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Delight, Dismay and Disbelief: Reactions to the Death of Hitler, 75 Years Ago

Hitler_salute_in_front_of_lamppost

It is 75 years since Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his Berlin bunker. His death continues to generate considerable public interest thanks to both continuing forensic discoveries about his biological remains, and the persistence of outlandish tales of his postwar survival. While no serious historian believes in the latter, it is worth considering how confused reporting of Hitler’s fate in spring 1945 created a climate ripe for the flourishing of such legends.

The first formal declaration of Hitler’s death came late on the evening of 1 May 1945 via a radio broadcast by Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz. Sombre music and drum rolls gave way to the momentous announcement: ‘our Führer, Adolf Hitler, has fallen. In the deepest sorrow and respect, the German people bow’. It was, proclaimed Dönitz, a ‘hero’s death’, Hitler falling in battle while fighting valiantly against the ‘Bolshevik storm’.

‘Hitler Dead’ screamed countless international headlines the next day. The bold, dramatic and matter-of-fact statement left little room for ambiguity. Hitler had met his end, National Socialism was vanquished and the Second World War was effectively over. The Daily Herald printed a caricature of a burning Nazi emblem under the slogan ‘WAStika’. The cover of Time magazine simply struck Hitler’s face out with a large red cross.

The media’s response to Hitler’s passing was predominantly one of intense relief. ‘The whole building cheered’, recalled Karl Lehmann, a member of the BBC Monitoring unit. Numerous editorials depicted it as a moment of universal liberation – ‘a terrible scourge and force of evil has been removed’, declared the Lancashire Daily Post.[1] The sense of catharsis continued into the VE Day celebrations a few days later when the burning of Hitler’s effigy typically formed the high point of the UK’s festivities.

In the midst of this jubilation, however, there was widespread uncertainty about the precise cause of death. Dönitz’s talk of Hitler ‘falling’ in battle filled the first wave of international news reports, but many of the accompanying editorials urged caution about accepting this at face value. There was suspicion that either the Nazis were exaggerating the circumstances of his demise to foster a ‘Hitler legend’, or that they were peddling an entirely false narrative to distract from his retreat from the scene. Questioned on the matter during a White House press conference, President Harry S. Truman insisted that he had it ‘on the best authority possible’ that Hitler was, indeed, dead – but conceded there were no details yet as to how he died.

The press were right to question the death-in-battle scenario invented in the Dönitz broadcast. Stationed in Flensburg, over 270 miles away from the death scene, the Admiral was reliant upon information fed to him by colleagues in Führerbunker, namely Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Head of the Party Chancellery Martin Bormann. The pair had already delayed sending definitive news of Hitler’s passing, prompting Dönitz to misdate the fatal moment to the afternoon of 1 May, rather than the 30 April. They also neglected to supply details of what, exactly, had occurred, leaving Dönitz to fill in the gaps for himself. As it transpired, he was not the only person speculating on Hitler’s fate.

United States made propaganda forgery of Nazi German stamp. Portrait of Hitler made into skull; instead of “German Reich” the stamp reads “Lost Reich”. Produced by Operation Cornflakes, U.S. Office of Strategic Services, circa 1942, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Futsches-Reich-Briefmarke-UK.jpg [accessed 29 April 2020]

The Western Allies, anxious to puncture martyrdom myths before they could take hold, swiftly countered Dönitz’s heroic imagery by reviving rumours of Hitler’s previously failing health. The Soviets, meanwhile, denounced reports of Hitler’s death as a ‘fascist trick’ to conceal his escape from Berlin. Even when reports of a Hitler suicide emerged from 3 May, debate continued as to whether the Nazi leader had shot himself or taken cyanide – poison being perceived by the Soviets as a particularly cowardly (and thus eminently appropriate) way out for Hitler.

