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