May I present the very first extract from Hitler's Last Fortress: Breslau 1945
. As of yet only the prologue (from which this is taken) is finished; it's the only part of the book which was in a position to be written. Much research (and above all a mountain of translation) remains to be done, so do not expect the book in the shops before 2011. But the path has been taken and I shall follow it to the very end.
On a bitingly cold January morning, Ulrich Frodien stood once more before the Schlossplatz. The city moat was frozen. The sand was hidden beneath a blanket of snow. Military vehicles, guns, a few panzers were mustered on the parade ground – on the exact spot where Hitler’s tribune once stood.
A week before he had been hunting with his father in the village of Germanengrund, two dozen miles north of Breslau. The now eighteen-year-old panzer grenadier was convalescing, recovering from an artillery strike on the Eastern Front the previous autumn which smashed his thigh, and left shrapnel in his head and chest. Frodien still clung to the slight hope that the war might end in Germany’s favour. His father, a doctor, could only scoff at – and feel pity for – Ulrich’s naïve optimism. War had not touched this rural idyll, save for the death notices which filled the papers each day. To the villagers of Germanengrund – until a decade before Domnowitz, a name not Germanic enough for the Nazi overlords – ‘every front had always seemed a world away’. But now there was talk of a new Russian offensive, an attack from the bridgehead on the Vistula at Baranow, a little over 200 miles to the east. The armed forces communiqué mentioned the Soviet spearhead passing the famous monastery of Lysa Gora, near Kielce. The news seemed to galvanise Frodien’s father. He decided to return to Breslau immediately.
Now, this Tuesday, January 23, 1945, the teenager headed for the centre of Breslau. For three days, Breslau’s railway stations had been under siege, ever since an alarming, electrifying broadcast over the 1,000 loudspeakers, erected throughout the Silesian capital shortly before the Sportfest, clarions of Nazi triumphs. ‘Women and children leave the city on foot in the direction of Opperau-Kanth,’ the tinny voice urged, adding comfortingly. ‘There is no reason for alarm and panic.’ Their men would not join them. Breslau had been declared a Festung – fortress, a fortress which would be ‘defended to the last’.
But not by the Frodiens. Ulrich’s mother and younger brother Michael had already fled Breslau. His father had every intention of joining them and sent the young Gefreiter into the city centre to see whether there was a chance of fleeing the city via the Freiburger Bahnhof. He left the family’s comfortable third-floor apartment in Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse – renamed Strasse der SA in honour of Nazi brownshirts. He passed beneath the railway bridge where two elderly militia, Volkssturm – people’s storm – stood guard, shouldering Panzerfaust bazookas. He crossed Tauentzienplatz, past the Ufa Palast, the city’s largest cinema. The hoarding over the entrance still spelled out the title of the last film shown – an Agfacolor melodrama, the story of a Hamburg politician’s son who becomes infatuated with a young woman – Opfergang, The Great Sacrifice. Frodien passed the Wertheim department store, again the city’s largest, now known as AWAG after being appropriated from its Jewish owners. He skirted around the edge of an empty square where once Breslau’s new synagogue had stood and came to the frozen moat, staring across at the Schlossplatz, recalling that Sunday in 1938. ‘I was seized by a profound feeling of sadness and despair at the thought that perhaps it had all been utterly pointless, our belief in Germany, our belief in the ideals of National Socialism, the endless sacrifices and the many fallen comrades,’ he wrote. For a moment he considered reporting to the nearest barracks, joining one of the hastily-formed Festungskompanien – fortress companies – and manning a machine gun, determined to go down with his home. Reality quickly made him change his mind. Pain from his shattered thigh, his bandaged head, his scarred chest, pulsed through his body. Ulrich Frodien, just eighteen years old, was, he realised, ‘a wreck, utterly unsuited to any heroic fantasy of going under’.
Ulrich Frodien and his father would escape the besieged Silesian capital. Thousands more would die trying. And thousands more still would die fulfilling the promise to defend the city ‘to the last’. They were as good as their word. Festung Breslau would hold out longer than Königsberg, longer than Danzig, longer than Vienna, longer even than the capital of the Reich itself. But Breslau and Breslauers would pay a terrible price for their obstinacy. At least 6,000 soldiers were killed and another 23,000 wounded defending the fortress on the Oder. The toll among civilians was far graver. Perhaps as many as 80,000 died. The city they knew, the city they had grown up with, the city where they had fêted Hitler and his cabal, the city which had been virtually untouched by war before 1945, would be no more. Two thirds of all industry destroyed. Seven out of ten high schools in ruins. Four out of five homes uninhabitable. Nearly 200 miles of roadway were impassable – more than 600 million cubic feet of ash and rubble were lying in them. Eighty per cent of the railway and tram network was wrecked. All electricity lines and seventy per cent of the telephone lines were down.
The end of war would offer no salvation. Breslau’s German inhabitants would be driven out of their homes, driven out of their city, driven westwards. Their city would rise again, rebuilt not by Germans but by Poles, rebuilt not as Breslau but as Wroclaw.
Such was the price demanded of Hitler’s last fortress.