The only thing worth celebrating about Hitler's life is his death. It was all so furtive, so becoming of that trembling neurotic when he killed himself deep beneath the ground, at about 3.30pm on April 30, 1945. It was a Monday, 70 years ago today. He was on honeymoon. Eva, his bride of two days, slumped beside him on a sofa, dead of cyanide poisoning; the side of her blue dress was wet. Hitler had knocked over a vase of flowers when he put a bullet in his head, and the water spilled on Eva's dress.
What to do with Hitler on the 70th anniversary of his exit? Picture him as the doomed and raving tyrant in the film Downfall, now the meme for all crazed occasions, played as someone so completely insane that it's impossible to think of him as human? Mad dog, demonic. Or bring him down to size, see him as shabby and pathetic, a little man shambling his lugubrious way towards death in that dark bunker, stinking it up with his flatulence and his halitosis?
The challenge is to remember him at all. We're spoiled for tyrants, maniacs, executioners; Isis is of more pressing concern right now than an old despot; and, in Anzac week, Gallipoli has the predominant hold on our sense of history. Hitler doesn't get much of a look-in. We regard him as a kind of museum exhibit. There he goes with his period costume and rigid moustache, hollering at Nuremberg, goading a savage tribe towards the Final Solution. Nazi Germany is a relic of a previous century.
In fact, the past lurched back into the news last week, with the trial of 93-year-old Oskar Groening, an SS guard at Auschwitz. He talked about how a fellow guard discovered a baby abandoned among luggage and bashed it against a truck to stop its crying. Groening is charged with 300,000 counts of accessory to murder. One name was strangely absent in the 853-word article in last Thursday's paper - the actual murderer, Hitler.
He gave the world the Holocaust, and all he got was written out of his own lousy story. It's as though his personality has failed to survive. There's something vague and incoherent about Hitler, formless, the edges blurred.
"We can add Stalin up bit by bit, piece by piece, and understand him in human terms," novelist Norman Mailer once said. "He may have been one of the most evil human beings that ever lived, but he was a human being. But Hitler was different. Hitler was inexplicable."
Perhaps the only time Hitler truly comes to life is in his last days. Fished up like some creature from a black lagoon, he stands exposed in the bright underground lights in his Berlin bunker.
The last days
There were three levels, with Hitler and his entourage crammed in 18 bare rooms in the bottom level. "In each of the rooms," writes German historian Joachim Fest in Inside Hitler's Bunker, "Naked lightbulbs hung from the ceiling, casting cold light on the faces of those who were there and adding to the impression that they were all moving about in a ghost world."
Hitler, a cold fish in a cold light, trapped. He went down to the bunker on January 16, 1945. Stalin's troops edged closer. Anthony Beevor's incredible portrait of the Russian invasion, Berlin: The Downfall 1945, details Red Army soldiers shooting at nesting storks for target practice.
Hitler's response was to despatch children on bicycles with anti-tank missiles attached to the handlebars. Raincoats were lined with explosives, and recruits were taught how to detonate tins of Heinz oxtail soup packed with plastic explosives.
Hitler, just as uselessly, waited for the cavalry of General Walther Wenck's Twelfth Army to come to the rescue. He drew hopeful arrows on his maps with coloured pencils. The first and most elegantly written account of bunker narrative is Hugh Trevor-Roper's 1947 investigation, The Last Days of Hitler. He writes: "Sometimes the Fuhrer would spread the map on the table, and stooping over it, with trembling hands, he would arrange and rearrange a set of buttons as symbols of relieving armies."
There was a wide, red carpet laid over the tiled floors, elegant chairs along the hallway; little plates of sweet treats were available around the clock. "Behind his impassioned rages, his enormous ambitions, lay the trivial tastes of the petty bourgeois," writes Trevor-Roper. No one can damn the lower classes like an Englishman: "One cannot forget the cream buns."
Towards the end, Hitler lay his divan, staring at a portrait of Frederick the Great, "thinking only of chocolate and cake", according to his valet, Heinz Linge. "His craving for cake became pathological." Cream buns, apple strudel... Dead man brooding, and drooling.
He also took to wandering the hallways "like a ghost", said his secretary Traudl Junge, in Last Witnesses In The Bunker. "His feet dragged along the ground as he walked, aimlessly." He moped into the rooms ("miserable underground hutches," in Trevor-Roper's lyric) and talked to whoever was there about his impending suicide. Junge: "The tone of his voice was impersonal, indifferent even."
Guests drank schnapps at his birthday party on April 20. He turned 56. Eva wore a new dress of silver-blue brocade. She put a record on the gramophone: a sentimental ballad, Red Roses Bring You Happiness. Hitler disliked alcohol, and stuck to his preferred beverage, cumin tea; behind closed doors, he gave himself camomile enemas.
Howling for blood
A curved staircase led down to the bunker. "The walls were cold and white," wrote his secretary. It was loud, and it stank. Joachim Fest: "The water supply occasionally failed and an almost unbearable stench spread from the bunker - exhaust fumes from the constantly humming diesel engines, mixed with the pungent smell of urine and human perspiration." In the last week of April, it shook with Russian shelling.
There were about 80 inmates in the concrete asylum. Senior officials included the ambiguous Speer, and the scheming Bormann, nicely described by Trevor-Roper as "the brown eminence". There was also the loyal Goebbels, who brought his wife and their six children. "Uncle Adolf!", they cheered, and played with the Fuhrer's dog, Blondi, until it was given cyanide.
