The final hours

A nurse in Hitler's bunker speaks out for the first time, recalling her dislike of Eva Braun and her sadness over the death of the Goebbels children.

Published May 2, 2005 3:37PM (EDT)

She is the last witness. For 60 years, Erna Flegel said nothing about her starring role in the Third Reich. Her family knew that in the last, desperate weeks of the Second World War she had lived in Berlin. But she never spoke of her job as Adolf Hitler's nurse and of her time in the Führer's Berlin bunker. Now, as the 60th anniversary of the end of the war in Europe nears, Flegel has spoken out for the first time about her experiences -- of Hitler's final hours, of her friendship with the "brilliant" Magda Goebbels and of her jealous loathing for Eva Braun. Her testimony casts fresh light on the last days of the Nazi era and has never appeared in the countless books written about Hitler.

In an interview with the Guardian, Flegel, now 93 and living in a nursing home in northern Germany, Sunday described how she began working as a Red Cross nurse at the Reichs Chancellery in Berlin in January 1943. She had been transferred there from the eastern front.

As the German army collapsed, Hitler stayed in Berlin continuously from November 1944, eventually retreating into the bunker with his entourage. From then on, Flegel saw him frequently. "I was in the building and someone said, 'The Führer is here,'" she said. "The first time it didn't particularly affect me. He was away from Berlin for a long time before someone announced again, 'The Führer is back.' Hitler shook hands with all the people he hadn't greeted before. After that he talked to us regularly.

"His authority was extraordinary. He was always polite and charming. There was really nothing to object to."

As the Russians approached, and Berlin came under direct artillery fire, the mood in the bunker changed. "The circle got increasingly small. People were pushed together. Everyone became more unassuming."

Flegel's existence only emerged after the transcript of an interview she gave to American interrogators in November 1945 was declassified four years ago by the CIA. The Guardian discovered her insider's account of Hitler's final hours in a Washington vault and published it.

But her fate remained a mystery. Two months ago a Berlin-based newspaper, the BZ, tracked down her relatives via the German Red Cross and war archives. To the paper's astonishment, her family revealed that Flegel was still alive. She is the last surviving female witness to have been inside the bunker. Traudl Junge -- Hitler's secretary, whose memoirs provided the inspiration for the Oscar-nominated film "Downfall," and who gave numerous interviews to journalists and historians -- died in 2002. The only other survivor, 88-year-old Rochus Misch, Hitler's telephonist, refuses to talk.

Speaking at her nursing home, which has a picturesque river view, Flegel Sunday said that as the Russians drew closer to Berlin, those inside the bunker began to live "outside reality."

In the middle of April 1945, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis' propaganda chief, his wife, Magda, and their six children moved in. Flegel, whose original job had been to look after wounded S.S. soldiers, said she had got to know Magda Goebbels well. When it became clear that the situation was hopeless, she had tried to persuade her to send her children out of Berlin.

"She was a brilliant woman, on a far higher level than most people," Flegel told the Guardian. "I wanted her to take at least one or two of them out of the city. But Mrs. Goebbels simply said, 'I belong to my husband. And the children belong to me.'

"One evening she told me, 'I have to go to the dentist and can't be with them. I would like you to say goodnight to the children.' I said, 'Of course. I'll do it. Don't worry.'"

Flegel, then 33, sang the children to sleep. "The children were charming. They would have delighted anybody. They played with each other in the bunker," she said. "They should have been allowed to live. They had nothing to do with what was going on around them. Not to spare the children was madness, dreadful."

Hitler was fond of them, she added, and drank hot chocolate with them and allowed them to use his bathtub.

Magda Goebbels, meanwhile, tolerated her husband's frequent and well-known infidelities. "She didn't say anything. Nobody liked Goebbels. There were always people who hung around him, of course. They included many women who were young and pretty, who had an easier time of it than the rest of us. I don't know the details. It was all gossip and trash."

In her original testimony, Flegel also described how in the final days before his suicide on the afternoon of April 30, 1945, Hitler had begun to crumble before her eyes. "When parts of Berlin were already occupied, and the Russians were coming closer and closer to the center of the city, one could feel, almost physically, that the Third Reich was approaching its end," her statement said.

"Hitler required no care; I was exclusively there for the care of the wounded. To be sure, he had aged greatly in the last days; he now had a lot of gray hair, and gave the impression of a man at least 15 to 20 years older. He shook a good deal; walking was difficult for him; his right side was still very much weakened as a result of the attempt on his life."

Sunday Flegel said that before his wedding to Eva Braun on the night of April 28, Hitler "sank into himself."

