Musings about Adolf Hitler based on the Book Hitler’s Last Witness: The Memoirs of Hitler’s Bodyguard
As faithful readers of this blog know, I have for many years been obsessed with Adolf Hitler. I think he was one of the most interesting people in history. But what really interests me in him is the paradox of the man. On the one hand, of course, he is generally considered to have been one of, if not the, most evil men in world history. On the other hand, by many accounts, especially of people who knew him intimately, he was quite ordinary and even likeable.
Recently I have been reading yet another book about Hitler by someone who knew him well—his personal bodyguard and aide-de-camp Rochus Misch. Misch lived from 1917 until 2013 and was the last survivor of the so-called Gotterdamerung—the end of the Nazi government and especially of the so-called “Reich Chancellery bunker” where Hitler and some of his friends and aides lived in the final days of the Third Reich.
Misch knew Hitler almost as well as anyone—as a man and not only as the German head of state and head of government. He became part of the inner circle of Hitler’s bodyguards and personal aides in 1940 and lived and worked inside the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, the Berghof near Berchtesgaden, and the Wolfschanze which was Hitler’s military headquarters in East Prussia during much of World War 2.
I have seen many “Hitler documentaries” in which Misch was interviewed. By his own account, in his autobiography Hitler’s Last Witness: Memoirs of Hitler’s Bodyguard (Frontline Books, 2014), Misch’s final years were bedeviled by journalists and others who would not leave him alone as he became, finally, the last living eyewitness to Hitler’s personal life.
Misch served many roles as Hitler’s bodyguard and aide-de-camp but the important thing is that he, by all accounts, was extremely close to Hitler from 1940 on. Nobody disputes that. He literally lived with Hitler (even though he also had various domiciles of his own especially after he married in the middle of WW2).
Misch wrote the book to “set the record straight” about Hitler. But first, it’s important to know that he was not a Nazi himself. He was apolitical. His main reason for accepting the job as one of Hitler’s “right hand men,” almost constantly near him to do his bidding, was to avoid fighting again. He was badly wounded in the Blitzkrieg invasion of Poland and never again wanted to fight even though he remained a soldier in the Germany army. His selection as Hitler’s bodyguard and aide-de-camp was accidental and, for him, serendipitous. He was and remained a devout Roman Catholic—something that never caused him any problems with Hitler or Hitler’s cronies.
So what did Misch mean by “set the record straight?” Well, his eyewitness description of Hitler is of a fairly ordinary man. That is, he showed no signs of being the monster most people think he was. Misch describes the “private Hitler” as a kind and generous man, a man who loved music and movies (including American music and movies), a man who showed great interest in the life struggles of those around him, and who never talked about things like exterminating Jews or others. Misch writes that not once did he hear or read anything about extermination camps or the “final solution of the Jewish problem” until after the war. Clearly he believed to his dying day that those horrors were the doings of men under Hitler about which Hitler himself may not even have known. As Reich Chancellery telephone operator (some of the time) he listened in on numerous conversation between Hitler and men like Himmler and Göring; he read “despatches” between them and between Hitler and his generals throughout the war. According to him nothing about Hitler was hidden from him; he was part of Hitler’s innermost circle even though he was only an aide-de-camp and not a high ranking political leader or general. Hitler knew him personally and spoke with him many times even to the point of noticing when Misch was suffering an illness and paying for his retreat to a health spa for recovery.
Misch claims, both in filmed interviews and in this book, that Hitler showed real compassion for certain, select individuals whose plights were brought to his attention. Included among those were some Jews and Germans married to Jews. To Misch and others who knew him close up and personally he was not a monster; he was a warlord but not a monster. He had ordinary human emotions. One story by Misch especially well illustrates the kind of message Misch wanted people to know and take into account in their opinions about Hitler the man.
According to Misch, when Hitler heard about “Kristallnacht” he was personally devastated and extremely angry about it. Kristallnacht was, of course, the day and night of November 10, 1938, when gangs of Germans attacked and destroyed Jewish businesses and synagogues. Many Jews were beaten in public and some were taken away temporarily to Dachau which was then the only real concentration camp inside Germany. The Holocaust had not yet begun, even though laws had been passed against Jews, stripping them of many of their rights as German citizens and leaving them extremely vulnerable. According to Misch, anyway, and I have to say he sounds believable, Hitler did not instigate Kristallnacht and was deeply upset about it. He even ordered a car and driver to take him around Berlin to see the results with his own eyes. Afterwards he ranted and raved against the perpetrators.
