Fighter ace Col. Johannes Steinhoff commanded an elite group of pilots trained to fly the first jet aircraft employed in combat, the famous Messerschmitt Me-262, at a time when Reich Marshal Hermann Gsring, by then out of favor with Hitler for his failure to stop the Allied bombing raids, denounced his own pilots as cowards. After Gsring refused to deploy the Me-262 as a fighter, the role for which it was designed, and instead ordered its use as a bomber, Steinhoff and other senior air leaders devised a plot to depose Gsring from his command of the Luftwaffe in the futile hope of staving off final defeat in the air. The pilots' long-standing disgust with their Reich Marshal's military incompetence and technical dilettantism led to their dangerous intrigue in the fall of 1944. There was an added element of risk as their desperate gamble came in the wake of the July 20 plot against Hitler, the onrushing Allied onslaught, and the general disintegration of the German military and its war effort. Steinhoff crashed while trying to take off in a heavily laden Me-262. The explosion left him badly burned and still in the hospital when the war ended.
From his hospital bed in the summer of 1945, he dictated to a fellow wounded German soldier the account that became The Final Hours. His memories are vivid, painful, and gripping. Free from the years of recrimination and reflection so common in similar works, his tale recounts the pressure of fighting for a lost cause and the intrigue fostered by an unstable command. His account reveals every facet of a remarkable fighter pilot's struggle for survival and provides an excellent case study of the plodding bureaucracy and scheming obscurantism so characteristic of the Third Reich. I first discovered Johannes Steinhoff as a graduate student, preparing a field in World War II. His name kept appearing as one of the gifted warriors who carried the Third Reich on their shoulders for six years. Never did men fight better in a worse cause than did the Germans from 1939 to 1945, and Steinhoff was a paladin. As a fighter pilot he served on every major front and scored 176 aerial victories. He was among the first to fly jets in combat, serving with the famous "Squadron of Experts" in the war's final days. He had been decorated with the Knight's Cross with Swords and Oak Leaves.
While his awards might have been bestowed by a criminal regime, the skill and bravery they recognized were no less real for that. There was also a certain karmic irony in someone often called "the handsomest man in the Luftwaffe" having his face burned off in a crash just at the end of the war, eventually emerging from years of restorative surgery with a gargoyle mask that was mostly scar tissue. It required little imagination to interpret Johannes Steinhoff as a symbol of Germany itself: disfigured by its past, permanently marked for everyone to see. I regularly suggested the trope to my classes, and considered myself a clever young professor indeed. It required no more research than reading German newspapers to discover that Johannes Steinhoff was more than a symbol of a vanished regime and a lost war. When the newly-established Federal Republic of Germany began considering recreating its armed forces as part of its reintegration into an emerging Western Alliance, Steinhoff was among the first veterans consulted.
He had won general respect for his integrity, and for his willingness to challenge openly what he considered the disastrously mistaken operational decisions of Hitler and his lieutenant, Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goring. Initially reluctant, like many of his counterparts, to consider putting on a uniform once more, Steinhoff finally decided that he might after all be able to contribute directly to creating a new Germany. It would not be a Germany of power and conquest like its Imperial and National Socialist predecessors. Nor would it be the "Holy Germany," a beacon to the nations, of which resisters like Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg had dreamed. This Germany would be a state and a people among others, committed to a common European and Atlantic enterprise. Resisting the ideological and military challenges of the Soviet Union was merely a first step towards the eventual construction of a community of free peoples, linked by mutual interests and mutual respect. He saw German-American relations as the cornerstone of that enterprise.
Johannes Steinhoff became one of the founding fathers of a new Luftwaffe, whose officers and men served a democracy in the context of the NATO Alliance. He eventually rose to be its Inspector-General, then as Chairman of the Military Commission of NATO, retiring as a four-star general. Neither he nor his pilots ever fired a shot in anger. In his later years, Steinhoff described that as the aspect of his career of which he was most proud. I learned that during our collaboration on a book titled Voices from the Third Reich. In 1985, President Ronald Reagan made international headlines by standing alongside German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to commemorate German war dead at Bitburg, in a cemetery including some graves of SS men. General Steinhoff, by then retired, attended the ceremony, and was shaken by the negative reactions it evoked in Europe and the United States. Johannes had told his own wartime story, in The Straits of Messina and this volume, The Final Hours. But he believed there was a larger story to tell: the story of the German people, especially the generation that had fought World War II in the front lines.
After Bitburg it was especially important for him that Americans come to understand the complex web of circumstances and principles that brought Adolf Hitler to power and held Germany in his thrall until nothing remained. To tell the story, Johannes decided he needed an American collaborator. By then I was teaching at Colorado College. Johannes's son-in-law was also on the faculty, in a different department, and the General and I had met casually a couple of times. When his daughter suggested "What about Dennis?" he was willing to consider it. We met, talked, and came to a quick agreement. For me it was the start of an adventure. "We'll be working in each others' pockets for a long time," Johannes told me. "I want someone who can discuss more than today's newspaper." It didn't take me long to discover that the general was a man of Bildung, of cultivation, in the best sense of that distinctively German concept. He was widely, indeed universally, read, in history, literature, and philosophy. He sympathized with my ignorance of Greek and Latin. He was an accomplished amateur artist. And well into his seventies he could pull Gs in an F-4 Phantom jet.
It was not a combination of characteristics usually found in an American senior officer, to say the least! Wherever we went in Germany as we worked on the project, General Steinhoff was recognized and respected. "My face is hard to forget," he would joke. But it was his personality that made the impression. Whether interviewing veterans and survivors of the war, talking with men who served with him in the Bundeswehr, or acknowledging seekers of an autograph or a handshake in a restaurant, Johannes stood out. He was no shrinking violet. He enjoyed the attention and he knew his worth. But he did not need to seek center stage. The spotlight sought him For many of his countrymen, on all points of the political spectrum, Johannes Steinhoff epitomized the "new Germany" of the Federal Republic. Conscious of the past, he had learned from it, without either obsessing on or forgetting his part in it. His memories were never self-protective. "I was part of a generation," he would say, "that was raised on the myths of patriotism and sacrifice. Hitler appealed to those myths, and led us to destruction. Never forget that the German people followed him.
But never forget that Hitler's Reich lasted twelve years, while Germany's history spans a thousand." He had no use for the argument that German culture or the German people were somehow inherently flawed. "People can learn, and grow, and change. The challenge is never to stop living, even if at times you lose your way" Johannes never stopped living and kept looking forward until the day of his death. To call him a great man would be to inspire his laughter." Heroes and martyrs are always scarce. Love your country and stand for truth. That's the best one can do." But Johannes Steinhoff was a remarkable man. As a young pilot he epitomized courage and honor, at a time when courage was too often betrayed and honor too often mocked. In his later years he stood for Western culture and Atlantic civilization even when both concepts fell out of fashion. Readers of The Final Hours will respond n a variety of ways - but never with indifference. - Dennis E. Showalter, Ph.D.