29-7-1917 - 5-9- 2013
Rochus Misch, who has died aged 96, worked for five years as Adolf Hitler's bodyguard, courier, orderly and, finally, chief of communications, acquiring an intimate insight into the machinations of the Nazi leadership; his recollection suggested that Hitler and Rudolf Hess considered an armistice with Britain in 1941, and that when Hitler rejected the idea Hess flew to Scotland under his own steam.
Ultimately, Misch was in charge of the switchboard in the Berlin "Fuhrerbunker", where Hitler and members of his inner circle met their grisly ends as the Red Army closed in, in 1945. The bodyguard was the last person to leave the bunker, and was a key witness to the macabre events dramatised in Der Untergang (Downfall, 2006), Oliver Hirschbiegel's extraordinary film about the end of the Third Reich.
He recalled how, on April 30, 1945, Hitler locked himself in his room with his bride-of-a-day Eva Braun: "Everyone was waiting for the shot. We were expecting it. I had just said to the technicians, 'I'm going over [to Hitler's office], can I fetch you anything?' And they said no. Then came the shot. Linge [Heinz Linge, Hitler's valet] took me to one side and we went in. I saw Hitler slumped by the table. I didn't see any blood on his head. And I saw Eva with her knees drawn up lying next to him on the sofa - wearing a white and blue blouse, with a little collar; just a little thing."
Misch was also a witness to the grimmest of bunker stories - the murder by Magda Goebbels of her six children. "The children were prepared for their deaths in my work room," he recalled. "Their mother combed their hair - they were all dressed in white nightshirts - and then she went up with the children. Dr Nauman told me that Dr Ludwig Stumpfegger would give the kids 'candy water'. I realised what was going to happen immediately. I had seen Dr Stumpfegger successfully test poison on Blondi, the Fuhrer's dog." Frau Goebbels returned an hour or two later, and without saying a word went to her husband's room. There, she laid out a game of patience.
Misch then helped to establish a direct line from the Reich Chancellery to Soviet lines, while General Krebs tried to negotiate an armistice. But the Russians demanded unconditional surrender. When the news was brought to the surviving inmates of the bunker, they assembled for a meeting at which Goebbels reminisced about the triumphant early days of Nazism, but made no reference to his family, dead upstairs. "Magda Goebbels just sat there," Misch recalled, "saying little, head high. She was chain-smoking and sipping champagne."
All of them knew what was coming. "Goebbels said to me: 'Well, Misch, we knew how to live. Now we know how to die.' Then he and Frau Goebbels processed arm-in-arm up the stairs to the garden. Soon afterwards somebody called and asked for General Krebs. I connected the line but there was no answer. I went to Krebs' room and found him and Burgdorf [General Burgdorf, chief adjutant] sitting motionless. I first thought they were sleeping." Both officers were dead.
Though Misch was probably a reliable witness to the facts, he showed none of the remorse or psychological insight that others exhibited when talking about the Nazi era. To Misch, Hitler remained the kind boss who joked with his staff, loved Charlie Chaplin, children and animals, and was so considerate towards others that he married Eva Braun the day before their deaths "solely out of consideration for her parents".
Rochus Misch was born on July 29, 1917, in Oppeln, Upper Silesia, in what is now Poland but was then part of Imperial Germany. Orphaned in World War I, he grew up into a broad-shouldered, though none-too-bright, young man - the ideal recruit for the elite SS Leibstandarte regiment that he joined in 1937.
He served as an oberscharfuhrer in the Polish campaign of 1939 but was wounded and taken out of active service. While he was recovering, Hitler's office rang his regiment looking for "an honest, reliable fellow" to join the Fuhrer's team. Misch was recommended.
Misch's experience sometimes produced tantalising titbits that seemed to run counter to mainstream historical research. When an interviewer asked him about the sort of thing that upset Hitler, for example, Misch recalled seeing him distressed only once - after his deputy, Rudolf Hess, flew to Scotland in May 1941: "For three days he was very gloomy."
"Some days before that we were at Berchtesgaden, Hitler's residence in the Bavarian Alps," Misch noted. "He was talking to Hess, when somebody brought in a dispatch. The Fuhrer read it and exclaimed: 'I cannot go there and go down on my knees!' Hess replied: 'I can, my Fuhrer.' At the time, a German diplomat was meeting the Swedish emissary, Count Bernadotte, in Portugal. The British were very active in Lisbon, so I think there might have been some peace offer from London." At the time, the Nazi regime claimed Hess had gone mad. But the true purpose of his mission to Britain remains unclear, and British documents relating to it are still classified.
After the Goebbels family met their deaths, Misch was finally free to make a break for home. He managed to make his way to the Friedrichstrasse station, where he ran into Heinz Linge. The two men felt their way through a tunnel under the river Spree: "Through a grating, we saw a group of German soldiers. We couldn't believe it. We decided to go up and join them. That was it. The soldiers were Red Army prisoners."
Bar a short period when he was taken back to Germany in 1946 as a witness in the Nuremberg trials, Misch spent the next three years in the Lubyanka. Stalin refused to believe that Hitler was dead, and survivors from the bunker were tortured for evidence about the Fuhrer's imaginary flight. At one point, Misch wrote to the Soviet secret police chief, Beria, asking to be shot, so unbearable was the torture. Instead, he spent six years in the gulags before being released in 1954 under an amnesty agreed by Khrushchev.
He returned to his two-storey home in the east Berlin suburb of Rudow and to his wife, Gerda, whom he had married in 1942. There he set up a wallpaper and paint business, which he ran until 1983.
Misch remained an uncomfortable reminder of attitudes that many Germans like to believe have been consigned to the history books. In 2005, he was accused of tainting the memories of Holocaust victims after calling for a plaque in memory of the Goebbels children to be placed next to a new Jewish memorial.
After the release of Der Untergang, he was rather pleased to find himself the object of worldwide media attention, and took every opportunity to show interviewers his snapshots of Hitler and Eva Braun in happier days at Berchtesgaden. "It was a good time with Hitler," he reminisced. "I enjoyed it and I was proud to work for him."
Misch's wife died in 1998. They had a daughter, but she broke off all contact with her father.