During the afternoon of April 29 one of the last pieces of news to reach the bunker from the outside world came in. Mussolini, Hitler’s fellow fascist dictator and partner in aggression, had met his end and it had been shared by his mistress, Clara Petacci.
They had been caught by Italian partisans on April 27 while trying to escape from Como into Switzerland, and executed two days later. On the Saturday night of April 28 the bodies were brought to Milan in a truck and dumped on the piazza. The next day they were strung up by the heels from lampposts and later cut down so that throughout the rest of the Sabbath day they lay in the gutter, where vengeful Italians reviled them. On May Day Benito Mussolini was buried beside his mistress in the paupers’ plot in the Cimitero Maggiore in Milan. In such a macabre climax of degradation II Duce and Fascism passed into history.
It is not known how many of the details of the Duce’s shabby end were communicated to the Fuehrer. One can only speculate that if he heard many of them he was only strengthened in his resolve not to allow himself or his bride to be made a “spectacle, presented by the Jews, to divert their hysterical masses,”—as he had just written in his Testament—not their live selves or their bodies.
Shortly after receiving the news of Mussolini’s death Hitler began to make the final preparations for his. He had his favorite Alsatian dog, Blondi, poisoned and two other dogs in the household shot. Then he called in his two remaining women secretaries and handed them capsules of poison to use if they wished to when the barbarian Russians broke in. He was sorry, he said, not to be able to give them a better farewell gift, and he expressed his appreciation for their long and loyal service.
Evening had now come, the last of Adolf Hitler’s life. He instructed Frau Junge, one of his secretaries, to destroy the remaining papers in his files and he sent out word that no one in the bunker was to go to bed until further orders. This was interpreted by all as meaning that he judged the time had come to make his farewells. But it was not until long after midnight, at about 2:30 A.M. of April 30, as several witnesses recall, that the Fuehrer emerged from his private quarters and appeared in the general dining passage, where some twenty persons, mostly the women members of his entourage, were assembled. He walked down the line shaking hands with each and mumbling a few words that were inaudible. There was a heavy film of moisture on his eyes and, as Frau Junge remembered, “they seemed to be looking far away, beyond the walls of the bunker.”
After he retired, a curious thing happened. The tension which had been building up to an almost unendurable point in the bunker broke, and several persons went to the canteen—to dance. The weird party soon became so noisy that word was sent from the Fuehrer’s quarters requesting more quiet. The Russians might come in a few hours and kill them all—though most of them were already thinking of how they could escape—but in the meantime for a brief spell, now that the Fuehrer’s strict control of their lives was over, they would seek pleasure where and how they could find it. The sense of relief among these people seems to have been enormous and they danced on through the night.
Not Bormann. This murky man still had work to do. His own prospects for survival seemed to be diminishing. There might not be a long enough interval between the Fuehrer’s death and the arrival of the Russians in which he could escape to Doenitz. If not, while the Fuehrer still lived and thus clothed his orders with authority, Bormann could at least exact further revenge on the “traitors.” He dispatched during this last night a further message to Doenitz.
Our impression grows daily stronger that the divisions in the Berlin theater have been standing idle for several days. All the reports we receive are controlled, suppressed, or distorted by Keitel … The Fuehrer orders you to proceed at once, and mercilessly, against all traitors.
And then, though he knew that Hitler’s death was only hours away, he added a postscript, “The Fuehrer is alive, and is conducting the defense of Berlin.”
But Berlin was no longer defensible. The Russians already had occupied almost all of the city. It was now merely a question of the defense of the Chancellery. It too was doomed, as Hitler and Bormann learned at the situation conference at noon on April 30, the last that was ever to take place. The Russians had reached the eastern end of the Tiergarten and broken into the Potsdamerplatz. They were just a block away. The hour for Adolf Hitler to carry out his resolve had come.
His bride apparently had no appetite for lunch that day and Hitler took his repast with his two secretaries and with his vegetarian cook, who perhaps did not realize that she had prepared his last meal. While they were finishing their lunch at about 2:30 P.M., Erich Kempka, the Fuehrer’s chauffeur, who was in charge of the Chancellery garage, received an order to deliver immediately 200 liters of gasoline in jerricans to the Chancellery garden. Kempka had some difficulty in rounding up so much fuel but he managed to collect some 180 liters and with the help of three men carried it to the emergency exit of the bunker.24
While the oil to provide the fire for the Viking funeral was being collected, Hitler, having done with his last meal, fetched Eva Braun for another and final farewell to his most intimate collaborators: Dr. Goebbels, Generals Krebs and Burgdorf, the secretaries and Fräulein Manzialy, the cook. Frau Goebbels did not appear. This formidable and beautiful blond woman had, like Eva Braun, found it easy to make the decision to die with her husband, but the prospect of killing her six young children, who had been playing merrily in the underground shelter these last days without an inkling of what was in store for them, unnerved her.
