As the war turned against Hitler he began issuing orders for “scorched earth” retreats. Everything that might be of value to the enemy in territory that they recovered was to be destroyed, either blown up or burnt. Large swathes of the Soviet Union had suffered as a result. Warsaw had been reduced to a pile of ashes. Hitler’s orders to blow up and burn Paris had not been carried out.
Now he began to prepare for the destruction of Germany itself in the same way.
The Armaments Minister, Albert Speer approached Colonel-General Heinz Guderian, Chief of the General Staff:
At this time Speer, whose attitude towards the course of events was becoming one of increasing scepticism, came to see me. He brought me the information that Hitler intended to arrange for the destruction of all factories, water and electrical installations, railways and bridges before they should fall into enemy hands. Speer rightly pointed out that such a crazy deed must result in mass misery and death to the population of Germany on a scale never before seen in history. He asked for my help in ensuring that no such order be carried out.
On the 18th March Speer tried to prevent the situation by submitting a memorandum to Hitler:
It must be established that, in the event of the battles moving further into German territory, nobody is entitled to destroy industrial installations, mining installations, electrical and other utility works, communication facilities, or inland waterways.
A destruction of bridges on the scale at present envisaged would do more damage to our communications network than all the air raids of the past years. Their destruction implies the elimination of all chance of survival for the German people…
We have no right, at this stage of the war, to order demolitions which would affect the future existence of the German people. If the enemy has decided to destroy this nation, which has fought with unparalleled bravery, then the enemy must bear the guilt before history for such a deed.
It is our duty to leave the German nation all possible facilities which will enable that nation to re- arise at some time in the distant future.
However, according to General Guderian, Hitler was not even prepared to meet Speer to discuss the matter any further. He became enraged and declared, as he was to repeat to others over the following weeks:
If the war should be lost, then the nation, too, will be lost. That would be the nation’s unalterable fate. There is no need to consider the basic requirements that a people needs in order to continue to live a primitive life.
On the contrary, it is better ourselves to destroy such things, for this nation will have proved itself the weaker and the future will belong exclusively to the stronger Eastern nation. Those who remain alive after the battles are over are in any case only inferior persons, since the best have fallen.
Speer’s memorandum had achieved nothing and may even have made Hitler even more resolute in his attitude. On the following day Hitler issued his infamous ‘Nero Order’
It is a mistake to think that transport and communication facilities, industrial establishments and supply depots, which have not been destroyed, or have only been temporarily put out of action, can be used again for our own ends when the lost territory has been recovered. The enemy will leave us nothing but scorched earth when he withdraws, without paying the slightest regard to the population. I therefore order:
“1) All military transport and communication facilities, industrial establishments and supply depots, as well as anything else of value within Reich territory, which could in any way be used by the enemy immediately or within the foreseeable future for the prosecution of the war, will be destroyed.
Ultimately Speer and others were able to frustrate much of Hitler’s intentions by not implementing his instructions and by such measures as not releasing industrial explosives to those who would have followed the orders.