Germany's peculiar post-World War II identity, stretched uncomfortably between self-awareness and denial, is well-illustrated by Rochus Misch and his relationship to the German media.
Among the last living relics of the Nazi era, the 87-year-old Misch served as bodyguard, courier and telephone operator in the direct service of Adolf Hitler from 1940 to 1945. And recently he's been rediscovered -- the character of Misch is portrayed in Oliver Hirschbiegel and Bernd Eichinger's movie "Downfall," nominee for a best foreign-language Oscar and the most talked-about German film of the decade. The film's impact, both positive and negative, cannot be understated: It's the first time German cinema has dared to portray Hitler as a complex character rather than a cardboard monster and allowed the fall of the Third Reich to be the stuff of conventional melodrama.
In the film, Misch is depicted only briefly; his status in the bunker was low. But with the death of the few other remaining members of Hitler's entourage over the past 10 years, he has gained a new significance: He's now the last living man from the Führerbunker. Still, "The last man from the Führerbunker" has not received quite the level of media attention one would expect in the wake of the hugely successful film. If he is quoted, it is in short sound bites, or he is passed over entirely.
At first, this puzzled me. Given, for example, the recent widespread interest in Hitler's young secretary Traudl Junge, who died in 2002, it seemed strange the German press wasn't pouncing on Misch as wholeheartedly. Just before she died, Junge was the subject of the popular and critically acclaimed documentary "Blindspot," in which she describes her life as Hitler's secretary and grapples with intense self-recrimination. Misch, by comparison, has been ignored. But after reading the scanty profiles of Misch in German publications, I began to sense what the problem was, ultimately confirmed when I got to know Misch myself. Unlike Junge, Misch does no grappling. Instead, occasionally, in one of these dry profiles he makes a little comment. Once he mentions, elliptically, his dislike of the 2000 switch to the euro.
A dislike of the euro speaks volumes to those listening: It's a subtle hint of nationalism. It is an oblique nod to other political views preferred to be kept out of the press entirely. The public push to criminalize the neo-Nazi Nationalist German Party, in the wake of its demonstration at the 60th anniversary of the Allied bombing of Dresden, illustrates the double bind even better. As the interest in Nazism escalates, the media teeters along a fine line: feeding into it lavishly with the right kind of comfortingly outraged anti-Nazi stories, even as the self-censorship of the culture at large becomes more frantically repressive. (The only thing like it in America remotely comparable may be our simultaneous celebration of multiculturalism and the frequent taboo on open discussions about race.)
After the war, Misch was taken into custody by the Red Army; he spent nine years enduring torture in a Soviet prison camp and returned to Germany in 1954 (to the East) to find it a divided country with citizens confusingly "reeducated," as he puts it, this being his code word for no longer worshipping der Führer. Since then he has lived an anonymous existence in the Berlin suburb of Rudow. Previously he and his wife ran a small home-decorating shop and together raised their daughter, Birgitta. Since his wife died in 1998 he has lived alone. His daughter put her children in a Jewish school in Frankfurt. She chooses not to see him anymore.
Before "Downfall" was released, Misch's public persona was limited to solo visits to the site of Hitler's bunker -- and this is how I found him. I give walking tours of Berlin, which frequently take me to this windswept, out-of-the-way corner, frequented almost exclusively by English-language tour groups. (It's a little too macabre for the Germans.) One day an old man was hanging around, and my lecture on the last days of Hitler was interrupted by the cry, "Hello! Hello! Don't you know me? I'm Misch! I was there!"
He has also had an Internet presence, providing a "celebrity" endorsement for a mix CD of Bavarian music he allegedly helped put together, to benefit aging veterans of the Waffen-SS. (No government benefits for them.) I met with Misch for this interview in the little house he has lived in since 1942. He has a towering frame and broad shoulders even today; clearly he was a physically ideal member of the Waffen-SS. Repetitive and self-absorbed, he has a lonely old man's slightly doddering conviviality and tends to repeat himself. Although I mentioned at the beginning of the interview that I was an American, he forgot this quickly in favor of his preferred nationality: British. The interior of his house seems to have been embalmed in the 1940s; likewise, Misch's worldview.
