The Bunker

The Bunker

"The Bunker" is an account, written by American journalist James P. O'Donnell, of the history of the Führerbunker in early 1945, as well as the last days of German dictator Adolf Hitler. It was first published in 1978.

With works by Hugh Trevor-Roper and Joachim Fest, "The Bunker" is considered one of the defining works on Hitler's last days. However, unlike many other accounts, O'Donnell spent considerable time on other, less-famous residents of the bunker. Additionally, unlike the more academic works by historians, the book takes a journalistic approach.


During World War II, O'Donnell worked in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. On July 1, 1945, he was mustered out and immediately took a position as German bureau chief for "Newsweek" magazine. On July 4, he arrived in Berlin with instructions to get details on Hitler's last days, as well as information on Eva Braun (whose existence was just emerging).

Soon after arriving, he traveled to the bunker, which was mainly overlooked by troops (who were more interested in the Reich Chancellory). He found it guarded by two Russian soldiers, and for the price of two packs of cigarettes, he gained access to it. He found the bunker a flooded, cluttered, stinking mess.

Ironically (and essential, given his later work), the bunker had not, even at this late point, been systematically investigated by the Russians. Lying around for anyone to pick up were such historic items as Hitler's appointment book, Martin Bormann's personal diary, the battle log for Berlin, and segments of Joseph Goebbels' diary. Right in front of O'Donnell, a British colonel took as a "war souvenir" a blueprint for a reconstruction of Hitler's hometown Linz, in Austria. This historic document (brooded over by Hitler during his last days) ended up over the colonel's fireplace in Kent.

As the new bureau chief, O'Donnell wrote about developments, such as the Russian discovery and identification (after several mistakes) of Hitler's body in mid-May of the same year. In August, he came upon a strange sight - the Russians were apparently making a documentary reconstructing Hitler's final days.

Although the bunker fell within the Russian sector of Berlin, and even though many of the survivors were captured by the Soviets, it was the Western powers who revealed the first accurate account of Hitler's death. The British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, on November 1, held a press conference (covered by O'Donnell) where he revealed the generally-accepted theory of Hitler's death.

While O'Donnell agreed with Trevor-Roper's account save for some minor details (and, in "The Bunker", continues to agree with it), he was unsatisfied with this account. Some reasons he gave were:

* Trevor-Roper only had access to two witnesses - Erich Kempka, Hitler's chauffeur, and Else Krüger, Bormann's secretary. When he wrote "The Last Days of Hitler" the following year, he only had access to two more witnesses - Hitler secretary Gerda Christian and Hitler Youth leader Artur Axmann.
* The vast majority of the major witnesses were captured by the Soviets and, without being charged with any crimes, spent the next ten years in Russian captivity. Because the Soviets kept denying that Hitler was really dead, they refused to release their interrogation notes to the other Allies.
* Accounts of the bunker centered on major figures, such as Hitler and Goebbels, while paying scant attention to more minor figures. Usually, such accounts stopped after the death of Hitler (or, in some cases, Goebbels). Except for people looking for Bormann (who, for many years, was thought to have survived), nobody bothered writing an account of the "bunker breakout" after Goebbels' death.

In 1969, O'Donnell met Albert Speer, who had just published his memoirs (he wrote an article on Speer for "Life", published in 1970). At this point, O'Donnell realized that many of the aforementioned witnesses had long since been released by the Soviets. He began to track them down.

Over the next six years, O'Donnell narrowed his list of witnesses to about 50, and embarked on a project to collate their stories. He usually had these witnesses read his work to verify its authenticity. The book was the result.


While O'Donnell had 50 witnesses, some saw more than others. Below is a rough list of his main sources. He singled out these sources by eliminating individuals who never saw Hitler after April 22, 1945.

* Albert Speer, the Nazi Minister of Armaments
* Gerda Christian, one of Hitler's secretaries
* Traudl Junge, another of Hitler's secretaries
* Else Krüger, Bormann's secretary
* Erich Kempka, chauffeur

The below observers were captured by the Soviets and held for a decade, and were thus unavailable for many of the initial accounts of Hitler's death.

* Dr. Ernst Günther Schenck, operator of a casualty station in the chancellory
* Hans Baur, Hitler's personal pilot
* Johannes Hentschel, mechanic in charge of bunker's electricity and water supply
* Wilhelm Mohnke, SS general
* Otto Günsche, an SS representative
* Rochus Misch, the bunker telephone/radio operator

While most people were cooperative, a few didn't speak to O'Donnell. Johanna Wolf, another Hitler secretary, declined to talk since she was a "private" secretary. Walter Bormann also refused to cooperate, in this case because of family connections (he was Martin Bormann's brother). Many people who had been close to Hitler in the final days, most notably Ambassador Walter Hewel, an old friend of Hitler's, committed suicide after the break-out. Many more witnesses died in Soviet captivity, such as Dr. Werner Haase, the last physician to attend Hitler, who had already been gravely ill with tuberculosis. Likewise, other important witnesses, such as Johann Rattenhuber, survived Russian captivity, but died so soon after their release that they could never be properly interrogated.

