This day in History: Few things happen overnight

This day in 1945 illuminates how atrocities happen slowly over the course of decades


On January 16th, 1945, Adolf Hitler retreated to the Fuhrerbunker beneath Berlin, where he would spend the last four months of his life before committing suicide in April. 

Hitler had controlled Germany since 1933, and in those twelve years he and the Nazi Party built a highly-militarized state based around Aryan supremacy. Understanding Hitler in the bunker requires understanding the refusal to surrender and the fascination with death that were baked into Nazi ideology and propaganda. Beyond, it requires an understanding of the progression of the war that led to Hitler’s defeat.

To understand this trajectory, I interviewed Dr. Anthony Santoro, a Distinguished Professor of History and specialist in National Socialist Germany (and President Emeritus of CNU). According to Dr. Santoro, the point where things began to go wrong for Hitler was the decision to invade the Soviet Union. “Up until he decided to attack Russia in 1941, he was winning everywhere,” said Santoro. 

Victories in Austria, Czechslovakia, Poland, and France led Hitler to believe his intuition was infallible, and he launched the invasion of the Soviet Union in June, despite warnings from his generals that it was too late in the season to beat the Russian winter.

Although the early stages of the invasion went well, this did not last. “It’s a 3,000 mile front, and the ability to supply the troops by air or by rail or all kinds of things is a big deal,” said Santoro. The Red Army provided stiff resistance, and when the winter came Hitler’s men were left freezing just nine miles outside of Moscow.

The disaster of the invasion of Russia was compounded by Hitler’s refusal to retreat, to the point that he fired any general who suggested it. This came from the belief that World War I was lost not by the German military but by politicians who had betrayed them. “He screams into the microphone, ‘an 11th of November will never again happen in German history,’ and everyone should have read him correctly,” said Santoro. “This man is a martyr—self designed. He’s going to go down with the ship.”

As Nazi Germany lost territory and as bombing got more severe in 1943, Hitler was forced to move his headquarters deeper into his own territory before finally retreating into the Fuhrerbunker beneath Berlin. “After the attempt on his life in 1944, the July 20 Plot, he only made one or two addresses by radio—never appeared in public—and even his public appearances when the war was not quite yet lost were no longer the celebratory victory appearances: they were funerals, veteran’s commemorative days, more solemn stuff.”

“Throughout the whole Nazi fabric you have the image of death, almost the worship of death,” said Santoro. This grim focus on death followed Hitler as he entered the bunker.

By the time he retreated into the bunker, the war was clearly lost. “Most people that were in the bunker say that his physical condition was deteriorating seriously—tremors, pallor of the face, mistrust of people, tantrums that he went into—but his hold on them was absolute,” said Santoro—even in the declining days of the war those closest to Hitler remained committed to him. “You’re never going to get entirely the most accurate picture of what it was like in the bunker because the people in the bunker were devoted to Hitler—the secretaries, the stenographers, the valets, they’ve written their books. None of them have other than good things to say about him as a personality dealing with them.”

Hitler was a fanatic, and his generals signed an oath of allegiance to Hitler himself. However, one must not overstate the degree to which Hitler was in control of Germany during the last months of his life. “The gauleiters, the political people, they stayed with him to the end because they had really no choice—they were war criminals for the most part,” said Santoro. (Gauleiters were regional Nazi Party leaders appointed directly by Hitler.) Beyond that, however, the level of devotion was not universal. “I think the misconception may be that Hitler was in more complete charge than he was actually in. It depends where you were- Eastern Front versus Western Front, SS people versus Army, some people adhered to Hitler more than others.” 

Although Hitler may not have commanded the same devotion in 1945 as he did in 1939, he still had his closest followers—some, like his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, committed suicide not long after he did. By 1945 Hitler had led Germany into ruination and begun a campaign of extermination against an entire race of people, and yet still some remained devoted to him to the point where they could not conceive of a world without their Fuhrer.

Much of what Hitler and the Nazi Party did was gradual: it was more than one critical mistake that lost the war, and the Final Solution did not suddenly start one day with concentration camps. These things took place over the course of decades and for much of the first half of his rule Hitler was celebrated by many Germans as a hero almost unequivocally, even as he committed atrocities and laid the groundwork for some of the most horrific crimes against humanity ever committed.

If we are to look at history as a model of what to do and what not to do, it is important to remember that few things happen overnight.

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