The final days of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s life – and his unceremonious end – still fascinate and confound, perhaps in equal measure.
To any students of history familiar with the events of Germany’s tumultuous past, the idea that one of the most hated despots to have ever lived would die by his own hand – contrary to any glorious end he may have desired or the cold justice he deserved – seems ironic at best, perhaps even darkly comical in its absurdity. His death in the concrete Führerbunker would come to symbolise the end of one of the bloodiest wars in human history – even though the capitulation of Nazi Germany would not take place until eight days later. So great was the personality and myth surrounding this one man.
His role, cast as the central figure responsible for orchestrating the continental downfall of Europe, seems assured. His legacy – while not as resplendent as he may have desired – has meant that his name will go down in history for future generations as a byword for evil.
But the earthly end of this caricature madman could not have been more human. Flawed, desperate, and petulant. Punctuated by a suicide – and an hastily performed funeral.
One involving a pyre of dirt and kerosene – in the garden of the New Reich Chancellery.
The event widely acknowledged as signalling the moment the Nazi party seized power in 1933 came on January 30th – as party leader, Adolf Hitler, was appointed Chancellor by ailing President Paul von Hindenberg. The musical chairs of German politics of the 1920s and 30s had resulted in the fall of countless governments – and Chancellors and cabinets vested with power only to see it stached from their hands within weeks or days.
Hitler’s appointment as Chancellor on January 30th was far from inevitable – and uncertain up until the minute of his confirmation. It would take less than a month for the Nazi party to confirm that the jitterbug swing of the Weimar era be replaced by a jackbooted march to the sound of a different drum.
Following a fire in the German parliament, on the night of February 27th 1933, emergency measures were introduced to suspend civil liberties and allow the Nazis – as the leading political element – to crack down on opposition. Imprisoning and torturing politicians, suppressing dissenting voices, and closing down publications deemed a threat to public good. All in a move towards establishing a single party state – one where all roads would lead to one man, Adolf Hitler.
The passing of the Reichstag Fire Decree (or Decree of the Reich President for the Protection of People and State as it was officially known), issued on February 28th 1933, would provided the legal basis for these actions.
When the so-called Enabling Act (officially the “Law to Remedy the Distress of People and Reich”) passed in parliament on March 23rd 1933, plenary powers would be effectively devolved to Adolf Hitler – in his role as Chancellor and head of cabinet. Leaving the Nazi leader now able to issue laws without parliamentary oversight, thus transforming Germany into a legal dictatorship overnight.
The apartment buildings surrounding the site of the Führerbunker now were built in the 1980s by the East German government, as luxury apartment houses for important members of East German society.
On assuming power, Hitler had inherited an office on the Wilhelmstrasse government street. The Reich Chancellery was actually a former city palace built for the Polish Prussian prince Antoni Radziwiłł who had married the niece of King Frederick the Great.
Designated as the future Führer’s official address, its dimensions and decoration – those ‘fit for a soap company’ – would do little to satisfy the Nazi leader’s desire to impress on visitors the power and granduer of the kind of German Reich he envisioned. Despite the enlargement of the Chancellery and the addition of an underground Vorbunker air raid shelter in 1936 – it was deemed wholly inadequate to the Führer’s needs.
In 1938, construction began on an enlarged New Reich Chancellery, on the adjacent Vossstrasse, designed by Albert Speer – the ‘first architect of the Third Reich’ and future Minister of Armaments. Both Speer and Hitler would later work on plans to transform Berlin into the world capital, Germania.
Keeping with Hitler’s insistence on monumental design, Speer would oversee the construction of a huge court of honour (Ehrenhof), where visitors would be greeted by two statues from sculptor, Arno Breker, named “Wehrmacht” and “Partei” (“Armed Forces” and “Party”). Passing through double doors measuring 17 feet high, and along a gallery 145 m (480 ft) long – twice that of the Hall of Mirrors in Versaille – diplomats and dignitaries would reach Hitler’s cavernous 400m2 office suitably reassured that they were in the presence of one of the most powerful leaders on the planet.
As the Second World War began in 1939, Hitler would increasingly spend less and less time in Berlin – choosing to remain at his military command posts, such as the Wolf’s Lair, or holiday home of the Eagle’s Nest. Anglo-American air raids on the Nazi capital would eventually force the construction of a permanent air raid shelter in the gardens of the Old and New Reich Chancellery – in addition to the Vorbunker completed in 1936.
When finished in 1944, this new subterranean accommodation – known as the Führerbunker – would be where Hitler would spend his final days, after arriving in Berlin from the Eastern Front on January 16th 1945. This complex (both Vorbunker and Führerbunker) consisted of a collection of around 30 rooms, with the Führerbunker 8.5m underground and built with a concrete roof more than 3 metres thick.
Here in the damp and sparsely furnished interior of this concrete hideaway, Hitler would orchestrate the downfall of the capital of the Third Reich, marry his mistress – Eva Braun – on April 29th 1945, and one day later, commit suicide.
The remains of both the Vorbunker and Führerbunker were flooded and eventually destroyed by the Soviet and East German authorities, as the Old and New Reich Chancellery buildings were similarly demolished between 1945 and 1949.
All that remains at this site today is a sign, added in 2006, and outlining the dimensions of the bunkers – along with a timeline of events. Part of an otherwise innocuous looking parking lot.
Unlike the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe situated nearby, the German government taking care that while remembering the victims of National Socialism it does nothing to celebrate the perpetrators – or chief perpetrator, Adolf Hitler, and his legacy.