Berlin, Germany April 30, 1945

Sometime after 3 p.m. on this date in 1945 Adolf Hitler, to all the world the face of unspeak­able evil, shot him­self in the right temple after he and Eva Braun, his wife of 40 hours (and near-secret mis­tress for 14 years), had poi­soned them­selves by in­gesting cya­nide. The Fuehrer’s psycho­tic desire for an apoc­a­lyptic end for Germany—a Nazi Goetter­daem­merung remi­nis­cent of com­poser Richard Wagner’s “Twilight of the Gods”—was nearly com­pleted by his death, leaving Berlin’s for­mal sur­ren­der in the hands of its garrison commander, Gen. Helmuth Weidling, two days later.

From the recessed Fuehrerbunker, Hitler’s pall bearers (and former wedding atten­dants only hours before) carried the bodies of Eva Braun and their trog­lo­dyte leader into the once-beau­ti­ful, now deso­lated gar­dens of the ruined Old Reich Chan­cel­lery. The men laid the two corpses next to each other just yards from the bunker exit, Hitler on his back clad in his cus­tomary uni­form tunic, white shirt, and black trousers, and his wife on her stomach wearing a black dress with roses around the neckline, Hitler’s favorite.

Shortly before 4:00 o’clock that afternoon 10 canis­ters of gaso­line were poured over the couple’s remains and set on fire. Hitler had chosen crema­tion for him­self and his wife, telling his Minis­ter of Arma­ments, Albert Speer, that he would “not fight per­son­ally. . . There is always the danger that I would just be wounded and fall into the hands of the Russians alive. I don’t want my ene­mies to dis­grace my body either.” Actually, the Soviets did hope to catch Hitler alive, going so far as to set up a special unit to do just that. Marshal Georgy Zhukov, who signed the second German mili­tary surren­der on May 8/9, 1945, in Berlin for the Soviet Union, boasted that if he caught “that slimy beast Hitler” he would lock him in a cage and parade him through the streets of Moscow, pro­ba­bly on June 24, when the marshal served as comman­der in chief of the Moscow Vic­tory Parade. Cheated of that honor, Zhukov was unaware on the evening of April 30 that the piles of bones and ash, the latter kicked up by winds blowing through in the barren Chancellery garden, belonged to Hitler and Braun.

In his last will and political testament, Hitler stated for the public record that he and his wife chose death rather than wit­ness the over­throw and capit­u­la­tion of his nation. “I die with a happy heart,” he wrote, “con­scious of the immeas­ur­able deeds and achieve­ments of our sol­diers at the front, of our women at home, the achieve­ments of our farmers and workers and the work, unique in his­tory, of our youth, who bear my name” (i.e., Hitler Youth). He blamed the Jews and those working for Jewish inte­rests for the fail­ure of his his­toric mis­sion and the catas­trophe they had brought to Germany and Europe. The German people’s fight against world Jewry, he averred, would even­tually go down in history as “the most glorious and valiant mani­fes­ta­tion of a nation’s will to exis­tence.” Less than a mile from Hitler and Braun’s funeral pyre, Private Mikhail Minin risked bullets and bombs to plant the Soviet flag atop the shambles of the German parlia­ment building, the Reichs­tag, a sym­bolic pre­sent to Joseph Stalin in time for Mos­cow’s sacred May Day parade. Sol­diers had sewn the ban­ner together out of table­cloths the night before. The emble­matic moment was re­enacted two days later by Sergeant Meliton Kantaria for the camera.

Facilitated in part by loud­speaker trucks and air­dropped leaf­lets (Hamburg and Munich were the two German radio stations still broad­casting), news of a cease­fire and Hitler’s death spread through­out the capital. Most Berliners rejoiced, tearing up the ubiq­ui­tous photo­graphs of Hitler that hung on their apart­ment walls, but the exu­ber­ant feeling was by no means uni­ver­sal. In neu­tral Portugal, the govern­ment ordered two days of mourning for the fallen Fuehrer. In Dublin, Ireland’s capital, the Irish prime min­is­ter called at the German lega­tion to express his con­dolences. And in Tokyo, capi­tal of Germany’s still unde­feated ally Japan, the German embassy held a memo­rial ser­vice for the deceased head of state. It is believed to be the only memorial service anywhere held for Hitler.

