75 years ago: Hitler prepares for Operation Spring Awakening as Auschwitz is liberated
It is often thought that the Third Reich's final major offensive of the Second World War comprised the Battle of the Bulge, which was launched in mid-December 1944 against the western Allies through Belgium, France and Luxembourg, with much of the fighting occurring along the Ardennes Forest.
This attack, known on the German side as the Ardennes Offensive, was formulated entirely in the mind of Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler; it began promisingly, news that was forwarded immediately to Hitler at his Adlerhorst (Eagle's Eyrie) mountain headquarters located not far from the city of Frankfurt, in western Germany. Yet with the fog lifting after a few days and skies clearing, the superiority in numbers of Allied aircraft and tanks beat the Germans back by the Christmas of 1944.
However, Hitler countered with another sizable attack from 31 December 1944, called Operation Nordwind (Unternehmen Nordwind). This was the final major German offensive of the war on the Western front, and not in fact the Battle of the Bulge.
Addressing his commanders at the Adlerhorst compound on 28 December 1944, Hitler issued an order of annihilation to be directed against American and Free French soldiers during Operation Nordwind, when he said that it “has a very clear objective, namely the destruction of the enemy forces. There is not a matter of prestige involved here. The point is to gain space. It is a matter of destroying and exterminating the enemy forces wherever we find them”. (1)
The ultimate failure of these latest offensives constituted another setback for the Wehrmacht, but Hitler was not primarily concerned with enemy positions in the West, mainly due to his utter contempt for the fighting abilities of British and American troops. Winston Churchill also noted in his memoirs that German soldiers were indeed of appreciably superior quality to Allied troops. (2)
As 1945 approached over the horizon – perhaps the most fateful year in human history that also heralded the development of nuclear weapons – the Nazi hierarchy looked out upon a world that was literally closing in on them.
Hitler nevertheless prepared another large-scale offensive, switching focus to the east against his prime enemy, the USSR, with a planned assault through Hungary, the Balkans, and it was hoped, beyond that further eastwards. It was the fifth year in succession that German and Soviet troops would be fighting brutally against each other. Plans for another eastward assault were hastened by news, on 12 January 1945, that the Soviets had commenced their winter offensive more than a week earlier than expected, firstly attacking the German front in southern Poland.
Hitler departed his Adlerhorst complex for the final time and, on 16 January 1945, he relocated to the Führerbunker amid the ruins of Berlin. The Führerbunker, which was positioned beside the Reich Chancellery, had initially been intended as a safe house from early British air raids; it was to prove the final calling card of Nazi Germany.
Now in the late winter of 1945, preparations for a new military engagement on the Eastern front had been titled, Operation Spring Awakening (Unternehmen Frühlingserwachen).
Albert Speer, German war minister from February 1942, and one of the most powerful figures in the Reich, was repeatedly present at military discussions with Hitler at the Führerbunker from mid-January 1945 onwards.
Fresh in the mind of Speer was Hitler's thinking behind Operation Spring Awakening. From a bleak cell in Spandau Prison, Speer wrote in his secret diary, on 8 November 1946, recalling vividly the offensive's planning and how “Hitler boldly traced its course at his big map table, to advance through Hungary to the south-east”.
Speer's recollections of the remarks made by Hitler on this last major attack have, over the elapsing near 75 years, hardly ever been relayed in print before. Historians have almost universally shied away from quoting Hitler at length, presumably due to his particularly notorious legacy. Infamous as his reputation no doubt remains, Hitler was one of the major figures in 20th century history, and his views should be relayed, especially relating to offensives he had himself devised.
With a semi-circle gathering of German officers present in the Führerbunker conference room, Speer recounts that Hitler said of Operation Spring Awakening, “There is every likelihood that the population of these areas will rise as one man, and with their help we will go roaring through the entire Balkans in a life-and-death battle. For I am still determined, gentlemen, to wage the fight in the east offensively. The defensive strategy of our generals helps only the Bolshevists! But I have never in my life been a man for the defensive. Now we shall go over from the defence to the attack once more”. (3)
Hitler's ambition to forge ahead with the offensive went firmly against the wishes of almost all of his remaining generals, who preferred a strategy based upon defence, embedding oneself in the earth and in wrecked buildings. This policy of containment was simply a case of delaying the inevitable, and Hitler was most likely correct to gamble. It is surely better to engineer a forward-thinking plan with victory in mind, no matter how unlikely, rather than a stay-put policy of restraint which can only result in certain defeat in the end.
Furthermore, an attack-minded plan also imbued Hitler and his few remaining loyalists with some semblance of hope that the war could yet be turned around. As late as the 21st of April 1945, Hitler attempted to engineer a pincer movement to wipe out Soviet forces that had encircled Berlin two days before, placing his hopes mainly on units commanded by Waffen-SS General Felix Steiner. When Hitler was told that Steiner could not implement the attack, he fell into a bitter and tearful rage, realising that the war was undoubtedly lost.
Speer affirmed of Hitler that, “It was as if he had always known that he had only the choice between the offensive and defeat, as if the loss of the initiative in itself was virtually equivalent to his downfall”.