I've translated the interview from the German. I asked Misch first about his memories of the death of Hitler:
I was standing in the hallway when Hitler took his own life. Because I wanted to go over to the Reichs Chancellery for lunch [the Reichs Chancellery was connected to the Führerbunker by a tunnel], and a colleague had already taken over for me in the telephone room. I was standing in the hallway, asking in the neighboring room if I should bring anything back with me. The other guy said, "No, no, I have everything already," and it was then someone called, someone ... [he searches for the name] ah, it was Linge, Linge, Hitler's butler. He said, "I think it's done." He had heard it.
But of course we were always making mistakes. Our ears played tricks. Down there in the bunker, any loud noise echoing through the concrete sounded like a gunshot. There was so much suspense. We had been waiting, expecting it any minute, for hours. And yet we weren't sure. Because of course, there was always the possibility of a miracle. The miracle would have been England. If England had said, it's not Hitler that's our biggest enemy, rather Bolshevism, they could have rolled right by Berlin all the way to Moscow. Churchill himself said later, "We slaughtered the wrong pig."
And after you realized Hitler was dead?
Well, there was perfect silence. We waited. We waited maybe 20 minutes. But Linge was curious. I was curious. I still don't remember whether it was Linge or Günsche who first opened the door to Hitler's rooms, but one of the two. I was really curious and came forward a few steps. Then somebody opened the second door -- I still don't know who it was, probably Linge. And it was then, as the second door opened, I saw Hitler, dead, lying on a chair. Eva [Braun] on the couch completely clothed. In a dark dress and white, white skin. She was lying back.
So then I said to them, "I'm going to run over and report to the commanding officer." And they said, annoyed, "Well, come right back." So I told them, "Yeah, sure. I'm just saying: I'm a soldier. I have a command to carry out." Then I was on my way over to the Reichs Chancellery, already in the passageway, but I had an uncanny feeling, very scared and uncertain, so I turned around. When I got back they already had Hitler down on the floor. I watched them packing him up, in a blanket. Well, so it went. Then they carried him out, and I went away finally and made the communication to the commanding officer. A little later, one of my comrades said, "If you want, go on up outside, the boss is getting burned." You know, just as planned. And I said, "No, I'm not going up. You go up!" But he said, "No, I'm not going up either, I'm getting out of here." So neither of us went to the cremation.
Do you remember your feelings when you realized Hitler was dead?
We were expecting it. It didn't come as a surprise. We were living in another world at that point. We had so many feelings, fear, hope -- I can't describe it. We had habituated ourselves to the idea of the end. We had a feeling as if we were drunk. To put it bluntly, we didn't give a damn, finally. Nothing made a hell of a lot of difference at that point.
Were you afraid of the future?
One of the guys said to me, "Maybe we'll be shot?" I said, "Why in the world would we be shot?" He said, "The head of the Gestapo was here. He never comes here. Why was he here? Maybe they'll shoot all the witnesses, everyone who knows the boss is dead."
And you know, in fact, they did shoot people. During the burning, two civilians showed up out of nowhere. There was a wall -- on the other side was the Foreign Office, and people were crawling around the city everywhere, running away from the Russians at the time. And those civilians were shot by the Gestapo. They had seen too much. However, in the end they turned out to be a couple of Poles.
Yes, they checked their papers. They were Polish, trying to run away. How they got there, gosh, I don't know.
Is that probable, that they were Poles?
Well, they had the passports. One of my comrades from the police commando told me. I know it's strange, but they were Poles. [Misch is silent.]
Right. I'd like to talk a little bit about the new movie portrayal of those last days in the bunker. Have you seen "Downfall"?
Oh, yeah, I've seen it. [Laughs heartily.] Dramatic operetta. It's all Americanized. All that yelling and screaming; it wasn't like that down there in the bunker. The reality -- it was a death bunker. Everyone whispered down there. A crazy screaming scene never happened.
Hitler never yelled?
Well, at least when the generals were down there, discussing military things, they were very quiet. It's a film, with all the freedoms of a film. It's no documentary.
Are there factual discrepancies, so far as you know?
No, no, just everything exaggerated.
Your character in the film is portrayed seriously thinking of killing himself at the very end, after Hitler and Eva Braun are dead, but then at the last minute he decides not to shoot. Was suicide something you remember considering very seriously?
