“The streets are deserted. There are no more streets. Just torn-up ditches filled with rubble between rows of ruins.”
Okay, so a book about the second world war was always going to be at least a little depressing. But, Hitler’s Last Day: Minute by Minute manages to strike an excellent balance in a lot of ways, while satisfyingly challenging our expectations. Perhaps the title misleads us, as this book really isn’t about Adolf Hitler at all; this is a book about humans, and how they cope in a distinctly human catastrophe. Jonathan Mayo and Emma Craigie have successfully and fairly juggled a wide range of historical personalities, and most importantly have done so in an entertaining and accessible way.
Hitler’s Last Day sits alongside other chapters in the Minute by Minute series, including other historical events such as the assassination of JFK and the D-Day landings, and, like such moments, emphasises this brief period of time as a significant historical flashpoint. Events deep below the Reich Chancellory in the Führerbunker are far from the whole story, as the book spreads its historical wings to take in events in the rest of Europe, America, Russia to name a few. In the introduction, we’re treated to a whistle-stop tour from Hitler as a young, failed artist to military leader on the cusp of defeat. Then, the rest of the book is dominated by what takes place on both the 29th and 30th April 1945 (when Hitler carks it).
From 1944, soldiers and civilians began recording their memoirs as the end of the war loomed, and it’s these memoirs that form the bulk of the book. This encompasses a significant number of people and stories, and the book strikes a remarkable balance that is the work’s key triumph. Churchill’s telegram dictations are recorded next to the struggles of the average soldier and the desperate circumstances facing those starving in concentration camps. National stereotypes and pre-conceived historical notions are challenged: the Russians are not simply indiscriminate rapers and pillagers in the same way that the Americans are not all made up of brave and benevolent heroes. HLD breaks down national and class boundaries between those it features in what feels like a representation of events that is fairer than many out there.
Getting to grips with such a vast array of people can be tricky, an issue that Mayo and Craigie have almost avoided. New figures are slowly drip-fed to us so as not to be overwhelming, and when some are revisited, we normally get a brief reminder of what has recently happened to them. We are also handily given an extensive ‘Cast of Characters’ at the beginning, but this risks posing its history as a story, or even a drama, that in many ways lessens the emotional punch of some of the more moving sections. The state of the concentration and POW camps, alongside the terrible and inevitable fate of the Goebbels children are written simply and beautifully, but posing these events as a ‘story’ made up of ‘characters’ almost takes the true horror away from us.
This isn’t the only problem the book suffers from however, and despite the balance Mayo and Craigie have achieved, the sheer amount of people included in the work can still be troublesome. The stories of individuals are not always separate, and the book can jump around at an alarming rate, so you might at times feel a little at sea. Also, too often we get introduced to someone new, only to get their contextual information a few paragraphs after, which can feel jarring.
“Hitler shuffles along the corridor to the telephone switchboard. He pauses in the doorway. Misch stands up, awaiting orders, but there are none.”
Even though the book promises to be all about Hitler, the reality is anything but. What we do get on the withering, defeated Austrian dictator isn’t particularly surprising or interesting, and apart from satisfying a brief curiosity about Hitler’s last moments, it quickly become clear that this book is about the global impact stemming from the events playing themselves out in his dank refuge. The book is full of fragments of stories and snapshots, consistently stressing that the death of one man can have seismic implications on the lives and minds of millions of people in every moment.
Hitler’s Last Day: Minute by Minute is a book obsessively focused on humans and humanity. Few details are spared even on the lives of a simple German farmer in comparison to what was taking place behind the doors of the Kremlin. Boundaries of class and nationality are refreshingly transcended in a book that works hard to document and feature the lives of all sorts of people. This is not a book about Hitler, but about the humans he affected in impossibly different ways. If we look past some unwise design decisions and practical issues arising from the large list of people featured, then we can find a book written accessibly and balanced expertly on a knife-edge. This is a work that’ll surprise you in precisely the same way that it’ll delight you.