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Reading Paul West

Anne-Laure Tissut

IV. Témoignages et textes inédits de Paul West

Extract From Book: Goebbels Aloft February 2008

Paul West

Texte intégral

1He was running down the motor in preparation for the final act. Otherwise he was normal, ringed eyes from too much night-sweat, his body aromatic with the sweats of late April. He did not smell that bad, though I avoided him as best I could. If I had been looking for signs of nerves or jitters, I must have been disappointed, and even his left hand was not trembling behind his back, as it often had.

2He will be dead tomorrow, I insisted on reminding myself. He will have gone. Not the merest twinge of emotion stirred in our eyes. We had grown old together, and our eyes reflected this, withered in parallel, haunted by shades of blue and cobalt, which they had outpaced, delivering only an agate, used-up quality in the midst of watering. Maybe the pair of us had had not enough sleep since 1945. At any rate, the eyes had had it, useless pegs to say our prayers with.

3Reading this and partner documents later this evening, knowing about the imminence of the end (and about the arrangements thereafter), I noticed my tendency to select the wrong word, out of impatience or irritability, and to forge ahead relentlessly as if to say that will have to do for now, we have last things on our minds. Any obsequy for a dead man. I noticed an impatience with language itself, as if it no longer mattered, I who so much treasured it. Language had become the make-weight, the filler, and it was useless to any more try for resplendent effects. Just the bare bones, Adolf, and nothing else. The Russkies could stare at our remains until the cows came home at last. Our part in all this ceaseless activity was over, if not our legacy brought over the hills to Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, not to mention New York and England.

4Our conversation, Hitler’s and mine, was pretty much average stuff, neglecting what was staring us in the face just down the road. “You will be busier than I,” he said. “How will you manage it?” “God will provide,” said I, and that was that. Our chat (no more than that) took in whooping cough, lack of sleep, Speer and the promise to raze the earth, no movies, no water, no phones, no food, and no way out. We had resolved to take the bullet in the teeth (or thereabouts), and this decision formed the basis of a short partnership, whose essence was rediscovered privacy, followed by nothing at all. Privacy begins at home, say the poxridden British, and we were giving basic lessons in the art of it. My own recipe was to hold your breath for a second, and then let it out for the last time. You were not obliged to more by anyone, not the watchers (if any) nor the dissuaders (if any). I wonder that no one had thought of this before. The ease of it, the beautiful bare-faced simplicity of it, Adolf tired of Germany, Goebbels tired of children. We did not so much speak of this as telegraph it with our eyes.

5For the first time in how many years, Hitler and I were at one. It had taken all this while to get us to this point, and there was no turning back. And if there were—Eva dead—betrayed by a Hitler who at the last wanted to live. What then? Linge or someone else would have shot him for posterity. I wonder. Similarly, if the dead Magda encountered the changeable Goebbels, who would shoot him? Bormann, the old standby. No, we were committed to act our parts, and then the spirit-laden men, weighed down with woe. Merely thinking about it numbs the brain for us.

6I remember how, in 1933 (he had never forgotten the incident) the French ambassador remarked of Magda, “I have never seen a woman with such cruel eyes.” She knew where she was going from the first and would have been disappointed to find herself balked at the last hurdle. He had never forgotten the incident. The eyes had not changed, and the wealth of her human experience had grown ever larger. It would seem that the last experience would not be the chimera he supposed, but a brief vision of concentrated cruel eyes. As he remembered things, he could not forget the times when, various aides prompted by their Führer, had handed the fatal doses in their pristine carapaces with exemplary care before restoring them back to Hitler to be put away for use God knows when. He remembered the faint blue sheen of the fatal potion and wondered ever after how such an innocuous-looking solution could have such brutal effects. Lacking the pharmaceutical know-how to delve into the chemistry of it all, he shelved the problem for a rainy day without forgetting for an instant the blue tint of copper-sulphate that made murder against a harmless background.

7He never got back to the chemistry of things good or bad, but the reputation of the drugs haunted him no end when he was tired. Some glitch in the firmament halted him, maybe because all blue solutions deserved to be benign. Some being would risk the wrong bottle and thus provide a false homicide. What had Hitler said to him on parting, something about coming back in eleven years to see how things were going with the Reich? Already, he had the future figured out, the time to recede, and the time to come back, and to hell with the customary rituals of life and death. “Forever at your side.” Goebbels wondered where this haunting refrain came from. Who had said it? Hitler or some other? It was a threat even more than it was a promise, with the whispered sotto voce of next time it will be different, beginning with the resolve to execute all save a precious few. How on earth would he manage that if not to kill people twice? He abandoned his metaphysical maunderings and got back to matters at hand.

