Karl Hanke

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Karl Hanke (August 24th, 1903 – June 8th, 1945) was an official of the National Socialist German Workers Party. He served as governor (Gauleiter) of Lower Silesia from 1941 to 1945 and as the final Reichsführer-SS for a few days in 1945.

Early Life

Hanke was born in Lauban (Lubań) in Silesia, on 24 August 1903, the son of a locomotive engineer. His older brother was killed in World War I. Hanke was too young for service in the war himself. He did, however, serve in the Reichswehr as a Zeitfreiwilliger (temporary volunteer) in the 19th Infantry Regiment (von Courbiere) at Frankfurt/Oder in the early 1920s.[1]

Hanke obtained an education as a milling engineer by attending the German Milling School at Dippoldiswalde. He then decided to obtain a year's practical experience as a railway workshop apprentice before returning to milling. From 1921 to around 1926, Hanke mainly worked in the milling industry, serving as a business manager for mills in the vicinities of Silesia, Bavaria, and Tyrol. He later attended the Berufspädagogischen Institut in Berlin. In 1928 he received a degree that qualified him to teach milling at vocational schools. Later that year, he worked in Berlin-Steglitz as a master miller. After this he became a vocational instructor at a technical school in Berlin.[1]

Nazi Party

Hanke joined the Nazi Party (NSDAP) on November 1st, 1928; with membership number 102606. Hanke began his National Socialist career at the somewhat low level of Amtswalter, a low ranking speaker and factory cell organizer. He joined the Sturmabteilung (SA) Reserve in 1929, that same year he became a deputy street cell leader. In 1930 he was promoted to street cell leader (Strassenzellenleiter). Later that year, he became a section leader (Sektionsführer) in Berlin.[2]

Hanke was finally fired from his Prussian State service job at the vocational school in April 1931 for his political activities, and he went to work full time for the party. By late 1931, he was Kreisleiter (ward leader) of Westend in Berlin, working under Berlin's Gauleiter Joseph Goebbels. In 1932, Hanke was made chief Gau organizational director and on 1 April 1932, personal adjutant and Referent (advisor) to Goebbels in his capacity as propaganda director of the NSDAP (Reichspropagandaleiter der NSDAP).[3]

In his position as Kreisleiter of Westend in Berlin, Hanke was the first party official to establish contact with the young architect Albert Speer. Hanke contracted Speer to convert a villa in the western suburbs into an office for the local party organization in 1932.[4] Hanke and Speer became close friends. In 1944, according to Speer's book (Inside the Third Reich), Hanke strongly advised Speer never to visit "a camp in Upper Silesia" (Auschwitz) for any reason. Hanke had "seen something that he was not allowed to describe and indeed could not describe."[5]

Government service

Adolf Hitler took an early liking to outspoken and handsome young Hanke, and in April 1932, Hanke became a NSDAP delegate to Prussian State Parliament (Landtag). Later in 1932, Hanke was elected to the German Parliament (Reichstag) on the slate of the NSDAP, representing Potsdam, he would hold this seat until the end of the war.[3]

Hanke again secured a task for Albert Speer in July 1932, having him build a headquarters for the Berlin NSDAP in the centre of the city (at Voßstraße 11).[6] Following the Nazi takeover of power and the parliamentary elections of March 1933, Goebbels established the Propaganda Ministry (Propagandaministerium). Hanke followed his boss there as personal aide. In 1938, he was promoted to State Secretary (Deputy Minister) in the Propaganda Ministry.

Skillfully solidifying his position within the party and with Hitler, Hanke joined the "General SS" (Allgemeine-SS) on 25 February 1934 (SS member no. 203013), attached to the 6th SS-Standarte. He later performed a temporary duty assignment as a special duties officer on the staff of the Reichsfuhrer-SS (1935–36), and became second vice president of the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture) in 1937.[3]

Hanke's seemingly unstoppable ascent on the coattails of Goebbels came to a sudden, albeit temporary, halt when he was drawn into the marital affairs of Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda. Goebbels had many extramarital affairs, notably with actresses. In 1938, Magda appeared ready to abandon her marriage when Goebbels had a liaison with a young Czech actress - Lída Baarová. Hanke sided with Magda, to whom he was attracted and who apparently seemed willing to leave Goebbels for him. Both affairs were finally stopped by an order from Hitler.

In 1939, Hanke volunteered for military service, having previously obtained a reserve officer's commission. From September to October 1939, he served with the 3rd Panzer Division in Poland. In May and June 1940, Hanke served under General Erwin Rommel with the 7th Panzer Division in France, receiving the Iron Cross in Second and First Class, and being recommended for, but not receiving, the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. He was discharged from the German Army in 1941 with the rank of 1st Lieutenant (Oberleutnant).

In Breslau, Hitler appointed Hanke to the position of Gauleiter of Lower Silesia. One year later, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler promoted him to the rank of SS general (SS-Gruppenführer). Hanke was a fanatical enforcer of Nazi policy: during his rule in Breslau more than 1000 people were executed on his orders, earning him the moniker "Hangman of Breslau".

Hanke also had a long affair with Baroness Freda von Fircks in Breslau, the daughter of a wealthy landowner and University of Berlin lecturer. They were finally married on 25 November 1944, after she bore him his only child, a daughter, in December 1943.[7]

The fall of Breslau

During the waning months of World War II, as the Soviet army advanced into Silesia and encircled Fortress (Festung) Breslau, Hanke was named by Hitler to be the city's "Battle Commander" (Kampfkommandant). Hanke oversaw, with brutal fanaticism, the futile and militarily useless defense of the city during the Battle of Breslau. Goebbels, dictating for his diary, repeatedly expressed his admiration of Hanke during the spring of 1945. On 6 May, the day before Germany's surrender, General Hermann Niehoff surrendered the besieged Breslau (the Soviet army already having reached Berlin). Hanke had flown out the previous day in a small Fieseler Storch plane kept in reserve for him. In his memoirs, German Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer, claimed that he heard from Anton Flettner, the designer, that Hanke actually escaped in one of the few existing prototype helicopters.[8] Reichsführer-SS

Hanke's fanaticism and unconditional obedience to Hitler's orders also impressed Hitler, who in his final will appointed him to be the last Reichsführer-SS and Chief of the German Police, replacing Heinrich Himmler on 29 April 1945. Just eight days before, Hanke had been honored with Nazi Germany's highest decoration, the German Order, a reward for his defence of Breslau against the advancing Soviet army. Hanke's ascendancy to the rank of Reichsführer-SS was a result of Adolf Hitler proclaiming Himmler a traitor for his secret attempted negotiations with the Western Allies. Hitler stripped Himmler of all his offices and ranks and ordered his arrest.


Hanke received word of his promotion on 5 May 1945. For unknown reasons, he flew to Prague and attached himself to the 18th SS-Freiwilligen-Panzer-Grenadier-Division "Horst Wessel." Hanke chose to wear the uniform of an SS private, to conceal his identity in the event of capture. The group attempted to fight its way back to Germany but, after a fierce battle with Czech partisans, surrendered in Neudorf (now Nová Ves), south west of Chomutov (Komotau). His true identity was not discovered by his captors, and Hanke was thus placed in a Prisoner of War (POW) camp alongside other low-ranking SS members. There were a total of 65 POWs, when the Czechs decided to move them all by foot in June, 1945. On the 8th of June, 1945 when a train passed the march route, Hanke and several other POWs made a break for it and clung on to the train. The Czechs opened fire with Hanke falling first while the other two POWs slumped on the track. The Czechs then beat the POWs with rifle butts until the men were dead