Hitler’s Last Days: Twilight of the Gods

Just past midnight on 29 April 1945, in the map room of the Fuhrer Bunker, Adolf Hitler married his long-time admirer and mistress, Eva Braun. It came as a surprise to those who knew him as he had never shown any great affection towards Eva and had always refused to contemplate marriage on the grounds that it might diminish his status as Fuhrer, though in truth he also relished being Germany’s most eligible bachelor.

Cloying and intrusive, the 33 year old Eva had often been an irritant to the Fuhrer especially as they had so little in common. She enjoyed sports and loved to party, neither of which was of any interest to Hitler who also disliked her use of makeup and was appalled by her liking for nude bathing. She was also in constant need of his attention but despite all this she was in many respects his ideal partner being essentially a simple country girl who had little interest in politics, expressed no opinion of her own, never contradicted him, and would listen in admiring silence whenever he spoke. Her devotion to his person was unquestionable and she never doubted him, so unlike his advises and those on the General Staff who argued endlessly over the direction of the war she never doubted him. Marriage to Eva would be his reward for her loyalty.

It would also be a nod to the bourgeois respectability he had so often scorned but in reality yearned for and would go some way to quashing the rumours of his homosexuality that had been circulating for some time.

That such things should remain important to him at a time when the global conflict he had unleashed was reaching its bloody and destructive denouement and suicide was already on his mind tells us much of the unreality that permeated the Fuhrer Bunker. But whatever the reason for the marriage and the ceremony that followed, it had little to do with our normal understanding of love and courtship.

A minor official from a nearby Volksturm, or Home Guard Regiment, appropriately named Wagner who was licensed to perform weddings was drafted in and Josef Goebbels and Martin Bormann attended as witnesses.

The clearly nervous Wagner who struggled at times to make himself heard, rushed through the ceremony as best he could and after both Hitler and Eva Braun declared themselves to be of pure Aryan descent they signed the marriage certificate with the nerves catching Eva starting to scribble her own name before crossing out the B and signing it Hitler.

Following the taking of their wedding vows no kiss was exchanged instead to a ripple of polite applause hands were shaken, congratulations expressed and the record Blood Red Roses played on the gramophone to which Eva joyfully sang along. Hitler then invited Goebbels, Bormann, and his secretaries Frau Christian and Frau Junge to attend a champagne celebration which, not himself a drinker he left early at 4 am for his private chambers to dictate his Last Will and Testament.

Adolf and Eva Hitler were to be married for less than 40 hours and the whole affair can be thought of either as the comedy of the absurd or a rare moment of normalcy in the madness of the Fuhrer Bunker.

Hitler had moved into the Fuhrer Bunker in Berlin on 16 January 1945, after he had been forced to abandon his East Prussian Headquarters the Wolfschanze, or Wolf’s Lair.

At first he could often be seen walking in the Reich Chancellery garden and throwing the ball for his dog Blondi but by mid-March this had ceased as the Russians closed in and the bombardment of the city centre had become almost incessant.

Despite his now subterranean existence Hitler’s routine continued much as before, he rose at mid-day staying up until the early hours and took his meals regularly three times a day, a vegetarian diet of muesli, linseed oil and vegetable juice supplemented by cakes and up to 16 cups of tea a day.

He continued to frown upon the consumption of alcohol outside of special occasions, still no one was permitted to smoke in his presence, and he would hold court as he always had though by now his conversation would more often than not consist of mawkish tales of his youth laced with expressions of regret and betrayal.

The last filmed pictures of Hitler had been taken about a month before his somewhat bizarre marriage to Eva Braun on 22 March when he handed out medals to members of the Hitler Youth and they showed a man visibly older than his 56 years. He was stooped and shuffling and his shaking left hand he kept hidden behind his back.

Shown in newsreels this was the last time the German people would ever see their Fuhrer as he returned to the febrile atmosphere of the Fuhrer Bunker where surrounded by deluded and still ambitious sycophants he continued to fight a very real war with increasingly illusory armies.

