60 years ago today: The end of the Führer

Sixty years ago today, the capital of the thousand year Reich, Berlin, was in ruins, after only twelve years of the Nazi regime. For months, it had been pounded from the air by Allied bombers, and now it was being pounded relentlessly by Soviet artillery, bombers, and tanks. Berlin was completely circled by its enemies, who even now were advancing to within artillery range of the Reichstag itself, lobbing shells that were exploding close enough to shake the building. Remnants of the German forces fought a desperate, last ditch defense, even though they were outnumbered and outgunned, with no hope of doing anything more than slowing down the inevitable onslaught by a few days or hours. Adolf Hitler's dream of creating a Reich that would endure for a thousand years, obtaining Lebensraum in the East for Germans to expand into, enslaving the "inferior" Slavs of that land, and destroying Bolshevism, a dream that had plunged the world into war and led to the deaths of millions, both in combat and in the planned slaughter of six million Jews that later became known as the Holocaust, had backfired spectacularly, plunging Germany into nightmare. Not only had he failed to destroy Bolshevism, his gamble in launching a two-front war had led to the destruction of Germany, the deaths of hundreds of thousands German civilians and soldiers, and the mass rape of German women in the East by soldiers in the advancing Red Army. His most hated enemy had allied itself with nations that he had only half-heartedly gone to war with, Britain and the United States, and the combination was too much to overcome. Although Hitler could not know it at the time, his folly had not only delivered the eastern half of Germany into the hands of his most hated enemies, but that domination would last 45 years, nearly four times as long as the Third Reich had endured.

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.

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,

Martin Bormann

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
In another document, his last political testament, he dictated to his young secretary, Traudl Jung:
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.


  1. I've been disappointed at the limited mention of this anniversary today, Orac, so thanks for filling an important gap.

    I saw 'Downfall' just 2 days ago - a very chilling and (in the main) credible portrayal of Hitler. As well as depicting the crumbling of a great (though evil) man, the way in which Ganz plays him makes it somehow comprehensible that people could fall under his spell. This, I believe, is a very creditable thing - the Hitler-the-monster performances with which we are familiar enourage one to be dismissive of those who succumbed to his influence. Ganz's personification, on the other hand, is an invitation to vigilance.

    The moment when he comforts Tradl for her nervousness and errors in typing is very human; this seems believable, and echoes what you've written about denial. Traudl denied to herself the evil she knew to be true because it ran counter to her instinctive, gut reactions to his charming and caring persona. This is a good reminder of how easy it is to trust a personal impression over evidence - or to let gut instincts dissuade one from seeking further.

    But then, that's something every conman knows how to exploit, whether he be a politician, a quack, or a thief.

  2. Well said.

    Unfortunately, I haven't gotten to see Downfall yet, but I really want to. I may have to wait until it comes out on DVD. However, you're right; there is an amazing paucity of news coverage about the 60th anniversary of Hitler's death. I anticipate that there will be a fair amount of coverage of the 60th anniversary of V-E Day in 8 days, but I've seen nothing about the 60th anniversary of Hitler's suicide.

  3. I probably should have kept the spam I got yesterday from the wackjobs at The New Order commemmorating Hitler's death so I could quote it as a example of how nuts these people are. Of course they made it sound like some sort of religious martyrdom instead of a rat unwilling to face the consequences of his actions offing himself.

  4. I think that "a rat unwilling to face the consequences of his actions" is a desperately oversimplistic - and unjustified - analysis of the reasons for Hitler's suicide. In rejecting the martyr version of events we must be careful not to flip over into characature and cliche in the other direction lest we fail to learn the true lessons of Hitler's legacy.

    Hitler was many things - his biographer Ian Kershaw, with much justification, describes him as the abnegation of every value upon which our civilization has been based - but a rat and a coward he was not. Above and beyond anything he was a fanatic, and fanatics are rarely cowards. He was willing and able to sacrifice everything to an idea, to a dream, and in this he exhibited qualities we associate with martyrs: it was the almost inconceivable corruption, the evil, of that dream combined with his willingness to sacrifice not only himself but his friends, his allies, his enemies, and his entire people for that dream that mean we must look upon him not as a martyr but as the perfect antithesis of the nobility of martyrdom.

  5. Addendum: Perhaps I should have said 'that mean we must look upon his death not as martyrdom but as the perfect antithesis of the nobility of martyrdom.'

    Such a reductionist analysis of Hitler himself would be too pat to have meaning.

  6. Well said again.

    Guys, if you haven't already, you really should read Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil by Ron Rosenbaum. It addresses most the issues you've brought up and looks at how others view Hitler.

    Competing views include that of a man who truly believed that his monstrous and murderous deeds were right and just and that Jews really were the enemy; a con man interested only in power who used Jew hatred and Germany's thirst for what it perceived as lost glory as a means to achieve power; a martyr; the man so evil that to humanize him in any way is an abomination. It also debunks a number of myths about Hitler (like the one-testicle story) and looks at how brutality, blackmail, and intimidation of their enemies were standard operating procedure for Hitler and the Nazi Party right from the very beginning, even when the Nazi Party was just one of many small radical right wing party in Germany in the early 1920's. Rosenbaum interviews historians and a variety of other people with an interest in the matter and tries to come up with an idea of how Hitler became so evil.

