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Smithsonian’s 'The Day Hitler Died' Uncovers New First-Hand Accounts
November 14, 2015  | By David Sicilia

On April 28, 1945, Adolph Hitler learned in his underground bunker complex in Berlin that Heinrich Himmler – comfortably far from the fighting – was trying to negotiate a German surrender with the Americans. Enraged, the Führer ordered the immediate execution of Himmler’s assistant, also in the bunker, who was married to the pregnant sister of Eva Braun, Hitler’s long-time girlfriend.

The doomed Nazi leader then began dictating his last will and testament to his secretary, Traudl Junge, and sometime around midnight married Frau Braun, after refusing to do so for years, his refusal so distressing to Braun that years earlier she had twice attempted suicide.

Suicide had been a regular topic in the bunker since April 22, the day Hitler learned that Nazis battling Russian troops north of the city had surrendered. As Junge would testify on camera three years after the war ended, “after April twenty-second he talked about it [suicide] constantly.“ The Goebbels family – Nazi propaganda minister Joseph, his wife Magna, and their six beautiful young children – also were in the bunker. Magna was so devoted to the Nazi cause that she vowed to kill herself and her children if and when Hitler died, even by his own hand.

Hitler had spent most of the last four months in the 16-room bunker, which had been built as an air-raid shelter in 1944. On April 20, he descended into the subterranean complex for the last time. Increasingly agitated, he took narcotics, tried to conceal his trembling hands, and randomly dialed Berlin phone numbers to see if Germans or Russians answered. And he met daily with a dozen or so Nazi officers and advisors, all of them too terrified to deliver the unvarnished truth that Russian troops had nearly surrounded the city, American and British armies were rapidly closing in from the west, and the Aryan Reich they had envisioned lasting a thousand years would be lucky to survive a few more days.

These details are well-known to Hitler aficionados (such as regular viewers of the History Channel a.k.a. the Hitler Channel). What the Smithsonian Channel’s The Day Hitler Died (premiering Monday, Nov. 16, 8 p.m., ET) offers is the first U.S. television showing of segments of interviews of bunker survivors taped in 1948. (For those who are not Hitler aficionados, I won’t describe Hitler’s final day.)

The interviews were conducted by U.S. Navy captain, attorney, and Nuremburg trail judge Michael Musmanno, who had been troubled by persistent rumors (during the 1945-46 Nuremberg hearings) that Hitler might still be alive. Over a three-year period he tracked down and filmed 22 bunker survivors. The films were never broadcast and, even more astoundingly, were misplaced until their rediscovery at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in 2013.

(For what must be one of the lamest misfilings in the history of film – first-hand accounts of Hitler’s final hours – those archivists should be shot as summarily as Eva Braun’s brother-in-law. Joking!)

The program leans heavily on a handful of the interviews, which were translated in real time on screen by an officer who assisted Musmanno. They contain a few moments of eloquence, as when Baron von Loringhoven recalled how “the bunker became a mortuary, and the people in it, living corpses. “ (Although von Loringhoven, left, with Musmanno, right, never joined the Nazi party, he somehow made it into the bunker, and just as miraculously, talked his way out of it before the Russians captured the bunker.)

On camera with Musmanno, the German interlocutors seem flat, stilted, matter-of-fact, which might seem boring until one recalls Hannah Arendt’s famous observation – after watching Adolf Eichmann’s Nuremberg trial – about “the banality of evil.” The film ends with text about the fates of Junge, von Loringhoven, and Artur Axman, head of the Hitler Youth, who forced German children to take up arms in a last ditch effort to defend Berlin. Junge served a mere six months in jail, von Loringhoven and Axman only three years, and all lived into their eighties or nineties. I shuddered.

The interview segments are intercut with stock combat footage and low-budget bunker scene reenactments (top photo.) What makes the program difficult to turn away from is the story itself, the saga of a madman whose reach had contracted from 3 million square miles of Europe to a dank complex of cells beneath the sewers of Berlin.
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