What Does Evil Look Like?


David Mitchell


History—I suppose everything, really—is of necessity learned through filters. What we read is filtered through the perception and bias of the writer. What we experience is filtered through our own prejudices and expectation. We tend to agree with the filters that are consistent with our own. We doubt the filters that make us question what we think we know, however that might be defined. That is only natural. Without filters, we would have no opinions and thus there would be no room for discussion and debate.

Some filters are more universal than others. Most of us will agree that it is hard to find fault with the works of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, sacrifice, love and compassion being somewhat universally regarded as virtues. Other filters are more localized. To an American, football means one thing and soccer means, generally speaking, nothing. The rest of the English speaking world—indeed, the rest of the non-English speaking world as well—football means something entirely different.

In the study of military history, the source of our filters can usually be readily identified. Whoever wins, writes the history books. Of course, victory is a powerful filter itself. That is why it usually takes later generations to identify when the victor might have had less than clean hands, or to tell the stories of those on the losing side.

It was through the filter of American victory that I first studied the Second World War. I cannot even say “Allied victory” because my early readings focused almost exclusively on how the United States had saved the world for Democracy. I was an adult, having graduated with a degree in history before I learned anything about the war that preceded the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. Indeed, before I made the study of World War II my avocation, I really knew nothing but propaganda, and a big part of that propaganda taught me that the war was a black and white proposition. The Americans and the English were the good guys. The Germans and the Japanese were the bad guys.

To a certain extent, all that propaganda still rings of truth. For example, the US and its allies did make the world safe for democracy. It just took another fifty or so years after the war’s conclusion for all of Europe to enjoy democracy and for all of the colonial outposts of democracy to achieve democracy of their own. At the same time, it is difficult to truly study World War II if the only perspective that we can explore is the perspective of the victors. Fortunately, three recent translations of works first published in the 1970s and early 1980s in Germany have given us new insight into the life of Adolf Hitler and how he was perceived by members of his staff—not the sycophants who made it up his general staff but the actual workers of his household staff, one a secretary, one a valet and one a chauffeur.

The first book to be released in translation was Christa Schroeder’s He Was My Chief: The Memoirs of Adolf Hitler’s Secretary. In He Was My Chief, Schroeder shares her personal reminisce of her life from 1930 to 1945 and what it was like to be witness to Hitler’s daily life and his interaction with his inner circle. These are not reflections on the political and military events of the day, although some events such as the 1934 Röhm Purge and the 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life are mentioned. Rather, it is in her retelling of the private side of her interaction with Hitler. That is what makes her memoir compelling reading.

For example, as Schroeder relates, Hitler liked to take his afternoon tea with his secretaries in a rather sparsely furnished room at the Radziwill Palace. Hitler would reminisce about his childhood and how much he used to love to go shopping before his fame made that impossible. He also shared some of the pranks that he would play on his teachers when he had been in school, as when he tricked a rather unhygienic teacher into demonstrating to the rest of the faculty his filth.

Schroeder offers insight into Hitler’s methods of persuasion and argument. She notes that everyone thought that Hitler was a profound thinker, and that he tried to make everyone believe that his thoughts were all his own. Schroeder, however, suspected otherwise and actually manages to catch him in a moment of mental plagiarism. One day, as she relates the story, Hitler launched into a philosophical dissertation on a theme that was dear to him. Schroeder, who had been reading Schopenhauer at the time, realized that Hitler was quoting an entire page from the Schopenhauer work that she was reading. She bravely noted that Hitler was actually quoting Schopenhauer and Hitler responded (in “fatherly tones”): “Do not forget, my child, that all knowledge comes from others and that every person only contributes a minute piece to the whole.”

