Friday, November 13, 2015

Hunting Hitler Part II: The Bunker

According to Bullock, Hitler was an opportunis...
According to Bullock, Hitler was an opportunistic adventurer devoid of principles, beliefs or scruples. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hunting Hitler Part II: The Bunker (April 29-April 30)

Today’s post was written by Dr. Greg Bradsher, Archivist at the National Archives in College Park, MD. This is the second blog in a multi-part series.
Around noon on April 29, 1945, the three couriers with copies of Adolf Hitler’s private will and political testament (and one with his marriage license) left the Berlin bunker and headed west. For those still in the bunker, the day was one of feeling trapped and waiting for Hitler to kill himself. Although few believed it would happen, some still were hopeful that the German relief forces would break through the Russian corridor around Berlin and save them.[1]
Hitler ate lunch around 2pm, as usual in the company of the secretaries Gerda Christian and Gertrude Junge. Christian later recalled that nothing was spoken about Hitler’s intention to die or about the manner in which this was to take place.[2]
During the afternoon, communications with the outside world were all but broken and the occupants of the bunker increasingly became unawares of what was happening on the various fronts.[3] Sometime, probably around 4pm, General Alfred Jodl was able to get a message to the bunker that in essence said that the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces (OKW) knew nothing about the Ninth Army; believed General Wenck’s Twelfth Army was to be near Potsdam; and OKW could only report a hasty withdrawal westwards by Army Group Vistula.[4]
Around 4 or 430pm, at a situation conference, Hitler sent for SS Brigadefuehrer Wilhelm Mohnke, the commandant of the Chancellery, and requested an update on what was happening in Berlin. Mohnke spread out a map of central Berlin and reported that in the north the Russians had moved close to the Weidendammer Bridge; in the east they were at the Lustgarten; in the south, the Russians were at Potsdamer Platz and the Aviation Ministry; and in the west they were in the Tiergarten, somewhere between 170 and 250 feet from the Reich Chancellery. When Hitler asked how much longer Mohnke could hold out, the answer was "At most twenty to twenty-four hours, my Fuehrer, no longer."[5]
After the situation conference, sometime between 5pm and 6pm, Erich Kempka (Hitler’s chief driver and head of the Fuehrer’s motor pool) visited the bunker. Outside Hitler’s personal apartment, he stopped to talk. Kempka said Hitler was composed and completely calm. "Even I, who knew him so well, could not read from his attitude the decision he had already taken to end his life." In his right hand he held a large-scale map of Berlin. His left hand trembled slightly; a condition in the final months that was virtually permanent. Hitler asked Kempka about the status of the motor pool. Kempka replied that the vehicles were in bad condition, destroyed and damaged, but that they were still able to transport the necessary food for the emergency hospitals within the zone of the Chancellery. Hitler then asked him how he saw things, to which Kempka replied that his men were involved in the defense of the Reich Chancellery in the sector between the Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz. Hitler asked what did his men think. Kempka replied that without exception they were maintaining a bearing beyond reproach and waiting for relief by General Wenck. Hitler responded quickly "‘We are all waiting for Wenck!’" Hitler and Kempka then shook hands, and Hitler spoke a word of encouragement, smiled and then entered his personal room. Kempka left to join his men. In 1948, Kempka said that at no time did Hitler say goodbye or farewell. Kempka speculated that probably Hitler had not set the time of the suicide in his mind yet.[6]
At about 10pm Hitler summoned SS-Gruppenfuehrer Johann Rattenhuber, Chief of the Reich Security Service (responsible for Hitler’s protection) to his room and ordered him to gather the leading personnel of the Headquarters and his close collaborators in his reception room. "I remember," he later recalled, "that at that moment Hitler looked like a man who had taken a very significant decision. He sat on the edge of a desk, his eyes fixed on one point. He looked determined." Rattenhuber went to the door to carry out his order, but Hitler stopped him and said, as far as he could remember, the following:
"‘You have served me faithfully for many years. Tomorrow is your birthday and I want to congratulate you now and to thank you for your faithful service, because, I shall not be able to do so tomorrow…I have taken the decision…I must leave this world’…"
