted that the Nazi stormtroopers were workers exactly like them, and then shaking hands with them. ‘Why are we at each other’s throats’, asked one on discovering that he worked in the same job in Coburg as the other did in Munich.

There was a last attempt to thwart the Nazis when the local railwaymen’s union refused to man the home-going train. They caved in when Hitler told them he had drivers among his men and if necessary they could drive the engine themselves.

Both Charles Edward and Hitler could rightly think that weekend to be a notable Nazi success over the Bolsheviks, local though it was. The proof of that was the widespread press attention which followed, and that within weeks the membership of the Nazi party grew from only some 3,000 members to an estimated 35,000 within the following year. Hitler never forgot that debt to the Grand Duke nor that with his active support Coburg a few years later would became the first German city to have a Nazi majority in its city government. The Nazi party owed him a favour.

TWO weeks after their Coburg train returned to Munich, Benito Mussolini entered Rome in another train, the climax of his ‘march on Rome’, and by the next evening he was de facto leader of Italy. Could Hitler see himself as doing the same in Berlin? A few months later the answer to that seemed a resounding No, after the success at Coburg’ was followed a year later by utter failure in Munich, the city which the Nazi party had made its home.

Fiercely denouncing the Weimar government’s decision in 1921 to pay France the huge reparations it demanded under the Versailles Peace Treaty — fixed at 132 billion gold Reichsmarks, or 32 billion US dollars ($387 billion in 2015)— the Nazis accused Berlin of failing to stand up to the French, who ten months earlier had occupied the industrial Ruhr as punishment for German non-payment.

Berlin, caving into the charge that Germany was to blame for the 1914-18 war, yielded to the French pressure, with devastating consequences for the German mark. Germans lost their life savings. Wages were paid in worthless money. To buy groceries took a suitcase of cash. Hunger riots broke out. At the beginning of November 1923 a single loaf of bread cost three billion marks. Something had to be done. Hitler’s answer was that the Nazis, joined by other right-wing organisations in the city — some 15,000 men altogether — would seize control of the Bavarian regional government and then march on to bring down the government in Berlin.

On the evening of Thursday, November 8, 1923, three of the top Bavarian ministers were holding a public meeting in the hall of the Bürgerbräukeller when Hitler arrived at the head of 600 stormtroopers, now in their new ‘brownshirt’ unifoewrrms, fired a shot into the air, and shouted ‘the national revolution has begun’. The three ministers were then bullied into agreeing to support the attempted coup.

Hitler then addressed the crowd inside the beer hall, telling the 3,000 people gathered there of his plan to end the discredited Weimar Republic and replace it with a nationalist government which would stand up for Germany.

The excited crowd gave him a standing ovation, as they would do for the speakers who followed him on stage, including the prestigious war leader General Erich Ludendorff. His repeated claim that Germany’s defeat in 1918 was because the socialist and Bolshevik mobs in Berlin ‘stabbed me in the back’ had become the accepted explanation for that defeat by Hitler and others in the ‘patriotic front’.

With Ludendorff’s open endorsement and the huge audience cheering the Nazis in that beer hall, Hitler congratulated himself on a great victory. Next stop Berlin.

It was not to be. Left in charge after Hitler and most of his stormtroopers went off to take over government offices, Ludendorff decided late that evening to release the three Bavarian ministers on their word that they would support the ‘march on Berlin’. Once freed, however, they struck back, ordering the army and police to arrest the leaders of this attempted coup, the Beer Hall Putsch as it would become known. Next day a march of 3,000 Nazis through the city, led by Hitler, and a Ludendorff proudly dressed in his general’s uniform, found its way blocked by armed troops and police waiting for them in barricaded streets.

In the shooting which followed 16 Nazis — including the man marching arm-in-arm with Hitler — were killed and dozens of others wounded, one of them Hermann Göring, the new ‘brownshirt’ commander of the Sturmabteilung (SA), the paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party.

Hitler, who suffered a dislocated shoulder, went into hiding, as did most of those who fled with him. Ludendorff proudly stood his ground, refusing to run; however, having agreed to be among the leaders on the march, he was the first of those arrested on the spot, although in his case the police saluted him before doing so.

