Adolf Hitler in WWII: The Last 6 Years of His Life

The Second World War represented the last six years of Adolf Hitler’s life, from stunning success to ignominious defeat.

May 14, 2024By Greg Beyer, Assistant Editor; African History

hitler wwii last years life


The six years of World War II were the last years of Adolf Hitler’s life. For the Nazis, these years were characterized by zealous belief in their Führer. He had led Germany to a position of incredible military might and economic power, and like their leader, they believed the world would fall before them.


These were years of highs born out of sweeping military victories, which turned into grueling stalemates, fear, and defeat, eventually culminating in the complete destruction of the Third Reich. All the while, behind the front lines, misery reigned for the enemies of the Reich. All of this was mirrored in Adolf Hitler as he descended into a madness worsened by drugs and detachment from reality.


These were the years Adolf Hitler changed the world forever.


The War Begins

adolf hitler portrait
Portrait of Adolf Hitler. Source: Gettysburg Museum of History


Several historians, such as William Carr, Ian Kershaw, and Gerhard Weinberg, have argued that Hitler had a fear of an early death, and this fear led him into war sooner than was necessary for Germany to be fully prepared. It is argued that Hitler wanted complete victory before he was too old and feared his successors would lack the fortitude to complete the task of European conquest.

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And so, on September 1, 1939, Hitler started the greatest conflict in world history by invading Poland. One of his major concerns was having to fight the United Kingdom. He did not wish to have Britain as an enemy, as he saw the English as fellow Aryans. But Britain had guaranteed Polish independence and was honor-bound to declare war on Germany. For Hitler, obliterating Poland was of greater concern. It needed to be done to secure Germany’s eastern flank and gain Lebensraum in the east.


hitler in warsaw
Hitler in Warsaw in October 1939. Source: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe (Polish National Digital Archive)


The German foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, had assured Hitler that neither Britain nor France would honor their agreement with Poland, so when both countries declared war on Germany, Hitler was notably displeased with his foreign minister. Despite the development, neither of the countries was in a position to immediately attack Germany with any serious force, so Germany had free reign to concentrate eastwards.


As per the plan, the Soviet Union also invaded Poland from the east, and the Germans and the Soviets met at Brest-Litovsk, splitting Poland between them. On the German side, ethnic cleansing began almost immediately. Hitler had given the Gauleiters (regional leaders) free reign to govern as they saw fit. Hitler was fully aware of the ethnic cleansing being committed, but it did not concern him in any way. These actions certainly had the support of Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Schutzstaffel, who would become the main architect of the Holocaust. From the very beginning of the war, efforts were made to cleanse German lands of everybody they saw as being Untermenschen – the Nazi word used to describe Slavs and Jews.


execution of poles 1939
Poles being executed in September 1939, photograph by Włodzimierz Jastrzębski. Source: Interpress, Warszawa 1974 via Wikimedia


At this time, there was no consensus as to what to do with the Jewish populations in conquered territories. Heinrich Himmler sent a memo to Hitler in 1940 suggesting that they be expelled to Africa and used as slave labor. Hitler supported this idea, as he wanted the Reich to be a land inhabited only by racially pure Aryans. His ideas of what constituted Aryan people included Scandinavians, Dutch, Flemish, and anyone with pure Germanic descent.


On April 9, Hitler invaded Denmark and Norway. Sweden had declared neutrality and was of little significant strategic value, so Hitler felt it unnecessary to focus his attention there – at least not yet. The Danish were completely overwhelmed, and the country was conquered in just six hours. Norway, of course, was a logistical challenge of many orders of magnitude greater than Denmark, but being completely outnumbered and outgunned, Norway capitulated after fighting for two months.


german paratroopers 1940 netherlands
German paratroopers in the Netherlands, 1940. Source: Public Domain


These stunning victories had to be followed by a victory against a militarily significant country. Germany’s old enemy, France, was vaunted as having the most powerful military in Europe. In May 1940, Germany launched its invasion of France and the Low Countries (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg). Within six weeks, France was completely defeated despite having superior equipment. The German tactics proved highly effective and fed Hitler’s belief in Aryan superiority.


