The Mistaken Allied Demand of Germany’s Unconditional Surrender
The European wars prior to World War II had traditionally ended in negotiations between the victor and vanquished. For example, all of the 15 wars which Great Britain had participated in between the end of the 16th century and 1943 ended in negotiated settlements. The announcement in January 1943 at the Casablanca Conference that the United States and Great Britain would accept nothing less than the unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers ended this tradition.
This article documents that the Allied demand of unconditional surrender was a mistaken policy that prolonged the war, cost millions of lives, and allowed the Soviet Union to take control of Eastern Europe.
The Casablanca Conference was a military meeting that convened on January 14, 1943. Although the war had turned perceptibly in favor of the Allies, the end of World War II was not in sight. The American and British military leaders met at Casablanca to determine how victory could best be achieved. These military leaders were concerned primarily with the strategic means of obtaining military victory, and not with political ends.
The major work of the meetings at Casablanca involved ironing out disagreements between the British and Americans. Some of these disagreements included: 1) the relative importance of the war in the Pacific as opposed to the war in Europe; 2) the control and ending of Germany’s U-boat menace; 3) the dispute between the rival Free French generals, Charles de Gaulle and Henri Giraud; 4) the conduct of future operations in the Mediterranean; 5) the method and scope of the bombing offensive against Germany; and 6) the decision of where and when to launch a second front invasion against Germany. The Americans and British were divided on their answers to almost all of these questions.
Considering the importance of these issues, the question of whether or not to demand the unconditional surrender of the Axis Powers seemed a minor issue. At the end of the Casablanca Conference, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt announced that peace could come only by the elimination of German and Japanese war potential. Roosevelt said that the unconditional surrender of Germany, Italy and Japan would bring about a reasonable assurance of world peace. In this informal way, the policy of unconditional surrender was endorsed by both British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt.
Roosevelt and Churchill later maintained that the press conference announcement by Roosevelt demanding unconditional surrender had been a spontaneous remark. However, the unconditional surrender phrase was discussed at a meeting of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington as early as January 7, 1943. Roosevelt and his immediate circle had apparently proposed the idea of unconditional surrender to the American Joint Chiefs of Staff and later to Churchill.
Robert Sherwood wrote that the notes which President Roosevelt carried to the press conference contained a paragraph demanding the unconditional surrender of Germany, Italy and Japan. Sherwood concluded that the demand for unconditional surrender was “very deeply deliberated” and “a true statement of Roosevelt’s considered policy.” Roosevelt to the day of his death refused all suggestions that he retract or soften his unconditional surrender statement.
Churchill also fully supported the policy of unconditional surrender. He told the House of Commons on May 24, 1944: “The principle of unconditional surrender will be adhered to so far as Nazi Germany and Japan are concerned, and that principle itself wipes away the danger of anything like Mr. Wilson’s Fourteen Points being brought up by the Germans after their defeat, claiming that they surrendered in consideration of them…” Churchill in this statement failed to acknowledge that criticism of Wilson’s Fourteen Points was caused by the failure of the Allies to incorporate these promised Fourteen Points in the Versailles Treaty with Germany.
Prolonging the War
A peaceful settlement of the war was impossible after the announcement of the Allied policy of unconditional surrender at the press conference in Casablanca on January 24, 1943. The Allied policy of unconditional surrender ensured that the war would be fought to its bitter end. Maurice Hankey, an experienced British statesman, summed up the effects of the unconditional surrender policy as follows:
It embittered the war, rendered inevitable a fight to the finish, banged the door to the possibility of either side offering terms or opening up negotiations, gave the Germans and the Japanese the courage of despair, strengthened Hitler’s position as Germany’s “only hope,” aided Goebbels’s propaganda, and made inevitable the Normandy landing and the subsequent terribly exhausting and destructive advance through North France, Belgium, Luxemburg, Holland and Germany. The lengthening of the war enabled Stalin to occupy the whole of Eastern Europe, to ring down the iron curtain and so to realize at one swoop a large installment of his avowed aims against so-called capitalism, in which he includes social democracy…Not only the enemy countries, but nearly all countries were bled white by this policy, which has left us all, except the United States of America, impoverished and in dire straits. Unfortunately, also, these policies, so contrary to the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, did nothing to strengthen the moral position of the Allies.
