WASHINGTON – Rochus Misch, who spent five years as Adolf Hitler’s square-jawed bodyguard, courier, telephone operator and all-around attendant and was widely believed to be the last surviving veteran of the Nazi leader’s bunker as the Soviet Army closed in on Berlin, died Thursday at the age of 96.
His death was confirmed by Burkhard Nachtigall, who helped Misch write a best-selling memoir, “The Last Witness.” Michael Stehle, who owns the rights to the book, said Misch had suffered a heart attack.
An English translation of the 2008 book is due to be published next month, Stehle said.
Even in his later years, Misch still cut the image of an SS man. He had a rigid posture, broad shoulders, neatly combed white hair — and no apologies for his close relationship with the most reviled man of the 20th century. “He was no brute. He was no monster. He was no superman,” Misch said in a 2005 interview.
He was serving in the German Army when, in 1939, he was shot in the chest during combat in Modlin, Poland. He received a commendation for bravery. During his convalescence, he was selected for duty in the SS as part of the elite guard escorting Hitler.
The bodyguard unit “was anti-communist, against Stalin — to protect Europe,” Misch said. “I signed up in the war against Bolshevism, not for Adolf Hitler.”
He telephoned commanding generals at the Fuhrer’s request, welcomed visiting dignitaries, brought hot water bottles at night when Hitler shivered — and laughed at his jokes.
He ended the war as chief of communications, overseeing the bunker switchboard.
Misch spent years at the core of the Nazi apparatus, but he said he was ignorant of the machinery of death that defined the regime. He described being essentially walled off from news about the mass murder of Jews and the brutality of concentration camps.
In interviews decades later, Misch did not deny the Holocaust. He said he had “no idea of the scale” of the killing. “That was never a topic,” he said emphatically in one interview. “Never.”
He blamed the extermination of Jews not on Hitler but on SS commander Heinrich Himmler.
He said he could not fathom the “friendly, nice” man he knew as Hitler as a sociopath. When Misch married in 1942, Hitler sent the newlyweds 40 bottles of wine and 1,000 German marks. He was adored by his staff, Misch said, and liked to chat with his kitchen staff and other “ordinary people.” He liked to stay up watching movies such as “Gone With the Wind.” He was “a real human being” who took battlefield defeats to heart and welled up with tears.
“He was a good boss,” Misch said of Hitler in the 2005 film “The Last Witness” by Israeli Yael Katz Ben Shalom.
If Misch’s banal reminiscences lent him the sheen of Hitler apologist, some historians have remarked that he provided convincing first-person testimony that supported accounts of the Fuhrer’s final desperate months, days and hours.
Hitler ally Benito Mussolini was executed in Italy on April 28, 1945, as the Soviets were quickly advancing on Berlin. Misch said Hitler made preparations for himself and his new wife, Eva Braun, not to die at the hands of his enemy. Hitler wanted his body to be burned rather than mutilated by the Russians.
“I remember that he said goodbye in the corridor and went into the rooms. He said he didn’t want to be disturbed,” Misch said in an interview.
An unease filtered through the bunker, which Misch dubbed “the coffin of concrete.”
“Everyone was waiting for the shot,” Misch told Britain’s The Daily Telegraph in 2000. “We were expecting it. I had just said to the technicians, ‘I am going over (to Hitler’s office), can I fetch you anything?’ And they said no. Then came the shot. I was just 6 meters away from him when he did it.”
Hitler poisoned a willing Braun and shot himself in the head.
Heinz Linge, Hitler’s valet, “took me to one side and we went in, just after the shot,” he said. “I saw Hitler slumped by the table. I did not see any blood on his head. And I saw Eva with her knees drawn up, lying next to him on the sofa — wearing a white-and-blue blouse, with a little collar: just a little thing. I was just a young man then. That is why it stays with me so strongly.”
He said he declined to leave the bunker to look at Hitler’s corpse as it was set on fire outside, in part out of fear that the Gestapo would shoot any witnesses.
With Hitler dead, those left behind were on edge about their fate. Misch said he saw Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda, make preparations to kill their six children and themselves before the Soviets could get them.
Misch was one of the last people in the bunker relieved of duty, and he was soon captured by the Soviets. When his identity was revealed, he was shipped to a Moscow military prison and brutally interrogated because the Soviets did not believe Hitler was really dead.
“They stripped me and then they whipped my testicles and I lost consciousness,” he told the Telegraph. A series of further indignities followed. “After a while,” he said, “I ceased to be a human being.”
He said he wrote to the head of the secret police requesting execution. Instead, he was sent to prison camps before being released after Stalin’s death in 1953 under a general amnesty ordered by the Soviet Union’s new leader, Nikita Khrushchev.
After he returned to Berlin, Misch opened a home decorating shop and lived in relative anonymity for decades. He eventually agreed to interviews with Western media outlets, as well as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, in which he spoke warmly about his time with Hitler.
“If I met him today, I would say, ‘Mein Fuhrer, I did not really get to know you that well,’ ” he told the Telegraph.
Misch was born July 29, 1917, in a German village near Oppeln, an area that is now part of Poland. His father, a construction worker, died of injuries suffered in World War I. He was 3 when his mother died of pneumonia. He was raised by his grandparents and, after brief training as a sign painter, joined the German Army in 1937.
He recalled the first time he met the Fuhrer — at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin, after less than two weeks as a courier.
The Nazi leader asked him to take a note to Hitler’s sister, Paula, in Vienna. “He wasn’t a monster,” he recalled. “He stood across from me like a completely normal man with nice words.”
Misch’s wife, Gerda, died in 1997. They had a daughter, Brigitta Jacob-Engelken, from whom Misch grew estranged.
She told the BBC in 2009 that her maternal grandmother confided in her that Gerda had Jewish ancestry — a fact Misch refused to believe.
Jacob-Engelken told the British broadcasting service that she spent part of her life working on a kibbutz in Israel and she later became an architect; her projects included a synagogue restoration project in Germany.
“I don’t blame my father for the work he did,” Jacob-Engelken told the BBC in 2009, “because it was harmless work.
“What I don’t understand is that he is not giving a sign of more distance. No reflection afterwards. This is what I miss — his critical reflection.”