It was different than in the film. At the very end, I asked myself: Why am I here? What am I doing now that everyone is dead or gone? But nevertheless, I was still there, one of the only ones left in the bunker, just left there to make sure that everything down in the telephone room continued to work. And then Dr. Naumann said to me that another doctor there, Dr. Stumpfegger, would give me something to drink, or a sort of candy.
And you thought about taking some kind of medical poison like that?
I had always believed -- well yeah, if it's all over, then I have to shoot myself too. And the atmosphere ... at the end, after Hitler was dead, it was so bad. I got a call from General Busse of the 9th Army and he wanted to speak to General Krebs. So I rang through to Krebs and he didn't pick up. So I went to his room and I thought he was sleeping and I tried to wake him, and he fell over. Then I noticed he was dead. I got such a fright! And sitting next to him was Burgdorf. Both of them had taken their own lives. Just before the very end. They were the last of the military, the last people responsible for the military there.
Let's go back in time to your early history: How did you start working as a bodyguard to Hitler?
I was an orphan; both my mother and father died when I was very small. I was the last son, the last of the family, so I wouldn't have been sent to the front, rather behind the lines, to a desk job, supplies and reinforcements, telegraph office, or some such thing. But after I was called up I was injured badly anyway. I was shot in the chest after a failed diplomatic mission in Poland. I was in a convalescent home for a long time, and then came a phone call from the Reichs Chancellery: They needed a young man. At headquarters.
Do you have any particular impressions of Hitler that have stayed with you?
Hitler, to me, was always a completely normal person. He spoke completely normally to me. I lived together with him for five years. I only knew him as a wonderfully good boss, right? I could talk with him. He was always satisfied with us.
No, he was never authoritarian. And we were with him day and night; we knew him. He was never without us, day and night. If he wanted something in the night, his servant was asleep, so he called one of us. If he wanted to be awoken an hour later, or to call Eva -- anything. We just had a wonderful boss. We couldn't have wished for better. When I was married he had a case of champagne delivered to my house, this one we're sitting in [gestures to the surrounding rooms].
What were your duties as Hitler's bodyguard?
Strictly speaking, yes, I was a bodyguard to Hitler, that's right, but of course usually there wasn't much to do as bodyguard, so they put us to work at other things, as a courier for example, and then later, during the time in the bunker, I worked at the telephones. There were six of us. We weren't the direct aides. Those were the adjutants. If the boss wanted something, any simple thing, he would go to an adjutant, say, "Hey, I heard Wolfgang Wagner got engaged -- we have to do something for him," and then the adjutant would come to us and tell us: "Get some flowers and deliver them personally to Wolfgang Wagner. He's engaged."
One of the most harrowing scenes in the film is the murder of the Goebbels children [six of them, ages 4 to 12]. What do you remember about the Goebbels family in the bunker?
[Minister of Propaganda Dr. Joseph] Goebbels and the kids arrived suddenly about 14 days before the end. Then Hitler's doctor, Dr. Morell, had to move out so that Goebbels could move in, and his wife lived one story higher, in the adjoining bunker, with the children. But the children came down to play all the time, you know? But when they were too loud we sent them back up. [Laughs.] Usually they were up in the New Chancellery; there were people around up there and they had freedom to move about.
I went up there too, shortly before the end, because the big kitchen was there. Goebbels sat down at a long table with the children. A young man played the harmonica. And Goebbels was saying goodbye to the civilians, with the children; there were so many people there in the New Chancellery, people looking to take shelter there. And it occurred to me for the first time that maybe I should say goodbye, too. That was the moment it became clear to me that Hitler and Goebbels would stay. And Eva Braun and Frau Goebbels had agreed they wouldn't abandon their men either, stay to the end, too. And then plans were made for the children. The other women in the bunker all offered -- Frau Rindell for example, from the office, she said, "Frau Goebbels, if you want to stay here, that's your business, but the children can't possibly stay here..." and Frau Bruns said, "I'll take them to Arnbruck to my sister, as she can't have children -- she would be happy. Please!" and she cried.
You know, we, the service people, we all knew that the children were meant to stay, and what would happen. They would stay and they would die.
Oh, and then of course the aviator, Hanna Reitsch, offered to fly them out as well. She said even if she had to fly back and forth 20 times, she would fly them out. Of course, that's not what happened.