The second title, With Hitler to the End: The Memoirs of Hitler’s Valet, by Heinz Linge, offers similar insight. Linge joined the Waffen-SS in 1934 and was quickly assigned to work at the Reich Chancellery. In 1935 he was attached to Hitler’s personal staff and in 1939 rose to serve as Hitler’s sole valet. As such, Linge had responsibility for ensuring that all of Hitler’s immediate needs were satisfied. Accordingly, it was Linge’s responsibility to ensure that Hitler had pocket money when he needed it, extra reading glasses, extra overcoats and every other item of personal property or source of information that Hitler might request. As a member of Hitler’s personal staff, Linge was rarely outside of the range of Hitler’s voice and from 1939 until the moment of Hitler’s death six years later, Linge was Hitler’s constant companion. On May 1, 1945, Linge was among those who oversaw the cremation of both Hitler and Eva Braun in the minutes after they had committed suicide.

Linge was not politically motivated in his service to Hitler and it is clear from his memoirs that he was loyal to the man much more than he was loyal to the Reich. For Linge, Hitler was not perfect, but his loyalties transcended even those imperfections that he did perceive, such as Hitler’s threats to send subordinates to concentration camps if they were deemed incompetent. Even in the final hours of the Reich, Linge would not abandon his Fuhrer. The day before Hitler and Braun committed suicide, Hitler had approached Linge and, as Linge recounts:

After I had entered and reported myself in military fashion he [Hitler] said without any preamble: “I would like to release you to your family.” I now did something I had never done before by interrupting him to declare: “Mein Fuhrer, I have been with you in good times, and I am staying with you also in bad.” Hitler looked at me calmly and said only: “I did not expect anything else from you.”

Despite being witness to the rise and fall of Hitler’s star, Linge was more of an observer of the daily personal life of Hitler than he was a participant in the military success and failures of his Fuhrer. Linge readily admits that he was not even familiar with most of Hitler’s philosophies until 1945 and later. Rather, Linge was the observer of the minute details that defined Hitler as an individual person more than they identified him as a political leader, and it is those personal details which make Hitler all the more chilling.

To read With Hitler to the End is to read account after account of Hitler as a charming host, flirt and scholar. Whether Hitler is kissing the hands of the married ladies as they leave his dinners or officiating at meatball cooking competitions in his private residence, or changing a light bulb on his own rather than calling for assistance, Linge portrays Hitler as a normal, engaging human being and only occasionally hints at the ruthlessness by which Hitler has come to be known.

Anecdotes such as the stories told by Schroeder and Linge make Hitler’s memory all the more frightening because they demonstrate that in certain circumstances, Hitler really was human. The fact that the beast to whom can be attributed the deaths of millions in the death camps, and millions more on the battlefields and bombed out cities of Europe, also had a charming, normal human face, only serves to make the beast more terrifying. The Hitler of Schroeder’s and Linge’s experience is all the more monstrous because he looks all too clearly like us.

The most recently translated work is I was Hitler’s Chauffeur: The Memoirs of Erich Kempka. Kempka’s book is brief but still the most riveting of the three titles. Like Schroeder and Linge, Kempka joined Hitler’s staff in the early 1930s. Over time, he would rise to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the SS but he remained, fundamentally, a driver and, as such, he probably had greater access to Hitler than any other member of his staff.

Kempka recalled his first meeting with Hitler as a member of his personal staff, after Kempka had been hired as Hitler’s back-up driver (a post he held until being promoted to head driver in the late 30s).

In the Reich capital, I was introduced to Hitler again. This time, our conversation took on a much more personal character. He wanted to know all about my family relationships, everything about my life and previous employment down to the minutest detail. During this hour there developed in me a strong personal bond of faith in Hitler, which never left me over the long years in which I was constantly in his company.

Hitler won the hearts and minds of working class youth like Kempka and inculcated a sense of loyalty that persisted throughout the war, even as Germany crumbled. And Kempka watched it crumble. He was with Hitler in Berlin until Hitler and Eva Braun killed themselves rather than be captured by the Russians. It was Kempka who carried Eva Braun to the hole outside of the bunker in which she and Hitler were cremated. It was Kempka who repeatedly doused them in petrol until they were sufficiently reduced to ash. Kempka tells the tale of those final days of the war in great detail, but is his observations about the relationships that Hitler had with his staff and those around him that I find most interesting.

