This High Holiday season, as we consider the meaning and merit of forgiveness, I find myself thinking about Rochus Misch, who died in Berlin last week. The 97 year-old’s death marks a certain break with the past. I want very much to understand the history to which he was a witness, but his death ends the opportunity to continue learning from him that which he saw. For Rochus Misch played a unique role. He was Hitler’s bodyguard.
Misch was the last remaining member of the so-called Fuhrer Bunker, the concrete air-raid shelter beneath the Chancellery where Hitler spent his last days before the Third Reich collapsed in April, 1945 (I recently wrote about visiting the site of the bunker here). Misch, who had served as Hitler’s main bodyguard throughout World War Two, ran the bunker’s various operations, interacted with every high level Nazi and German military official at the end of the war, observed Hitler’s suicide, witnessed the end of the Nazi regime, and then spent nine years as a Soviet prisoner of war before returning to Berlin in 1954, where he lived out the remainder of his long life. He apparently committed no crime save that of protecting the life of the greatest criminal of them all.
Unrepentant to the end, Misch denied any knowledge of the Final Solution, conceded no diabolical underpinnings to Hitler’s personality, and continued to refer to him with some affection as “boss”, even almost seventy years after Hitler’s suicide. Misch had a singular role as the constant presence in Hitler’s life, never more than a few feet away at all times. He was perhaps the person closest to Hitler and thus in possession of the best direct insight into the man, the Nazi machinery of destruction, and the still-unanswered questions about the Holocaust.
To the best of my knowledge there exists only one extant recording of Hitler speaking unofficially. Think about every recording you have ever seen or heard of Hitler: he is speaking at a rally with his trademark oration, the screaming fits, the pummeling fists, the pleading mannerisms to German greatness. Yet a recording turned up from a private conservation on a train between Hitler and Finnish Marshal Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, in which Hitler espouses at great length on various military strategies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. It makes for remarkable, chilling, listening, for it is our only opportunity to hear Hitler speaking normally. Were it not Hitler, you would never know it was him.
But Misch knew him. He knew Hitler through his triumphs, failures, and ultimate death. Think of what Misch could have told us (maybe he still will: his memoirs come out in October). Could he have solved perennial questions about the genesis of the Final Solution, like whether the Holocaust came about on Hitler’s direct orders or was instead a bottom-up stumbling towards genocidal policy?
When I consider Misch’s life and the role he played, I don’t consider whether or not to forgive him. I am thinking instead: I want to know. As we properly lament the passing of Holocaust survivors for the memories that will now be confined to history – or worse, never revealed – we must also recognize that the perpetrators have exceptional stories to tell.
Maybe Rochus Misch was telling the truth when he claimed to have known nothing about the Final Solution. Maybe it is possible for Hitler’s closest bodyguard to have been kept just far enough out of the loop that he was still able to see Hitler, decades later and with nothing to lose, as an eminently decent “boss.” Maybe. But I suspect that deep within Misch had plenty of secrets he could have told, things that, at his age and in declining health, would be valuable for us to know.
Of the tens of thousands of German soldiers and Nazi officers who participated in genocide, only a few hundred have ever been successfully prosecuted and dealt punishment. The vast majority got away with it. Now we have but a few rapidly aging, declining, perpetrators left alive, and a short window of time for us to still hear their stories.
I wish there was a mechanism by which we could encourage those few surviving perpetrators to tell the truth about what they did. Whatever contributions they could make to scholarship, there is something even deeper they could shed light on. That distinctly human sentiment which still smolders all these decades later: why?