Military history

Chapter 21


APRIL 20, 1945


The man who will be dead in ten days is marking his fifty-sixth birthday.

Adolf Hitler’s mistress, Eva Braun, is in the mood to dance, but the Führer merely slumps on the blue-and-white couch in the sitting room of his underground bunker. He stares into space, paying no attention to the playful Eva or to the sleek blue brocade dress hugging her thighs. She knows that the prudish Hitler doesn’t like her to dress provocatively, but on this occasion Eva does as she pleases.

The two of them, along with three of Hitler’s female secretaries, sip champagne. It is the end of what has been another long and depressing day for the Führer.

Adolf Hitler once dreamed of establishing Berlin as the world’s most cosmopolitan city, even though its citizens have long considered him to be an unsophisticated bore. Back in the days when Germany held free elections, the people of Berlin were almost unanimous in rejecting Hitler and his National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Even now, thirteen years later, Berlin is considered the least Nazi of all cities in Germany. To spite its inhabitants, Hitler had planned to rename the city Germania during the grand postwar rebuilding, thus wiping Berlin off the map forever.

The advancing Russians know nothing about Germania. And they are also not waiting until the end of the war to wipe Berlin off the map.

The armies of Joseph Stalin have the city almost completely surrounded. It is just a matter of time before it falls.


Eva Braun

Per tradition, Hitler was joined in the bunker for his birthday celebration this morning by the Nazi Party’s most elite membership: SS leader Heinrich Himmler, Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering, and chief of the operations staff Gen. Alfred Jodl, among them.

But now these killers are gone—for good. They have paid their respects to Hitler and are running for their lives, desperate to get out of Berlin and save their own skins, planning eventually to adopt new identities.

Only the most faithful followers remain. Martin Bormann, Hitler’s private secretary, continues to prove his loyalty by remaining in the bunker. Hitler is glad. It has been said that Bormann is so threatening that he can “slit a throat with a whisper.” A testimony to his character comes from none other than Hitler, the most callous of men. The Führer deems Bormann to be utterly “ruthless.”

Bormann is now upstairs on the top floor of the bunker, hard at work despite the late hour and the approaching danger.

There is still time for Hitler to find a way out of Berlin. The Soviets are closing in, but some roads remain open. As recently as yesterday, the Führer was planning to escape to his Eagle’s Nest retreat, high in the mountains of southern Germany. He even sent some members of the household staff ahead to prepare for his arrival. But he has since changed his mind, deciding to stay in the bunker, hoping against hope that the phantom divisions seen only by him will somehow repel the Russians.

As he does so often, Hitler takes solace in thoughts of Frederick the Great, who suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Kunersdorf in 1759. If Frederick could lose and then regain power, perhaps the Führer can find some miraculous way to do the same.

At last, Hitler announces he is going to bed. He looks awful as he stands to walk the five steps into his bedroom: face pale, back stooped, eyes bloodshot from fatigue, and his entire body shaking. He is beyond medical help. His cocaine eye drops were administered this morning, but tomorrow he is sending Dr. Morell away, explaining that “drugs can’t help me anymore.”

With those words, Hitler admits defeat. There will be no Germania. The Führer can hear Russian artillery falling on Berlin, the explosions resounding through the city, thundering closer and closer to the lovely park known as the Tiergarten, to the Reichstag, and then, inevitably, shaking the ground directly above him in the Reich Chancellery park. Hitler doesn’t know if the bunker’s thick roof can handle a direct hit, but he likes his chances inside his underground fortress better than on top, out in the open. Earlier today, he walked up the steps into the garden and spoke to a collection of young boys from the Hitler Youth, who had distinguished themselves in the face of Russian tanks. With the rumble of artillery as a backdrop, Hitler reviewed the rows of assembled young soldiers, his frail body all but swallowed up inside his brownish green overcoat. Despite his obvious palsy, he shook each and every young man’s hand. Then he exhorted them to save Berlin. “Heil Euch,” he barked as distracted words of praise before descending once again into the bunker—“Hail to you.”

The ceremony marks the last time Adolf Hitler will ever see the light of day.


That was hours ago. Now Eva Braun helps him to bed, assisting him as he changes out of his uniform and into his plain white nightshirt. Thanks to years of living nocturnally, his body is “bright white,” in the words of one secretary.

Eva does not get in bed with her beloved Adolf. Instead, she steps back into the sitting room, closing behind her the door dividing the two rooms.

Now that the Führer is asleep, it’s time to party.

