Reading the obituary of Rochus Misch in the Telegraph for Saturday brought recent history vividly back to mind viz. the last days of the Third Reich dragged out in the notorious Berlin bunker. Misch, who has recently died aged 96, worked for five years as Hitler’s bodyguard and orderly and it was he who was responsible for the switchboard in the bunker where Hitler lived his final fantasy days as Fuehrer. Misch was the last person to leave the bunker as the Russians approached the city at the end of April 1945. He became a prisoner of war of the Russians, was sent to the gulag, was released in 1954, returned to Germany and set up a flourishing wallpaper and paint business.
What I was searching for in reading his obituary was any sign of a change of heart on Rochus’s part, any recognition that he was working for a particularly appalling warlord, and an admission that he had been living in a moral universe that had been turned upside down. Nowhere was there any evidence of this. The obituary ends with the small, sad detail that he had a daughter “but she broke off all contact her father”. It seems that, like other sons and daughters of those who worked closely with Hitler, she had an intolerable legacy to bear.
Yet Misch was a very minor functionary compared with Nazi criminals such as Amon Goeth, the commandant of Płaszów concentration camp (made famous in the film Schindler’s List), Martin Bormann, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, whose relatives have figured in articles and documentaries over the years. He witnessed terrible events among the circle of those around Hitler – such as the murder of her six children in the bunker by Magda Goebbels – but as far as we know was not the perpetrator of any crimes himself.
Nonetheless, the obituary comments on the fact that “he showed none of the remorse or psychological insight that others exhibited when talking about the Nazi era. To Misch, Hitler remained the kind boss who joked with his staff, loved Charlie Chaplin, children and animals and was so considerate towards others that he married Eva Braun the day before their deaths “solely out of consideration for her parents.” When interviewed in later years he would reminisce that “it was a good time with Hitler. I enjoyed it and was proud to work for him.”
According to the Telegraph report, Misch was “none-too-bright” – meaning he was not the type to ask questions or reflect on what he was doing or the kind of man he was working for. But you do not need to be intellectually “bright” to have a conscience and to know right from wrong. Years ago, during the furore that broke in this country over providing a rubella vaccine for teenage girls that had been developed from the cell line of an aborted foetus, I happened to be talking to an electrician I knew, a family man with daughters and who had left school at 16 to learn his trade. At the time I was wavering about the vaccine. I had daughters, too. Contracting rubella during pregnancy is very dangerous. The vaccine had been developed a long time ago, and so on. The electrician simply said to me: “The whole thing stinks. I’m having nothing to do with it and that’s that.” With those words he clarified my own mind on the subject.
Conscience is what separates human beings from animals. It doesn’t “evolve” biologically; it comes from God. As the example of Misch shows, it can also be corrupted or stifled.