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. 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’.
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.’
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.
 Lancashire Daily Post, ‘Hitler’s Exit’ (2 May 1945), p.2.
 New York Times, ‘City Takes Report of Death in Stride’ (2 May 1945), p.9.
 Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex, Topic Collection 49/1/1: ‘Hitler Indirects’, Hampstead, 2 May 1945.