November 16, 2018

New film looks at Hitler’s suicide

The outsized figure of Adolf Hitler retains a strange fascination as the incarnation of absolute evil, responsible for the deaths of between 40 million and 50 million soldiers and civilians during World War II and the Holocaust.

Even after Joseph Stalin’s top experts, who examined Hitler’s charred remains and teeth, reported that the Führer was definitely dead, the Soviet dictator was convinced that Hitler had somehow escaped and was somewhere in hiding.

Michael Musmanno, an American judge at the Nuremberg trial of top Nazi war criminals, continued to hear similar rumors, and in 1948 embarked on a two-year mission to settle, once and for all, whether Hitler had taken his own life in his Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945.

Musmanno interrogated about 100 people and filmed interviews with 22 men and women who had shared the 18 rooms of the Führer Bunker with Hitler during the last four months of the promised 1,000-Year Reich.

After Musmanno finished the project, he tried to interest Hollywood in the footage, but found no takers.

The films then disappeared and were presumed lost, until they were rediscovered two years ago in a Pittsburgh archive.

Now transformed into a documentary, “The Day Hitler Died” will premiere on the Smithsonian Channel on Nov. 16 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., and on Nov. 22 at 10 p.m.

Among the bunker inhabitants were a dozen generals, who met with Hitler for two conferences each day, press attaché Heinz Lorenz, aide-de-camp Baron von Lovinghoven, private secretary Gertrude (Traudi) Junge, Hitler Youth leader Artur Axmann, cooks, waitresses, a chauffeur, and Eva Braun, Hitler’s long-time mistress.

Also on hand were propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda, arguably the most fanatical of Hitler’s fanatical followers. The two poisoned their six young children, to spare them from living in a non-Nazi world, before taking their own lives.

The liveliest film witness is Traudi Junge, who opened Hitler’s mail and scorned “women who had nothing better to do than write letters to the Führer.”

Up until a week before the end, Hitler still deluded himself that Germany could stave off defeat. He saw a ray of hope in the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 12 and plotted last-minute breakouts by depleted German forces against the Soviet encirclement of Berlin.

Such was his hold to the very end that even while his generals realized that Hitler was no longer able to act rationally, they dared not contradict him to his face.

Finally, when Benito Mussolini, his old fascist mentor, was executed by Italian partisans on April 27 and strung by his heels from a metal girder, Hitler swore that he would kill himself before enduring a similar humiliating end.

But he had one piece of unfinished business, which was to marry the faithful Eva Braun. On April 29, in what must be one of the most macabre weddings on record, Braun put on her makeup and painted her nails for the nuptials.

Then she and the bridegroom swore that they were of pure Aryan descent and had never contracted a venereal disease. After the ceremony, the bunker inmates congratulated and toasted the new husband and wife, who then excused themselves to plan for their suicide the following day.

There was one final task for Junge, which was to take Hitler’s dictation of his last will and testament. At 56 and after 12 years in power, leaving a trail of mass graves and rubble-strewn cities, the dictator’s foremost obsession had not changed.

He had always been a man of peace, Hitler asserted in the opening paragraph of his testament. So who were the people who bore the ultimate responsibility for the devastation? The answer was “International Jewry and its helpers.”

Hitler came full circle in the final paragraph, in which he charged his successors and the German people “with strict observance of the racial laws, and with merciless resistance against the poisoners of all people, international Jewry.”

The next day, April 30, 1945, the newlyweds lunched at 1 p.m. and one hour later, the new Mrs. Hitler changed into a dress favored by her husband. At 2:45 p.m., Magda Goebbels tried to dissuade the Fuhrer from carrying out his suicide plan.

At 3:30 p.m., Axmann, the Hitler Youth leader, entered the Führer’s room and found that both he and Eva were dead after swallowing cyanide potassium capsules. Before biting down on his capsule, Hitler had discharged a bullet from his pistol, which ruptured the veins on both sides of his head.

Axmann reported that Adolf and Eva Hitler were dead, and at 4 in the afternoon their bodies were carried outside the bunker, doused with gasoline, set on fire, and the charred remains buried in a shell crater.

In 1956, some 11 years after putting a bullet through his head, a German court finally declared that Hitler was officially and legally dead.