8Surely the SS man Günsche (“Bulldog” to his friends) would do the honors, wiping away the blood, the mess on the cranium, the ugly contorted condition of the bodies. Then he would stand aside for the dignitaries to perform their last offices before commiting the bodies to the flames. But by a similar token, with the two ungainly bodies in plain sight, there would be nothing of the kind. Dump them both would be the order of the day, and all would leave, lighting cigarettes on their way. It all depended on how you felt, whether Fraulein Braun should be straightened out, whether Hitler should be left as he had fallen. As Goebbels saw matters, the mere approximation of death disposed men not to touch le mort, just as the apparition, suddenly of riven skull and litres of blood quickened the desire to help or touch. It was a toss-up, different in each case.

9The facts were as follows: During the next twenty-four hours he would bite the dust, and probably more if the desire to end it all actually caught on. Six small. Four full-size. He could already see the response to the six small ones; how awful, let’s put them in individual winding-sheets, arranged in chronological order. What could she have been thinking of? Actually bribing them with chocolate tranquilizers, and steaming hot cocoa to get them into submissive position for the coup de grâce. She could not have been in her right mind, marshalling the children like animals on parade. They don’t know Magda, he whispered, as I do.

10Lord Vansittart had already declared to a full house of Parliament that the only issue remaining was “the site of the gallows and the length of the rope.” Neither one upset Hitler and Goebbels that much, both vacillating between the hangman and the pistol. So long as, Goebbels protested debonairly, there were enough capsules for his rapidly increasing family. He told the flashy SS Major Otto Skorzeny, what of General Paulus, who had preferred surrender to a thousand years of glory? And why did Mussolini shrink from downing the capsule while he had the chance (he had the means on him)? In summary, Goebbels boasted, “I should not find it hard to die. In a world where there was no room for my ideals there would be no room for me.” Frederick the Great was never without his poison capsule. There went an honorable man, if I may say so.

11The Third Reich and its exponents befriended suicide as if it were the promised land, almost in a frenzy to get there intact, with all systems going. Goebbels had tapped his breast pocket saying, “I and my whole family will commit suicide.” So far, so good. He was living up to his vainglorious reputation. But first there was the matter of the Braun family.

12As far as Göring was concerned, safe in the mountain retreat of the Obersalzberg, Hitler was already dead. Instead he was ordered his arrest, and Goebbels was raging about the Reichsmarshal’s treasonous behavior. “That man was never a true nationalist. He just basked in the Führer’s fame […] It’s thanks to him that we are down here now, in this bunker, and about to lose the war […]”

13“If only,” I heard Hitler say, “talks between Eden and Molotov had broken down. The Russians are demanding the whole of Poland. And that will mean Britain has lost the war […] This proletarian-bolshevik monster. If I were to duck out like a coward today […] then national socialism would be done for and the Reich with it. But if I fight on to victory then hope will spring in the British-American breast that it’s possible to stand up to this whole peril, side by side and with Nazi Germany, after all. And the only man for this is me.”

14I was astonished and then dismayed as this latest sample of chop-logic unrolled from his mouth, stuck to his point: “Leave the City, and you lose the rest of the world.” It sounded as pompous as himself, without the vainglorious tantrum.

15To which was the ready reply, as pathetic as bold: “I would think it one thousand times more craven to finish myself off down there on the Obersalzberg than to make a last stand and die in battle here.” The discussion protracted itself, Hitler editing, Hitler wobbling, until finally Hitler said, “Better to fight honorably to the bitter end than to live on a few months or years in disgrace and dishonor.” I wondered how many times his lord and master had used this berserk formula to sort out his don’t and does, beginning with “Better,” or “I would think,” followed by the slack apodosis. Too often to justify all the prating about honor.

16“An honorable death in Berlin,” I thought. What could be better? Becoming legendary in five years at most. He paused, as he should, vaguely intuiting the unreal amid the vision of glory. It might not happen this way at all. Still, he was keeping the old boy cheerful in spite of the audible bomber.

