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Adolf Hitler
Reich Chancellor
1889 - 1945

 


The avatar of fascism posed the century's greatest threat to democracy and redefined the meaning of evil forever
By ELIE WIESEL for Time Magazine
 

 

Not being a professional historian, I take on this essay with fear and trembling. That's because, although defeated, although dead, this man is frightening.

What was the secret of his power over his listeners? His demagogic appeal to immoderation, to excess and to simplifying hate? They spoke of his intuitive powers and his "luck" (he escaped several attempts on his life).

Adolf Hitler or the incarnation of absolute evil; this is how future generations will remember the all-powerful Fuehrer of the criminal Third Reich. Compared with him, his peers Mussolini and Franco were novices. Under his hypnotic gaze, humanity crossed a threshold from which one could see the abyss.

At the same time that he terrorized his adversaries, he knew how to please, impress and charm the very interlocutors from whom he wanted support. Diplomats and journalists insist as much on his charm as they do on his temper tantrums. The savior admired by his own as he dragged them into his madness, the Satan and exterminating angel feared and hated by all others, Hitler led his people to a shameful defeat without precedent. That his political and strategic ambitions have created a dividing line in the history of this turbulent and tormented century is undeniable: there is a before and an after. By the breadth of his crimes, which have attained a quasi-ontological dimension, he surpasses all his predecessors: as a result of Hitler, man is defined by what makes him inhuman. With Hitler at the head of a gigantic laboratory, life itself seems to have changed.

How did this Austrian without title or position manage to get himself elected head of a German nation renowned for its civilizing mission? How to explain the success of his cheap demagogy in the heart of a people so proud of having inherited the genius of a Wolfgang von Goethe and an Immanuel Kant?

Was there no resistance to his disastrous projects? There was. But it was too feeble, too weak and too late to succeed. German society had rallied behind him: the judicial, the educational, the industrial and the economic establishments gave him their support. Few politicians of this century have aroused, in their lifetime, such love and so much hate; few have inspired so much historical and psychological research after their death. Even today, works on his enigmatic personality and his cursed career are best sellers everywhere. Some are good, others are less good, but all seem to respond to an authentic curiosity on the part of a public haunted by memory and the desire to understand.

We think we know everything about the nefarious forces that shaped his destiny: his unhappy childhood, his frustrated adolescence; his artistic disappointments; his wound received on the front during World War I; his taste for spectacle, his constant disdain for social and military aristocracies; his relationship with Eva Braun, who adored him; the cult of the very death he feared; his lack of scruples with regard to his former comrades of the SA, whom he had assassinated in 1934; his endless hatred of Jews, whose survival enraged him — each and every phase of his official and private life has found its chroniclers, its biographers.

And yet. There are, in all these givens, elements that escape us. How did this unstable paranoid find it within himself to impose gigantic hope as an immutable ideal that motivated his nation almost until the end? Would he have come to power if Germany were not going through endless economic crises, or if the winners in 1918 had not imposed on it conditions that represented a national humiliation against which the German patriotic fibre could only revolt? We would be wrong to forget: Hitler came to power in January 1933 by the most legitimate means. His Nationalist Socialist Party won a majority in the parliamentary elections. The aging Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg had no choice but to allow him, at age 43, to form the new government, marking the end of the Weimar Republic. And the beginning of the Third Reich, which, according to Hitler, would last 1,000 years.

From that moment on, events cascaded. The burning of the Reichstag came only a little before the openings of the first concentration camps, established for members of the opposition. Fear descended on the country and squeezed it in a vise. Great writers, musicians and painters went into exile to France and the U.S. Jews with foresight emigrated toward Palestine. The air of Hitler's Germany was becoming more and more suffocating. Those who preferred to wait, thinking that the Nazi regime would not last, could not last, would regret it later, when it was too late.

The fact is that Hitler was beloved by his people — not the military, at least not in the beginning, but by the average Germans who pledged to him an affection, a tenderness and a fidelity that bordered on the irrational. It was idolatry on a national scale. One had to see the crowds who acclaimed him. And the women who were attracted to him. And the young who in his presence went into ecstasy. Did they not see the hateful mask that covered his face? Did they not divine the catastrophe he bore within himself?

