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Life in the Führerbunker: Hitler's final days

‘It never entered my mind, even then, as the bombs rained down, that we would lose.’

Those were the words of Armin Lehmann, a fanatical, sixteen-year-old member of the Hitler Youth who, along with thousands of teenagers, had been transported to Berlin in early April 1945 to defend the city against the rapidly advancing Red Army. Lehmann was chosen as a courier, running messages backwards and forwards from the radio room of the Reich Chancellery to and from the diminishing figure of Adolf Hitler. By April, Hitler had permanently retired to an underground bomb shelter located close to the Chancellery known as the Führerbunker. Lehmann was to witness firsthand the final days of the man who had brought Germany to its knees.

The bunker, which consisted of two connected shelters, was completed in stages between 1936 and 1944. Hitler took up residence in the lower bunker with his long-term partner, Eva Braun, and various staff members on the 16th of January 1945. Expensive carpets and rugs covered the floors and artworks taken from the Chancellery lined the walls, including Hitler’s favourite painting of Frederick the Great, which hung on the wall above his desk in his comfortable private quarters.

'An erotic fever seemed to have taken possession of everybody,'

Hitler's secretary, Gertraud Junge

Hitler would spend a total of 105 days living in the bunker. As the net closed in on his regime, life for the staff in both the Chancellery and the bunker descended into drunkenness and decadence. Officers, among them Martin Bormann, Hitler’s unpopular brute of a private secretary, often laid into the Chancellery’s extensive wine cellar early in the day. A notorious womanizer, Bormann found plenty of takers in the increasingly cavalier atmosphere that took hold as the Soviets closed in.

Sex was rife amongst staff who had little else to do in their spare time but drink and fool around to take their minds off their impending doom. A favourite place for a quick sexual encounter was the Chancellery’s dental surgery. ‘An erotic fever seemed to have taken possession of everybody, recalled secretary Gertraud Junge. ‘Everywhere, even on the dentist’s chair, I saw bodies locked in lascivious embraces. The women had discarded all modesty and were freely exposing their private parts.’

Hitler, meanwhile, took daily strolls around the elegant gardens of the Chancellery with his beloved German Shepherd dog, Blondi. It was one of his last remaining pleasures. However, as the Red Army began its final advance on the capital and shells began to rain down on the Chancellery and its gardens, even this was denied him.

The last day Hitler ventured outside was on the morning of April the 20th. It was his 56th birthday. By this stage, he cut a very different figure from the triumphant conqueror of just five years before. Addicted to powerful opiates prescribed to him by his personal physician, Dr. Theodor Morell, visibly shaking from Parkinson’s Disease and looking much older than his age, the Führer made his way out to the now ruined Chancellery garden to hand out medals to children of the Hitler Youth.

As his previously loyal commanders began to desert him, Hitler realised the end of his rule was nigh

Amongst those meeting Hitler that day was Armin Lehmann. He received an Iron Cross from the Führer for bravery during a battle in which he had saved two of his comrades in early January. The boy couldn’t believe it when Hitler grabbed him by the cheek and gave his face a playful shake. ‘We all idolised Hitler,’ he later recalled. “We were dedicated to following his path unerringly even though we were dodging Allied bullets.’

After his brief time outside, Hitler returned to his bunker and never came out again. The following day, he ordered what remained of his forces to attack the advancing Soviets, but his orders were ignored. On hearing this, Hitler flew into a rage and for the first time he acknowledged the war was lost. It was now only a matter of time before Berlin was overrun and the Soviets reached the Führerbunker.

Six days after realising the war was lost, Hitler received the news that Heinrich Himmler was trying to negotiate Germany’s surrender with the Americans. Apoplectic with rage over this betrayal, Hitler declared Himmler a traitor and had his SS representative, the loathsome Hermann Fegelein, taken out and shot. That Fegelein happened to be Eva Braun’s brother-in-law made no difference to the furious dictator.

As his previously loyal commanders began to desert him, Hitler realised the end of his rule was nigh. News reached him that Benito Mussolini had been captured, executed and his body hanged upside down from a lamppost in Milan. Determined not to share the same humiliation, Hitler decided to end his life. Eva Braun told Hitler she would die alongside him. For her unerring loyalty, Hitler finally decided to marry her.

The couple were married just after midnight on the 29th of April in a civil ceremony that involved both parties swearing they were of pure Aryan blood. A rather muted wedding reception was held after the ceremony while Hitler retired to his study with his secretary, Traudl Junge, to dictate his last will and testament. In it, he once again blamed the Jews for his and Germany’s ills.

The following day, Hitler received word that the troops defending Berlin were rapidly running out of ammunition and it was only a matter of time before the encircling Soviet forces overran the bunker. Hitler realised his time had run out.

