Mata O'Hara and Treu Bleiben

The Bunker - James P. O'Donnell

I happened to watch Der Untergang (Downfall - Bruno Ganz is incredible and the movie being in German, more authentic) and The Bunker (Anthony Hopkins), two excellent movies about the last days of Hitler in his underground facilities.  So I started poking around for some books.

 

Written in 1978, this is a fascinating account of the final days in Hitler's incredible labyrinthine war room/living quarters under the streets of Berlin. James O'Donnell interviewed fifty --out of a possible 250 - some were rejected as having an ax to grind, or not being at the scene of events-- of the participants. O'Donnell, a captain in the signals corp who toured the bunker shortly after Berlin fell,  took the journalist's approach.

 

"In that first year of basic research, which consisted of ringing doorbells, thumbing through provincial telephone books, cross checking references, I had hopes of locating, at most, perhaps forty or fifty sources. At year's end, to my amazement, I needed a second black box. The first contained more than 25o names, all genuine, still-living witnesses who had been present in the bunker at some time during the last battle in Berlin. My surprise was based, of course, on my own memory of the cramped and limited topography of the bunker proper. What I had overlooked was the maze of tunnels leading into the New and Old Reich Chancellery and other nearby government buildings. The bunker was a small stage, a snake pit. But the comings and goings, in the desperate last days of April 1945, had a Grand Central Station, rush-hour atmosphere.

 

Just how close this composite account comes to historical truth, to the kind of documentation an academic historian insists on, I simply cannot say. Nor is it overly important to my purpose. I am a journalist, not a historian. I ring doorbells; I do not haunt archives. What I was looking for is what I believe most people look for, psychological truth. I am aware that many of the accounts here differ from the accounts - meager, in any case - given in some of the first interrogations back in 1945”/i>  He succeeds, I think, brilliantly.

 

O’Donnell leans heavily on Speer’s recollections, which, of course, tend toward the self-serving, but that’s OK.  Speer insists that he was instrumental in preventing a societal catastrophe by standing up to Hitler who wanted to level everything and everyone in the path of the Allies, reasoning that because they had lost the war it was the fault of the German people who were not strong enough to survive.  Hitler insisted that Speer, whom he admired for his architectural work, swear the war was not lost or at least “hope” the war was not lost.  Ironically, Speer could have argued that Hitler was the one who had given up hope given his instructions to lay waste to everything, instead choosing to acquiesce and then subvert the implementation of those plans.

 

By this time, Hitler was just a shell of his former presence, sick and suffering what might have been Parkinson’s given the tremor in his left hand which he hid; or it could have been damage from the several assassination attempts or even the foul air in the bunker complex which had walls sixteen feet thick and was buried under thirty feet of earth.  (Speer claims he attempted to assassinate Hitler himself by spreading poison gas into the ventilation ducts, but was foiled by his inability to get the right material.) Hardbitten front-line veterans like Generals Heinrici, Krukenberg, Weidling, and Reimann, summoned to the bunker, regarded it as a madhouse being run by the inmates. On one occasion, General Helmuth Weidling arrived in trepidation. It was April 25, and he had been told that Hitler had just ordered that he be taken out and shot.”

 

I can’t resist recounting the story of General Fegelein.  Married to Eva Braun’s sister, Gretl, (if only his name had been Hansel, it would have been perfect) who, by this time, was close to delivering their child, he was a womanizer and wasn’t stupid enough to hang around the bunker for the Red Army. (He wasn’t  *that* bright as we’ll soon see.)  He dabbled with escaping and at one point even made it to Himmler’s bunker some ninety miles north of Berlin where Himmler, much to Hitler’s anger, was attempting to negotiate a peace with the allies through the Swedes.

 

For some unfathomable reason, Fegelein decided to return to Berlin, but rather than report right away to the Bunker (which might have saved his life) he holed up in an apartment on Bleibtreustraße  (what delicious irony in that name) with a ravishing woman, Irish wife of a Hungarian diplomat (the author suspects) who might also very well have been a spy.  There’s a lot of speculation involved here and O’Donnell tried to track her down, assuming she survived the war.  When Hitler and Bormann finally noticed Fegelein hadn’t shown up, they sent several soldiers to bring him back. Finally on the third try (the early units couldn’t force him, drunk as he was) to come as they were mere majors and lieutenants, a Colonel was sent who persuaded Fegelein to return.

 

 

The woman, who was in the apartment packing a valise, walked into the kitchen ostensibly to get some water and disappeared out the window never to be seen again. (She obviously was the only one with any sense.)  The Colonel grabbed the suitcase but didn’t open it until they reached the bunker where they discovered quite of bit of cash, some in Swiss francs (the  best currency for fugitives) and two passports, one of them British (it could have been gotten through Irish connections -- Ireland was neutral but citizens could apply for British passports,) and some evidence of Himmler’s treachery. Fegelein was thus pegged not only as a deserter but a traitor as well and was shot in spite (or perhaps because?) of being Hitler’s prospective brother-in-law. (Hitler was shortly to marry Eva Braun, just before their suicide.) O’Donnell marshals some evidence to indicate the woman was feeding information to the British, including intelligence that Hitler was moving troops (including Fegelein’s division) to the Ardennes in preparation for the famous “Battle of the Bulge” offensive in late 1944. Her information was ignored. She has disappeared from history.


Hitler’s “scorched earth” orders were not carried out, but Berlin was beyond devastated. “This Berlin rubble was gigantic, obscene. Some was old and molding, sprouting rare spring wildflowers; some was still fresh and smoldering, like angry lava. Lilliputian locomotives on toylike narrow-gauge tracks, brought to Berlin from the Ruhr mining valleys, chugged and puffed along what once had been broad streets and now were canyons, piling up no million square meters of debris - brick, concrete, mortar, shards of glass, limestone, sandstone, headless caryatides from pompous old Berlin Jugendstil portals and balconies. The Reichsbahn, the national railway, estimated that there was enough rubble to fill four million freight cars. Or, if piled all in one place, to make an artificial mountain higher than the tallest peak in the Harz Mountains (the Brocken, 3747 feet above sea level).”