“Eva Braun wanted to numb the fear that had awoken in her heart,” Traudl Junge, one of the secretaries sipping champagne in Hitler’s sitting room, will one day remember. “She wanted to celebrate once again, to dance, to drink, to forget.”

Eva beckons the three young women to follow. The group climbs the steps to the second floor. They sweep through the bunker, rounding up everyone, uptight Martin Bormann among them. “Even fat Theo Morell came up from the safety of his bunker, in spite of the constant thunder of artillery fire,” Junge will later write.

The party marches through the secret underground tunnel connecting the bunker with the Reich Chancellery, where Hitler keeps a small apartment. The paintings have been removed from the walls and the furniture moved down into the bunker, but there is still a gramophone in the room, and one very special record: “Blood-Red Roses Speak of Happiness to You.”

Eva Braun knows the words of the song by heart. She and Adolf Hitler have been listening to this record by the Max Mensing Orchestra over and over again. The Führer enjoys classical music and even the solos of Jewish pianist Artur Schnabel, but the dance orchestra sound of “Blood Red Roses” is their song.

Champagne bottles are uncorked. The record player is turned up loud. Eva Braun whirls around the room, alone or with anyone who will dance with her. Blond and vivacious, she is the life of the party.

A distant explosion makes the room shake. The party ceases, but only temporarily. So Eva Braun dances on, “In a desperate frenzy, like a woman who has already felt the faint breath of death,” Traudl Junge will remember. “No one said anything about the war. No one mentioned victory. No one mentioned death. This was a party given by ghosts.”

*   *   *

Three days later, Gen. Walther Wenck, commander of the German Twelfth Army, is up past midnight in his headquarters, a gamekeeper’s home known Alte Holle, or “Old Hell.” Located in a thick forest thirty miles west of Berlin, it is an ideal hiding place from Allied reconnaissance planes.

The phone rings. Wenck answers and learns that Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Adolf Hitler’s arrogant chief of staff, will soon be paying him a visit.

Walther Wenck is a fine officer. At forty-three, he is the youngest man in the Wehrmacht to hold a general’s rank. As such, he bears the nickname the “Boy General.” Currently, Wenck has taken it upon himself to house and feed a half million war refugees who have fled Berlin. He does this without informing his superiors. Rather than drawing up battle plans, Wenck spends his days “like a visiting priest,” checking in on the children and sick to make sure they have food and medicine.

In truth, the general is physically incapable of doing much else. Just two months ago, he was fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front, near the Oder River. His duties required him to direct his troops by day, then drive back into Berlin each evening to brief Hitler himself in the bunker. The pace was exhausting, and Wenck got little sleep. On February 14, while making the one-hundred-mile drive back to his headquarters after one such meeting, Wenck elected to take the wheel when his chauffeur collapsed from fatigue.

It was late at night. Wenck himself soon fell asleep. The car plowed into a bridge parapet. Wenck’s chauffeur pulled the unconscious general from the wreckage and smothered the flames that were on the verge of engulfing his body. Wenck survived but suffered a skull fracture and five broken ribs. He was relieved of his frontline command, but with the Russians advancing so quickly, he was not afforded the luxury of a lengthy hospital stay. Instead, now wearing a corset and enduring the occasional blinding headache, he enjoys the quiet of the forest while guarding against an Allied attack that will never come.

The Russians encircle Berlin without any accompanying pincer movement by the Americans or British, so Wenck’s Twelfth Army stands down west of Berlin. The general is preparing to surrender to the Allies rather than let his men fall into Russian hands.

True to form, Keitel shows up at Wenck’s headquarters in his best uniform, complete with field marshal’s baton.

“The battle for Berlin has begun,” Keitel says somberly. Wenck loathes the man.

The field marshal then divulges a terrible secret: Wenck’s army is Berlin’s only hope. He orders the Twelfth to ignore the Americans who are approaching from the west and immediately turn in the opposite direction to save Berlin.

It is 12:45 on the morning of April 23.

*   *   *

At that very moment, eleven hundred miles east in Moscow, Joseph Stalin has already foreseen the fall of Berlin. He now signs a directive known as Stavka 11074, dictating that the First Belorussian and First Ukrainian armies divide the city between them. Of his top generals, it will be Marshal Georgy K. Zhukov, the shaven-headed hero of Stalingrad and the Battle of Moscow, who will get the honor of hoisting the Soviet flag atop the German Reichstag.

Stalin’s power is at its pinnacle. He is thinking far beyond the last days of the Third Reich. The Soviet dictator is sure that a new war will soon begin, and equally sure of Communist victory.

