Those who knew him well described Adolf Hitler as inexplicably mesmerizing. There remains but a single eleven-minute recording of Hitler engaged in normal conversation. Scads of his speeches are available, but then he was always in theatrical mode. His conversational voice, even for a guy like me who doesn’t speak German, is frankly unsettling. It’s like listening to the Devil.
Hitler was not a terribly imposing man physically. He stood five foot nine and was said to have a clammy handshake. He purportedly had difficulty with small talk and was awkward one-on-one. He was most at home working a crowd.
Hitler suffered from meteorism (uncontrollable farting) resulting from a genetic predilection combined with a vegan diet. The condition purportedly worsened when he got agitated. Perhaps that’s why all those old Nazis standing around him in period photos look so grim all the time.
How Could This Happen?
Way smarter folk than I have exhaustively analyzed most every moment of Hitler’s life from his humble beginning in Austria in 1889 all the way up to his gory demise at age 56 in 1945. We are drawn out of morbid fascination. It’s like watching a train wreck. It’s tough to turn away.
It is not surprising that an isolated aberrant personality could commit some egregious crime. Prisons are brimming with folks who are just not wired correctly. The extraordinary thing about Hitler’s Nazis, however, was that they did those horrible things en masse. There were certainly voices that spoke out against the Final Solution and Hitler’s plan for world domination, but most period Germans just went along with it.
I once read some fascinating commentary penned by a Jewish author that postulated that the German people under the Nazis were not unique or even unusual. As individuals, they were stratified along the spectrum of good and evil just like any other developed culture. What drove them to do what they did was their unique circumstances catalyzed by Hitler’s diabolical leadership.
This author posited that every society has its death camp guards. There is the college professor who holds your future in his hands and revels in that power. The police officer who pathologically enjoys deciding who goes to jail and who walks is another.
In a normal culture, these people live fruitful lives and retire with the heartfelt gratitude of the people they served. However, put these same personalities in the sort of dysfunctional world that birthed the Nazis and those darker attributes would be more radically expressed. I perused that decades ago and was moved by it.
Setting the Stage
Hitler locked himself in his Fuhrerbunker in Berlin with the world around him in flames. Germany faced total collapse, and Soviet troops were swarming westward. Hitler issued commands to nonexistent armies all the while growing more morose, desperate, and agitated. As the end grew near he wed his mistress Eva Braun in a small civil ceremony attended by his closest aides and prepared to die.
On 28 April 1945, Hitler got word that Benito Mussolini and his mistress Clara Petacci had been killed and their corpses mutilated. Here are the details—
This news unsettled Hitler, and he resolved to choreograph his own demise so as to prevent such ignominy.
Hitler had conferred previously with SS doctor Werner Hasse on the most effective means of committing suicide. Dr. Hasse counseled Hitler to use a combination of cyanide and a self-inflicted gunshot to reliably ensure his timely death.
The Anatomy of a Cyanide Capsule
Hitler tested a cyanide capsule given to him by another SS physician named Ludwig Stumpfegger on his beloved Alsatian Shepherd, Blondi. Despite an intimate relationship with this dog, Der Fuhrer purportedly showed no emotion as he watched his faithful companion die.
Cyanide is a chemical compound containing carbon atoms triple-bonded to nitrogen. Inorganic salts containing these compounds such as sodium cyanide or potassium cyanide are legendarily toxic. Cyanide ions disrupt cellular respiration and prevent cells from utilizing oxygen.
Cyanide ingestion causes shortness of breath, seizures, low blood pressure, and, ultimately, cardiac arrest. Weaponized cyanide of the sort used by Hitler was expected to kill within about three minutes. The British issued rubberized cyanide capsules to the Norwegian commandos who undertook Operation Gunnerside, the successful covert attack on the German heavy water production facility at the Vemork hydroelectric plant in Norway in 1943.
