‘Satan’s Grotto’ was the caption to the picture of Saddam Hussein’s hidey-hole on the front page of the Sun the day after the ex-dictator was captured by American forces. Numerous cartoonists around the world played variations on the theme of George Bush confusing Saddam with Santa, though none implied the President was disappointed when the captive’s beard was shaved off and his identity confirmed. It must certainly have seemed to some people as if Christmas had come early. Too early, perhaps. Madeleine Albright may have had this in mind when she said in the Fox News green room last month: ‘Do you suppose that the Bush Administration has Osama bin Laden hidden away somewhere and will bring him out before the election?’ She claims that she was joking; Fox journalist Mort Kondracke, however, thinks she can’t have been because ‘she was not smiling’: I hope nobody gave him a Jack Benny video for Christmas.

DEBKAfile, a website produced by former Israeli army officers whose slogan is ‘We start where the media stop,’ ran a story on 14 December proposing that Saddam had already been taken captive by the time the US soldiers found him. They point out that there was only one way into the hole, and that it was blocked: Saddam ‘could not have climbed out without someone on the outside removing the covering’. Also, he had ‘no communications equipment of any kind’. DEBKA suggest that Saddam was ‘seized, possibly with the connivance of his own men’, on 16 November, after his last audio-taped message was broadcast on al-Arabiya TV. While his beard grew (very fast), ‘his captors bargained for the $25 million prize.’ It’s not impossible.

Whether he was a prisoner or a fugitive, Saddam’s burrow had little in common with its most famous predecessor. Inside Hitler’s Bunker: The Last Days of the Third Reich, Joachim Fest’s gripping account of the fall of Berlin first published in Germany in 2002 as Der Untergang: Hitler und das Ende des Dritten Reiches, will appear in English translation in the spring (Farrar, Straus, $21). Saddam lurked in a ‘spiderhole’ not much bigger than a grave and had to make do with Mars bars; Hitler roamed about his nether kingdom, gorging himself on chocolate cake. According to one of his secretaries, Hitler’s ‘craving for cake had become pathological. Before, he used to eat three pieces of cake at most, but now he had them fill his plate three times.’ He also became increasingly attached to his dogs, a German shepherd bitch and her five puppies, which lived in one of the bunker’s bathrooms. Ever more dissociated from the outside world, he continued to issue impossible orders to armies that no longer existed, and had officers appointed, sacked and executed as the whim took him.

Within hours of Hitler’s suicide, General Hans Krebs set out to pay a visit to General Vasily Chuikov, the Soviet commander. He arrived shortly before 4 a.m. on 1 May 1945, taking Chuikov by surprise. With the Russian general were the writer Vsevolod Vishnevsky, the poet Evgeny Dolmatovsky and the composer Matvei Blanter. Vishnevksy and Dolmatovksy were in uniform, and pretended to be members of Chuikov’s war council. As Blanter didn’t have a uniform, he was made to hide in a cupboard and keep quiet. Krebs informed Chuikov that Hitler and his wife had killed themselves in his bunker. Chuikov, who wasn’t even aware that there was a bunker under the Reich Chancellery or that Hitler was married, calmly said that he already knew. He wasn’t prepared to negotiate: it was unconditional surrender or nothing. A few hours into the meeting, which went on into the afternoon, Blanter tumbled noisily out of the closet, unconscious. He was lifted from the floor and carried into another room without a word of explanation to Krebs.

Among the first Red Army soldiers to penetrate the bunker on 2 May were a dozen women from a medical unit, who wanted to help themselves to some of Eva Braun’s clothes. Saddam Hussein’s wives, unlike Frau Hitler, have managed to avoid sharing their husband’s fate. Indeed, at least two of them are being variously blamed in some quarters for leading the US troops to his trapdoor. There are reports that Mossad put Samira Shahbandar, Saddam’s second, favourite wife, under surveillance after she escaped to Beirut, and were able to trace him through their marital telephone conversations. Apparently, the first time she was heard to laugh was when she was told of the deaths of Uday and Qusay, Saddam’s sons by his first wife, Sajida – who is said to be said by unnamed Iraqi exiles to have betrayed her husband to the Americans out of jealousy of Samira. Then again, maybe the captive bin Laden let the cat out of the bag. It’s not impossible.

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