On the 21st April 1945, Hitler ordered the Armeeabteilung Steiner (and the ninth Army) to execute a counter-attack on the approaching Soviet forces.

How and why did Hitler become deluded enough to give such an order?

I can understand that capitulation was no option for him. However, he could have allowed his troops to retreat or hold their positions or even to surrender discretely without having to concede to the Allied forces.

Why, however, did he deliberately order a counter-attack that, had it been carried out, would doubtlessly have cost the lives of many soldiers in a situation that was so obviously settled?

Note: An obvious answer would be that Hitler was a fanatical lunatic. This would also explain all too easily the Volkssturm and much else. Not only do I not believe in that, I disregard such reflections as unhistoric since there can't be a reliable analysis of his psyche, especially in the very last phase of the war. Instead, I'm looking for rational motives from a military standpoint.

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    Ahm, a 'rational' standpoint at that date might be hard to find if the angle is "Hitler's orders' and "why"? That seems a bit oxymoronic. We know of the personal deterioration and the real situation, tactically/strategically. You might have better luck for such an inquiry if you focus on the immediate staff and OKW hierarchy to belay/delay/carry out such an order etc? Jul 9, 2019 at 18:43
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    "I'm looking for rational motives from a military standpoint.' as there aren't any, this is an exercise in futility
    – user31561
    Jul 9, 2019 at 18:44
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    Hitler and rational were disjoint sets.
    – MCW
    Jul 9, 2019 at 18:50
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    From a military standpoint, war was useless by then. Most german generals already asked for peace. Since they were not listened, one must accept that rationality was no longer over the table.
    – Santiago
    Jul 9, 2019 at 18:53
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    Seeing the votes coming in: Maybe, if you demonstrate prior research: "Is it known how AH rationalised the attack"… Meaning: How did he explain that it all would have made sense to his underlings?…? –– Try to get a more 'actual events recorded' angle instead of 'how would your fav shrink explain'? Jul 9, 2019 at 18:54

4 Answers 4


tl;dr: Initiative.

This is the same reason Stalin kept ordering counterattacks in 1941 and 1942 - because it is the only way to stop (or at least slow down) an advancing overwhelming force, because in a (counter)offensive you select the time and place of the battle and can (try to) do it to your advantage.

I understand that this sounds counterintuitive, but consider the 1943 Battle of Kursk where the Soviets had a numeric superiority, deep well prepared defenses, advance knowledge of the exact date of the German attack -- and still the Germans managed to advance pretty darn far before the offensive was called off after just one week. This shows that in the WW2 conditions, rigid defense always loses.

On the other hand, a lucky counterattack at the right spot may actually significantly slow down the enemy operations, especially if it targets a "critical link" (fuel, command and control &c).

There were good reasons why both Stalin's and Hitler's counteroffensives were generally unsuccessful, but it is far from clear that they were suboptimal strategically, i.e., that there was a better alternative.

PS1. WW1 was a historical aberration where defense appeared to have an advantage over offense, but it did not fool professionals - it is always better to be on the offensive.

PS2. As for the war "being obviously lost" by April 1945, one should remember that Britain stood alone against the Axis in the Summer of 1940, and Russia was thought to be finished by many in the Fall of 1941 and neither stopped fighting. Hitler kept hoping for some new Miracle of the House of Brandenburg.

PS3. To those who are unhappy about my Kursk example, I took it from Антисуворов.

PS4. Cf. the strategy that Manstein (claims to have) advocated in 1943: fight a flexible mobile war with many small counterattacks, aimed at bleeding the enemy into a stalemate.

  • The comments here amounting to a fascinating extra discourse. Its now in chat if you'd like to see it; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – T.E.D.
    Jul 11, 2019 at 21:36

I'm looking for rational motives from a military standpoint

It might be a lot more "rational" if you apply a different kind of logic. We like to think of military strategy of something that is a task in optimizing all the resources you have to gain an acceptable outcome, where one of the acceptable outcomes might be honorable defeat and maybe capture. Normal rationale strategy dictates to preserve resources even in a loss because you might need them to fight another battle or even another war later.

