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  • Writer's pictureKarl Koerber

Hitler's Last Birthday Party

Updated: Nov 20, 2022

Adolph Hitler’s 56th birthday, April 20, 1945, was a warm spring day—the fourth in a row for Berlin. Among the ardent Nazis, such days were once called “Führer weather,” but by now the faithful had dwindled to a mere handful, and if those words were spoken at all it was with an edge of cynicism and disdain. A mood of gloomy resignation had settled over the city as its citizens awaited the arrival of the Allied troops surrounding the bombed-out husk of the capital. Perhaps there remained a sprinkling of true believers waiting for their leader to deliver a miracle, but all others, including Hitler himself, knew the war was lost.

The writing had been on the wall for months but Hitler’s messianic belief in his “mission” to restore Germany’s lost glory blinded him to the military realities that were evident to all but the most sycophantic of his generals. The failed assassination attempt on July 20, 1944 came out of the recognition, by the conspiring officers, that continuing the war would only result in needless loss of life and further destruction of German cities and infrastructure. Unfortunately, the fact that he escaped reinforced the dictator’s belief that he had been chosen by fate as Germany’s saviour. Even now, on his birthday, he rejected any thoughts of surrender. He had long ago dismissed the option of a negotiated settlement with his enemies; the idea of capitulation flew in the face of his conviction that he was engaged in a struggle for the soul of the Germanic Volk, a struggle which could only have one of two outcomes: victory or total destruction. And on his fifty-sixth birthday, seventy-five years ago, Adolf Hitler understood that it was destruction, not victory, that awaited him and his nation.

In his bunker that day, a greatly diminished, sullen Hitler would have preferred to forgo birthday celebrations, but accepted the congratulations of his personal staff and later met with some of his inner circle, including Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler, who offered obligatory birthday wishes. The atmosphere in the room was far from cheerful. Martin Bormann made a terse note in his diary: “Führer’s birthday but unfortunately no mood for celebration.”

In the afternoon, Hitler inspected a group of Hitler Youth, some of whom were to receive the Iron Cross. He could not present the medals himself because his left arm was shaking so badly that he had to keep it clenched tightly behind his back. That evening a birthday party had been arranged, with champagne and food, but Hitler retired to bed early and left some of his entourage, including his lover Eva Braun, Bormann and others, to carry on without him. Historian Antony Beevor recounts that the remaining celebrants “drank champagne and made a pretense of dancing, but there was only one record for the gramophone: Blood-red Roses Tell You of Happiness.” Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge was repulsed by the forced joviality and hysterical laughter, writing in her diary: “It was horrible; soon I couldn’t stand it and went back down to bed.”

In previous years, the leader’s birthday had been celebrated as a national holiday, filled with jubilation and extravagant displays of might and power. The pageant organized in Berlin for Hitler’s fiftieth birthday in 1939 by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was, according to historian Ian Kershaw, "an astonishing extravaganza of the Führer cult. The lavish outpourings of adulation and sycophancy surpassed those of any previous Führer Birthdays."

The Brandenburg Gate and massive columns illuminated to mark Hitler's 50th birthday in 1939.

The “Führer cult,” as Kershaw labeled the phenomenon of Hitler’s idolization among a huge swath of the German population, shared the the main feature of most cults: a leader who, in the eyes of his or her followers, becomes a kind of superhuman deity. In his monumental biography of Hitler Kershaw writes that the Nazi leader had “…tapped a certain ‘naïve faith’ embedded in lengthy traditions of ‘heroic’ leadership. […] ‘A great man, a genius, a person sent to us from heaven,’ was one seventeen-year-old girl’s naïve impression.” Kershaw goes on to acknowledge that the girl “…spoke for many.”

How things had changed in six years. I can only imagine the shock and disbelief the Führer’s worshippers underwent as they watched their hopes and dreams disintegrating before their eyes. Millions of dead, injured and homeless, cities in ruins and their hated enemies encroaching from all directions—Hitler’s promise of a Germanic utopia had suddenly become a nightmare from which they could not awake.

Ten days after his birthday, the Führer ended his own nightmare by putting a bullet in his head, leaving his shell-shocked followers struggling to reconcile their unquestioning faith and loyalty with the utter devastation the object of that faith had brought about. It was a process that, for many, involved the construction of an alternative history that spared them from the pain and embarrassment of having to admit, not only their gullibility, but also the truth that the man they had idolized had brought about the most horrendous episode of death, suffering and destruction in history.

So many lessons in this sad chapter of history, yet so much evidence in the world today that we have not learned them.

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1 commentaire

23 nov. 2020

Hi Karl, I love your writings. I was born on April 20 1939 so I've always been grotesquely interested in Hitler. My partner David was born on Feb.6, same as Eva Braun's. Weird or what?

Thanks for the scrabble and all your fine words.

xo Judy Wapp

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