What, though, did the general public make of all this? Within hours of the Dönitz broadcast, the New York Times and the social research organisation Mass Observation were gauging reactions across Manhattan and London respectively. At first, the news appeared anticlimactic; people who had longed for this moment felt disoriented, numb or empty now it was finally upon them. As the implications sunk in, Hitler’s death raised optimism that the war might finally be over, but dashed hopes that the public would see him brought to justice. ‘Too bad he’s dead’, mused one young New Yorker, ‘he should have been tortured’.[2]

The overwhelming reaction to news of Hitler’s demise, though, was one of disbelief. Some sceptics perceived the whole affair as a Nazi ruse, with Hitler just waiting to ‘pop out again when we aren’t looking’. Others foreshadowed modern-day accusations of ‘fake news’, directing their cynicism towards the contradictory explanations printed in the Allied press for Hitler’s demise. Mistrust of Nazi propaganda was also, understandably, common with one Londoner reflecting, ‘I don’t believe he died fighting. They just said that to make it seem more – you know – the way he’d have wanted people to think he died… I think personally he’s been out of the way for a long time now.’[3]

Ultimately, the competing versions of Hitler’s death ensured that the timing and cause of his demise became quite fluid within the public imagination. This, together with initial Soviet refusals to disclose the recovery of an identifiable corpse outside the bunker, created a vacuum in which all manner of rumours could take root. By contrast, the death of Benito Mussolini was commonly regarded with satisfaction because the deliberate display of his body rendered it an indisputable fact. It was only in 2000 that images of Hitler’s jaw (alongside a fragment of skull erroneously attributed to him) were publicly exhibited in Moscow, demonstrating how documenting the truth about his fate has proved a protracted process, and explaining why the Nazi leader has managed to remain so ‘alive’ in public discussion for all these years.

Caroline Sharples is Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Roehampton.  Her research focuses on memories of National Socialism, representations of the Holocaust and perpetrator commemoration. She is currently writing a cultural history of the death of Adolf Hitler. You can find her on Twitter @carol1ne_louise.

Cover image: Adolf Hitler, prior to 1945.

[1] Lancashire Daily Post, ‘Hitler’s Exit’ (2 May 1945), p.2.

[2] New York Times, ‘City Takes Report of Death in Stride’ (2 May 1945), p.9.

[3] Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, Topic Collection 49/1/1: ‘Hitler Indirects’, Hampstead, 2 May 1945.

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Thirty Years After the Fall of the Berlin Wall: Is Germany Still a Divided Nation?

West_and_East_Germans_at_the_Brandenburg_Gate_in_1989

In 1989, as the Berlin wall fell, Willy Brandt made the somewhat rash prediction that the two halves of Europe belong together and would now grow together. The Cold War represented a frozen dynamic in which everything was subordinated to the needs of a bipolar world order. For Germany, this had meant that the period from 1945 to 1989 also froze its own national dynamic into glacial stasis. There was movement within this stasis but it was so slow to the naked eye that it appeared that nothing could ever change. What the Cold War also did, however, was to gloss over the fact that the two halves of Europe, and with them the two halves of Germany, were not one country in some sort of suspended animation, but were historically fundamentally different anyway. East Germany was not simply a hidden bit of West Germany waiting for the wall to fall but had its own history and trajectory. Most importantly, the history of East Germany reached back much further than 1945.

Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, had always been suspicious of Prussia and areas east of the Elbe. This was a position he had taken already in the 1920s and even as early as 1918 he had argued that western Germany and France should come together in a Rhineland league as defence against the Prussian Behemoth.  Given that by 1947 the decision was made in Washington and Moscow to divide Germany not only into zones of occupation but states in themselves, it is no surprise that Adenauer became what Kurt Schumacher of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) called “Chancellor of the Allies”. Adenauer did everything he could to prevent a new unification of East and West Germany, all the while protesting that German unity was his highest priority.

