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Hitler's "Scorched Earth" Decree (Nero Decree) (March 19, 1945) and Albert Speer's Response (March 29, 1945)

On March 19, 1945, the hopeless state of the war effort prompted Hitler to issue the “Nero Decree,” which called for the complete destruction of Germany’s infrastructure. The approaching enemy would thus find nothing but “scorched earth.” Hitler justified this step as a military necessity, but his intention was to destroy the German population as punishment for its defeat. There was to be no future for the nation after National Socialism. The day before Hitler issued his decree, Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer (1905-1981) had submitted a memorandum opposing Hitler’s plans for mass destruction. Hitler ignored it, however. In Speer’s response to Hitler’s decree, reproduced below, he once again expressed his fundamental opposition. In the end, Speer decided that his ministry would have to implement any measures geared toward mass destruction. Thus, together with the Wehrmacht and the administration, it could also go far in blocking Hitler’s plans.

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I. Hitler’s Order of March 19, 1945

RE: Destruction Measures within Reich Territory

Our nation’s struggle for existence forces us to utilize all means, even within Reich territory, to weaken the fighting power of our enemy and to prevent further advances. Any opportunity to inflict lasting damage on the striking power of the enemy must be taken advantage of. It is a mistake to believe that undestroyed or only temporarily paralyzed traffic, communications, industrial, and supply installations will be useful to us again after the recapture of lost territories. During his retreat, the enemy will leave behind only scorched earth and will abandon all concern for the population.

I therefore command –

1. All military traffic, communications, industrial and supply installations as well as objects within Reich territory that might be used by the enemy in the continuation of his fight, either now or later, are to be destroyed.

2. It is the responsibility of the military command posts to execute this order to destroy all military objects, including traffic and communications installations.

The Gauleiters and Commissioners for Reich Defense are responsible for destroying the industrial and supply installations, as well as of other objects of valuable; the troops must give the Gauleiters and Commissioners for Reich Defense the assistance they need to carry out this task.

3. This command is to be transmitted to all troop commanders as promptly as possible; orders to the contrary are null and void.

Adolf Hitler

Source of English translation: Hitler’s "Scorched Earth" Decree (Nero Decree) (March 19, 1945), in United States Chief Counsel for the Prosecution of Axis Criminality, Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression. Supplement B. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1948. Speer Document 27, pp. 950-51. English translation edited by GHI staff.

Source of original German text: Bundesarchiv Berlin R 3/1623a. "Abänderung des Zerstörungsbefehls vom 19. 3. 1945, Führerbefehle vom 30. 3 und 7. 4. 1945 mit handschriftlichen Korrekturen Hitlers und Speers;" also reprinted as (Beweisstück Speer-25) Zerstörungsbefehl Hitlers vom 19. März 1945: Alle wichtigen Anlagen und Sachwerte im Reichsgebiet, die sich der Feind für Fortsetzung seines Kampfes nutzbar machen kann, sind zu zerstören (Dokument Speer-27), in Der Prozess gegen die Hauptkriegsverbrecher vor dem Internationalen Militärgerichtshof. Nürnberg 14. November 1945 - 1. Oktober 1946, Volume XLI, Amtlicher Text – Deutsche Ausgabe, Urkunden und anderes Beweismaterial. Nuremberg 1949. Reprint: Munich, Delphin Verlag, 1989, pp. 430-31.

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