"Adolf Hitler's skull went on display in Moscow recently showing the bullet hole where, 55 years ago, he shot himself. Rochus Misch, a member of the Fuhrer's personal staff, witnessed the suicide. He tells his story, for the first time, to SIMON FINCH.
IT looks like any children's sandpit, surrounded by the building sites of 21st Century Berlin. But for the old man at my side, this deserted playground on the edge of Potsdammer Platz has a very different resonance.
Rochus Misch has paced out the distance - 140m from Zimmerstrasse and 90m from Wilhelmstrasse. Here, he says, was the garden of the German Chancellery, in whose bomb-cratered morass Hitler's impromptu funeral pyre was lit. And just here, beneath this building site, was the place Misch had spent his war: Hitler's underground bunker, the concrete heart of the Third Reich, where the Fuhrer took his own life as his dreams were ground beneath the Allied advance.
"Everyone was waiting for the shot. We were expecting it. I had just said to the technicians, 'I am going over (to Hitler's office), can I fetch you anything?' And they said no. Then came the shot. I was just six metres away from him when he did it.
"Linge (Hitler's valet) took me to one side and we went in, just after the shot. I saw Hitler slumped by the table. I did not see any blood on his head. And I saw Eva with her knees drawn up lying next to him on the sofa - wearing a white and blue blouse, with a little collar: just a little thing. I was just a young man then. That is why it stays with me so strongly."
For five years, Rochus Misch was a member of Hitler's personal staff, living in Hitler's bunker; he finished the war as Chief of Communications, in charge of the bunker switchboard. It was 55 years ago on April 30, 1945, when Russian troops were closing in, that he heard that shot. Hitler's skull, the bullet hole clearly visible, went on display in Moscow for the first time recently - part of the "Agony of the Third Reich: Retribution" exhibition organised by the Russian State archives to mark the anniversary of the Russian conquest of Berlin.
"After the shot, it all happened very quickly. The door was opened, then closed again, then someone else came, then the blankets were brought in. I ran away, then I came back. I wanted to tell my boss that the Fuhrer was dead - I wanted to make a report, but just after I left the front bunker I ran back. It all happened in seconds. Not minutes, seconds. Then some other people came and they wrapped the bodies up in the blankets.
"They took Hitler out of the emergency exit and put him in a bomb crater. Petrol was poured over him and he was burnt. Not completely burnt, but the corpse was charred. That was the end of Adolf Hitler and along with him, the end of the Third Reich - here, in this place."
Misch's descriptions of the last days of the Reich have a hauntingly intimate intensity. Hitler's bunker, after all, was not a large place. Misch describes it as 15m long, with very small rooms. Hitler's study, sitting room and bedroom on one side; on the other, the bedroom of Eva Braun, Hitler's mistress whom he married in those last hours.
"And then my room, relax, telephone - all that was done from there. It was 120050 - that was the telephone number of the bunker and Hitler's living quarters. That day, I said it loudly on the telephone on purpose, just to break the silence. Everyone was walking quietly by. People were whispering - it was deathly silent down there. It was a coffin for the dead, a concrete coffin.
"The last time I saw Hitler alive he walked out into the corridor and along to the machine room past me, and we looked at each other. He was a broken man, quite hunched up, like a dead man. I do not think it was hard for him to die.
"We knew when Hitler said he was staying in Berlin that he would shoot himself. He said this to his valet, his adjutant and so on, who told us that the boss was staying here. We were suspended between hope and death.
"We had always been waiting for it, we just did not know when it would happen. It all went wrong from one day to the next. One adjutant told Hitler he was leaving and Hitler said to the others 'What am I doing wrong? An adjutant has announced his departure. He wants to leave. Why are people running away from me?' And a secretary said, 'Mein Fuhrer, you are doing nothing wrong. But the adjutants here are front-line soldiers. They want to go back to the front. They do not want to just walk about here in their patent leather shoes'."
After the bodies of Hitler and Braun had been removed, the afternoon continued in a crescendo of the macabre. Into Misch's office came Magda, wife of the propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, with her six children: she had decided the whole family should die together.
"The children were prepared for their deaths in my work room. Their mother combed their hair - they were all dressed in white night shirts - and then she went up with the children. There were kitchen workers and secretaries who went down on their knees to Magda and cried for the children - they said they would look after them." But all six were poisoned. "After the children were dead, Magda came down again, walked past me, and sat down at a table two metres away and started playing patience, she started laying down cards. She was crying."
Misch, fearing his own death was imminent, wanted to leave the bunker. "I kept saying to Goebbels, 'I want to go. I want to go away to meet my comrades.' But he said to me, 'There are still telephone calls to make.'
"There were still people there - General Krebs [Army Chief of Staff], General Burgdoff [Chief Adjutant], Martin Bormann [Hitler's deputy] - they were all still there and the telephone lines had to work. We were still receiving phone calls - we were negotiating with the Russians, there were civilians who phoned us up, who knew our number. I still had to carry out my duty."
But eventually even the propaganda minister accepted the inevitable. Goebbels said to me, "We understand how to live, so we also understand how to die. You can stop now." Then I dealt with my things. I took out all the cables, all the connections.
Joseph and Magda Goebbels committed suicide and Misch finally fled from the bunker, but a day later he was captured by the Russians. When the authorities realised who he was, he was sent, on Stalin's orders, to Moscow. The Russian leader could not accept that his rival was finally dead.
"They thought what I had described was not true. 'What if the body you saw was someone else?' 'But it was not someone else, no one else came in.' 'Ah, you are lying, you are lying', always the same. I knew Hitler for five years, I saw him two or three hours before his death and no one else came in."
