75 years after the Nazis surrendered, all sides agree: War is hell

Berlin's battle scars linger 75 years after Nazi defeat

Germany has been forced to cancel public events to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two in Europe but Berliners need no ceremonies to remember their downfall - the scars of war are all around them.

Facades in the centre are disfigured by bullet holes and shell damage, a reminder that Hitler’s Third Reich ended in devastating defeat, not the liberation it is hailed as today.

Thanks to the coronavirus, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will mark the May 8 “Day of Liberation” by laying wreaths at the Memorial to the Victims of War and Dictatorship, home to the tomb of the unknown soldier.

This replaces a previously planned larger ceremony including foreign diplomats and young people plus a range of events including an art installation documenting the last days of the war and tracing the path to democracy, which will now go online.

Nazism, the Holocaust and the devastation of war still shape German identity and politics.

“Today you can say we were freed from the Nazi dictatorship but most Germans were defeated. They were perpetrators, not victims of Nazism,” said Bjoern Weigel, curator of the “75th Anniversary of the End of the War” art project.

“You have to look at this differentiation to avoid a myth (of victimhood) taking hold,” he said.

The Battle of Berlin, in which Red Army tanks, artillery and infantry fought their way forward street by street in April and May 1945, reduced the Nazi capital to rubble.

It was one of the war’s bloodiest battles. Including assaults to encircle Berlin from Seelow and Halbe, more than a quarter of a million people died, say historians, although estimates vary and bodies are found every year.


Germans fought on even after Hitler committed suicide on April 30 and the Berlin garrison surrendered on May 2. It took until May 8 for German generals to capitulate.

“In 1945, not all Germans felt happy. For many it was a catastrophe,” said Joerg Morré, director of the German-Russian museum at Karlshorst where the unconditional surrender was signed.

Vivid reminders of the battle still disfigure Berlin buildings, offering evidence of fierce fighting.

Traces of the battle range from obscene graffiti scrawled on walls inside the Reichstag by victorious Red Army soldiers to damaged facades of city museums, bunkers and bridges.

“People living here are aware of this but they don’t see it as being particularly relevant,” said tour guide Nick Jackson.

Locals should be allowed to reinvent their city, he said.

“Rebuilding and moving forward is a natural process that I don’t think is malicious,” he said, adding younger Germans like to see May 8 as a celebration of liberation and democracy.

In the last decade or so, some Germans have focused more on their own suffering during the war and prominent members of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), Germany’s third biggest parliamentary party, want to rewrite the history books.

As the rise of the right raises questions about Germans’ view of the past, it is even more important to stress the responsibilities linked to democracy on May 8, said Weigel.

“You can see the link between the Nazi era and now. What these people wanted when they voted Hitler in was not what they got,” he said.

How the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler met his death 75 years ago and brought the Second World War to a close.

Adolf Hitler took his own life on 30 April 1945, dying in ignominy in an underground shelter at the Reich Chancellery two days after his fascist ally Benito Mussolini had been assassinated by partisans in the small northern Italian village of Giulino di Mezzegra.

With the Western Allies days away from retaking Europe, Poland in the hands of the advancing Red Army and Berlin under relentless siege, the Fuhrer was forced to concede his vision of founding a new empire to last a thousand years lay in tatters, his hope of global conquest for the greater glory of the Teutonic “master race” doomed to end in failure.

He shot himself through the right temple with a 7.65mm Walther PP pistol, biting down on a cyanide capsule as he did so to ensure there would be no question of his survival.

His wife, Eva Braun – whom he had married a day earlier in their dank subterranean rooms – followed suit, ensuring that neither would have to face capture by the Russians or answer for the unprecedented atrocities carried out by the Third Reich under his direction.

Hitler, Braun, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, his wife Magda and their six children, plus members of the party’s trusted inner circle and staff had taken up residence in the Fuhrerbunker on 16 January as the once-mighty German army found itself pushed to the verge of collapse after six years of devastating conflict.

