Adolf Hitler 1889–1945
In January 1945, with the Soviet Red Army bearing down on Germany, Hitler left his HQ in East Prussia and moved back to Berlin and into the Reich Chancellery. In April, he moved underground into the Chancellery’s air-raid shelter, a cavern of dimly lit rooms made of thick, high-quality concrete.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1990-048-29A / CC-BY-SA
Hitler’s health during his last few months deteriorated rapidly. In February he had to have an operation on his vocal cords as a result of so many years of shouting. Following the operation he was obliged to remain silent for a whole week.
Hitler refused to leave Berlin, and when he realized the war was truly lost, he decided to end his life.
Hitler looked much older than his fifty-six years – he shuffled around with a stoop, his left hand shook continuously, perhaps from the onset of Parkinson’s Disease, and he had to have daily doses of cocaine drops in his right eye to quell a new pain. He had fallen out with many of his senior colleagues – in particular Göring and Himmler. Goebbels, however, remained loyal to the last.
On 20 April, Hitler’s fifty-sixth and final birthday, a group of twenty Hitler Youth boys were lined up in the Chancellery for Hitler to inspect. In single file from the eldest to the youngest, Hitler, with his shaking left hand behind his back, shook hands with each child, pinching the cheek of the last, the youngest child. He delivered a brief speech and thanked them for their bravery before shuffling back into the bunker. It was to be Hitler’s last public appearance.
On 28 April, in a ten-minute ceremony, Hitler married his long-term girlfriend, Eva Braun. Twenty-three years his junior, the German public knew nothing of her. Her presence, although not a secret among the Nazi hierarchy, was not something Hitler wanted publicized lest it should diminish the adoration of Germany’s women for the Führer.
That evening Hitler dictated his will to his secretary, in which he drew up the composition of the government following his death. The admiral, Karl Donitz, was named as his successor, not as ‘Führer’ but as president.
On 29 April, with the Soviets barely 300 metres away, Hitler made preparations for his death. Benzene was brought in. Hitler insisted that his body be burnt after his death. He did not want his corpse to end up in Soviet hands, like an ‘exhibit in a cabinet of curiosities’. He ordered the testing of the newly arrived batch of cyanide capsules and the chosen victim was Hitler’s beloved Alsatian dog, Blondi.
On 30 April, Goebbels tried one last time to persuade the Führer to leave Berlin.
At just before four o’clock, after a series of farewells, Hitler and his wife of forty-eight hours retired to his study. Hitler wore upon his tunic his Iron Cross (First Class) and his Wounded Badge of the First World War. A shot was heard.
Hitler had shot himself through the right temple. Braun was also dead. She had taken the cyanide.
The bodies, covered in blankets, were carried out into the Chancellery garden. There, with artillery exploding around them and neighbouring buildings ablaze, Hitler’s wishes were honoured – 200 litres of benzene were poured over the corpses and they were set alight.
Ernst Röhm 1887–1934
An army captain from the First World War, Röhm joined the Freikorps and helped the Weimar Republic keep order during the turbulent post-war years.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-15282A / o.Ang. / CC-BY-SA
He met Hitler during the early days of the Nazi Party, resigned from the army and was appointed by Hitler as chief of the SA.
However, after Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in 1933, Röhm felt that Hitler had gone soft and had not given the SA due reward for helping the Nazis into power. The SA started talking of a ‘second revolution’ with Röhm the leader of the People’s Party, talk that greatly alarmed the industrialists and businessmen whom Hitler had managed to woo. Röhm wanted also to merge the army with the SA under his command, which, in turn, alarmed the army.
The SA’s violence that once, as a revolutionary, Hitler would have endorsed, had become an embarrassment. The SA’s agitation was beginning to damage the country’s stability, and President Hindenburg threatened to bring in martial law unless Hitler could bring the situation under control.
On the weekend of 30 June–1 July 1934, in what was to become known as the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, Hitler acted. Members of the SS stormed a hotel in the village of Bad Wiessee where the SA had gathered for a weekend of debauchery, pulled Röhm and his henchmen from their beds and had them arrested. They were all promptly executed, including Röhm who, having passed the opportunity to take his own life, was shot.
