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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

“Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich”, by Joachim Fest, translated by Margot Bettauer Dembo

208 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, ISBN-13: 978-0374135775

Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich by Joachim Fest is a brief (perhaps too brief) account of the end of the Third Reich and Hitler’s pathetic last days – that is, from April 16th 1945, the opening of the Soviet offensive against Berlin, to May 2nd 1945, when General Helmuth Weidling capitulated, along with a brief nod to the general surrender on May 8 – hidden away underground in his bunker with a few, equally pathetic lickspittles. While mostly a straight-forward history of this real-life Götterdämmerung (the prophesied war among various Norse gods and other creatures), it also features a series of digressions from the immediate plot in order to ponder bigger issues looming in the background of this human catastrophe, such as: When Hitler put the pistol to his head in his final personal act, did he consider himself and his life a failure? At first glance, this seems a rather odd question to ask about a political leader who had raised his country from defeat, disgrace, and debilitation in 1918 to become master of Europe by 1942, only to find himself just three years later huddled 35 feet below the surface of an earth that had been transformed into a barren landscape of rubble and destruction (and not just by his enemies, but by his own orders as well). As one can well imagine, as perhaps Germany’s most distinguished historian of Hitler and the Third Reich, Fest has some interesting things to say in answer to this ostensibly quirky question. Or how about this: Does the phenomenon of Hitler represent consistency in German history, or divergent catastrophe? This is a quite relevant question as, depending upon one’s point of view, the cataclysm culminating in April 1945 was (or was not) an inevitable, perhaps even foreseeable event, in German history. Once again, it is Fest’s experience of a lifetime spent studying the Third Reich, his German background, his age (he was 18 when the events in this book transpired), his professional connection with some of the protagonists (e.g., Albert Speer), which all make his thoughts on this question, on German history, culture, and national character,  of singular interest. While it is impossible to agree with everything anyone says, all of Fest’s answers are reasoned and well-thought out, and therefore worth reading and thinking about. At the end of Inside Hitler’s Bunker one might be left wishing for more, but in a sense the book can thus be viewed as a mere summary of a particular position on the relationship of Hitler to Germans and Germany. In that sense, it’s well worth your time.

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