Berlin, Germany April 20, 1945

On this date in 1945 a stooped, haggard, yellowish gray- and jowly-faced Adolf Hitler cele­brated his 56th birth­day in the safety of his under­ground com­mand bunker 50 ft beneath Berlin’s battered 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 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 dreary 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. Hitler, when handed a present of money that had been contri­b­uted by rank-and-file Wehr­macht soldiers, unchar­i­ta­bly told his audi­ence that the present weighed less than in past years.

As Hitler accepted birth­day wishes and gifts with a vacant expres­sion and a limp right hand­shake, his limbs on his left side trembling—the Fuehrer’s drug depot in his bunker was nearly empty of his beloved narcotics, tran­quil­izers, and stimu­lants—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 amid sunny skies, the Amer­i­cans their next-to-last bombing raid on Hitler’s capital.

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 and 24‑truck-column heavily laden with war booty, motored south, supposedly to help orga­nize defenses there. 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. The couple’s deaths were just two of nearly 4,000 suicides reported in Berlin in April 1945 (over 100,000 in Germany as a whole), to say nothing of the esti­mated 100,000–125,000 civil­ians who perished in the two-week-long Battle of Berlin or the 81,000 dead or missing German combatants and their 280,000 sick or wounded comrades in arms.

Time Runs Out for Adolf Hitler and His Thousand-Year Reich

Last days of the Third Reich: Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering on Eastern Front, April 1945Last days of the Third Reich: Adolf Hitler peers into ruins of his Reich Chancellery, March 1945

Left: On borrowed time Hitler undertook his last journey to the front at the Oder River, 30 miles east of Berlin, on March 3, 1945. When he dropped in on a division com­mand post, the supreme comman­der 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 is Her­mann Goering (center in photo), 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. The Nazis’ Thou­sand Year Reich had lasted only a dozen years but outlived its founding Fuehrer by a week.

Right: Hitler and his long-time aide and adjutant SS-Obergruppenfuehrer (Lt. Gen.) 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 for visiting Allied military and political leaders.

Last days of the Third Reich: Berlin’s Volkssturm militiaLast days of the Third Reich: Captured German boy soldiers

Left: Destined for a premature death, these men of the Berlin Volks­sturm (home army) march in review carrying Panzer­fausts, single-shot, dis­pos­able ba­zoo­kas. Once fired, the launch tube was no better than a club as a weapon. 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, who weeks or perhaps days earlier had been sitting at their school desks, 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 in civilian clothes” because they were not dressed in mili­tary attire (see left photo). Called to arms without arms, half the Volks­sturm marched weapon­less against the enemy. The militia­men were instructed to arm them­selves by taking rifles and Panzer­fausts from the wounded and dead on the battlefield.

Last days of the Third Reich: Soviet rocket launcher, Berlin, April 1945Last days of the Third Reich: Destroyed Panzerwagen, Berlin 1945

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. With that grim thought front and center in their hearts and minds, Berliners greeted one another with a new phrase, “Bleib uebrig!” (Survive).

Right: Destroyed German Panzerwagen on a rubble-strewn 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 elec­tric­ity, radio trans­mitter, or news­papers being avail­able) to announce a cease­fire. The German Army’s offi­cial surren­der took place twice, on May 7, 1945, in Reims, France, and the next day in Berlin.

Last Newsreel from Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry, March 22, 1945. Scenes Include Hitler Awarding Iron Crosses to 20 Hitler Youth on Grounds of the Semi-Destroyed Reich Chan­cel­lery (Award cere­mony begins 1 minute, 52 seconds into video)