Paul von Hindenburg 1847–1934
Hindenburg had fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71 and had retired as commander of German armed forces in 1911. He was called back to office in 1914 and was instrumental in Germany’s success on the Eastern Front during the First World War.
Paul von Hindenburg
In 1925 he was elected president of the Weimar Republic and re-elected in 1932, defeating the Nazi Party. Despite the growing popularity of the Nazis, Hindenburg initially resisted calls to invite Hitler into his coalition government. However, persuaded by Franz von Papen, he relented and Hitler was appointed chancellor in January 1933. Increasingly senile, Hindenburg took little active part in the affairs of state.
Following the Riechstag Fire a month after Hitler’s appointment, Hindenburg allowed his chancellor to temporarily suspend the constitution until the threat to the country was eliminated (a measure that was never revoked).
Hindenburg died, aged eighty-six, in August 1934.
Joseph Goebbels 1897–1945
Having initially flirted with communism, Goebbels became a firm Nazi and a devotee of Hitler. Small in stature and impaired by a club foot, his diaries showed a man of great if warped intellect. In 1921, he gained a doctorate in philosophy.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-17049 / Unknown / CC-BY-SA
On coming to power, Hitler appointed Goebbels his propaganda minister, a role at which Goebbels excelled, controlling all forms of German media.
As the war turned against Germany, Goebbels’ devotion remained undiminished and in his broadcasts to the nation he urged the German population to show greater commitment to the cause.
Not wanting his children to live in a post-Nazi society, the day following Hitler’s suicide, Goebbels and his wife, Magda, poisoned their six children before taking their own lives.
Heinrich Himmler 1900–45
With his rimless glasses and small physique, Himmler’s appearance was at odds with his fearsome manner. After a stint in the army during the First World War, Himmler became a chicken farmer before joining the Nazis and taking part in the failed Munich Putsch of 1923. Hitler appointed him head of the SS and, in 1934, head of all Nazi security organs. Himmler played a vital role in the elimination of Hitler’s opponents during the ‘Night of the Long Knives’.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R99621 / CC-BY-SA
During the war he was responsible for coordinating the systematic murder of Jews and other victims of the Nazi regime. But as the war turned against Germany, Himmler sought peace negotiations with the Western allies in order to carry on the fight against the Soviet Union. Labelled a traitor by Hitler, he was stripped of all his responsibilities.
After Germany’s surrender, Himmler tried to escape detention, dressing up as a policeman. But caught by the British, Himmler committed suicide by poison before he could be brought to trial.
Hermann Göring 1893–1946
A dashing fighter pilot during the First World War, Göring joined the Nazi Party in 1922 and a year later was injured during the failed Munich Putsch, from where he escaped for four years into Austria.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13805 / CC-BY-SA
Göring helped Hitler in destroying the SA during the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ and in 1935 was appointed commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe. The following year he was also appointed economics minister. Göring’s grasp of economics was questionable but, with Hitler’s prompting, he introduced the Four-Year Plan, a more aggressive policy to prepare Germany for war.
Göring’s power fluctuated in line with the successes and failures of the Luftwaffe. After initial successes during the Polish and French campaigns in the first year of the Second World War, reverses during the Battle of Britain and Stalingrad, and the Luftwaffe’s failure to prevent the bombing of German cities, saw the decline of Göring’s influence.
Göring was tried at Nuremberg and sentenced to hang. His plea for death by firing squad, a ‘soldier’s death’, was refused and two hours before his execution he took his own life using poison that had been smuggled in to him.
Franz von Papen 1879–1969
Von Papen was appointed chancellor by President Hindenburg in 1932. However, in the elections of July that year, Papen’s authority was diminished by the success of the Nazi Party who polled almost 40 per cent of the vote. He offered Hitler a post within his cabinet which the Nazi leader turned down.