Even many people who strongly supported America’s entry into World War II were critical of the Allied policy of unconditional surrender. For example, journalist Dorothy Thompson said her “profound alienation” with Allied policy began in January 1943, when Roosevelt and Churchill announced their policy of unconditional surrender by the Axis Powers. She regarded this demand as “a barbarity,” “an absurdity,” and “an insanity.” Thompson was convinced to the end of her life that this Allied policy prolonged the war by at least a year, since it deprived “the forces in Germany that were anxious for peace” of any possible means of achieving it.
Josef Stalin also did not originally approve of the unconditional surrender policy adopted by Roosevelt and Churchill. A memorandum written on Stalin’s views about unconditional surrender at the Teheran Conference in November 1943 stated:
As a war time measure Marshal Stalin questioned the advisability of the unconditional surrender principle with no definition of the exact terms which would be imposed upon Germany. He felt that to leave the principle of unconditional surrender unclarified merely served to unite the German people, whereas to draw up specific terms, no matter how harsh, and tell the German people that this was what they would have to accept, would, in his opinion, hasten the day of German capitulation.
British historian Liddell Hart interviewed many of the leading German military figures and found them in agreement that the Allied policy of unconditional surrender prolonged the war. The German generals said that without the unconditional surrender policy they and their troops—the factor that was more important—would have been ready to surrender sooner, separately or collectively.
German Field Marshall Erich von Manstein said that the Allied demand “naturally lengthened the war. This was the surest means to weld the Germans to the Hitler regime.” German Adm. Karl Doenitz also stated unequivocally that the Allied demand for unconditional surrender precluded the possibility of any peace by negotiation. Doenitz regarded the Allied demand for unconditional surrender as an impregnable barrier to peace at a date earlier than May of 1945.
German Gen. Heinz Guderian was even more outspoken: “The demand for ‘unconditional surrender’ certainly contributed to the destruction of every hope in Germany for a reasonable peace. This was true not only for the Wehrmacht and for the Generals, but also for the whole people.” Guderian further wrote about the Allied demand for unconditional surrender:
The effect of this brutal formula on the German nation and, above all, on the Army was great. The soldiers, at least, were convinced from now on that our enemies had decided on the utter destruction of Germany, that they were no longer fighting—as Allied propaganda at the time alleged—against Hitler and so-called Nazism, but against their efficient, and therefore dangerous, rivals for the trade of the world.
Effect on Resistance Movement
The demand of unconditional surrender by the Allies was a serious deterrent to the growth and morale of the resistance movement in Germany. The German underground resistance made numerous attempts to secure a reasonable agreement concerning peace terms before launching their efforts to usurp the National-Socialist regime. The Allies consistently refused to offer any sort of peace terms to the German resistance movement.
For example, Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the German intelligence service the Abwehr, continued to search for an early peaceful settlement to the war after the Casablanca Conference. Recognizing that what governments say and what they do are often quite different, Canaris opened up negotiations with the Americans on a number of fronts. Canaris continued his secret contact with Sir Stewart Menzies, the head of the British Secret Intelligence Service. The Abwehr also pursued whatever possibilities were presented in countries as diverse as Istanbul, the Vatican, the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland. However, all of Canaris’ and the Abwehr’s efforts to obtain peace terms from the Allies failed.
British Maj. Gen. J. F. C. Fuller in his book The Second World War wrote that the war had reached its climacteric following the battle of Stalingrad and the collapse of the Africa Korps. In the spring of 1943, the initiative of war had passed to the Allies. Fuller wrote that the Western Allies should have determined the sort of peace they wanted to conclude and seized the psychological advantage by announcing a compromise settlement which would appeal to the German people. Had such terms been announced, the attempted assassination of Hitler might have occurred a full year earlier and probably would have been successful. Fuller wrote: “Had this happened, then National Socialism would have been destroyed by the will of the German people, and replaced by the ideals of the Atlantic Charter.”