On 21 April, at one of his daily military conferences Hitler ordered German forces in the area of Berlin to counter-attack the two massive Russian armies now converging on the city and threatening to surround it. The northern attack was to be lead by General Steiner who had only two battalions of the 4th SS Police Division, brave and resourceful no doubt, but less than 10,000 men in total they also had no heavy guns. At the same time the hard-pressed 9th Army of General Heinrici that had been in retreat for months was expected to attack from the south.

The idea that these two near-broken armies were expected to repel Russian forces almost ten times their size was sheer fantasy but even so when Hitler learned that General Steiner instead of attacking had withdrawn his troops away from the city he went into an uncontrollable rage – it was a betrayal he screamed, and it would be just the first of many.

The Fuhrer Bunker itself was a predominantly subterranean structure located 8.2 metres beneath the surface of the Reich Chancellery Garden. It was built on two levels and was protected by concrete walls 4 metres thick. Stairs linked the two levels and there were around 30 rooms connected by corridors to the main meeting areas. In the lower level were Hitler’s personal quarters (Eva Braun had her own separate room). The Fuhrer’s personal physician was also located nearby, as was the main communications room and the offices of Joseph Goebbels and Martin Bormann. Guards were posted at every entrance.

During the final months of the Third Reich’s existence Martin Bormann, “The Brown Eminence,” Secretary of the Nazi Party and Hitler’s personal factotum became the most feared man in the Nazi hierarchy. He had been Hitler’s personal assistant since April 1943, and closely guarded access to the Fuhrer becoming by 1945 his indispensable man.

He was vain, arrogant, egocentric, utterly impervious to the feelings of others, formidably ambitious, and worked tirelessly to undermine the other leading Nazi’s. He was determined to be the last Nazi standing and the Fuhrer’s successor. Given the circumstances it seems a strangely myopic ambition.

Hitler, who during his time in the Bunker would often be reduced to tears either out of rage or a sense of despair still believed that the Russian encirclement of Berlin could be broken. Steiner’s perceived betrayal had temporarily shaken this belief but now he ordered the 12th Army under General Wenck to withdraw from the Western Front and link up with the 9th Army under General Heinrici and advance upon Berlin.

This strategy had actually been General Jodl’s but he had couched it such words as to persuade the increasingly irrational Fuhrer that it was his own and again under advice on 23 April, he appointed General Wiedling commander of the Berlin garrison having ordered just the previous day that he be shot for dereliction of duty.

As the fighting above them grew ever closer and the shelling of Reich Chancellery relentless and nerve shredding the peculiar life of those in the Bunker continued. Hitler held his daily military briefings, Generals came and went, and messages passed to and fro, whilst all the time the constant drone of the ventilation system provided an eerie calm to proceedings.

After the frantic hours had passed Hitler would take his evening meal when he would often take time to be tender towards his young secretaries and concern himself, with their welfare. On others occasions he would rage violently against the Jews blaming them for everything that had happened, an event that was far from unusual but his ravings had become ever more bitter and vicious.

Two years earlier at a dinner party Maria von Schirach, the wife of the leader of the Hitler Youth and future Gauleiter of Vienna Baldur von Schirach, had said to him: “I have seen a train full of Jewish women. These people they looked terrible. I’m sure they are being badly treated. Do you know about this?”

A silence descended upon the room as the colour drained from Hitler’s face before after a long pause he replied:

“You are sentimental Frau von Schirach. What have Jewish women to do with you! You must learn to hate.” He then made his apologies and walked out.

Frau von Schirach is the only person known to have raised the question of the fate of the Jews with Hitler personally. She was never invited to dinner again and neither would Hitler be so restrained.

Hitler’s behaviour by this time was so irascible and unpredictable that people feared being in his presence and they certainly weren’t inclined to speak their mind or keep him properly abreast of events. Instead, the facts were made to fit his world view.

On 20 April, he celebrated his fifty-sixth birthday with a small party but it was evident to everyone present that he wasn’t a well man. His skin lesions had got worse and he was also displaying the early symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease with the left side of his body often seen to be visibly shaking.

He was already being treated for an irregular heartbeat and is believed to have contracted syphilis either from a Jewish prostitute during his time in Vienna or whilst he was serving as a soldier in the First World War, and it was an illness he would often rant about and refer to as the Jewish disease.

