60 years ago today: The end of the Führer
In the bunker below the Reichstag, it was becoming increasingly obvious that it would not be very long at all before the Russians would reach the grounds of the Reichstag itself; within days, if not hours. In the days and weeks leading up to April 30, the mood in the bunker had become increasingly surreal. Hitler issued orders for counterattacks and attempts at breaking the stranglehold the Soviets were developing on Berlin to armies that no longer existed. He pondered models of the intended postwar rebuilding of his hometown of Linz, to which he said that he wished to retire after the war. When news of Frankin D. Roosevelt's death reached the bunker on April 12, Hitler had become jubilant, seeing the death of his enemy as a sign that the Reich's deliverance was at hand, that his enemies would collapse. It wasn't.
On April 20, Hitler's 56th birthday was celebrated, but the atmosphere was more funereal than celebratory. Hitler clearly saw the celebration of his birthday with his enemy well into the maneuver of completing its encirclement of Berlin as profoundly embarrassing, as did the few remaining loyalists in the bunker. Hitler did emerge from the bunker, climbing the stairs to the Reich Chancellery park. Greeting him with the raised arm "Heil Hitler" salute were soldiers from the SS-Division "Berlin" and twenty boys from the Hitler Youth who had distinguished themselves in combat. The whole scene reinforced the hopelessness of the situation. The defense of the Reich capital, relying on boys? However, it was a natural consequence of Hitler's all-or-nothing thinking. To him, it would be either victory or utter destruction, and if that meant throwing boys into combat against battle-hardened Soviet troops with vastly superior firepower, so be it. As he had raged before, if Germany failed then to him it deserved utter destruction. Two days later, at a briefing, Hitler learned that Soviet troops had broken through the inner defenses and were now moving through Berlin's northern suburbs. Hitler was told that an ordered counterattack had never taken place at all. At this news, the reality of the situation finally seemed to sink in, and Hitler snapped. Hitler screamed that he had been betrayed by all whom he had trusted, railing against the treachery of the army and claiming that the SS was lying to him. The troops refused to fight, and all defenses were down.
And then he stopped. He slumped in a chair and cried. The great dictator, the man responsible for starting a world war and who had callously ordered the murder of millions of innocents, sobbed. The man who had expressed no concern over the suffering of his people, and whose "scorched earth" war orders designed to resist at all costs and destroy infrastructure rather than let it be used by the Soviets (some of which had been secretly undermined by Albert Speer and various industrialists, who did not want to increase the suffering of the German people more) cried. He sobbed that the war was over. He vowed that he would stay in Berlin and lead the defense of the city. Then, rather than allow himself to be captured he would at the end kill himself. All urged himself to change his mind, to make an attempt to break out and retreat to his mountain redoubt of Berchtesgaden, there to continue to lead the resistance. His apocalyptic Wagnerian vision of Gotterdamerung would be fulfilled.
The situation continued to deteriorate, and several in the bunker left, preferring to take their chances trying to escape capture or to die in the open, rather than being trapped in the bunker. When Hitler learned on April 28 that one of his most trusted deputees, SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, had made peace overtures, it was the final straw, and Hitler went into one more monumental rage. On April 29, Adolf Hitler had married Eva Braun, exchanging vows in a simple ceremony. She had vowed to stay in the bunker with him, and would soon die with him. His last will read:
As I did not consider that I could take responsibility, during the years of struggle, of contracting a marriage, I have now decided, before the closing of my earthly career, to take as my wife that girl who, after many years of faithful friendship, entered, of her own free will, the practically besieged town in order to share her destiny with me. At her own desire she goes as my wife with me into death. It will compensate us for what we both lost through my work in the service of my people.In another document, his last political testament, he dictated to his young secretary, Traudl Jung:
What I possess belongs - in so far as it has any value - to the Party. Should this no longer exist, to the State; should the State also be destroyed, no further decision of mine is necessary.
My pictures, in the collections which I have bought in the course of years, have never been collected for private purposes, but only for the extension of a gallery in my home town of Linz on Donau.
It is my most sincere wish that this bequest may be duly executed.
I nominate as my Executor my most faithful Party comrade,
He is given full legal authority to make all decisions. He is permitted to take out everything that has a sentimental value or is necessary for the maintenance of a modest simple life, for my brothers and sisters, also above all for the mother of my wife and my faithful co-workers who are well known to him, principally my old Secretaries Frau Winter etc. who have for many years aided me by their work.
I myself and my wife - in order to escape the disgrace of deposition or capitulation - choose death. It is our wish to be burnt immediately on the spot where I have carried out the greatest part of my daily work in the course of a twelve years' service to my people.
Given in Berlin, 29th April 1945, 4:00 a.m.
