Berlin, Germany · April 20, 1945

On this date in 1945, a stooped, jowly-faced Adolf Hitler cele­brated his 56th birth­day in his com­mand bunker under Berlin’s Old Reich Chan­cellery. 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 sounds of artil­lery fire on the East­ern Front even in the bowels of the bunker.

After mid­night Hitler received a round of birth­day con­grat­u­la­tions from a dwin­dling cir­cle of never-say-die Nazi big-wigs—Reich Mar­shal Hermann Goering, Pro­pa­gan­da Minis­ter Joseph Goebbels, 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 limp hand­shake and vacant ex­pres­sion, the first Soviet units pene­tra­ted the south­ern edge of Berlin, now a moon­scape of bomb craters and ruined buildings.

Hitler seemed un­decided about whether to flee his under­ground sanc­tuary for Berchtes­gaden in the Bava­rian Alps. Not his hench­men, who lost little time in scat­tering—Doenitz, Himmler, and Speer to the north­west, Goering to the south. In her Old Reich Chan­cel­lery apart­ment, Eva Braun threw a last little im­pro­vised party, where her bois­terous guests (absent Hit­ler, who had with­drawn to his bed­room) drank cham­pagne, laughed, and danced to an old hit record from 1929 as they tried to ignore the imminent end to Nazism.

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

Hitler and Goering on Eastern Front, April 1945Hitler peers into ruins of his Reich Chancellery, March 1945

Left: Hitler visiting the Eastern Front in early April 1945. 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 adjutant peer into one of the rooms of the de­stroyed Reich Chan­cellery, Berlin, March 1945. The next month the Red Army, fighting street by street, cap­tured the “lair of the fascist beast.” The Reich Chan­cel­lery and the Reichs­tag, sym­bols of Nazi power and pres­tige, became favorite sites of visiting Allied mili­tary and political leaders.

Berlin's Volkssturm menCaptured German boy soldiers

Left: Men of the Berlin Volkssturm (home army) march with 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 men scarcely looked like the kind of soldiers who would strike fear in 1.5 mil­lion battle-hardened Red Army soldiers. Yet over 100,000 Berliners tried.

Right: The end of the fight for four captured boy soldiers, probably Hitler Youth. Their compatriots in the Volkssturm were sometimes killed as “bandits” and “terrorists” when engaged by Soviet troops because they were not dressed in military attire.

Soviet rocket launcher, Berlin, April 1945Destroyed panzerwagen, Berlin 1945

Left: A Soviet multiple rocket launcher fires its load into the center of Berlin, April 1945. It delivered a devastating amount of explosives in short order. Hitler relied on a semi-mythical force to lift the Soviet siege of his capital.

Right: Destroyed German Panzerwagen in a Berlin street. On May 2, 1945, Gen. Helmuth Weidling, commander of the Berlin garrison, used truck-mounted loud­speakers and word of mouth (no radio transmitter being available) to announce a ceasefire.

The Bunker Boys: Hitler’s Child Soldiers, Berlin 1945. Includes Scene of Hitler Awarding Iron Crosses to 20 Hitler Youth from Last Newsreel from Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, March 22, 1945