The final curtain came down on Adolf Hitler seventy five years ago today. The war in Europe went on for another week after his suicide but was finally over when the Germans signed the surrender documents in two ceremonies, one with the western allies and one with the USSR. This essay was written by the wife of the editor of TUS as part of her Masters Degree requirement. It has been edited and revised.
Twelve years and three months was all the the “thousand-year Reich” lasted. In the wake of the worst war in the history of the human race, Germany was utterly destroyed, the world was torn apart with an estimated 100,000,000 dead, and unspeakable crimes against humanity were uncovered. That was the legacy of the man who committed suicide on April 30, 1945 in the Führerbunker.
Since the end of World War II, Germany has sought to rid itself of the shame that Adolf Hitler and his inner circle wrought. How did that great and cultured nation manage to lose everything, including its very identity? To understand the social experiment Hitler called National Socialism, one must seek to understand Hitler the man, as well as his evil archetype. There was a real juxtaposition between the friendly, protective father figure presented by some, and the nihilistic dictator he proved to be. Reconciling these two distinct Hitlers is key to understanding the fascination, and even fanaticism, with which the German people followed him until the bitter end.
Hitler’s ability to enter the psyche of the German people and persuade them to follow him and his National Socialism movement was aided by many factors. The roots were sown with Germany’s defeat in World War I. The signing of the armistice in 1918 was a source of humiliation for the German people and did not mean an end to conflict. Rather, there was chaos on the streets, prolonged hunger, and massive unemployment – a complete upheaval of their familiar way of life. The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919, became the spark to the eventual powderkeg. “[The treaty’s] Article 231, referred to by Germans as the ‘war guilt clause,’ was intended by the victors and interpreted by the vanquished as a humiliation. It was Germany’s expulsion from the circle of respected nations that disturbed its people more than any of the material burdens the victors placed on the country” (Fest 37). Emotions ran high and the populace became angry and bitter. High inflation coupled with a worldwide economic crisis a few years later only served to make matters worse. Germans blamed the Weimar Republic for the state of their suffering. The conditions in Germany were ripe for a charismatic leader, a savior. Enter Adolf Hitler.
By the early 1930s Germany was a broken nation; economically, politically, and spiritually. Germans had lost faith in democracy and looked to extreme political parties (Communists, Nazis) for quick solutions to their problems. “After the Weimar confusion, people yearned for the return of the many German ‘punctualities’ they had missed for fourteen unbearably long years” (Fest 38). Hitler and the Nazi party exploited the German people’s emotions and economic situations in the speeches he gave around the country. He appealed to all sectors of the public: wealthy industrialists, the middle class, nationalists, and the rural areas. Hitler was a great speaker with an extraordinary power to win people over. Aided by his master propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, he was portrayed as Germany’s savior – the man who would rescue the country from the grip of depression and humiliation. There would be no repeat of 1918!
During Hitler’s rise, the German people rushed to embrace him and the Nazi party mostly as a reaction to the hapless Weimar Republic. “Hardly anyone alive at the time had the remotest idea of the nature of the emerging totalitarian dictatorship and the degree of disenfranchisement, despotism, and violence it would bring to a country that ranked as one of the world’s leading civilized nations. Even those who opposed the new rulers could not have imagined how far things would go” (Fest 38). One could argue that Hitler did outline his political ideology and future plans for Germany in Mein Kampf which was published in 1925. However, the book had slow initial sales and only became a bestseller in Germany after his rise to power in 1933 (Shirer 80-81). Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. Not a month after his election, on February 27, 1933, the Reichstag fire – widely regarded as having been set the Nazis themselves – set off a series of events by which he was able to declare himself Führer in August 1934.
If the German people did not realize early on the depths of Hitler’s appetite for destruction, revenge, and total control, they would surely come to realize these facts by 1945. He was fixated on absolute and total devastation if he was not the victor. “Hitler had said in the early thirties in one of his reveries about the impending war, ‘then even as we go down we will take half the world down with us’” (Fest 32). He did everything in his power to live up to that statement – leaving only rubble and scorched earth in his wake. Ironically however, Hitler himself did not want to live amongst the horror his regime created. January 1945 was marked with collapsing military fronts, the failed Ardennes offensive, relentless air raids, and a steady parade of forlorn refugees plodding through Berlin. In a strange mix of hubris and shame, Hitler moved into the Führerbunker on 16 January 1945, making it the de facto headquarters of the Nazi regime.