Reading the memoirs of Kempka, Linge and Schroeder, it becomes very clear that Hitler wanted to be loved by his people and that he enjoyed playing the role of father to the fatherland. It also seems that to the people around him, Hitler was a man to be loved and admired, even when it was clear that he was in over his head.

Schroeder, Linge and Kempa largely ignore the genocide that the Nazis unleashed on Europe’s Jews, its homosexual community, the gypsies, the communists and others. As was the case with so many Germans—both civilian and military—following the war, the Holocaust was not something with respect to which they generally acknowledged even an awareness. Kempka comes the closest to accepting some culpability, even if that culpability came only from his knowledge of what Hitler and his agents were doing in the concentration camps.

What seemed to me most worthy of note was what Hitler said about the Jews in the last days and weeks of his life. Contrary to previous statements in speeches and so on, in which he had always spoken of the “Jewish race”, he now said that from the genetic and anthropological point of view there was no actual Jewish race, and that one spoke of a Jewish race only for “convenience in discussion”. Jewry was a not a special race, but a spiritual community bound not least to the fate of those of its members persecuted since time immemorial. This interpretation had its roots in the idea that Jewry, whose existence he considered a “sad victory of spirit over flesh”, had been responsible for all the evils in history and for which one day it must atone. He himself had made a start in wiping out Jewry, from which humanity had to be “liberated”. There could therefore be no talk of a fundamental deviation from his doctrine. This left me none the wiser.

My blind faith in Hitler caused me to overlook many things initially, mainly because of the speed with which everything happened.

Reading Schroeder, Linge and Kempka is to read not only of historical experience, but also of a longing for a past when the authors touched greatness. It did not matter to any of the three writers that history had shown them of the great wrongs that Hitler had committed in the name of the Third Reich and his own twisted view of the world. It did not matter that by supporting him they had contributed in some way, great or small, to the performance of those wrongs. To the reader, it is clear that each of the writers in some way was proud of his or her association with Hitler and the power of the Third Reich at its peak. At the same time, none of them really wanted to talk about the true ugliness of the Reich or to acknowledge or accept any of the blame for that ugliness.

As I was preparing this column, I had occasion to chat with a couple of veterans. One had served in the US Navy during WWII and the other had been too young to serve in the 1940s but had been in the Army for twenty-five years, seeing combat in both Korea and Viet Nam. They both commented, in their own way, that Hitler had a charisma that could not be denied. When I acted somewhat incredulous, they told me that I had to experience it to understand. That did not stop them from hating Hitler during the war and since, but they still felt the need, more than sixty years later, to acknowledge that charisma. One can only imagine what Schroeder, Linge and Kempka—young Germans who were invited into Hitler’s household in their late teens and early twenties during the heady early days of the Nazi rise to power—might have felt. The notion of the most evil man of the twentieth century kissing hands, enjoying lunch with secretaries, personally arranging snacks for his drivers, and generally being a pleasant employer is very difficult to reconcile with our perception of him. Hitler was a monster, but he had an all too human face.

Books mentioned in this column:
He Was My Chief: The Memoirs of Adolf Hitler’s Secretary by Christa Schroeder (Frontline Books, 2009)
With Hitler to the End: The Memoirs of Hitler’s Valet by Heinz Linge (Skyhorse Publishing, 2009)
I was Hitler’s Chauffeur: The Memoirs of Erich Kempka by Erich Kempka (Frontline Books, 2010)

David Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. He is currently a contributing writer at where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life. David is also a moderator, book reviewer, and active participant at World War II Forums, a discussion site dedicated to the study of the Second World War. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle puppy. Contact David.



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