LibGuides: World War II Remembered: The Generals and the Admirals: German Generals & Admirals (2022)

More than any other of the major German officials who worked for the anti-Jewish dictator Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring is an example of a decent man who became corrupted by power. During Göring's boyhood, at the end of the nineteenth century, Germany was vigorous and full of promise. As a young man, he saw his country, which was defeated in World War I (1914-18), grow frightened and desperate. The people finally turned to Hitler to save them. Instead, Hitler involved Germany in a bloody and barbaric series of events that ended in shame and defeat. Hermann Göring's fate was no better.

Unhappy beginnings

Hermann Wilhelm Göring (pronounced hair-mon vil-helm ger-ring) was born in a little town south of Munich, Germany, in January 1893. His father, Heinrich Ernst Göring, represented Germany's business interests in various foreign countries. When she was 19, Göring's mother, Franziska "Fanny" Tiefenbrun, married Heinrich Göring, a 45-year-old widower with five children. Besides serving as stepmother to these children, she also gave birth to four children of her own. Hermann was the last.

When Göring was three months old, his mother went to join her husband in the country of Haiti, where he was stationed. Göring was left behind for three years to be raised by a family in the town of Furth. Without his family, Göring was a lonely, unhappy child. When they were finally reunited he struck at his mother in rage.

Back in Germany, the career of Göring's father reached a dead end because he advocated that black people be treated as human beings. This was a highly unpopular idea among the Germans at that time. He soon retired and died from alcoholism in 1913.

Childhood and schooling

After his father's retirement, Göring went to live at the castle of his godfather, an Austrian physician named Hermann von Epenstein. One day at the private school he attended, the teachers criticized Göring for writing an admiring essay about his godfather. The teachers said that von Epenstein was Jewish and that students were not expected to write essays in praise of Jews. That night the 11-year-old Göring packed his bags and returned home.

Göring then attended two different military academies, where he excelled at mountain climbing and horseback riding. A loyal, self-confident boy, he dreamed of becoming a hero that all of Germany would respect. He graduated in 1912 with highest honors. After graduation, Göring served as a junior officer in the Prinz Wilhelm Regiment. He was popular with young women, in part because of his striking blue-green eyes and blond good looks.

During World War I, Göring proved to be a brave pilot. He was awarded Germany's highest honor for an aviator, the Blue Max. On July 7, 1918, he was appointed the last commander of the famed Richthofen Squadron and began to develop his excellent management skills.

After the war, Göring worked as a stunt pilot and as a commercial pilot for a Swedish airline. In Stockholm, Sweden, he met 32-year-old Swedish baroness Carin von Fock-Kantzoa, a married woman with an 8-year-old son. The baroness divorced her husband, a Swedish soldier, and she and Göring were married in 1923.

Göring and many other young German soldiers during the postwar period felt betrayed by their government. Their political leaders never led them to suspect that they might be forced to surrender to the enemy. When the war ended in 1918, Germany's enemies saw to it that the country was punished. The victorious countries demanded huge sums of money, known as reparations, to make up for the damages Germany had caused during the war. The payment of these reparations resulted in economic hardships for the German people. The lack of jobs was also a serious problem. Poor and stripped of illusions, Göring, like many young men, was looking for something in which to believe.

Joins Nazi Party

Adolf Hitler now marched into the life of Göring and all of Germany. Anti-Jewish feeling and talk of German racial purity were rampant. As head of the National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nazi for short), Hitler preached that Germans were a superior race and should rule the world. He believed that Jews were a "poisonous" race that had caused Germany's defeat in the war. Hitler also said that the terms of the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War I must be done away with. Göring agreed and joined the Nazi Party. At first Göring resisted Hitler's strong anti-Jewish or antisemitic beliefs. However, Göring totally worshiped Hitler and soon abandoned his own tolerant views and went along with the Nazi leader's anti-Jewish speeches and writings.

By 1923, the Görings' house had become the hub of Nazi social activities. It was at this house that the Nazis planned their first failed attempt to take over the German government. This would later be called the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. In the aftermath, Göring was severely wounded. He fled to Austria and then Switzerland. During Göring's slow recovery, he was in great pain and became a morphine (a highly addictive pain medication) addict, a problem that was to plague him on and off for the rest of his life.

Göring was free of drugs and had healed from his wounds by 1926, but the ordeal had disturbed his glandular system. From then on he remained very fat, and future enemies enjoyed making fun of this condition. The next year Germany excused all political prisoners and Göring returned to his native land.

