Book review: The Last Days of Hitler by H. R. Trevor-Roper

How myths on Hitler’s whereabouts were, perhaps, single-handedly quelled by one man

By September 1945, Adolf Hitler’s whereabouts were still surrounded with numerous questions and conspiracies — from Hitler being murdered by officers in Tiergarten to him supposedly escaping and living in an island in Baltic. The British Intelligence authorities decided to put an end to such mystification on Hitler’s last days at his Berlin bunker, thus commissioning an Oxford historian H. R. Trevor-Roper to investigate Hitler’s death.

After finishing his report to the Four Power Intelligence Committee in Berlin on November 1, 1945, Trevor-Roper decided to publish The Last Days of Hitler in 1947, which aimed to put an end to the myths and misconceptions of the Third Reich and Hitler’s death. By relaying an extensive, step by step detail on Hitler’s last ten days as well the state of the Third Reich, Trevor-Roper argues that 1) all his findings point to Hitler and his wife Eva Braun’s death in April 30, 1945 and 2) Nazi Germany was not a totalitarian state, but a product of irresponsible absolutism that was already falling apart due to its incompetence of their administration.

Outline and Investigation

The first three chapters of the book is about Hitler and the main players of his regime, Hitler in defeat, and his court in defeat, thus establishing the setting of the regime’s demise. The second half of the book talks about the detailed timeline of what happened at the Berlin bunker between April 20 and April 29, 1945, then ending with what followed after his suicide.

What makes this book interesting is that by the time the author started his investigation, the state of the evidence on Hitler’s death was unreliable. The broadcast statement made by Admiral Doenitz on Hitler’s death had the ultimate authority, but it turned out to be inaccurate. After hacking out several false affidavits, as well as interrogating and investigating numerous people, Trevor-Roper was able to locate seven key witnesses of Hitler’s death. Some of the witnesses include test pilot Hanna Reitsch, policeman Hermann Karnau, and Bormann’s secretary Else Krueger. He also used diaries of people who were living in the bunker, and other important documents, one of them being Hitler’s will that Trevor-Roper himself personally discovered (I had to check if the author was actually the first one to find Hitler’s will — and he was!). The Last Days of Hitler is a product of this incredible one-man investigation by Trevor-Roper that used numerous witnesses and documents to end the myth surrounding Hitler’s death.

Fall of Nazi Germany

Trevor-Roper’s interpretative evaluations of Hitler’s psychological deterioration and the incompetent leading members of the Nazi Party gives an insight to how dysfunctional the German administration was at that time. A significant year for the Nazi Party was in 1941, which marked the Party’s victory over the Army General Staff, as well as the hastened change from a “war cabinet to an oriental court of flatterers and toadies.” Absolute power brought its own corruption, and a question rose among Hitler’s eager flatterers on who his successor would be. Throughout the book, the author likens the Nazi Doctrine to religion. Reichsfuhrer-SS officer Heinrich Himmler, the “Grant Inquisitor” of the regime who ordered the extermination of Jews and Slavs, was an extraordinarily ignorant and pedantic fanatic of the Nazi doctrine who chased after Nordic mysteries and Aryan origins. Joseph Goebbel, perhaps the only intellectual of the Nazi Party, was their “voice of the prophet” who was best known for his effective propaganda that preached total mobilization. Martin Bormann, also known as “Hitler’s Mephistopheles”, never left his master’s side, always looking for a way to grasp power. Goebbels and Bormann were the “two surviving high-priests of Nazism” who had different ambitions and advices, but to Hitler, Nazism was merely a tool for his politics. Minister of Munitions Albert Speer alone seemed to have Trevor-Roper’s special attention out of all the major figures from Hitler’s court. Speer was an apolitical technocrat but he was the “real criminal of Nazi Germany” which the author further explains in the Epilogue.

In the Epilogue, Trevor-Roper answers two questions on the Nazi regime of how such incompetent men of Hitler’s court succeeded in grabbing and holding on to their powers, and how did they almost win the war. To answer the first question, Trevor-Roper acknowledges that Hitler showed a political genius in the early days of Nazism. After crushing the opposition of the Army in 1944, however, the power of the Nazis became a “direct expression of irresponsible power” that eventually fell apart without elaborate institutions along with his equally irresponsible subordinates. Nazi Germany wasn’t a totalitarian state, but an irresponsible dictatorship. Behind Hitler’s court, there was a constant struggle for preservation of power — a “political and intellectual fools’ paradise” of figures like Goering, Goebbels, and Himmler — which Trevor-Roper carefully unraveled throughout the first four chapters. With Hitler’s erratic mind and deteriorating health towards the end, the disappearance of criticisms and oppositions at his staff conference was all that was left; Hitler was playing imaginary battles at the table with none of his surviving courtiers having enough courage to tell him the brutal truth.

As to the second question the author raised, he credits the German industry and the German army that led to the Nazis to nearly win the war. Speer, believing that politics was irrelevant to him, turned a blind eye towards the outrageous orders and focused on building roads, bridges, and factories. Even when Hitler wanted the destruction of German infrastructure, Speer used his remaining authority to dismiss his superior’s orders to preserve the economy. Personally, it seemed like the author’s portrayal of Speer was somewhat biased in putting Speer as a decent figure from the regime, and his explanation of the second question was rather weak.

Conclusion

The Last Days of Hitler is definitely one of the most fascinating nonfiction books I’ve ever read; the book carefully unravels a tale of a madman’s court at his final days, with excruciating chronological detail of Hitler’s final death and his surroundings. Trevor-Roper’s careful selection of accounts and documents aimed to effectively narrate Hitler’s suicide and the state of his regime towards the end of World War II. In the end, Hitler’s end was inevitable, just like any other dictators in the history of the world.

Aspiring layman in pursuit of eudaimonia. Writes about history, culture, politics, surface-level philosophy, and quarter-life crisis.