Speer, who had become particularly close to Hitler as his prized architect, attests that the dictator's actions dating to the time of his “struggle” from the early 1920s, had been one aggressive action after another. These provocative, sometimes criminal policies, continued following his rise to power in January 1933, as he wiped out potential rivals, reclaimed former territories, stepped up his persecution of Germany's Jewish population, and ran roughshod over appeasement-seeking French or British politicians.
Speer writes that, “The unleashing of war itself had been an example of offensive policy, and he [Hitler] had waged the military conflict in an offensive spirit as long as he was able. Even after the turning point of the war, the capitulation of Stalingrad, he had organised the offensive operation at Kursk, code-named Citadel”. (4)
The Battle of Kursk has also sometimes erroneously been dubbed “the last major German offensive on the Eastern front”, when it was not the case at all. (5)
Further German assaults were launched in the east during the summer of 1944, ending in disaster as the Soviets made huge advances westward with Operation Bagration. Spring Awakening itself would consist of 10 Panzer divisions and five infantry divisions, altogether 400,000 men, considerably larger in manpower than the US-led invasion force which attacked Iraq in 2003. (6)
It was an attack directed through the heart of Europe, into northern Hungary, and that went fully according to plan (7). By 24 February 1945 the Soviet bridgehead over the River Garam, 150 miles east of Vienna, had been decimated by General Hans Kreysing's 8th army, and in doing so they had removed the Soviet threat in this area, for now.
Often claimed is that the aim of Spring Awakening, led by Sepp Dietrich's 6th SS Panzer Army, was to ensure control over the oil wells near Lake Balaton, in western Hungary, pivotal to Nazi Germany's lasting war effort; and to drive on north-eastwards so as to retake the Hungarian capital, Budapest. Hitler had actually envisaged this 1945 attack as a turning point in the war, a Stalingrad-type victory but this time in the Germans' favour – that would eventually drive the Red Army divisions back towards their own frontiers.
An animated Hitler, hammering away at his military entourage, continued that, “The Russians have almost been bled to death by now. After the retreats of the past few months, we have the priceless advantage of no longer having to defend those enormous spaces. And we know from our own experience how exhausted the Russians must be after their headlong advance. Remember the Caucasus! This means a turning point is now possible for us, as it was for the Russians. In fact, it is absolutely probable. Consider! The Russians have had tremendous losses in materiel and men. Their stocks of equipment are exhausted. By our estimates they have lost 15 million men. That is enormous! They cannot survive the next blow. They will not survive it”. (9)
Such was Hitler's powers of persuasion that Speer recalls how his diatribes “distorted so many men's grasp of reality”. Dispirited officers once previously convinced that defeat was a matter of time, following meetings with Hitler went away thinking that victory was achievable after all.
Nazi intelligence calculations regarding the Red Army death toll were not far off. By early 1945 comfortably more than 10 million Soviet troops were dead, and around the same number of Soviet civilians had also been liquidated by the invaders (10). This horrendous loss of life outweighs the Holocaust, but the latter genocide is unprecedented in that it was pre-planned, organised and systematic.
Around the time that Hitler was laying out his designs for Spring Awakening, the Auschwitz extermination camp was liberated at 3pm on 27 January 1945, firstly by soldiers from the Red Army's 322nd Rifle Division. These troops, long used to fighting against fanatical German soldiers, were shocked at the horrors that lay within.
Over a million people had been killed at Auschwitz alone, for the vast majority the victims consisted of Jewish populaces from central and eastern Europe, 960,000 in total; among the dead too were minority groups like Sinti, Roma and others. (11)
1 US Lieutenant-Colonel J.C. Lambert, Armored Cavalry Journal, Roster of Armored Cavalry Officers on Active Duty, Armored Rescue, p. 37
2 Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm, 1948, (RosettaBooks, June 30, 2010), p. 582
3 Albert Speer, Spandau: The Secret Diaries, (Fontana, London, 1977), p. 28
4 Speer, Spandau: The Secret Diaries, p. 28
5 Ruslan Budnik, “Last Gasp of the Wehrmacht – Battle of Kursk”, War History Online, 21 August 2018, https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/last-gasp-of-wehrmacht.html
6 Peter McCarthy and Mike Syron, Panzerkrieg: The Rise and Fall of Hitler's Tank Divisions, (Robinson; New Ed edition, 2003-09-12)
7 Major Christopher W. Wilbeck, Swinging the Sledgehammer: The Combat Effectiveness of German Heavy Tank Battalions in World War II, (Lucknow Books, August 15, 2014)
8 Speer, Spandau: The Secret Diaries, p. 29
9 Speer, Spandau: The Secret Diaries, p. 29
10 Oleg Yegorov, “How many Soviet citizens died in World War II”, Russian Beyond, 8 July 2019, https://www.rbth.com/history/330625-soviet-citizens-died-world-war-statistics
11 John Daniszewski, “Plaques changed at Auschwitz-Birchenau”, Associated Press, 18 July 1990, https://apnews.com/4de24d2430cd2e900602ecf14b1db341