This was arguably one of Hitler’s happiest moments during the war. He shamed the French by forcing them to sign the surrender in the same train carriage in which Germany was forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Versailles in 1918, which ended the First World War.


Tough Resistance

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German soldiers on the Greek island of Crete. Source: Great War Photo Archive


Riding on a high from their unprecedented victories, the Germans launched air raids against Britain, hoping to wear down the Royal Air Force (RAF) in preparation for Operation Sea Lion – the invasion of the United Kingdom. By the end of October 1940, the Luftwaffe had taken significant losses, and the RAF remained intact, with Britain able to produce aircraft and train pilots faster than it was losing them.


Britain had stood alone at this juncture as the only significant military power against the Reich and had broken the myth of German superiority and invincibility. The Germans, however, had yet to be beaten in any major sense on the ground, and Hitler’s optimism remained, especially as the Axis was born, with Japan and Italy joining Germany’s political effort.


In early 1941, the Balkans fell easily to the Germans, and the North African campaign was underway. Greece proved to be a tough campaign. Difficult terrain and Greek resolve took a toll on the Italian and German forces. The invasion of Crete, although a victory for the Germans, was also a brutal campaign, with losses high enough for Hitler to forbid the use of paratroopers for the rest of the war.


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Adolf Hitler and Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch during the early days of Operation Barbarossa. Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons


Nevertheless, the damage to the German war machine was negligible. All of Hitler’s thoughts were focused on the invasion of the Soviet Union. Throughout the entire war, this is where the vast majority of German military might would be concentrated, as the Soviet Union was, by far, the biggest threat to Germany. Around 3.8 million German soldiers were amassed along the border with the Soviet Union, constituting the largest invasion force in the entirety of human history.


adolf hitler truppenschau
Hitler. Source: public domain via Store Norske Leksikon


On June 22, 1941, the invasion began. War between the two superpowers was inevitable, and Stalin was aware of Hitler’s plans, but he lacked concrete evidence of when it would happen. He hoped to delay the invasion by several years, but the Soviet Military could not keep up with the German buildup. Stalin’s purge of the officer class meant that there were significant problems in the Soviet military that included logistics and supply, communication, and coordination.


The start of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, was a huge success for the Germans. Caught in a storm of lightning-fast German advances, entire Soviet armies were encircled and taken captive. Stalin was utterly distraught. He shut himself in his room for several days and refused to address the Soviet people.


hitler in 1943
Hitler and his generals in 1943. Source: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe (Polish National Digital Archive)


Vital to the success of Barbarossa was the capture of Moscow. Hitler believed that to defeat the Soviets, a quick victory was necessary to prevent them from being able to organize their massive resources into a counteroffensive. So when Winter arrived, and the cities of Moscow and Leningrad remained in Soviet hands, it became clear that Operation Barbarossa was failing to meet its objectives.


During the advance into the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht was followed by Einsatzgruppen (paramilitary death squads), which brutally cleansed the land of Slavs and Jews, committing the greatest genocide in history. Hitler did not care how it was done. He had marked everything east of the Ural Mountains to be ethnically cleansed.


An Important Turning Point

soviet poster 1944
Близок час расплаты с немцами за все их злодеяния! Смерть фашистам – детоубийцам! “The hour of reckoning with the Germans for all their atrocities is near! Death to the fascists – child killers!” Source: Soviet Political Posters, The Sergo Grigorian Collection


The mid-war years of 1942 and 1943 saw huge shifts in power dynamics as both the Western Allies and the Soviet Union began to see victories in all theaters of the war. In North Africa, the Second Battle of El Alamein (October 23 – November 11, 1942) was a decisive victory for the British and their commonwealth allies against the German and Italian forces.


Germany began to suffer fuel shortages as the Allies went on the offensive and started bombing critical infrastructure in Germany.


Developments in the Soviet Union, however, were the most critical for Germany. That is where the vast majority of the German military might lay, and it’s there that it was crushed. The Battle of Stalingrad (August 23, 1942 – February 2, 1943) was the turning point of the war. Over one million people died in what is regarded as arguably the biggest battle in history.


