If having a fox-haired ex-reality star who lords over Gotham in an apartment made almost entirely of gold and the neurosurgeon that separated Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear in the movie Stuck On You running for president isn’t surreal enough for you, in recent weeks, several candidates gunning for the GOP nomination have negotiated the following question: “Could you kill a baby Hitler?”The question, posed by the trolltastic New York Times in late October—and no doubt inspired by a sketch on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert that month—became so outrageously ubiquitous that it bled into the 2016 election narrative, with Jeb Bush pounding his chest and exclaiming, “Hell, yeah, I would,” while Carson whispered, “I’m not in favor of aborting anybody.”
Well, since Pharrell is the only one who actually owns a time machine, all of this childish prattle is a big ol’ waste of time. But it does raise the question: How did Hitler actually die?When the Nuremberg trials commenced six months after the war’s end, the United States still wasn’t sure if Hitler was dead. This was in part due to misdirection on the part of Stalin and the Soviet Union, who claimed that Hitler had fled Berlin. And, when U.S. President Harry S. Truman prodded Stalin at the Potsdam Conference as to whether or not Hitler was in fact dead, Stalin replied, “No.”
So in 1947, Nuremberg judge and U.S. Navy lawyer Michael Musmanno embarked on a mission to prove Hitler was dead. Over two years, he spoke to over 100 people across Germany, interviewing many of the surviving members of Hitler’s military and civilian staff who witnessed the Nazi dictator’s final days in the Führerbunker. Then, in 1948, Musmanno captured his eyewitness interviews on film.
When Musmanno died in 1968, his family donated his effects to Duquesne University—he was a Pittsburgh fella, after all—which included Adolf Hitler’s pillowcase from his Berlin bunker, stacks of manuscripts, and a collection of 8mm films that went untouched for years. They were finally transferred to DVDs in 2007, and it was discovered that Musmanno had videotaped 22 interviews with eyewitnesses who provided firsthand accounts of Hitler’s final days, up until (and including) the day he committed suicide on April 30, 1945. What’s more, Musmanno wasn’t tasked with this mission; he completed it as a pet project on his own dime.
Part of Musmanno’s eye-opening interview footage aired during a special created by Der Spiegel back in 2013, but The Smithsonian Channel will air them for the first time on American television tonight, Nov. 16, as part of the documentary The Day Hitler Died. The film consists of reenactments as well as extended versions of Musmanno’s 1948 interviews, providing a riveting and very detailed account of Hitler’s grisly fate.
The Day Hitler Died opens on April 20, 1945—Hitler’s 56th birthday, and the last time the Nazi leader was seen in public or captured on film. On this day, Hitler emerged from the Führerbunker to award Iron Crosses to Hitler Youth for defending Berlin against the approaching Soviet Army. In the footage, Hitler is seen shaking the boys’ hands, patting them on the shoulders, and, in one chilling scene, affectionately rubbing a young boy’s ear.
Then, Hitler retreats back down to the Führerbunker—a secret underground facility 30 feet below his headquarters, the Reich Chancellery. The bunker consisted of 16 rooms with ceilings and walls that were 12 feet thick. Corridors were lined with looted art, cramped rooms filled with furniture from the HQ, and the only way to tell time was via a grandfather clock in Hitler’s study.
A little over a week before, on April 12, Hitler was in high spirits, for on that day, he learned that U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had passed away. “Hitler went into a dance and congratulated himself as if he had himself brought about this event,” said Heinz Lorenz, Hitler’s press attaché. “He exclaimed, ‘This will mean I will win the war! This is our victory!’”
In his bunker, Hitler would schedule meetings in a tiny 3 by 5-meter room with 15 generals and aide-de-camps, with only Hitler permitted to sit. One of the men inside was Baron von Loringhoven, an aristocrat who rose to the rank of major, but never joined the Nazi Party.
