The bitter end in the Führer's bunker
AFP/The Local · 30 Apr 2015, 15:02
Published: 30 Apr 2015 15:02 GMT+02:00
- Auschwitz defendant admits 'moral guilt' (21 Apr 15)
- Second World War still key to German identity (21 Apr 15)
- Soviet soldiers burst through 'Gates to Berlin' (16 Apr 15)
As both the Western Allies and the Soviet Red Army descended on the capital, Hitler and other prominent Nazis who had been living in the bunker committed suicide.
For him the outcome of the war was less important than expunging the humiliation of 1918, and so in his mind an honourable suicide was a better option than any form of surrender or negotiation.
In 1945 he said "We will not surrender, never. We may be destroyed – but we will drag the world down with us".
Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge gave many interviews about those final days in the bunker, where she typed out Hitler's last will and testament - handing over leadership to Admiral Dönitz - before his suicide.
Hitler and Braun's bodies were taken out to the bombed-out garden behind the Reich Chancellery, where they were placed in a crater and doused with petrol. The corpses were set on fire as the Red Army shelling continued.
70 years on the site of Hitler's bunker where he and other senior Nazis committed suicide is now a car park with a subtle information board.
Even this low-key sign was only installed in 2006, when city planners were worried that people visiting for the World Cup would flock to the site and want to know more.
Interest in the Führerbunker has increased due to the successful film Downfall (2004) that depicted the final few days in the bunker.
Arnd Bauerkämper, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Berlin's Free University, told The Local that "the film was overly stylized and dramatized, which takes away from the banality and absurdity of the downfall."
Director Oliver Hirschbiegel's film broke taboos by showing Hitler as a human being, albeit a fanatical and out of touch one, and was criticized for portraying various leading Nazi figures in a positive light in a contrast to Hitler.
Nazi landmarks have traditionally been made forgettable and subdued to avoid neo-Nazis making pilgrimages to the sites.
"The policy started by the GDR government of avoiding having a Hitler memorial at the site of the bunker is definitely a good thing," said Bauerkämper.
Earlier this year, controversy arose around a reconstruction of the Führerbunker planned for a museum in North Rhine Westphalia this summer.
Bauerkämper believes that the policy in the 1950s of depicting Hitler and senior Nazis as the main perpetrators was an attempt to rid the German people of any guilt. He cited the Nuremberg trials as an example of this attempt to place all responsibility onto a select few.
"The some 100,000 Germans and Austrians called to account in all parts of Europe is impressive compared to the two dozen tried at Nuremberg," wrote historian Norbert Frei.
The will to punish perpetrators waned with time because of the Cold War, and many who committed terrible crimes were never prosecuted.
"I think we should put an end to this sniffing out of Nazis. Take my word for it: if we start with that, who knows where it will end," said Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1952.
Historian Mary Fulbrook outlines the key historiographical debate regarding the Third Reich from the 1960s onwards:
"On one side of the argument are historians who explain the origins of genocide in Hitler’s intentions, his motives and his own fanatical anti-Semitism. And on the other those who focus more on the way the regime was structured and functioned."
Some historians push the idea of Hitler as a weak dictator, who was pushed along by the structures of the state and the desperation of subordinates to gain his favour.
Bauerkämper argues that: "You can't underestimate Hitler's ideology but you have to ask in which context and under which circumstances was it put in place. Both factors are important."
"There is always more to do in dealing with the past. It has taken a long time and lots of effort to get to the current level of self criticism.
"For example the symbolic kneeling of Willy Brandt in Warsaw in 1970 was highly controversial in Germany, because it clearly acknowledged national guilt."
The Holocaust memorial near the Brandenburg gate reflects how Berlin has made a conscious effort to remember the victims, but all crimes have their perpetrators.
The geography of Nazi Berlin is quite hard to fathom because of the divisions of the Berlin Wall, the allied bombing at the end of the war, and some attempts to try and forget. The Topography of Terror is a counter example of this.
Built on the former headquarters of the Gestapo, the Topography of Terror museum documents the Nazi atrocities and attracted over 1.3 visitors million last year, before celebrating its 10 millionth visit in early 2015.
The first ever exhibition specifically about Hitler opened in 2010 at the German Historical Museum. An indication that the topic is far from exhausted is a lecture accompanying the exhibition, entitled "We're far from finished with Hitler".
As the 70th anniversary of the end of the war approaches, few people who lived through those years remain with us. In ten years or so this more direct link to the horrors of Germany's past may well be lost.
One of the most famous of those last survivors may be so-called 'Auschwitz accountant' Oskar Gröning, whose trial for genocide has provoked debate in Germany and worldwide about whether it is finally time to stop the hunt for war criminals to hold to account.
Baurkämper argues that "in legal terms these trials aren't so important, but they carry huge symbolic significance as a critical revisiting of the past."
Back to the start