Rattenhuber went over to Hitler and told him how necessary his survival was for Germany, that there was still a chance to try and escape from Berlin and save his life. "‘What for?’ Hitler argued. ‘Everything is ruined, there is no way out, and to flee means falling into the hands of the Russians…There would never have been such a moment, Rattenhuber,’ he continued , ‘and I would never have spoken to you about my death, if not for Stalin and his army. You try to remember where my troops were…And it was only Stalin who prevented me from carrying out the mission entrusted to me from heaven’…" According to Rattenhuber, Eva Braun came in from the next room and then for several more minutes Hitler talked of himself – of his role in history, that had been prepared for him by destiny, and shaking hands with Rattenhuber asked him to leave them alone. Rattenhuber thought, after him speaking about his mission from heaven, "He had lost his head from fear."[7]
Shortly after 10pm Rattenhuber gathered up the individuals Hitler had requested. Among those present for a meeting with Hitler were Joseph Goebbels, Martin Bormann, Hans Krebs, Wilhelm Burgdorf, and Colonel Nicolaus von Below, Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant. Under fire from machine-guns and grenade-launchers, General Helmuth Weidling, Commandant of Berlin, reached the Bunker covered in mud. The atmosphere in the bunker was like that of a front-line command post. All who gathered there for the situation report were in a despondent mood. Hitler, "his face still more pinched, was looking fixedly at the map spread before him." Weidling told Hitler that the situation in the city was hopeless, and that the civilian population, in particular, was in a very bad state. He described the deteriorating military situation. The Russians, he said, would reach the Chancellery by May 1 at the latest. Weidling suggested the troops in Berlin try to break out. Hitler replied this was impossible as the soldiers were battle-weary, ill-armed, and without ammunition. He then suggested that Hitler break out of the city with him and the surviving garrison, but Hitler categorically refused.[8]
Still, Weidling persistently asked Hitler to permit a breakout as soon as possible. Hitler, according to Weidling, with bitter irony in his voice, said "‘Look at my map. Everything shown on it is not based on information from the Supreme Command, but from foreign radio station broadcasts. No one reports to us. I can order anything, but none of my orders is carried out any more.’" Krebs supported Weidling in his attempts to get permission for a breakout. At last it was decided that, as there were no airborne supplies, the troops could break out in small groups, but on the understanding that they should continue to resist wherever possible. Capitulation was out of the question. Weidling felt that although he had failed to get Hitler to call a final halt to the bloodshed, he had managed to persuade him to end resistance in Berlin.[9]
About 1030pm an orderly came into the conference and said he had heard a shortwave broadcast reporting news of that Mussolini and his mistress had been executed by Italian partisans. He may or may not have learned that their bodies had been hoisted upside down in Milan and that their bodies were pelted with stones by the vindictive crowd. In any event Hitler had already determined that his own body should be burned to prevent its exhibition.[10]
After the conference concluded von Below met with Hitler. Earlier during the day von Below had asked Hitler if he would allow him to attempt a breakout to the West. Hitler considered this straightaway and said only that it would probably be impossible. Von Below replied that he thought the way to the West would still be free. Hitler gave him written authority to go and told him he should report to the headquarters of the Combined General Staff, then at Ploen, and to deliver a document to Field Marshal Keitel. That afternoon von Below made his preparations and took part in the evening situation conference. Hitler gave him his hand and said only "best of luck." After saying his goodbyes, Burgdorf handed von Below Hitler’s message. It was addressed to Keitel. In it Hitler stated that the fight for Berlin was drawing to its close, that he intended to commit suicide rather than surrender, that he had appointed Karl Doenitz as his successor, and that Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler had betrayed him. At midnight, with his batman Heinz Matthiesing, von Below left the bunker and followed roughly the same route as the others (including the three couriers) who had left earlier during the day.[11]
It was apparently after Hitler had said his goodbyes to von Below that Hitler ordered his dog Blondi poisoned. This was in part because he wanted to ascertain the effectiveness of the poison capsules he had been given and also the desire not to have the dog captured by the Russians. After the poison had been administered the dog instantaneously died, Hitler came to see the results and to take his leave of the dog. According to witnesses, Hitler said nothing, nor did his face express any feeling. Afterwards, Hitler returned to his study. Junge later said that after Hitler had seen his dead dog, "His face was like his own death mask. He locked himself into his room without a word."[12]