Whatever his true physical condition he was pumped full of drugs on a daily basis by his favourite quack physician, Dr Theodore Morrell.

In late March 1945, Magda Gobbels joined her husband Josef in the Bunker along with her six young children. Hitler enjoyed the company of the children in particular four year old Heidrun who he would balance on his knee and regale with stories of great warriors and past heroes.

They provided some light relief from the pervasive gloom, claustrophobic atmosphere of the Fuhrer Bunker, and constant round of military briefings.

He was less keen on the company of the fanatical, over-bearing, and strong-willed Magda.

Indeed, Hitler was becoming ever more reclusive often disappearing into his room for hours on end.

On 23 April, a carefully worded telegram addressed to the Fuhrer from Reich-Marshal Hermann Goering was intercepted by Martin Bormann. In it Goering informed Hitler that he had invoked his secret decree of 1941 which stated that should the Fuhrer became incapacitated and be unable to carry out the functions of his office then he, Hermann Goering, was to take over leadership of the Reich. Since Hitler had decided to remain in Berlin and the city was encircled his ability to run the country had so diminished that he felt obliged to take over the reins even if this transference of power may only be temporary.

By the time Hitler received the telegram Bormann had transformed it into a litany of lies and betrayal and as a consequence he went into one of his by now characteristic rages. He ordered that Goering be immediately arrested and stripped of all his authority. Bormann wanted the Reich Marshal shot, but Hitler declined to go that far.

It was so different from two weeks earlier when on 12 April an excited and animated Josef Goebbels had rushed to inform the Fuhrer that President Roosevelt had died – it was fate, it had been written in the stars that Roosevelt would die. It had been he and Stalin who had demanded unconditional surrender, now he was dead the Western Allies would join Germany to oppose the Russian hordes. Instead of being the enemy Third Reich would now be the bulwark that would save western civilisation from Bolshevik barbarism.

The optimism soon faded and Goering’s letter had finally drawn a line underneath it yet the delusional thought patterns continued but even those detached from reality cannot always ignore it and the news just got worse.

On 26 April, a BBC radio broadcast revealed that Heinrich Himmler was trying to broker a separate peace agreement through the Swedish intermediary Count Folke Bernadotte. In fact, he had been trying to negotiate just such a settlement since the previous year and had been offering to release Jewish inmates from the Concentration Camps to secure it.

Hitler could not believe it and he took some time to absorb the news. If Der Truer Heini was willing to commit treason then there truly was no one left alive who would not betray him.

He swung from rage to utter despair and back to rage again and he was often close to tears as he accused his Generals of treason, condemned the army as cowards, and accused the German people of being unworthy of his greatness.

There could be no mercy for Himmler and the order was issued for his execution, but he had already gone into hiding.

Upon hearing of his master’s betrayal Himmler’s representative in the Bunker Hermann Fegelein, Eva Braun’s brother-in-law, fled. Hitler immediately ordered he be tracked down and arrested. He was discovered hiding in his Berlin apartment with his Hungarian mistress, dishevelled, half-naked, and heavily intoxicated. He was returned to the Bunker along with a suitcase crammed with money and Eva Braun’s jewellery.

After a cursory court-martial he was sentenced to death and shot despite the special-pleading of Eva Braun who begged Hitler to cancel the order for the sake of her sister. It was the only time she ever asked anything of him.

Two days after the news of Himmler’s treason General Wenck informed Field-Marshal Keitel that the German Army was in retreat and that there was now no prospect of Berlin being relieved.

The German’s now only had 45,000 troops, many of them foreign SS Units, 40,000 Volksturm (Home Guard) and the Hitler Youth to defend the city against 1,500,000 Russians with tanks, heavy artillery and total command of the air. Later that afternoon General Krebs informed Keitel that they only had enough ammunition to maintain the fighting for a further 48 hours. Regardless, Hitler forbade any surrender.

On 29 April, Hitler heard of the fate of his ally Benito Mussolini who had been captured by Italian partisans whilst trying to cross over the border into Switzerland disguised as a German soldier. He had been summarily shot along with his mistress Clara Petacci and a number of associates, their bodies were then taken to Milan and strung up by their heels in a garage forecourt to be abused and spat upon by the very people he had governed for the previous twenty five years.