“On 15 January 1945 the Führer’s special train went back to Berlin, towards catastrophe. People were still cracking jokes. Someone said Berlin was a very practical spot for headquarters, because soon we’d be able to travel between the Eastern Front and the Western Front by suburban railway. Hitler could still laugh at that” (Junge 156).
The Führerbunker was built beneath the New Reich Chancellery in Berlin. It was constructed in two phases – the Vorbunker (upper bunker) was built in 1936 and the Führerbunker (lower bunker) in 1943. Hitler was obsessed with building these subterranean catacombs, and as early as 1933, would often discuss them with Speer during their Architecture talks (Fest 16). The Führerbunker consisted of twenty small, sparsely furnished rooms and contained not only Hitler’s living quarters, but also rooms for his entourage: Bormann, Generals Krebs, Burgdorf, and Baur, SS Gruppenführer Fegelein, Eva Braun, and countless officers, secretaries (including Traudl Junge), guards, orderlies, radio operators, cartographers, and other personnel (Fest 17). Of course, Hitler’s Alsatian dog, Blondi, also moved into the bunker. Adjusting to life in the Führerbunker was not pleasant. The interior was bleak – cement walls dripping with moisture, low ceilings, narrow passages, dim, ghostlike lighting, stale air. In Hitler’s study, above his desk, was a portrait of Frederick the Great. “Hitler would sit in front of it, brooding absentmindedly, as though he were in silent conversation with the king” (Fest 19).
On April 16, just five days after the Americans crossed the Elbe (100 km west of Berlin), the Battle of Berlin began. Stalin unleashed the brutal power of the Red Army in an unprecedented bombardment with the objective of crushing German resistance and capturing Berlin. Two days later, 325,000 soldiers of Germany’s Army Group B were surrounded and captured; leaving the path open for U.S. forces to reach Berlin. The next day, the Germans were in full retreat from the Seelow Heights, leaving no front line.
April 20, Hitler’s 56th birthday, was a special day. It brought all the faithful to the Führerbunker to celebrate: Goebbels, Himmler, Bormann, Speer, Ley, and Ribbentrop. Before arriving for the birthday party, Göring had some chores to do at Karinhall, his hunting lodge. Early that morning he had dispatched to South Germany twenty-four trucks loaded with antiques, paintings, and furniture he had collected (read: stolen) over the years. After the trucks were gone, he inspected the prepared bombs and proceeded to blow up Karinhall. He said to the bodyguard at his side, “When you’re Crown Prince, you have to do these things sometimes.” Then he left for the birthday party (Fest 44).
On that day, Hitler left the bunker for the last time to decorate boy soldiers of the Hitler Youth who distinguished themselves against the Red Army. It was the last time he would leave the Führerbunker alive. At the party, everyone tried to convince him to leave Berlin; he wouldn’t have any of it. He and Eva Braun would stay until the end. After most of the guests left, Hitler retired early to his rooms. Meanwhile, Eva, in her new dress wanted to dance! It didn’t matter with who – she just wanted to celebrate one last time, even if there was nothing left to celebrate. She led everyone upstairs to the New Reich Chancellery to dance, drink, and forget – despite the constant artillery fire. They managed to find a single record which was played over and over: ‘Blood-Red Roses Speak of Happiness To You’ (Junge 160). The Western Allies joined in with a massive air raid. The next day, Red Army tanks reached the outskirts of Berlin. And, to punctuate the futility of their situation, Berlin was bombarded by Soviet artillery for the first time.
There was restlessness in the bunker. All hell was breaking loose outside. The women in the bunker — Traudl Junge, Eva Braun, Gerda Christian, and other secretaries on hand were wondering how the attack was going – are those German guns and tanks they were hearing? None of the officers know. They were sitting and talking about trivial things; trying to deal with the situation each in her own way. The doors of Hitler’s conference room remained closed, and agitated discussion could be heard. Once the doors opened, the officers left with stony looks upon their faces. Doom and gloom. Hitler commanded to all the women, “Get changed at once. A plane is leaving in an hour and will take you south. All is lost, hopelessly lost” (Junge 162). The women were stunned, but as usual, Eva Braun was the first to respond. She takes his hands in hers and tells him in the most comforting way “But you know I shall stay with you. I’m not letting you send me away” (Junge 162-163). Then Hitler did something no one had ever seen before – not his inner circle, friends, or servants – he kissed Eva Braun on the mouth (Junge 163).
In the afternoon there was another long military briefing. The Russians were at the gates of Berlin.