“My dear Hanna,” she had said to Fräulein Reitsch two or three evenings before, “when the end comes you must help me if I become weak about the children … They belong to the Third Reich and to the Fuehrer, and if these two cease to exist there can be no further place for them. My greatest fear is that at the last moment I will be too weak.” Alone in her little room she was now striving to overcome her greatest fear.*
Hitler and Eva Braun had no such problem. They had only their own lives to take. They finished their farewells and retired to their rooms. Outside in the passageway, Dr. Goebbels, Bormann and a few others waited. In a few moments a revolver shot was heard. They waited for a second one, but there was only silence. After a decent interval they quietly entered the Fuehrer’s quarters. They found the body of Adolf Hitler sprawled on the sofa dripping blood. He had shot himself in the mouth. At his side lay Eva Braun. Two revolvers had tumbled to the floor, but the bride had not used hers. She had swallowed poison.
It was 3:30 P.M. on Monday, April 30, 1945, ten days after Adolf Hitler’s fifty-sixth birthday, and twelve years and three months to a day since he had become Chancellor of Germany and had instituted the Third Reich. It would survive him but a week.
The Viking funeral followed. There were no words spoken; the only sound was the roar of Russian shells exploding in the garden of the Chancellery and on the shattered walls around it. Hitler’s valet, S.S. Sturm-bannfuehrer Heinz Linge, and an orderly carried out the Fuehrer’s body, wrapped in an Army field-gray blanket, which concealed the shattered face. Kempka identified it in his own mind by the black trousers and shoes which protruded from the blanket and which the warlord always wore with his field-gray jacket. Eva Braun’s death had been cleaner, there was no blood, and Bormann carried out her body just as it was to the passage, where he turned it over to Kempka.
Frau Hitler [the chauffeur later recounted] wore a dark dress … I could not recognize any injuries to the body.
The corpses were carried up to the garden and during a lull in the bombardment placed in a shell hole and ignited with gasoline. The mourners, headed by Goebbels and Bormann, withdrew to the shelter of the emergency exit and as the flames mounted stood at attention and raised their right hands in a farewell Nazi salute. It was a brief ceremony, for Red Army shells began to spatter the garden again and the survivors retired to the safety of the bunker, leaving the gasoline-fed flames to complete the work of eradicating the last earthly remains of Adolf Hitler and his wife.*For Bormann and Goebbels, there were still tasks to perform in the Third Reich, now bereft of its founder and dictator, though they were not the same tasks.
There had not yet been time for the messengers to reach Doenitz with the Fuehrer’s testament appointing him as his successor. The admiral would now have to be informed by radio. But even at this point, with power slipped from his hands, Bormann hesitated. It was difficult to one who had savored it to give it up so abruptly. Finally he got off a message.
GRAND ADMIRAL DOENITZ:
In place of the former Reich Marshal Goering the Fuehrer appoints you as his successor. Written authority is on its way. You will immediately take all such measures as the situation requires.
There was not a word that Hitler was dead.
The Admiral, who was in command of all German forces in the north and had moved his headquarters to Ploen in Schleswig, was flabbergasted at the news. Unlike the party leaders, he had no desire to succeed Hitler; the thought had never entered his sailor’s head. Two days before, believing that Himmler would inherit the succession, he had gone to the S.S. chief and offered him his support. But since it would never have occurred to him to disobey an order of the Fuehrer, he sent the following reply, in the belief that Adolf Hitler was still alive.
My loyalty to you will be unconditional. I shall do everything possible to relieve you in Berlin. If fate nevertheless compels me to rule the Reich as your appointed successor, I shall continue this war to an end worthy of the unique, heroic struggle of the German people.
GRAND ADMIRAL DOENITZ
That night Bormann and Goebbels had a fresh idea. They decided to try to negotiate with the Russians. General Krebs, the Chief of the Army General Staff, who had remained in the bunker, had once been the assistant military attaché in Moscow, spoke Russian, and on one famous occasion had even been embraced by Stalin at the Moscow railway station. Perhaps he could get something out of the Bolsheviks; specifically, what Goebbels and Bormann wanted was a safe-conduct for themselves so that they could take their appointed places in the new Doenitz government. In return for this they were prepared to surrender Berlin.