Violating the Treaty of Versailles, which limited the German army to 100,000 men, Hitler embarked on a rearmament program of massive scale: fighter planes, tanks, submarines. His goal? It was enough to read Mein Kampf, written in prison after the abortive coup of 1923 in Munich, to divine its contours: to become, once again, a global superpower, capable and desirous of reconquering lost territory, and others as well.

And the free world let it happen.

His army entered the Rhineland in 1936. A tangible reaction from France and Britain would have led to his fall. But since nothing happened, Hitler played on the "cowardice" of democratic principles. That cowardice was confirmed by the shameful Munich Agreement, by which France and Britain betrayed their alliance with Czechoslovakia and abandoned it like a dead weight. At every turn, Hitler derided his generals and their lack of audacity. In 1939 he stupefied the entire world by reaching a nonaggression pa ct with Stalin. Though they had never met, the two dictators appeared to get along perfectly; it was said that a sort of empathy existed between them. Poland paid the price of this unnatural "friendship"; cut in two, it ceased to exist as a state.

Hitler also counted on Stalin's naivete. In a sense he was right. According to all witnesses, Stalin had total confidence in Hitler. To humour Hitler's extreme anti-Semitic sensibilities, the Soviet hierarchy withdrew certain Jews, such as Maxim Litvinov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, from the international scene. Stalin's order to honour the commercial agreements between the two countries was scrupulously executed, at all levels, until the beginning of hostilities: the day of German aggression, one still saw Soviet trains stuffed with raw materials heading toward German factories. Was Hitler shrewder than Stalin? Certainly he was more tenacious than his French and British adversaries. Winston Churchill was the only man of state who unmasked Hitler immediately and refused to let himself be duped by Hitler's repeated promises that this time he was making his "last territorial demand."

And yet. In his own "logic," Hitler was persuaded for a fairly long time that the German and British people had every reason to get along and divide up spheres of influence throughout the world. He did not understand British obstinacy in its resistance to his racial philosophy and to the practical ends it engendered.

In fact, he wanted to swallow up Russia, Poland, Ukraine and the Baltic countries to augment lebensraum: Germany's vital space. But then why did he launch his destructive war against London? Why did he declare war against the U.S.? Solely to please his Japanese ally? Why did he mandate a policy of cruelty in the Soviet territories occupied by his armies, when certain segments of the population there were ready to greet them with flowers? And finally, why did he invest so much energy in his hatred of Jews? Why did the night trains that took them to their death have priority over the military convoys that were taking badly needed troops to the front? His dark obsession with the "Jewish question" and its "Final Solution" will be long remembered, for it has evocative names that paralyze men's hearts with terror: Auschwitz, Treblinka and Belzec.

After Rommel's defeat in North Africa, after the debacle at Stalingrad and even when the landings in Normandy were imminent, Hitler and his entourage still had the mind to come up with the Final Solution. In his testament, drafted in a underground bunker just hours before his suicide in Berlin, Hitler returns again to this hatred of the Jewish people that had never left him. But in the same testament, he settles his score with the German people. He wants them to be sacked, destroyed, reduced to misery and shame for having failed him by denying him his glory. The former corporal become commander in chief of all his armies and convinced of his strategic and political genius was not prepared to recognize his own responsibility for the defeat of his Reich.

His kingdom collapsed after 12 years in a war that remains the most atrocious, the most brutal and the deadliest in history. But which, by the same token, allowed several large figures to emerge. Their names have become legendary: Eisenhower, De Gaulle, Montgomery, Zhukov, Patton...

But when later we evoke the 20th century, among the first names that will surge to mind will be that of a fanatic with a moustache who thought to reign by selling the soul of his people to the thousand demons of hate and of death.
 


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Hitler, Chancellor Adolf (1889-1945). Although Stalin and Mao-Tse-tung each killed more people, Hitler is in undisputed possession of the title of the most reviled man in a 20th century with more than its share of genocidal monsters. What heightens the appalled fascination is that he was in essence such an insignificant little man, driven by a need to compensate for his inadequacies. When the Soviets finally released the results of the autopsy performed on his half-incinerated corpse, it was revealed that the ribald words of the march ‘Colonel Bogey’ had been correct: he was monorchid. Additionally he had odd sexual quirks, had Oedipal feelings for his mother, and only felt comfortable showing love to animals and small children. His speech and writings are full of references to hygiene and cleansing with reference to the physical elimination (sic) of Jews and other ‘subhumans’.

