Gottendammerung in Hitler’s Bunker

Antony Beevor is now working on a book about D-Day. Funnily enough, despite the many hundreds of books written on the subject, only a few really stand out; and there has never before been a full account looking at the subject from all sides, as Antony is now doing. Such are the sources for the Second World War, there is still plenty of new material that can be unearthed; and Antony has already discovered quite a lot. Pubication is still a couple of years off, but it promises to be more than worth the wait.

Anyway, Antony’s contribution to this site goes back to his earlier work on Berlin: The Downfall, and the final surreal days in Hitler’s bunker in the heart of the blasted city…

Gottendammerung in Hitler’s Bunker by Antony Beevor

During the last days of April 1945, Adolf Hitler continued to deceive the German people just as he deluded himself. Marshal Zhukov had broken into Berlin with eight armies, yet despite odds of fifteen to one, Hitler claimed that a decisive victory was within their grasp. He raved about grandiose formations counter-attacking Soviet guards tank armies. In reality his reserves consisted of no more than a few exhausted, battalions armed with panzerfaust anti-tank weapons and Hitler Youth squads on bicycles.

During the withdrawal into the centre of the city, SS execution squads went about their hangman’s work with an increased urgency and cold fanaticism. Around the Kurfuerstendamm, SS squads entered houses where white flags had appeared and shot down any men they found. Goebbels, terrified of the momentum of collapse, described these signs of surrender as a plague bacillusae.

The Fuehrer bunker under the Reichschancellery garden lacked proper signalling facilities, despite all the efforts and expense that had gone into its construction. The two army staff officers left, Major Freytag von Loringhoven and Captain Boldt, had only one way to discover the extent of the Red Army’s advance. They rang civilian apartments around the city, picking numbers at random from the Berlin directory.
Most of the Nazi Party leaders in the bunker sat around drinking. They loitered in the corridors, discussing whether suicide was better by gun or by cyanide. Everyone assumed that nobody would leave the bunker alive. This was the final haven into which Josef and Magda Goebbels had brought their six children. Freytag von Loringhoven was at the bottom of the stairs when he suddenly saw Magda Goebbels descend the concrete stairs followed by her children. She looked very ladylike, he told me. The six children ranged from twelve years-old down to five: Helga, Hilde, Helmut, Holde, Hedda and Heide. Their first names, all beginning with the same letter, had been chosen to honour the place in the alphabet marked by the Fuehrer’s name. They descended the stairs like a school crocodile. Their pale faces stood out against their dark coats. Helga, the eldest, looked very sad, but she did not cry. Hitler approved of the decision by Josef and Magda Goebbels to kill their children before they killed themselves. This proof of total loyalty prompted him to present Magda with his own gold Nazi Party badge. The arrival of the children in the bunker had a momentarily sobering effect. Everyone who saw them enter knew that they would be murdered by their parents as part of a Fuehrerdammerung.

The sense of unreality in that concrete underworld, a ‘mixture of hysteria and resignation’ as one visitor put it, underlined the refusal to understand the fate of soldiers and civilians in the city around them. The defenders elderly Volkssturm militia, Hitler Youth and SS suffered from thirst, dust, smoke and hunger as they tried to defend ruined buildings. Civilians, mainly women and children cowering in cellars, were abandoned to their fate, which all too often consisted of sudden death in the house-to-house fighting, mass looting and rape.
On 28 April, in the middle of the afternoon, Hitler was told of a report on Stockholm radio that the Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler had been in touch with the Allies. That evening, Lorenz, Hitler’s press attache arrived with a copy of Reuter’s confirmation of the story. All Hitler’s resentments and suspicions exploded. He was white with anger and shock. He ordered that SS Gruppenfuehrer Fegelein, the husband of Eva Braun’s sister Gretl, should be interrogated. Fegelein admitted that he had known of Himmler’s approach to Count Bernadotte of the Swedish Red Cross. Freytag von Loringhoven told me how he watched Fegelein being marched upstairs under heavy SS escort. All badges of rank, his Knight’s Cross and other insignia had been torn from his uniform. Fegelein’s swagger had disappeared. He was executed in the Reich Chancellery garden.
Within hours of ordering the execution of Fegelein, Hitler married Fegelein’s sister-in-law, Eva Braun at around midnight. Goebbels had brought to Hitler’s private sitting room a minor Nazi official who had the authority to perform a civil wedding ceremony. Bemused and overawed by his responsibilities, this man had been summoned from guard duty. Hitler was in his usual tunic. Eva Braun wore a long black silk taffeta dress, one which he had often complimented her upon. Its colour was rather suitable in the circumstances. The very nervous official, following the Nazi wedding cermeony, had to ask both the Fuehrer and Fraulein Braun whether they were of pure Aryan descent and free from hereditary diseases. The proceedings took no more than a few minutes. Then came the signing of the register, with Goebbels and Martin Bormann as witnesses. Eva Braun began to write her usual name, but stopped, scratched out the ‘B’ and corrected the entry to ‘Eva Hitler, née Braun.’ Hitler’s signature was totally illegible, his hand was shaking so much.
The married couple emerged into the ante-room corridor which served as the bunker conference room. Generals and secretaries congratulated them. They then retired to the little sitting-room for a wedding breakfast with Champagne for the new Frau Hitler, as she now insisted on being called by servants. In a world of betrayal, Hitler had finally rewarded her for her unwavering loyalty. They were later joined by Bormann, Josef and Magda Goebbels, and the two remaining secretaries, Gerda Christian and Traudl Junge. Hitler took Junge away to another room where he dictated his political and personal testaments. She sat there in nervous excitement, expecting to hear at last a profound explanation of the great sacrifice’s true purpose. But instead a stream of political clichés, delusions and recriminations poured forth. He had never wanted war. It had been forced on him by international Jewish interests. The war, ‘in spite of all setbacks’, he claimed, ‘will one day go down in history as the most glorious and heroic manifestation of a people’s will to live’.