Hitler would never allow himself to be made such a spectacle of so he would take his own life and ensure that his remains were utterly destroyed. He would both bite upon a cyanide tablet and shoot himself having earlier considered blowing himself up in a plane over the Baltic Sea in a Wagnerian gesture of self-immolation but feared his body being retrieved by the Russians. So he decided upon the no less violent but more restrained option first testing the effectiveness of the cyanide tablet upon his beloved Blondi whose subsequent death upset him greatly.

Eva Braun insisted that she die alongside her husband and Hitler did nothing to dissuade her thinking it only right and proper that she do so, and also not wanting details of his personal life becoming public after his death.

On the morning of the 30 April he informed his inner-circle that he intended to take his own life and gave orders that his body and that of his wife should be burned until no trace of them remained. He also gave permission for those within the Bunker to make a break-out that night.

The Berlin garrison however was still forbidden to surrender.

He and Eva Braun then retired to his study.

He was disturbed only once when a frantic Magda Goebbels banged upon his door begging him to open it. When he did so she pleaded with him not to take his own life but instead to flee to Berchtesgarden in Bavaria from where he could rally the German people and continue the war. He listened patiently but said nothing before he slowly closed the door once more. The hysterical Magda with tears rolling down her cheeks had to be physically dragged away.

She, along with her husband Josef would later commit suicide also, but not before she had poisoned her six young children.

Around 3.30 in the afternoon a loud gunshot was heard to come from Hitler’s study. No one dared enter for a time but when eventually they did they found both Hitler and Eva Braun slumped upon the sofa. He had shot himself in the temple whilst she had taken a cyanide pill.

The bodies were taken to the Reich Chancellery garden which was under heavy shelling and with little ceremony were hastily doused in petrol and set alight, the remains continued to be set alight until no visible trace remained.

By now the Russians were only some 200 metres from the Fuhrer Bunker which was being defended not by Germans but by Frenchmen from the SS Charlemagne Division.

The Third Reich was in its death throes but its architect had gone before it, and it only remained for those he left behind to make their escape as best they could but for the time being with Hitler gone those within the Bunker were at last free to smoke whilst many others took the opportunity to get royally drunk and Senior Officers their uniforms unbuttoned or discarded entirely were to be seen simply sitting around drinking champagne and playing cards as if nothing was happening but as night descended plans began to be made for the breakout.

At 3.15 in the morning of 1 May, Martin Bormann telephoned Grand-Admiral Karl Doenitz to inform him that Adolf Hitler was dead and that in accordance with his last wishes he was to be appointed Reich President and Chancellor.

Throughout the day small groups of people began breaking out of the Fuhrer Bunker, others remained getting increasingly intoxicated to be taken prisoner by the Russians, whilst some such as General Hans Krebs and General Wilhelm Burgdorf shot themselves.

Martin Bormann fled the Bunker in a group including the Leader of the Hitler Youth Artur Axmann, the SS Doctor Ludwig Stumpfegger, and Hans Bauer, Hitler’s pilot, and accompanied by a small number of troops and a Tiger tank but they did not get far and were held up at the Wiedenhammer Bridge across the River Spree where the tank was destroyed.

Fearing the worst Axmann now decided to leave the group and make his way through the Russian lines on his own as best he could but upon encountering a Russian patrol was forced to retrace his steps. He was later to describe how he stumbled across the bodies of his previous companions whom he presumed were dead but that he did not have the time to check and make sure.

In 1972 bodies were discovered at a site less than 50 yards from where Axmann described having seen the bodies but there remained some doubt as to whether they were the remains of Martin Bormann until 1998 when DNA testing ordered by the German Government confirmed them to be so.

On 2 May, General Wiedling surrendered the Berlin garrison unconditionally to the Russians and the insane, delusional, Wagnerian melodrama of the Fuhrer Bunker came to an end.

A week later on 8 May 1945, Grand-Admiral Karl Doenitz surrendered Germany.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked