One of the last photos of Adolf Hitler reviewing children soldiers as the Battle of Berlin.
The obverse of history in Hitler’s particular case, therefore, is not at all hard to imagine credibly. Reacting to precisely the same circumstances, acting upon the very same stew of perception and delusion, Hitler could have just as easily decided not to kill himself after all. Change nothing else but this and one changes everything. One might impose a measure of control over any alternative scenario by asking no more of inventiveness than one might ask of a prediction. How far ahead might one justifiably attempt to see in April 1945? Whatever one answers, one should go no farther than that.
In April 1945, some very real and very important questions about the future awaited answers. Statesmen, policy makers, and soldiers the world over had to guess about what would happen in a most uncertain world. But they did guess. We know, for instance, that there was no agreement between the Allies over how to treat the leaders of the defeated Reich, save that they would not be shot out of hand. What that meant was that for the contingent moment the leading Nazis who were within reach were to be scooped up and interned. Once the Allies agreed on questions of international law and jurisprudence, there remained the business of setting the actual machinery in place, and all of this required some time. Göring spent this interregnum with his wife and daughter in the safety and relatively comfortable custody of the Western Allies. Those taken by the Russians were neither so safe nor comfortable.
So if we may imagine a living Hitler, one who survived the battle of Berlin, we can see now that a good deal of this canvas has already been painted for us. We know that at 12:50 in the afternoon of May 2, General Karl Weidling’s chief of staff and several other official representatives flew a white flag at the Potsdam Bridge, that they were escorted promptly to General Chuikov’s headquarters, and that an armistice was arranged forthwith. We also know that at about the same time Russian troops took the Reichskanzlerei and, after some confusion, finally discovered the Führerbunker itself. We can easily envision a resigned, even an indifferent Hitler, still alive, having ordered General Weidling to seek a ceasefire. Perhaps Hitler might still have harbored a fantasy of a negotiated peace, but of course he had nothing left with which to strike any sort of bargain. We can also see without fear of contradiction that the Russians would not have been in a mood especially conducive to negotiation, having lost nearly 100,000 casualties in the Berlin campaign alone. No, Hitler would have been hustled off to see one of the Russian commanders, Zhukov or Chuikov. Immediately, a signal confirming his capture would have gone out to Stalin, and then, to the rest of the world. In all likelihood, the prisoner Hitler would have been on his way to Moscow before the day was out.
But, we have now reached the outer limits of a reasonably safe scenario. Before going further, we are forced to consider a less plausible, certainly a less attractive, alternative. How likely was it that Hitler chose escape over suicide—precisely what many suspected at the time? Here, our answers need not be so speculative; we have testimony of just what was required to make good such an escape at this point in time. Escape was possible, but only just. In the chaotic final hours of the war, several small groups took their chances outside, in a wrecked city engulfed by artillery and small arms fire. The chances of success were minuscule. In the aftermath of Hitler’s and Goebbels’s suicides, an ill-assorted bunch of soldiers, secretaries, and party officials, including Hitler’s own secretary Martin Bormann, tried to get out through the New Chancellery exits and into the city with the aim of working their way northwest of the city. All were killed or captured. Bormann’s body was not found till 1972.
But the fortunes of battle favored others. Major Willi Johannmeier, Hitler’s army adjutant, was chosen to carry a copy of Hitler’s final testament to Field Marshal Schoerner, the newly appointed commander in chief of the Wehrmacht. Two other petty functionaries, Wilhelm Zander and Heinz Lorenz, drew similar missions. This party was rounded out by the addition of a fortunate corporal named Hummerich, presumably assigned to assist Major Johannmeier. Johannmeier, an experienced and resourceful soldier, was detailed to lead the group to the safety of German lines. His skills were about to be tested. The Russians had established three battle lines in a ring around the city center, at the Victory column, at the Zoo station, and at Pichelsdorf. The Pichelsdorf sector was where Johannmeier and his party had to go. At noon on April 29, the four men left the chancellery through the garage exits on Hermann Göring Strasse and struck westward, through the Tiergarten toward Pichelsdorf, at the northernmost reach of the large city lake, the Havel. By four or five in the afternoon, having spent the last several hours evading Russians, the party arrived in this sector. The sector was in German hands for the moment, defended by a battalion of Hitler Youth awaiting reinforcements.
Johannmeier and company rested until dark and then took small boats out onto the lake, making southward for another pocket of defense on the western shore, at Wannsee. There, Johannmeier managed to get a radio signal off to Admiral Dönitz, asking for evacuation by seaplane. After resting in a bunker for most of the day, the small group set off for a small island, the Pfaueninsel, where they would await their rescue by Dönitz’s seaplane.
In the meantime, another group of bunker refugees arrived. On the morning of April 29, just as Johannmeier and his party were preparing to leave, Major Baron Freytag von Loringhoven, Rittmeister Gerhardt Boldt, and a lieutenant colonel named Weiss asked and received permission to attempt an escape and join General Wenck’s imaginary army of relief. The next day, April 30, they would follow the same but even more dangerous route west as Johannmeier’s group. The Russians were as close as a few blocks now, already at the Air Ministry. And they had nearly closed the ring on the Pichelsdorf sector at the Havel. Freytag and his group had set out already when they were joined by Colonel Nicolaus von Below, Hitler’s Luftwaffe adjutant. Below seems to have been the last one to leave the bunker before Hitler killed himself.
All of these fugitives collected for a time on the lake, awaiting the salvation of the seaplane. A seaplane did materialize eventually, but owing to the heavy enemy fire, its pilot chose between discretion and valor and flew away before taking on his passengers. Now all were left to their own devices. By ones and twos most of the escapees managed to get away, if only to be taken prisoner later. Johannmeier and his group worked their way down past Potsdam and Brandenburg and crossed the Elbe near Magdeburg. Posing as foreign workers, they passed through enemy lines a few days later. Johannmeier simply continued his journey all the way back to his family home in Westphalia. There in the garden he buried Hitler’s last testament in a glass jar. Zander made his escape good all the way to Bavaria, as did Axmann, the chief of the Hitler Youth. Nicolaus von Below enrolled in law school at Bonn University. His studies were to be interrupted by the Allied authorities.
All of these men were considerably younger, healthier, and more physically resourceful than Hitler. The vision of Hitler negotiating all these difficulties is an alternative that is defeated by Hitler’s psychological and physical states, neither of which, singly or in combination, conduced to the demands of such a choice. By this time, Hitler simply did not have the physical or mental vigor necessary even to attempt an escape, much less actually succeed in one.
But, as the eminent British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper has reason to know, “Myths are not like truths; they are the triumph of credulity over evidence.” Immediately upon the conclusion of the war, Trevor-Roper was given access to Allied intelligence and prisoner interrogation reports for the purpose of disentangling the confusions of Hitler’s last days, and, by implication, his ultimate fate. Behind Trevor-Roper’s assignment were the rumors that swept Europe in the summer of 1945: Hitler had escaped after all, the rumors said. He had gone to ground in Bavaria. Or he was in the Middle East. Or perhaps he had made for the Baltic coast, there to be rescued by submarine and deposited among sympathizers somewhere in South America. These rumors did not merely enthuse the gullible. Stalin startled the American secretary of state at the Potsdam Conference in July by arguing that Hitler was, in fact, alive and in hiding. Allied prosecutors drawing up charges against the leading Nazis took due care to see that Adolf Hitler was indicted, if only in absentia.