Meanwhile, in the Pacific Theater, the United States had won a massive victory against the Japanese fleet at Midway, signaling a turning point for the war in the east.


Around this time, Hitler’s sporadic use of methamphetamines prescribed by his doctor, Theodor Morell, evolved into a full-blown addiction, causing the Führer to behave erratically and make poor calls in judgment. His condition worsened as time passed, and his decisions became less and less based on reality. He would brook no corrections from his generals, and those who opposed his poor strategic decisions were dismissed.


To make matters worse, the last-ditch effort to regain the initiative on the Eastern Front was a disaster. The Battle of Kursk solidified Soviet supremacy and forced Germany onto the defensive for the rest of the war.


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Hitler in 1944 with Benito Mussolini (far left). Source: Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe (Polish National Digital Archive)


As Germany’s fortunes faded, so did the sanity and health of Adolf Hitler. Along with his addiction to drugs, there is strong evidence to suggest he had Parkinson’s. He developed a constant tremor in his left hand, and he began to hold himself in a hunched position. As the symptoms worsened, they became difficult to hide, and as the noose closed around Germany, it became clear to the General Staff that Hitler and the Third Reich were facing the end.


In October 1943, Mussolini was ousted in Italy, and Germany lost its principal ally to the south.


By mid-1944, the writing was on the wall. The Western Allies breached the German defenses in Europe and established bridgeheads in Normandy and Italy, while the Soviets liberated vast swathes of territory, pushing all the way to Warsaw by the end of August.


On July 20, there was an attempt on Hitler’s life in a conspiracy that included many top-ranking Nazi officials, including Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, one of Hitler’s top generals. The attempt happened at Hitler’s headquarters, The Wolf’s Lair, on the Eastern Front in what is now Poland. After a briefcase bomb detonated during a meeting, Hitler escaped with only minor injuries in a blast that claimed the lives of four people. Nevertheless, the injuries were severe enough to be a further drain on his already failing health.


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Adolf Hitler posing for a photograph at his Berghof Mansion. Source: Creative Commons / Wikimedia


At this point, the rate of genocide increased as the Nazis implemented their “Final Solution” against the Jewish population of Europe. In addition to the roughly 70 million people killed in the Second World War, the Holocaust would add another 6 million to that figure. The genocide was committed on an industrial scale and streamlined to make it as efficient as possible.


As the Spring showers petered out and the ground hardened, the Allies launched their final major offensive. In March, the Western Allies began their assault on Germany, while the Soviets launched their final campaign in mid-April. The Soviet campaign lasted barely three weeks before German resistance completely disintegrated.


During this time, Hitler and many of his aides and top Nazi Officials retreated to Hitler’s bunker near the Reich Chancellery. Hitler was stricken with madness, screaming at his generals, blaming the German people for having failed him, and ordering non-existent armies around.


Hitler’s Death

time magazine cover
Time Magazine, May 7, 1945. Source: Time


At midnight of April 28-29, Hitler married Eva Braun, his fiancée who had stuck with him through his entire reign, and the following day, they both committed suicide. It was debated for many decades how Hitler killed himself, with the West believing that he shot himself, while the Soviets claimed he took poison. It is likely he did both. After testing a cyanide capsule on his German Shepherd, Blondie, he retired to his couch, bit down on a cyanide capsule, pointed a gun at his head, and pulled the trigger. Eva took poison.


The body was taken outside and burnt, according to his wishes.


Less than two days later, the Soviets broke into the bunker. By May 8, the war in Europe was over.


When Hitler committed suicide, he ended the bloodiest period in human history. He was defeated by madness, overconfidence, sociopathic desires, medical conditions, addiction, and the combined power of the Allied armies.


Hitler’s bloody legacy will live on forever as a lesson to all humankind.

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By Greg BeyerAssistant Editor; African HistoryGreg is an editor specializing in African history, he has authored over 200 articles. A former English teacher with a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town, he excels in academic writing and finds artistic expression through drawing and painting in his free time.