Though I’ve never myself had the pleasure, I am told that hydrogen cyanide gas smells strongly of burnt almonds. It seems fitting that the active ingredient in Zyklon B that the Nazis used in the gas chambers at the death camps was the same compound used to kill Hitler. During the course of the war, they used some 56 tons of the vile stuff.
The Condemned Monster Betrayed
The apex of power attracts sycophants and opportunists. As a result, as the end grew near many of Hitler’s mignons began quietly planning for a world without Der Fuhrer. These little individualized escape plans added to the pervasive chaos of the moment.
Hitler was ultimately betrayed by both Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler. In a rage he had Himmler’s representative at the Fuhrerbunker, Hermann Fegelein, shot for desertion. It didn’t help that Fegelein, who was also Eva Braun’s brother-in-law, was caught intoxicated while wearing civilian clothes and carrying a satchel full of cash from a variety of nationalities.
The Monster’s Guns
Hitler perennially carried a Walther PPK chambered in .25ACP in a holster sewed into his trousers. He also packed a bulkier PP in .32ACP as a service sidearm on his belt. There was additionally an ornate engraved PP pistol with reliable ties to the dictator serendipitously discovered in Munich.
Hitler’s engraved PP was a gift from the Walther Company commemorating his 50th birthday in 1939. Featuring a gold washed finish, ivory grips, and extensive engraved scrollwork, the gun was discovered in a wall safe in Hitler’s Munich apartment by three US GI’s who happened upon the dictator’s dwelling. This unique firearm came to America as war booty after having been pilfered in the latter stages of the war in 1945.
Hitler’s ornate PP last sold at auction in 1987 for $114,000. At the time this was the greatest price ever realized for any piece of military memorabilia. As the buyer was anonymous the whereabouts of this remarkable pistol are unknown today, though rumor has it the gun left the country after the sale.
The Walther PP was first introduced in 1929. This trim little automatic pioneered the use of the Single Action/Double Action trigger system in a concealable autoloading handgun. We have covered the development of the PP and PPK in detail previously.
Hitler Meets his End
What follows is the official version of events in the Fuhrerbunker on 30 April 1945. At 1430 hours Hitler and Eva Braun retreated into his personal study with Soviet troops less than 500 meters away. Braun used a cyanide capsule and died. Hitler bit cyanide and purportedly shot himself in the right temple with the larger of his two Walthers.
Hitler’s Adjutant Sturmbannfuhrer Otto Günsche stated during a post-war interrogation that Hitler “sat … sunken over, with blood dripping out of his right temple. He had shot himself with his own pistol, a Walther PPK 7.65.”
We presume the description of the gun as a PPK to be a translational error. Hitler’s service pistol was recognized as a PP. The gun and an empty cartridge case lay on the floor by the dead dictator’s feet.
Some reports had Hitler shooting himself in the mouth. There have also been allegations that Hitler’s valet Heinz Linge actually did the shooting. Regardless, the bodies were placed in a shell crater in the Reich Chancellery Garden outside the bunker, soaked in some 200 liters of petrol, and burned for more than two hours.
Soviet archives assert that the remains of Hitler and Braun were then sequentially interred in a variety of locations until 1946. They were then purportedly exhumed in 1970, cremated, and the ashes scattered. Hitler’s corpse was positively identified via comparison of his lower jaw to his dental records in 1945.
Details of the autopsy were released by the Soviets in 1968. A team of American odontologists at UCLA used these records to confirm their findings in 1972.
Rumors concerning the death of the fascist dictator have persisted to the present. Stalin claimed Hitler survived the war and fled to South America. In 1944 the US military commissioned artists to create images of Hitler in various disguises to be used in identifying him should he attempt to run.
The two Walthers Hitler had in his possession at the time of his death have subsequently been lost. They could have been taken by rampaging Soviet troops or hidden away by a member of his inner circle present at the end. Either way, there yet remains the possibility that tucked away in a shoebox in the back of a closet someplace rests a couple of truly remarkable pistols.
Special thanks to www.worldwarsupply.com for the cool replica gear used in our photographs.