Today on March 19, 1945, Adolf Hitler issued the Nero Decree, ordering the self-destruction of Germany as his enemies closed in on Berlin.
The Demolitions on Reich Territory Decree, commonly known as the Nero Decree, was one of Hitler's last major policy declarations. The decree effectively ordered the self-destruction of all remaining German factories and infrastructure. Its nickname references Nero, the Roman Emperor, who was infamously accused of starting the Great Fire of Rome for personal gain. By 1945, World War II was now all but lost for Nazi Germany. The Allied armies successfully landed on the beaches of Normandy in June of 1944 and were now quickly sweeping eastward.
Meanwhile, the Russian Army was delivering successive defeats to the Germans. They, too, were quickly advancing on Berlin from the eastern front. The Third Reich was crumbling and the situation became increasingly desperate. It had only been five years earlier that the German blitzkrieged through France and the Low Countries. But all of Hitler's conquered territories were now lost and the country was on the brink of total collapse.
At this point, Hitler was now only a shadow of his former self. Riddled by uncontrollable shaking and constant paranoia, he proved entirely unable to govern by the end. The Nazi inner circle had secretly abandoned the Fuhrer and were focused on planning their postwar lives. Hitler's Minister of Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer, was appalled by this decree—but he outwardly refused to carry out the orders. The Nero Decree wasn't the first time Hitler tried to destroy Europe's critical infrastructure. Shortly before the Liberation of Paris, he ordered the city's military governor to detonate bombs across the French capital. He wanted to reduce its landmarks to rubble. Yet, the governor had also refused to obey the orders and formally surrendered Paris without damaging the city.
If properly executed, the Nero Decree would have been an extreme example of scorched earth policy. Throughout history, defending armies often used such tactics to slow down enemy advances by destroying their own resources and infrastructure. The ultimate goal was to prevent the invading force from acquiring new resources and using them against the defending forces. In 1812, Tsar Alexander I brilliantly employed scorched earth tactics during Napoleon's Invasion of Russia. Less than six weeks after issuing the Nero Decree, Hitler would commit suicide alongside his wife, Eva Braun. On May 8, 1945, the Allies declared victory in Europe with Germany's unconditional surrender.