‘Berlin, 30 April 1945 – by 4 p.m. the Führer will be dead.’
‘Tragedy endeavours, as far as possible,’ Aristotle wrote in the Poetics, ‘to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun.’ Fielding in Tom Jones argued that writers weren’t ‘obliged to keep even pace with time’, but would do well to steer clear of ‘monkish dullness’ and focus on ‘matters of consequence’ so as not to ‘resemble a newspaper, which consists of just the same number of words, whether there be any news in it or not’. His view that ‘the detail of months and years in which nothing remarkable happened’ is not worth a novelist’s attention was one of the many assumptions challenged by Joyce and Woolf. Since Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway, the idea of the action of a novel taking place over the course of a single day has become commonplace. Depending on how you look at it, the interminable TV series 24 either took the notion to its logical extreme or spectacularly missed the point, as it documented every breathless action-packed minute of an America-saving day in the life of special agent Jack Bauer. There’s no time to dwell on the ordinary overlooked moments of a regular day; he’s far too busy averting terrorist attacks to buy the flowers himself, or stop into a chemist for a bar of lemon-scented soap.
There are hundreds of history books, some more heavyweight than others, that focus on a single day: as often as not 6 June 1944 or 22 November 1963, though 18 June 1815 is putting in a good showing this year, and there are many not exactly world-famous days in history that have had the treatment, especially if you take into account books like Red Letter Days: Fourteen Dramatic Events that Shook Arsenal. Hitler’s Last Day: Minute by Minute (Short Books, £14.99) came out just in time to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of that happy occasion. It’s by Jonathan Mayo (whose previous books include D-Day: Minute by Minute and The Assassination of JFK: Minute by Minute) and Emma Craigie (the author of Chocolate Cake with Hitler and King Henry VIII: The Exploding King). Strictly speaking it ought to be called ‘Hitler’s Last Two Days’, since it opens shortly after midnight on 29 April 1945: ‘Eva Braun is in her bedroom having her hair done by her maid, Liesl Ostertag. Braun keeps it lightly peroxided, cut in short waves, with her long fringe pinned up on the right side. Her face is carefully made up to look natural, as Adolf Hitler likes it.’
The so-called vivid present is sustained throughout Hitler’s Last Day[s], which is a lot closer in style to 24 than it is to Ulysses, or even Antony Beevor’s Berlin: The Downfall. It all gets a bit much, though the book’s geographical range is as expansive as its timespan is restricted: readers aren’t trapped in the rancid confines of the Führerbunker (I can’t read about it without thinking how badly it must have stunk; apart from all the sweating Nazis there were several dogs living in the bathroom). Italicised flashbacks help with context: ‘Hitler’s favourite architect, Albert Speer, designed the massive new Reich Chancellery, which has been used from 1939.’ Meanwhile, ‘at the Kanoya Naval Air Base in the south of Japan, 23-year-old Yasuo Ichijima is in his room updating his daily diary.’ He’s a kamikaze pilot, so this is his last day too.
Ten minutes later, ‘Adolf Hitler is standing in the conference room of the Führerbunker leaning both his hands on the broad side of the empty map table.’ Half an hour after that, Hitler’s valet, Heinz Linge, phones his driver, Erich Kempka, to ask for 200 litres of petrol. ‘“A mere 200 litres?” Kempka quips sarcastically. Petrol is desperately scarce.’ Hitler and Braun are married at 1 a.m. At 2.30 a.m., ‘in Villabassa in the Italian Alps, British MI6 agent Sigismund Payne-Best is sitting in his bedroom in the Hotel Bachmann waiting for news.’ There’s quite a lot of sitting around in bedrooms, presumably because that’s when Mayo and Craigie’s primary sources had time to write about what they were doing. At 5 a.m. the newlyweds retire to their separate bedrooms.
At 7 a.m., ‘in a square on the outskirts of Padua, New Zealand soldiers are shaving, their mirrors placed on the side of their tanks.’ (Shades of stately, plump Buck Mulligan?) At 7.30 a.m. ‘twenty-year-old German Lieutenant Claus Sellier, wearing only his underwear, is looking out of the window of the Hotel Gasthaus zum Brau in Lofer, Austria.’ And so on for another 250 pages and forty-odd hours. We even find out what Alistair Cooke had for breakfast in San Francisco (not grilled mutton kidneys but ‘two eggs over easy, sausages, pancakes and syrup’), and learn that ‘the dour-looking Molotov has a softer side.’
As the day wears on, the Allied noose tightens around the rapidly shrinking Nazi territory. At 10 a.m. on 29 April ‘a Hitler Youth runner appears … in the upper bunker to report that the Russian tanks are now about 500 metres from the Reich Chancellery.’ Dachau is liberated. The 12th Lancers roll their tanks over the causeway into Venice. The New Zealand troops march after them from Padua. At 2 p.m. Hitler and Braun have lunch. He says the best way to kill yourself is shooting yourself in the mouth. She shows the secretaries her cyanide phial. Hitler’s adjutant Nicolaus von Below suggests they try to escape. Hitler says ‘it is no longer possible to get through the Russian lines.’ At 3 p.m. Hitler poisons his favourite dog. Across the Atlantic, ‘President Truman is not having a relaxed Sunday morning.’ Who would have imagined he was?
At 6.15 p.m. ‘Yelena Rzhevskaya of the Russian smersh intelligence unit is interviewing a German nurse’ who had been working in the Chancellery and was trying to get home to her mother behind the Russian lines. She said that Hitler was rumoured to be ‘in the basement’. Rzhevskaya and her colleagues ‘follow the route of the Soviet tanks towards the Reich Chancellery’. At the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Eleanor Roosevelt launches the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt. At 7.27 p.m., ‘in the Arctic seas off Norway, a second torpedo is racing towards HMS Goodall.’ It hits, killing most of the crew. It’s ‘the 2779th and last Allied warship lost in the fight against Germany’. At 10 p.m. Hitler learns of Mussolini’s death. At 10.30 p.m. a British frigate destroys the U-boat that sank HMS Goodall.
At midnight, von Below leaves the bunker. At 2 a.m. it starts snowing in South-East England. Tony Benn, on a train from Cairo to Jerusalem, polishes his and his friends’ shoes. Hitler, who has spent much of the day planning his suicide, goes to bed at 4.30 a.m., ‘as the first light of dawn begins to brighten the smoky Berlin sky’. The Times reports that British medical students are heading to Belsen. At 7.30 a.m. Hitler thinks about going outside but turns back at the door. Wernher von Braun has breakfast at a hotel near the Austrian border, waiting to buy his freedom from the US army with the secrets of German rocket science. At 9 a.m. the Russian army reaches Ravensbrück. The assault on the Reichstag continues. Martin Bormann has a hangover. At 11.30 a.m. Churchill sets fire to his bedjacket with his cigar. At 1 p.m. Hitler has his last meal: spaghetti and a cabbage and raisin salad.
The barrage of unsifted information is all quite riveting, in its slightly sick-making way, a bit like a Robert Ludlum thriller (or the ‘sweet, moist cakes’ Hitler gorged himself on during his final days underground), except everyone knows how it’s going to end. Hitler shot himself shortly after half past three on the afternoon of Monday 30 April 1945, and however you tell the story there was nothing tragic about it.