Last Days of a Despot
By Richard Breitman
Sunday, April 14, 1996
In 1947 Hugh Trevor-Roper, historian and former British intelligence official, published a vivid study entitled The Last Days of Hitler. Since Nazi officials had burned Adolf Hitler's body and disposed of the remains at an unknown site just before the Russians took Berlin, it was important to present other evidence of Hitler's demise. In spite of announcements that the fuhrer had died, there were widespread fears and some hopes that he was still alive.
Drawing upon interrogations he and other officials conducted, Trevor-Roper clearly described how Hitler and his mistress Eva Braun came to commit suicide on April 30, 1945, in a private room of his fortified underground bunker in Berlin. Trevor-Roper also showed how Hitler's last days were the culmination of growing dissolution of the Nazi regime in the last years of the war, with administrative chaos and bitter personal animosities among top Nazi officials.
Subsequent research over nearly half a century has superseded his findings on many points, but students of Nazi Germany may still benefit from this example of contemporary history at its best. The Last Days of Hitler went through seven editions, the most recent one in 1995. Its commercial success helps to explain the appearance of subsequent studies of the death of Hitler, including the two reviewed here. Unfortunately, they do not approach Trevor-Roper's standard or his breadth of vision.
Hugh Thomas is a British surgeon with forensic expertise. In a previous historical work, Thomas argued that the man called Rudolf Hess who served a life sentence in Spandau Prison was not the real Rudolf Hess, the one-time number two man in the Nazi Party. Not content with getting this implausible story published as nonfiction, Thomas has concluded, in The Murder of Adolf Hitler, that Eva Braun did not commit suicide on April 30, 1945, but escaped the bunker and survived the war. More tentatively, he argues that Adolf Hitler was not a suicide either.
Thomas focuses on discrepancies in the various accounts of Hitler's death by those Germans inside and immediately outside the bunker -- essentially, conflicting claims that Hitler ingested a cyanide capsule and that he shot himself. After finding weaknesses in both versions, Thomas offers strangling as an alternative, even though there is literally no testimony or other evidence to support it. No evidence, no inconsistencies. Not Adolf Hitler, but history is murdered in this book.
Russian investigative television reporter Ada Petrova and British journalist Peter Watson add a number of details to the story of the final days in the bunker. That Hitler grew more worried on April 29, that Eva Braun went out into the Reichschancellery garden on the morning of April 30 for a last look at the sun, that two Nazi subordinates in the bunker smelled almonds (the odor given off by cyanide) from the death room of the bunker, that one key witness of the events in the bunker constantly changed his story while captive in Russia, and similar findings hardly qualify as stunning revelations. The authors finesse the cause of death by arguing that Hitler shot himself in the head and simultaneously bit open a cyanide capsule, while Braun took cyanide.
The most interesting and novel element of The Death of Hitler is really a separate story revealed in bits and pieces -- that of the various Soviet investigations into the death of Hitler. On May 5, 1945, the Soviets located the partially burned remains of a man and a woman near the bunker. A commission of forensic specialists overseen by SMERSH (Soviet Counterintelligence) examined them and concluded that they were Hitler and Braun and that cyanide was the cause of death. But these findings were kept secret, apparently because Stalin did not trust them or because he wanted a weapon to hold in reserve in case someone turned up claiming to be Hitler. Soviet officials meanwhile issued statements that they had no direct evidence of Hitler's death and that he might have escaped.
Meanwhile, the Soviets captured and sent 70 members of Hitler's immediate entourage to Russia. The key people -- eyewitnesses in the bunker -- were extensively interrogated and then imprisoned. A second commission in April 1946 not only reexamined the medical evidence but, using the captured inhabitants of the bunker, recreated the death of Hitler on-site to iron out the inconsistencies in testimony and test the truthfulness of the various witnesses. In the course of this 1946 investigation, Soviet officials not only turned up bloodstains on Hitler's sofa; they re-excavated the burial site and found skull fragments, the remnants of Hitler's uniform and the remains of his dog.
The convincing findings of the second Soviet commission were an embarrassment to Moscow in two respects. First, they revealed that the first commission had mistakenly diagnosed the cause of Hitler's death. Second, a self-inflicted gunshot was thought to be the more courageous way for Hitler to go. So the Soviets officially remained silent on the death of Hitler, shelving the evidence and analysis in a file labeled "Operation Myth." Some information was leaked over the decades, but Petrova's 1992 discovery of the skull fragments led to the first effective investigation and to this book.
The skull fragments, some newly discovered watercolors by Hitler, and his personal photograph album are not sufficient to justify a new book about Hitler, and the authors do not attempt archival research about the collapse of the Third Reich. Their story of the Moscow investigations is valuable, if partial. Others will want to check information and pursue new leads, and footnotes would have been very helpful for these purposes, but they are lacking here. Footnotes do not sell books. Still, they do not necessarily prevent books from selling. Ask Trevor-Roper.
Richard Breitman, professor of history at American University, is the author of "The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution."
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
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