The Summit at Gut Hartzwalde
Of all the extraordinary "summits" in history, an incontestable place must be given to a two-hour wartime meeting on April 20, 1945 between Heinrich Himmler, the arch-killer of Jews, and Norbert Masur, Swedish representative of the World Jewish Congress. As Allied armies closed in on Nazi redoubts in the spring of 1945, Himmler, aware of Germany's desperate situation (and his own), became more and more receptive to the idea of negotiating the release of the ill and starving in concentration camps such as Ravensbrück. The godfather for that extraordinary meeting was Felix Kersten, Himmler's masseur whose "magical hands" had been indispensable to Himmler since 1939.
This was not the first time that Himmler tried to strike a deal behind Hitler's back. Almost a year earlier, Kersten and Walter Schellenberg, the latter since 1944 head of both the SS and Wehrmacht security apparatus, made a proposal to the Allies that Himmler assumed they would not refuse. The aim was audacious and bizarre. As Professor John H. Waller reveals in his 2002 book "The Devil's Doctor: Felix Kersten and the Secret Plot to Turn Himmler," Himmler proposed deposing Hitler. On March 20, 1944 General William J. Donovan, director of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), passed on to President Roosevelt a message from Sweden that Himmler considered ousting Hitler and negotiating peace with the Allies in order to form a united front against the Soviet Union. Roosevelt and Churchill wasted no time rejecting the offer. Time was running out for Nazi leaders. On July 20, 1944 there was an unsuccessful attempt on Hitler's life and the circle of opposition to Hitler was destroyed or under surveillance. Himmler had to watch his every step. There was enough treachery for several Shakespearean dramas.
The meeting between Himmler and Masur took place at Gut Hartzwalde, Kersten's estate, not far from the Ravensbrück camp where starving and mutilated women were unaware that Himmler and Masur were meeting to decide their fate. Originally Hillel Storch of the Swedish branch of the Jewish World Congress was to meet with Himmler, but Masur was chosen instead. According to Joseph Kessel in Les Mains de Miracle ("The Miraculous Hands," 1960), Storch feared for his life. He had already lost 17 members of his family in concentration camps. On Thursday, April 19, 1945, after Jewish officials obtained a promise of safe passage, Masur received the long-awaited invitation. Himmler was expecting him that evening. Masur and Kersten left for Berlin on a regularly scheduled flight from Stockholm to Copenhagen, then boarded another plane emblazoned with swastikas, hardly an auspicious symbol, as they flew to Berlin through skies crossed regularly by Allied planes on their bombing missions. Kersten referred to his companion, the visaless Masur, as a "dangerous piece of contraband."
This was the historical adventure that Masur has described in a booklet titled Ein Jude Talar Med Himmler ("A Jew Speaks with Himmler," 1945), a rare document still not available in English.
"It was a horrifying idea," he wrote a year after the meeting, "that I would be confronted and negotiate with the man responsible for the extermination of millions of Jews." After they circled over roofless Berlin, Masur witnessed the destruction that became more visible as they drove from Tempelhof airport through the city. Kersten's estate was some 30 miles north of Berlin, almost halfway to the hell of Ravensbrück. The Gestapo vehicle drove with its lights dimmed through the ghost-like ruins, past endless piles of rubble, the moonlit scene pierced from time to time by searchlights seeking out Allied bombers. They arrived at the estate before midnight to await Himmler.
A birthday party in a Berlin bunker delayed the meeting. When Schellenberg arrived the following morning to welcome Masur he explained that it was Hitler's birthday, and Himmler could only come after the party. The meeting, he emphasized, was dangerous for all concerned. Hitler was against the release of any camp inmates and had been enraged the previous fall when Himmler agreed to send 2,700 concentration camp survivors to Switzerland as a gesture of conciliation to the Allies as Germany's war fortunes waned. Before long there was another message from Himmler that he could not come until 2:30 in the morning. They awaited him in candlelight since electricity was cut off as soon as the air-raid sirens sounded. At the stroke of 2:30 Himmler arrived, followed by his aide, Rudolf Brandt. Masur was relieved that he was greeted with a Guten Tag, instead of a Heil Hitler. They all sat down to tea, coffee, sugar, and cakes brought from Sweden, items in short supply in wartime Germany. As Kersten reminisced: "Here round the table at my Hartzwalde house were peacefully seated the representatives of two races who had been at daggers drawn, each regarding the other as its mortal enemy. And this attitude had demanded the sacrifice of millions; the shades of those dead hovered in the background. It was a shattering reflection." No less shattering, to be sure, than the blindness in Kersten's words of equivalence.
