Rochus Misch, who has died at the age of 96, served as Adolf Hitler’s devoted bodyguard for most of the Second World War and was the last remaining witness to the Nazi leader’s final hours.
Misch remained proud about his years with Hitler, whom he affectionately called “boss”. In a 2005 interview he recalled Hitler as “a very normal man” and gave a riveting account of the German dictator’s last days before he and his wife Eva Braun killed themselves as the Red Army closed in around their bunker in Berlin. “He was no brute. He was no monster. He was no superman,” Misch said.
Born in 1917, in the small Silesian town of Alt Schalkowitz, in what today is Poland, Misch was orphaned at an early age. At 20 he decided to join the SS, an organisation he saw as a counterweight to a rising threat from the left. He signed up for the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, a unit founded to serve as Hitler’s personal protection. “It was anti-communist, against Stalin – to protect Europe,” he recalled. “I signed up in the war against Bolshevism, not for Adolf Hitler.”
But when Germany invaded Poland Misch found himself in the vanguard as his SS division was attached to a regular army unit for the blitzkrieg attack. Misch was shot and nearly killed while trying to negotiate the surrender of a fortress near Warsaw, and he was sent to Germany to recover. There he was chosen in May 1940 as one of two SS men who would serve as Hitler’s bodyguards and general assistants, doing everything from answering the telephones to greeting dignitaries.
Misch and his comrade Johannes Hentschel accompanied Hitler almost everywhere he went, including his Alpine retreat in Berchtesgaden and his forward “Wolf’s Lair” headquarters. He lived between the Fuhrer’s apartments in the New Reich Chancellery and the home in a working-class Berlin neighbourhood that he kept until his death.
“He was a wonderful boss,” Misch said. “I lived with him for five years. We were the closest people who worked with him. We were always there. Hitler was never without us day and night.”
In the last days of Hitler’s life, Misch followed him to live underground, protected by the so-called Führerbunker’s heavily reinforced concrete ceilings and walls. “Hentschel ran the lights, air and water and I did the telephones – there was nobody else,” he said. “When someone would come downstairs we couldn’t even offer them a place to sit. It was far too small.”
After the Soviet assault began, Misch remembered generals and Nazi top brass coming and going as they tried desperately to cobble together a defence of the capital with the ragtag remains of the German military. He recalled that on 22 April, two days before two Soviet armies encircled the city, Hitler said: “That’s it. The war is lost. Everybody can go.”
Misch said, “Everyone except those who still had jobs to do like us – we had to stay. The lights, water, telephone ... those had to be kept going but everybody else was allowed to go and almost all were gone immediately.” However, Hitler clung to a report – false, as it turned out – that the Allies had called upon Germany to hold Berlin for two more weeks against the Soviets so they could fight communism together.
“He still believed in a union between West and East,” Misch said. “Hitler liked England – except for Churchill – and didn’t think that a people like the English would bind themselves with the communists to crush Germany.”
On 28 April Misch saw the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and Hitler’s confidant Martin Bormann enter the bunker with a man he had never seen before. “I asked who it was and they said that’s the civil magistrate who has come to perform Hitler’s marriage,” he said. That night, Hitler and Braun were married.
Two days later Misch saw Goebbels and Bormann talking to Hitler and his adjutant, Otto Guensche, in the bunker’s corridor. “I saw him go into his room ... and someone, Guensche, said that he shouldn’t be disturbed,” Misch said. “We all knew that it was happening. He said he wasn’t going to leave Berlin, he would stay here. We heard no shot, we heard nothing, but one of those who was in the hallway, I don’t remember if it was Guensche or Bormann, said, ‘Linge, Linge, I think it’s done’,” Misch said, referring to Hitler’s valet, Heinz Linge.
“Then everything was really quiet. Who opened the door I don’t remember, Guensche or Linge. They opened the door, and I naturally looked, and then there was a short pause and the second door was opened ... and I saw Hitler lying on the table like so,” Misch said, putting his head down on his hands on his living-room table. “And Eva lay like so on the sofa with knees up, her head to him.”
Misch ran to the chancellery to tell his superior the news and then back downstairs, where Hitler’s body had been put on the floor with a blanket over it. “Then they bundled Hitler up and said, ‘What do we do now?’,” Misch said. “As they took Hitler out ... they walked by me about three or four metres away. I saw his shoes sticking outside the sack.”
An SS guard ran down the stairs and tried to get Misch to watch as the two were covered in petrol and set alight. “He said, ‘The boss is being burned. Come on out’,” Misch recalled. But Misch retreated into the bunker to talk to Hentschel. “I said, ‘I saw the Gestapo upstairs in the ... chancellery, and it could be that they’ll want to kill us as witnesses’,” Misch said.
But he stuck to his post in the bunker – which he described as “a coffin of concrete” – taking and directing telephone calls with Goebbels as his new boss until 2 May, when he was given permission to flee. Goebbels, he said, “came down and said, ‘You have a chance to live. You don’t have to stay here and die’.”
Misch fled with a few others into the rubble of Berlin. Working his way through cellars and subways, he surfaced after hearing German being spoken above through a ventilation shaft. But the voices came from soldiers who had been taken prisoner, and the Soviet guards seized him. He was taken to the Soviet Union, where he spent nine years in prisoner of war camps before returning to Berlin. He was reunited with his wife Gerda and opened up a shop.
Misch always avoided questions of guilt or responsibility for the Holocaust, saying that Hitler never brought up the Final Solution in his presence. “That was never a topic,” he said. “Never.”
Rochus Misch, soldier: born Alt Schalkowitz, Germany 29 July 1917; married 1942 Gerda (died 1997); died Berlin 5 September 2013.