In her statement she gives a shrewish portrait of Braun, whom she dismisses as "a completely colorless personality." She would not have been conspicuous among a crowd of stenographers, she said. Hitler's decision to marry Braun made it "immediately clear to me that this signified the end of the Third Reich," she added, claiming that the death of Hitler's wolfhound Blondi "affected us more" than Braun's suicide.

Sunday Flegel made little effort to hide her dislike of a woman who, she suggested, was little more than a Hitler groupie. "Oh dear God. She didn't have any importance. Nobody expected much of her. She was just a young girl, really," she said of Braun, who was only six months her junior. "She wasn't really his wife."

By April 29, the once mighty German Reich had been reduced to an area the size of a large football field, stretching between Potsdamer Platz and Friedrichstrasse. Heavy fighting engulfed the city center. Radio communications with the outside world ceased. Shock troops brought news of the latest Russian positions.

At 10:30 p.m. that evening, Flegel was summoned with the rest of the medical team to line up and take their leave of the Führer. "He came out of the side room, shook everyone's hand and said a few friendly words. And that was it," she told the Guardian.

During her interrogation after the war she said: "At the end we were like a big family. The terrific dynamics of the fate which was unrolling held sway over all of us. We were Germany, and we were going through the end of the Third Reich and the war. Everything petty and external had fallen away."

The next afternoon Hitler shot himself. Braun took prussic acid. "There were a few people who heard it [the shot]. Others didn't," Flegel said Sunday. "The remaining staff then had to decide whether to stay or not stay. I knew that Hitler was dead because there were suddenly more doctors in the bunker. I didn't see his body. But it was taken up to the chancellery garden and burned."

The next morning the survivors were told that they were released from their oath of loyalty and some, including Martin Bormann, Hitler's private secretary, joined an ill-fated attempt to fight their way out to the west. Others shot themselves. Flegel said she had been convinced there was no way that Bormann, "an older man," could have survived.

Flegel stayed and witnessed the deaths of the Goebbels family. Helmut Kunz, a dentist, had injected the children, ages 4 to 12, with poison, she said. Later the same evening their parents killed themselves.

Until Hitler's death Flegel had not even considered survival, she said. "We simply didn't think about it," she told the Guardian. "We knew, naturally, who was in charge, and until he was gone, we couldn't talk about it. The soldiers gradually left. Then they were suddenly gone. Many people tried to reach the U-Bahn in the hope that they could escape the Russians. Everybody was trying as bravely as they could to get out of this bedlam intact."

On the morning of May 2, 60 years ago, Russians soldiers poked their head round the bunker's entrance.

"By this stage there were only six or seven of us left in the bunker," Flegel said. "We knew the Russians were approaching. A [nursing] sister phoned up and said, 'The Russians are coming.' Then they turned up in the Reichs Chancellery. It was a huge building complex. The Germans were transported away."

Flegel said that the Russians she encountered had treated her "very humanely," despite the mass rape of German women by Russian soldiers elsewhere in the city. They had a "look 'round," discovered the bunker's underground supplies and then left, she said, advising her to lock her front door.

The Red Army allowed her to continue working as a nurse for the next few months, treating wounded Russians, until she ended up in the hands of the U.S. Strategic Services Unit, one of the precursors of the CIA. Flegel said her "interrogation" by the Americans in November 1945 was little more than an informal chat over dinner. "They invited us to have dinner with them and treated us to six different courses in order to soften us up. It didn't work with me, though."

Flegel's testimony -- including her conviction that Hitler was dead, an important statement for the victorious Allies -- was deemed sufficiently important that it remained classified.

The interview went missing until 1981, when a Connecticut doctor and amateur historian stumbled on it in an Army archive and sent it to Richard Helms, the U.S. intelligence chief in 1945 Berlin and later CIA director. He wrote back saying: "It is probably one of the most accurate interviews obtained and has thus far never been quoted, as far as I know, in any of the massive books about Hitler's Germany."

Sunday Flegel was evasive about her own attitude to the Nazi era and her role in it. Asked why she had kept quiet for so long about her job as Hitler's nurse, she replied: "After 1945 people started pointing fingers at each other. A great many people didn't say anything. Later it was still a source of controversy. I didn't discuss it." She had never been tempted to write her memoirs, she said. "I didn't want to make myself important."

The film "Downfall," which she watched in her nursing home, gave an accurate portrayal of the Third Reich and its final hours, she said. "They got a few small details wrong. But generally it was correct," she said, adding: "I even recognized myself as a nursing sister."

After the war, Flegel continued her career as a nurse, and also worked as a youth social worker, and traveled to remote regions including Ladakh and Tibet. She never married. At the age of 90 she visited the Crimea, where she had worked as a nurse during the war before her transfer to Berlin.

At 93, she is still mobile and lucid. She has few visitors. The only memento in her tiny room of her time at Hitler's side is a Reichs Chancellery tablecloth.

By Luke Harding

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