He was an outsider in every possible way. Not a German but an Austrian, he was born in Braunau, the son of a minor customs official with a much younger wife. A failure at school, his artistic aspirations were punctured when he was rejected by the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. There he imbibed the social Darwinism of the likes of Houston Stuart Chamberlain and the anti-Semitism of Karl Lürger, the dynamic mayor of the city. An aimless and friendless young man, embittered with his lot, a photograph exists of him amidst a joyful crowd in Munich welcoming the outbreak of war in 1914. He immediately volunteered, served as a battalion runner, was awarded both classes of the Iron Cross, for bravery (which he wore on his political uniforms throughout the rest of his life), and was gassed in 1918.

Not only did his service at the front mark him, but it often gave him an edge over general staff officers that he was never shy of exploiting. Significantly, it was in a Bavarian infantry unit of his beloved, adopted German army that he served, rather than in the Austro-Hungarian military. Perhaps the war gave him a sense of identity; it certainly provided him with a family and a hierarchy, which he admired until the end. Never promoted beyond corporal, he had no training for leadership or high command, but nevertheless, arguably, spent the rest of his days reliving the period of his life he found most fulfilling: making war.

Mein Kampf (‘My Struggle’), a rambling outline of his inchoate political views, was written in gaol after his failed coup of 1923 and makes it clear that his war was a lifelong one, directed not just at external nations, but against the ‘doubters’ and ‘outcasts’ within Germany. The harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles provided a general background of self-pitying resentment which he was able to exploit, and the feeling that Germany must somehow regain its lost pre-eminence was widespread. This partly accounts for his rise to power and the tacit support the Reichswehr gave him. But he also, and this is very hard to explain but impossible to deny, had immense personal magnetism, which worked as effectively on individuals as it did on the large crowds he manipulated with carefully rehearsed gestures and choreographed responses from his strategically placed hard-core followers.

The Reichswehr still cultivated the attitudes of the old Prussian military, in which the importance of the oath of loyalty cannot be underestimated. Hitler knew this and used it, but even before he could do so, he bought the generals off with the prospects of rearmament and a chance to reverse the outcome of 1914-18. He also cold-bloodedly threw them the sop of the brown-shirted paramilitary Sturmabteilung (SA) that had won the streets from the communists and opened his way to power. In the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ (30 June 1934) he decapitated the SA using a new corps of bodyguards organized by the even more dysfunctional Heinrich Himmler, the black-clad SS. On 2 August, following the death of Hindenburg, the newly renamed Wehrmacht swore an oath of loyalty, not to the state but to Hitler personally. Thereafter, in the perception of many including such stars as Guderian, they were duty-bound to obey him.

The successful reoccupation of the Rhineland (1936), the Anschluss with Austria, and the annexation of the Czech Sudetenland (both 1938) were bluffs that could have been stopped by a moderate show of resolve by those affected. Much has been made of Chamberlain and Daladier selling out the Czechs at Munich, but the Czechs bore the main responsibility themselves. When Hitler visited the abandoned defences of the Sudetenland, his generals were appalled at their strength and told him they could not have taken them. ‘It's not the guns but the men behind them’, he replied, and this was the essence of his military leadership, very well expressed in the blitzkrieg, which depended on sowing panic for success. It worked again against Poland in September 1939. For the campaign resulting in the fall of France, Hitler took a more central role, backing a daring plan by Manstein, in preference to more orthodox general staff proposals. The Wehrmacht's rapid and conclusive victory over the French convinced Hitler and not a few of his generals that he was a military genius. What he saw as the inevitable showdown between the Slav-Communists and the Aryan-Nazis was best not postponed. Stalin had disembowelled his officer corps and projections for Soviet rearmament showed a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity. He knew it to be a gamble, and it is significant that the ‘final Solution’, the systematic extermination of the Untermenschen (subhumans), was not implemented until he had made this highest-of-stakes throw of the dice. The opening weeks of BARBAROSSA, perhaps fatally delayed by a sideshow in the Balkans, seemed to confirm the utter correctness of his instinct over the sober counsels of those few brave enough to urge caution upon him. Although it was the not-so-secret conceit of the German generals after WW II that left to their own devices they could have won the war, there were numerous occasions when Hitler's unschooled instinct was proved right and their less intuitive approach wrong. One such was the winter battle outside Moscow in 1941 and Kursk, spectacularly, another. Nor was his faith in fanaticism entirely misplaced: the Waffen SS slowly grew to become a parallel army and often performed better than the Wehrmacht, especially in backs-to-the-wall situations like the second battle of Kharkov.