The leaders of the German resistance movement discovered that the Allied policy of unconditional surrender would not change even with Hitler dead. On July 18, 1944, conspirator Otto John returned from fruitless negotiations with Allied representatives in Madrid and informed his fellow plotters that unconditional surrender would be in place even if they succeeded in killing Hitler. German staff officer Henning von Tresckow, who described Hitler as “a mad dog that has to be put down,” also learned that Hitler’s death would have no influence on the Allies’ war effort.
Dr. Eugen Gerstenmaier, a former conspirator and president of the West German Parliament after the war, stated in a 1975 interview:
“What we in the German resistance during the war did not want to see, we learned in full measure afterward; that this war was ultimately not waged against Hitler, but against Germany.”
The Soviet Union also used every opportunity to exploit the German resistance movement in order to destroy Germany and bring about Communism in Central Europe. After the failed assassination attempt of Hitler on July 20, 1944, Moscow radio broadcast a tribute to the conspirators by German Gen. Walter von Seydlitz. Seydlitz said: “Courageous men rose against Hitler. They have thus given the signal for the salvation of Germany…Generals, officers, soldiers! Cease fire at once and turn your arms against Hitler. Do not fail these courageous men.”
German Maj. Gen. Otto Ernst Remer, who helped prevent the coup attempt, wrote more objectively about the failed assassination attempt of Hitler:
No one needs to ask what would have happened if the July 20, 1944, undertaking had succeeded. The German eastern front, which at that time was involved in extremely serious defensive battles, would undoubtedly have collapsed as a result of the civil war that inevitably would have broken out, and the attendant interruption of supplies…A collapse of the eastern front, however, would not only have meant the deportation of further millions of German soldiers into the death camps of Russian captivity, but would also have prevented the evacuation of countless women and children who lived in the eastern territories of the Reich, or who had been evacuated to those areas as a result of the terror attacks from the air by the western Allies.
Soviet Control of Eastern Europe
The Allied policy of unconditional surrender prolonged the war and allowed the Soviet Union to take over Eastern Europe. Within a remarkably short period of time, the Soviet Union ruthlessly subjected Eastern Europe to its totalitarian control. The Red Army brought Moscow-trained secret policemen into every Soviet occupied country, put local communists in control of the national media, and dismantled youth groups and other civic organizations. The Soviets also brutally arrested, murdered and deported people whom they believed to be anti-Soviet, and enforced a policy of ethnic cleansing.
On March 5, 1946, less than 10 months after the defeat of Germany, Winston Churchill made his dramatic Iron Curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri. Churchill stated in this speech: “A shadow has fallen upon the scenes so lately lighted by the Allied victory…The Communist parties, which were very small in all these Eastern states of Europe, have been raised to pre-eminence and power far beyond their numbers and are seeking everywhere to obtain totalitarian control.” Churchill thus acknowledged that the Soviet Union had obtained control of Eastern Europe. A war allegedly fought for democracy and freedom had turned into a nightmare for the people of the Eastern European nations.
The Allied policy of unconditional surrender was not the only factor which allowed the Soviet Union to take over Eastern Europe. American Gen. George Patton was held back by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and the Joint Chiefs of Staff from conquering all of Germany. On May 8, 1945, the day the war in Europe officially ended, Patton spoke his mind in an “off the record” press briefing. With tears in his eyes, Patton recalled those “who gave their lives in what they believed was the final fight in the cause of freedom.” Patton continued:
I wonder how [they] will speak today when they know that for the first time in centuries, we have opened Central and Western Europe to the forces of Genghis Khan. I wonder how they feel now that they know there will be no peace in our times and that Americans, some not yet born, will have to fight the Russians tomorrow, or 10, 15 or 20 years from tomorrow. We have spent the last months since the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine stalling; waiting for Montgomery to get ready to attack in the North; occupying useless real estate and killing a few lousy Huns when we should have been in Berlin and Prague. And this Third Army could have been. Today we should be telling the Russians to go to hell instead of hearing them tell us to pull back. We should be telling them if they didn’t like it to go to hell and invite them to fight. We’ve defeated one aggressor against mankind and established a second far worse, more evil and more dedicated than the first.