Hitler's point of view on the outcome was more fatalistic and rightly so. Losing the war meant losing his life. The only thing he cared for. He did not care for other people's life or "pursuit of happiness". So if the military leader answers the question "is it worth a thousand lifes to delay the inevitable defeat another day?" with "Yes, it is" then all you see on military strategy, that looks foolish to an professional general that sees defeat as the least favorable, but survivable result suddenly makes a lot more sense. Volkssturm? Sure. Every bullet they catch saves the leaders life another minute. Pointless, 0.05% chance of success counterattacks? Sure, 0.05% is better then nothing and nobody gets anything from them surviving the war. Optimize for the chance of the military leader to live another year, month, week or hour and set the cost for everything else to zero and you reach a point that looks foolish to others.

It's not without rationale, it's just not our rationale.

Sources for the claim that Hitler valued the preservation of life in a case of losing at basically zero:

Just look at the Nerobefehl (German Version has more details). Albert Speer cites Hitler in the Nurnberg trials:

„Wenn der Krieg verloren geht, wird auch das Volk verloren sein. […] Es sei nicht notwendig, auf die Grundlagen, die das Volk zu seinem primitivsten Weiterleben braucht, Rücksicht zu nehmen. Im Gegenteil sei es besser, selbst diese Dinge zu zerstören. Denn das Volk hätte sich als das schwächere erwiesen und dem stärkeren Ostvolk gehöre dann ausschließlich die Zukunft. Was nach dem Kampf übrigbliebe, seien ohnehin nur die Minderwertigen; denn die Guten seien gefallen.“

Rough translation by me:

When the war gets lost, the people will be lost. [...] It's not neccessary to preserve even the basics the people need for their most primitive survival. To the contrary, it would be better to destroy even those things. Because the German people have proven to be weaker and the stronger eastern people will own the future exclusively. What is left after the fight are only the inferior anyway, the good all died.

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    I am afraid you are oversimplifying Hitler. I think he really truly believed his own slogan that his opponent in the War was "the Jewry", not Russians or Americans or Brits. Thus it made perfect rational sense to protract the war as long as the "Final Solution" was advancing. Of course, the reality is a complex combination of both your explanation and mine - as well as, probably, several others.
    – sds
    Jul 10, 2019 at 13:20
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    Maybe my post did not go into the details, but I don't think it's a simplification as you think it is. I did not say why he put his own life above all else. Maybe he really believed he is the savior that has a higher purpose, that would not contradict my answer at all. It is pretty certain that he valued the lifes of his people at basically zero though. I will add sources.
    – nvoigt
    Jul 11, 2019 at 5:19
  • I think your Hitler quote kinda contradicts what you said above. He seems to be saying that if Germany is defeated, her people will be gone anyways. He seems to care about Germans, but believes the situation is all-or-nothing.
    – Ryan_L
    Jul 11, 2019 at 22:15
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    @Ryan_L No, it does not. AH reverses his social-darwinist racial superiority theory in light of the evidence that 'the Slav' defeated the German Aryan, so the latter has to perish anyway. However, the quote is still problematic as it is from Speer, the notorious liar, in this case trying to save his own head in demonstrating AH was/went insane, wanted to murder even all ('proven inferior') Germans now, but He, Speer, saved the day in sabotaging this order. Unless a better src confirms the wording, we can be quite sure he at least twisted it to suit his needs after 45… Jul 12, 2019 at 8:56

Hitler was still trying to act strategically

Although popular history, influenced by memoirs of surviving German generals, tries to pin German defeat on Hitler irrationality and supposed madness, in reality it was not so. All controversial decisions made by Hitler (go to Kiev in 1941, drive on oil fields in 1942, various no retreat orders, remain on Crimea in 1944 etc ... ) had some grounding in reality, and were not made by whim. Instead, Hitler usually conferred with his underlings and various advisors, including the members of German High command (OKW).