Change of fortune

By 1927, the Nazi Party had grown large and enjoyed a great deal of support among the German people. Göring, who had not been invited to rejoin Hitler's staff, got a job selling BMW automobiles. Within a year, he became very successful and visible in Berlin's (Germany's capital) social scene. Hitler, now aware of how he could use Göring, selected him to head the ticket of the Nazi Party in the 1928 elections. Although the party lost, Göring was able to prove his popularity. Hitler rewarded him with a handsome salary, and the Görings bought a large house in a desirable district of Berlin.

Over the next four years the Nazi Party grew in political strength, and so did Göring. On January 29, 1933, Germany's president, Paul von Hindenberg, appointed Hitler chancellor. Göring persuaded von Hindenberg that Hitler was the only man who could lead Germany out of its difficult problems caused by the worldwide depression (economic downturn). Göring became the most important minister in Hitler's cabinet.

A political crisis required that a new election be held on March 5, 1933. The Nazis did well, but failed to earn a winning majority. On March 23, through political maneuvering, Göring had many of the Nazis' opponents arrested on questionable grounds. Their absence allowed the Nazis to drum up more than the two-thirds majority vote they needed to have Hitler placed in charge of the government. In June a new law was decreed: "The [Nazi] Party constitutes the only political party in Germany."

That same year, the former political police force was replaced by the secret state police, better known as the Gestapo. Thousands of Germans were arrested for being Jews or Catholics, or because their opinions differed from the Nazis', who put them in concentration camps. The camps were places where the Nazis confined people they regarded as "enemies of the state." Göring was held in contempt by the more brutish Nazis for his "squeamishness" about inflicting pain and suffering on others. He tried unsuccessfully to keep brutality out of the camps where the prisoners were sent. Nevertheless, Göring learned to turn a blind eye to the growing terrorist tactics practiced by the Nazis throughout German society.

With his love of flying, Göring particularly enjoyed being Reichminister of Aviation. As head of the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, he spent the years 1934 through 1936 strengthening the country's air power.

By 1933, the Nazis maintained ultimate power over Germany. Hitler combined the office of president with that of chancellor, making himself head of state as well as commander in chief of the armed forces. He was now dictator of Germany. Göring gathered his senior officers later that day, and all swore allegiance to Hitler.

Loss and remarriage

Göring's wife, Carin, died in 1931 after a long illness, leaving him heartbroken. Northeast of Berlin he built himself a grand mansion named Carin Hall in her honor. Göring, now a collector of fine art, furnished the home with priceless tapestries and paintings. By this time, Göring had begun sporting elaborate costumes, and wearing rouge and expensive colognes.

Beginning in 1933, Göring had a new companion, the German actress Emmy Sonnemann. She became his second wife in 1935 at an elaborate wedding attended by Hitler and other Nazi dignitaries. Emmy gave birth to Göring's daughter, Edda, three years later.

In 1936, Hitler began planning for war, a secret that soon leaked out. His aim was to place all German-speaking peoples outside of Germany's borders under the Nazi flag. Göring, now second in command only to Hitler, was made head of all economic matters. At the height of his powers in 1938 and 1939, Göring presided over the passage of laws reducing the freedom of German citizens and destroying that of the Jews.

Start of war

Germany's attack on Poland in 1939 marked the beginning of World War II. After Germany's quick victory over Poland, Göring was treated as a hero. Germany's war against the West made great gains with the fall of Holland, Belgium, and France in 1940. Hitler granted Göring the title of Reich Marshal and, in a speech, even referred to Göring as his successor.

Loss of favor

Göring was not to remain Hitler's right-hand man for long. During the course of World War II he fell into disfavor with the Führer (pronounced fyoor-uhr and meaning "my leader"), the title Hitler gave to himself, over a variety of issues. As Hitler became unreasonable and increasingly bad tempered, Göring grew disillusioned. When the Nazis started to lose ground in the Soviet Union (Russia), Hitler denied all responsibility. As head of the air force, "I certainly got the blame," Göring was quoted as saying. "From that time on the relationship between the Führer and myself steadily deteriorated." Göring was also held responsible for the declining protection afforded by the Luftwaffe during the massive Allied bombing campaigns against German cities and industries. (The Allies consisted of the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France.) Hitler began to berate Göring and refer to him scornfully. Eventually, Göring assigned most of his duties regarding concentration camps and the Gestapo to various underlings.

By this time, Göring was pessimistic about the war and frightened about his family's fate if Germany lost. He continued to obey the orders of the Führer, but avoided contact with the Nazi leadership as much as possible. Göring now spent most of his time at Carin Hall. When Hitler found out that Carin Hall was being protected by German paratroops, he ordered them to leave. Göring had his most precious possessions packed and taken to Bavaria. In February 1945, he and his aides left in a staff car, and he had Carin Hall destroyed by dynamite.

