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Hitler, close up

Inside Hitler's Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich; Joachim Fest; Translated from the German by Margot Dembo; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 192 pp., $21 Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary; Traudl Junge; Edited by Melissa Muller; Translated from the German by Anthea Bell; Arcade: 262 pp., $26

April 25, 2004|John Lukacs | John Lukacs is a historian and the author of many books, including "The Hitler of History."

The last days of Hitler -- there exist more than a dozen books, memoirs and historical reconstructions of those dreadful days and nights, of the dreadful words and expressed thoughts of this most dreadful of past world rulers. Here are two different accounts of that time, both with considerable merit (perhaps especially the second).

Among the more than 100 biographies of Hitler, Joachim Fest's "Hitler" (1973) may still be the best, though he is not a professional historian. Among the memoirs of men and women who knew Hitler well, Traudl Junge's "Until the Final Hour" is the best.

Fest has now written more than half a dozen books about Hitler and the Third Reich. His latest, "Inside Hitler's Bunker," is, as he properly states at the beginning, only a "historical sketch." What interests him is less a precise reconstruction of those famous last days than it is Hitler himself -- what was and was not going on in Hitler's mind. Nine years ago, in an introduction to a new edition of his biography, Fest wrote that Hitler's portrait had become more and more "unclear," that "the shadows of his contemporariness [were] becoming deeper and deeper," that there were questions and topics about Hitler that remained "taboo," that the "historicization" of Hitler was still incomplete.

That may or may not be so. What is evident is that Fest's mind is still exercised by Hitler. But in this new book, his description and analysis of Hitler are too one-dimensional. He partakes of the understandable German view that Hitler was a criminal, that he was responsible for everything perpetrated by the Reich, that he not only harmed but in the end hated his own people.

Yet it was not as simple as that. Was Hitler moved by "his hatred of the world"? Were his decisions, after Stalingrad, "marked by an element of disappointed hatred of the German people"? Was it true that "whenever an opportunity arose to widen the split between his enemies, he let it go by"? Did Hitler's words to his generals at the situation conference five days before his death run the gamut from "absolute madness to angry outbursts to resignation"? Is there "no doubt that the ruin and destruction of those final weeks gave him a greater sense of satisfaction than any of the fleeting victories of earlier days"? Each of these statements is arguable, to say the least. There are also a few factual mistakes in Fest's otherwise careful reconstruction. When Hitler took his gamble in March 1936 to reoccupy the Rhineland, he did not "tremble for twenty-four hours awaiting his fate." When the news came to the bunker of Franklin D. Roosevelt's death, it was Joseph Goebbels, not Hitler, who was madly elated.

There remains, then, the great, mysterious historical problem: the German people's relationship to their Fuhrer. And here Fest, perhaps understandably, cannot refrain from recounting, with what is probably a compound of admiration and melancholy, those stunning examples of fanatical sacrifice and (I am sadly compelled to write) heroism of certain German men and women, ranging from field marshals through women pilots to young officers, who "fought among the ruins [and] derived an unprecedented satisfaction from the fighting," whose loyalty to Hitler was unconditional, who killed themselves after draping walls of the ruined Chancellery with the last swastika flags, who, like the brave Luftwaffe test pilot Hanna Reitsch, declared that "one must kneel ... before the altar of the Fatherland." To Fest, and to most honest Germans, Hitler was not the Fatherland; he was the enemy of the Fatherland. But that was not what so many thought and felt then. What a sad truth that is!

Fest never met or even saw Hitler. Traudl Junge did. She was one of his four female secretaries: Johanna Wolf, Gerda Christian (nee Daranowski), Christa Schroeder, Traudl Junge (nee Humps). All four survived the bunker, the siege of Berlin, the war. The last two wrote memoirs; the first two did not. Schroeder set down her memoirs late in her life; they were edited by an excellent researcher of Hitler's life, Anton Joachimsthaler. Schroeder was ambivalent about Hitler; she remained loyal and respectful to him until her death in 1983. Junge, who died only two years ago, revised her judgment of Hitler soon after the war. She wrote her account at that time, but it was not published. Many of the recollections in the present book appear in a 1989 collection titled "Voices From the Bunker"; she also gave interviews occasionally, and last year a documentary was released. Junge's full account has now been superbly edited and precisely annotated by Melissa Muller in "Until the Final Hour."

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