In the absence of a quick victory, the latent power of the enemies he had challenged inexorably made itself felt and no amount of motivation or tactical brilliance could overcome the overwhelming Materialschlacht (battle of equipment) that crushed his armies on two fronts in 1944-5. Through it all and to the bitter end he continued to exert a strange fascination over his generals, as he did over the whole German people. It was not all mesmerism; his working methods were chaotic, keeping the officers of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW) at his beck and call at all hours, and he frequently used his mastery of detail to make them feel uneasy about points which he had memorized but they had not. The failed attempt on his life by disaffected army officers on 20 July 1944 seems to have snapped whatever remaining links he had with reality and whatever restraints he still exercised over the sadism that drove him. Even if no other conflict in history deserves the title, the destruction of Hitler and his creed was surely a just war.
 


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The German dictator Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) led the extreme nationalist and racist Nazi party and served as chancellor-president of Germany from 1933 to 1945. Probably the most effective and powerful demagogue of the 20th century, his leadership led to the extermination of approximately 6 million Jews.

Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist movement belong among the many irrationally nationalistic, racist, and fundamentally nihilist political mass movements that sprang from the ground of political, economic, and social desperation following World War I and the deeply upsetting economic dislocations of the interwar period. Taking their name from the first such movement to gain power - Mussolini's fascism in Italy (1922) - fascist-type movements reached the peak of their popular appeal and political power in the widespread panic and mass psychosis that spread to all levels of the traditional industrial and semi-industrial societies of Europe with the world depression of the 1930s. Always deeply chauvinistic, antiliberal and antirational, and violently anti-Semitic, these movements varied in form from the outright atheistic and industrialist German national socialism to the lesser-known mystical-religious and peasant-oriented movements of eastern Europe.


Early Life

Adolf Hitler was born on April 20, 1889, in the small Austrian town of Braunau on the Inn River along the Bavarian-German border, son of an Austrian customs official of moderate means. His early youth in Linz on the Danube seems to have been under the repressive influence of an authoritarian and, after retirement in 1895, increasingly short-tempered and domineering father until the latter's death in 1903. After an initially fine performance in elementary school, Adolf soon became rebellious and began failing in the Realschule (college preparatory school). Following transfer to another school, he finally left formal education altogether in 1905 and, refusing to bow to the discipline of a regular job, began his long years of dilettante, aimless existence, reading, painting, wandering in the woods, and dreaming of becoming a famous artist. In 1907, when his mother died, he moved to Vienna in an attempt to enroll in the famed Academy of Fine Arts. His failure to gain admission that year and the next led him into a period of deep depression and seclusion from his friends. Wandering through the streets of Vienna, he lived on a modest orphan's pension and the money he could earn by painting and selling picture postcards. It was during this time of his vagabond existence among the rootless, displaced elements of the old Hapsburg capital, that he first became fascinated by the immense potential of mass political manipulation. He was particularly impressed by the successes of the anti-Semitic, nationalist Christian-Socialist party of Vienna Mayor Karl Lueger and his efficient machine of propaganda and mass organization. Under Lueger's influence and that of former Catholic monk and race theorist Lanz von Liebenfels, Hitler first developed the fanatical anti-Semitism and racial mythology that were to remain central to his own "ideology" and that of the Nazi party.

In May 1913, apparently in an attempt to avoid induction into the Austrian military service after he had failed to register for conscription, Hitler slipped across the German border to Munich, only to be arrested and turned over to the Austrian police. He was able to persuade the authorities not to detain him for draft evasion and duly presented himself for the draft physical examination, which he failed to pass. He returned to Munich, and after the outbreak of World War I a year later, he volunteered for action in the German army. During the war he fought on Germany's Western front with distinction but gained no promotion beyond the rank of corporal. Injured twice, he won several awards for bravery, among them the highly respected Iron Cross First Class. Although isolated in his troop, he seems to have thoroughly enjoyed his success on the front and continued to look back fondly upon his war experience.


