Blitzed: Wine, the Nazis, and Hermann Goering’s Prized Cellar

Alcohol has been synonymous with most cultures in Europe for millennia. This is the case even with totalitarian regimes. The Soviet Union was drowning in vodka throughout its 74-year existence. Nazi Germany was undoubtedly soberer, but alcohol consumption did increase notably at certain times, particularly towards the war’s later stages when defeat became inevitable. Wine was central to this.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the Roaring Twenties had only recently ended. It had been a period of alcohol-fuelled jazz parties as the world’s economy grew at an unprecedented speed.

Economic collapse

However, the party couldn’t last forever, and when the overheated economy collapsed on Wall Street in the autumn of 1929, the Great Depression followed. It ravaged the German economy, and as resentment built, the Nazis gained increasing support. In January 1933, their leader, Adolf Hitler, was made Chancellor of Germany, and within months, they turned the country into a one-party dictatorship.[1]

On the surface, the rise to power of the Nazis in 1933 should have seen a large reduction in the amount of wine produced and consumed in Germany. As part of their racial ideology, Hitler and many of his followers advocated for the idea of Germans staying fit and healthy.[2]

Despite this, the Nazis were still anxious to control the wine trade in Germany, a desire rooted in their racial lens. In 1933,  approximately 60% of the German wine trade was in the hands of the small community of half a million Jews who called Germany home.

Once the Nazis’ Anti-Semitic policies became more pronounced in the aftermath of the Summer Olympics in Berlin in 1936, the German Jewish community’s outsized role in the country’s wine trade was rapidly undermined.

Following the infamous Kristallnacht, the Night of the Broken Glass of November 1938, the role of the German Jewish community in the country’s wine trade was ended.[3]

World War II

Germany’s initiation of the Second World War in September 1939 with the invasion of Poland saw wine become a prized commodity. Recent studies have shown that the outbreak of the war led to an increase in drug use of all kinds amongst Germans, notably amphetamines.

The invasion and conquest of France in the summer of 1940 was a particularly notable incident. France was at the center of the global wine trade, and the Germans occupied Paris and worked out an agreement with the government for northern and eastern France to be occupied and the south and west to be ruled by Frenchmen from the town of Vichy. Senior Nazi officials began sending gangs of officials around France to plunder wineries and cellars for the best wine available.

Capturing wine

In the late summer and autumn that year, convoys of trucks carried wine back to Germany for the cellars of the senior members of the Nazi hierarchy. However, it wasn’t long before the French took umbrage at desecrating their wine culture. The French Resistance became involved in the years that followed to undermine German attempts to exploit the French wine industry.[4]

Of all the senior Nazis who took to plundering the wine reserves of France and other conquered regions such as Moldova and Ukraine, none was as rapacious as Hitler’s designated successor, the head of the German air force, Hermann Goering.[5]

In 1940, once France had been invaded and conquered in a short six-week campaign, Goering had demonstrated his proclivities. Writing years later, the armaments minister and Nazi architect Albert Speer wrote in his memoirs that most of France’s champagne was being funneled to Germany following the occupation of the country. But, the best brands were not be had, for Goering and his air marshals in the Luftwaffe had confiscated vast quantities of it following the fall of France in the summer of 1940.[6]

End of the war

By the close of the war, Goering’s cellar in Berlin was exceptionally well stocked with thousands of bottles of some of the most expensive French, German, Hungarian, and Moldovan wine. Of course, none of this detracted from Goering’s primary habit, which was the consumption of opiates, an addiction he had developed in the mid-1920s while receiving treatment in Italy for injuries sustained in the Beer Hall Putsch.[7]

Goering was forced to abandon his cellar, and his wine in Berlin in late April 1945 after a serious falling out with Hitler had placed his life in danger if he remained in Berlin. He fled to Austria, the goal being to surrender to the Western Allies rather than being taken captive by the Soviets, whom Goering feared would not place him on trial but have him summarily executed.

Thus, when Berlin fell, the Russians captured his wine collection. Russian soldiers drank portions of the over 3,000 bottles in the German capital, but much of it was sent back to Moscow. Some of it eventually ended up being sent to the famed Cricova Cellar in Moldova, where it remains to this day. One hundred twenty-nine bottles of Goering’s ill-gotten vintage are still stored there, many of them worth more than $10,000 or $15,000.[8]

Drinking through the downfall

Of course, as it all ended, there was a lot of drinking by the Nazis. After the war, many individuals who had been present in the concentration camps from 1942 attested to the fact that the guards, and even many of the senior administrators, had taken to drinking heavily in the final years of the war. Presumably, they knew they would not escape punishment once the war ended.[9]

This fatalistic behavior carried on right up to the end. When Hitler committed suicide in the Reich chancellery bunker in central Berlin on April 30, 1945, word had to be sent upstairs to tell the chancellery staff. They had one last party before they were killed or arrested to keep the noise down.[10]

Southern Germany

Meanwhile, an altogether different discovery was about to be made in southern Germany. On May 4, 1945, the US 7th Infantry Regiment was the first unit of Allied troops to reach Hitler’s Alpine retreat, the infamous Berghof or ‘Eagle’s Nest’ in southern Germany. This immense chalet had been used to entertain foreign heads of state and officials when the Third Reich had seemingly been destined to dominate the continent. Now in the last days of the war, the wine cellars here were opened, and over half a million bottles of wine, champagne, and cognac were discovered. Sixteen thousand bottles were found in the basement of Goering’s manor.