The general credited with the destruction of the Russian Second Army at Tannenberg in the critical first month of the 1914 war, Ludendorff was as famous a hero as the German president Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg — the man with whom he had directed Germany’s war but whom he now had ambitions to replace.

It was not surprising therefore that, taken to police headquarters, he was then almost immediately released and escorted back to his hotel, the police chief apologising for ‘the inconvenience’, and thanking him for ‘your understanding’.

There would no such ‘understanding’ for the others. It took the police two more days to round up most of the other leaders and take them into custody. They were immediately brought before a special People’s Court and charged with treason.

To his despairing supporters that seemed the end of Hitler. It looked as if he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

GRAND Duke Charles, who immediately left Coburg for Munich after hearing of the putsch the evening before, heard of the shootings only when he arrived in his hotel. Hoping to find out more he set off on foot for the Nazi party headquarters in a small office block not far away on the Schellingstrasse. He walked in to see the three staff workers there trying to comfort a well-dressed but clearly distraught woman. Recognising the Grand Duke one of the men came over to him and whispered her story.

She was Göring’s wife, the Swedish baroness he had married two years earlier. Göring had been wounded in the groin, and although his men had managed to carry him away into hiding he was in great pain and needed urgent treatment. Now she was looking for help to smuggle him out of the country before the police found him.

Charles Edward introduced himself. Could he assist her in any way? She came straight to the point. What she wanted was enough cash to escape to a hospital in Austria, and then to take him back to Sweden until his wound healed. Could he help? German marks were no good. Did he have ‘real money’?

The Grand Duke had come to know Göring only after he became SA commander, appointed by an admiring Hitler because Göring had been a wartime fighter ace awarded the Pour le Mérite, the ‘Blue Max’, the equivalent of Britain’s Victoria Cross. The last commander of the fighter wing led by von Richthofen, the ‘Red Baron,’ until he was killed in April 1918, the handsome, lean and tough-looking war hero Göring was a considerable propaganda coup for Hitler.

Yes, said Charles Edward, he had the necessary funds. By good luck rather than design he kept some British pound sterling in his Coburg bank and that would give Göring’s wife the means to get him across the border and into hospital. He decided £200 would be more than enough.*

Next morning the grateful wife Carin came to his hotel where Charles Edward confirmed that the money had been arranged and she could collect it from a local branch of the bank in the next few hours. He had been generous; the Görings would not want for anything for some time.


The Days of Ruin

GÖRING was lucky in being rescued and smuggled abroad but he was not the only leader the Grand Duke would be asked to help in the aftermath of the Beer Hall Putsch and the trial which followed three months later — a trial from which Hitler emerged better known than ever before, and with millions of Germans regarding him not as a traitor but as a national hero.

The result of the Reichstag elections held towards the end of the trial demonstrated the impact he had made in his long, uninterrupted patriotic speeches from the dock, with the party coming from nowhere to win 32 seats with 6.5% of the national vote. The sympathetic judges got the message. They sentenced him to only five years in prison, with the almost certain prospect of his being released on parole after only a few months. General Ludendorff, cleared of all charges, walked from the court with his head high.

The Grand Duke had sat through the last week of the trial, and afterwards went up to the general to congratulate him on his acquittal. He had served under Ludendorff on the Russian front and had last seen him in July 1918 after being summoned from the Russian front to a critical ‘Kaiser conference’ at High Command headquarters in Spa, Belgium.

The idea of war hero General Ludendorff being accused of treason, had outraged the Grand Duke. ‘I’m truly delighted,’ he said shaking his hand outside the court. ‘It was always nonsense, and I’m very glad that in the end the court recognised that. In the circumstances, a fairly good result all round, wouldn’t you say?’

Ludendorff pulled him aside and led him away from the crowd in the court entrance. ‘We must talk’, he said urgently. He beckoned to a policeman. ‘The Grand Duke and I need a private room for an hour or so.’ The policeman saluted respectfully and led them back into the courthouse and down a long corridor, stopping at a green door marked ‘Interview Room. Private’. He opened it, the general and grand duke went inside, and the door shut behind them.