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But it’s important to know that Misch was not a Holocaust denier. After the war he came to believe what had been done to Jews and others especially in the last days of the war—from 1942 on. He expressed profound regret about the Holocaust and the suffering caused by the German “war machine,” but did not believe Hitler knew about the Holocaust. He claims never to have heard a word about it until the BBC began broadcasting revelations about it. Yes, he did illegally listen to the BBC with a relative who understood English. That was illegal and he could have been punished for it, but according to him it was common among Germans anyway. But he simply chose not to believe it; he thought it was Allied propaganda.
As a German brought up in the aftermath of WW1 and during the chaos of German society during the 1920s and early 1930s, Misch, like most Germans, believed Hitler was Germany’s savior—from the threat of “Bolshevism” (Soviet-style communism). Hitler came to power by a plurality, not a majority of votes in the 1933 Reichstag election. President Hindenburg appointed him Chancellor—head of government but not head of state. Only later, after Hindenburg’s death, did Hitler combine both roles in himself—head of state and head of government. But early on during Hitler’s rule the vast majority of Germans came to adore, if not worship, him. But according to Misch there were two Hitlers—the private man he knew “close up” and the warlord he was in public.
Misch’s memoir is fascinating, but, of course, I take it with a grain of salt. And yet, it has the “ring of truth”—about the Hitler people closest to him knew and, if not loved, at least respected. According to Misch Hitler was not at the notorious Wannsee Conference where the details of the Holocaust—extermination of European Jews—were finalized. He doesn’t express any opinion about how much Hitler himself knew about the Holocaust but admits that he was often not privy to conversations between Hitler and Himmler, who he clearly thinks of as the real architect and driving power behind the Holocaust. He says that when Himmler came to see Hitler, which was not very often, they spoke in private and without the usual stenographer Hitler had write down his conversations with, for example, his generals. So he admits that perhaps Hitler knew about the Holocaust but only reluctantly.
According to Misch, the popular picture of Hitler derived from movies such as Untergang (“Downfall”) and “Valkyrie” present extremely distorted portrayals of Hitler the man who rarely yelled at anyone and certainly was not the evil monster, foaming at the mouth against his enemies, such movies portray. In fact, according to Misch, he was interviewed by the makers of both movies—as a consultant—and when he saw the movies he was shocked at their portrayals of Hitler whom he says he knew as a quite ordinary human being and even one with high moral standards (although he makes no pretense that Hitler was a religious man). People around him, in his inner circle, knew not to tell dirty jokes or use vulgar language or talk or act in improperly. Misch was to his dying day very doubtful about Hitler’s alleged affair with Eva Braun who he and others very close to Hitler only knew as Hitler’s housekeeper. Although he admits he and others close to Hitler had their suspicions.
What to make of Misch’s account of Hitler the man? Well, so it seems, Hitler must have been a divided personality, an expert at compartmentalization. Within his household(s), among his friends and close aids, he was quite normal except for being head of state of the German nation and a warlord. He was not, as Josef Stalin clearly was, a raving madman, a monster whom everyone who knew him feared deeply. (Yes, I’ve also seen many documentaries about Stalin and read books about him by people who knew him.)
And yet, from what we do know, aside from Misch’s somewhat self-serving autobiography, people who were paying close attention especially after Kristallnacht should have known what Hitler believed about the “Untermensch”—subhumans. My own interpretation of Hitler’s reported anger about Kristallnacht is that it was too soon and brought too much attention to his and the Nazis’s plans for Jews.
Based on everything I have read and heard (and I lived in Munich where it all began), it seems to me that German people in the 1930s and early 1940s simply chose to close their eyes and not believe what was obvious. It wasn’t obvious to them—because they chose not to see it. I believe Misch, like Speer at the Nuremburg trial and later, simply chose not to see what was clearly seeable and knowable. They fell under the “Hitler spell” out of fear and possibly Hitler’s personal charisma in public. So what if Hitler was, in private, a normal human being, even a kind and compassionate man who loved animals and children? He was a monster nevertheless and at least some people saw that through his actions—even if some of those were more along the lines of permission of subordinates to carry out heinous crimes against humanity.
However, and this is my “big HOWEVER,” what the Misch book is doing for me is reminding me of something I came to believe long ago. That is that most Americans, and many others, have been led to believe, wrongly, that Hitler was an obvious monster, a ranting and raving lunatic, someone outside of ordinary humanity—not really human. We have tended to set him up and aside as radically different from other political leaders such that we delude ourselves into thinking “That cannot happen here.” And, we, especially in America, have a tendency to think of what happened in Germany, and through Germany in the rest of the world, as a historical fluke, something that will never happen again—at least in our modern, “civilized,” enlightened and democratic Western societies. That we are incapable of such. I agree with Karl Barth who somewhere said the greatest delusion of humanity is that we can disillusion ourselves. I believe today that a great portion of my fellow American citizens are deluded and they have, wittingly or unwittingly, opened a door that may never be shut again without judgment.
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