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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

The Rise of the Nazis

In the last episode of 'The Rise of the Nazis' (BBC) the death, on April 12, 1945, of President Roosevelt was for Adolf Hitler his last shot of adrenaline.

The Fuehrer’s world had been crumbling all around him, unrelentingly, as he lay holed up in his bunker under the Reich Chancellery. And he now clutched at Roosevelt’s death with the demented fury of the addict who has stumbled upon a cache of his favourite drug by chance.

Waving a newspaper clipping at Albert Speer, his minister of armaments, Hitler announced that this was ‘the miracle’ he had always predicted; that Harry Truman, Roosevelt’s successor, would gladly sign for peace with Hitler and that would be the end of all of Germany’s troubles.

As he raved and rambled like a man possessed, Hitler looked up at the picture of Frederick the Great that hung from the wall of his ‘situation room’. It must have crossed his mind just then that the Prussian emperor, whom Hitler considered his guardian angel, had come to his rescue once again.

Frederick’s own luck had smiled upon him miraculously when the sudden death of Tsarina Elizabeth persuaded the Tsar to take Russia out of the anti-Prussian coalition in the Seven Years’ War. Berlin had already been occupied and Frederick was on the brink of disaster, but now the tide had turned in his favour. Hitler was convinced that this was his Frederick moment.

It didn’t take long for the euphoria to be dissipated, however. President Truman didn’t seem the least inclined to renege on his predecessor’s policies. On April 16, the Red Army began its final thrust towards Berlin. The battle at the Seelow Heights on the Oder, just sixty-odd kilometres to the east of the German capital, pitted a little over 112,000 German troops against a million Soviet and Polish men.

With a field gun placed every four metres of the Front, the Red Army’s firepower was staggering in its intensity. Over 1.2 million artillery shells were hurled at the German lines in the span of a single day.

There were no celebrations on Hitler's birthday, though Hitler’s staff lined up in the bunker to congratulate their Fuehrer and many of the front-ranking Nazis arrived to pay their respects in the early afternoon.

After that, Hitler emerged briefly into the Chancellery garden to review and reward a small detachment of the Hitler Youth, boys no older than fourteen who were increasingly being thrown into the battle to save Berlin.

This was Hitler’s last public appearance. Physically, he was now a shambling wreck who found it hard to keep his left arm from shaking uncontrollably. So he walked gripping it behind his back with his right hand, making it impossible for him to present any of the medals himself.

In course of the next few days, the remaining senior members of the Nazi establishment – Speer, Himmler, Donitz, Ribbentrop and Rosenberg among them – began to leave Berlin, driving out before the ring of the Russian attack closed irrevocably around them.

Hermann Goering had managed to ship his enormous loot of art treasures out of his private hunting lodge at Karinhall near Berlin to the relative safety of Bavaria before he called on Hitler to greet him on his birthday.

Now Goering’s cavalcade also wound its way, through the smouldering rubble on the few roads still left open, towards Germany’s south. Hitler had made up his mind to stay behind, and to go down ‘fighting’, and he energetically repulsed all requests to leave for a safer location.

Joseph Goebbels arrived on April 22 with his wife and six young children to make the bunker their home for the final days. But before that, Hitler had begun to give way to hysteria.

But these five days were packed with some of the most bizarre episodes of the War.

Himmler was discovered trying to engage in secret talks with Britain, through the Swedish Red Cross, for a negotiated surrender. Little headway had been made in these efforts, but Himmler’s overture to the enemy, however perfunctory, was enough for Hitler to brand it ‘the most shameful betrayal in human history’.

Hitler married Eva, and the marriage was to last all of forty hours. By 3.30 pm on April 30, both Braun and Hitler were dead.

On April 29, two important pieces of news reached Hitler, and their effect on him, though not recorded, is not hard to guess. First, the news from Milan of Mussolini’s death at the hands of Italian partisans.

More than the death, perhaps what followed sent shudders down Hitler’s spine. After their execution, the corpses of Mussolini, his mistress Clara Petacci and their companions were dumped in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto, where an angry crowd spat and stamped and urinated on them, before hanging them upside-down from the gantry of a petrol station by meat-hooks.

Hitler is unlikely to have relished such a prospect for himself, and if there had been even a shadow of doubt about his own resolve to kill himself, this incident dispelled it completely.

His marriage to Eva Braun was another grotesque comedy. The man summoned to conduct the nuptials at the Fuehrer’s bunker was a Berlin city councillor who had to excuse himself from his guard duty at a city observation post nearby. The midnight wedding was duly followed by a champagne breakfast at which everyone present congratulated the newly-weds.

By the evening of April 30, Hitler’s and Braun’s bodies, charred beyond recognition – as the Fuehrer had wanted them to be – were buried in a corner of the Chancellery garden.

The same evening, Viktor Temin, one of Russia’s leading war photographers, persuaded Marshal Zhukov to let him photograph the Reichstag from the air.

As he flew towards the building he saw, and photographed, a Red Army soldier placing the Red Flag on top of one of the Reichstag’s balustrades.

He then flew on, without permission, to Moscow. On the following morning, May 1, Pravda carried that dramatic picture on its front page. Russia had managed to crush Nazi Germany.

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