‘He was like a ghost - he didn't seem to see me or anyone,’ Lehmann later recalled. ‘He just stared ahead, lost in thought. At that moment, the bunker was shaken by a strong tremor as a bomb hit. Dirt and mortar trickled down on us, but he made no attempt to brush it off. He looked so much more unhealthy than 10 days earlier at his birthday reception when I had first met him. It looked like he was suffering from jaundice. His face was sallow.’

After instructing his physician to poison his dog Blondi to test the effectiveness of the cyanide capsules he and Eva intended to take, Hitler and his new bride said their goodbyes to the bunker staff and retired to their private quarters. There, Braun killed herself with cyanide and Hitler shot himself. As per his instructions, Hitler and Braun’s bodies were taken out into the Chancellery garden and burned. Because the grounds of the Chancellery were being almost constantly shelled by this stage, the guard charged with the hasty cremation dashed to the bunker entrance and tossed a lighter at the petrol-soaked bodies. As a result, The couple were married just after midnight on the 29th of April in a civil ceremony that involved both parties swearing they were of pure Aryan blood. A rather muted wedding reception was held after the ceremony while Hitler retired to his study with his secretary, Traudl Junge, to dictate his last will and testament. In it, he once again blamed the Jews for his and Germany’s ills.

The following day, Hitler received word that the troops defending Berlin were rapidly running out of ammunition and it was only a matter of time before the encircling Soviet forces overran the bunker. Hitler realised his time had run out.

‘He was like a ghost - he didn't seem to see me or anyone,’ Lehmann later recalled. ‘He just stared ahead, lost in thought. At that moment, the bunker was shaken by a strong tremor as a bomb hit. Dirt and mortar trickled down on us, but he made no attempt to brush it off. He looked so much more unhealthy than 10 days earlier at his birthday reception when I had first met him. It looked like he was suffering from jaundice. His face was sallow.’

After instructing his physician to poison his dog Blondi to test the effectiveness of the cyanide capsules he and Eva intended to take, Hitler and his new bride said their goodbyes to the bunker staff and retired to their private quarters. There, Braun killed herself with cyanide and Hitler shot himself. As per his instructions, Hitler and Braun’s bodies were taken out into the Chancellery garden and burned. Because the grounds of the Chancellery were being almost constantly shelled by this stage, the guard charged with the hasty cremation dashed to the bunker entrance and tossed a lighter at the petrol-soaked bodies. As a result, another guard who had not witnessed this dash to the door thought the bodies had spontaneously combusted.

The following day, Magda Goebbels – who along with her husband Joseph and her six children had moved into the bunker April 22 – killed her children with the aid of an SS dentist. Goebbels and his wife then ascended into the gardens where they were shot dead or committed suicide (reports vary) and their bodies were burned. Their bodies were not buried, but instead left out on the crater-pitted ground to be discovered by Soviet troops two days later.

The remaining staff either committed suicide or made several bloody attempts to break out of the bunker and through the Soviet lines. Some made it out, many others did not. Armin Lehmann managed to evade capture by the Red Army. He was shot during his escape and later captured by American troops who treated his wounds. Martin Bormann was not so lucky. He managed to cross the river Spree, but his body was later seen lying dead on the ground by Hitler Youth leader Artur Axmann as he also made his escape.

The bunker was finally captured by Soviet forces on May 2. Inside, they found the six bodies of Magda Goebbels’ murdered children. The bodies of Hitler and Braun were dug up and Hitler was later identified by his dental records. The bodies of Hitler, Braun, Hitler’s dogs and the Goebbels family were buried and exhumed several times before finally being crushed into dust and tossed into the river Elbe in 1970. Nothing now remains of Hitler save for a small section of his jaw and part of his skull.

The bunker was dynamited as part of the demolition of the Reich Chancellery between 1945 and 1949. The dynamite caused some damage, but most of the structure remained intact. Parts of the bunker were demolished when the area was developed in the 1990s, but quite a lot remains and there is now an ongoing debate in Germany over whether it should be opened up to tourists. In the meantime, all that now indicates that this was once the final bolt hole of a grotesque tyrant is a small information board next to a bare patch of ground.

And what of Armin Lehmann, the fanatically loyal teenager who was one of the last people to see Hitler alive? He was forced to witness for himself the monstrousness of the regime he supported when the Americans took him to see the horrors of a Nazi death camp. He renounced his Nazi faith that very same day and decided to become a peace activist. He spent the rest of his life travelling around the world promoting peace, tolerance and non-violence at events held in over 150 countries. He died in Coos Bay, Oregon on the 10th of October 2008.