Timeline and Overview

O'Donnell established the following timeline, which corresponds with most other accounts of the bunker.

* 1945 January 16. Hitler returns to Berlin and enters the bunker.
* March 19. Speer visits Hitler in an attempt to stop his "scorched earth" policy. He fails, but later goes on to sabotage the programme.
* April 12. American and British troops stop marching towards Berlin, allowing the Russians free rein, much to the horror of the bunker inhabitants. Also, Franklin D. Roosevelt dies, creating a short-lived euphoria among top Nazis.
* April 15. Eva Braun arrives at the bunker.
* April 20. Hitler's 56th birthday. In a short, one-hour ceremony, Nazi leaders such as Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler, gather in Berlin to celebrate, then leave immediately afterwards, never to see Hitler again.
* April 22. Hitler suffers a nervous breakdown and finally admits that Germany will lose the war. He transfers most of the bunker staff to Berchtesgaden, and allows the German High Military Command (under Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl) to leave as well. He resolves to commit suicide, although a visit from Goebbels apparently causes him to hold off on this for a few days. Magda Goebbels brings all six of her children to live in the bunker.
* April 23. Hitler expels Göring from the Nazi Party after an apparent misunderstanding.
* April 24. Speer returns to say good-bye to Hitler, Braun, and the Goebbels.
* April 28. Hitler learns (via a newswire) of Himmler's attempt to betray him and negotiate a separate peace treaty. Hitler expels him from the Nazi Party, and has his representative, Hermann Fegelein, killed the next day.
* April 29. Hitler marries Braun shortly after midnight. He dictates his last will and testament.
* April 30. In the afternoon, Hitler and Braun hold a farewell ceremony and commit suicide together. Their bodies are inexpertly burned.
* May 1. Magda Goebbels drugs her six children, then kills them with cyanide. Afterwards, Joseph and Magda Goebbels commit suicide together outside the bunker. Their bodies are, like those of the Hitlers, inexpertly burned.
* May 1-2. The breakout. The remaining members of the bunker staff escape in three separate groups, each to a different fate.
* May 2. Around noon, Russian troops first enter the bunker, finding Johannes Hentschel the sole remaining occupant.

Some of the above dates can be confusing, as Hitler kept unusual hours - he typically slept until noon, went to bed around dawn, and held his military conferences around midnight.

"See also" Hitler's death.

Methodology and Controversy

O'Donnell based the book on interviews. When witnesses disagreed, he evaluated them based on the "reliability" of their other statements, the agreement/disagreement with other witnesses, and with his intuition. Many critics (especially those from academic backgrounds) have taken issue with this methodology. Anticipating this, O'Donnell wrote in the prologue:

::"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 overtly 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 many people look for, psychological truth."

O'Donnell asserted that his method - interviewing the witnesses - is superior than the methods used by academics, noting that much of the written documentation was burned or otherwise destroyed in the final days of the war. Also, written accounts do not allow the writer to "read" a person's expression. O'Donnell even noted that many of the people he interviewed, to make a point, would literally "act out" scenes, a touch not found in historical archives.

Furthermore, he disputed the reliability of the interrogations of witnesses in 1945, which are used as primary sources by most historians. He argued that these interrogations, because of the recent occurrence of the bunker events, the end of the war, and worries over possible criminal charges, were about as accurate as "asking the shell-shocked to describe exactly the burst of artillery." Moreover, many witnesses admitted that they either lied or withheld information during their 1945 interviews, mainly due to pressure from their interrogators (this was especially true of those captured by the Soviets). O'Donnell argued that the witnesses needed time to "digest" their experiences.

However, many critics dispute whether this method was reliable. The most cited example was O'Donnell's complete acceptance of Albert Speer's claim to have tried to assassinate Hitler. While many professional historians dispute this claim due to lack of evidence, O'Donnell wrote about it unquestioningly. It is arguable that, if one compares the accounts written in "The Bunker" with those in "Inside the Third Reich", that O'Donnell presents the supposed assassination attempt as more dramatic and purposeful. Admittedly, O'Donnell befriended Speer, and interviewed him 17 times for the book, more than any other witness.

O'Donnell also used hearsay evidence. He used Dr. Schenck for this on numerous occasions, first to discuss Hitler's health (since the doctor at the scene, Haase, died in Russian captivity), and to discuss Hitler's final conversation with his friend Walter Hewel (who committed suicide right in front of Schenck).