There was a wooden desk and two chairs. Having seated themselves, the general reached into his briefcase and brought out some papers. ‘My apologies but we have a very awkward situation,’ Ludendorff began. ‘It’s about Hitler’s elder half-brother Alois. You’ve probably never heard of him, and neither had I until two months ago. The problem is that he is awaiting trial charged with bigamy.

‘Now, with Hitler going to prison today, his brother’s case is more than an embarrassment. Can you imagine the publicity if the two Hitlers end up in prison at the same time, one for treason and the other for bigamy. We just cannot allow that to happen. We’d all be laughing-stocks.’

Charles Edward frowned. ‘Bigamy — what’s that about?’

Ludendorff sighed, ‘Complicated. Here, you’d better read this.’ He handed him two typewritten sheets headed ‘Alois Hitler Statement’. The papers bore the name of a well-known Munich law firm Halder Westendorp. ‘They do a lot of work for me,’ explained Ludendorff. ‘I trust them absolutely.’

Charles Edward scanned the papers. Alois Hitler was seven years older than his half-brother Adolf. In 1911 he left Austria to work in a Dublin hotel and had then met an Irish girl Bridget Dowling at the Dublin Horse Show, telling her he was a successful restaurant owner. When her parents found out that he was only a waiter, they tried to break-up the relationship. They were too late: the couple eloped together to London, and married there. There was a son, William Patrick Hitler, but after moving to a three-bedroomed flat in Liverpool at 102 Upper Stanhope Street the marriage did not work out with Alois returning to Germany just before the 1914 war.

Bridget Hitler knew nothing about her husband’s fate until six years later when she received a letter ‘from a friend’ saying that Alois was dead. He had been seriously wounded in the Ukraine and had not survived. There was no chance of tracing what had happened to him because there was a revolution and the Bolsheviks were in control. Like millions of others, she was simply one more war widow with her husband buried in an unknown grave and a son left fatherless.

That might well have been the end of her story until she chanced upon a news story about Adolph Hitler being leader of a political party in Munich. Recognising the name and thinking he could tell her more about her husband’s death, she wrote to him, addressing the letter to the mayor of Munich, enclosing a copy of her marriage certificate and asking him if he could find the address of her brother-in-law and pass the letter on to him.

Unfortunately for Alois, one of the mayor’s staff began asking questions, only to discover that the ‘dead’ Alois — same name, same date of birth, same father — was living in Hamburg with another wife and another son. He was a bigamist. In January 1924, two months after her letter to the mayor, she received an official reply addressed to her in Liverpool to say her husband had been arrested and charged with bigamy. She was given notice that she would be required to attend the trial as witness.

The Grand Duke looked up. ‘I see. Doesn’t look good, I agree.’

‘Look well? Instead of a great political trial we can turn to our advantage, we now have a shoddy farce. Berlin will make sure the two Hitlers are linked together in the newspapers and after that the gossip will finish the party for serious people.’ He snorted. ‘This Bridget woman also claims that her husband’s penniless artist brother went to live with them in Liverpool in 1911 but was too lazy to learn English and couldn’t get a job, so after a few months went back home. They couldn’t afford to keep him anymore. She called him a waster.’

Charles Edward stared at him. ‘Incredible — ‘Hitler living in England? But surely it can’t be true — I’ve never heard him, or anyone else for that matter, mention any of that.’

‘Not something he wants to remember, perhaps, or anyone to know about. I can understand that. But I’m told there’s nothing known of him in Austria at that time, no trace at all.’

‘Astonishing story,’ said the Grand Duke. ‘Dear me, I can see the headlines if she goes to court. You’re right, this Alois affair could destroy both his brother and the Nazi party.’

‘I know that. Forgive me, but there is also my presidential challenge to consider. This could ruin my chances of replacing Hindenburg — which is why it cannot be allowed to happen.’ He wearily put a hand over his eyes. ‘What I’d like to see is this Alois changing his name back to Schicklgruber, the family name before Hitler, or Matzelsberger, his mother’s name when he was born a bastard.’

‘Sounds as if he still is,’ replied the Grand Duke. ‘Anyway, how can I help?’

Ludendorff studied his fingernails. ‘This bigamy case has to be hushed up and then dropped. To do that the wife has to remove herself from the case and shut up. I am afraid that is going to cost money. You’re

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