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Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich

by Joachim Fest, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo; Picador, New York, 2005, $13.

In their regular air attacks on Berlin after 1943, British and American air forces dropped 65,000 tons of high explosive on the Nazi capital. In the last two weeks of April 1945, the Red Army fired 40,000 more tons of high ordnance into the city. By the time the Soviets fought their way out of the cellars of the Reichstag building and into the heart of Berlin on May 2, they had created an estimated 39 cubic yards of rubble for every one of Berlin’s 4 million inhabitants.

What survived on this fire-raked chopping block? What sort of decisions were taken and executed on it? What happened to Adolf Hitler’s physical and psychological health as the pounding and danger intensified? These are the questions posed and answered in Joachim Fest’s gripping narrative of Hitler’s final days in the Führerbunker.

The last historian to peer inside Hitler’s bunker was Hugh Trevor-Roper, who was dispatched to Berlin in September 1945 by British and American intelligence to ascertain Hitler’s fate. The Führer, Trevor-Roper reminisced in the third edition of The Last Days of Hitler (1947), was presumed to have slipped away with Nazi Party Secretary Martin Bormann to, variously, “a mist-enshrouded island in the Baltic…a Rhineland rock-fortress…a Spanish monastery…a South American ranch, or to friendly bandits of mountainous Albania.”

It is arresting to picture Hitler and Bormann on an Argentine estancia herding Angus steers, or sitting around an Albanian campfire sharpening their long knives, but the Führer’s real fate was actually witnessed by a dozen inhabitants of the bunker. Trevor-Roper spoke to several of them in 1945, and Fest has spoken to the rest, read their memoirs and drawn on a wealth of newer scholarship about the Battle of Berlin and the last days of Hitler, like Erich Kuby’s Die Russen in Berlin (1965) and Uwe Bahnsen and James O’Donnell’s Die Katakombe (1975). Hitler and Eva Braun took cyanide— after testing the dosage on Hitler’s dog Blondi—and then had their remains burned by SS guards. Hitler also shot himself in the head, or had a guard shoot him in the head, after taking the poison. (That, apparently, was how real men took their lives in the Thousand Year Reich.)

The two outstanding points of this book are Hitler’s selfishness and the sheer insanity of his final days. The selfishness was always there, from the early days of ranting to all who would listen in the Vienna men’s shelter. But it reached its apogee in Berlin, where Hitler, his once impressive powers fading away (he was stooped, bleary-eyed and covered in crumbs and dandruff), issued orders intended to kill or discomfit even ardent loyalists. Thus, a great Luftwaffe pilot was summoned back to Berlin and forced to land on a street near the bunker—with the Russians installed in the city center and blazing away at everything that moved—simply to convey a routine message that could have been telephoned.

When Hitler decided to kill himself, he forced his orderlies and SS bodyguards to lug sloshing jerrycans of gasoline through a Russian crossfire so that he could be cremated. It apparently never even occurred to him that they might be cremated by their errand.

The insanity of the final days boiled down to this: With Marshals Georgi Zhukov and Ivan Konev converging on Berlin, Hitler invented whole armies and issued fantastic orders to them, and the delusional men around him—Wilhelm Keitel, Josef Goebbels, Bormann and a score of flunkeys—pretended that the fictitious armies existed! Hermann Göring, of course, was lucid to the end. The Reich’s plump vizier removed himself and his treasures to Bavaria at the last possible moment, as the Russian pincers closed on the center of Berlin. Fest describes Göring’s last encounter with Hitler quite differently from Trevor-Roper, a good example of how new research has colored in the big blanks in the 1947 book. Whereas Trevor-Roper merely has Göring attending Hitler’s rather jolly birthday party in the bunker on April 20 along with other Nazi luminaries, Fest discovers that the party was not jolly at all. Hitler was a cringing wreck and—sensing Göring’s eagerness to bolt the bunker and escape Berlin before the Russians surrounded the city—he spitefully prolonged the maudlin gathering, enjoying the spectacle of an anxious Göring tapping his feet and checking his watch.

Trevor-Roper’s urbane style is hard to set aside, but Fest’s Inside Hitler’s Bunker is the new standard study for an understanding of the Führer’s final days and the last gasp of the Thousand Year Reich.


Originally published in the June 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.