O'Donnell makes several departures from other theories of the bunker events, many of which are criticized because of the above methodology. To name a few:

* He held that the Russians completely botched the investigation into Hitler's death. As he saw firsthand, the Soviets did not properly evaluate the "crime scene." Also, in his capacity as a Berlin journalist, he argued that either paranoia or a desire to embarrass the West led Joseph Stalin to deny Hitler's death, and with it, to deny the May 15, 1945 autopsy of Hitler's corpse, which was verified by dental records. O'Donnell holds that whatever remains of Hitler still existed by this date were cremated and scattered, and that any parts of the corpse the Russians claimed to have afterwards were fabricated to satisfy Stalin (part of this theory was disproven by DNA tests of bone fragments after O'Donnell's death).
* He holds that Magda Goebbels was alone responsible for the deaths of her children, although someone must have given her the cyanide, and her husband was supportive of this. He bases this on Madga's personal correspondence, as well as interviews with the survivors. Some historians don't believe Magda Goebbels was capable of her actions alone.
* From his interviews, he concludes that Hitler did indeed die from shooting himself in the head while simultaneously biting into a cyanide capsule. For people who claim this type of suicide was impossible, he sardonically pointed to Walter Hewel's suicide a few days later - he killed himself in the same way, after receiving the same instructions Dr. Haase gave Hitler.
* He claims that nobody heard the shot that killed Hitler. Whenever he asked witnesses who were standing by the double doors to Hitler's study, which were thick enough to muzzle such a sound, they claimed they heard nothing. Those who did make this claim in 1945 withdrew it, saying that Allied interrogators pressured them into saying it. Some people who claim to have heard a shot were not even present at the scene.

One of the most unusual claims made by O'Donnell involve the death of Hermann Fegelein, which has never been fully resolved. Witnesses claimed that he was killed partly because Hitler suspected his mistress at the time was a spy. O'Donnell created an entire theory out of this, and makes the claim that Fegelein's mistress actually "was" a spy, possibly a Hungarian working for British intelligence. However, he could not uncover a single scrap of evidence to support his theory, and the British Official Secrets Act deadline in 1975 passed without any corroboration. O'Donnell clung to the theory, claiming that perhaps something would come up after the 1995 deadline; but this passed too without any further evidence before O'Donnell died in 1990.

Although O'Donnell died before Soviet accounts of the interrogations became available to Western scholars, he made clear that he was extremely suspicious of the contents of the Russian archives. In addition to such testimony being based on politically-biased preconceptions, many of the Soviet-captured witnesses told him they were coerced into making statements and admissions that were entirely false. Unlike the Americans or British, the Russians apparently had no qualms about using more extreme methods to gain information (or the type of answers they wanted to hear).

The Breakout

O'Donnell's main contribution to Führerbunker literature was his account of the "breakout" that occurred on the night of May 1-2, 1945 - no other historian (or writer) attempted to describe this event before him. He devotes two chapters to it.

The survivors divided into three groups (a trio of higher-ranking military men, including General Hans Krebs, stayed behind to drink, sing, and commit suicide). The three groups left on the evening of May 1, each waiting a period of time after the others left. Their plan was to head underground, in the city's subway line, to emerge to the northwest, outside of the Russian-occupied zone of Berlin. The three groups were:

* Group 1, led by Wilhelm Mohnke. This group awkwardly made its way north to a German army hold-out on the Prinzenallee, and included Dr. Schenck and the female secretaries. The secretaries, upon reaching the outpost, broke off with the help of a Luftwaffe lieutenant; they were all later raped numerous times by Russian soldiers, although they eventually made it to the British/American lines. However, Traudl Junge suffered a fractured skull as a result of her resistance during her gang rape. ["The Bunker, James Preston O'Donnell", Da Capo Press, 2001, ISBN 0306809583] She was later held for several months as the "personal prisoner" of a high-ranking Russian officer. ["The Hitler Book: The Secret Dossier Prepared For Stalin From The Interrogations of Hitler's Personal Aides", New York, 2005, ISBN 1-58648-366-8] Mohnke and several other men stayed and were captured by the Russians, then treated to dinner with General Vladimir Alexei Belyavski, who tried to get them drunk with vodka to get information on Hitler's death. They didn't talk, and were shipped off to Moscow.
* Group 2, led by Johann Rattenhuber. This group made it to Invalidenstraße northwest of the bunker, but many of its members were captured by the Russians.
* Group 3, led by Werner Naumann, and is most notable for including Martin Bormann. This group completely missed a turn off Friedrichstraße and walked right into Russian gunfire. Bormann and his companion, Dr. Ludwig Stumpfegger, were almost certainly intoxicated, and apparently committed suicide with cyanide capsules after realizing the group had run into trouble (this was confirmed by the 1972 discovery of their bodies, which was cinched by DNA tests in 1999). Most surviving members of this group were captured by the Russians. Hans Baur, Hitler's pilot, was severely wounded and almost committed suicide. Instead, he was captured, and the Russians put him through many brutal interrogations based on speculation that he might have flown Hitler or Bormann to safety at the last minute.

