On 16 April 1945, Marshal Zhukov’s First Belorussian Front launched a massive offensive on the Seelow Heights, east of Berlin. It was the beginning of the last major battle of the war in Europe.
‘At last it was the end of the war,’ says Vladlen Anchishkin, an officer with a mortar unit involved in the Battle for Berlin, ‘it was a triumph and it was like a race, like a long distance race, the end of the race.’
Red Army soldiers had fought in the most extreme conditions, had seen their own motherland devastated, and many had already wreaked revenge on the Germans from the moment they had crossed into German territory. ‘In the end, in the war itself, people go mad,’ says Vladlen Anchishkin. ‘They become like beasts. You shouldn’t consider a soldier an intellectual. Even when an intellectual becomes a soldier, and he sees the blood and intestines and the brains, then the instinct of self preservation begins to work… And he loses all the humanitarian features inside himself. A soldier turns into a beast.’
These Red Army soldiers would be in Berlin in a matter of days. And it was here, in a bunker underneath the new Reich Chancellery, that Hitler awaited them. On 20 April, Hitler ‘celebrated’ his 56th birthday as the capital disintegrated around him.
Hitler had decided that he would stay in Berlin, rather than be flown to the relative safety of the mo
untains of Berchtesgaden. But others in his entourage had no such desire to meet their end in the German capital. Hermann Goering had already made sure that his wife and daughter had been taken south to Bavaria, and he would soon follow himself. Of the leading Nazis who had been with Hitler since the ‘early days of struggle’ only Martin Bormann and Josef Goebbels stayed with their leader in these last days of the Reich.
All of Hitler’s pent up rage, hatred and disappointment at this desperate situation finally broke through two days after his birthday at a meeting on the afternoon of 22 April. (It is this scene – portrayed in the film ‘Downfall’ - that is lampooned on YouTube, with jokey subtitles written underneath Hitler’s rantings.) When Hitler heard that a counter attack he had ordered had not taken place – such an offensive against the Red Army was simply impossible – he raged at his senior officers. Even for hardened men used to their Fuehrer’s fury, this intensity was something new. Hitler screamed of ‘betrayal’, and then, after thirty minutes or so, admitted that he felt the war was lost. He announced that he had decided to kill himself when the enemy was close.
It was an extraordinary moment. Throughout all of the previous disasters that had beset the German armed forces since the fall of Stalingrad at the start of 1943, Hitler had managed never to fall prey to outright defeatism – at least in public. Yet here, in front of key military figures like Keitel and Jodl, he had just confessed that the war was over. Admittedly, Hitler had not accepted defeat until the Red Army were in the suburbs of Berlin. And to that extent he had stayed true to his promise, that this war would not end with what the Nazis called the ‘stab in the back’ of the First World War, when the armistice had been announced when German soldiers were not fighting on German soil.
Goebbels came to see Hitler that evening, and confirmed that he would be staying till the very end, along with his wife and children. An insight into the mentality of the Nazi propaganda chief in these last days of the Reich can be gained from a speech he gave to his staff shortly before the Red Army arrived in Berlin. Goebbels said that one day a heroic film would be made about these events, and asked his comrades: ‘Gentlemen, don’t you want to play a part in this film, to be brought back to life in a hundred years time? Everybody now has the chance to choose the part which he will play in a film a hundred years hence. I can assure you that it will be a fine and elevating picture. And for the sake of this prospect it is worth standing fast. Hold out now, so that a hundred years hence the audience does not hoot and whistle when you appear on the screen.’i
This sense Geobbels expressed of death as a redemptive force, matched with the views of his boss, Adolf Hitler. He, remember, had remarked on 1 February 1943, after he learnt that Field Marshal Paulus had allowed himself to be captured alive at Stalingrad: ‘What hurts me so much, is that the heroism of so many soldiers is cancelled out by one single characterless weakling… What is ‘life’?... the individual must die anyway. It is the nation which lives on after the individual…’ii
But, of course, Hitler knew in April 1945 that the Germany he desired would not ‘live on’ after his death. And that knowledge had been behind his infamous ‘scorched earth’ order, issued several weeks before, calling for the total destruction of all German infrastructure.
In the last days of his existence, in the feted atmosphere of the bunker, Hitler said that he faced his own death without fear. ‘Believe me, Speer,’ Hitler told Albert Speer, at their last meeting, ‘it is easy for me to end my life. A brief moment and I am free of everything, liberated from this painful existence.’iii
(Speer did not share his master’s taste for immediate extinction – either for himself or for Germany. He left the bunker after this meeting with Hitler in order to save himself. He had also been trying to countermand the Fuehrer’s ‘scorched earth’ order for weeks.)
On 29 April, the day before Hitler killed himself, he dictated his ‘political testament’. It’s a document that reveals he died consistent to the last. Not only did he still explicitly blame the Jews and Jewish influence for starting the war, but he called on the future leaders of Germany to follow ‘scrupulous observance of the laws of race’ and to maintain ‘merciless opposition to the universal poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry.’
Hitler’s chief characteristic had always been his limitless capacity to hate. And that hatred lived on until his last breath.
At around 3.30 in the afternoon of 30 April 1945 Adolf Hitler – along with his new wife, Eva (nee Braun) – committed suicide. Just over a week later, on 8 May, Germany surrendered unconditionally.
Laurence Rees, Selling Politics
, BBC Books, 1992, p. 100 ii
General Walter Warlimont, Inside Hitler’s Headquarters, 1939-45
, Presido Press, 1964, pp. 303-6iii
Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich
, Phoenix, 1996, p. 640