The bunker was stifling, the inhabitants didn’t know what day it was or the time. The women decided to get some fresh air and walk the dogs. Once outside, they found a haze of dust and smoke hanging over the city. There were abandoned weapons, dugouts, and gaps in the ruined wall along the perimeter of the park of the Reich Chancellery. They walked through the wall into the grounds of the Foreign Office and managed to find some remaining beauty. The moment was so peaceful and calm. They sat and admired nature – trees and flowers were in bloom, surviving shrubs and flowerbeds, chirping birds, the dogs romping in the grass, and a beautiful bronze figure of a young naiad, hidden amongst the foliage. It was quite a respite from the bleakness of the bunker. Their peace soon ended. Sirens sounded and they returned to the bunker. A while later, in a casual exchange between Eva and Hitler, she asked him “I say, do you know that statue in the Foreign Office? A lovely sculpture! It would look really good by the pool in my garden. Do please buy it for me if everything turns out all right and we get out of Berlin!” Hitler took her hand and responded “But I don’t know whose it is. It’s probably state property, in which case I can’t buy it and put it in a private garden.” “Oh,” she said, “if you succeed in beating the Russians back and liberating Berlin you can make an exception for once!” (Junge 165). Escapism was certainly a coping mechanism inside the bunker.
Hitler had a nervous collapse when his orders weren’t followed by SS-General Felix Steiner; he launched a tirade against the treachery and incompetence of his commanders. It was the first time he admitted the war was lost. He announced, “Gentlemen, it’s over. I shall stay here in Berlin and shoot myself when the moment comes. Anyone who wants to go can go now. Everyone is free to do so” (Junge 167). He asked Dr. Werner Haase the most reliable method of suicide; both concurred pistol and poison method. Göring sent Hitler a telegram asking permission to take over leadership of the Reich. Bormann convinced Hitler that Göring was threatening a coup. Göring was fired by Hitler and an arrest warrant was issued.
On the evening of 22 April, Joseph and Magda Goebbels moved into the Führerbunker with their six children. All the children’s names begin with an H in honor of Hitler (Helga, Hildegard, Helmut, Hedwig, Holdine, Heidrun). “They were charming, well brought-up, natural-mannered children. They knew nothing of the fate awaiting them, and the adults did all they could to keep them unaware of it” (Junge 168). They moved into the Vorbunker. That brought fresh life to the bunker – they were happy to be there with “Uncle Adolf.” The Goebbels shared Hitler’s ideas about Die Götterdämmerung and the fight to the bitter end. Joseph and Magda were willing to sacrifice all for the National Socialist ideology, including killing themselves and all the children.
Albert Speer appeared at the Führerbunker for the last time on April 23 to bid his final farewells. Eva Braun greeted him “I knew you’d come. You won’t leave the Führer on his own.” But Speer smiled quietly. “I’m leaving Berlin again this evening,” he replied after a pause. Then he went to see Hitler (Junge 171). Hitler and Speer did quite a bit of reminiscing during that last visit. “At our melancholy farewell meeting on April twenty-third, Hitler talked for almost an hour about Linz. Perhaps this was because it was a mutual link with our own past. In earlier and happier days, in the Berghof, his chalet above Berchtesgaden, he would sometimes gaze over into his native Austria and talk of his dream of retiring there someday. He would build a house, he said, a few miles upstream from Linz, on the Danube. This house would have two architect’s studios. I would always be welcome to use one of them. How pleasant it would be, he said, to watch all the power-handlers fading away. He and Fräulein Braun would be so happy to entertain the Speers anytime, as weekend guests” (O’Donnell 14). Speer commented that most of the visit was spent in recollection of things past – utterly divorced from objective reality. “Reminiscence, perhaps a more exact word would be sheer escapism, was a bunker leitmotif” (O’Donnell 14). However, this was much more than an opera being played out on the world stage.
By April 24, the Red Army had surrounded Berlin and was engaging in hand to hand combat with remaining Nazi defenders. The next day, General Helmuth Weidling arrived at the bunker in trepidation – he had been told Hitler had just ordered that he be taken out and shot. “When General Weidling left, an hour later, he had been promoted to city commandant of Berlin” (O’Donnell 30).
On April 27 General Robert Ritter von Griem, along with the aviatrix and test pilot Hanna Reitsch flew into Berlin and landed outside the Brandenburg Gate. Just before landing, an artillery round severely wounded Griem in the leg. He was bleeding profusely when taken to the bunker to be treated by Dr. Stumpfegger. “Hitler greeted him with, “There is still loyalty and courage in the world!” (Fest 86). Hanna made a great impression upon Traudl Junge. She commented that Hanna hurried to see the Führer and must have been one of those women who adored Hitler unconditionally. “She sparkled with her fanatical, obsessive readiness to die for the Führer and his ideals” (Junge 174). Later, Ritter von Griem sent out a cable referring to the bunker as a “Jungbad,” a fountain of youth. He had just been named successor to Göring as chief of the Luftwaffe (O’Donnell 30). During the entire short ceremony, the sounds of artillery were audible, and concrete was crumbling from the walls, even at the lowest level of the bunker. Berlin was cut off from the rest of Germany. Secure radio communication with defending units was lost.
The next day Hitler heard about Mussolini’s death. It is believed that he even saw photos of the naked bodies of Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, hanging upside down in the main square of Milan. At dinner, Hitler and the women arrived at the conclusion that death was the only way to escape. “I will not fall into the enemy’s hands either dead or alive. When I’m dead, my body is to be burned so that no one can ever find it, Hitler decreed” (Junge 177). They went on to discuss the best ways to die. Hitler felt the ‘pistol and poison’ method was the best – shoot yourself as well as take a poison capsule. This way death is assured. The women were horrified by that method, however, and concluded they would like to die by poison since Hitler assured them poison was completely painless. They didn’t want to suffer. “I want to be a beautiful corpse, said Eva Braun, I shall take poison” (Junge 177). Traudl and Frau Christian asked Hitler for poison capsules as Himmler had provided him with ten. “He personally gave each of us one, saying, I am very sorry that I can’t give you a better farewell present” (Junge 177).
Later that day, a report from the BBC reached the bunker: Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler had offered to surrender to Western Allies, but the offer was declined. The news hit Hitler like a thunderbolt. He always knew Göring was corrupt, and Speer was an unpredictable artist, but Himmler’s betrayal was total. “After all Himmler had constantly talked of loyalty and had invoked it as the highest principle of his ‘Aryan Germanic Men’s Order of the SS!’” (Fest 95). Hitler considered this treason and ordered Himmler’s arrest. He then went to Hanna Reitsch and Griem asking them to prevail on Dönitz to do whatever it took for Himmler to get the punishment he deserved. “A traitor cannot be my successor,” he said. “See to it that he won’t be” (Fest 95). They protested as they were planning to stay and die alongside the Führer, however Hitler insisted they go. The plane was readied for them and he even provided them with poison capsules.
Hitler’s rage demanded a sacrificial victim. SS General Hermann Fegelein’s name kept surfacing. He was Himmler’s SS representative in the bunker. He had disappeared on April 26 and was located a few days later in his apartment. “They reported they had found him, still drunk, in the company of a young red-haired lady” (Fest 99). On April 28 he was escorted back to the Reich Chancellery by armed guards of the Begleitkommando. Fegelein was interrogated and found to be complicit in Himmler’s plot. “Enraged, Hitler ordered Fegelein to be shot on the spot, without a trial” (Fest 100). Fegelein was married to Margarete, Eva Braun’s sister, who was pregnant. Eva pleaded with Hitler for clemency. Hitler rebuffed her, and then ended up marrying her a few hours later.
“Mindful of the formalities, the couple asked for a wartime ceremony, citing the special circumstances. They then declared they were both of “pure Aryan descent and free of any hereditary diseases” (Fest 101). Goebbels and Bormann were the witnesses. As the wedding guests were toasting to a happy future for the couple, Hitler stated that “…the idea of National Socialism was finished, never to be reborn. He was looking forward to death as a release. Then he left the wedding guests in order to dictate his last will and testament” (Fest 102). Traudl Junge was called upon to type both Hitler’s political testament and personal will. Goebbels then bursts into the room, tearful and shaken. “Then he too dictates me his testament, to be added as an appendix to the Führer’s. For the first time in his life, it says, he is not going to carry out an order by the Führer because he cannot leave his place in Berlin at the Führer’s side” (Junge 185). While this “opera buffa” was playing out, the Russians had reached the Wilhelmstrasse. Bloody battles were being fought on Potsdamer Platz.
The final days in the Führerbunker were marked by chaos. Fatalism was in the air – drunken soldiers, insubordination, a total lack of discipline. Even the structure itself was in disorder. “…the water supply occasionally failed and an almost unbearable stench spread from the Vorbunker – exhaust fumes from the constantly humming diesel engines, mixed with the pungent smell of urine and human perspiration” (Fest 21). Hitler’s physical and mental health had deteriorated. “He was in terrible physical shape, dragging himself along slowly and laboriously from his living quarters to the bunker conference room, throwing his upper body forward and pulling his legs along. His sense of balance was impaired” (Fest 22). His left hand trembled and against character, he had become slovenly. Hitler knew his time was up.
