Review: Hitler's Last Witness by Rochus Misch

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Hitler's Last Witness
Adolf Hitler never fails to enliven a debate and fuels the insatiable curiosity of the masses who are fed incessantly by movies, memoirs, conspiracy theories and revised histories with newly 'discovered' material from the archives. The fusing together of anything German with the tainted legacy of its Nazi history has even prompted many historians to instill a revisionist approach in the telling of its past - like Peter Watson and William Hagen. Rochus Misch was the last surviving bodyguard of Hitler and his account presents a close quarters story of the Third Reich innards from 1939 to 1945 and then delves into his personal struggles with NKVD and later attempts at settling in his German homeland.

Rochus Misch died in September 2013 and it prompted many a headlines across the globe. But as Roger Moorehouse puts it rather succinctly and with harsh honesty, it was not "Misch's vitally important role in the history of the Third Reich taht sparked the interest - he hadn't really had one - rather it was the simple fact that he had been the last surviving witness of the grim denouement of Hitler's game". Misch was born in 1917 in the eastern German province of Upper Silesia. His father died of haemorrhage few hours before he was born; his mother died of pneumonia; and his brother died probably as a result of storke at a young age. After being wounded in 1939 Polish campaign he would become Hitler's bodyguard, telephonist and courier and would be close to him at all times. One might expect Misch to pen comprehensive details about Hitler's military strategy and, later, impending defeat and how he reacted in those times. The former however is glaringly missing and as Moorehouse explains in the Introduction, "Misch's view of events is curiously myopic one and he barely saw the world outside". However one does see the weakened side of Hitler during his last days when he appears depressed and burdened by the onslaught of the Red Army. Misch himself admits this, "I am an insignificant man, but I have experienced significant matters". He draws parallels amongst his various experiences in life and ruminates about how ominous Fate is: he once played the role of a stone cutter labourer in theatre, and later worked as a POW in Russia.

Rudolf Hess in Landsberg Prison.jpg
"Rudolf Hess in Landsberg Prison" by Photo by U.S. Army Signal Corps - Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

He excels at being a telephonist on modern Siemens installations with push buttons and later this even results in him being Hitler's personal bunker telephonist. He does have many anecdotes of interest for the reader: how Hitler's personal number was dialed by mistake by men at duty, and to correct this steps being taken to route Hitler's extension 120050 first to Misch. Misch writes that Hitler was a great film fan; how Rudolf Hess could gather courage only after a couple of attempts to fly out of Germany to initiate secret negotiations for peace; how Adjutant Fritz Darges was sent to the front lines after laughing at Hitler who couldn't kill a mosquito with papers and felt mocked at by him. Misch writes that Hitler "never looked at pictures of gruesome events, nor could he bring himself to confront human suffering by looking at it directly. Visits to military hospitals and such like were anathema to him". But then how could he authorize Final Solution and be totally unaware of what was going on in concentration camps?

Hitler Darges 1943.jpg
"Hitler Darges 1943" by nazi germany unknown photographer presumed now dead. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Misch handles the uncomfortable questions of complicity in Nazi crimes by stating that he was always apolitical and wasn't even a member of NSDAP party. And feigns ignorance by stating that it was always known amongst the circles that concentration camps were existing but were never discussed. So he absolves himself by not knowing much about what was happening to the Jews. However this doesn't seem to be true. He was a German close to Hitler and had even served on the war front, then how could he not know about all the antisemitism that was prevailing in Berlin at that time? As David Gilbertson has documented in The Nightmare Dance, the perpetrators were well from amongst the people and not outsiders who brought in alien ideas of supremacy. In fact apart from personal observances about Hitler and his close circle, Misch doesn't even try to attend to the larger picture. Yes, after all, he was just a telephonist but can it make him non-observant and an ignoramus? Of course one would be wrong here to search with a magnifying glass for traces of guilt and shame, because that would be again falling in the trap of treating those involved in the Nazi machinery as the sole representative of Germans - that Hitler presented a clear, confident, even valiant vision to his nation and promised to make it rise from the ashes of the debilitating peace treaty of Versailles was a reason enough for the majority to vouch for him. To go with the flow as long as one is not negatively affected is always the easier thing to do - and has been repeated in all nations across the world at different times. So to pick out Germans selectively and pinpoint to their absence of an overt admittance of guilt would be wrong. Having said that, I still don't accept Misch was just plainly unaware of what was happening to the Jews and in the concentration camps.

He later describes the last days of the Third Reich and the gloomy end of it all - the suicides, the burning of corpses, the Goebbels' children etc. He is captured and tortured by the Russians and sent to labour camps and returns to Berlin only after 9 long years, only to discover that his wife has another partner and his father-in-law, to whom he was very close, is no more and his daughter has grown up and finds it difficult to connect with her. His wife, Gerda does get back with him and over time he sets up a peanut butter manufacturing firm. A memoir which should be read by only those interested in specific details of the Nazi regime. The characters and places will run ahead of the novice and uninformed reader - though the footnotes in each chapter and short biographies towards the end of major characters does help.


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