We have our own evils to contemplate in the twenty-first century, but the demon Hitler will forever occupy those who study the evils of the twentieth. It may be that we need reassurance that he is really and permanently dead, because the story of his end has been told many times. There was room, however, for a comprehensive summary of Hitler's last days, and we now have one, told by a German who is a historian of the Third Reich and a reporter. Joachim Fest, in _Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich_ (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), has pulled together evidence and drawn a dramatic picture of those final days, and the immediate aftermath. It won't be the last volume to examine this extraordinary subject, but it should be the current reference for anyone interested in it.
Hitler had known that the war was lost; he said as much four years before the Russians started to close upon Berlin. After the Ardennes offensive failed, Hitler had returned to Berlin, where the air raids drove him for refuge into the bunker he had prepared for himself and his cronies. It was more than thirty feet below the ground, about twenty reinforced rooms with few furnishings, even in Hitler's private rooms. Each room had a naked lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. The water system was untrustworthy, ventilation was bad, and diesel exhaust often pervaded the inside. It was grim, and even Goebbels avoided the rooms as much as possible because they caused a "desolate mood." The night before his death, Hitler married Eva Braun. Retiring to his room with her, he used a pistol and cyanide to bring their ends about. In the bunker's canteen, the inmates sought relief from all the weeks of tension and danced to boisterous music over the loudspeakers. An orderly had been sent up to ask for quiet, since the Fuhrer was about to die, but no one paid any attention. The drinking and dancing only continued.
There were famous reports that Hitler had survived, reports that the tabloid press made much of during the next decades; there were plenty of conspiracy theories. The Russians found a body that looked like Hitler, and insisted that they had his corpse. It was just the sort of end he had not wanted, however, and he had taken precautions to make sure it did not occur. A ration of gasoline was obtained, and the two bodies were cremated near the exit of the bunker. What happened to the remaining dust can only be guessed at; artillery shelling and flamethrowers turned the area even more chaotic. Some of Hitler's henchmen followed him in suicide, some fled. Fest's book gives a rough description of the subsequent battle for Berlin, but this is mostly a ghastly story of awful gloom within a grotesquely unnatural cave. It is a short book, in a readable translation, accompanied by vivid and shocking pictures, unrelieved by any light anecdotes or instances of individual heroism. Fest's explanation of Hitler's motivation ("like a gang leader, he pursued a course that never went beyond the idea of killing and looting") is satisfactory, but perhaps no one can explain how with no coherent version of where he was leading Germany he could have been so staunchly supported for so long. When Fest writes that Hitler's ashes wound up tamped into bombardment-plowed ground, "among chunks of blasted concrete and heaps of garbage," it is clear that he has satisfaction that Hitler got the end he deserved.