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Inside Hitler's Bunker
The Last Days of the Third Reich
By Joachim Fest
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
HC, 190 pg. US$21/C$31.50
ISBN: 0-3741-3577-0

Hitler's final victims

By Steven Martinovich
web posted May 10, 2004

Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich The vein that makes up Nazi history has been mined so completely over the past six decades that it's remarkable that there is anything new to add to the story. These days only conspiracy theorists believe the wild stories that continue to circulate about Adolph Hitler's eventual fate. History, of course, records that he committed suicide in a bunker underneath the Reich Chancellery as the Soviet army edged closer in a horrific house-to-house battle to take Berlin. Several books, movies and documentaries have explored his final days in the bunker as his failed 1000-year Reich collapsed around him.

Celebrated historian Joachim Fest's Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich adds little new to that story. That's not to say, however, that the book has no merit. Fest goes beyond the events -- as best we are able to reconstruct them -- and to try and provide context for them. Not content to merely chronicle Hitler's final days, he attempts provide meaning. It's an ambitious bit of historical narrative and analysis that in the end isn't entirely convincing but remains interesting nonetheless.

Inside Hitler's Bunker is made up of eight chapters; four devoted to story of the bunker while the other four are devoted to Fest's desire for context. The chapters dealing with life in the bunker tell a familiar story, though with some differences from previous accounts. Fest paints a vivid picture of those final days; life dominated by endless staff meetings that were punctuated by bad news from the battlefield. The bunker itself was a claustrophobic nightmare complete with light bulbs that hung from bare wires from the ceiling, an underground series of chambers that reeked of the diesel fuel that powered the facility and the urine from nearby washrooms.

As the Soviets encircled Berlin, Hitler's famous control began to slip. Fest recounts how Hitler gradually began to come apart both physically and mentally. He was as one general officer noted, in "terrible physical shape, dragging himself along slowly and laboriously from his living quarters to the bunker conference room, throwing his upper body forward and pulling his legs along ... Saliva often trickled from the corners of his mouth." Despite that Hitler was not, as other accounts have portrayed him, a incoherent wreck. His hold on his remaining followers remained nearly absolute and his orders were generally carried out.

"In spite of his progressive infirmity, Hitler did not relinquish control of military operations. A firm belief in his mission combined with sheer willpower provided him with renewed bursts of energy. These were reinforced by a consuming distrust that made him suspect his generals of wanting to ridicule or expose him, perhaps even to get Dr. Morrell, his personal physician, to drug him and then have him removed from Berlin. And although he usually had himself under control, he would on occasion fly into a rage."

That mission, according to Fest, was ultimately nothing more than destruction. Destruction of the European political order, destruction of undesirable peoples and finally the destruction of the German people themselves. Even though the war was lost months if not years before, Hitler persisted in having the remnants of the German army defend Germany and ultimately Berlin. Thousands died daily and the city was turned into rubble not because there was hope of victory, but because the German people had failed in carrying out his fantasy of destroying the world. Fest argues that in those final days Germany itself was Hitler's final target. The German people had to be punished.

"Too many of his destructive impulses had missed their targets. Now at last, with the Reich crumbling, he had the chance to fulfill this deepest need. There's no doubt that the ruin and destruction of those final weeks gave him a greater sense of satisfaction than any of the fleeting victories of earlier days. He reacted to the devastation caused by the Allied bombing campaign by saying that although the Allied bomber fleets had not exactly followed the plans for the redesign of German cities, still, it was a start -- and what may sound like irony was deadly serious."

It's a theory that has earned Fest some condemnation in the past. Although Hitler may have turned against the German people in those final days for failing to fulfill his need to destroy, it will likely be difficult for many people to swallow the notion that it was Germany itself that was his ultimate target. His final will written just before his suicide, after all, urged what was left of Germany to resist that oldest foe of National Socialism, Jews. That questionable theory, however, can serve the purpose of provoking debate about not only those last days of the Third Reich but about the wider implications of Hitler's decisions throughout his political career.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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