Unconditional Surrender: Questioning FDR’s Prerequisite for Peace

Posted on January 23, 2013
By Agostino Von Hassell and Sigrid Macrae

At a cluster of sunny villas near Casablanca, the Anglo-American Allies gathered in January 1943 to discuss how to end what was beginning to look like a war that might be won, and what should come after it. Roosevelt, about to make an announcement, introduced it with a characteristically jaunty story about the American Civil War general U. S. Grant. For a time, he said, the general had been known as “Unconditional Surrender Grant,” and it had occurred to him that this formula might be just the thing—the proper way to end the war. In his view, this would placate the absent Stalin, whose armies had been staggering valiantly along a seemingly endless front for well over a year and were now engaged in a grim tooth-and-nail battle at Stalingrad. Russia was hemorrhaging, and Stalin had too many pressing worries to come to Casablanca, but allaying his suspicions and impatience about the anticipated opening of a second front by the western Allies was critical.

When FDR tossed “unconditional surrender” on the table, Churchill was stunned. He and the president had bandied about various ideas for ending the war, but as far as Churchill knew, nothing had been decided. The prime minister later confessed to Eden that he had no desire to fuse the enemy into a solid, desperate block. In his opinion, any crack in Axis unity “would be all to the good.” But he choked back his reservations, and unconditional surrender became the Allied prerequisite for peace.


Stalin recognized unconditional surrender as an opportunity. The war was beginning to wind down, and he was eager to expand his influence over postwar Germany. His means to this end was a group of German communists living in exile in Russia, and German prisoners of war calling themselves the Free Germany Committee. They wanted an overthrow of Hitler, the cessation of military operations, and peace negotiations, preferably with a pro-Soviet slant. An offshoot of the Free Germany Committee in the USSR was the Bund Deutscher Offiziere—German Officers’ League, many of whom had been captured at Stalingrad. Headed by General Walther von der Seydlitz-Kurzbach, they were driven by a conviction of a strong Russian and German community of interest and an enormous respect for the power and resilience of the Red Army that went back to the 1922 program of cooperation and reciprocal training agreed on at Rapallo.

Within months, Roosevelt’s placatory posture toward Stalin at Casablanca was reinforced. In April, German troops discovered a mass grave in the forest of Katyn near Smolensk. It held the moldering bodies of what were estimated to be 10,000 Polish officers who had surrendered to the Russians in 1940. The Germans accused the Russians; the Russians insisted it was the work of German hands. The White House took a firm stand; it had all the hallmarks of a Nazi operation and the president decried it as such.

A German investigation of 1943 predictably blamed the Russians for the massacre. The Polish government-in-exile in London tried to get the Red Cross to investigate almost immediately, but then put together a report based on documents and reports smuggled out of Poland. U.S. Colonel Henry Szymanski had worked with the Poles on the report, and felt that it contained “too much dynamite to be forwarded through regular channels,” so he had it hand delivered to army intelligence in Washington. Roosevelt was sent the report on August 11, 1943.

The conclusion that Katyn was Stalin’s handiwork was deeply uncomfortable for the western Allies. Committed as they were to the Grand Alliance, there could be no question of severing ties with Stalin at this juncture. Everyone needed to keep Stalin pacified. Yet it appeared that they were in bed with a mass murderer, guilty of precisely the sort of thing for which the Nazis were excoriated. FDR saw both reports but opted for a policy of Rooseveltian silence. Stalin must be retained as a future ally against Japan; he would do whatever was necessary to buttress the cozy entente with the Soviets that he imagined was in the cards. The report spent the rest of the war warehoused in a file cabinet outside of Washington. The British expressed considerable qualms, but also preferred to look the other way. It was one of many triumphs of political expediency over morals.

Ironically, the formula of unconditional surrender was destined to become an enormous impediment to finding peace, and exacted a very heavy price. Across the spectrum of combatants it unleashed a range of responses. Within Germany, Goebbels was jubilant, claiming he could never have dreamt up a more effective strategy to persuade the doomed Germans to fight to the last breath. Canaris, fatalistic as always, could see no solution whatsoever. Kleist-Schmenzin was vitriolic: Both Hitler and Roosevelt should have their own personal vats in which to boil in hell.

In the Allied ranks, too, there was concern. In time, generals George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower figured among its critics. Eisenhower hoped to persuade both Churchill and Roosevelt to soften the policy—and German resistance on the beachheads—before D-Day, but Roosevelt was adamant. Donovan and Menzies recognized that it created difficulties for their intelligence operations and was a stumbling block to peace, but both were powerless to change it. England’s Bishop Bell, long a supporter of the German opposition, questioned it. Lord Hankey, a close Churchill advisor, saw the formula as creating “icy waters.” The pope had his own doubts, and though General Beck knew that times had changed, he sent Joseph Mtiller on another Vatican mission to try again to establish contact with the British. Stalin, for whom Roosevelt had presumably custom-tailored the formula, had never equated Hitler’s crew with Germany as a whole; he began to send out feelers to both Hitler and the “other Germany.”

Allen Dulles was newly established in Bern when the Allied stance jelled at Casablanca. Initially he thought that the demand might benefit the Allies psychologically. But his clandestine network of anti-Nazis poured into Bern, arguing bitterly that the policy offered no encouragement to either the opposition or the general population. For Germans, unconditional surrender meant that there was nothing but total destruction and humiliation in store for them from any quarter—other than possibly the Russians.

Goebbels’s propaganda was shrieking that all Germany would be enslaved; there was no alternative but to fight to the bitter end. Dulles quickly changed his mind.

He came to agree with the opposition that Goebbels had been handed an extraordinary coup. Backing the nation into this cul de sac could only prolong the war. He also knew about the stab-in-the-back theory promulgated by conservatives after Versailles—namely that Germany had not really lost the war militarily, but that revolutionaries and democrats on the home front had stabbed the army in the back. Generals Hindenburg and Ludendorff had an interest in camouflaging the German defeat, and blamed it on insufficiently patriotic factions on the home front. Hitler had exploited this theory expertly.


Excerpted from Alliance of Enemies: The Untold Story of the Secret American and German Collaboration to End World War II by Agostino von Hassell and Sigrid MacRae, with Simone Ameskamp.

Copyright © 2006 by Agostino von Hassell.

Reprinted with permission from Thomas Dunne Books.

AGOSTINO VON HASSELL has written about the U.S. Marine Corps, West Point, and military food. He taught classes on counterterrorism with a heavy emphasis on intelligence issues at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He runs a consulting group in New York engaged in national security issues and trade problems. His grandfather Ulrich von Hassell was one of the participants in the July 20, 1944, plot.

SIGRID MACRAE graduated from Columbia University and has been an editor and translator. She writes on history and art.