I met Rochus Misch in March 2007. He was an energetic old man, living at a quiet, insignificant Berlin suburb. For his neighbours he was just Rochus. For the rest of the world he was Hitler’s bodyguard and the last survivor from Hitler’s Bunker below the German Chancellery building. I read a couple of hours ago that he died today and spent some time thinking about my acquaintance with him.
I interviewed Rochus for more than 4 hours, it was my first “serious” interview and I wanted to get all the facts straight. Rochus narrated tons of details from his life and his service under Hitler’s direct commands. The inevitable questions were posed. Rochus kept telling me that he didn’t know about the Final Solution. He was Hitler’s shadow, but old Adolf never went to concentration camps, hence Rochus never saw anything. I asked him to conduct a part of the interview at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin; he had no problem at all, sitting on one of those eerie concrete blocks talking to me about his duties, his service.
Rochus was orphaned at an early age and, after trying his skills as a painter, he joined the army. He was a very simple boy who was discovering the world and the offer to serve in Hitler’s bodyguards came completely out of the blue. Suddenly, from a village boy in uniform that he was, Rochus was transformed into the bodyguard one of the world’s most powerful men. Even when I met him, six decades later, I could feel his awe when he was talking about the “boss”. But still, I’d ask the same question again, in other words every time, and he would deny that he knew, he’d try to avoid denouncing the killings, “there is no war without crimes and there will never be one” he kept saying. Why wouldn’t he just denounce the Holocaust? I kept wondering during the week I was in Berlin.
Was he a fascist? No he wasn’t. He was an insignificant boy who suddenly became significant. His life got meaning under Hitler. He could easily deny everything else apart from the importance of those few years he lived next to Adolf. I remember him being extremely reluctant of talking about his family. I later found out that he had little or no contact with his own daughter. She had found out from her maternal grandmother that her mother (Rochus’ wife) had Jewish origin, something that he never accepted.
After the war Rochus spent nine years in Soviet camps as a prisoner. He returned to Berlin and had a quiet life after that, much like his younger years. When I met him in his 80s, Nazi Germany was the most vivid, most important part of his life. He wouldn’t get tired of giving interviews to journalists from all around the world, asking him the same things. How was it in the bunker? Did you hear the gunshot when Hitler and Eva committed suicide? Did you see Magda Goebbels poisoning her own children? How did you feel?
Several years later he published his memoirs. At the website for the book there was this quote of his:
My name is Rochus Misch. I am an insignificant man, but I have experienced significant things.
I am now thinking about Greece. And the rise of the extreme far-right over here. I think of the countless Golden Dawn voters that I have interviewed. Most of them are marginalised. They feel important when they participate in Golden Dawn rallies. They belong somewhere. Much like Rochus. They deny any connection between Golden Dawn and the rise in racist attacks in Greece. We didn’t see, we didn’t hear, if this is true it’s bad but we are not sure yet. Much like Rochus. And they keep supporting them. They turn a blind eye to violence, to populism, to hatred, to intolerance, to social division. And, most importantly, they vote for them.
Insignificant men doing significant (but wrong) things.
PS: I had travelled to Berlin for the production of a documentary about Rochus Misch for WarZone Documentaries where I was working back then. The documentary is available online here (unfortunately only in Greek).