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.

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