German historian Joachim Fest (1926 – 2006) was undoubtedly the Hitler expert par excellence. One of his final books on the subject was, appropriately, a look at the last days of the Third Reich, Inside Hitler’ Bunker. It is a concise and readable volume. Along with fascinating anecdotes about the doomed Nazi leader and his retinue, and the increasingly surreal atmosphere of the underground Berlin headquarters, Fest offers thoughtful commentary on the nature of Hitler’s aims and motivations.
Referring to Hitler’s infamous plans for scorched-earth tactics in the face of advancing enemy armies, which would have merely added to the misery of the civilian population, Fest concludes: “It would be a mistake to interpret these orders as a last, desperate, defensive measure against the approach of a superior foe. The intent to demolish had always been Hitler’s first and preferred course of action, an expression of his true voice….” The point being that he was consumed by a nihilism which Fest traces back to the earliest days of the Nazi seizure of power. It is not surprising that Hitler could be so callous toward Jews and foreigners when he said of the German people that if they could not win the war then they must “perish and be annihilated,” nor would he “shed a single tear for them.”
I would modify Fest’s judgment somewhat by saying that this “will to destroy” was merely the flip side of an extreme narcissism. No doubt the Führer would have preferred victory, but like a petulant child in the playroom who is mad that others won’t do what he wants, he throws tantrums and wrecks all the toys. In this respect there are clear parallels between the dictator in the bunker and the murderous antics of modern terrorists and psychopaths for whom mass destruction is a way of asserting their importance in a purely negative manner, albeit with the difference that Hitler had many more resources at his disposal.
Speaking of which, Fest frequently comments on the uncanny ability of the Führer to command servile loyalty even in the final weeks of the war. Another expert on the topic, Hannah Arendt, summarizes it in this way:
It is in the nature of the [totalitarian] movement that once the Leader has assumed his office, the whole organization is so absolutely identified with him that any admission of a mistake or removal from office would break the spell of infallibility which surrounds the office of the Leader and spell doom to all those connected with the movement (The Origins of Totalitarianism).
This would explain why, when the end came, so many party officials killed themselves, including Joseph and Magda Goebbels who not only ended their own lives in the Berlin bunker, but in a particularly pathetic and horrible manner, poisoned their young children. For them life after Hitler was unthinkable.