Arrest and imprisonment

Göring arrived in Obersalzberg, Bavaria, where he set up military headquarters. Hitler was wrongly informed by Göring's enemies that he had launched a coup d'etat (a sudden overthrow of the government by force). Hitler then stripped him of all his titles, and had SS troops arrest Göring and his family at the castle where they were staying. (The SS, an abbreviation for Shutzstaffeln or Security Squad, was Hitler's protection unit.) In April 1945, Hitler committed suicide in order to avoid falling into the hands of Soviet troops who were closing in on his underground bunker. Göring, who by now had been freed, expressed regret that he would never have the chance to convince Hitler of his loyalty.

In May 1945, near the end of the war, Göring was arrested by the Allies. He still believed, however, that he would be able to charm his way back into a comfortable civilian life. At first he received special treatment, including fine food and wine, to encourage him to talk. He condemned Hitler, discussed Nazi policies and procedures at length, and did his best to make his own actions appear favorable to his Allied captors. But he was soon placed in solitary confinement and treated as just another prisoner of war.

In 1946, the Allies put the Nazi criminals publicly on trial in Nuremberg, Germany. The Nuremberg Trials marked the first time in history that a group of victorious powers had established an international court in which they could try their defeated enemies on charges of violations of criminal laws. The Nuremberg Tribunal, as the group of powers was known, made it known that a nation's conduct must be governed by laws even during wartime.

Testifies at Nuremberg

The courtroom was packed on March 13, 1946, the day Göring testified in his own behalf at the Nuremberg Trials. Having lost much of the extra weight that made him almost a comic figure, he appeared handsome and even noble. During his testimony he was initially very nervous, which was betrayed by his shaking hands. But his voice gained strength and confidence with each question he answered.

"He embellished his replies with [witty answers], attracting gales of laughter from the public in the courtroom, then subtly hushed the listeners with some throwaway self-incrimination of apparent sincerity," according to Göring's biographer David Irving. Newspapermen in the courtroom were amazed by his brilliant performance on the stand. One prosecutor commented: "Now you see why he was so popular." One Nazi lawyer commented about him admiringly: "That Göring is quite a guy."

Although arrogant, Göring handled himself very effectively against the U.S. prosecutor, smirking and making clever, sarcastic comments. The bullying British prosecutor did cause Göring to break out into a sweat, however, when he asked why Göring had executed escaped British pilots, and questioned his loyalty to Hitler in the light of the atrocities ordered by Hitler.

Proud of his own performance on the stand, Göring told his fellow defendants: "If you handle yourselves half as well as I did, you'll be doing all right." An attorney for one of the other defendants remarked: "Göring had nothing to lose. That's why he played the part to the very end--with [vigor] and shrewdness.... He won round after round against [the American] ... but he's as self-centered, vain, and pompous as ever."

In his final address to the Nuremberg court, Göring declared: "The German people trusted the Führer. Given his authoritarian direction of the state, [the people] had no influence on events. Ignorant of the crimes of which we know today, the people have fought with loyalty, self-sacrifice, and courage, and they have suffered too in this life-and-death struggle into which they were arbitrarily thrust. The German people are free from blame."

Despite Göring's efforts to justify the rule of the Nazis and his masterful speaking skills, the tribunal found "his guilt ... unique in its enormity" and sentenced him to death by hanging. Göring listened to the verdict stonefaced, but after returning to his cell he fought an emotional breakdown and asked to be left alone. Göring's written request to be executed by a firing squad, in the military tradition, was refused.

At around 11:00 P.M. on October 15, 1946, just a few hours before he was to be hanged, Göring swallowed a dose of poison. He was found dead in his bed within minutes. How he procured the vial of poison remains a mystery. The next day, his body and those of the Nazi criminals who had been hanged the night before were burned in a crematorium. Their ashes were later poured into a muddy gutter.

Göring thought that he would be remembered as a hero in Germany. This never happened. Despite his many outstanding qualities, and his successful efforts to save a number of Jews who were family friends, he was guilty of moral cowardice. "All through his association with Adolf Hitler," Leonard Mosley points out in The Reich Marshal: A Biography of Hermann Göring, "there were moments when he might have changed the course of National Socialism and Germany's race to [hell]--by arguing with and persuading the Führer to begin with, by [seizing power from] him when that was no longer possible."

"Hermann Göring." People of the Holocaust. Gale, 1998. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 29 Mar. 2012.

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