If you happen to be a Reichsmarschall , senior to all other military officers in the German armed forces, and commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, you’re bound to think of yourself as something special. When you proudly wear the Blue Max on your chest and can claim to be the last commander of the Red Baron’s fighter wing, it’s inevitable that you might become a little puffed up with your own importance, and I think nobody would dispute that Hermann Goering was more than a little inflated.
Add to the mix his membership of the top Nazi echelons and it’s easy to see why he might have been dismayed to find out that his nephew was routinely flying an American B-17 on bombing missions over Germany. As if that wasn’t bad enough, his younger brother was a committed anti-Nazi who saved hundreds of Jews from murder and who detested Hitler and all he stood for.
When Albert Goering worked as a senior manager in Czechoslovakia at the Škoda factory, he was also in contact with the Czech Resistance, and facilitated all kinds of low-level sabotage. He sent trucks to concentration camps demanding prisoners for slave labour and had them released in remote places where they might have some chance to escape. He routinely counterfeited the Reichsmarschall’s signature on documents supplied to these prisoners and even when he was found out, he didn’t stop trying to subvert the Nazi murder effort.
For twelve years leading up to the war, the two brothers didn’t talk to each other. Albert detested everything about the party that his brother was becoming so involved in. I have a brother in Germany who is getting involved with that bastard Hitler, Albert told an Austrian friend, and he’ll come to a bad end if he goes on that way. He worked constantly to protect the Viennese Jews against the Austrian Nazis, arranging exit visas and money for his Jewish friends. It was only in 1938, after the Anschluss, that the two brothers met again and put aside their personal differences, although the gulf that existed between them on public matters could never be bridged.
Throughout the war, Albert Goering used his family name to overrule petty officials, and when it became necessary, he enlisted the help of his brother, who never refused him. Of course, Hermann Goering was not ideologically anti-Semitic in the way that Himmler and Goebbels were. He was far too intelligent for that, despite the caricature of the corpulent buffoon that he did nothing to counter. Indeed, he personally intervened to save his second-in-command, Erhard Milch, from the Gestapo by having Hitler issue him with a German blood certificate. (Milch was one of the few high-ranking Jewish officers in the Wehrmacht, and later, ironically, went on to plot Goering’s removal with Himmler and Goebbels, who must both have known his history).
At the same time, Goering had little difficulty suppressing his scruples, and his signature is on the instruction to Heydrich to carry out the Final Solution, though it would be just as easy to accuse Albert Speer of wrestling with his conscience and winning.
By 1944, Albert was on the run, hiding in Prague. The Gestapo were on his trail, with a warrant authorising them to shoot him on sight and the Reichsmarschall had to intervene again, this time with Himmler, whom he loathed. He told his brother that his position was now so undermined he would never be able to help him again and that turned out to be true. They met for the last time in 1945 in an Augsburg prison. Hermann was the big Nazi capture, while Albert, having given years protecting dissidents and Jews, was under arrest simply for being a brother of the top Nazi. He spent two years in jail before being released after people he had helped during the war gave evidence on his behalf, but he was shunnned in Germany because of his surname, and subsequently forced to undergo another trial in Czechoslovakia before being released, again after testimony from those he had saved.
But despite vindication, the family name proved toxic. He couldn’t get a job and eventually died destitute in 1966.
Meanwhile, Lt Werner Goering of the US Army Airforce, was flying bombers over Germany. Werner, born in Salt Lake City and a US citizen, was the son of Hermann Goering’s brother, Karl, who had emigrated to the United States following his conversion to Mormonism. Werner took part in 48 missions over Germany, including the infamous bombing of Dresden. He was promoted to Captain while serving as a pilot.
The United States authorities, understandably, weren’t entirely comfortable with the nephew of a top Nazi flying a US bomber over Europe, and appointed an expert marksman, Jack P. Rencher, as his co-pilot, with secret orders to shoot Goering if he ever tried to land the plane in Germany. Happily for Rencher and Goering, there was no need to carry out the orders. While I served with him he and I got along well together, said Rencher, and I believe made an excellent team. I know of no one I would rather serve as copilot with.
The only time Werner Goering ever showed misgivings was when he had to take part in an attack on Cologne, where his grandmother lived.
Hermann Goering was denied his final request by the tribunal — to receive a soldier’s execution by firing squad. Instead he was to be hanged as a common criminal, but he chose instead to take his own life by swallowing cyanide, just before he was due to be executed on the 15th October 1946.
He’s a peculiar fish. Undoubtedly responsible for the persecutions and murders perpetrated by the Nazi regime, he was personally not anti-Semitic, and yet, this perhaps casts him in a worse light than some deranged monster. After all, we expect monsters to do monstrous things, but when human beings do them, it’s all the more appalling. On a broader scale, Goering was opposed to invading Poland, fearing it would cause a world war, and he was right. He doubted the military wisdom of invading France and attacking England. He vigorously opposed the invasion of Russia. And yet, in each case, when the decision was taken to go ahead, he supported it fully.
Goering did not lack physical courage, though his moral fibre was pathetic, but if he had not been wounded twice in the beer-hall putsch, while defending Hitler, and if he had not become a morphine addict due to the pain, would we have seen a different course in history? I doubt if he would have held back for reasons of altruism, but he was more realistic in his assessment of the consequences than any of the other top Nazis, and ultimately, his initial military instincts turned out to be correct, even if his cynical and self-serving participation in the crimes was despicable.