But, for now, he has ordered that no brutality be spared the Germans. He wants maximum suffering inflicted. With that thought in mind, he prepares for sleep.

*   *   *

Gen. Walther Wenck has no time for sleep. If he disobeys Keitel, he will be relieved of his command and most likely shot. Any hope of saving his men, who call him Pappi, as a term of endearment, will be lost. Yet if he follows the field marshal’s order, his army will be destroyed by the Russians and the refugees to whom he now devotes his days will be left to suffer whatever horrors the Red Army wishes to impose upon them.

There is no good outcome for Wenck. Yet Field Marshal Keitel demands an answer right now.

“Of course,” Wenck tells him. “We will do as you order.”

But Gen. Walther Wenck is lying.

*   *   *

Some 2.5 million Russians ring Berlin, outnumbering German soldiers three to one in men, tanks, aircraft, and artillery. The city’s inner limits are defended by teenage Hitler Youth, the Volkssturm people’s militia, and units of elderly Home Guardsmen. Few of them are battle-tested.

It will be a slaughter. Hordes of approaching Red Army soldiers, many of whom have marched a thousand miles to see their nation’s flag raised over the capital of Germany, are eager to brutalize its citizens.

Forty thousand Russian artillery guns hammer the city around the clock, filling the streets with rubble and setting homes ablaze. In time, the Russians will drop more tonnage of explosives on Berlin than the American and British air forces combined.

Berliners no longer pretend that life is normal. Thousands of refugees leave the city each day, hoping to find safety in the countryside. They walk, push their belongings in carts, and choke the roads in vehicles that are often abandoned when gasoline runs out. They sleep in churches, forests, abandoned railway cars. Everyone travels west. Only a fool would travel east.

For those who choose not to leave Berlin, the nightly ritual of sleeping in cellars and underground stations has become revolting. The rancid odor of excrement and unwashed bodies makes these fetid spaces appalling. Of course, the wealthy are somewhat immune to these problems for now. For instance, the family who owns the tony restaurant Gruban-Souchay enjoy a fine life in their cellar, complete with a French chef and countless bottles of champagne, which substitute for water when it comes time for brushing teeth.

Aboveground, roving gangs of Nazi thugs and SS units travel from house to house, searching for Wehrmacht deserters and then hanging them from lampposts. Signs bearing the word traitor are pinned to the offenders’ chests, and their bodies are left to swing freely as a warning to others who might wish to quit the war prematurely.

At the notorious Lehrterstrasse Prison, Nazi fanatics finish their dirty work. A special Gestapo contingent known as the Sonderkommando pretends that it is freeing political prisoners. As the men depart their cells, however, they are forced at gunpoint to kneel. Armed Gestapo agents then fire bullets into the back of their necks.

There is no gas. There is no electricity. There is little food. (The only item that remains a normal part of daily life in Berlin is beer. Citing its “essential” nature, the government has ordered eleven local breweries to remain open.) German women kneel in the streets butchering workhorses that have been killed by Russian shelling. Other citizens seek food by trekking to the city’s rail yards and breaking into freight trains, searching for canned goods and anything else that will fill their bellies.

Uniformed Hitler Youth members walk into grocery stores and demand food at gunpoint. “You are a godless youth, using American gangster methods,” one woman screams at her nephew after she watches him terrorize a shopkeeper into giving him a hidden cache of food.

“Shut up,” the Hitler Youth sneers. “It’s now a matter of life and death.”

In some parts of Berlin, shopkeepers give away everything on the shelves, not wanting their supplies to fall into Russian hands.

Throughout the city, department stores are being looted—among them, the cavernous Karstadt, on the Hermannplatz. Late on the afternoon of April 25, as otherwise law-abiding citizens steal boots and heavy jackets, an explosion brings the building crashing down. It is not the Russians who destroy Karstadt and kill innocent civilians, but the SS. They have hidden a fortune worth twenty-nine million German marks in the basement, and they do not want the Russians to get it.

The worst, however, is yet to come. Many of the Russian invaders are professional soldiers with civilized manners and bearing. But far more of them are barbarians, men who grew up in the remote Eurasian steppes, those vast wild plains far from the big city lights of Moscow. These illiterate and unkempt hordes wear fur hats and carry knives in their boots. Many have never seen a flush toilet. They chug vodka by the tumbler and believe that the women of Berlin are their just reward for years of fighting. Their leader, Joseph Stalin, agrees.