17Later that day, at a war conference, he reported that the American press had already invented the phrase “Third World War” to justify the coming encounter with Russia. They could not leave such a phrase dangling about in mid-stream like the bishop’s pajamas. He would have to think all evening, just to make sense of it.

18Next came Robert von Greim, Göring’s replacement, accompanied by Hanna Reitsch, who helped Magda with the children. Hitler came in and pinned his party badge to Magda, to denote (I think) approval. During this bedtime performance, I stood by the children’s beds, transfixed by their sleeping habits, all looking like sweet little angels, their arms intertwined. Once Traudl Junger heard them singing through the door and, on exploring, found them sitting on three bunk beds, holding their ears so as not to distract from the three-part song. Hanna Reitsch was singing with them and conducting. Magda commented, “The children are wonderful. They manage themselves all by themselves in primitive conditions. Never a word or a tear. When the bunker trembles with artillery, the older reassure the juniors. And the Führer has his usual half-smile for them, but he was preoccupied with which streets were now in Russian hands. Random phone calls soon established that.”

19“God grant that Wenck gets here,” I murmured, “Just suppose: Wenck gets to Potsdamer Platz, and the Russkies are already here.”

20“And I am right here,” said Hitler, “ripe for the picking. I was thinking what arses we were in 1933, not liquidating all the undesirables then and there. No more Mr. Nice Guy, if the situation comes up again. Which it won’t.” He suddenly switched subjects. “Eva and I propose to marry. She has stood by through thick and thin for fourteen years. At her own wish, you understand. She will meet death as my wife.”

21The Russians were now some four hundred yards away. A debonair young Nazi was introduced into the company. Goebbels, Naumann, and Bormann acted as witnesses. “Very moving scene,” commented Traudl Junger afterwards on the ceremony in the miniscule map-room. Braun forgot herself, signing with a “B,” then crossed it out and signed herself Eva Hitler. Hitler signed in blue crayon, I wondered why.

22Thereafter, dinner, while Hitler reminisced about 1914, then about the Goebbels’ own wedding fourteen years earlier. “What a contrast. So many have betrayed me. Death will be welcome.” He went next door to dictate, calling in Goebbels to discuss the new Cabinet. Head of State: Dönitz. Reich Chancellor: Dr. Josef Goebbels. Werner Naumann as propaganda minister. Bormann as party minister. As if there were going to be anything like a future for any of them, a shuffle of broken men across an overpowering blanket of snow. It was 4 a.m. Goebbels wept.

23The documents occupied them another hour, and then three couriers vacated the bunker at 12:15, ferrying copies to the outside world. News came of Mussolini’s end, “Hanging from the Standard Oil kiosk in [Milan’s] Piazzole Quindici Martini.” A dozen of his accomplices had been shot in the back as well.

24Hitler handed out the cyanide. Goebbels had sent Schwägermann for his own to No. 20 Hermann-Göring-Stasse for his 6.35 millilmeter pistol. Russian sharpshooters were now less than 500 yards away from the windows of the Chancellery. About mid-day heard that the Russians had overrun the Tiergarten side, bordering on the Chancellery. Time to go.

25At lunch I noticed Hitler and Eva going to their private quarters, she wearing a dark blue with white facings. No one joined them. Eva slipped out at one point to smoke. Magda was resolute and wooden. At around 3:30 they said goodbye to me. The one-armed Arthur Axman arrived, requesting order for his tank-destroyers, but I intercepted him. The children began giggling each time the bunker trembled. Traudl Junger was preparing bread and butter when a shot rang out. “A direct hit,” somebody said. Otto Günsche went to find out Der Führer ist tot, he pronounced.

26Blood oozed from the maltreated brain. Eva’s head rested on Hitler’s shoulder in some kind of farewell (if the sentimentalist wanted to view it that way). Both dead, asserted the wiry SS doctor Stumpfegger, while Bormann picked up after Eva and followed them downstairs on the way to the conflagaration, one of them grumbling, “He ought not have done this to us.” What he meant, Magda was unsure, but did not care. She had other things to think about.

