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We shall go down in history as the greatest statesmen of all time, or as the greatest criminals.
– Last words of Dr Paul Josef Goebbels
When people hear the word 'Nazi', they immediately think of a man considered to be one of the most evil men in the history: Adolf Hitler. However, some historians1 have now found evidence suggesting Hitler was little more than a lazy 'Bohemian Corporal'2 who simply steered the party with ill-defined plans, and no firm goals. With a leader whose expertise lay in speeches and inspiring his people, the running of the party fell to a group of men trying to out-do each other to please the Führer. These were the true power behind the Nazi Regime and each of them deserves to be remembered as the criminals that they were.
Economics Minister, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe
Hermann Göring was seen by all as the second most powerful Nazi in the Third Reich, behind only the Führer himself in terms of standing and influence. Born in 1893 to a wealthy Bavarian family, Göring first came to the attention of the world as a decorated fighter pilot in the Great War of 1914-18. Like many young men disillusioned with Germany's capitulation in World War One, he joined the fledgling Nazi Party in 1922, and was wounded in their abortive Putsch3 in the city of Munich in 1923. His rise to power afterwards was meteoric. In 1928 he was elected to the Reichstag4 as one of the three original Nazi ministers, before becoming its presiding officer in 1932.
As Minister without Portfolio, Prussian Minister and Interior Minister, Göring not only used his breeding to ally the landed elite to the Nazi cause, but organised the first of the horrific 'terrors' which would define Nazi Rule. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, Göring was instrumental in the removal of political opposition such as the Communists to 'work camps' such as Dachau. Then, in 1934 he organised the 'Night of the Long Knives' which destroyed the power-hungry SA5.
Göring's power reached its zenith in 1939 when he was named as Hitler's successor, but after his Luftwaffe failed to win the Battle of Britain, and then failed to stop heavy bombing of German cities by the Allies, he fell from grace.
At the Nuremburg trials in 1946, Göring was found guilty of all the charges put before him and was sentenced to death. However he took cyanide the day before his execution and cheated the hangman. His body was later burnt in one of the ovens at Dachau.
Rudolph Hess served as Hitler's personal secretary, and his life and that of the Führer became closely intertwined. They served together in the same regiment during the First World War, and whilst Hitler would go on to try his hand first with the Communist party, and then with the Nazis, Hess joined the Freikorps6. Hess and Hitler were reunited shortly before the Munich Putsch, and were imprisoned together afterwards where the sycophantic Hess helped Hitler to write his book Mein Kampf, and is often credited with developing the concept of Lebensraum7.
In 1925 Hess was appointed secretary of a re-organised Nazi Party and then in 1933 became Deputy Führer, and third in line to the Nazi Leadership. However, as Germany went to war in 1939, he became eclipsed by the more intelligent and ruthless Martin Bormann.
In a last-ditch attempt to regain Hitler's favour, Hess flew to Scotland on 10 May, 1941, to try and broker a peace between Germany and Britain, as he could see no conflict between German expansion in the East, and British Imperial interests. Unsurprisingly he was captured and imprisoned. At Nuremburg Hess maintained that Hitler was Germany's 'greatest son' and earned himself life imprisonment in Spandau Prison where he was the only inmate for 21 years. In 1987, the last surviving Nazi leader hung himself with a heater cable.
Reich Propaganda Minister, President of the Reich Chamber of Culture, Director of Reich Propaganda Central Office of NSDAP, General Plenipotentiary for the Mobilisation of Total War
The personality cult which deified the Führer was the work of one man: Dr Paul Josef Goebbels. Born to poor working class parents in Germany's Rhineland region, Goebbels was crippled in his leg by polio, leaving him embittered with the world at large and dangerously cynical. As his disability left him unable to fight in the war, Goebbels was the best educated of all the Nazi leaders becoming a doctor of philology8 in 1921, before joining the NSDAP (National Socialist German Worker's Party). Under the influence of Gregor Strasser, Goebbels clashed with the 'bourgeois' Hitler and demanded he be expelled from the party, before changing sides and being rewarded by being made the Gauleiter of Berlin. After founding the Nazi newspaper Der Angriff, Goebbels became the head of Propaganda as the Nazis gained seats in the Reichstag. After being elected to the German parliament, Goebbels started work on his most ambitious project; creating a 'cult of the Führer' and establishing one single public opinion: his.
Goebbels was a rabid anti-semite and would often make public speeches aimed at rousing the 'Aryan race' into acts of violence against Germany's population of Jews. In November 1938, acting on the perceived wishes of Hitler, Goebbels penned the order for the opening chapter in what would eventually become the Holocaust: an organised night of violence against Jews which became to be known as Kristallnacht9 due to the shattered glass from windows of Jewish homes, synagogues and shops littering the streets of Germany.
An obvious hypocrite, Goebbels was criticised by many within the party, who referred to him as 'the little mouse doctor', specifically with his chief rival for Hitler's eye, Herman Göring. His decadent lifestyle was in stark contrast to his speeches on the importance of the family and the simple life, and this brought him into conflict with Hitler when he publicly had an affair with the Slavic actress Lida Baarova.
After the total mobilisation of the German people failed to stop the inexorable advance of the Red Army reaching Berlin, Goebbels persuaded Hitler to end his life rather than fall into Russian hands before poisoning his children, shooting his wife and finally committing suicide as the Soviet forces reached the Reich Chancellery.