Frau Goebbels, she had to come down to my room to get the children ready [administer the cyanide]. Up above there were so many people around, but down in our rooms there was no one. We ourselves weren't even down there. We only slept there. So she could take care of them on her own. I went out of the room and waited outside. Then Dr. Naumann came out of the room and said to me -- he whispered in my ear -- that if it had been up to him, Dr. Goebbels he meant, then the children wouldn't still be in the bunker, they would be evacuated. And I had seen Naumann with Goebbels up above, and he was probably right. I took him as a trustworthy representative. Goebbels didn't want it. It was Frau Goebbels who did. One must stick with the truth. That's how it was.
The film suggests both parents colluded to kill their children -- misrepresented, in your opinion?
It's all Americanized. That's how the Americans want to see things...
But what about here in Germany? The film was made in Germany for Germans, by Germans, wasn't it?
Oh, the Germans have no idea about anything, either. If I had been in the New Chancellery instead of in the bunker, I wouldn't have any idea either, how that happened with the Goebbels children, how they killed the six children.
How do you think about the recent developments in Germany, the mainstream attempt to come to terms with the Holocaust and on the other hand the modest rise in neo-Nazism since the fall of the Wall?
Next to the site of the bunker they're putting up the big memorial. [The colossal central Berlin Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by American architect Peter Eisenman and composed of 2,700 concrete slabs, opens in May 2005.] Two thousand seven hundred concrete blocks; they're allowed that. But I say, how would it be if over there around the corner by the bunker, we put in six blocks, just six? The children of Goebbels were murdered, killed, consciously murdered. Couldn't they be honored, the children? It won't do them any good now, but at the very least we could honor them, put up a sign that says here died six murdered children. Two thousand seven hundred, but six children can't be honored?
Um, the murder of the children was terrible, but for every one of them, 1 million Jews were killed with less reason, to say nothing of the many, many others who died at the hands of the Nazis.
That may be. But I ask you, if Hitler really did all the terrible things people now say he did, how could he have been our Führer? How is it possible?
The million-dollar question. But I do think you'll admit that if there were a memorial to the Goebbels children, it would become a magnet for neo-Nazis.
Ach, "neo-Nazi." No such thing. What does "neo-Nazi" mean? New Nazi, right? There aren't any. That's just a buzzword. What you have are nationally conscious people, people who say, "my fatherland, right or wrong." My fatherland, nothing more, am I right? You British say it, the Swiss say it, the Israelis say it -- "My country," they say. And I'll fight for it. The Israelis are nationalistic people, they defend their region, they defend their people. They have as much right as anyone.
The whole Iraq war isn't about Saddam Hussein, it's about Israel. Israel can't exist on avocados and oranges! A nation lives from business. They have to have money. And the Americans always pay in. This is just my opinion, but why did they occupy Iraq? Supposedly because of atomic bombs? [Laughs.] In my opinion, Iraq is a wealthy oil region, and with this money they can support Israel. They can't keep pumping their own money in forever.
Do you find that over the years, your memories of the time in Hitler's employment weaken? Do you find your memories being hijacked by images and stories you've come across in the 60 years since?
So many of the pictures and so much of what's written about the time is the product of fertile imaginations. For example, Eichinger [the writer and producer of "Downfall"] should have come to me and talked to me like you're doing before he ever made the film. And what he would then make of it would be his business -- accept, reject, or whatever, right? But just talk to me. I always try not to slip into a fantasy as they do. I have to be careful; it can trip me up too. Trying to improve things, make it seem better or more heroic than it was. Of course there's a tendency in that direction.
How do you feel about the attention paid to you in recent times?
I did six [interviews] for the Holocaust Museum in Washington. But that stays in the museum archives; it's not for the public. And then I did two times, two hours [of interviews] for the Goethe Institute in Tel Aviv. They collect that kind of thing. Not to show, just for a rainy day, I guess. The BBC has filmed with me three times. They even went to Moscow and found the suicide request I wrote when I was a prisoner of the Soviets. They were really hardworking. And some young people are making a documentary film about me -- I had to arrange for the woman who does my housekeeping to make a special visit, because they wanted to get some shots of her working around the house. There's continual interest now. I can't believe it. Hitler just won't die. And I'm the only one left to tell.
Do you have regrets about your past?
Well, history is history -- whether it's bad or good or criminal, it doesn't make a difference. An act, a deed, remains part of history forever. You can't change a story, just by blathering on about it, and make it into something other than what it was.