Early Nazi Years

The end of the war suddenly left Hitler without a place or goal and drove him to join the many disillusioned veterans who continued to fight in the streets of Germany. In the spring of 1919 he found employment as a political officer in the army in Munich with the help of an adventurer-soldier by the name of Ernst Roehm - later head of Hitler's storm troopers (SA). In this capacity Hitler attended a meeting of the so-called German Workers' party, a nationalist, anti-Semitic, and socialist group, in September 1919. He quickly distinguished himself as this party's most popular and impressive speaker and propagandist, helped to increase its membership dramatically to some 6, 000 by 1921, and in April that year became Führer (leader) of the now-renamed National Socialist German Workers' party (NSDAP), the official name of the Nazi party.

The worsening economic conditions of the two following years, which included a runaway inflation that wiped out the savings of great numbers of middle-income citizens, massive unemployment, and finally foreign occupation of the economically crucial Ruhr Valley, contributed to the continued rapid growth of the party. By the end of 1923 Hitler could count on a following of some 56, 000 members and many more sympathizers and regarded himself as a significant force in Bavarian and German politics. Inspired by Mussolini's "March on Rome, " he hoped to use the crisis conditions accompanying the end of the Ruhr occupation in the fall of 1923 to stage his own coup against the Berlin government. For this purpose he staged the well-known Nazi Beer Hall Putsch of Nov. 8/9, 1923, by which he hoped - in coalition with right-wingers around World War I general Erich Ludendorff - to force the conservative-nationalist Bavarian government of Gustav von Kahr to cooperate with him in a rightist "March on Berlin." The attempt failed, however. Hitler was tried for treason and given the rather mild sentence of a year's imprisonment in the old fort of Landsberg.

It was during this prison term that many of Hitler's basic ideas of political strategy and tactics matured. Here he outlined his major plans and beliefs in Mein Kampf, which he dictated to his loyal confidant Rudolf Hess. He planned the reorganization of his party, which had been outlawed and which, with the return of prosperity, had lost much of its appeal. After his release Hitler reconstituted the party around a group of loyal followers who were to remain the cadre of the Nazi movement and state. Progress was slow in the prosperous 1920s, however, and on the eve of the Depression, the NSDAP still was able to attract only some 2.5 percent of the electoral vote.


Rise to Power

With the outbreak of world depression, the fortunes of Hitler's movement rose rapidly. In the elections of September 1930 the Nazis polled almost 6.5 million votes and increased their parliamentary representation from 12 to 107. In the presidential elections of the spring of 1932, Hitler ran an impressive second to the popular World War I hero Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, and in July he outpolled all other parties with some 14 million votes and 230 seats in the Reichstag (parliament). Although the party lost 2 million of its voters in another election, in November 1932, President Hindenburg on Jan. 30, 1933, reluctantly called Hitler to the chancellorship to head a coalition government of Nazis, conservative German nationalists, and several prominent independents.


Consolidation of Power

The first 2 years in office were almost wholly dedicated to the consolidation of power. With several prominent Nazis in key positions (Hermann Göring, as minister of interior in Prussia, and Wilhelm Frick, as minister of interior of the central government, controlled the police forces) and his military ally Werner von Blomberg in the Defense Ministry, he quickly gained practical control. He persuaded the aging president and the Reichstag to invest him with emergency powers suspending the constitution in the so-called Enabling Act of Feb. 28, 1933. Under this act and with the help of a mysterious fire in the Reichstag building, he rapidly eliminated his political rivals and brought all levels of government and major political institutions under his control. By means of the Roehm purge of the summer of 1934 he assured himself of the loyalty of the army by the subordination of the Nazi storm troopers and the murder of its chief together with the liquidation of major rivals within the army. The death of President Hindenburg in August 1934 cleared the way for the abolition of the presidential title by plebiscite. Hitler became officially Führer of Germany and thereby head of state as well as commander in chief of the armed forces. Joseph Goebbels's extensive propaganda machine and Heinrich Himmler's police system simultaneously perfected totalitarian control of Germany, as demonstrated most impressively in the great Nazi mass rally of 1934 in Nuremberg, where millions marched in unison and saluted Hitler's theatrical appeals.


