Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Review: Traudl Junge, Until the Final Hour (Phoenix: London, 2005)

Review: Traudl Junge with Melissa Müller, Until the Final Hour (transl. Anthea Bell) (Phoenix: London, 2005)

In 1993, the British sci-fi comedy Red Dwarf included this wonderfully surreal exchange -
Future Cat: I think they're our favourite hosts. If you don't count the Hitlers.
Kryten: The who?!
Future Rimmer: Providing you avoid talking politics, they're an absolute hoot.
Kryten: You're good friends with the Hitlers?!
Future Kryten: It's just a social thing. We don't talk about his work. We just have a few laughs, play canasta, and enjoy the odd game of mixed doubles with the Goerings.
Kryten: I don't believe what I'm hearing!
Future Rimmer: Look, you have to understand -- we travel back and forth throughout the whole of history, and naturally we want to sample the best of everything. It's just a bit unfortunate that the finest things tend to be in the possession of people who are judged to be a bit dodgy.
Kryten: Herman Goering is a "bit dodgy"?!
Thanks to Traudl Junge's memoir Until the Final Hour, with its close-up observation of Adolf Hitler, we now know that this description was less bizarre than Rob Grant and Doug Naylor might have believed.

Junge served as Adolf Hitler's personal secretary from 1942 to 1945, and was present in the Berlin Bunker at the time of his suicide.  Her memoir was written in 1947, when she was 27 years old.  It benefits immensely from this for two reasons.

First, the book was prepared while academic history and official memory and popular culture were still digesting the experience of the Third Reich.  Nobody in 1947 would have much disputed that Nazi Germany was criminally bellicose, that its military and paramilitary forces had routinely broken the laws of war, and that it had treated the Jewish and similar populations under its control with extreme cruelty.  However, neither the regime nor Hitler personally had yet become a byword for unredeemed evil.  This meant that Junge could could write without needing to distance herself from the subject (Melissa Müller's accompanying essay notes the guilt she felt in later years about this) or to much exculpate herself.  Hence, she describes as a simple fact the Führer's ability to persuade people that final victory was inevitable even when the known facts made this belief absurd: it did not need to be made a sign of something more malign.  Equally, Henriette von Schirach's disgrace for questioning the ill-treatment of Dutch Jews is reported simply as an event (p.88).

Traudl Junge, 1942
Image from here

The second benefit is that Junge is still writing as a reasonably bright but relatively untutored person.  She writes clearly and without affectation: an experience is pleasant because it is pleasant.  Hitler is kindly because (in that moment at least) he was kindly.  And the upper echelons of the Third Reich are people with personalities rather than representing one or more of the feuding blocs of the SS, the Wehrmacht, the Chancellery and so on.  Anthea Bell's translation does not feel laboured or strained.  Further, there is no attempt to impose a narrative structure on her time with the Führer.  One experience simply followed another, which is essentially how human life is experienced.  One shouldn't overstate how far a person can give a completely objective account of their experience - memory does not work like that - but Junge, who was not a political operator nor part of one of the political factions, is about as close as we can hope to get to a fly-on-the-wall view of Hitler's inner circle.

Berlin, 1945
Image from here

There are one or two points to criticise about the book.  The version that I have (Phoenix: London 2005) has a few historical slips.  For instance, General Burgdorf is said to have gone missing in Berlin on 2 May 1945 (p.211, n.85), although his body was found in the bunker.  And Constanze Manziarly is said to have probably committed suicide by drinking poison (p.210, n.84) and then reported to have disappeared with two Soviet soldiers (p.219).  A stronger editing process could have weeded these flaws out.  Equally, the commentary provided by Melissa Müller (a journalist) doesn't break much new ground as to wartime and post-war experience.  A commentary prepared by a historian of Nazi Germany might have added more value.

The Führerbunker
Image from here

These points are quibbles, though.  Fundamentally Junge and Müller have managed to bring us something truly remarkable: the inside story of a regime which rose and fell based on lies and false realities, told by someone honest enough to record simply what she saw, and at the time of writing simple enough not to reflect on what she chose not to see.  If we want to get inside the head of the average German between 1934 and 1945, this book would be a good place to start.

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