Misch and the other witnesses to Hitler's last days were ordered to be tortured as Stalin's paranoia raged. "They stripped me and then they whipped my testicles and I lost consciousness. I lost a lot of blood. After a while I ceased to be a human being. I despaired of life, of everything that had happened. There was no heating in the basement, even the urine was frozen. I was laid on an iron bed without a blanket, without anything, nothing. That is why I wrote to Beria [Stalin's head of secret police] that I wanted to be shot, because I could not go on."
To test the statements of their German prisoners, the Russian authorities staged a reconstruction of Hitler's suicide and the burning of his corpse, complete with the original eyewitnesses. The "Reich Chancellery Group" was assembled, bundled onto a train, and then onto a plane bound for Germany. A disoriented Misch looked on as the re-enactment took place.
But if the Charade finally satisfied the Soviets that their prisoners were telling the truth, it now suited Stalin to keep the mystery over Hitler's death alive. Misch was flown back to the Soviet Union, where he was sent to the Gulags.
"There was order in the prison camps, I have to admit that. We were given our food, one was simply a prisoner. I was mostly in the so-called 'regime camps' where they held people such as the atomic physicists, the people who had taught in the university in Moscow.
"You had to survive on hope. You had to live on very little - little food, little sleep; but it was better for us than for much of the population of Russia. We had our 600 or 400 grams of bread per day - the Russian people did not always have that."
After Stalin's death in 1953, Misch was released under Khrushchev's general amnesty and sent back to East Germany. There he lived a life of quiet anonymity with his wife Gerda and their daughter Birgitta, who had been born during the war (Eva Braun had given them a pushchair back in the days of the Reich). Together, they ran a small home-decorating shop.
It was just by chance that Rochus Misch had so unusual a war. A member of the SS Leibstandarte elite guards, he was wounded during the invasion of Poland in 1939.
"That was a lucky break for me because it was through my injury that I came to work for Hitler." Still in his early twenties, Misch was taken out of active service and, following a recommendation from one of his commanding officers, was summoned to the Reich Chancellery.
"The head adjutant interviewed me. He had to know who would be living in Hitler's apartment. Then he stood up and went to the door. And who was standing behind the door? Hitler. I got in a state, freezing cold one moment, hot the next. We were one metre apart. He had been listening to the interview behind the door.
"Hitler asked where I came from and I said, 'Mein Fuhrer, I come,' - in the meantime I had composed myself a little - 'I come from Upper Silesia.' He asked, 'Do we have any Silesians here?' and the head adjutant said, 'I do not know, I do not know.' Hitler went on, 'Well, the young man can do something for me straight away.' And he gave me a letter and said, 'Please take this to my sister Paula in Vienna.' "
It was May 1940. This was Misch's first task as one of the Fuhrer-Begleitung (Hitler's personal staff). Until this promotion, Misch had been living obscurely in an army barracks and at first this new position left him awestruck.
"Hitler was acclaimed, celebrated everywhere. This was the Fuhrer. I was scared. But after 10 days or so I got used to the fact that Hitler was a human being, like any other. Then he was no longer the great Fuhrer, but simply 'the boss'.
"He was a very good boss, very loyal. We who were closest to him tried to carry out our duties properly. We were bodyguards, telephonists, whatever; we did everything that would have to be done for the head of any firm, whoever he may be. There is nothing to complain about when you have such a boss. He always asked how we all were. Those who claim Hitler was not interested in ordinary people are talking nonsense."
* * *
A FEW months ago, builders digging the foundations for a new government office block next to the sandpit on the edge of Potsdammer Platz accidentally exposed part of the bunker roof. It rekindled a debate: should the bunker be left buried, destroyed, or maintained as a museum? Despite a substantial lobby, running the gamut from archaeologists and historians to Holocaust campaigners and the inevitable neo-Nazi groups, the Berlin authorities decided to rebury their past. Misch, however, believes the bunker should have been excavated.
"It should be preserved for the sake of history. This is where the Nazi era happened and where Hitler died. It was a momentous event. It should be kept for the world to see."
The latest scholarship suggests that by the end of 1942, a large percentage of the German population knew that the "Jewish problem" - as Nazi ideology had it - had been radically solved and millions put to death. Coming to terms with Hitler's crimes and the Holocaust has been a struggle for the German people; for Misch, it has been harder than for most.
To him, Hitler was not just a distant leader. He was the kind boss who joked with his staff; the film buff who loved Charlie Chaplin and watched "Gone With The Wind" three times. The man who always said that he was too busy for a wife and yet, Misch believes, married Eva Braun the day before their deaths so that "he took her to the grave as a married woman solely out of consideration for her parents". And for Misch, this dichotomy is made more extraordinary by the fact that, despite being at the heart of Hitler's operation, he insists he never heard any talk of the mass murder of Jews.
"How could we fail to find this out - my God, we knew nearly everything that was going on - us in the inner circle - we were always there, day and night. We saw Hitler in his nightshirt. We received the dispatches and brought them to Hitler to read. He would have them under his arm and tear out a report and hand it to me, and I would get rid of it in a waste-paper basket. There was never anything on this subject."
And yet, he does not deny the Holocaust happened. "Yes, it happened, but I cannot imagine it. I cannot imagine Hitler as a murderer. It is simply impossible. He was so friendly, nice.
"If I met him today, I would say, 'Mein Fuhrer, I did not really get to know you that well. For five years we could look each other straight in the eye and smile and ... all these things that have been written about, where did that all come from? I never knew you to be like that, Mein Fuhrer'."
(c) The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2000
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