Berlin, Germany • April 20, 1945
On April 12, 1945, Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States, died in Warm Springs, Georgia, from a massive cerebral hemorrhage. The leading stateman in a coalition of nations fighting Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, Roosevelt was a thin and frail 63-year-old just three months into his fourth four-year term as president when he died. Half a world away and a week later a stooped, haggard, yellowish gray- and jowly-faced Adolf Hitler celebrated his 56th birthday in his command bunker under Berlin’s Old Reich Chancellery on this date in 1945. Unlike previous birthdays marked by much ceremony and fuss, this one was all gloom and doom due to the Wehrmacht’s failure to halt the Soviet advance on the Reich capital. Only the day before, Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress and companion in his subterranean world, remarked hearing the thunder of artillery fire on the Eastern Front even in the bowels of the bunker. Jacob Kronika, a Danish journalist in Berlin, quoted residents telling each other: “This time it’s the Fuehrer’s last birthday.”
That afternoon in his subterranean antechamber Hitler received a round of birthday congratulations from a dwindling circle of never-say-die Nazi big-wigs—Reich Marshal Hermann Goering, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, Reich Chancellery head and personal secretary Martin Bormann, Gestapo chief and Reichsfuehrer-SS Heinrich Himmler, Grand Adm. Karl Doenitz, Chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW) Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the Operations Staff of the Armed Forces High Command Alfred Jodl, and technocrat and Armaments Minister Albert Speer. There was even a telegram from Benito Mussolini, a telegram sent just days before his capture and execution on April 28 by Italian partisans. As Hitler accepted birthday wishes with a vacant expression and a limp right handshake, his limbs on his left side trembling, the first Soviet fighting units could be heard penetrating the southern edge of Berlin, now a moonscape of bomb craters and ruined buildings. Overhead, streams of Allied bombers delivered their own birthday greetings.
In the Berlin borough of Kreuzberg the Ortsgruppenleiter (local group leader) of Nazi Party members, all of whom were tipsy from pilfered alcohol in celebration of Hitler’s birthday, exhorted his men: “Comrades, the hour of truth has struck! You will be deployed at the Reich Chancellery and save our beloved Fuehrer.” Reportedly he was white as a sheet.
Hitler seemed undecided about whether to flee his underground sanctuary for Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps. Not so his senior henchmen, who lost little time in scattering—Himmler, Speer, Doenitz, Keitel, Jodl, and the entire OKW to the northwest, Goering, his limousine motorcade and 24‑truck-column heavily laden with war booty, to the south. In the half-empty Fuehrer apartment in the Old Reich Chancellery, Eva Braun threw a last little improvised party, where her boisterous guests (absent Hitler, who had withdrawn to his subterranean bedroom in the Fuerhrerbunker) drank champagne, laughed, and danced to an old hit record from 1929 as they tried to ignore the imminent end of Nazism. Nearby Soviet artillery strikes eventually forced the party-makers to retreat underground.
Two million mostly cave-dwelling Berliners, aware of the Soviets’ fast-closing dragnet, relished the extra rations of jam, sugar, coffee, and meat dispersed on April 22 as part of their leader’s birthday festivities, which presaged by eight days Hitler’s and Braun’s suicides. Their deaths were just two of nearly four thousand suicides reported in Berlin in April 1945.
Time Runs Out for Hitler and His Thousand-Year Reich
Left: Hitler visiting a division command post on the Eastern Front in early April 1945, the swan song of Hitler’s Third Reich. He is said to have received an enthusiastic reception from soldiers facing overwhelming odds in a fight to the death with the Red Army. To Hitler’s right (center in photo) is Hermann Goering, Reichsmarschall and head of the now impotent Luftwaffe. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, Chief of the High Command of the Armed Forces (OKW), is partially hidden behind Goering’s right shoulder. Keitel signed the German Instrument of Surrender in Soviet-occupied Berlin shortly before midnight on May 8, 1945.
Right: Hitler and his long-time SS adjutant Julius Schaub peer into one of the badly damaged rooms of the Reich Chancellery, Berlin, March or April 1945. Upwards of 1,000 civilians and 600 wounded took refuge in its ruins. In late April the Red Army, fighting street by street, captured the “lair of the fascist beast.” The Reich Chancellery and the Reichstag, shattered symbols of Nazi power and prestige, became favorite sites of visiting Allied military and political leaders.
Left: Men of the Berlin Volkssturm (home army) march in review carrying Panzerfausts, single-shot, disposable bazookas. With graying hair and assorted coats and hats, black armbands with the words Deutscher Volkssturm Wehrmacht on their sleeves, these militiamen scarcely looked capable of striking fear into 1.5 million battle-hardened Red Army soldiers. Yet over 100,000 Berliners tried.
Right: The end of the fight for four captured Hitler Youth. On April 26, 400 barely 15‑year-old Hitler Youth died in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent Berlin’s Schoeneberg district from falling to the enemy. Their compatriots in the Volkssturm, when captured by Soviet troops, were sometimes shot as “bandits” and “terrorists” because they were not dressed in military attire. Called to arms without arms, half the Volkssturm marched weaponless against the enemy. The militiamen were instructed to arm themselves by taking rifles and bazookas from the wounded and dead on the battlefield.
Left: A Soviet multiple rocket launcher fires its load into the center of Berlin, April 1945. Despite its inaccuracy, it delivered a devastating amount of explosives in short order. On the night before Hitler’s 56th birthday, a rough banner appeared on a ruin on Luetzowplatz in Berlin’s famous Tiergarten. It read: “For this we thank the Fuehrer!” The phrase, coined earlier by Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels when times were good, had degenerated to cliché. Now residents of the perishing city co-opted it as an epitaph for Nazi Germany’s apocalyptic end.
Right: Destroyed German Panzerwagen in Berlin street. On May 2, 1945, Gen. Helmuth Weidling, commander of the Berlin garrison, used air-dropped leaflets, truck-mounted loudspeakers, and word of mouth (no radio transmitter or newspapers being available) to announce a ceasefire.
Last Newsreel from Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, March 22, 1945. Scenes Include Hitler Greeting 20 Hitler Youth on Grounds of the Semi-Destroyed Reich Chancellery