It is often forgotten, for example, that Schumacher and the SPD saw the division of Germany as the division of the German working-class too. What it also did was divide the confessional make up of Germany. If Germany had been united in 1949 then Protestant voters influenced heavily by East German Protestant parties (not to mention the Nazis) would have been demographically in the majority.

The splitting of Germany meant that West Germany had a majority of Catholic voters who tended to look west to the Rhineland or south to Rome for their ideological affiliations. The East German Communist Party, the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED), looked East and to Moscow for their ideological underpinnings. By the 1970s, when Erich Honecker took over the leadership of Party and state, the transition to an officially loyal Eastern bloc country was complete. This turn to the Soviet and the Brezhnev social contract was complemented by a re-Prussianisation of the German Democratic Republic. In that same constitution, any reference to Germany as a single nation, which had been present in the 1949 and 1968 constitutions, was removed. They even went as far as banning the words of the national anthem because they talked of German unity:

Risen up from under ruins

Turned to face the future land,

Let us serve you for the better,

Germany, united fatherland.

What is more, Johannes Becher had composed the lyrics so that they could be sung to the tune of what has become the German national anthem, composed by Haydn and Fallersleben. The state and the Party became ever more closely enmeshed and offered absolute social security, full employment (especially for women), and even the outlawing of unemployment as a concept. In return for this security came greater repression, an increased role for the Stasi in its operations against any dissent and a marginalisation of opposition forces. East Germany became a society fully infused with the rule of the Party.

The problem, as with all Soviet bloc parties, was that they had no political legitimacy. The thing that characterised East Germany under Honecker was the absolute primacy of politics over economic considerations. Buying off the working class is always an expensive business and a hyper-centralised system of political control over economic development led to intrinsic inefficiencies. The fulfilment of plans laid down by the central authorities became much more important than efficient production and distribution. Whatever the weaknesses of a market economy may be – and there are certainly many – in competition with a centrally planned system in which the primacy of politics ruled supreme, it was clear by the mid-1980s which system was stronger.

Thus, perestroika (or economic restructuring) was actually far more important than glasnost (democratic openness) and Gorbachev’s reforms were at base about making the Soviet economy more efficient and responsive to market demands. In many ways, China has had the perestroika without the glasnost, reintroducing market imperatives backed up by the absolute authority of state and Party. But East Germany too had a restructuring of the economy forced upon it by marketisation coming from the West after 1989. Almost all leading positions in the East are still occupied by West Germans and the resentments of the East are in part a response to this sense of living under “occupation”. Paradoxically, the main leaders of the populist movement in eastern Germany Gauland, Höcke et al are themselves West Germans who have shifted east in order to lead what they call the “completion of the revolution (Wende)” of 1989.

The problems facing eastern Germany 30 years after the fall of the Wall are multi-layered and complex:

  1. East Germany was always a different country.
  2. Socio-economic resentment against the West plays a significant role in a “what has West Germany ever done for us?“ discourse (apart from the 2 trillion Euros that has flowed from West to East).
  3. The primacy of economics over political considerations, though much weaker than in China, stands in stark contrast to SED rule.
  4. Demographic change as young people, especially women, move west has exacerbated the sense that it is region “left behind”.
  5. AfD populist voters therefore tend to be mostly male and mostly those who spent their childhood in the GDR.
  6. Ostalgie (left-wing nostalgia for the GDR) has now become Nostalgie (right-wing nostalgia for an as yet ill-defined past German nation).

In short, it is unlikely that the tensions between East and West Germany will be resolved in the near future. Germany has always been a country of uncertain borders and shifting cleavages and we may have to face the fact that the two halves of Europe are not growing back together quite as easily as Brandt hoped.

Peter Thompson is Reader Emeritus in German at the University of Sheffield specialising in the post-war history of the GDR and German unification. He founded The Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies at Sheffield in 2008, and was co-editor with Slavoj Zizek of The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia (2013).

Cover image: West and East Germans at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin, 1989.

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