The rather sedate wedding party deep in the bunker was overtaken by much wilder behaviour closer to the surface. When Traudl Junge was finally released from her typing at around four in the morning on Sunday 29 April, and the Führer and Frau Hitler retired, she went upstairs to find some food for the Goebbels children. Theyr parents had forgotten to feed them. The scenes which she encountered, not far from where the wounded lay in the Reich

Chancellery’s underground field hospital, shocked her deeply. ‘An erotic fever seemed to have taken possession of everybody. Everywhere, even on the dentist’s chair, I saw bodies locked in lascivious embraces. The women had discarded all modesty and were freely exposing their private parts.’ SS officers who had been out searching cellars and streets for deserters to hang, had also been tempting hungry and impressionable young women back to the Reich Chancellery with promises of parties and inexhaustible supplies of food and Champagne. It was the apocalypse of totalitarian corruption, with the concrete submarine of the Reich Chancellery underworld providing an Existentialist theatre-set for hell.

In the Fuehrer bunker, the morning of Hitler’s death on 30 April was ‘like any other, with officers coming and going’, one of the SS guards told me. Yet the atmosphere was tense and emotional. Hitler, terrified that the cyanide capsules would not work, had insisted the day before that they should be tested on Blondi, his adored German shepherd bitch. Blondi’s absolute devotion was not enough to save her, nor her puppies which were taken up to the Reich Chancellery garden to be killed. The Goebbels children had been playing with the large-pawed puppies only a short time before.
Apart from Himmler’s betrayal, Hitler’s other great preoccupation remained his fear of being taken alive by the Russians. News had come through of Mussolini’s execution by partisans and how the bodies of the Duce and his mistress, Clara Petacci, had been hoisted upside down in Milan. A transcript of the radio report had been prepared in the special outsize Fuehrer typefac which saved Hitler from wearing spectacles. I found this in a Russian archive. It was presumably Hitler who underlined the words ‘hanged upside down’ in pencil. Hitler was determined that his own body should be burned to prevent its exhibition in Moscow. But the historical record also concerned him deeply. His bride was a willing companion in suicide, but if she had not been, he clearly would not have wanted her left alive for interrogation by his enemies. Death was an inescapable clause in their unwritten marriage contract.
During the night, confirmation had been received from Field Marshal Keitel that no relief could be expected. General Weidling, the commander of the defence of Berlin, estimated that resistance would collapse that night due to lack of ammunition. While Weidling was with Hitler, Eva Braun took Traudl Junge to her room. She presented her with the silver fox fur cape which she would clearly never wear again. Traudl Junge accepted the gift, but wondered how she was to escape from the centre of Berlin in a silver fox cape.

Before lunch, Hitler summoned his personal adjutant, Sturmbannfuehrer Otto Guensche, and gave him careful instructions on the disposal of his corpse and that of his wife. Hitler then sat down to eat with his two secretaries. Eva Braun, who had presumably lost her appetite, did not join them. Although Hitler appeared quite calm, little conversation was attempted. After lunch he joined his wife in her bedroom. A little later, they both appeared in the ante-room corridor where Guensche had assembled the inner circle. Goebbels, Bormann, General Krebs, General Burgdorf and the two secretaries made their final farewells. Magda Goebbels, evidently in a disturbed state, remained in her bunker room. Hitler wore his usual attire of ‘black trousers and a grey-green military jacket’. Eva Hitler wore a dark dress with ‘pink flowers on the front’.  Hitler shook hands with his closest associates in a distant manner, then left them.

