An event occurred last month that was put on quiet ceremony, despite the limitations life is currently imposing on us. The 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War was a time for reflection on the consequences which the terrible and possibly avoidable conflict brought upon the world – a lesson on human errors that are found in both one’s judgement and in one’s capacity for committing heinous acts. The former shall be further evaluated in another book review for the future, whilst this one looks on the latter. Despite most knowing how the war in Europe had ended, few can tell the specific events that led to the conclusion of a horrific twelve-year Third Reich that believed it would last for a thousand more.
It is important to understand the author of The Last Days of Hitler in order to understand both the significance of his book and its context. Hugh Trevor-Roper is one of Britain’s most famous modern historians, most notably being the man who first proposed the Scottish kilt of being a product of the “invention of tradition” theory conceived by the internationally recognised Eric Hobsbawm. Unlike Hobsbawm however, Trevor-Roper’s name would sadly become relatively degraded in 1983 due to his expert confirmation of the “Hitler Diaries” being genuine. When they turned out to be a forgery, Trevor-Roper’s name fell with equal disrepute.
Trevor-Roper was more highly regarded as a essayist than that of an author too. However, in his early career had his most accomplished book in both reputational and financial success – The Last Days of Hitler – been published in 1947. Having only been then his second book in his career as a historian, a vocation interrupted by the war, Trevor-Roper thought of writing the book due to his own unique experiences on the matter. Working for the Radio Security Service of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, also more famously known as MI6) during the war, Trevor-Roper was assigned the task of investigating Hitler’s disappearance and possible death by Dick White, the head of counter-intelligence in the British sector of Berlin in the war’s aftermath (White would later become the head of both MI5 and SIS respectively). Once he collected his evidence from several witnesses that knew of the subject at hand, he submitted his report at Berlin in November 1945, later writing his book two years later on the behest of White.
The 1995 edition of the book that I read contains two prefaces – one from the seventh edition in 1995 and another for the third edition published in 1956. Both are essential reading for any who wish to understand the great amount of theories and reactions as to what may have happened to Hitler, especially in the third edition’s much longer introduction. Trevor-Roper elucidates in depth into the several theories proposed by attention-seekers who wished to share the inner secrets of the Führerbunker that was known only to the remnants of Hitler’s court and its servants, some – such as the Swiss-Nazi spy Carmen Mory’s account – going as far as to accommodate Hitler in their homes. This, like most theories, was false.
Trevor-Roper’s magnum opus also focuses on Hitler’s last remaining devotees in great detail, despite what the book’s title suggest. Those who made such claims of what happened to Hitler go beyond the leader of the Reich, with special focus being given on Martin Bormann, Hitler’s secretary, who desperately desired a role akin to Cardinal Richelieu. Theories of what happened to him were wide, ranging from his defection to the Soviet Union to his elopement to Argentina – all accusations made to either further the neo-Nazi movement in Germany or to help manifest the Soviet campaign against “Western imperialism” further under its guise of being the crusader against fascism. Whatever happened to Hitler and his closest associates (which we now thankfully know), their unknown fates were well used for political purposes in the subsequent Cold War – even when the Soviets had snubbed both Trevor-Roper’s original report and his book.
Whilst it is very clear where Trevor-Roper’s bias lies in his book. But it is one that is necessary through its helpful exposure of the peculiar and nonsensical beliefs of Hitler’s cabal. Himmler, with his eccentric beliefs in Nordic occultism that Hitler himself knew was poppycock, held the naïve belief that setting up a new Nazi government under the consent of the Allied forces was possible. Schellenberg, with his delusions of grandeur of being a master of a spy ring that surpassed the Abwehr when it was under Canaris, advised Himmler to commence surrender negotiations at his own accord, which cost the latter Hitler’s trust him – the one thing Himmler cherished above all. Goering, the morphine addict who spent the last days of the Third Reich’s existence in Obersalzberg painting his nails and wearing a toga, foolishly claimed his right to become Führer after Hitler’s loss of hope in Germany’s survival, making himself appear as another traitor to Hitler – a portrayal that was well articulated by Bormann’s Machiavellian intuitive, whom Goering hated. As Trevor-Roper frequently argues, Hitler’s entourage was not that of a government or a military staff but that of a court, one who’s sole purpose was to worship Hitler with all the sycophancy they had available.
Yet, once it was all over, when Hitler ended his life with a bullet through his skull, some rejoiced on his passing in the bunker whilst others mourned. It was a brief respite for those who wished to escape the “revolution of destruction” that Hitler issued as his legacy to become Germany’s last god, whilst for others it was only a lament that acted as the epilogue of their own lives. Some who tried to escape did so to save their own lives, others to continue the legacy of Hitler’s will through their roles as couriers of it. It was only once they realised that the vision of Nazism had become redundant that they decided to end their exodus and begin their lives anew.
If anything, The Last Days of Hitler is a thrilling account of how Hitler’s megalomania and conquest for Lebensraum had ended with all of Germany destroyed and his acolytes either jumping off his boat or sinking with it. Those such as Speer (who is given a sympathetic portrayal) tried to preserve it, with relative success. Nevertheless, it cannot be doubted how mad Nazism had truly become when it ended itself, along with its equally insane principles, in the bunker. But as time moves on and history becomes ever more distant, our acknowledgement of the Nazi phenomenon’s consequences grow ever less memorable as the generation that experienced it most slowly disappear into memory. Trevor-Roper’s account is one of those pieces of testimony that serves as the best example of what Nazism became truly capable of doing as its existence drew to a close. Perhaps reading this book – which is now over 70 years old – will continue to remind us of what evils and madness humans are truly capable of practicing.
Featured image credit: “File:Bundesarchiv Bild 102-10460, Adolf Hitler, Rednerposen.jpg” by Heinrich Hoffmann is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0