The Death of Hitler: The Final Word
by Jean-Christophe Brisard & Lana Parshina
Hodder & Stoughton, 2018
On 30 April 1945 at around 3 in the afternoon, German dictator Adolf Hitler and his new bride Eva Braun said their farewells to staff members in the bunker underneath the Reichs Chancellery in Berlin, retired to Hitler’s private dining room, closed the door, and killed themselves in order to avoid being captured alive by Russian forces who were even at that moment overrunning the city. Braun swallowed cyanide, as did Hitler, who also shot himself in the head. Aides and staff members who’d been waiting outside the room entered moments later and found the couple dead, Hitler still bleeding, the cyanide’s distinctive burnt-almond smell still easily detectable in the air. In accordance with Hitler’s wishes, the bodies were carried upstairs to the Chancellery garden, dropped into a shallow shell-crater, doused in gasoline, and burned while Russian mortar fire continued to blast the building all around the small group of faithful retainers who watched the flames and gave one final salute.
Not one single element of this sequence is in any serious factual doubt. Records attest that Hitler had questioned his doctor about cyanide as a means of suicide. Every one of the aides and staff members in the bunker on 30 April provided careful, consistent testimony. Invading Russian forces found the badly burned remains once they took the Chancellery.
It’s true that nobody saw Hitler shoot himself. It’s true that either nobody in the bunker took photos of the dead couple of none of those photos survive. It’s true that the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun were so badly burned that they weren’t recognizable. But the chain of events is not in question.
Enter Stalin, who almost immediately began lying about the fate of Germany’s dictator. And the Soviet bureaucratic apparatus swang into step behind his lead, and the process took on a life of its own. The insinuations of illicit treasures under lock and key at the State Archives of the Russian Federation, Gosudartstennyy Arkhiv Rossyskov Federatsii (GARF) became a currency on their own. Deep in GARF’s files were macabre trinkets, relics like dirty skull fragments and charred dentures, whose existence was dangled before an entire generation of credulous conspiracy theorists.
For nearly 25 years, GARF was overseen by a man named Sergeii Mironenko, who was always happy to be bribed by such people, wined and dined in Moscow in the hopes that he would produce one of these grubby little Holy Grails. Mironenko had a favorite motto, as deeply, mordantly ironic as only Russian mottos could be: “Fewer commentaries, more documents. The documents speak for themselves.”
Documentarians Jean-Christophe Brisard and Lana Parshina characterize Mironenko as “friend to many foreign historians and advocate of almost free access to hundreds of thousands of historical pieces of his institution.”
Key word: almost. You produce your credentials; you wait through ten or twenty rounds of long-distance phone calls; you waste money on flights and hotel rooms and more waiting with various GARF officials at various levels; you do your best to charm Mironenko over a series of expense-account meals; and eventually, if you’re lucky, you’re admitted into some dingy State Archive building and, with a carefully stoic and melodramatic flourish, you’re presented with a small box containing a palm-sized piece of bone, or a half-burned piece of leg-brace.
And that’s it. No forensics that aren’t laughable (the skull with the very dramatic bullet-hole in it is genetically tested to be that of a woman in her forties), no chains of evidence, and no provenance that doesn’t derive ultimately from the lies of Josef Stalin and the ramshackle lootings of Soviet footsoldiers.
It presents writers like Brisard and Parshina with a dilemma, and documentarians know how to approach that dilemma better than most people: make the search the story. Hence, The Death of Hitler: The Final Word, which is full of hysterically atmospheric passages in which our daring duo encounter the chilly disdain of Boris-and-Natasha-style Russian officials who grudgingly present them with the grotesque little knick-knacks in their possession:
Lined up in front of me are twenty-four teeth fixed to blackened bone tissue. Most of them false or covered with implants and gold bridges. I can only make out a few natural teeth, perhaps three or four. The others are made of either porcelain or metal. The man, or woman, to whom they belonged, had absolutely terrible teeth. “That’s the proof that you were looking for.” Arms crossed, and her expression still just as severe as before, my demonstrator for today at last decides to address me in English. I am bold enough to ask her for confirmation: “Are these Hitler’s teeth?” The “da” which is all I receive by way of answer is supposed to satisfy me. It doesn’t.
No, it mustn’t, must it? And to their credit, some kind of credit, some adjunct sideways kind of credit, our authors make their own story of taking on the State Archives very dramatic, zippy reading, full of heroes and villains, full of dramatic twists and turns, full of charged dialogue in low-ceilinged rooms, full of Russian femmes fatale with steely eyes and crossed arms, sternly guarding their 80-year-old shards of ghoulish junk. None of the tense convulsions of The Death of Hitler unsettles or overturns even the smallest detail of the story of Hitler’s final days, but the book tells its own story with all the zest of revelation. It doesn’t actually provide any revelations, but it prowls over all the old evidence with an eager stage-setting that readers will find entertaining, provided they keep their skepticism ready to hand.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.