Anthea Bell, Translator
Melissa Müller, Editor
(Arcade)Fräulein Junge was one of the three secretaries that worked directly with Adolf Hitler during his last years. She began in November of 1942, was with him for the remainder of the war, and was in the Berlin bunker when he and Eva Braun killed themselves. She then escaped, was caught by the Russians, imprisoned, and then set free at the end of 1945.Until the Final Hour is a chronicle of her life in the Wolf's Lair, the Berghof, the Guest House near Salzberg, and the bunker in Berlin. It is an astonishing peek into the private lives of Hitler, Braun, and the various military, political, and support personnel who were part of the Führer's day-to-day life at the very end.This manuscript was completed in 1947. It is thus fresh with her memories of her time with Hitler, Eva, the crank doctor Theodor Morell, Göbbels, Himmler, Speer. She, like the other secretaries, was pressed into being dinner companion for Hitler and his entourage. We get to see at close hand what it was like. She referred to these evening tête-à-têtes which would often go on until dawn "a duty." Albert Speer said they were incredibly boring.
We can accept or not her statements that she knew little or nothing of the murder and havoc going on outside the walls, mayhem that spilled over all of Europe, all flowing from her boss. She claims she knew nothing of the workings of the concentrations camps, the SS, the Gestapo and the Death Squads. Who's to say? As secretary, documents certainly flowed through her hands which treated with these matters. On occasion, a guest would complain about what they had seen on the outside. A Frau von Schirach told Hitler that she had seen a train full of Jews. "These poor people --- they looked terrible. I'm sure they're being badly treated. Do you know about it? Do you allow it?"
There was a painful silence. Soon afterwards Hitler rose to his feet, said goodnight and withdrew.
Von Schirach was not invited back.
Junge tells us that her boss was invariably polite and kindly to her. She says that he had all of those around him "in a spell." Generals left the meetings with him "as if they had been hypnotized." Still,
at the time life flowed pleasantly by. I enjoyed being beside the lakes in the great forests in summer.
There are stories of Hitler exchanging chit-chat with one of the foreign officers, telling him he should marry a "tree-monkey," or "He talked cheerfully and with a certain humor about earlier journeys in this train, and his dog, and he cracked jokes about his colleagues."
"The Führer would put on his soft peaked cap --- the only item of headgear that he didn't place upright on his head like a saucepan," she tells us, and we have to remind ourselves that this Chaplinesque character was the man who was responsible, directly or indirectly, for the death of some 30,000,000 people. These polar opposites in one volume made this critic decidedly uneasy.
However, in a recent Op-Ed piece in The Los Angeles Times, Simon Montefiore comments on writers and documentarians who show the gentler side of monsters. He tells us that the BBC recently aired a documentary with interviews of "Bin Laden's school pals." They remembered
his charm, elegance, and intelligence --- shocking many viewers who didn't want to hear such things.
Documents recently opened in Russia reveal Stalin's "warmth towards his subordinates ... his fine singing voice, his regrets, his love for his daughter, whose homework he checked nightly."
In Until the Final Hour, the writer recalled one dinner with Eva Braun and Hitler, where the Führer looked at Junge and said "You don't eat nearly enough, child, you're so thin anyway."
Things used to be quite different in the old days [he went on]. In my time it was still a pleasure to go to the ballet because you saw lovely, well-rounded curves, but now you just get bones and ribs hopping around on stage. Göbbels was always trying to drag me off to dance events, but I went only a couple of times, and I was very disappointed. Since I've been Führer at least I don't have to pay for it anymore. I get free tickets.
It is strange indeed to have Hitler presented to us as a prim critic of women's styles and fending off Göbbels invitations to go out and party, but, as Montefiore says,
If we simply present Hitler and Bin Laden as one-dimensional satanic psychopaths, there is no warning; we learn nothing about them, their cultures, why those nightmares happened ... The old picture of Stalin is absurd. If he had been merely a charmless psychopath, he would never have risen to power, let alone maintained it. He was a grotesque all right, but also a complex and subtle bundle of contradictions. The devil is in the details.
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As we near the end, Junge tells us that everyone in the bunker "chatted, laughed, made love, and drank." One is struck not by the majesty of the upcoming disaster but trivia of it: how Blondi the dog was able to sit up or walk on two legs, how Hitler's physician Dr. Morell was so fat that "the circumference of the man now trying to get though the door was so vast that I was afraid the frame would burst apart."
And at the very end, when the five children of Joseph Göbbels are poisoned and carried out of the bunker in bags, she tells us of her sadness. It is a sadness, one thinks, that might be a bit tainted, given the tragedies that took place on the outside during the two-and-a-half years she was in the bunker.
Even so, I have to confess that this one is a page-turner. The style is simple and direct, filled with details of how people dress, how the various bunkers are fitted out, how much cement is put into the roofs, what kind of curtains are hanging over the windows, what it was like to live in drab, artificially lit caves for months at a time.
Sometimes she comes up with a stark, insightful statement: fifteen years before Hannah Arndt was to write of the "banality of evil," Junge met Heinrich Himmler:
It was the first time I had seen this powerful, much feared man at close quarters. I didn't like him at all, not for any sense of brutality about him but because he seemed so ordinary and insincere, rather like a civil servant.
And there are, too, the minute details. What they did when there was nothing to do, what they drank, what they ate, how they had to sneak outside to smoke. At times, it all sounds like something imported from the ecofreaks of 2004. No smoking in front of the boss. No hard liquor, except on special occasions. Vegetarian meals, some of them quite awful sounding:
I was greatly relieved to find that we didn't all have to follow the Führer's diet. I'd have had to be very ill, I'm sure, to subsist on gruel, linseed mush, muesli, and vegetable juice.
The details of the last days in the bunker are gripping. The five Göbbels children singing rounds in their bedrooms, soldiers sleeping everywhere on the floors, Eva saying that she didn't want to commit suicide with a pistol because "I want to be a beautiful corpse." Hitler ranting to the end that the army had turned traitor, and, during the wedding of Eva and Hitler which took place at the very end, the song played on the Victrola was "Blood-Red Roses Speak of Happiness to You." ... Blood-Red Roses...
There is no doubt that Junge wore the heaviest of blinders; but there is also no doubt that she knows how to build a fascinating journal, the end of a man who had to be one of the weirdest political maniacs of all times.--- Ignacio Schwartz