George S. Patton does not refer to these crude invaders as Russians. Instead, he prefers “Mongolians,” in reference to Genghis Khan and the Mongol hordes who ravaged eastern Europe six centuries ago—for many of these men are their direct descendants.

Now the barbarians are coming to stay.

*   *   *

A week passes. Russian troops advance street by street, slowly taking control of the city. The outmanned young boys and old men enlisted as a last line of German defense now tear off their uniforms and armbands, frantically changing back into civilian clothing to avoid being murdered. Those who choose to stand and fight are now retreating into the heart of the city. An attempt to blow up vital bridges to stall the Russian advance ends in tragedy when an underground railway tunnel is mistakenly detonated. Inside are thousands of civilians and wounded soldiers trying to avoid the aboveground artillery. They drown as the four-mile-long tunnel floods with water.1

Nazi leaflets litter the city, dropped from one of the few remaining Luftwaffe aircraft. “Persevere!” they read. “General Wenck and General Steiner are coming to the aid of Berlin.”

Wenck is certainly trying, although not in the way that Nazi officials had hoped. He has turned the Twelfth Army back toward Berlin, surprising Russian forces near the suburb of Potsdam. But the Germans are vastly outnumbered and can soon go no farther. Rather than fight onward, Wenck orders his troops to open a corridor from the city that will allow refugees and elements of the German Ninth Army to follow him back to the safety of the American lines. “It’s not about Berlin anymore,” he tells his army as they turn their backs on the German capital. “It’s not about the Reich anymore.” In time, Wenck will lead hundreds of thousands of German civilians and soldiers westward across the Elbe, where he will surrender to American troops.2 The Russians chase Wenck’s long columns of civilians and soldiers all the way to the American lines, shooting at them right up until the moment they cross the Elbe.

But even if General Wenck had succeeded in reaching Central Berlin, there would have been no stopping the Russians. Berlin is a city with 248 bridges, and only 120 have been destroyed as the Soviets penetrate closer and closer to the Führerbunker. With every new block they capture, the Russians pause and take what they believe to be theirs. The stories of their savagery will become legendary: the two Russian soldiers who rip a nursing infant from his mother’s breast, calmly place the child in his carriage, and then take turns raping the mother; the soldiers who silence an eighty-year-old woman by stuffing a stick of butter in her mouth before violating her. Incredibly, countless women in maternity wards throughout Berlin, some about to go into labor and some who have just given birth, are raped. Horrified screams echo up and down hospital corridors as heartless Russians have their way.

Everywhere, there are suicides: the mother so ashamed by her rape that she ties two shopping satchels full of bricks to her arms, hugs her two infant children, and jumps into the Havel River with them clutched in her grasp; the woman gang-raped all night long who staggers home in the morning to find that her own mother has hanged her three children to protect them, and then hanged herself; the distraught woman sees no other choice but to slash her own wrists.

“The Germans were worse than this in Russia,” a German woman is told when she complains about the atrocities to a Russian officer. “This is simply revenge.”

*   *   *

The date is April 30, shortly before 2:00 p.m. The Führer is saying farewell. His staff lines up in the corridor outside his bedroom. Wearing a dark gray uniform jacket and creased black pants, Hitler shakes each hand and whispers a personal message to the two dozen secretaries, soldiers, and doctors who have tended to him during his three months in the bunker. They have all sworn an oath of loyalty to the Führer, but he now releases them from that bond, giving them permission to leave the bunker immediately and flee to the American lines, should they choose.

All the while, Eva Braun stands at the Führer’s side wearing a black dress with pink roses framing the square neckline. She has chosen this dress specifically, for it is Hitler’s favorite. Her blond hair is washed and perfectly coiffed.

After the Führer speaks with Traudl Junge, Eva pulls the secretary close and whispers in her ear, “Please do try to get out. You may yet make it through.”

Eva Braun, of course, is not leaving. She has just sworn the ultimate loyalty oath to the Führer: yesterday they were married. These same servants gathered to celebrate the wedding of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. Glasses of champagne were filled; only the Führer did not partake. The mood was outwardly joyous, but there was a somber tone to the proceedings. Marriage is normally a time of hope for the future. But everyone assembled knew that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun would soon kill themselves.

Gen. Walther Wenck and his Twelfth Army will never save Berlin. The Soviet army is close by. Their advance units are just five hundred yards away from the Führerbunker, and they now shell the compound from their positions in the Tiergarten, the sprawling park in the heart of the city where Eva Braun once delighted in afternoons of target practice with her pistol. Many of the trees are now mere splinters. Yet those still standing bear the first blooms of spring—signs of life that contrast sharply with the nearby Reichstag building and Kroll Opera House, both battered and pocked by artillery.

