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This week in history: Nazi official killed in plane crash

On Feb. 8, 1942, in the middle of Adolf Hitler's Russian campaign in World War II, Fritz Todt, the German minister for armaments, died in a plane crash. The crash occurred not long after a meeting with Hitler, and the minister's death remains shrouded in mystery.

Todt had been a successful Munich civil engineer and member of the Nazi Party since 1923. His vision of creating a vast, modern road network throughout Germany as a means to combat unemployment attracted the attention of Hitler, and the Führer appointed him inspector general for the Establishment of a National Motorway Enterprise in June 1933. During the 1938 Munich crisis, Hitler ordered Todt to begin fortifying the Siegfried Line in the west, and not long after Hitler began to refer to Todt's army of planners and workers as the Organization Todt. In March 1940, Hitler decided to put the creation of Germany's disparate industrial war goods production under a centralized authority, appointing Todt his armaments minister.

In the essay, “Fritz Todt: From Motorway Builder to Minister of State,” historian Franz Seidler wrote: “The appointment of a national minister for weapons and munitions … fulfilled one of Hitler's long-cherished desires. He had wanted to centralize the production of munitions as early as 1939 on the basis of his perceptions of the first world war. … He chose neither an officer nor an armaments expert, but Fritz Todt.”

Only too aware of his limited background and experience when it came to armaments, Todt took to his new duties with professionalism, but little élan. He soon gained respect, however, both in military and industrial circles by reconciling the needs of the one with the abilities of the other.

Two problems plagued Todt's work, however. First of all, as the war dragged on, more and more workers were being conscripted into the army, leading to a vast manpower shortage, and Todt had to find ways to do more with less. Second, Hitler's priorities continually shifted. The Führer was notorious for changing his mind as events played out on the battlefields of Europe, demanding increasing production of tanks one day, fighter planes the next and U-boats the day after. Each change in industrial direction required herculean efforts of logistical work for Todt and his team.

With Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the character of the war changed considerably. For the remainder of World War II in Europe, roughly four-fifths of the Wehrmacht would be engaged fighting Russians. (This is how, in June 1944, the Western Allies could successfully land an army in France. Had the full power of Hitler's war machine been in Western Europe, there is no way the U.S. and Britain could have been successful at D-Day).

Though the Russian campaign had enjoyed considerable early success, by December 1941 the offensive had stalled before Moscow. For the fist time since the beginning of the war in September 1939, Hitler's Wehrmacht had been stopped by the enemy. Before long, the Soviets counter-attacked and began to push the Wehrmacht back. Early 1942 saw the Germans preparing for another great push against the Soviets with the intention of finishing what they had started the previous summer.

Todt, however, began to doubt Germany's ability to win the war. “Only a few men in the leadership of the Third Reich understood Germany's economic inadequacies as well as Todt did,” Seidler wrote. With the United States now an active belligerent in the war, and its industrial capacity not only meeting its own needs, but subsidizing both Britain's and the USSR's, Germany was far outmatched in terms of production. Todt believed his duty was to inform the Führer of his conclusions, though Hitler also famously ignored information that conflicted with his preconceived beliefs.

The two men met on Feb. 7, 1942, at Hitler's eastern front headquarters near Rastenburg, East Prussia, to discuss the most recent war production figures. No detailed record of their meeting exists, though witnesses claim they had a heated exchange, almost certainly over Todt's presentation of the fact that Germany could not outproduce its enemies.

Todt was not the only important figure in the government at Rastenberg that day. Before the war Albert Speer had been Hitler's architect and had designed the new chancellery building in Berlin. Additionally, Speer enjoyed a unique relationship with Hitler. A failed artist, Hitler was drawn to Speer's architectural gifts and provided rough designs of buildings for the younger man to realize. In later life, Speer claimed that if Hitler had been capable of true friendship, he would have been his best friend.

Speer was stopping off to meet with Hitler on his way back to Berlin after inspecting railroad lines in Russia, part of his wartime brief. According to Speer's memoir, “Inside the Third Reich,” he and Todt enjoyed a drink after Todt's meeting with Hitler. Speer could sense the other man's frustration, and Todt informed him that he was heading back to Germany the next day. Speer agreed to catch a ride with the armaments minister.

Speer then met with Hitler, and the two men discussed the railroads in Russia. The conversation between the two devolved, as it usually did, into discussions of architecture, and Hitler insisted on keeping Speer up late. By the time Speer turned in, he told the orderly to inform Todt that he would not be joining him back to Germany. The architect wanted to sleep in.

Early the next morning, Feb. 8, 1942, Todt boarded his Heinkel III bound for Munich. Shortly after takeoff, the plane plunged toward the ground and crashed, killing all on board.

While having breakfast not long after, Speer noted that he and Hitler discussed who Todt's successor should be. As though acting from inspiration, Hitler appointed Speer Germany's new minister for armaments. Speer, who claimed to be flabbergasted, protested. Hitler, however, insisted, citing his full confidence in Speer's ability to master the new assignment.

Hermann Goering arrived soon after and offered to take on Todt's responsibilities in addition to the manifold duties he already held. Hitler's designated successor since 1939, Goering was a man of insatiable ambition who didn't mind stepping over corpses to get what he wanted. The post of armaments minister would have fit well with his overall command of the economy as head of Germany's Four Year Plan. Speer, it appeared, had foiled this particular ambition.

Speer wrote in his memoirs: “At first Hitler seemed to treat Todt's death with the stoic calm of a man who must reckon with such incidents as part of the general picture. Without citing any evidence, he expressed the suspicion, during the first few days, that foul play might have been involved and that he was going to have the secret service look into the matter. This view, however, soon gave way to an irritable and often distinctly nervous reaction whenever the subject was mentioned in his presence.”

The Reich Air Ministry ruled that the plane crash was not caused by sabotage, though Speer seemed to question the findings. Certainly many people questioned the crash, and suspected that foul play did indeed play a part.

One theory suggests that Hermann Goering, seeking Todt's duties to increase his own power, had Todt's plane sabotaged. As head of the Air Ministry, it is conceivable that Goering could have ordered his underlings to plant a bomb on the aircraft. Another theory is that Hitler's secretary, Martin Bormann, had Todt killed. Bormann and Todt had frequently butted heads over access to Hitler. Also, like Goering, Bormann was obsessed with empire-building and perhaps wanted Todt out of the way to expand his own influence.

Some have suggested that Hitler himself was responsible, perhaps tired of Todt's pessimism, or because he lost faith in the minister's ability to handle the job. That does stretch credibility a bit, however. Hitler had no compunctions when it came to relieving subordinates from their posts. It seems excessive, even for Hitler, that he would have resorted to murdering Todt in this context. It was not as though Todt enjoyed great popular support or loyalty among an important, armed faction as Ernst Röhm had.

Also, some have pointed the finger at Speer, the man who benefited most from Todt's death. This is another accusation that doesn't ring true. While Speer is at pains to portray himself as humble and unwilling to take Todt's post when Hitler gave it to him, the reality is that Speer was every bit as ambitious as Goering and Bormann, if perhaps less bloodthirsty. Still, there is little in Speer's character to suggest that he would be capable of murdering a rival in such a manner.

And of course, the possibility exists that the plane simply went down from engine failure, pilot error, ice on the wings (the weather was snowy) or a host of other reasons short of sabotage and murder. The fact of the matter is, we will most likely never know just what or who killed Fritz Todt.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's in history from the University of Utah and teaches at Salt Lake Community College. An avid player of board games, he blogs at thediscriminatinggamer.com. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com