In Hitler's lair, an ignominious end
Published April 30, 2005
BERLIN - On the streets of Berlin, Soviet and German forces were locked in the apocalyptic finale to World War II in Europe. Tens of thousands were dying, and whole city blocks were collapsing in rubble. But 30 feet underground, in Adolf Hitler's bunker, a strange calm had taken hold.
SS Staff Sgt. Rochus Misch, Hitler's bodyguard, had just been told that the Fuehrer was not to be disturbed. And everybody knew what that meant.
"We heard no shot, we heard nothing, but one of those who was in the hallway said, "I think it's done,' " Misch recalls. "Then everything was really quiet."
Somebody mustered the nerve to enter the sitting room, and Misch peered inside. What he saw, he said, is carved forever in his memory: Hitler crumpled over a table, his cheek streaked with blood from the self-inflicted gunshot wound to his head.
The failed art student and World War I corporal who brawled and intrigued his way to power, plunged Europe into war and unleashed the Holocaust, had come to an ignominious end at age 56, in a fortified burrow that Misch remembers as a "concrete coffin."
It was April 30, 1945. In a week, the war would end in Germany's unconditional surrender.
"I saw Hitler lying on the table like so," Misch recalled, putting his head on his living room table to demonstrate. Next to Hitler lay his longtime mistress, Eva Braun, whom he had wed two nights before. She had taken cyanide.
"Eva lay like so on the sofa with knees up, her head to him," Misch said in an interview before the 60th anniversary of the war's end.
The silence suddenly exploded into frenzied activity. Misch ran upstairs to tell his supervisor the news. By the time he returned downstairs, Hitler's corpse was in a blanket on the floor.
"Then they bundled Hitler up and said, "What do we do now?' " Misch said. "As they took Hitler out ... they walked by me about three or four meters away, I saw his shoes sticking outside the sack." Hitler and Braun were being taken above-ground to a small garden to be doused in gasoline and incinerated.
From upstairs, an SS guard yelled to him: "The boss is being burned! Come on out." But instead, Misch retreated deeper into the bunker in case the Gestapo came to kill witnesses to the suicide.
A member since 1937 of the SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler division, originally formed as the Fuehrer's personal bodyguard, Misch was attached to a regular army unit for the invasion of Poland, which started World War II.
Wounded in action, he was sent back to Germany to recover and was picked in 1940 as one of two loyal SS men who would serve as Hitler's bodyguards and general assistants.
Misch accompanied Hitler almost everywhere, and followed him into the bunker in the center of the capital about four days after the final Soviet onslaught on Berlin began.
Today, at 87, his is an oft-told tale, yet one that continues to resonate in a world still struggling to fathom the demons that created and drove Hitler. Even today, any attempt to portray him as human risks provoking fierce objections.
Soviet dictator Josef Stalin gave the order for the final push into Berlin on April 16, a drive not only to take the Nazi capital but to punish the Germans for waging a war that killed 26.6-million Soviet soldiers and civilians, by official Russian count.
The plan pitted a force of some 2.5-million troops with 6,000 tanks against a Berlin defense force of 300,000, some of them old men and children equipped with bicycles and single-shot anti-tank weapons.
The Red Army took some 350,000 casualties, including 78,000 dead. Some 100,000 German civilians were killed and as many women raped. The German military toll has never been fully counted due to the chaos of the final days.
To this day, the bones of the dead regularly turn up in the fields outside Berlin.
Six days into the attack Misch remembers Hitler making a remark that startled his confidants.
"He said, "That's it - the war is lost."'
On April 28, Misch saw Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Hitler confidant Martin Bormann enter the bunker with another man who turned out to be a magistrate, come to wed Hitler and Braun in a short nighttime ceremony.
The day after Hitler's suicide, Goebbels relieved Misch of his duties and the bodyguard fled, but the Soviets caught him.
He spent nine years in prison camps near Moscow and in Kazakhstan, interrogated over and over about the last days in the bunker. He returned to Berlin in 1954, married and opened a shop.
Misch makes no excuses for his service to Hitler and does not talk about guilt or responsibility for the Holocaust, saying only that he joined the SS in the "fight against Bolshevism" and that he knew nothing of the murder of 6-million Jews. With Hitler, "That was never a topic. Never," he said.
Kurt Schrimm, head of the special German prosecutors' office that has hunted Nazis since 1958, said that Misch was never investigated for any war crimes.
All traces of Hitler's bunker are gone, buried under a children's playground behind an apartment block.
The attempts to burn Hitler's body were only partially successful, and his remains were recovered by the Soviets. The find was kept secret, allowing Stalin to perpetuate a Cold War myth that Hitler survived and was hidden in the West.
After decades of uncertainty and disinformation, the demise of the Soviet Union has allowed researchers to establish what they believe is the truth about what happened to the body.
Hitler's jaws and skull were only recently rediscovered in secret archives in Moscow and went on display in Russia's Federal Archives Service in 2000. The rest of him turned out to have been buried beneath a Soviet army parade ground in the former East German city of Magdeburg.
His remains were exhumed in the 1970s and incinerated. The ashes were flushed into the city's sewage system.
[Last modified April 30, 2005, 00:51:14]
[an error occurred while processing this directive]