Anyway, in April 1945 situation was dire, and Germans, including Hitler, were aware they could not win against both Western Allies and Soviets with emerging Communist Block (Poland, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria) . What they did hope was repeat of Miracle of the House of Brandenburg, which happened in 18th century and saved Prussia of Frederick the Great - Russian empress (czarina) Elizabeth suddenly died, and her successor Peter III led Russia out of war with Prussia. In an essence, Germans hoped for opportunity to somehow achieve separate peace with Western Allies, and maybe even latter somehow persuade them to join fight against World communism. Germans also hoped that Soviets would soon exhaust their human resources (actually not far for truth considering tremendous Soviet casualties ) and when that happens would be forced to stop their offensive. Considering what happened later , i.e. Cold War, eventual recreation of (West) German armed forces and many Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe personnel serving in it, even being high officials of NATO , again there is some grounding in reality for all of this.

German hopes were raised when Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945 (Czarina is dead !), his successor Truman seen as possibly more anti-communist and therefore susceptible for separate ceasefire agreement. Germans also most likely correctly assumed there would be a stop and demarcation line for Western advance into Germany (for example river Elbe). Therefore, if they somehow stop fighting British and American forces, and repulse Soviet forces with sufficient territory still in their hands, they could start negotiations from position of national government that still has some levers in their hands. But in order to do that, Berlin, as a capitol and important psychological symbol would have to remain in German possession. Without Berlin, German resistance would be split into pockets (north and south) without clear national center (larger cities in the West already being occupied, as well as Vienna) .

Therefore, although from operational standpoint unreasonable, from strategical point Hitler played only remaining move. Steiner's attack, if successful would potentially allow the Germans to retain control of Berlin, and prevent Germany of being split in two (as historically did happen ). Without Steiner's attack (which historically did not materialize) Berlin was certainly lost and war ended soon. Now, it is very unlikely Steiner would have changed anything if he did attack (except increasing casualties on both sides) , but theoretically there was a chance although minuscule. Ultimately and wisely, Steiner decided that war is already lost and choose to surrender himself and his units to Western Allies, thus dashing last hopes of some kind of victory.

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    It seems as if it would help tremendously if you would cite or ref the central points, rather than the periphery. For example the link to FDR supports not much else but the fact that your date is correct, whereas the "hopes" (at that date!, but also for Mirakel dHB and how this connects) remains unsupported. Jul 22, 2019 at 17:28
  • @LangLangC Read the link about Miracle and in last paragraph you will find what you seek : death of Czarina = death of Roosevelt ;)
    – rs.29
    Jul 23, 2019 at 18:38
  • Well, I knew that, & that one could make such a connection, perhaps even now. The Mirakel is not cause for complaint, nor the possible connection. But the point is, did anyone entertain that specific idea as "realistic" at that time. The answer reads as if it may have been, but we have no direct support for that. It may also read as you now inferring such a possibility. At least quote Goebbels, like Clarke does in Iron Kingdom? You might as well find even better srcs! Jul 23, 2019 at 19:02
  • In fact, this would be one of those: The Fall of Berlin and the Rise of a Myth, Donald E. Shepardson search.proquest.com/openview/c4905989c71d29d9b9ab073bc8eaea39/1 Jul 23, 2019 at 19:07
  • @LangLangC It's not clear what are you asking. Work you mentioned, as well as numerous others, mention German hope for split between Allies and Soviet Union. They also mention reaction of Hitler and others at the news of Roosevelt death. But they also mentioned that with the fall of Berlin Germany would be split in half. These are all pretty well known facts.
    – rs.29
    Jul 23, 2019 at 20:23

Because the 9th Army of SS General Felix Steiner existed, but only on paper.

At full strength, this army could plausibly have taken on the First Byelorussian Front. But General Steiner balked because he was outnumbered 10 to 1 by this Russian unit (rather than say, 2 to 1, as might have been the case earlier in the war).

At this late date, much the same was true for other units Hitler ordered into action.

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