[Signed] A. Hitler
It is untrue that I or anyone else in Germany wanted war in 1939. It was desired and instigated exclusively by those international statesmen who were either of Jewish descent or who worked for Jewish interests. . .Centuries will pass away, but out of the ruins of our towns and cultureal monuments the hatred will ever renew itself against those ultimately responsible whom we have to thank for everything, international Jewry and its helpers.Regarding the Holocaust, he obliquely but chillingly wrote:
I also left no doubt that, if the nations of Europe are again to be regarded as mere blocks of shares of these international money and finance conspirators, then that race, too, which is really guilty of this murderous struggle will be called to account: Jewry! I further left no one in doubt that this time millions of grown men would not suffer death, and hundreds of thousands of women and children not be burnt and bombed to death in the towns, without the real culprit haivng to atone for his guilt, even by more humane means.
The remainder of his testament was devoted to ramblings about a "renaissance" of National Socialism and the charade of nominating a successor government. His final charge to the successor government:
Above all, I charge the leadership of the nation and their subjects with the meticulous observation of the race laws and the merciless resistance to the universal poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry.[Source: Hitler 1936-1945: Nemesis by Ian Kershaw]
Even there, at the end, he could not release his hatred and wanted his successors to continue his persecution of the Jews.
Finally, in the afternoon of April 30, after taking lunch as usual with his secretaries, Hitler retired to his study with Eva Braun. Hitler's followers waited. And waited. No one heard a shot. Finally, according to accounts by Major Freytag von Loringhoven, Traudl Jung (Hitler's staff secretary, and subject of the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary) and SS Staff Sgt. Rochus Misch, one of Hitler's bodyguards, Hitler's vale, Heinz Linge, got up the courage to look inside the room, and found Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun dead, Hitler having shot himself as he bit on a cyanide capsul, and Braun having taken a cyanide capsule. His remaining followers carried the bodies into the courtyard of the Reichstag, doused them with gasoline, and set them ablaze. In the meantime, Magda Goebbels poisoned herself and her six children with the help of SS doctor Helmuth Kunz.
Thus ended the life of one of the scourges of the 20th century. Rumors that Hitler had never died continued for decades, mainly because the Soviets never acknowledged that they had found Hitler's remains until relatively recently, when they put a fragment of Hitler's skull on display.
In the 60 years since today, Hitler has come to take on many meanings, with different meanings to different people. To many, he is the utter embodiment of implacable hatred and evil. Indeed, to some, he is almost not human, and books or movies that portray him as anything other than a monster cause controversy, even today. For example, consider Downfall, a recent German film based on Joachim Fest's book The Downfall: Inside Hitler’s Bunker. This film portrays the last days in the bunker and has been criticized for "humanizing" Hitler, who, as portrayed by Bruno Ganz, comes across alternately as kindly and raving.
Is it wrong to "humanize" someone who was responsible for so much death and destruction.
I don't know the answer, but Hitler was human, and denying it or criticizing portrayals of him as anything other than a raving monster contributes nothing to understanding how one man could perpetrate such evil. Obviously, he was a baby at one time. Indeed, there is a photo of him as a baby on the cover of Ron Rosenbaum's book Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, perhaps the best book written thus far to examine what Hitler means to different people and different explanations for the origins of Hitler's evil. It is rather haunting. In Ian Kershaw's biography Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris, there is also a photo of a 12-year-old Hitler with his class at Leonding school, standing in the center of the back row, with his arms crossed, a rather haughty look on his face, almost looking like the future dictator he was to become. As a young man, he witnessed the painful death of his mother from breast cancer and was very fond of the opera, spending nearly all his spare money on tickets to see Wagner. He dreamt of being an artist and was even a bit of a dandy. When he failed to gain entrance to art school and his money ran out, he lived in a men's shelter and barely got by selling postcards of paintings of famous Viennese landmarks. It may have been at that time that the seeds of his later radicalism were sown, as there were a number of anti-Semitic agitators, particularly Karl Leuger, whom Hitler greatly admired. Hitler later served as a courier (a dangerous job) in World War I, by most accounts admirably. It was only after the war that he became involved in radical right wing politics and eventually the Nazi Party, as many did in the wake of Germany's defeat and the myth of the "stab in the back" that lead to defeat.
Oh, yes, Hitler was human. He, along with other great scourges of the 20th century, such as Stalin or Pol Pot or any other monstrous dictator, demonstrate the depth of the human capacity for evil. As Oliver Hirschbiegel, the filmmaker responsible for Downfall, said:
There have been a few voices worried about depicting Adolf Hitler as a human being. But it is ridiculous to regard the Nazis as sent by the devil. There is evil in all of us.Indeed there is. And, like him, I ask:
How was it possible for a whole nation to fall into barbarism, following this absurd vision of the world and turning loving fathers into vicious killing monsters who felt no pity for their victims? As a civilized nation we have to do that, because no matter how painful, we have to be able to look into each other’s eyes right.Indeed we do, particularly as Adolf Hitler fades into the mists of time and those who were alive to witness his deeds disappear from the earth.