Franz Von Papen
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-S00017 / CC-BY-SA
A second election, in November 1932, signalled the end for von Papen as he lost his post as chancellor. But his replacement, Schleicher, also failed to command a majority with the Reichstag, so von Papen, intrigued with Hitler, suggesting Hitler become chancellor, with von Papen his vice-chancellor.
Von Papen took his proposal to Hindenburg, arguing it would be easier to contain Hitler inside the government rather than have him agitating from the outside. The power, von Papen maintained, would lie with himself. Hindenburg initially resisted but then changed his mind and in January 1933 Hitler was duly appointed chancellor, with von Papen at his side.
But von Papen’s scheme backfired and, unable to contain Hitler, he made a speech in June 1934 criticizing the SA’s violent methods.
Fortunate to escape with his life during the ‘Night of the Long Knives’, von Papen resigned as vice-chancellor and took up an appointment as German ambassador in Austria where he played a role in the Anschluss.
Tried at Nuremberg, Von Papen was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment but was released after two.
Benito Mussolini 1883–1945
Mussolini worked as a schoolteacher and journalist and was wounded during the First World War. Having been a socialist, after the war Mussolini formed the Fascist Party.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-2007-1022-506 / CC-BY-SA
In 1922, with Italy on the brink of civil war between the far-right and communist groups, Mussolini demanded the installation of a fascist government. The Italian king, Victor Emmanuel III, wanting to avoid a conflict, invited Mussolini to Rome to form a government, an event known as the ‘March on Rome’.
The Fascist Party won the election of 1924, and within two years Mussolini was ruling as dictator, or Duce, suppressing all opposition and dissent.
Initially, Mussolini opposed Germany’s Nazism, especially Hitler’s claim on Austria. Mussolini was friends with the Austrian leader, Engelbert Dollfuss, and following Dollfuss’ assassination in 1934, Mussolini pledged his support to Austria.
However, after international condemnation of Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia, Mussolini sided with Hitler and in 1936 the two nations formed the Axis.
After an initial delay, Italy joined the war in June 1940, but her campaigns into Greece and North Africa were disastrous and needed Germany’s intervention.
By July 1943, the Allies had invaded Italy, and unable to maintain support, Mussolini was summoned by the king, dismissed, arrested and imprisoned as Italy swapped sides and joined the Allies.
In mid-September, on Hitler’s orders, Mussolini was sprung from his captivity, taken to Germany, and returned to Italy as a puppet head of a fascist republic in German-occupied northern Italy.
With the end in sight, Mussolini, his mistress, Clara Petacci, and a few followers attempted to escape into Switzerland. Stopped by Italian partisans, Mussolini’s attempts to disguise himself with a Luftwaffe overcoat and helmet failed, and on 28 April 1945, at Lake Como, Mussolini and Petacci were shot. Their bodies were transported to Milan where they were beaten and urinated upon and finally left to hang upside down for public display.
Neville Chamberlain 1869–1940
Before the Second World War, Chamberlain served as the Conservative minister of health and chancellor of the exchequer. In May 1937, the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, resigned and Chamberlain took his place.
His time as prime minister was dominated by foreign affairs, namely Britain’s dealings with Germany. Pursuing a policy of appeasement, Chamberlain believed in meeting Hitler’s grievances, which he felt were, in the main, justified. Having negotiated an end to the Czechoslovakian crisis in 1938, he returned to Britain convinced that Hitler, as an honourable man, had been satisfied. Between them, Chamberlain and Hitler had secured ‘peace for our time’.
The next crisis, over Poland, illustrated Chamberlain’s folly in believing appeasement could contain Hitler, and Chamberlain was quick to offer a guarantee to Poland.
Chamberlain kept his word and, when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain declared war on Germany.
The government’s handling of the Norwegian campaign was heavily criticized, and following the capitulation of Norway and Denmark, Chamberlain, unable to form a coalition government, was forced to resign. His successor, in May 1940, was Winston Churchill.
Already ill, Chamberlain was dead within six months.