The lower bunker was cleared, but instead of sepulchral silence, a loud noise of partying came from upstairs in the Reich Chancellery canteen. Rochus Misch, the SS telephonist, was ordered to ring to stop this levity, but nobody answered. Another guard was sent up to stop the festivities. Guensche and two other SS officers stood in the corridor with instructions to preserve the Fuehrer’s final privacy, but again it was broken, this time by Madga Goebbels begging to see him. She pushed past Guensche as the door was opened, but Hitler sent her away. She returned to her room sobbing.

Nobody seems to have heard the shot that Hitler fired into his own head. Not long after after 3.15 p.m., Hitler’s valet, Heinz Linge, followed by Guensche, Goebbels, Bormann and the recently arrived Hitler Youth leader, Artur Axmann, entered Hitler’s sitting room. Others peered over their shoulders before the door was shut in their faces. Guensche and Linge carried Hitler’s corpse, wrapped in a Wehrmacht blanket, out into the corridor and then up the stairs to the Reich Chancellery garden. At some point, Linge managed to pocket his master’s watch, although it did him little good because he had to get rid of it later when Soviet troops took him prisoner.
Eva Braun’s body, her lips were apparently puckered from the poison, was carried up and laid next to Hitler’s not far from the bunker exit. The two corpses were then drenched in petrol from the jerrycans. Goebbels, Bormann, Krebs and Burgdorf followed to pay their last respects. They raised their arms in the Hitler salute as a burning torch of paper or rag was dropped onto the two corpses. One of the SS guards, who had been drinking with the party in the canteen, watched from a side door. He hurried down the steps to the bunker. ‘The chief’s on fire’, he called to Rochus Misch. ‘Do you want to come and have a look?’

