According to a compilation of eye witness accounts by Adolf Hitler’s former domestic staff, the dictator’s personal servants were unaware of Nazi atrocities during World War II, including the murder of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust.
In the book “Living with Hitler,” published in May, three former staffers to the Fuhrer deliver their impressions of everyday life in his service. While many of the post-war narratives focus on mundane details including Hitler’s daily menu and wardrobe, the accounts also shed light on life inside “the gilded cage of the Berghof,” Hitler’s alpine retreat.
From his awkward attempts to be photographed with German children, to the oppressive control he exerted over his mistress, Eva Braun, Hitler and his eccentricities are recalled with general fondness. After designing the rustic Berghof country house himself, Hitler went on to use the retreat — and its stunning mountainous view into Germany’s mythical past — to host meetings with heads of state.
By all three of the book’s accounts, domestic workers in close proximity to Hitler were “in the dark” about the regime’s evil-doings. According to former valet Karl Wilhelm Krause, the dictator himself “wasn’t actually informed about many things,” he wrote.
“Hitler lived in a kind of fake world,” said Krause, who “fell out of grace” with his master over a bottle of mineral water.
The dismissal of Krause took place before Germany’s “Final Solution” to the Jewish question was implemented, although Krause continued to visit Hitler after his service ended.
In an interview with The Times of Israel about “Living with Hitler,” for which he penned the Foreword, World War II historian Roger Moorhouse said the former staff members — including the book’s three subjects — were not positioned to piece together Hitler’s “war of annihilation” following Germany’s invasion of Soviet lands.
Hitler’s chambermaid at the Berghof retreat, Anna Plaim, claimed that “most people knew nothing about the extermination of the Jews as it was brutally executed at Auschwitz.”
Admitting to having had an intense “fascination” with Hitler, Plaim told an interviewer she was among the Germans who visited Auschwitz-Birkenau following the war, and of being disturbed by the encounter.
Plaim’s account sheds light on Hitler’s relationship with Eva Braun, who played the role of mistress at the Berghof. To the north, at headquarters in Berlin, Braun found herself tucked away upstairs most of the day, entering and leaving through a back door. In contrast, photographs taken of her — and by her — at the Berghof convey a free-spirited woman, at ease and usually grinning by Hitler’s side.
For her part, chambermaid Plaim admitted to having picked through Braun’s trash to learn more about her mistress’s private life, including Braun’s mysterious relationship with Hitler. Of the book’s three former staff members, only Plaim remains alive.
‘We could have found out’
Earlier this year, the wartime diaries of German activist Friedrich Kellner were published in English for the first time. Inside his notebooks, Kellner pasted items having to do with the regime’s atrocities as they occurred, ranging from press clippings to fliers posted around town.
A fierce opponent of Nazism, Kellner often wrote about the regime’s lies to the German people, and he included several reports on the evolving genocide of the Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. Since the Kellner diary’s publication in Germany, the work has been considered a view into what “ordinary Germans” might have known about the Nazis’ genocidal activities during the war.
According to Moorhouse, however, the ability to resist was not widespread among the population of Nazi Germany: Few people were privy to information at the level of the well-connected Kellner.
“Kellner was exceptional,” said Moorhouse. “He was a socialist, a court official, someone who had his eyes and ears open. More than that, he was someone who was consciously seeking to record the crimes of the Nazis for posterity.”
Adding that Kellner was someone who “wanted to know,” Moorhouse contrasted the late diarist with “Living with Hitler’s” Anne Plaim, “a simple girl from Lower Austria who came into Hitler’s employment as a chambermaid when she was barely 20 years old,” he said.
“Not everyone is a Friedrich Kellner; not everyone is even capable of being a Friedrich Kellner,” said Moorhouse. “Plaim certainly was not.”
By way of the long-standing “what did they know” inquiry, Moorhouse brought up one of Hitler’s better-known secretaries, Traudl Junge. In her 2002 memoir, Junge claimed that “we could have found out” with regard to being kept in the dark about Nazi atrocities, said Moorhouse.
“What [Junge] implies but doesn’t mention is that — for whatever reason, blinkered by the high-life perhaps — she and the others in Hitler’s entourage, like so many others beyond, essentially did not want to know, and so never asked questions,” said Moorhouse.
Along with most wartime Germans’ desire “not to know,” reminded Moorhouse, “the past was a different place; information was not ubiquitous then, as it is now,” he said.
During World War II, “[German] media was strictly controlled, conversation was constricted,” said Moorhouse. “Too often, I think, modern commentary on this subject starts from this anachronistic position; from the assumption that ‘they must have known.’ I think it is much more complicated than that,” said Moorhouse, whose book “Berlin at War” delves into the issue.
‘A rather more objective view’
In terms of insight into Hitler’s private life, the accounts in “Living with Hitler” trod familiar territory with a some new anecdotes.
Herbert Dohring, a housekeeper at the Berghof, relayed that Hitler felt “socially responsible for his staff,” including by giving them generous monetary gifts. Dohring also spoke about the darker side of Hitler’s personality, including when his wife once walked in on Hitler “sitting in full embrace on the couch” with Geli Raubal — the dictator’s half-niece — in 1931.
According to gossip, Hitler and Raubal were erotically involved, and her presumed suicide might have been connected to his over-possessiveness. While they lived together, Hitler made sure Raubal was tailed everywhere she went, and he bluntly terminated her relationships.
Of “Living with Hitler’s” three accounts, historian Moorhouse found the narrative of valet Karl Krause “most interesting,” he said.
“Most of the other accounts by members of Hitler’s household are, shall we say, rather ‘uncritical’ in tone,” said Moorhouse. “They speak of ‘the Boss’ in hushed, reverential tones, clearly influenced by the feelings that they had at the time. Krause, however, has a rather more objective view. He was sacked by Hitler in 1939…”
Moorhouse says an initial round of books by Hitler’s personal staff was published in the 1960s, including tomes from his pilot and valet. Although the latest set of accounts adds little to the historic record, they offer views into the Third Reich’s power center, he said.
“Books from members of Hitler’s household do show us how, on one level, autocratic and totalitarian regimes functioned; they show us the infighting, the petty rivalries, the empire-building, the patronage, the sycophancy,” said Moorhouse.
“Such things are doubtless present in the inner circles of many despotic regimes, past and present, so are arguably worth studying for that aspect alone,” said Moorhouse.