“No one dared to mention defeat to Hitler,” von Loringhoven told Musmanno. “To do so, one could lose one’s life. In addition, one’s entire family would be jeopardized. He still kept up his hopes by hinting at secret weapons and of dissensions between the Allies.”
But according to Hitler’s secretary Gertraud “Traudl” Junge, who began working for him in 1942 when she was just 22 years old, with Soviet forces moving in and the Nazis on the ropes, there began talk of suicide.
“After April 22, he talked about [suicide] constantly,” said Traudl, “in order that there should be no doubt about his death, he made plans to take poison and at the same time shoot himself with his pistol.”
“His health was very bad,” she added. “For years, he had been taking medicines—drugs and injections. During his last days, he had a constant tremor in his hands. And in front of strangers, I think he was a little ashamed of this affliction, and would try to hide it.”
Traudl said that Hitler then ordered his safe emptied and its contents burned—except for his trusty Walther PPK 7.65, which he fondled while staring at a portrait of Frederick the Great.
“I told him if he intended to die, the place to die would be in battle leading his troops,” said Traudl, “but he said he feared that he might only be wounded and captured, and then the Russians would degrade him.”
On Monday April 23, 1945, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, and his wife, Magda, “announced they didn’t want to live after the Führer had gone,” and, according to von Loringhoven, “they talked all day long on how they were going to die.”“Minister Goebbels and his wife arranged to have their six children poisoned as well,” added Traudl. The Goebbels’ had five girls and one boy, all under the age of 13.
“He was passing around poison vials,” recalled von Loringhoven. “The poison [cyanide potassium] was contained in a receptacle that looked like lipstick, and those who had received them regarded them as a great treasure.”
At around 10 p.m. on Saturday, April 28, 1945, the Soviets were only about 550 yards from the bunker. To make matters worse, Hitler learned that Heinrich Himmler, his head of the SS, had betrayed him and was trying to negotiate peace with the Americans.
Because of this, Hitler flew into a rage, and, according to von Loringhoven, ordered Himmler’s representative in the bunker, Gen. Fegelein, to be shot. Gen. Fegelein also happened to be Eva Braun’s brother-in-law to her pregnant sister, and even though Braun begged for his life to be spared, Hitler refused.
That night, Hitler began detailing his last will and political testament to Traudl—that the Jews caused the war, for his body to be cremated, for his people to continue the fight after he dies, and that, due to her steadfast loyalty and willingness to die with him, he’ll finally marry Eva Braun, whom he’d been romancing since 1932.
“He dictated it to me the night of April 28,” Traudl told Musmanno. “And I must frankly say that the will was really disappointing. I had thought that in it he would try to justify what he has done and why Germany found itself in its present situation so that he might offer to show some way out of our horrible tragedy, but he repeated the same old arguments he had used over and over in all his speeches.”
One hour after Gen. Fegelein’s execution, at around 1 a.m. on Sunday, April 29, Eva Braun emerged in a black dress alongside Hitler in his standard tunic, and, with Goebbels serving as best man, they declared that they were both of pure Aryan descent and free of hereditary disease—requirements in a Nazi wedding—before being pronounced husband and wife.
“He married Eva Braun and prepared for his suicide,” recalled Lorenz. “There was a little party and they drank champagne. Hitler did not drink any champagne because he was dictating his will.”
At around 8 a.m. that day, Major Johannmeier was directed to take a copy of Hitler’s will to German-occupied territory. Meanwhile, Hitler had become quite paranoid.“He was depressed and suspicious of everybody. He even now suspected that the poison would only make him unconscious and he’d be turned over alive to the Allies, so he decided to test the poison,” said von Loringhoven.
And who did he test it on? “On his best friend, Blondi,” said von Loringhoven, referring to Hitler’s dog. “The dog died.”
That evening, the sewer pipes in the bunker ruptured, filling the rooms with the smell of urine. And at 10 p.m., Hitler heard a British radio program broadcast the death of Mussolini, whose corpse was hung upside down on meat hooks in Milan’s Piazzale Loreto, where it was subsequently stoned by onlookers.