Misch and Hentschel remained behind in the bunker. Misch left (with Hitler's portrait of Frederick the Great) on the morning of May 2, but was soon captured by the Russians. Hentschel stayed in the bunker, helping some female Russian army officers loot Eva Braun's room around noon before he too was taken by the Russians and flown to Moscow.


* According to Mohnke, Hitler had wanted to survive until May 5 before committing suicide, so that he could symbolically die on the same day as Napoleon Bonaparte, who he admired. However, Mohnke told Hitler that it was unlikely that Berlin could hold out that long. Moreover, Mohnke warned Hitler that May 1, being May Day, was a day of symbolic importance for the Soviets, and that he expected the final Russian push to come then. This remark apparently caused Hitler to choose April 30 as his suicide date, before May Day.
* Even decades after 1945, O'Donnell found that many witnesses retained grudges against each other, and this caused difficulties in trying to create a composite account - he sarcastically remarked that there was no "Bunker Reunion Party" for this reason. One of the main points of contention was actually loyalty to Hitler - even in the 1970s, many of the witnesses still retained some loyalty to him, although some changed their minds in later years. Even individuals who had publicly denounced Hitler retained grudges - Speer remained unhappy at Hitler's valet, Heinz Linge, because he apparently allowed Hitler's clothes to fall into disarray. "All" the bunker survivors were extremely angry at Speer because of his (claimed) contemplation of Hitler's assassination - had Speer introduced nerve gas into the bunker as he claimed to have considered, he would have ended up killing everyone else in the bunker as well.
* None of Hitler's secretaries married or re-married after Hitler's death. Junge, a widow by 1945, never re-married. Christian, who was married at the time, actually divorced her husband because he escaped Berlin, and she remained with Hitler (she subsequently never remarried). Wolf also remained single. The only secretary to get married was Krueger, who worked for Bormann, not Hitler (ironically, according to the other secretaries, Krueger was Bormann's mistress; she later married her British interrogation officer). O'Donnell, noticing this pattern, somewhat cruelly suggested that "Sigmund Freud" might have something to say about this, but didn't go into a psychological explanation himself.
* In the movie version of "The Bunker", the escape itself is not shown, but Mohnke is shown with a map of Berlin, on which he has traced a red line to mark a planned escape. This map is a duplicate of the one O'Donnell included in his book and, ironically, does not represent Mohnke's planned escape route, but rather, the unsuccessful escape route he took.
* Although, in the book, O'Donnell claimed that Rochus Misch ended up with Hitler's portrait of Frederick the Great, he later learned that Hans Baur took it with him (and subsequently lost it when captured by the Russians). Although this mistake was never corrected in the book (even in reprints), it was corrected in the film version.
* In the book, O'Donnell takes a highly dramaturgical approach to the events, suggesting several times that a playwright such as Bertolt Brecht might be better suited to tell the story than a historian or journalist. He also, at various points, goes off on tangents, such as quoting the Roman historian Tacitus and comparing the Roman court with the "Hitler court." Within the movie, Nicholaus von Below becomes O'Donnell's mouthpiece in this area.
* Despite trying to retain objectivity, O'Donnell admitted in the book that, at times, he had difficulty putting up with the people he interviewed, as well as other writers who disagreed with him. He especially expressed frustration when interviewing several of Hitler's secretaries who, at the time of his reporting, retained admiration for Hitler, and who were constantly telling him to let "history be the judge" of his actions. He also got into an argument with Hannah Arendt and takes a swipe at her theory of the banality of evil, although he never directly names Arendt. He also attacks Holocaust denier David Irving during a section when he documented the burning of numerous documents in the bunker before Hitler's death. In response to Irving's claims that no documentation exists that explicitly records Hitler ordering genocide, he sarcastically remarked that "a man capable of burning millions of innocent people was more than capable of burning a few documents."
* One unusual variance in accounts of Hitler's suicide involve Magda Goebbels - a few people who were present at Hitler's study claimed she interrupted his and Braun's solitude, only to be brushed off. However, all the other witnesses present at the scene reported that Magda was not present at all. The variance was unusual because, as O'Donnell noted, it is unlikely that people standing in the same room would have failed to see that. He concluded that this scene was added by individuals who were trying to make Magda look better, as it implies that, a day before she killed her children, she was still trying to make Hitler change his mind and leave Berlin (unlike "The Bunker", the movie "Der Untergang" included this scene, despite its historical dubiousness).

ee also

*List of Adolf Hitler books


* O'Donnell, James (1978). "The Bunker". New York: Da Capo Press (2001 reprint). ISBN 0-306-80958-3.

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