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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Hermann Goering Commits Suicide, October 15, 1946

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Today in 1946, Hermann Goering died after taking poison. He was due to be executed the next day for war crimes. His actions brought to an end the life of the man who stood by the side of Adolf Hitler for twenty years and helped put in motion the events that would lead to the Holocaust.

Goering was born in Bavaria in January, 1893. He was one of five children born into a family whose father was a professional soldier and governor to German West Africa. Goering spent most of his childhood living with family members while his parents were oversea. Like his father, Goering pursued a career in the military and was commissioned an officer in the Prussian Army in June, 1912.

Goering spent the first year of World War One serving with an infantry regiment. He was soon hospitalized, but fortune smiled upon him when he met up with a friend who talked him into joining the German Luftwaffe, or air force. Goering followed his friend into the skies, serving as an observer on reconnaissance and bombing missions until June, 1915, when he entered training to become a pilot.

Goering was assigned to his first squadron in October, 1915, but was shot down and spent the next year recovering from his injuries. In February, 1917, he was deemed ready again for combat. Over the next year and a half he served with four squadrons, racking up 21 kills. In July, 1918, he was made the commander of “The Red Baron” Manfred von Richtofen’s old squadron, a move that was controversial because Goering apparently was not well liked by the other pilots. Although he finished the war with 22 kills, he was never invited to the unit’s post-war reunions.

Goering joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and quickly rose to a position of leadership. He became a member of the Reichstag in 1928 and served as the parliamentary body’s president from 1932-1933. He played a key role in the events which led to the complete takeover of German government by the Nazi Party. It was later claimed that he had taken responsibility for the Reichstag fire of 1933, but this was never proven. He served in various positions over the next two years as the regime consolidated it’s grip on Germany.

In 1935, Goering was made head of the Luftwaffe and in 1938 became that service’s first Field Marshal. He was now firmly ensconced in Hitler’s inner circle, so much so that Hitler made him his appointed successor in 1940 and created a special rank for him, Reichsmarschall. This military title made him the superior of everyone in the German military except Hitler, regardless of branch.

Goering did not believe Germany was ready for war in 1939 and, more specifically, he did not think his Luftwaffe was yet a match for Britain’s Royal Air Force. But once the war started on September 1st of that year, Goering threw himself into the effort. The Luftwaffe scored some impressive early victories and by May, 1940, German troops were marching through Paris and plans were underway for an invasion of the British Isles. Goering was at the peak of his career.

The first chink in the armor of German invincibility occurred during the Battle of Britain, when the fighter pilots of England turned back the numerically superior and better-armed Luftwaffe. This marked Hitler’s first defeat, and he blamed Goering. For his part, Goering decided it was best to lay low for a while. He retired to his enormous country estate to hunt and wait for a better day.

Goering’s next chance to show his air force’s mettle came during Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941. Goering had tried to talk Hitler out of the invasion, but when that failed he once again threw himself at the task. After initial successes, the invasion bogged down across a 2,000 mile front and Germany faced a war the likes of which the world had never seen. The Luftwaffe could not maintain offensive momentum during the campaign and, as the situation grew worse, proved unable to supply surrounded German forces from the air. What made Goering’s shaky position with Hitler worse was his tendency to make bold declarations about the abilities of the forces under his command and then not deliver.

As the war dragged on and Germany’s fortunes began to wane, Goering became a more and more unpopular figure. He had always had money, but during the war he had priceless works of art plundered and brought to him to display in his personal galleries. While most of the population of Germany lived hand-to-mouth, Goering lived like an emperor. Fascination with his hedonistic lifestyle soon turned to resentment.

One of Goering’s last acts as an official of the Third Reich came on April 23, 1945 as the Red Army encircled Berlin. He telelgraphed officials in the capital from his hideout and proposed that, since Hitler was trapped, he should assume leadership of the nation. Hitler flew into a rage over this suggestion and charged Goering with treason. He ordered him arrested, strip of his rank and membership in the Nazi Party. On paper, at least, Hermann Goering was a common citizen when he surrendered to Allied forces in Austria on May 8th.

Goering was put on trial during the famous Nuremberg Trials for his association with what Nazi officials called “the final solution to the Jewish question.” Goering was the highest German official whose signature actually appeared on documents ordering the mass murder of six million people. While Hitler had certainly given Goering verbal orders to this end, his signature appeared nowhere and it mattered little since he did not survive the war.

Goering was sentenced to death by hanging. He asked to be shot by a firing squad as a soldier, but the court demanded that he receive the same treatment as a common criminal. The night before the penalty was to be carried out, he committed suicide by ingesting a potassium cyanide capsule. How he got ahold of a capsule while in confinement remains a mystery to this day.

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