“This unnerved [Hitler] more than anything else,” said Traudl. “He had a great fear that, if captured dead or alive, his body would be exposed to ridicule and degradation.”
At 1 p.m. on Monday, April 30, and with the Soviet forces just 220 yards away, Traudl recalled having lunch with Hitler and Braun. “Everybody could feel the presence of death,” she said. Since Hitler was a vegetarian, his and Braun’s last meal is spaghetti with cabbage and raisin salad.
Then, Braun changed into Hitler’s favorite dress—black with white roses around the neck—did her hair, and painted her nails. At around 2:30 p.m. Traudl recalled seeing Hitler for the last time.
“Here I saw Hitler with Eva Braun on his arm giving his final farewell,” Traudl said, adding she was the last person besides Braun to hold his hand. “It was very limp. He looked at me, but I don’t think he saw me. I don’t think he saw anybody.”
Fifteen minutes later, at 2:45 p.m., Magda Goebbels demanded to see Hitler. Knowing she must keep her vow to kill herself and her family, she implored Hitler to try to escape. But Hitler refused, and Magda would be the last person besides Braun to see him alive.
According to Artur Axmann, leader of the Hitler Youth, “I went to [Hitler’s] room, but the door was closed. His SS adjutant [Otto Günsche] was standing outside. He motioned me to silence, and I went back to the conference room and waited.”Then, at approximately 3:30 p.m., Axmann returned. “Goebbels and I went back to Hitler’s room and entered it. We found Eva Braun sitting on the sofa, her head resting on Hitler’s left shoulder. She wore a black chiffon dress. She was dead, but had no marks of violence on her body. She died on poison.”He added, “Hitler’s lower jaw was slightly discarded. It was obvious he had shot himself in the mouth. On either side of his temples I saw drops of blood. The blanks of the pistol had ruptured the veins on either side of his head. The sofa was stained with blood, and his pistol lay at his feet. I remained with the corpses about 10 minutes, then I returned to the conference room, and at this point saw Hitler’s and Eva Braun’s bodies being carried out of the bunker.”
At 4 p.m., Erich Kempka, Hitler’s longtime chauffeur, carried Braun’s body outside of the bunker and into the garden behind the Reich Chancellery—the same place where Hitler made his last public appearance, awarding the Hitler Youth boys medals.
“I turned over Eva Braun’s body to Günsche and he laid it down next to Hitler’s corpse,” said Kempka. “We then picked up the cans and poured gasoline over both bodies.”
Because the site was being hit by Soviet artillery shells, the group stepped back a bit from the bodies. “We had to take shelter in the concrete entrance to the bunker,” recalled Kempka. “Here, Günsche lit the rag and threw it to the bodies. Both bodies burned full-flame when I left.”
Hermann Karnau, a bunker guard, was tasked with watching funeral pyre—and by 6:15 p.m., he’d watched the bodies burn for two hours.
“The bodies were still burning and the flesh moved up and down,” said Karnau. “I touched the burning remains which were lying before me with my feet, and they fell apart. Almost frozen, I remained fixed to the spot and lifted my arm in salute.” He buried the couple’s remains in a shell crater.
Hitler and Braun’s bodies were discovered on May 2, 1945, by Soviet forces—along with the remains of Goebbels, his wife, and the bodies of their six young children. Stalin and the Soviets immediately identified the remains as Hitler through his dental records, but spread misinformation to the U.S. that the Nazi leader may have escaped, kicking off an era of deception and mistrust between the Soviet Union and America.
In the aftermath of his Hitler project, Musmanno sent his footage to Hollywood—along with a screenplay on Hitler’s last days, which was mailed to Alfred Hitchcock—but by that point, Tinseltown had moved on from Hitler.
And, despite Musmanno’s detailed investigation, the U.S. didn’t officially declare Hitler dead until 1956.