It is hard to describe an affinity for a war when, like most emotionally balanced people, you dislike war. “Enthusiast” connotes something like cheering and “buff” seems too cavalier, as if millions of deaths were merely a category of your stamp collection. But World War II has always pulled me like gravity. My father served in the Army Air Corps and saw service in France and Germany. I was born 10 years after the war’s end and grew up in the cultural golden age of reflection on it, when the men and women who had fought and endured it reached middle age and were ripe for glory-days harvesting — with movies such as The Longest Day and TV shows such as Twelve O’Clock High and The Rat Patrol. When the 50th anniversary approached, I wrote my own early-middle-age elegy to The War (as most of my generation had referred to it long before Ken Burns started panning its images) for the News & Observer (sorry, paywall).
Then I argued that the half-century mark moved The War from middle distance to background, from living influence to historical artifact. The Soviet Union had dissolved and the postwar division of Europe, so much on the minds of strategists in Washington, London and Moscow 70 years ago this week, no longer concerned us much. This year, survivors of those days occupy the same space in national life that back then had been set aside for Civil War veterans.
So while much of the media focuses on the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War, I’ve been reading Rick Atkinson’s The Guns at Last Light, watching TCM chestnuts such as Night Train to Munich and re-watching episodes of Band of Brothers. Last night I pulled out my worn copy of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s classic The Last Days of Hitler, because 70 years ago today the addled leader offed himself with cyanide and a bullet from a Walther PPK. Nazism’s vestigial limbs twitched for another week or so, but Hitler’s death was the end of the Thousand Year Reich. The collapse is epitomized neatly in this scene from Oliver Hirschbiegel’s excellent Der Untergang, or Downfall, when the lighting of cigarettes follows the fatal gunshot. “The first evidence of the changed atmosphere in the Bunker was noticed by the secretaries,” Trevor-Roper writes. “Everyone, they observed, was smoking in the Bunker. During Hitler’s lifetime that had been absolutely forbidden; but now the headmaster had gone and the boys could break the rules.”
Trevor-Roper was a young intelligence agent sent to immediate postwar Berlin to find out what had happened to Hitler, as rumors of escape persisted. He could not uncover the entire story then, and he got some details wrong — Hitler shot himself in the temple, not in the mouth, for instance. But The Last Days of Hitler remains a valuable resource on its title topic, even as later research and narrative efforts revised and enhanced what Trevor-Roper managed to learn. Downfall was based on the memoirs of Hitler’s personal secretary Traudl Junge, who was among the survivors Trevor-Roper had interviewed. While that excellent film captures the grim despair of the Bunker and the streets above, Trevor-Roper approaches his subject with a mixture of objective analysis and dismissive contempt. The latter he ladles in good measure over the delusion of both Hitler and his surviving henchmen that they might yet wield influence over the Germany they had destroyed with their vile policies and incompetent rule: “Such a hope seems ridiculous to us; but in the fools’ paradise of Nazism nothing seemed ridiculous.”
My own confidence that The War was a noble effort to expunge evil sustains my interest in it. I concede its troubling ironies — that democratic governments compelled citizens to shed their liberties to fight tyranny; that we repressed Americans of African and Japanese descent while fighting those who annihilated Jews and other minorities. But contemplating Hitler’s end renews my faith that The War’s aims were just.
It also arouses my fear that Hitler’s evil may easily be forgotten. That is partly why I created a writing course assignment about an aging Holocaust survivor who demands return of items the Nazis looted from her family — it asks my millennial students to confront those times and to deal with the persistence of evil.
So this is a good day to reflect on what Hitler’s baneful ideals brought about. It is also a good day to resolve that we never again see democracy destroyed by ideologues who hate both the rich and the poor; who scorn intellectuals and minorities; who insist their land is preeminent and privileged; who believe their opponents are not merely wrong but dangerous.