As Masur described him, Himmler was dressed in a well-fitted uniform, decorations prominently displayed, his manner calm and self-controlled. Masur could not believe that the man in front of him was history's worst mass murderer. Himmler soon launched into a monologue. Like other Nazi leaders whose point of reference was the defeat in World War I, he recalled that he was 14 when that war began and he blamed the Spartacist uprising and Jews for the social upheavals that followed. The Jews were a foreign element, he said, that had been driven out of Germany but always returned. He was always in favor of emigration as a solution but not even countries that claimed to be friends of Jews wanted to accept them. When Masur interjected that it was not customary to expel people from their homes and from a country where they had lived for generations, Himmler argued that it was mainly the eastern Jews who created new problems and that "Jewish masses were infested with severe epidemics." He conflated the conditions in Germany in the 1920s with those that prevailed in the ghettoes and camps that he himself established.
Himmler bemoaned his poor image in foreign media, and complained that when Bergen-Belsen and Buchenwald were liberated it provided "mud slinging propaganda," and that when he released 2,700 Jews to go to Switzerland he was accused of doing it to get an alibi. "I do not need an alibi. I have always only done what I have considered necessary for my people, this is my belief." As for the crematoria, these were built because of epidemics in camps, an argument that anticipated that used by Holocaust deniers. [The bodies of the sick were ostensibly burnt in the crematoria in order to prevent the spread of typhus or other infectious diseases. No responsible historian has accepted the Nazi account on this matter.] He wished that the camps had been called "training camps," rather than concentration camps, since the purpose was to incarcerate and punish criminals. He wanted them to be like Theresienstadt, a community inhabited by Jews who governed themselves. "My friend Heydrich and I wanted all the camps to be patterned this way." He did not say that Theresienstadt was designed for propaganda and that many of its "privileged Jews" ended up in the crematoria of Auschwitz.
Masur finally found it difficult to contain himself. He sensed that Himmler's self-pitying pleadings were a sign of weakness and he reminded Himmler of the "gross misdeeds" that were perpetrated in camps. "I could not nor did I want to control my indignation . . . it was a great satisfaction to me to tell him to his face of some of the crimes. . . ." Masur sensed that he was now "the stronger one" and that this enabled him to make the request that all Jews in camps which were close to Scandinavia and Switzerland be evacuated. Supported by Kersten, he asked for the release of all the inmates of Ravensbrück.
Himmler conferred with his aides and returned to say that he was willing to release 1,000 women from Ravensbrück, as long as the Jewish women were referred to as Polish. He also agreed to release a certain number of prisoners and hostages in other camps. The meeting lasted two and a half hours. Masur, who had bargained for the lives of Jews with the devil incarnate, wrote proudly that "a free Jewish man was alone with the feared and merciless Chief of Gestapo who had the lives of five million Jews on his conscience." He characterized Himmler as an intelligent and educated man and contrasted Hitler's "idiosyncratic" view of Jews with Himmler's "rationalist" attitude, one that allowed him to bargain for the release of some Jews, a policy Hitler opposed to the end. Still, Masur found no "logic in construction, no grandeur of thought," only "lies and evasions" in Himmler's arguments.
In the morning Masur left for Berlin, the road filled with a "stream of human misery. . . . [T]he Germans," he wrote, "finally had a taste of what they had inflicted on other people." He could hear the sound of bombing nearby. Now he saw Berlin in daylight, a "field of ruins of a gigantic proportion." They went to the Swedish legation to meet Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish nobleman who had been involved with Kersten and Himmler in earlier releases, such as the freeing of 423 Danish Jews from Theresienstadt on April 14, but he was away. In the meantime, many thousands of prisoners were being marched away from Ravensbrück as the Western and Russian armies were approaching. These cruel evacuations took a terrible toll and hundreds of women died from exhaustion or were shot to death by the accompanying SS. Some were killed by Allied bombs and German civilians. Schellenberg assured Masur that Red Cross transports, the white buses that would eventually take the Ravensbrück inmates to Denmark and Sweden, were being prepared. Masur flew back to Copenhagen, his mission completed. By the time he got to Stockholm, he was informed that Folke Bernadotte succeeded in having the women from Ravensbrück evacuated to Sweden. The Swedish Red Cross was subsequently able to rescue 7,000 women, of whom about half were Jewish. Many were physical wrecks. In Masur's opinion, "only Palestine offered these long-suffering Jews a normal life."
