The man I had first met in the summer of 1934 had been a dominant personality exuding a spellbinding charisma. The one whom I burned and interred under a hail of Red Army shells was a trembling old man, a spent force.
Born in Bremen in 1913, I was a former bricklayer who joined the Waffen-SS in my home town in 1933. I was never much interested in politics, but a year later I was dispatched with two dozen other comrades to Hitler’s country seat at Berghof – the most widely known of his headquarters and a place he spent much time before and during World War II.
A year after that, I was selected to serve on Hitler’s household staff and became his personal valet shortly after the outbreak of the war in 1939.
Just once to be in the presence of Adolf Hitler was then the wish of millions. But life with the Fuhrer was not without its trials.
My job was to sort the morning papers and the first foreign dispatches – placing them on a chair outside his bedroom. I would wake him at 11 o’clock. Hitler would rise, fetch the post and read it in bed – beside which there would be a tea-trolley with books, newspapers, his spectacles and a box of coloured pencils.
I was responsible for keeping him stocked with writing materials and spectacles (he never liked to be seen wearing these in public, as he thought it a sign of weakness). I always carried a spare pair of glasses when we travelled, as he often broke them while toying with them in his hand, ruminating over a problem.
After his morning reading session, Hitler always followed the same routine – he would shave, remove his white nightshirt, lay it on the bed, bathe, take the clothing ready on the clothes-stand and dress.
Hitler always dressed himself and he did this to a stopwatch, my presence being as a kind of referee. At his command ‘Los!’ I set the watch going and the dressing race began. The quicker he finished, the better his temper.
Standing before the mirror, eyes closed, he required my help only for the bow-tie, which also had to be done in record time. He counted the seconds and as soon as I said ‘finished’ he would open his eyes and check in the mirror.
The hairdresser and tailor were also required to work at the double. Hitler’s characteristic lock of hair, which always lay across his forehead – and his moustache – attracted a lot of friendly amusement among the population. He knew this and took great pride in both. As far as the staff were concerned, his moustache was also a clue to his mood. If he was sucking it, he was unhappy and this was a warning to us.
It was often difficult to understand Hitler. On the one hand he pandered even to the most unimportant things, while on the other he was excessive and unfeeling.
He might show the most fatherly concern for a female secretary who had stubbed her toe but be utterly ice-cold when issuing orders that sent thousands to their deaths.
The ‘privilege’ of experiencing his concern was not necessarily an enjoyable affair. Frequently, he tried to convince me how unhealthy it was to smoke. As his personal servant, I had no option but to listen.
Forty minutes after waking, Hitler would take breakfast in the library – a frugal affair, only tea or milk, biscuits or sliced bread and an apple. During breakfast, he studied the menu card for lunch.
Two vegetarian courses, (both including the obligatory apple) were provided for him to choose from. Hitler had long eschewed meat, but if strangers came to lunch, his food was carefully arranged in such a way that the absence of meat was not obvious at first glance.
Because Hitler was such a late riser, it might be that the midday meal, usually attended by a dozen guests, would not be served until 2.30pm, by which time many of those invited would have satisfied their appetites by eating elsewhere.
Hitler’s meals were prepared lukewarm after an operation on his vocal cords – following a gas attack during World War I – left his voice sensitive.
His diet consisted principally of potatoes and vegetables, a stew without meat, and fruit. Hitler would occasionally have beer with his meal, and wine on official occasions when a toast was to be made. He was strict about his vegetarianism and non-smoking, but was not opposed to alcohol.
However, he found drunkenness repulsive and gave up beer in 1943 when he began to put on fat around the hips. He believed the German people would not want to see a corpulent Chancellor.
Dinner was a much smaller affair, with only a few guests present, beginning at around eight.
Again, of course, it was vegetarian, with Hitler believing the ‘most disastrous stage in human development was the day when man first ate cooked meat’. He was convinced that it was this ‘unnatural’ way of living that ‘cut short’ human life span to 60 or 70 years.
By Hitler’s calculations, all animals whose nutrition was natural lived eight to ten times as long as their period of development to full maturity.
He was convinced we would all live to be 150-180 if we became vegetarian. Such a view exasperated his physicians, who constantly tried to persuade him to change his diet, keep regular hours, sleep normally and take exercise.
From what he told me, I knew that since the end of World War I he had suffered stomach trouble. Sometimes the gripes caused him to double up when he thought no one was looking.
In the ten years I knew him, he was constantly worried about his health, and his physical decline began early on.
At the end of 1942, when the fighting at Stalingrad reached a threatening stage, his left hand began to tremble. He made a great attempt to suppress this and hide it from outsiders by pressing his hand against his body, or grasping it firmly with the right.
Then in 1943, he seemed almost to become an old man overnight. By the end of 1944, he was moving without agility – bent both forward and sideways. If he wanted to sit, a chair had to be placed for him.