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Soviet propaganda back from the dead
on 9 March 2010
I was given this book for my most recent birthday, and it has proved a most gripping read. The two aides in question, Linge and Guensche, were taken by the Soviets in 1945 and were released to Germany in 1955. Guensche, who appears to have been a fervent and unrepentant Nazi, disappeared into East Germany, while the less hardline Linge emigrated to Western Germany, where he wrote another book, Bis zum Ende: Als Chef des Persoenlichen Dienstes bei Hitler (1980). In my long forgotten German, I translate this as Right to the end: As Chief of Hitler's Personal Services.
SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer Heinz Linge was Hitler's personal assistant and valet, and SS-Sturmbannfuehrer Otto Guensche was one of his his personal adjutants. (SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer is equivalent to a British army major/ lieutenant-colonel, and SS-Sturmbannfuehrer was equivalent to a British army captain.) Both were captured in Berlin before the German surrender and when the Soviets found out their true identities, they were taken to Moscow and eventually in 1948-49 compelled to write down their memories of their time in Hitler's service and even from the point of Hitler's rise to power in 1933. The underlying reason for this effort was Stalin's need to know that Hitler really was dead, and his curiosity about the inner workings of Hitler's regime itself; and, Overy supposes, his need to compare himself with Hitler and his regime with that of the Third Reich.
Their writings were edited and produced in book form by the Soviet secret service (one of the interesting sidelights in the book is the non-cooperative interplay between all of the different arms of the Soviet secret services) and the resulting "book" was submitted to Stalin on 29 December 1949. He filed it in his personal archive, and it saw the light of day again only in 2003 when a copy was discovered by Uhl in a General Department archive in Moscow.
There have been over a thousand biographies of Hitler, and those produced before WW2 were subject in Germany to Nazi censorship. This work is also subject to the vagaries of Linge's and Guensche's memories as well as the editing of the Soviet secret service. For all that, it is surprisingly accurate in the details that can be verified. For this reason, it must be a major source for those interested in Hitler's personal life and in the way in which he exercised power during his dictatorship. Overy points out the discrepancies between this work and the recent film "Downfall" and concludes that this book is the more credible since the sources had so long and intimate contact with Hitler himself. It is unlikely that any lie would be produced in stereo in the harsh environment of Soviet captivity without being detected. Yet some of the assertions of the wilder excesses of Nazi leaders bear the stamp of the prudish and stock Marxist assumption. One must never forget that this book is the product of a Soviet inquiry, and that all views in it must be tested against the priorities of the Soviet regime. For example, this book asserts that the Eastern front in the war was the only one that mattered and the Allied effort in Western Europe is presented as an orderly German retreat undertaken in order to free German forces for the real battle on the Eastern front.
There were differences between those giants of twentieth century world history: Stalin was far more ruthless in the punishment of failure and after his major blunders of 1939-41 he left military matters to the military machine, while retaining overall strategic command. Hitler was wrongly convinced he was a better strategist and tactician than his army commanders. Germany's consequent defeat was not just caused by Hitler. He ensured it.
They were similarly originally populist outsiders, revolutionary in outlook, impatient to change the old order of bourgeois Europe; perpetrators of secret security forces and overblown personality cults. The book is entirely silent on the Final Solution of the holocaust, and this fact is comprehensible in the light of the anti-semitism and anti-zionism prevalent in the Soviet regime at the time. Overy asserts (which I did not know) that the Soviet regime continued to deny that the holocaust happened right down to its fall and even now the Russian state has not unambiguously accepted the fact.
More than 35% of this book is devoted to the final 5 months of the Third Reich, the time that the two informants would have known best. Hitler's suicide by gunshot was not recognised by the Soviets until after 1989, since Stalin wanted him portrayed as a coward who took poison. When he heard the news of Hitler's death, Stalin is reported to have said, "Now he's done it, the bastard. Too bad he could not have been taken alive."
This book is a major source on Hitler's life in power; it is to be used with caution, since it is Nazism seen through Soviet glasses. The interrogators clearly played their part in the material included or left out of the book, and it is perhaps a counterweight to all those western histories which do not give sufficient importance to the key role played by the Soviets in the defeat of National Socialist Germany. Although Trevor-Roper's "The Last Days of Hitler" had not the benefit of the fruits of these interviews, his book, published in 1945, agrees with this account to an astonishing degree.
Overall, a gripping read and well edited. The notes showing where the combined memories of these two men may have faltered are good reading in themselves.