    One thing is for sure, however evil Hitler was, I agree that he was not a coward. He served as a courier in World War I, and that was a dangerous job. He was almost blinded in a gas attack near the end of the war. Giving speeches to hostile crowds in the early 1920's required some physical bravery, even with the phalanx of stormtroopers that served as bodyguards, and, although there is a question about his behavior during the Beer Hall Putsch, he was opened fire upon. Finally, he was not afraid of going to jail for his role in the Putsch. A coward could not have risen as far as fast as Hitler did, and it's doubtful that a coward would have stayed in Berlin, rather than fleeing to the mountains to avoid capture and to make one final stand, as Hitler's aides urged him to do.

    No, Hitler was not a coward, but, as you point out, he was a fanatic, and his fanatical beliefs that Jews were the implacable enemy of Germany and needed to be expelled or exterminated, that the Aryan race was "superior" and therefore entitled to Lebensraum in the East and to be served by the "inferior" Slavs, all of these caused untold death and suffering over his 12 year reign. A sign of his fanaticism and egoism is that, at the very end, rather than blaming himself for bringing this horrible fate upon Germany through his mistakes, he blamed the German people for "failing" or "betraying" him.

  7. I wouldn't have known if you hadn't posted this. Thanks. Meanwhile, there's some crap on the news about runaway bride nonsense... Someone please start a respectable news outlet. Somewhere. Thank you.


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  9. Nicely comprehensive. I don't think I'd encountered those last parting quotes about the Jewish conspiracy. He really did have a thing about Jews, didn't he?

  10. Maybe you'd be interested to comment on this post of mine?

  11. Re : Hitler as a human being

    It may interest you to know that here in the UK, back in the late 1970s, there was a series of television dramas called Tales of the Unexpected. I cannot be certain about this, but I believe Roald Dahl of children's book fame had a hand in this. These programmes were in effect short plays lasting about 30 minutes or so.

    One of the episodes in the series began with a scene of a woman due to enter labour in what was obviously a 19th century bedroom, and a fairly meagre, rustic one at that. As the scene unfolded, the midwife arrives, the husband arrives having sprinted home to be present at the arrival of the child, and an official Registrar calls at the door. Eventually, we hear the unmistakable cries of a new-born child. After a short time, the crying child is soothed, and is laid in a cot, wrapped in swaddling clothes. In the background, we hear voices, most notably that of the Registrar, accompanied by fountain pen scribbling: "On this day, April 20th, 1889, is born a boy ... Klara, if you could sign here as the mother ... Alois, sign here as the father ... and the child's name is ...?"A second voice (presumably Alois) says "Adolf". The programme concludes with scenes of the child gurgling in the cot, accompanied by the Registrar's voice ... "Adolf ... Adolf Hitler ..."

    I must have been around 14-15 years of age when i watched that. And it was quite a shock at the end. I supsect that it might prove even more of a shock to some if it were broadcast now ...

    Incidentally, as an aside, has any historian taken up the taks of resolving what Eugene Davisdon described as "The greatest irony in history"? This issue is covered in Airey Neave's book Nuremberg (Neave was the man chosen to serve the indictment upon the arraigned war criminals at Nuremberg prison), in the chapter devoted to Hans Frank, the "Butcher of Poland". Frank was apparently ordered to undertake a secret inquiry by Hitler himself into genealogical matters, because of a question mark over who was his grandfather. There were two candidates for the father of the child of Fraulein Maria Anna Schicklgruber, one being a local millworker called Johann Georg Hiedler, the other the son of the household in which Fraulein Schicklgrber worked as a cook - the household of a wealthy Jewish family called the Franeknburgers (unfortunate surname, but true). Frank apparently wrote a report concluding that Hiedler was the true father, but cast doubts upon this at Nuremberg, saying that the Frankenburgers provided for the child until the age of nineteen. As Neave said in his book, was this because Fraulein Schicklgruber had named the son of the household as the real father, and threatened to seek legal redress? I have yet to hear of this question being fully answered.

    The possibility that Hitler was, in Nazi parlance, a mischlinge, would certainly provide impetus for Hitler's own neurosis, shared by that arch-fiend Julius Streicher, whose own obsession with Jews and sex was pathological enough for his own defence counsel at Nuremberg to order a psychiatric examination of him. It would also provide an explanation for some of the substance of the infamous Nuremberg Laws, which Streicher put into brutal effect in his post as Gaulieter of Thuringia. Of course, until some actual facts are uncovered, much of this remains speculation, but if confirmation of the identity of Alois' father as the son of the Frankenburger household were obtained, it would explain an awful lot of Hitler's own psychopathology.

  12. The rumors that Hitler had a Jewish granparent are almost certainly not true. However, one can see why such a myth would be very appealing and thus hang around for so long, given the irony factor and how it might potentially partially explain his unrelenting hatred of Jews.

    See Ian Kershaw's Hitler 1889-1936: Hubris and Ron Rosenbaum's Explaining Hitler for excellent discussions of this issue.


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