While Hitler was in his room, Frau Junge and Frau Christian were conversing and having coffee with two doctors, when Eva Braun joined them. She said that Hitler would die when he received confirmation that the documents carried by the couriers had reached the persons they had been sent to. She also said it would not be difficult to die because the poison had already been tested on a dog, and death would come quickly.[13]
Afterwards, Junge, Christian, and Eva Braun joined Hitler for a bite to eat. Hitler in a calm and deliberate manner said that there was no other way for him, than to commit suicide, because he wanted never, alive or dead, to fall into the hands of the enemy. He knew from the example of Mussolini, how he would be treated. He also said he could not fight with his soldiers, because in case he was wounded, there would not be anybody in his surroundings who would give him the mercy-shot, in case he was unable to do that himself. Hitler repeatedly told them that after he was dead, he wanted to be cremated so that nobody shall find him. He said the best is a shot through the mouth, death was instantaneous. Eva Braun was for taking cyanide and pulled a little brass cylinder out of her dress, asking whether it would hurt and stating that she was afraid to suffer. She added she was ready to die, but it must be painless. Hitler told her that cyanide causes paralysis of the nervous and breathing system and causes death in a few seconds. So Christian and Junge, not expecting anything good from the Russians, asked Hitler for an ampoule of poison. He walked to his bedroom where he got the poison. In handing it to them, he said, "I am sorry that as a parting gesture I cannot hand you a nicer present" and that they were very courageous and he wished his generals would have had so much poise and courage as the women did.[14]
Meanwhile, at 10pm on April 29 the three couriers, Zander, Lorenz, and, Johannmeier, found two boats and pushed out into Havel lake, heading southwards for the Wannsee bridgehead, held by units of the German Ninth Army. In the early hours of April 30 they landed independently, Johannmeier on the Wannsee bridgehead, Lorenz and Zander on the Schwanenwerder Peninsula. There they remained, resting all day in underground bunkers; and in the evening they reunited, and sailed together to the Pfaueninsel, an island in the Havel. From the Wannsee bridgehead Johannmeier had been able to send a radio message to Doenitz, informing him of their position and asking that an airplane be sent to fetch them. On the Pfaueninsel, Johannmeier and Zander obtained civilian clothing and disposed of their uniforms.[15]
Shortly after midnight of April 29, Hitler began saying his farewells, realizing he would die on April 30. These goodbyes were with four or five different groups.[16] They lasted until sometime after 2am. One group consisted of some 20-25 persons who worked in the Reich Chancellery and lived in its underground bunker. These included the secretaries, many of them Hitler had never met. Another group, again numbering between 20-25 persons, included the officers of his escort commando. In the first instances Hitler shook hands with everybody, thanking each one individually. With the latter group he did not say anything when shaking hands.[17]
When addressing the second group, Hitler, in a very calm and conversational manner, said that he did not wish to deliver himself to the Russians and that he, therefore, was going to end his life, and that he was now releasing them from their oath. He thanked them for their services and wished them all the best on our way to the western powers, for it was his wish that they should try to get through to the Americans or British, but that they should not get into Russian hands, on no account.[18]
During these farewells, Junge and Eva Braun watched from a short distance. The former asked the later if the time had come for her and Hitler to kill themselves. Eva Braun said no, but that she would tell her when the time had come. She added that Hitler still had to say goodbye to those closest to him. At some point in the early hours of April 30, Rattenhuber, who was celebrating his 60th birthday, left his colleagues and their birthday celebration, and joined Junge and Eva Bruan. They, all from Munich, talked about Munich and Bavaria, and how sad it was to have to die so far from home.[19] Meanwhile, Hitler was preparing to say good bye to those closest to him, knowing for many it would be the last time they would see him alive.

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