Preparation for War

Once internal control was assured, Hitler began mobilizing Germany's resources for military conquest and racial domination of the land masses of central and eastern Europe. He put Germany's 6 million unemployed to work on a vast rearmament and building program, coupled with a propaganda campaign to prepare the nation for war. Germany's mythical enemy, world Jewry - which was associated with all internal and external obstacles in the way of total power - was systematically and ruthlessly attacked in anti-Semitic mass propaganda, with economic sanctions, and in the end by the "final solution" of physical destruction of Jewish men, women, and children in Himmler's concentration camps.

Foreign relations were similarly directed toward preparation for war: the improvement of Germany's military position, the acquisition of strong allies or the establishment of convenient neutrals, and the division of Germany's enemies. Playing on the weaknesses of the Versailles Peace Treaty and the general fear of war, this policy was initially most successful in the face of appeasement-minded governments in England and France. After an unsuccessful coup attempt in Austria in 1934, Hitler gained Mussolini's alliance and dependence as a result of Italy's Ethiopian war in 1935, illegally marched into the Rhineland in 1936 (demilitarized at Versailles), and successfully intervened - in cooperation with Mussolini - in the Spanish Civil War. Under the popular banner of national self-determination, he annexed Austria and the German-speaking Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia with the concurrence of the West in 1938 (Munich Agreement), only to occupy all of Czechoslovakia early in 1939. Finally, through threats and promises of territory, he was able to gain the benevolent neutrality of the Soviet Union for the coming war (Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, August 1939). Alliances with Italy (Pact of Steel) and Japan followed.


The War

On Sept. 1, 1939, Hitler began World War II - which he hoped would lead to his control of most of the Eurasian heartland - with the lightning invasion of Poland, which he immediately followed with the liquidation of Jews and the Polish intelligentsia, the enslavement of the local "subhuman" population, and the beginnings of a German colonization. Following the declaration of war by France and England, he temporarily turned his military machine west, where the lightning, mobile attacks of the German forces quickly triumphed. In April 1940 Denmark surrendered, and Norway was taken by an amphibious operation. In May-June the rapidly advancing tank forces defeated France and the Low Countries.

The major goal of Hitler's conquest lay in the East, however, and already in the middle of 1940 German war production was preparing for an eastern campaign. The Air Battle of Britain, which Hitler had hoped would permit either German invasion or (this continued to be his dream) an alliance with "Germanic" England, was broken off, and Germany's naval operations collapsed for lack of reinforcements and matériel.

On June 22, 1941, the German army advanced on Russia in the so-called Operation Barbarossa, which Hitler regarded as Germany's final struggle for existence and "living space" (Lebensraum) and for the creation of the "new order" of German racial domination. After initial rapid advances, the German troops were stopped by the severe Russian winter, however, and failed to reach any of their three major goals: Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad. The following year's advances were again slower than expected, and with the first major setback at Stalingrad (1943) the long retreat from Russia began. A year later, the Western Allies, too, started advancing on Germany.


German Defeat

With the waning fortunes of the German war effort, Hitler withdrew almost entirely from the public; his orders became increasingly erratic and pedantic; and recalling his earlier triumphs over the generals, he refused to listen to advice from his military counselors. He dreamed of miracle bombs and suspected treason everywhere. Under the slogan of "total victory or total ruin, " the entire German nation from young boys to old men, often barely equipped or trained, was mobilized and sent to the front. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt by a group of former leading politicians and military men on July 20, 1944, the regime of terror further tightened.

In the last days of the Third Reich, with the Russian troops in the suburbs of Berlin, Hitler entered into a last stage of desperation in his underground bunker in Berlin. He ordered Germany destroyed since it was not worthy of him; he expelled his trusted lieutenants Himmler and Göring from the party; and made a last, theatrical appeal to the German nation. Adolf Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945, leaving the last bits of unconquered German territory to the administration of non-Nazi Adm. Karl Doenitz.

 

 

 

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