"The Memoirs of Felix Kersten" (1947) fills in some gaps in Masur's overly formal account. Kersten, a physiotherapist, who had also treated Rudolf Hess, Robert Ley, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Count Ciano, as well as the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina's husband, realized as he began treating Himmler for painful stomach spasms that his "magic touch" made him indispensable. Kersten, the "Magical Buddha," as Himmler referred to him, found the "recumbent" patient at his weakest. "I used my power over him to save the lives of hundreds, perhaps thousands," he recalled proudly in notes he had hidden in a brick wall. The decorations he received after the war testified to the truthfulness of this, even though his closeness to Nazi party leaders made him suspect in the eyes of many. Kersten's description of Himmler as a "narrow-chested, weak-chinned man . . . with a high-pitched shrill voice, an ingratiating smile and eyes owlishly innocent," a copy of the Koran always at hand, a man who believed himself to be the reincarnation of Henry the Fowler and Genghis Khan, provides us with a unique portrait of the maniacal personality that impressed Masur with his intelligence. Himmler, according to Kersten, accused Göbbels as the one who planned the destruction of European Jewry, a plan that included Hitler's intention of exterminating the Jews of Latin and North America and handing over to the Arabs the task of exterminating Jews in their territories.
According to Kersten, Himmler told him: "I want to bury the hatchet between us and the Jews. If I had my own way many things would have been done differently. But I have already explained to you how things developed with us and also what the attitude was of the Jews and of the people abroad." And he added that "the Führer gave me his personal orders to follow the harshest course." Himmler's shared confidences with Kersten included the "blue folder" with Hitler's medical history and plans for a tomb with a hall that was to be over 1,600 feet high and a mile in diameter, that would hold 300,000 people. [Kersten has been proven to be a very reliable recorder of information, and likely reports correctly here as well. ] "Hitler," he said, "was in extremely poor state of health."
Kersten recorded that one of the last conversations he had with Himmler was about a "secret weapon," more powerful than the V-1 and V-2 rockets, that was to end the war. "One or two shots and cities like New York or London will simply vanish from the earth." He was told of a village built near Auschwitz where the new weapon was tried out. Twenty thousand Jewish men, women, and children were brought to live there. A single shell according to Himmler caused 6,000 degrees of heat and everything and everybody there was burned to ashes. Kersten assumed that the Germans had nearly completed constructing an atomic bomb. [Himmler's startling revelations are unconfirmed.]
The publication of Kersten's personal papers, "The Kersten Memoirs" (1956), with an introduction by H.R. Trevor-Roper, sheds additional light on those momentous meetings. Trevor-Roper, while praising Kersten, downplayed the role of Folke Bernadotte. In an essay, "The Strange Case of Himmler's Doctor Felix Kersten and Count Bernadotte" (Commentary, April 1957), Trevor-Roper elaborated on Folke Bernadotte's shortcomings both as a person and a diplomat. He referred to the Himmler-Masur meeting at Gut Hartzwalde as "one of the most ironical incidents in the whole war." From Kersten's personal papers one learns that when Masur arrived at the Tempelhof airport he was saluted by "half a dozen smartly turned-out men with Heil Hitler." It was surely the only time in the history of Nazi Germany that an SS detachment saluted a Jew! According to Kersten, Masur took off his hat and politely said: "Good evening."
It remained for one more participant, Walter Schellenberg in his book "The Labyrinth" (1956), to comment on the astounding Himmler-Masur meeting. As one of Kersten's patients (Himmler insisted that all his SS leaders undergo an examination), he said that the gifted masseur could feel nerve complexes with his finger tips and through manipulation increase blood circulation, thus reconditioning the entire nervous system. Schellenberg said that he had indirect contacts with the Russians through Switzerland and Sweden after 1942, was involved in the proposals made by Himmler to the Allies as late as March 1944, and was negotiating with Folke Bernadotte a surrender to General Eisenhower. All these attempts failed to break the fanatical phalanx around Hitler. Schellenberg remembered telling Himmler that there were only two courses open to him. He should confront Hitler and force him to resign or remove him by force. Himmler responded that if he did that Hitler would shoot him out of hand.
Fifty-eight years ago this past April, dozens of buses painted white and bearing the emblems of Sweden and the Red Cross left the hell of Ravensbrück for Denmark and eventually Sweden, carrying with them thousands of women of different nationalities. The buses included many Jewish survivors. Eventually, some 13,500 women were released from Ravensbrück, of whom 3,000 were Jewish. In fact, the Swedish white buses left thousands behind. When the Russian troops entered Ravensbrück on April 30, the day that Hitler committed suicide, there were still 23,000 Jewish and non-Jewish women and children in Ravensbrück.
Frank Fox is the author of "God's Eye: Aerial Photography and the Katyn Forest Massacre."