On April 29, Fascist troops in Italy unconditionally surrendered to the allies. Blondi was killed to test the cyanide and to avoid her falling into Russian hands (the thought made Hitler sick). Also, her five puppies were shot (Fest 105-106).
The next day, the last day of Hitler’s life, he turned on the German people. They are a nation of losers. They are weak and deserve to be destroyed. He will not shed a tear for them. Death, in his mind, is now imminent. “The epitaph on his tombstone, he said, should read that he was ‘the victim of his generals’” (Fest 114). At 2:00 p.m. Hitler had lunch with his secretaries. “The same conversation as yesterday, the day before yesterday, for many days past: a banquet of death under the mask of cheerful calm and composure” (Junge 186). Later in the evening there was dancing and debauchery in the Vorbunker. “An orderly was sent upstairs to ask for quiet. The Führer was about to die. But none of the canteen guests, most of whom were drunk, paid attention to his request, and the carousing continued” (Fest 115). Traudl Junge wanted to escape and headed up to the Vorbunker, encountering the Goebbels children. She got them something to eat and read to them. Suddenly there was a loud shot. “’That was a direct hit,’ cried Helmut, with no idea how right he is. ‘The Führer is dead now’” (Junge 187). Hitler and Eva’s bodies were then burned outside the bunker exit. Ironically, on that very day, Dachau, the notorious concentration camp was liberated.
The day after the suicide, May 1, May Day, Magda Goebbels poisoned her six children and then joined her husband in the deep bunker. “Together they went to his living room, and there, weeping, she played a game of solitaire” (Fest 144). At 8:30 p.m. Magda and Joseph Goebbels shot themselves to death.
Even after Hitler’s death, in the ruins of the Reich, when all hope was lost, the soldiers, the Volkssturm, and the German people fought on. Why? It was partly due to the unconditional surrender imposed by the Western Allies. There was a sense of hopelessness that there was no other course of action to take but to fight. Plus, the shock of disillusionment. For years the Nazi party’s propaganda and lies managed to deceive the people about the realities of the war – describing the worst defeats as traps deliberately set for the enemy. Now that these deceptions had been exposed, there was a great fear that the Red Army would exact revenge. “This was based not only on horrific notions about the ‘barbaric East,’ but also on dark suspicions about rampages many German units may have engaged in during the campaigns against the Soviet Union” (Fest 77).
The troops, especially the elite units, shared Hitler’s ideological convictions and mission. They were all prepared for desperate situations. They had been taught that great events were accompanied by death and destruction. In Göring’s speech after the defeat at Stalingrad “he referred to ‘the Hall of the Nibelungs, built of fire and blood.’ And there was Goebbels’s call for total war that culminated ‘in a mood of chaotic frenzy’” (Fest 77).
Meanwhile, Berlin was in total collapse. “There are seriously wounded, dying people, corpses everywhere and the nearly unbearable odor of putrefaction. In the midst of all that, drunken soldiers in uniform are lying around tightly embracing equally drunk women” (Fest 89). Even though most citizens acted decently, the basest elements of society were running rampant. Street courts were formed with hasty trials and executions. There were many suicides and familicides during the final months. “…it was claimed that at least seven hundred people had killed themselves in May alone” (Fest 90).
“In the last three months of the war, there were an estimated four million military and civilian casualties in Central Europe” (O’Donnell 25). “Later, statisticians calculated that for every inhabitant of Berlin there were nearly thirty-nine cubic yards of rubble” (Fest 88).
Adolf Hitler was not a physical coward. But he fancied himself the political hero of a Wagner opera. “The Wagnerian hero never dies in bed. What Adolf Hitler really dreaded was not death, but that fate might deprive him of the chance to stage-manage his own departure” (O’Donnell 33). In the end all that was left was Hitler’s body burning in a bombed-out wasteland. It would never be his fantasy of Götterdämmerung.
Reference books: (1) Joachim Fest: Inside Hitler’s Bunker, The Last Days of the Third Reich. Translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004; (2) Traudl Junge: Hitler’s Last Secretary, A Firsthand Account of Life with Hitler. Edited by Melissa Müller, Translated by Anthea Bell, Arcade Publishing, 2003; (3) James P. O’Donnell: The Bunker, The History of the Reich Chancellery Group. Houghton Mifflin Company, 1978; (4) William L. Shirer: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Simon and Schuster, 1960.