In the hours that followed, more and more Allied divisions descended on the Berghof to help themselves to their slice of the vast array of liquor. By the time the Second World War in Europe was declared to end four days later, there were many sore heads in the Berchtesgaden region around the Berghof.[11]

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And what of Goering, the supposed wine connoisseur of the Nazi leadership? He was taken into custody near Salzburg in Austria on May 5, not too far from where the Americans, French, and others were enjoying the Nazis’ massive Alpine wine cellar at Berchtesgaden. At the lead trial of the Nazi leadership held by the International Military Tribunal, he was the most senior defendant. Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, and Heinrich Himmler killed themselves before being captured. It was a route Goering eventually took as well. Having been convicted of fomenting the Second World War and a wide range of crimes against humanity, he committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide capsule in his cell the night before he was due to be executed.[12]

Further Reading:

  1. Donald Kladstrup and Peter Kladstrup, Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure (London, 2002).
  2. Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel, Goering: The Rise and Fall of the Notorious Nazi Leader (London, 2011).
  3. Norman Ohler, Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany (London, 2016).
  4. Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

On this Day

January 12, 1893 – On this day in 1893, Hermann Wilhelm Goering was born in Bavaria in southern Germany. Many years later, he became a significant figure within the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, better known as the Nazi Party. After Hitler became Chancellor of Germany and the Nazis seized power in the country in 1933, Goering amassed a wide range of powers. In 1934 he established the infamous Gestapo, and the following year he founded the new German air force, the Luftwaffe. At the outbreak of the Second World War, Hitler named him formally as his designated successor as leader of the Third Reich. Goering’s addiction to opiates became common knowledge in the years that followed, but what is less well-known is that Goering also amassed a vast wine collection. This began when he had his soldiers plunder French wineries and cellars following the fall of France in the summer of 1940, a practice he continued for the remainder of the war. By 1945, when the Russians surrounded Berlin, he had a cellar containing more than 3,000 bottles of some of the most prized wines available anywhere in the world. When the city fell, large portions of these were carried off and drank by Russians celebrating the war’s end. However, some survived, and to this day, 129 bottles from Goering’s collection are housed at the Cricova Cellar in Moldova. The bottles are worth approximately $15,000 each.[13]

May 4, 1945 – On this day in 1945, troops of the US 7th Infantry Regiment became the first Allied soldiers to reach the Berghof in southern Bavaria. This was Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party’s Alpine retreat, where they had entertained European leaders and diplomats for years. The elevated mountain-top house and the nearby town of Berchtesgaden were later fictionalized in the film Where Eagles Dare, starring Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood. In the hours that followed their arrival, further divisions of French troops joined the Americans at Berchtesgaden. By then, the Americans were already rummaging through the vast wine cellar, which contained half a million bottles of fine wine, champagne, and cognac, including thousands of bottles of Chateau Lafite Rothschild. What followed was an enormous party in southern Bavaria as the war ended in Berlin and more units in southern Germany headed for Berchtesgaden. Many individuals in southern Bavaria were already hungover when news reached them that the Germans had surrendered on May 7. The following day the official surrender was signed on what would come to be known as VE Day.[14]

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References

[1] William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (New York, 1960); Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York, 2003).

[2] Robert N. Proctor, The Nazi War on Cancer (Princeton, 1997).

[3] ‘Jewish heritage in German wine culture’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[4] Donald Kladstrup and Peter Kladstrup, Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure (London, 2002).

[5] Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel, Goering: The Rise and Fall of the Notorious Nazi Leader (London, 2011).

[6] Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich (London, 1970), p. 91.

[7] Michael Palumbo, ‘Goering’s Italian Exile, 1924–1925’, in The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 50, No. 1 (March, 1978), pp. 1035–1051.

[8] https://grapecollective.com/articles/moldovan-mining-tunnels-hold-goering-and-putin-wine [accessed 23/6/22]; https://ww2historybook.com/hermann-goering-wines-cricova-cellars/ [accessed 23/6/22].

[9] Edward B. Westermann, Drunk on Genocide: Alcohol and Mass Murder in Nazi Germany (New York, 2021).

[10] Joachim Fest, Inside Hitler’s Bunker (New York, 2004).

[11] https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/victory-in-europe-celebration-berchtesgaden [accessed 22/6/22].

[12] Christian Goeschel, ‘Suicide at the End of the Third Reich’, in Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 41, No. 1 (January, 2006), pp. 153–173.

[13] Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel, Goering: The Rise and Fall of the Notorious Nazi Leader (London, 2011); https://grapecollective.com/articles/moldovan-mining-tunnels-hold-goering-and-putin-wine [accessed 23/6/22]; https://ww2historybook.com/hermann-goering-wines-cricova-cellars/ [accessed 23/6/22].

[14] https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/articles/victory-in-europe-celebration-berchtesgaden [accessed 22/6/22].

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