Junge the secretary remembers Hitler that month as "haggard, pale, hollow-eyed". His left arm trembled. He dropped spaghetti sauce on his shirt and didn't bother wiping the stains. But he snapped out of his passivity to order the beheading of 30 political prisoners on his wedding day. Trevor-Roper: "In his last days, Hitler seems like some cannibal god, rejoicing in the ruin of his own temples." He depicts Hitler howling for blood - Russian, German, his own.
It's commonly held that Hitler's doctor, the repulsive Theodor Morell, pumped his patient full of drugs. But the extraordinarily detailed medical history, Was Hitler Ill?, refutes the claim, and diagnoses the Fuhrer as a man in good health.
True, he suffered from irritable bowel syndrome and tinnitus, he took laxatives and castor oil for frequent constipation, and anti-gas pills before every meal to treat his flatulence. But the authors argue these were minor complaints, and conclude that he was of sound mind and body: "He was not handicapped by illness or drugs ... Hitler was healthy and accountable."
He kept bohemian hours. Trevor-Roper was told that Hitler woke at noon in the bunker, and liked tea parties between 2am and 3.30am. "Hitler was by nature an artist, adverse from methodical hours and unremitting labour." He reduced his hours of sleep to three.
Berlin, meantime, was being razed to the ground. Beevor's account of the Russian rapes are harrowing. Food ran out, but a newspaper offered helpful advice: frogs were an excellent source of protein, it reported, and the city's rivers and lakes were well-stocked. "The best way to catch them is by dragging colourful rags along the shallows near the shore."
Fear and suicide
Hitler was served his usual lunch at the usual time on April 30: two fried eggs, with mashed potato. Eva Braun wore his favourite dress, black with pink roses at either side of a low, square neckline. They retired to his room. Hitler told his adjutant, Otto Graunsche, to wait 10 minutes after the shot.
Junge found some fruit and ham for the six Goebbels children and made them sandwiches. A single shot was heard. Helmut Goebbels, 9, hooted: "Right on target!"
Graunsche obeyed his final order, and opened the door after 10 minutes. He writes in Last Witnesses, "Hitler's body was crumpled up, his head hanging towards the door. Blood was running from his right temple onto the carpet."
An obscure report from 2005, allegedly taken from KGB files, claimed that Hitler was shot by an aide. He'd taken the cyanide, but ordered that someone else deliver the coup de grace. Another, far stupider theory is put forward in Hitler's Fate, by a nobody called H.D. Baumann. Hitler was helicoptered out of Berlin on April 22. Franco gave him refuge in Barcelona. A double was brought in, a Herr Sillip; he was executed, shot in the head on April 30.
A double was brought in for Braun, too, but she only played dead. Baumann's offensive pantomime goes like this: "The young lady playing Eva was no doubt an accomplished actress, hand picked by Dr Goebbels, who was in charge of all cultural activities, including theatres and the movies."
There are other, even more stupid theories. Mischief and lunacy are allowed to thrive because of the absence of Hitler's remains. A fragment of his skull was found, and eventually displayed in Russia as proof; but in 2009, it was tested for DNA by a team of American scientists, who said it belonged to a woman under the age of 40.
The only other part of Hitler's body to survive was the jawbone. No one outside Russia has examined it. It remains in the Kremlin.
But there are few inconsistencies in the eye-witness reports of Hitler's death. As Trevor-Roper discovered, they all told essentially the same story.
The last survivor of the bunker was Hitler's bodyguard, Rochus Misch. In 2009, at the age of 92, he told the BBC, "I saw Hitler slumped with his head on the table ... I watched as they wrapped Hitler up. His legs were sticking out as they carried him past me. Someone shouted to me: 'Hurry upstairs, they're burning the boss!'"
Graunsche said he wrapped the body in a blanket. Bormann passed Braun's body to Hitler's driver, Erich Kempka. The corpses were hefted up three flights of stairs and taken outside to a garden.
Kempka's graceless memoir, I Was Hitler's Chauffeur, was originally entitled I Cremated Hitler. The bodies were burned with 200 litres of gasoline. Kempka lit the funeral pyre: "The charred remains were gathered up and interred in a shallow grave at the side of the house."
It seems they were exhumed by the Russians, then put in a wooden crate and buried in a forest on the outskirts of Berlin. Hitler's body was exhumed a month later, according to Trevor-Roper. The feet had been consumed by fire, but the face was still recognisable. The remains were taken to East Germany, buried, and exhumed again, in 1970, when the ashes were scattered in a river. Beevor prefers to write, "The ashes were flushed into a sewage system."
On May 1, the day after Hitler's suicide, Magda Goebbels poisoned her children. She sat down afterwards and played patience. Her husband shot her and then himself. Bormann fled the bunker, and was killed. Most of the domestic staff survived; Junge records that when she came up for air, the first thing she saw were dozens of starved and hysterical Berliners cutting up a dead horse.
The end of the Thousand Year Reich, the end of a short, ghostly 56-year-old man from Linz. Stripped away bit by bit, piece by piece in those last days beneath the ground, sans his coloured pencils and his buttons, left with his enemas and his gas, Hitler finally emerged as identifiably human, no longer beyond understanding. He learned what it was like for everyone else touched by Nazi Germany. He felt afraid.