Each subsequent day had brought more news of steady British and American progress into Nazi-occupied territory from the west and the unstoppable march of Soviet troops to the east.

By 16 April, the Russians had arrived to commence the Battle of Berlin, bringing 2.5 million men and 6,525 tanks to the doorstep of the world’s third-largest city on three fronts, commanded in turn by marshals Georgy Zhukov, Ivan Konev and Konstantin Rokossovky. The exhausted Nazis were outnumbered and outgunned five-to-one with little serious hope of defending the capital, reliant on flimsy barricades thrown up in desperation to fend off invasion.

“It would be much better to have me shot,” remarked General Helmuch Weidling when he was tasked with mounting a last stand to save Berlin.

On 20 April, Adolf Hitler made his final appearance above ground as he emerged from the sanctuary that had become his prison to hand out the Iron Cross to members of the Hitler Youth, among the devastated remains of what had been the Chancellery’s garden.

It was his 56th birthday and the last time he would feel the brush of sunlight against his cheek. The occasion was marked by Russian soldiers firing on Hermannplatz and killing a number of people queueing outside the Karstadt department store.

“So, I was hiding in the heap of dead bodies because in the last week the crematoria did not function at all. The bodies were just building up higher and higher. So there I was at night time; in the daytime, I was roaming in the camp, and this is how I survived. On January 27, 1945, I was one of the very first; Birkenau was one of the very first camps being liberated.”
— Bert Stern, a Survivor

“Through the fire-blackened ruins the scent of lilac rose in waves out of derelict gardens whose owners had fled or died,” Douglas Botting wrote of that spring in In the Ruins of the Reich (1985). “Crocuses struggled out of the rubble. The stumps of trees amputated by the bombing were bursting with green leaf. Only the birds were missing. There were no sparrows in the eaves, no thrushes singing in the Tiergarten.”

With only the hammering of saturation bombing by the Allies to listen out for, Hitler had suffered a total nervous breakdown on 22 April after becoming certain of defeat when he learned that Waffen-SS general Felix Steiner had disobeyed a direct order.

Steiner’s detachment had been instructed to attack Zhukov’s forces encircling the city from the north while the German Ninth Army under Theodor Busse approached from the south in a pincer movement. Steiner had baulked at so unrealistic a command, anticipating the massacre of his already-depleted forces, and declined to act on it.

“Hitler had been incarcerated in the bunker for over three months and his grasp on reality was fading fast,” writes Botting of the Fuhrer’s feverish state of mind. “Yet the palsied, enfeebled, prematurely aged old man in a soup-stained uniform living deep under the ground of the Reich Chancellery gardens continued to demand absolute obedience and fanatical resistance [and] continued to shriek nonsensical orders to non-existent or half-exterminated armies.”

Ranting tearfully and admitting the war was lost for the first time, the Fuhrer consulted his physician, Dr Werner Haase, later that same afternoon on the optimum means of committing suicide. It was Dr Haase, himself dying of tuberculosis, who recommended pistol-and-poison as the only truly foolproof method.

When Luftwaffe supreme commander Hermann Goering heard of Hitler’s outburst from Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, he dispatched a telegram asking him to step down in accordance with a 1941 decree naming Goering his successor. Persuaded by his secretary Martin Bormann that the Reichsmarschall intended a coup, Hitler had Goering relieved of his post, arrested by the SS and threatened with execution. Field Marshal Robert Ritter von Greim was summoned from Munich to replace him.

On 23 April, Eva Braun wrote to her sister Gretl, sending gifts of coffee and tinned food for their parents and giving instructions for the disposal of her gold and diamond watches, photograph albums and her love letters.

Within a week Berlin’s telephone lines would be dead, leaving short-wave radio transmitted from a tethered balloon the only means of communication between the bunker and the outside world.

