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July 29, 1917 – Sept. 5, 2013

WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON – Rochus Misch, who spent five years as Adolf Hitler’s square-jawed bodyguard, courier, telephone operator and all-around attendant and was widely believed to be the last surviving veteran of the Nazi leader’s bunker as the Soviet army closed in on Berlin, died Sept. 5 at 96.

His death, of undisclosed causes in the German capital, was confirmed to the Associated Press by Burkhard Nachtigall, who helped Mr. Misch write a best-selling memoir, “The Last Witness.”

Misch was serving in the German army when, in 1939, he was shot in the chest during combat in Modlin, Poland. He received a commendation for bravery. During his convalescence, he was selected for duty in the SS as part of the elite guard escorting Hitler.

He rang up commanding generals at the fuhrer’s request, welcomed visiting dignitaries, brought hot water bottles at night when Hitler shivered – and he laughed at his jokes. He ended the war as chief of communications, overseeing the bunker switchboard.

Misch spent years at the core of the Nazi apparatus, but he said he was ignorant of the machinery of death that defined the regime.

He described being essentially walled off from news about the mass murder of Jews and the brutality of concentration camps.

In interviewers decades later, Misch did not deny the Holocaust. He said he had “no idea of the scale” of the killing. He blamed the extermination of Jews not on Hitler but on SS commander Heinrich Himmler.

He said he could not fathom the “friendly, nice” man he knew as Hitler as a sociopath. When Misch married in 1942, Hitler sent the newlyweds 40 bottles of wine and 1,000 German marks. He was a “good boss” adored by his staff, Misch said. He liked to stay up watching movies such as “Gone With the Wind.” He was “a real human being” who took battlefield defeats to heart and welled up with tears.

If Misch’s banal reminiscences lent him the sheen of Hitler apologist, some historians have remarked that he provided convincing first-person testimony that supported accounts of the fuhrer’s final desperate months, days and hours.

Hitler ally Benito Mussolini was executed in Italy on April 28, 1945, as the Soviets were quickly advancing on Berlin. Misch said Hitler made preparations for himself and his new wife, Eva Braun, not to die at the hands of his enemy.

An unease filtered through the bunker, which Misch dubbed “the coffin of concrete.”

“Everyone was waiting for the shot,” Misch told the (London) Daily Telegraph in 2000. “We were expecting it. I had just said to the technicians, ‘I am going over [to Hitler’s office,] can I fetch you anything?’ And they said no. Then came the shot. I was just six meters away from him when he did it.”

Heinz Linge, Hitler’s valet, “took me to one side and we went in, just after the shot,” he said. “I saw Hitler slumped by the table. I did not 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. I was just a young man then. That is why it stays with me so strongly.”

He said he declined to leave the bunker to look at Hitler’s corpse as it was set aflame outside, in part out of fear that the Gestapo would shoot any witnesses.

With Hitler dead, those left behind were on edge about their fate. Misch said he saw Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda, make preparations to kill their six children and themselves before the Soviets could get them.

Misch was one of the last people in bunker relieved of duty, and he was soon captured by the Soviets. When his identity was revealed, he was shipped to a Moscow military prison and brutally interrogated because the Soviets did not believe Hitler was really dead.

“They stripped me and then they whipped my testicles and I lost consciousness,” he told the Telegraph. A series of further indignities followed. “After a while,” he said, “I ceased to be a human being.”

He said he wrote to the head of the secret police requesting execution. Instead, he was sent to prison camps before being released after Stalin’s death in 1953 under a general amnesty ordered by the new Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev.

After he returned to Berlin, Misch opened a home decorating shop and lived in relative anonymity for decades. He eventually agreed to interviews with Western media outlets, as well as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in which he spoke warmly about his time with Hitler.

“If I met him today, I would say, ‘Mein Fuhrer, I did not really get to know you that well,’ ” he told the Telegraph.

Misch’s wife, Gerda, died in 1997. They had a daughter, Brigitta Jacob-Engelken, from whom Misch grew estranged. She told the BBC in 2009 that her maternal grandmother confided in her that Gerda had Jewish ancestry – a fact Misch refused to believe. “I don’t blame my father for the work he did,” Jacob-Engelken told the BBC in 2009, “because it was harmless work. What I don’t understand is that he is not giving a sign of more distance. No reflection afterwards. This is what I miss. His critical reflection.”