Chief of Staff to Rudolph Hess, Secretary to Adolf Hitler
Martin Bormann was the most able administrator in the Nazi regime. In the confusion of overlapping offices and contradictory orders from above he was able to take control of the party whilst Hitler controlled the war.
Bormann was a school dropout and the son of a civil servant who fought in the closing battles of World War One before joining the Freikorps and then the Nazis. As Gauleiter of Thuringia he caught Hess's eye before replacing him as Hitler's secretary after Hess's ill advised mission to Britain. By controlling the Führer's appointments, Bormann gained tremendous power, which he used to indulge Hitler's more fanatical side by attacking the church and pushing forward the Holocaust.
As the Nazi hierarchy either surrendered or committed suicide in the face of the advancing enemy, Bormann disappeared. After being sentenced to death in absentia at Nuremburg, Bormann's final fate remained a mystery until 1973 when bones later confirmed to be his were discovered in the German capital.
Head of German Police, Reichsführer SS, Interior Minister, Reich Commissioner for Strengthening of German Nationhood, Commander of the Reserve Army
Heinrich Himmler was described by the historian Noakes as 'a bizarre combination of naive crank, pedantic schoolmaster and coldly efficient bureaucrat' and it was this skill in bureaucracy which allowed him to rise in power as head of the SS10.
The son of a teacher, Himmler came of age only as the Great War ended in 1918 and as such never saw any action. Bitter at the defeat he was powerless to affect, he joined the Nazi party after failing to be successful as a poultry farmer. As he steadily rose in power, first becoming Chief of German police before taking control of the regular and secret police, the Waffen-SS11 and the reserve army.
Himmler's mental state was questionable, and he suffered many psychiatric illnesses caused by overwork and mental trauma. Himmler was obsessed with the Aryan race, and it was he who penned the 'Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.' Under his orders, millions of European Jews met their deaths in the concentration camps of Poland, or were worked to death labouring on the 'Vengeance Weapon' projects and arms for the Wehrmacht. Himmler also set up the Lebensborn clinics, designed to breed the Aryan race by allowing off-duty SS troops to impregnate any 'pure' woman at the clinic.
As the Allies and Soviets closed in on Berlin, Himmler attempted to negotiate an armistice and preserve the Nazi state. All this accomplished however was his dismissal by Hitler, once his benefactor, for treachery and defeatism. Although Himmler was captured by advancing Allied forces, a cyanide capsule meant that one of the greatest criminals in the history of mankind would never be tried for his crimes.
Admiral of the German Navy, second Führer of the Third Reich
Karl Dönitz served in the German Navy as a U-boat commander during World War One. As such, when Hitler came to power in the 1930s it fell to the experienced Naval Officer to rebuild Germany's fleet of U-Boats which had been prohibited by the Treaty of Versailles, before becoming Commander-in-Chief of the U-Boat fleet in 1936.
Throughout WWII, Dönitz organised the U-boat campaign against Britain, sinking millions of tonnes of Allied shipping in an attempt to starve the British Isles. In 1943, Dönitz replaced Admiral Erich Räder as Commander-in-Chief of the Kriegsmarine and became overall commander of Germany's navy both on the surface of the waves and below them. After the attempt on Hitler's life in July 1944, he swore a personal oath of loyalty to the Führer and promised that the navy would protect him to the last.
On 2 May, 1945, two days after Hitler's suicide in Berlin, Dönitz was named as his successor and formed a government in the town of Kiel. This government lasted less than a week as it was dissolved by the Allies after Dönitz's unconditional surrender of Germany was accepted on what would become known as VE Day.
At Nuremberg, Dönitz was found guilty of war crimes on the high seas and sentenced to ten years imprisonment. His memoirs were published shortly after his release, and he remained an unrepentant Nazi until his death.
Architect, Minister for Armaments and War Production
Albert Speer joined the fledgeling Nazi party in 1931, and became a close friend of Adolf Hitler, who was said to admire the handsome young architect, and saw his designs as expressions of the principles of National Socialism. As such, it fell to Speer to design some of the most famous of the Nazi landmarks, such as the magnificent stadiums at Nuremberg12 where the party's massive torchlight rallies were held. He impressed the Nazi leader so much that after Fritz Todt died in a plane crash in 1942, Speer was chosen to replace him as the minister in charge of armaments production.
After the Wannsee Conference on the 'Jewish Problem' Speer was instructed to work out the logistics for the 'Final Solution' making him a key player in the Holocaust. Speer was also known to make use of Jewish and Slavic slave labour in the construction of his buildings. The young minister, described by Hitler as the 'best of them all' was one of the first to see the war was not proceeding well, and confided in Goebbels that the war effort was doomed as early as November 1944. He later angered Hitler himself by refusing to carry out 'Scorched Earth' tactics against the oncoming armies of the Western Allies and the Soviet Union.
At the Nuremberg trials, Speer was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment at Spandau Prison for War Crimes, despite his repentance. In 1966 Speer was (along with Hitler Youth leader Baldur von Schirach) one of the last people to be released from Spandau Prison, leaving only Rudolf Hess incarcerated. Speer then took up residence in the Allgäu region of Western Bavaria and wrote a number of books on the Nazi Party. Whilst visiting London to be interviewed by the BBC, Speer died from a cerebral haemorrhage in September 1981, 42 years after the Nazi invasion of Poland triggered the Second World War.