Adolf Hitler, the Führer of the German Reich, committed suicide in his Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945.
By January 1945, it was obvious to all except the most fanatical Nazis that Germany was going to lose World War II. That month, Hitler took up permanent residence in the Führerbunker, a subterranean complex located in the gardens of the Reich Chancellery in central Berlin. With American bombers attacking the German capitol by day and the British bombers attacking by night, Hitler transferred his command apparatus to this specially constructed air raid shelter.
Despite the move, Hitler claimed to remain steadfast in the face of repeated military defeats on all fronts. The previous June, American and British forces landed in German-occupied France, quickly pushing Hitler's forces before them, and retaking Paris by August. After Hitler's December offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, failed to deliver a knockout blow to the Allies, American and British forces began the invasion of Germany proper.
That same June had seen events deteriorate for the Third Reich in the east, as well. On June 22, 1944, three years to the day that Hitler had unleashed the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Red Army executed "Operation Bagration," a massive offensive that crushed the German Army Group Center and ended in August with Soviet forces at the gates of Warsaw. The Germans had finally been expelled from the Soviet Union and were now preparing to defend the German borders.
With the Americans and the British advancing in the west and the Red Army barreling in from the east, Hitler insisted that any setbacks to Germany were only temporary and reversible. He predicted that the unnatural alliance between the capitalist powers of the west and the communist Soviet Union would break down eventually, and he only had to play for time. What Hitler failed to realize, however, was that he himself was the fundamental cog that held the Allies together. Whatever distrust existed between President Harry Truman and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill on one end, and Soviet leader Josef Stalin on the other, they were swept aside when compared with their mutual detestation for Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich.
On March 19, 1945, Hitler issued his famous "Nero" decree, in which he ordered his minister for armaments, Albert Speer, to lay waste all German buildings and infrastructure that the Allies were about to capture. In this he was hoping to emulate the tactics of the Soviet people in Russia during the German advance. Central Europe, however, was not the desolate wastes of Russia, and the order made little sense. Speer, and sympathetic German army commanders, ignored the decree.
A few weeks later Speer confessed to Hitler that he had not carried out the order, and though Hitler was not pleased, he did not take any punitive action against Speer, who had long been his favorite architect. At the same time Hitler's Gestapo was rounding up and executing those suspected of defeatism or shirking their duties, which usually required old men and young boys to stand up to Soviet tanks with little training and poor weapons.
April 20 was Hitler's 56th birthday, and several members of the Nazi leadership attended, including nominal second-in-command Hermann Goering, SS leader Heinrich Himmler and propaganda minister Josef Goebbels. After a grim celebration most departed, hoping to escape the Soviet encirclement of Berlin, which occurred soon after. Goebbels stayed, and soon had his wife and their six children join him at the Führerbunker.
A few days later Speer braved the Soviet encirclement and flew into Berlin for one final meeting with his master. In his post-war memoir, “Inside the Third Reich,” Speer describes Hitler's deteriorating state: “Trembling, the prematurely aged man stood before me for the last time; the man to whom I had dedicated my life 12 years before. I was both moved and confused. For his part, he showed no emotion when we confronted one another. His words were as cold as his hand: 'So, you're leaving? Good. Auf Wiedersehen.' No regards to my family, no wishes, no thanks, no farewell. For a moment I lost my composure, said something about coming back. But he could easily see that it was a white lie, and turned his attention to something else. I was dismissed.”
With the Soviets now completely surrounding central Berlin, and tightening their ring every minute, even Hitler had to admit the end was finally near. He gave permission for many of his Führerbunker staff to leave and try to break through the Soviet lines. Finally, on April 29, he married Eva Braun, his companion since the early 1930s. It has been suggested that Hitler, ever the sentimentalist when it came to his closest companions, married her more to reward her for her long devotion that out of any genuine sense of love, though no one can say for sure.
Together they had decided to commit suicide rather than fall into the hands of the Russians. Seeing the way the body of his Axis partner Benito Mussolini had been desecrated by Italian partisans a few weeks earlier, Hitler ordered his followers to burn his and his wife's bodies. In her post-war memoir, “Hitler's Last Secretary: A First-Hand Account of Life with Hitler,” Traudl Junge writes of her last meeting with Hitler and his wife before their deaths:
“He comes very slowly out of his room, stooping more than ever, stands in the open doorway and shakes hands with everyone. I feel his right hand warm in mine, he looks at me but he isn't seeing me. He seems to be far away. He says something to me, but I don't hear it. I didn't take in his last words. The moment we've been waiting for has come now, and I am frozen and scarcely notice what's going on around me. Only when Eva Braun comes over to see me is the spell broken a little. She smiles and embraces me. 'Please do try to get out. You may yet make your way through. And give Bavaria my love,' she says, smiling but with a sob in her voice. She is wearing the Führer's favorite dress, the black one with the roses at the neckline, and her hair is washed and beautifully done. Like that, she follows the Führer into his room — and to her death. The heavy iron door closes.”
On April 30, Hitler bit down on a cyanide capsule as he simultaneously shot himself in the head. His wife also bit a cyanide capsule. The two bodies were carried outside into the gardens and placed into a pit, covered in petrol and set ablaze.
Before his death, Hitler had deconstructed the legal office of Führer into its constituent positions — president and chancellor — and named in his will Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, who was continuing to fight in northwest Germany, Reich president, while naming Goebbels chancellor. After serving in his new office for one day Goebbels and his wife also committed suicide, but not before poisoning their six children.
Dönitz continued the struggle for one week after Hitler's death, largely to ensure that more German soldiers could flee west and surrender to the Americans and the British, rather than the brutal and vengeful Russians. Finally, on May 7-8, after U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower threatened to close Allied lines to more prisoners, Dönitz agreed to Germany's complete surrender.
As the Allied armies drove deeper into the Third Reich in 1944-45, they had discovered the full extent of Nazi evil in concentration camps and death camps scattered throughout central Europe. In addition to those killed in a war created solely to feed Hitler's mania, millions of innocents perished in such camps. The victims included the mentally and physically challenged, Slavs, Gypsies, Christian clergy, POWs, homosexuals, communists, social democrats and the Jews, who bore the brunt of Nazi hatred.
Hitler's death signaled the end of Nazi barbarism, which he had created.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at Salt Lake Community College. He is also the co-developer of the popular History Challenge iPhone/iPad apps. Email: [email protected]