On April 30, 1945, with the armies of the Soviets mere tens of meters away from the Reich Chancellery where his bunker was located, Adolf Hitler committed suicide. For six long years his actions plunged the world into its darkest hour, in a conflict that would see the death of almost 80 million people.
For the Nazis, he was a beloved leader of almost mythical stature, a divine instrument sent to guide Germany into a new age. For his enemies, he was a caricature of evil and a hated villain.
As reports of his death reached the ears and eyes of the world, they generated a host of different reactions.
Little more than a week later, Germany surrendered, which in turn generated fear and uncertainty on one side, and jubilation on the other.
Reactions to Hitler’s Death: Japan
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As Germany’s principal ally in the East, there was a mutual interest and an overlap in social ideologies between Germany and Japan. Of great importance to the Japanese ideological system in place at the time was the idea of fighting to the death. The Germans promulgated this idea in themselves during the Nazi era as well. Hitler ordered his soldiers to fight and die rather than surrender, and this was certainly the real case in many situations, especially among members of the Waffen-SS – the armed wing of the Nazi Party – who were particularly fervent in their ideas of death before dishonor.
On December 11, 1941, Italy, Germany, and Japan signed a “no surrender” agreement. The extent to which each country was willing to enforce this is debatable. Although it was signed mainly for propaganda reasons, Hitler certainly was willing to stick to the letter of its contents, even if the upper echelons of the Nazi government decided otherwise. For the Japanese, the strong cultural belief in dying rather than surrendering was extremely prevalent in the Japanese government.
The Japanese, naturally, were disappointed to hear of Hitler’s death. They were more concerned, however, over how Germany would react. After the collapse of the fascist regime in Italy, Italian fascists formed a rump state and continued to fight on, and the Japanese hoped that Germany would do the same.
So when Germany surrendered on May 8, the Japanese were greatly angered. They issued a formal protest to the German embassy in Tokyo, and put its ambassadors under house arrest which lasted until September when US troops arrived, and Japan had surrendered.
The Soviet people suffered more losses than any other country during the Second World War. Around 27 million Soviet citizens died. A quarter of the entire Soviet population was either killed or wounded during the conflict.
So when news of Adolf Hitler’s death reached the Soviet people, they were expectedly jubilant. No country had more reason to celebrate.
On April 30, mere hours after Hitler shot himself, Chief of the German Army General Staff, Hans Krebs, informed the Soviet general Vasily Chuikov of the Führer’s demise. Chuikov then informed Russian Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov who telephoned the dacha where Josef Stalin was staying. Historian Antony Beevor relates in his bestselling book Berlin the conversation that happened between Zhukov and Stalin that night.
Stalin was asleep at the time, and Zhukov insisted that he be woken, as the news was of utmost importance. The Russian leader’s reaction was calm and surprisingly emotionless.
“Pity we couldn’t take him alive. Where’s Hitler’s corpse?” Stalin asked. Zhukov replied that Krebs had informed him the body had been burned.
Stalin then ordered, “Tell Sokolovsky no negotiations except for unconditional capitulation, with either Krebs or any others of Hitler’s lot. And don’t ring me until the morning if there is nothing urgent. I want to have some rest before the parade.”
The parade he was talking about was the Workers Day Parade. For the time being, the news would be kept a secret, at least until further evidence could be provided. Stalin was skeptical of reports of Hitler’s death.
On May 2, the Soviets captured the Reich Chancellery, and along with it, what remained of Hitler’s burnt corpse. As a result, the Soviets could control the narrative on how Hitler died, and for decades, the Soviet people were led to believe that Hitler had committed suicide by poison – seen as a more cowardly way of dying than by shooting oneself.
The Soviet people, as expected, were jubilant to hear of Hitler’s death. He was, after all, the engineer of the deaths of 27 million Soviet people, a statistic which can be considered the biggest genocide in history.
News of Hitler’s death started spreading very shortly after he had taken his life. Word spread like wildfire through the bunker, and up into the streets and shelters where German soldiers and civilians took refuge from the Soviet onslaught. Random gunshots echoed in intermittent intervals as people, especially officers with a bleak future in the hands of the Soviets, took their lives. Many of them did so immediately upon hearing the news.
For those in denial, believing that somehow, a miraculous event would lead Germany to final victory, the news came as a shock. To others who could plainly see the writing on the wall, the news was met with a mixture of relief, fear, hopelessness, and defeat.
It is important to note that at this point, the Germans were not completely aware of the extent of Hitler’s crimes, and as such, did not view him with the same revulsion as they would come to have in the following weeks and months. As footage was broadcast, and campaigns to shame the Germans came to light and fruition, the general German mindset was that of overwhelming guilt, and there could be no option other than to be thankful that Hitler was dead.
Leadership of the Reich passed to Admiral Karl Dönitz, but he did not surrender immediately. He continued fighting for an entire week after Hitler’s death. Despite the casualties incurred in the last stand of the German forces, this decision allowed 1.8 million Germans to flee westwards to escape being under Soviet occupation. Considering what the Germans had done to the Soviets, it was a pragmatic decision to save as many Germans as possible from Soviet revenge. They knew the Western Allies would treat them better.
The Western Allies
Expectedly, the reaction to Hitler’s death in Britain and the United States (as the principal Western Allies still fighting the war), was one of jubilation among the general populace. It wasn’t, however, a big surprise. The media kept up to date with what was happening, and the public was well informed of the proximity of the complete German defeat. So when it was announced that Hitler was dead, some newspapers reported the story in a very calm and unsurprised way, similar to the reaction of what they were reporting.
The New York Times noted the event in the UK’s House of Commons. The edition reported, “there was an almost complete lack of excitement here. Those who believed the report seemed to accept it as a matter of course that Hitler would die. There was no official reaction.” Of course, this may have been simply a report on the stereotypical British reservedness.
The reason for this lack of initial excitement may have been the timing. The reports of Hitler’s death reached the newspapers in the early hours of the morning, as the papers were going to print. By the time the papers were going to print in the United States, however, the media felt more confident in making much bolder statements and headlines in their reports.
Wariness over the veracity of the news turned to jubilation as the reports were verified. The real party, however, wasn’t because of Hitlers’s death. A week later, the war ended, and parades marched through the streets of major cities as people celebrated an end to the years of fighting.
Hitler’s death was not a turning point in the war. It was already decided when the Germans failed at Stalingrad and Kursk. Hitler’s death was, however, a turning point in human history. It marked the end of an era of war and genocide on a scale that humanity had never known.
As news of what had happened to the Jews came out, the hatred for Hitler only grew. Apart from small fringe elements in human society, Hitler’s death is regarded by all humanity as a good thing.