Adolf Hitler has been talking of suicide for the last ten days, pragmatically stating that the only other option is to become a Russian prisoner—and for the Führer, that grisly fate is no option at all. Eva Braun, of course, would be a similar trophy if the Russians took her alive, so she, too, must die by her own hand. Earlier today she chose not to have a dentist examine a sore tooth, laughing that it soon wouldn’t matter anyway. And she surprised Traudl Junge just a few hours ago by giving her a silver-fox fur coat. Eva’s initials were sewn onto the lining, inside the well-known symbol of good luck: a four-leaf clover.

Hitler plans to kill himself with a cyanide pill. Until recently he was frightened that it would not work. So he ordered that a similar pill be tested on his beloved dog Blondi, the German shepherd who has been by his side for almost the entire war. Sgt. Fritz Tornow, the Führer’s dog handler, pried open her jaws. Then Dr. Werner Haase, the professor who devised Hitler’s own unique suicide technique, used a pair of pliers to place a pill of prussic acid3 in the dog’s mouth.

Blondi is a large dog, originally chosen by the Führer as a symbol of German pride because she closely resembled a wolf. She trusts her master, and was docile as she allowed Haase to press the jaws of the pliers together, breaking the capsule and spilling the acid onto her tongue.

Blondi died instantly.

Dr. Haase immediately called for Hitler, so that he might see for himself the pill’s effectiveness. The Führer was speechless at the sight of Blondi lying motionless on the floor. He took one look and went directly to his bedroom.

Now it’s his turn.

After dismissing the staff, Hitler and Eva retire to his sitting room and close the door. Eva Braun sits down on one end of the blue-and-white couch in the corner, still wearing her black dress with roses framing the neckline. She rests her head on the couch’s arm and curls her legs up under her, as if lying down to take a nap.

The solemnity of the moment is broken by a frantic banging on the room’s steel door. A sobbing Magda Goebbels, wife of propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, demands to see the Führer and begs him not to end his life. Magda and her husband recently moved into the bunker’s top floor with their six children. Only three days ago, Hitler gave her his own Golden Party Badge4 as a thank-you for her years of fervent support. Now Hitler allows Magda into his sitting room one last time, says a few quiet words of good-bye, then forces her to leave, closing the metal door behind her. He does not lock it, however, for the Führer has given strict instructions about what must be done with his body once he is gone. “Wait ten minutes,” he orders SS major Otto Günsche, his military adjutant.

Hitler has been carrying his Walther 7.65 mm pistol for the past few weeks, and now he chambers a round. History does not record the final words between him and Eva Braun. They have known each other for sixteen years. She has seen him rise to power, just as she more recently has witnessed his physical decline.

Eva is curled up like a cat on the right side of the sofa. Adolf Hitler takes a seat on the other end, pistol in hand. Eva’s own revolver rests on a nearby table, next to a vase of flowers.

She goes first, sliding the cyanide pill out of the small brass lipstick-size vial and placing it between her teeth. She rests her head on the armrest and bites down on the capsule.

To prevent the possibility of failure, Eva is now meant to place her small handgun to her temple and finish the job. This is the policy outlined by the suicide professor Dr. Werner Haase. But Eva has already made it clear she will not shoot herself: “I want to be a beautiful corpse,” she insisted to Hitler.

The bunker sitting room immediately smells of almonds, a scent commonly associated with hydrocyanic acid. Eva Braun’s body loses the ability to absorb oxygen. Her heart and brain, the two organs that need air the most, shut down in an instant. Sadly, it is a death far quicker than that suffered by the millions of Jews her new husband sent to the gas chambers. For the Zyklon B gas that was used in the death camps is also a form of hydrocyanic acid.

Seconds later, still curled in the fetal position, Eva Braun is dead.

The Führer then places his capsule between his teeth. At the same time, he points the business end of the Walther at his right temple. He bites down on the capsule and pulls the Walther’s trigger a split second later.

His body sags to the side, until his torso hangs limp against Eva Braun’s. The Führer’s pistol drops to the floor next to his foot. Blood pours from his shattered skull, dripping off the couch and forming a great crimson puddle on the floor.

Ten minutes pass. Major Günsche enters. The bodies are wrapped in blankets and taken aboveground. Hitler’s dying fear was that his corpse might become an exhibit in a Russian museum, so the bodies are doused with forty gallons of gasoline and incinerated.5

Adolf Hitler, the man who murdered millions, has claimed his last victim.

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