Sir Ian Kershaw is my go-to historian for almost all things related to the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler. His magisterial two-volume bio­graphy of Hitler (subtitled 1889–1936: Hubris and 1936–1945: Nemesis) appears in an abridged single volume, Hitler, at 1,000 pages. The best short bio­graphy of Hitler, at 190 pages, is by another British his­torian, A. N. Wilson. I found his bio­graphy Hitler dead on in explaining the essen­tials of what made Hitler, Hitler. Amer­ican his­torian R.H.S. Stolfi’s 2011 bio­graphy, Hitler: Beyond Evil and Tyranny, at just over 500 pages, focuses the spot­light more on the dic­tator’s per­sonality and less on his evil actions. British his­torian and docu­men­tary film­maker Laurence Rees’ 300-page study, Hitler’s Charisma: Leading Mil­lions into the Abyss, examines the Ger­man dicta­tor’s life against the back­drop of histori­cal, social, and psycho­logical events in Germany and Austria that con­tribu­ted to the crea­tion of a mes­sianic national leader who was hero-worshiped by mil­lions of Germans and Austrians, not to mention millions of other Europeans. Lastly, the most recent biographer of Hitler, Peter Longerich, has published Hitler: A Biography, who postulates that Hitler’s rise to, and ultimate hold on, power was more than merely a matter of charisma; rather, it was due to his ability to control the structure he created.—Norm Haskett

The Fuehrerbunker and Hitler’s and Braun’s Initial Gravesite

Last Days of Adolf Hitler: Schematic diagram of Vorbunker and Fuehrerbunker, Berlin

Above: Schematic diagram of the Fuehrer­bunker (left in image) and the Vor­bunker. The 16‑room Vor­bunker (“forward bunker,” or ante­bunker) was located beneath the long recep­tion hall that was added to the rear of the Old Reich Chan­cel­lery in 1939. (The hall connected the Old Reich Chan­cel­lery on Wilhelm­strasse with the New Reich Chan­cel­lery on Voss­strasse.) The Vor­bunker was meant to be a tem­po­rary air raid shelter for Hitler, his guards, and ser­vants. It was offi­cially called the “Reich Chan­cel­lery Air Raid Shelter” until 1943, when con­struc­tion began that expanded the bunker com­plex with the addition of the 20‑room Fuehrer­bunker over 30 ft beneath the garden of the Old Reich Chancellery. The two bunkers were connected by a flight of stairs.

Last Days of Adolf Hitler: Rear entrance to Fuehrerbunker, BerlinLast Days of Adolf Hitler: Hitler’s sitting room and place of suicide, Fuehrerbunker, Berlin

Left: Taken in July 1947, this photo shows the massive first emer­gency exit of the main bunker (erster Notaus­gang des Haupt­bunkers), or the rear entrance to the Fuehrer­bunker (no. 21 in the schematic diagram above). Hitler and Braun were cremated in a shell hole in front of the emer­gency exit, the former laid on his back, the latter on her stomach. The cone-shaped structure in the center of the photo (no. 37) served as an obser­va­tion tower and bomb shelter for the guards. An unfinished tower (no. 38), a ventilation tower, is partially hidden behind the tree. Two years earlier, in July 1945, a day before the victors’ Pots­dam Con­fer­ence was to begin, British Prime Minis­ter Win­ston Chur­chill stopped at the rear entrance of the Fuehrer­bunker, hoping to enter its under­ground recesses. Told how many flights of stairs down they were, he declined, settling instead on a chair at the rear entrance for a few moments, silent, lost in thought.

Right: A young Soviet soldier stands reputedly amid the scattered remains of Hitler’s personal study (no. 26), the place of his and his wife’s suicides. A Dutch still life that once hung over the sofa is missing. A photo­grapher for LIFE maga­zine who visited the Fuehrer­bunker soon after the war’s end wrote that “the Russians them­selves left little intact or unmolested.” On Decem­ber 5, 1947, Soviet engi­neers tried dyna­miting Hitler’s bunker com­plex but had limited success. Both venti­la­tion towers and the entrance struc­ture seen in the picture on the left were destroyed in the blasts. Twelve years later the East German govern­ment applied more dyna­mite to the bunker ruins, then covered everything over with earth. In the second half of the 1980s East German work crews finished demol­ishing the site and built resi­den­tial housing and other buildings in the space where the two Reich chan­cel­leries, garden, and bunker complex had been. A children’s play­ground occupies the spot where Hitler’s and Braun’s bodies were burnt.

Death in the Fuehrerbunker: Timeline’s Last Days of Adolf Hitler, Narrated by Charlton Heston (Skip first 50 seconds)