75 years ago, in the spring of 1945, everyone – no matter how blind a Nazi was – had since long realized that the war was lost. Pointlessly, 16-, 17-year-olds are condemned to throw themselves against the Allied troops and die, while the local party bosses, for fear of being held accountable for their crimes, cover up traces and eliminate annoying witnesses. MOPO reconstructed the last weeks before the end of the war.
Karl Kaufmann, Hamburg’s Gauleiter and Reich Governor, has every reason to be concerned about what will become of him after a defeat. He had great guilt, for example when he asked dictator Adolf Hitler in 1941 to start deporting the Jews from the city. He sends thousands to their death because he needs housing for bombed out “Aryan” citizens.
When British bombers destroyed Hamburg in the summer of 1943, Kaufmann realized that the war could not be won. He begins to prepare for a time after Hitler. In Duvenstedter Brook, which he had expanded into a private domicile at the expense of taxpayers since 1939, he hoarded enormous quantities of luxury goods, including 1,000 bottles of wine and spirits – as valuable as gold on the black market. it would be annoying if all of this were destroyed in a major Allied attack.
In order to save his own skin, he considers disregarding the “Fuhrer’s” order that the “Hamburg fortress” must be defended to the last man, and surrendering the city without a fight. He wants to be considered the savior of Hamburg, a good Nazi. However, the Neuengamme concentration camp, hell on earth on the eastern outskirts of the city, does not really fit into the picture.
That is why concentration camp commander Max Pauly begins to destroy files and making execution sites unrecognizable. From the end of March, the 58 satellite camps, which are scattered all over northern Germany, will be cleared. On April 14, a Saturday – the British are only 70 kilometers away from Hamburg – he starts to remove the inmates of the main camp. “No prisoner may fall alive in the hands of the enemy!” Is the order of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler.
Some of the prisoners are transported in completely overcrowded freight wagons. The trains go back and forth for days. There is hardly any food or water. Other prisoners are sent on death marches: those who collapse or fail to keep up are shot. Those who survive the agony end up in the Sandbostel POW camp near Bremervörde or the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where thousands die of malnutrition shortly before and even after the liberation.
“Thielbek”, “Cap Arkona”: Ships become floating concentration camps
Since there is no longer an alternative storage facility available for clearing the Hamburg main camp, Karl Kaufmann confiscates the “Cap Arcona” luxury liner anchored in Lübeck and the “Thielbek” freighter and converts the ships into floating concentration camps. Half mad with thirst, 9,000 prisoners lie in their own excrement in the holds.
At the same time, perhaps the most terrible crime in Hamburg’s history occurs: In November 1944, 20 Jewish children were brought to Neuengamme for medical experiments – the medical doctor Dr. Kurt Heißmeyer infected them with tuberculosis bacteria. On Friday, April 20, 1945, the order came from Berlin: “The Heißmeyer department had to be dissolved!” That same evening, the SS took the children to the primary school on Bullenhuser Damm in Rothenburgsort and hanged them in the boiler room. Subsequently, all the concentration camp prisoners who knew about the medical experiments – two French doctors, two Dutch nurses and 24 Soviet prisoners of war – were murdered there. The bodies of both children and adults are cremated, the ashes are scattered in an unknown place.
When the men are supposed to be killed, there is an uprising. The death row inmates knock down an SS man, capture a pistol. The SS then uses hand grenades and submachine guns. Those who survive are shot in the back of the head the following night.
The corpses are burned, the list of names is destroyed, so that only a few people are sure of their identity today: including some members of anti-fascist resistance groups – and the theater actress Hanne Mertens. At a private celebration, she started the song “Everything is over, everything is over”, but changed the next line of the text to: “First Adolf Hitler and then the party”. That was her death sentence.
Three men raise the white flag when the British arrive
A week later: On Sunday, April 29, something happens that is of immense importance for the progress of the story. Three men approach the British routes with a white flag over the Bremer Chaussee near Appenbüttel. It’s Albert Schäfer, Dr. Hermann Burchard and Lieutenant Otto von Laun. Schäfer is the head of the Phoenix rubber plant in Harburg, which has been hit several times in British artillery attacks. Burchard runs the hospital, which is located in the basement of the plant. Lieutenant von Laun is there as an interpreter. The three want to ask the English to spare the plant in the interest of the hospital inmates.
At Lürade, the men meet English posts, are arrested and taken to the “Hoheluft” restaurant in Meilsen near Buchholz, a British officers’ casino at the time. Captain Tom Lindsay, a music professor in Oxford in private life, welcomes the three in a friendly manner and promises to stop attacking the hospital in the future.
But Lindsay wants more. He urges the men to deliver a letter from the British commander Lewis O. Lyne to the rulers in Hamburg. Schäfer is ready for this. The letter is hidden in the heel of his shoe – because if the SS finds it with him, he would be shot immediately as a spy.
In the letter, Lyne calls for the city to be handed over without a fight in the name of humanity and threatens to otherwise erase Hamburg. When Gauleiter Karl Kaufmann reads these lines a few hours later, he smiles with satisfaction. This is the opportunity he was waiting for.
On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide
Adolf Hitler committed suicide on Monday, April 30, 1945. Kaufmann’s hope, his successor, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, would agree to a handover of Hamburg without a fight, is not fulfilled. On the contrary, Dönitz wants the city to continue to resist.
In this situation, a mistake occurs that could have serious consequences: On May 2nd – 24 hours earlier than intended – a special edition of the “Hamburger Zeitung” is posted in a showcase at Gänsemarkt, in which Kaufmann announces the surrender. There is a loud phone call between Dönitz and Kaufmann – at the end of which Dönitz gives in. In a telex that arrives at the command center on Rothenbaumchaussee between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., the Grand Admiral orders Hamburgs surrendering without a fight.
General Alwin Wolz and British General Lyne met in the “Zum Dorfkrug” inn in Klecken and negotiated the capitulation. The next day – it was May 3, 1945 – English tanks rolled over the Elbe bridges. No shot is fired. Allied combat troops stand in front of the town hall at 6:25 p.m. For Hamburg, the murdering has been over since Thursday.
In Neustadt Bay, however, many thousands of people die on the same day: 200 British aircraft fly their last major attack over the Baltic Sea, hunting for ships with which German troops are trying to defeat themselves. The Typhoon fighters also attack the “Cap Arcona” and the “Thielbek”. The air force squadron is not aware that there are concentration camp prisoners on board. The “Thielbek” sinks within 20 minutes, the “Cap Arcona” is on fire from bow to stern. Those prosiners who make it to the outside jump into the ice-cold water. Those who don’t drown are shot on the beach by SS and marines. 6600 people die.
British soldiers stand in front of the Neuengamme concentration camp
The next day, on May 4, 1945, British soldiers stood in front of the Neuengamme concentration camp gate. The British found other concentration camps in terrible condition, such as Bergen-Belsen, where the corpses piled up and where half-dead emaciated to the bone huddled apathetically in the corners. In Neuengamme: none of it. A huge area with barracks, swept clean and deserted. No indication that 50,000 people have died here in seven years.
Hamburg’s concentration camp soon becomes an Allied internment camp for Nazi perpetrators. Karl Kaufmann is also locked up there. Many Nazi criminals from Hamburg were sentenced to death and executed by the British in 1946: concentration camp commandant Max Pauly, for example.
The most powerful Nazi of all of them doesn’t even have to answer in court. Kaufmann died in 1969 as a “honorable businessman”. The legend of the good Nazi who saved the city has been around for a long time. Of all the bigwigs in town, Kaufmann is the one who had the greatest guilt.