The city’s streets continued to face heavy bombardment from Russian artillery fire, with the native citizens who had not succeeded in escaping left with little choice but to seek shelter in basements and candle-lit subway tunnels. The hospitals overflowed, supplies were scarce, disease and petty crime were rife and the only meat available was that which could be carved from dead horses.

Stores and private residences were looted for bottles of wine while some resorted to “Saturnalian orgies” or suicide to escape the hellishness of daily existence.

At 9pm on 28 April, a BBC report citing Reuters reached Hitler that Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler had approached the Allies with an offer to surrender, mediated by Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte. It had been declined but Hitler was infuriated that Himmler had assumed the authority to negotiate, branding him a traitor to the Fatherland and having his representative in Berlin, Hermann Fegelein, shot by firing squad in revenge.

That fact that Fegelein had married Gretl Braun and was therefore Hitler’s prospective brother-in-law did nothing to stay his hand.

General Hans Krebs and Bormann made desperate final appeals to Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and Admiral Karl Donitz respectively to order their commanders to make a final push against the Soviets but, in truth, all was lost. The Russians had reached Potsdamerplatz, a single city block away from the Fuhrerbunker, while Busse’s Ninth Army had been brutally cut down on the Berlin-Dresden autobahn.

“Reich Chancellery a heap of rubble,” Bormann admitted in a telegram.

In the early hours of 29 April – and shortly after poisoning his beloved Alsatian dog Blondi and handing out cyanide pills to his secretaries, who concealed their mounting panic behind subservient smiles – Hitler married Braun in a civil ceremony witnessed by their peers and toasted half-heartedly with glasses of champagne, after which the dictator made out his last will and testament.

Hitler spent the rest of that day putting his affairs in order, giving instructions for his papers to be destroyed and saying farewell to his entourage, shaking hands and mumbling whatever words of consolation he could muster. Gertrude Junge, one of the secretaries, later remembered tears in his eyes: “They seemed to be looking far away, beyond the walls of the bunker.”

Historian William L Shirer recounts that, after the dictator retired to bed, “a curious thing happened. The tension which had been building up to an almost unendurable point in the bunker broke, and several persons went up to the canteen – to dance. The weird party soon became so noisy that word was sent from the Fuhrer’s quarters requesting more quiet”.

On his last morning on earth, a pallid Hitler is said by biographer Hans-Otto Meissner to have greeted Magda Goebbels, the Nazi Party’s unofficial “first lady”, by taking the gold party insignia from his grey overcoat and fastening it to her lapel with trembling hands, prompting her to burst into tears at the honour. It was the highest recognition ever awarded to a woman by the Third Reich.

The bodies of Adolf and Eva Hitler were discovered at 3.30pm that afternoon slumped on a bloody sofa by Joseph Goebbels, Bormann, Hitler’s adjutant Otto Gunshe and his valet, Heinz Linge.

The latter was so shocked by the sight he simply picked up a Dresden vase Hitler had upset when his body had slumped forward from the fatal gunshot, rearranged the tulips and daffodils within and returned it to its rightful place on a side table, the Fuhrer’s favourite portrait of Frederick the Great of Prussia glowering down upon the scene.

Their cadavers were swiftly wrapped in brown army blankets, doused in petrol and burnt in a trench in the same Chancellery grounds where Hitler had received the boy soldiers two weeks previously, just as his will had dictated. “I don’t want to be put on exhibition in a Russian waxworks,” he had told Gunsche, anticipating his eventual cremation.

Donitz and Goebbels succeeded Hitler as head of state and chancellor respectively. The latter and his wife would have their children put to sleep by lethal injection just a day later. It is believed that Magda administered the poison herself, a chilling act she appears to have plotted at least a month in advance.

She had confided as much to her sister-in-law from her first marriage, Ello Quandt, according to Anja Klabunde’s 1999 biography: “We have demanded monstrous things from the German people, treated other nations with pitiless cruelty. For this the victors will exact their full revenge. We can’t let them think we are cowards.