General Krebs set out shortly after midnight of April 30-May 1 to see General Chuikov,* the Soviet commander of the troops fighting in Berlin. One of the German officers accompanying him has recorded the opening of their conversation.
KREBS: Today is the First of May, a great holiday for our two nations.†
CHUIKOV: We have a great holiday today. How things are with you over there it is hard to say.25
The Russian General demanded the unconditional surrender of everyone in the Fuehrer’s bunker as well as of the remaining German troops in Berlin.
It took Krebs some time to carry out his mission, and when he had not returned by 11 A.M. on May 1 the impatient Bormann dispatched another radio message to Doenitz.
The Testament is in force. I will join you as soon as possible. Till then, I recommend that publication be held up.
This was still ambiguous. Bormann simply could not be straightforward enough to say that the Fuehrer was dead. He wanted to get out to be the first to inform Doenitz of the momentous news and thereby help to insure his favor with the new Commander in Chief. But Goebbels, who with his wife and children was about to die, had no such reason for not telling the Admiral the simple truth. At 3:15 P.M. he got off his own message to Doenitz—the last radio communication ever to leave the beleaguered bunker in Berlin.
GRAND ADMIRAL DOENITZ
The Fuehrer died yesterday at 1530 hours [3:30 P.M.]. Testament of April 29 appoints you as Reich President … [There follow the names of the principal cabinet appointments.]
By order of the Fuehrer the Testament has been sent out of Berlin to you … Bormann intends to go to you today and to inform you of the situation. Time and form of announcement to the press and to the troops is left to you. Confirm receipt.
Goebbels did not think it necessary to inform the new Leader of his own intentions. Early in the evening of May 1, he carried them out. The first act was to poison the six children. Their playing was halted and they were given lethal injections, apparently by the same physician who the day before had poisoned the Fuehrer’s dogs. Then Goebbels called his adjutant, S.S. Hauptsturmfuehrer Guenther Schwaegermann, and instructed him to fetch some gasoline.
“Schwaegermann,” he told him, “this is the worst treachery of all. The generals have betrayed the Fuehrer. Everything is lost. I shall die, together with my wife and family.” He did not mention, even to his adjutant, that he had just had his children murdered. “You will burn our bodies. Can you do that?”
Schwaegermann assured him he could and sent two orderlies to procure the gasoline. A few minutes later, at about 8:30 P.M., just as it was getting dark outside, Dr. and Frau Goebbels walked through the bunker, bade goodbye to those who happened to be in the corridor, and mounted the stairs to the garden. There, at their request, an S.S. orderly dispatched them with two shots in the back of the head. Four cans of gasoline were poured over their bodies and set on fire, but the cremation was not well done.26 The survivors in the bunker were anxious to join the mass escape which was just getting under way and there was no time to waste on burning those already dead. The Russians found the charred bodies of the Propaganda Minister and his wife the next day and immediately identified them.
By 9 o’clock on the evening of May 1, the Fuehrerbunker had been set on fire and some five or six hundred survivors of the Fuehrer’s entourage, mostly S.S. men, were milling about in the shelter of the New Chancellery—like chickens with their heads off, as one of them, the Fuehrer’s tailor, later recalled—preparatory to the great breakout. The plan was to go by foot along the subway tracks from the station below the Wilhelmsplatz, opposite the Chancellery, to the Friedrichstrasse Bahnhof and there cross the River Spree and sift through the Russian lines immediately to the north of it. A good many got through; some did not, among them Martin Bormann.
When General Krebs had finally returned to the bunker that afternoon with General Chuikov’s demand for unconditional surrender Hitler’s party secretary had decided that his only chance for survival lay in joining the mass exodus. His group attempted to follow a German tank, but according to Kempka, who was with him, it received a direct hit from a Russian shell and Bormann was almost certainly killed. Artur Axmann, the Hitler Youth leader, who had deserted his battalion of boys at the Pichelsdorf Bridge to save his neck, was also present and later deposed that he had seen Bormann’s body lying under the bridge where the Invalidenstrasse crosses the railroad tracks. There was moonlight on his face and Axmann could see no sign of wounds. His presumption was that Bormann had swallowed his capsule of poison when he saw that his chances of getting through the Russian lines were nil.
Generals Krebs and Burgdorf did not join in the mass attempt to escape. It is believed that they shot themselves in the cellar of the New Chancellery.