Twi­light of the Re­ich: Eye­wit­ness to events in Hitler’s Ber­lin bunker

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Ninety-three-year-old Bernd Frey­tag von Lor­inghoven has had a dis­tin­guished ca­reer in the post­war Ger­man mil­i­tary, the Bun­deswehr, rep­re­sent­ing it in im­por­tant NATO coun­cils. But as might be ex­pected of a ca­reer Ger­man sol­dier born in 1914, he also served in the Nazi Wehrma­cht, end­ing up as an aide to a top gen­eral for the last months of World War II in Hitler’s Ber­lin bunker, the nerve cen­ter of the Third Re­ich.

Iron­i­cally, Mr. Lor­inghoven had cho­sen the army as a ca­reer over the le­gal pro­fes­sion be­cause he would have had to be a Nazi party mem­ber to be a lawyer. But when Hitler as­sumed the role of head of state fol­low­ing Pres­i­dent Von Hin­den­burg’s death in 1934, the young sol­dier found that “all sol­diers had to take an oath to Hitler per­son­ally.” Mr. Lor­inghoven says he re­garded this as “a mere for­mal­ity,” but in the next decade he found out it was not.

When he got to the bunker in July 1944, Mr. Lor­inghoven had par­tic­i­pated in the Blitzkrieg 1940 in­va­sion of France and gone on to fight on the gru­el­ing East­ern Front, man­ag­ing for­tu­itously to es­cape from Stalin- grad. Al­ready dis­il­lu­sioned by po­lit­i­cal in­ter­fer­ence with mil­i­tary strat­egy he be­lieved had doomed Ger­many to de­feat, he found him­self with a ring­side seat as an aide to the cel­e­brated Panzer gen­eral Heinz Guderian:

“The Fuhrer would ac­cept ad­vice from no­body, con­vinced he was in­fal­li­ble, both in po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary mat­ters. He was an im­mense ego­ist . . . The des­tiny of Ger­many only in­ter­ested him in­so­far as he con­fused it with his own. . . . the Ger­man peo­ple were sim­ply a means to an end. I never heard him ut­ter a word of com­pas­sion for the sol­diers at the front, the pris­on­ers, the wounded, the bomb vic­tims or the refugees. Hu­man suf­fer­ing was of no con­se­quence to him, per­ceived as neg­li­gi­ble within the splen­did iso­la­tion of his head­quar­ters.”

No sur­prises here, but such a per­sonal im­pres­sion is in­valu­able. As a pris­oner of war of the Bri­tish, Mr. Lor­inghoven was in­ter­ro­gated by an of­fi­cer who turned out to be none other than the Ox­ford his­to­rian Hugh Trevor-Roper, and the in­for­ma­tion pro­vided ob­vi­ously made a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to his sem­i­nal 1947 book, “The Last Days of Hitler.” Still, an up-close and per­sonal por­trait by one who was ac­tu­ally in the bunker has a spe­cial res­o­nance:

“This was no ‘Re­ichs­fuhrer of Greater Ger­many fight­ing for his des­tiny.’ At fifty-five years old, he truly looked an old man, stoop­ing, hunched, head droop­ing, skin grey­ish, face deathly pale, eyes lack­lus­tre. He shuf­fled for­ward . . . I was taken aghast. The hero lauded by of­fi­cial pro­pa­ganda was a wreck. . . . For a fleet­ing mo­ment the thought crossed my mind: this man with ap­pear­ance and de­meanor of a tramp is none­the­less the sole ruler of the Re­ich!”

Mr. Lor­inghoven had been at Hitler’s side less than a month when he got to see an even less at­trac­tive side of his leader. The un­suc­cess­ful as­sas­si­na­tion plot by Count Stauf­fen­berg had oc­curred just be­fore the young of­fi­cer en­tered the cor­ri­dors of power, which were perme- ated by a vi­cious air of sus­pi­cion. No one was safe, and Mr. Lor­inghoven has many telling ac­counts of in­ci­dents, some lead­ing to bru­tal­ity and tragedy, oth­ers to lucky es­capes. But he saw ev­i­dence that there was a cer­tain kind of hu­man suf­fer­ing that was of twisted sig­nif­i­cance to Hitler, that of the ex­e­cuted con­spir­a­tors:

“The eight vic­tims, hung on a hook with a steel rope, suf­fered in agony for twenty min­utes . . . Some days later . . . at the daily brief­ing . . . [there was] tossed a bun­dle of pho­to­graphs on the Fuhrer’s map ta­ble. I re­alised with a shock that th­ese were pic­tures of the . . . ex­e­cu­tions. Hitler put on his spec­ta­cles, ea­gerly grabbed up the macabre images and gazed at them for an eter­nity, with a look of ghoul­ish de­light . . . Un­able to stand the sight I hur­ried from the room.”

So there you have it from an eye­wit­ness: Hitler was no schreibtis­chmorder (desk killer). He ac­tu­ally en­joyed con­tem­plat­ing such hor­ren­dous tor­ture and for that ev­i­dence alone, this book is valu­able.

Mr. Lor­inghoven in­sists that he had no knowl­edge of the Holo­caust un­til told by his Al­lied cap­tors af­ter the war. He de­fends his record up to a point, but ac­cepts a mea­sure of guilt:

“I had not com­mit­ted any ac­tions con­trary to in­ter­na­tional law, nor had I done any­thing for which I felt per­son­ally cul­pa­ble. At the same time, how­ever, I had con­tin­ued to do my duty as a sol­dier at the be­hest of a crim­i­nal.”

Cer­tainly no hero, Mr. Lor­inghoven shows how a man can be swept up and used by a to­tal­i­tar­ian sys­tem like Nazism, which ex­ploited pa­tri­o­tism to co-opt mil­lions for its ter­ri­ble work.

Af­ter be­ing ex­posed to the fetid at­mos­phere of Hitler’s bunker, what a plea­sure to turn to Joanna Moody’s “From Churchill’s War Rooms: Let­ters of a Sec­re­tary 1943-45.” Life in Lon­don’s un­der­ground pres­sure­cooker had its hard­ships too, but what a dif­fer­ence in at­mos­phere and ev­ery­thing else. It’s not only be­ing part of a win­ning team that gives this book such a feel­ing of joy: Here there is hu­mane­ness and de­cency. This par­al­lel ac­count of work­ing for a gen­eral at­tached to the supreme na­tional leader is the per­fect an­ti­dote to the nasty taste left by the pic­ture so ef­fec­tively painted by Mr. Lor­inghoven.

Martin Ru­bin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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