“We will take the children with us, they are too good, too lovely for the world which lies ahead. In the days to come Joseph will be regarded as one of the greatest criminals that Germany has ever produced. His children would hear that said daily, people would torment them, despise and humiliate them.”

Frau Goebbels wept but nevertheless played Solitaire with her husband after going through with the executions, all six of their offspring lying unwaking in their beds in matching white nightgowns. Their parents too would be dead within hours, their end mirroring the demise of the Hitlers.

Berlin surrendered to the Soviet Union on 2 May, the same day that the US armed forces newspaper, Stars and Stripes, carried the news of the Fuhrer’s suicide and succession in the plainest terms imaginable, its headline announcing simply: “Hitler dead”.

Germany’s total concession would follow six days later on a date now marked as Victory in Europe Day. But the true extent of the horrors with which Adolf Hitler’s name will forever be associated would only subsequently become known to the wider world, which, in that moment, came together to cheer his downfall in jubilant celebration, daring to imagine a brighter tomorrow.

As veterans and survivors of World World II mark the 75th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, they speak with one voice about the suffering they experienced—and inflicted.

Seventy-five years ago, the most far-flung, destructive, and lethal war in history approached its end. World War II lived up to its name: It was a true global conflict that pitted the Allied powers—the United States, the Soviet Union, Britain, China, and their smaller allies—against Germany, Japan, Italy, and a few other Axis nations. 

Some 70 million men and women served in the armed forces, taking part in the greatest military mobilization in history. Civilians, however, did most of the suffering and dying. Of the estimated 66 million people who perished, nearly 70 percent—some 46 million—were civilians, including six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. Tens of millions more were uprooted from their homes and countries, many of them living in displaced persons camps for years to come.

The war’s aftereffects were as staggering as its scale. It laid the groundwork for the world we’ve known for more than seven decades, from the dawn of the nuclear age to the creation of Israel to the emergence of the United States and Soviet Union as the world’s dueling superpowers. It also sparked the formation of international alliances such as the United Nations and NATO, all designed to prevent such a cataclysm from happening again.

Yet, with the passage of time, public awareness of the war and its almost unfathomable consequences has faded, becoming as dim as the sepia tones of an old photograph. At the same time, firsthand witnesses are dwindling in number. According to U.S. government statistics, fewer than 400,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in the war—2.5 percent—were still alive in 2019.

But thanks to the willingness of some of the last survivors to share their stories, we’ve been given a valuable gift: a chance to bring the war into sharp focus again by viewing it through their eyes. With no access to the internet or other forms of today’s instant communications, most of these men and women knew little of the world beyond their communities before the war. By wrenching them out of their familiar settings, it exposed them to an overwhelming array of new experiences and tested them in previously unimaginable ways. Many found the challenges exhilarating.

That was true for 18-year-old Betty Webb, who was recruited to join Britain’s top secret code-breaking operation at Bletchley Park. Webb was one of countless women whose work was crucial to their countries’ war efforts and who, in the process, found a sense of self-worth and independence they’d never known before.

Harry T. Stewart, Jr., the 20-year-old grandson of a man born into slavery, proved himself as well. A New Yorker who had never driven a car before the war, Stewart became a fighter pilot in the famed all-black unit known as the Tuskegee Airmen, flying 43 combat missions and winning a Distinguished Flying Cross.

These triumphs are inspiring and should be celebrated. Yet what dominates the survivors’ stories are the tragedies experienced by so many of them, Allied and Axis alike. Their accounts are testament to the sheer hell of World War II—the brutality, suffering, and terror experienced, and inflicted, by both sides. Particularly haunting is the testimony of Victor Gregg, a British soldier captured by the Germans. His prison was destroyed in the Allied fire bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Gregg, who witnessed the fiery deaths of German civilians there—some 25,000 perished—was left with an abiding sense of guilt and shame. 

“These were women and children,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. We were supposed to be the good guys.” His story, like the others, should remain indelibly imprinted on our minds.