The Allied policy of unconditional surrender also led to one of the great tragedies of the 20th century–the forced expulsion of ethnic eastern Germans from their homes after World War II. This Allied policy of ethnic cleansing probably constituted the largest forced population transfer in human history. A minimum of 12 million and possibly as many as 18.1 million Germans were driven from their homes because of their ethnic background. Probably 2.1 million or more of these German expellees, mostly women and children, died in what was supposed to be an “orderly and humane” expulsion.
Gen. Heinz Guderian commented on this ethnic cleansing of Germans: “Was it not atrocious so to treat the population of Eastern Germany? Was it not unjust?” This is why Guderian and other German military leaders concluded that the war had to be fought to its bitter end.
The Allied demand of unconditional surrender was a mistaken policy that prolonged World War II, resulted in the deaths of millions of additional people, and allowed the Soviet Union to take control of Eastern Europe. British Maj. Gen. J. F. C. Fuller wrote about unconditional surrender:
What did these two words imply? First, that because no great power could with dignity or honor to itself, its history, its people and their posterity comply with them, the war must be fought to the point of annihilation. Therefore, it would take upon itself a religious character and bring to life again all the horrors of the wars of religion. For Germany it was to become a question of salvation or damnation. Secondly, once victory had been won, the balance of power within Europe and between European nations would be irrevocably smashed. Russia would be left the greatest military power in Europe, and, therefore, would dominate Europe. Consequently, the peace these words predicted was the replacement of Nazi tyranny by an even more barbaric despotism.
 Armstrong, Anne, Unconditional Surrender: The Impact of the Casablanca Policy upon World War II, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1961, pp. 14-15.
 Ibid., pp. 7-8.
 Ibid., pp. 8-9.
 Ibid., pp. 10-11.
 Ibid., pp. 11-12.
 Sherwood, Robert E., Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History, New York: 2nd ed., Harper & Brothers, 1950, pp. 696-697.
 Chamberlain, William Henry, America’s Second Crusade, Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, Inc., p. 299.
 Hankey, Maurice Pascal Alers, Politics, Trials and Errors, Chicago: Regnery, 1950, pp. 125-126.
 Kurth, Peter, American Cassandra: The Life of Dorothy Thompson, Toronto: Little, Brown and Company, 1990, p. 364.
 Sherwood, Robert E., Roosevelt and Hopkins: An Intimate History, New York: 2nd ed., Harper & Brothers, 1950, pp. 782-783.
 Armstrong, Anne, Unconditional Surrender: The Impact of the Casablanca Policy upon World War II, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1961, pp. 137-138.
 Ibid., pp. 139, 147.
 Ibid., p. 141.
 Guderian, Heinz, Panzer Leader, London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1952, p. 284.
 Armstrong, Anne, Unconditional Surrender: The Impact of the Casablanca Policy upon World War II, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1961, p. 219.
 Bassett, Richard, Hitler’s Spy Chief, New York: Pegasus Books, 2012, pp. 262-264, 274.
 Fuller, J. F. C., The Second World War 1939-45: A Strategic and Tactical History, New York: Meredith Press, 1968, pp. 257-258.
 Tedor, Richard, Hitler’s Revolution, Chicago: 2013, p. 257.
 Armstrong, Anne, Unconditional Surrender: The Impact of the Casablanca Policy upon World War II, New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1961, p. 209.
 Remer, Otto Ernst, “Remer Speaks,” The Journal of Historical Review, Jan./Feb. 1998, Vol. 17, No. 1, p. 9.
 Applebaum, Anne, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, New York: Doubleday, 2012, pp. 192-193.
 Wilcox, Robert K., Target: Patton, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2008, pp. 331-332.
 Dietrich, John, The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet Influence on American Postwar Policy, New York: Algora Publishing, 2002, p. 137.
 Guderian, Heinz, Panzer Leader, London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1952, p. 285.
 Fuller, J. F. C., The Second World War 1939-45: A Strategic and Tactical History, New York: Meredith Press, 1968, p. 259.