Gerhard Engel served as the army adjutant to Adolf Hitler from March of 1938 until March of 1943. During those five years he was present for some of the most momentous occasions in the history of the Third Reich, and sometimes served as a sort of second-string confidant for the German Fuehrer. When he had time, Engel scribbled down his recollections, observations and feelings about the things he saw in a kind of diary, and it is those entries which make up "At the Heart of the Reich", a fascinating and important read which after many years is now finally available in English.
As a member of the OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or Armed Forces High Command), Engel might have been expected to to be an ardent National Socialist like his suprior, Rudolf Schmundt, but in fact he was nothing of the kind. Almost from the first page of the diary, it is clear that while Engel is young, he is one of the "old breed" in his mind-set: extremely protective of the army and distrustful of the Party, the SS and Nazism in general. Although not much of a writer, and by no means a diligent diarist (there are frequent gaps in the diary, some for months), Engel does manage to communicate the acute discomfort of a man forced to serve two masters: the Leader he is sworn to serve, and the army that he loves.
Engel was fearless in his diary and his pen slashes like a blade in every direction, always driven by the same motive: a deep reverence for the army. He lambasts Guderian and Schmundt, who before the war were advocating that Himmler or Goering become the army's commander-in-chief so as to unify the army with National Socialism (Guderian seems to have left this out of his own memiors); he attacks the army's C-in-C, Brauchitsch, for his refusal to stand up to Hitler; he rails on the haplessness of the army in the face of constant intrigues by the Party and the SS; he is constantly "appalled" by Hitler's abusiveness towards the army in general. One gets the impression that Engel was less interested in recording the events he witnessed than in venting his frustration and anger and the chaos of egotism, inefficiecy, personal rivalry and small-mindedness he saw at the top.
One of the fascinating things about "Heart" is that one can trace the course of certain policies and decisions from idea to execution as the pages go on. The Jewish policy, the effect of the Luftwaffe's failures at Dunkirk on Hitler's confidence in Goering, the arguments about political, economic and military strategy in Russia; the increasing corruption of the Party; the ever-deteriorating relationship between the army and Hitler; the decisions which led to the disaster at Stalingrad: we know of these things as "historical events" which are cut in stone; Engel knew them as day-to-day happenings, unfolding slowly over weeks, months, even years. His words are a reminder that nothing is inevitable, and that the Second World War could have moved on a hundred different courses than the one it took.
"Heart" has some problems from the reader's point of view. Engel is incredibly terse and writes like a man sending a telegraph, necessitating extensive end-notes. He drops a bewildering amount of names and the long gaps between entries tend to break up the narraitive. Furthermore, his disgust at his job grew so great that in 1943 he abruptly left his post for a field command on the Eastern Front, where he remained for the rest of the war. Thus, the diary ends with a guillotine-like abruptness and cheats the reader of closure. This feeling is exacerbated by the very limited biographical information provided on Engel himself. A man who won the Knight's Cross in combat is de jure an interesting story, but there is no mention of his battlefield service or his ultimate fate, except that by war's end he was a divisional commander with the rank of lieutenant-general. "Heart" would have benefitted greatly from some "meat" on its "bones."
Having said this, I would still strongly endorse the book. In and of himself, Engel was an unimportant historical figure, but because he was quite literally "at the heart of the Reich" he, he provides us with one more crucial piece to the puzzle that was Adolf Hitler.