BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
Until the Final Hour: Hitler's Last Secretary / The Bonfire of Berlin
, June 18, 2005
Last days of the ReichUNTIL THE FINAL HOUR: Hitler's Last Secretary
by Traudl Junge with Melissa Müller
Paperback RRP: $21.95THE BONFIRE OF BERLIN: A Lost Childhood in Wartime Germany
by Helga Schneider
London: William Heinemann
Hardcover RRP: $29.95The recently released film, The Downfall (Der Untergang), currently screening in Australian cinemas, is one of a number of items released recently by Germans as they re-evaluate their country's Nazi legacy.
The film, which examines the final chapter of Hitler's life, is based largely upon the last section of his secretary Traudl Junge's wartime memoirs, Until the Final Hour
Junge, née Humps, was originally from Bavaria, but wished to move to Berlin to pursue her interest in dancing. After securing a job as secretary in the Chancellery, she was selected by Hitler to be one of his personal secretaries, a post she was to hold for the next three years.
Junge originally wrote her memoirs within a few years of the war, but refused to let them be published until after her death.
She highlights aspects of Hitler's character that are often overlooked. For example, he could be very paternal and caring towards immediate members of his household, such as when Junge learned that her husband had been killed in action in 1944.
Hitler's daily schedule was eccentric. He rose very late and appeared to do little work. Much of the afternoon was taken up by a lengthy walk, and the day ended with a lengthy supper which lasted until the early hours. Hence, the secretaries often had only a few hours' work to complete each day.
Hitler was a vegetarian. His bizarre diet included unrefined linseed oil and caraway tea.
During Junge' term as his secretary, Hitler spent little time in Berlin, alternating between the Obersalzberg and his headquarters in East Prussia.
The final phase in the Berlin bunker was surreal. While the rest of the Berlin population was suffering starvation, air-raids and the threat of Soviet occupation, the inhabitants of the bunker lived largely protected, with many of them still believing in final victory, even as the Russians entered Berlin.
By contrast, Helga Schneider, in her book The Bonfire of Berlin
, recounts life as one of the civilians who endured the misery of life in Berlin before and after its fall.
She recalls the time of her childhood from the time her mother abandoned her and her brother to serve Hitler's régime as a concentration camp guard, until the family went to live in Austria in 1947.
Most of the narrative, however, is about the horrific months leading up to the fall of Berlin. The frequent air-raids destroyed the city's infrastructure, depriving civilians of gas, electricity, running water and food.
In the end, Schneider and her brother were reduced to living in a cellar with others from their block of flats. They emerged only to perform essential tasks, such as to collect water and scavenge for food, which exposed them to the danger of death or injury from air-raids or artillery fire.
Schneider's only respite was a period when she and her brother lived in the Berlin bunker, being properly fed and rested before being introduced to Hitler.
Although the arrival of Soviet forces was soon followed by cessation of formal hostilities, German survivors had to endure theft, rape and, in some cases, death at the hands of the victorious Red Army.Evil nature
Although writing from different perspectives, both Traudl Junge and Helga Schneider learned of the evil nature of the Third Reich - Schneider when her boarding-school headmistress told her about the ways Nazis had treated people she had known; Junge only after the régime's final collapse.
Paradoxically, although she was Hitler's secretary, Junge seems to have known little if anything about the extermination of the Jews.
Indeed, she recounts one incident in which a female guest described in Hitler's presence the misery of Dutch Jews being deported. There was an embarrassed silence and the guest was never invited again.
Even if they do not make happy reading, both these memoirs, written as they are from a German perspective, are nevertheless riveting and hard to put down.