The day before Hitler died, a decision was taken in the Kremlin to send the SMERSH department of the 3rd Shock Army to the Reich Chancellery as soon as it was captured. On 2 May, the last day of fighting in Berlin, the SMERSH team must have been listening in to Red Army wavelengths, because they arrived within minutes of the report that the objective had been attacked.
A sapper detachment was also tasked to clear the building for them. Captain Shota Sulkhanishvili, who commanded these sappers, told me how uneasy he was to find that they were working with SMERSH. ‘My comrades and I tried to keep as far as possible from them’, he said. ‘We were afraid of them.’ But the SMERSH ‘operatives’ were also afraid, and they did exactly what the sappers told them until the place was thoroughly checked. In the garden the sappers came across two badly charred corpses which appeared to have ‘shrunk in size and looked like puppets’. The sappers were rapidly sent away. The SMERSH officers recognised the outsize head from caricatures in the Soviet press, and the orthopaedic boot confirmed whose body it was. Alongside, lay the body of Magda Goebbels, with the gold cigarette case and Hitler’s party badge. The SMERSH detachment, closely supervized by General Vadis, the chief of the SMERSH directorate with the 1st Belorussian Front, was naturally more preoccupied in finding Hitler’s body. (It was Vadis’s report, which we found in another Russian archive, which provided most of these details).
The pressure from Moscow was intense. That morning Pravda had declared that the announcement of Hitler’s death was just a fascist trick. The whole question of Hitler’s fate had begun to assume immense political significance before the facts were clear. Marshal Zhukov, well aware of Stalin’s intense interest in the matter, went to visit the Reich Chancellery that very day, even before the firing in the city had stopped. ‘They did not let me go down’, Zhukov said twenty years later, when he finally learned the truth. ‘It wasn’t safe down there’, they had told him.
The closest the SMERSH officers seemed to get to Hitler was going through his tunics in his room and looking at the portrait of Frederick the Great at which he used to stare. Rzhevskaya, meanwhile, had started work on Reich Chancellery documents. She discovered ten thick notebooks containing Goebbels’ diaries up to July 1941. She also found Raya, their signaller, trying on a white evening dress of Eva Braun’s, but rejecting it as indecent because of the decolletage. The young woman soldier selected no more than a pair of her blue shoes.
In the cellars, Professor Haase and Dr Kunz continued to look after the German wounded lying in the corridor. SMERSH officers meanwhile began filtering their prisoners, but they refused to believe what they were told about Hitler’s suicide. Vadis brought in more and more men to complete a minute search, but it was not easy underground. The electricity generator had broken down, so there was no light, except from torches, and the air in the bunker became heavy and damp without the ventilation system.
The lack of success prompted Stalin to order Beria to send another NKVD general to oversee the search and report back constantly. The bodies of the six Goebbels children were not discovered until 3 May. They were found under blankets in their three sets of bunk-beds. A dark blush lingered on their faces from the cyanide which made it look as if they were still alive and asleep. Vice-Admiral Voss, Hitler’s Kriegsmarine liaison officer, was brought in by SMERSH to identify them. Voss, apparently, looked absolutely devastated when he saw them. It appears that Magda Goebbels and the doctor who helped her had broken the jaw of the eldest girl when they tried to force a cyanide capsule into her mouth.
A very strange event occurred that day when generals from the 1st Belorussian Front visited the Reich Chancellery. The body of a man, with a small toothbrush moustache and diagonal fringe was found. The corpse was subsequently eliminated from the investigation because its socks were darned. The Führer, it was agreed, never wore darned socks. What has never been established was who had placed this body in the Reich Chancellery garden and why.
The interpreter Rzhevskaya, writing about the veil of secrecy thrown over the identification of Hitler’s body, emphasized that ‘Stalin’s system needed the presence of both external and internal enemies, and he feared the release of tension’. The double was presumably to be used as evidence of some sort of anti-Soviet plot. Even when Hitler’s real body was found on the very next day orders immediately came from the Kremlin that nobody was to breathe a word to anybody. Stalin’s strategy was to pretend that the British or Americans must be hiding him. Rumours already circulated at a high level that he had escaped through tunnels or by aeroplane at the last moment, and was hiding in American-occupied Bavaria.
On 4 May, the corpses of Hitler and Eva Braun were finally found after more interrogations. It was a windy day, with an overcast sky. A renewed and more thorough search of the Reich Chancellery garden was made. A SMERSH operative spotted the corner of a grey blanket in the earth at the bottom of shell crater. Two charred corpses were exhumed. The bodies of a German shpeherd dog and a puppy were found in the same pit. General Vadis was immediately informed.
Before dawn the next morning, Captain Deryabin and a driver wrapped the corpses of Hitler and Eva Braun in sheets and smuggled them out past the Red Army cordon. They drove them to the SMERSH base at Buch, on the north-east edge of Berlin. There, in a small brick clinic, the commission of military doctors, formed to examine Goebbels’ corpse, began work on the most important remnants of the Third Reich. Even Marshal Zhukov was not informed that Hitler’s body had been found.
Vadis, to be absolutely sure that they had the right corpse before he informed Beria and Stalin, ordered further checks. His men found the assistant of Hitler’s dentist and she recognized the bridgework. They jaws had been specially detached for the purpose. They were wrapped in tissue paper in a red fake-leather box – ‘the sort used for cheap jewellery’, observed Rzhevskaya, the SMERSH interpreter. On 7 May, Vadis felt confident enough of his facts to write his report, and it was this document which we found in the Russian archives.
On 8 May, news spread fast among Red Army troops in Berlin that Gy had surrendered. Young women soldiers wasted no time in washing their clothes while Red Army soldiers went on a frenzied hunt for alcohol. SMERSH officers shouted to Rzhevskaya to get ready for a party. Having been strictly instructed that she was not to allow Hitler’s jaws out of her grasp for a moment, she spent an awkward evening, pouring drinks for others with one hand, while clinging on to the fancy red box with the other. It was a wise decision to entrust them to a woman on that night of wild celebration.
In the middle of June in Berlin, Zhukov was asked about the death of Hitler at a press conference. He had to admit to the world that ‘we have not yet found an identified body.’ Around 10 July, Stalin again rang Zhukov to ask him where the body was. To play with Zhukov in this way clearly gave Stalin great pleasure. Zhukov, when he finally discovered the truth twenty years later from Rzhevskaya, still found it hard to accept that Stalin should have humiliated him in this way.
Hitler’s corpse remained on the other side of the Iron Curtain long after the Stalinist campaign of disinformation about his fate. In 1970, the Kremlin finally decided to dispose of the body in absolute secrecy. The funeral rites of the Third Reich’s leader were indeed macabre. Hitler’s jaws, kept so carefully in the red box by Rzhevskaya during the victory celebrations in Berlin, were retained by SMERSH while the NKVD kept the cranium. These remnants were recently rediscovered in the former Soviet archives. The rest of the body, which had been concealed beneath a Soviet army parade-ground in Magdeburg, was exhumed at night and burned. The ashes were flushed into the town sewage system.

© Antony Beevor. Berlin: The Downfall 1945 is published by Viking Penguin.

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