At one time, Adolf Hitler was the most powerful individual in the world. Yet he ended his life cowering in a foetid bunker, surrounded by enemy troops and raging against those he believed had betrayed him. Hitler's last days were a humiliating final chapter in the life of a man once revered by millions. But they were also the last days of a man who had been mentally and physically unravelling for months.
A sick man
By April 1945, Hitler's health was deteriorating fast. His left arm often shook, his skin was sallow and his face was puffy. An assassination attempt in 1944 had damaged his eardrums. Witnesses reported that his eyes were often filmed over. He suffered from intense stomach cramps at moments of crisis. He was taking Benzedrine and cocaine-laced eye drops to get him through the day and barbiturates to help him sleep at night. His diet cannot have helped his situation. A committed vegetarian and paranoid about being poisoned, he was only eating mashed potatoes and thin soup by the end.
Despite the hopeless situation he was now in, visitors to the bunker were amazed that Hitler was still able to work himself up into a megalomaniacal frenzy in which Berlin would be saved and the Nazi dream fulfilled. While in one of these moods, Hitler would pore over maps, moving buttons to represent military units. In truth, the divisions he imagined himself to be directing were broken remnants. What was left of Berlin was defended by old men and teenagers hurriedly conscripted from the Hitler Youth.
What the butler saw
Hitler's valet, Heinz Linge, stayed with his leader until the end. In a series of interviews given to his Russian captors, Linge shed light on the complex and bizarre personality of the man he worked for. Apparently, Hitler was terrified that his body would be ridiculed by Stalin's men. "You must never allow my corpse to fall into the hands of the Russians," Linge reported Hitler as saying. "They would make a spectacle in Moscow out of my body and put it in waxworks." Linge also recalled Hitler's bizarre sense of humour: "He would laugh at Eva Braun's lipstick on a serviette and then say, 'During wartime lipstick is produced out of dead bodies.'"
Hitler's aides acted swiftly to carry out his wishes once he and Eva Braun had committed suicide on April 30. Aides carried the couple up to the Chancellery garden, where they were laid side-by-side. Earlier in the day, Hitler's adjutant, Otto Gunsche, had ordered 200 litres of petrol to be sent to the garden. In the end, with the Russians tightening their ring around Berlin, only 180 litres could be found. It was enough. Petrol was poured over the bodies and they were set alight. The mourners didn't linger long beside the burning bodies. A Russian bombardment began, forcing the group back down into the bunker after giving their leader a swift Hitler salute.
After the Fuhrer
There can be no doubt that conditions in Hitler's bunker during the fall of Berlin were vile. Accommodation was cramped, the air was foul and Russian artillery units were constantly shelling what remained of the Chancellery building above. But, following the death of Hitler, one minor aspect of life improved for those left in the bunker. The Fuhrer was violently opposed to smoking and no one had dared to smoke while he was still alive. But, with Hitler dead, his staff all lit up in an attempt to calm their shredded nerves.