27Upstairs, Russian artillery was blasting the building and smoky mortar dust tipped Hitler’s corpse sideways. The two bodies lay together, as requested, while Goebbels hid nearby from the rain. A garter, belt, freed, blew about. Then they poured the five jerrycans onto the bodies’ limbs. A bit of rag completed the job. A sheet of flame sprung out, and the men delivered the Hitler salute. Goebbels led the way down into the map room. Axman and others cleaned up. Goebbels announced a situation conference and felt he was walking on water with no human beings left on the planet.

28Still and all, kept artificially busy with cups of coffee mixed with schnapps (maybe to fortify him for what was to come, maybe to dull the event’s effect). There was a breakout planned for later, with cook’s implements strewn about, pots and pans, the result being that as fast as one unpacked the other packed, more or less. A burial party busied itself within the rainy darkness. The bodies were only charred to a certain point, and the bodies of two dogs likewise. Hitler’s Alsatian, Blondi, wore a nametag with the motif “Immer mit die”—ever with you, it said.

29Axman several times offered to intercede for the six children, but Goebbels, after consulting Magda each time, had returned with the same reply: the children would not wait around to see him branded as a war criminal. Best the situation left as it was.

30Next morning Goebbels dressed himself for the last time: selecting his choicest underwear for the event with always a thought about the disheveled condition of afterward, brown party uniform, socks of what he liked to think of as pregnant silk, brown silk necktie crowned with party badge, and his made-to-order orthopedic shoes. It was going to be a signal day, and he found himself not nervous at all, but looking forward in the way of the fatalist, prematurely exploring what the bullet would feel like as it entered the brain, and then the ritual helplessness of it all, Magda lying dead at his feet, still at her prettiest. Things could have been otherwise, vastly so, he felt, with different marriage, different career, different men to deal with, von Braun for instance. But first would be the children, each of them very different for what they had to undergo. He hawked an inconvenient gob of spit from beneath his tongue, trampled it into the ground with an affirmative nod (his last, he presumed, though one more would be allowed before setting out). He wondered why Hitler had banned spittoons. Too much overuse, he imagined with a sheepish grin. After all was over, an ashen-faced Bormann reported that he saw no sign of panic in Goebbels: “Calm, clear, spoken, and polite. I did notice red blotches on his face, betraying his emotions.” It was a typical Bormann speech, after which he vanished from the scene.

31Goebbels asked how long Berlin could last, “Two days maximum.”

32“Do you think Krebs has any chance of doing a deal?”

33“I believe not. The Soviets are insisting on total surrender.”

34“Never.” I exploded. “I shall never, never, never, give them that.”

35Towards midnight, he instructed them to find Krebs, wherever fate had taken him in the course of the day. “I want to hear what he has to say.”

36Krebs had fouled up after the bunker, in which he found his brother officers smoking and boozing. Then he had gone on to recite my terms to the Russians, not in forceful language by any means, and then was fobbed off with promises about prisoners of war. Krebs was my last chance. There was always another idiot waiting to take his place on stage. I authorized the ministry staff to stage their break-out and sent a message to Dönitz:

Führer deceased yesterday at 3:30 p.m. Testament of April 29 confers office of Reich President on you […] Acknowledge receipt. goebbels.

37With a forced smile, Magda telephoned the friendly young SS dentist in the other bunker to say “Time’s running out. We’d better get on with it.” He hastened over, minus the lethal element, to hear Magda replying for her husband: “The gauleiter of Berlin and his family are staying in Berlin and will die.” She seemed to be getting in the appropriate mood.

38It was left for Goebbels himself to supply the less stagey pronouncement, “Doctor, I’d be grateful if you would help me and my wife put the children to sleep.” Magda had changed her appearance, favoring a yellow-brown knitted dress. Her platinum blond hair she was wearing “up,” buttressed by a combination of hairclips and pins. She was anxious to get started with the affable part of the proceedings, which only drew the lethal part nearer. So she temporized, leaning this way and that, but she tugged at the dentist’s sleeve: “Our troops are pulling out, The Russians may get in at any moment. We’ve got to hurry.” She herself chose the syringe from the armoire and handed it over. “Morphine,” she explained and preceded him to the other bunker, where she announced herself brightly enough: “Not to worry,” handing each child a chocolate, “The doctor here is going to give you a little jab, same as everyone else.”

39Choking, she turned and let herself be led out. Rach the chauffer said his goodbyes, lying about some trip he had to make, and Helga, the oldest, presented herself in her bluish dress with lacy decorations. She was eleven, and suspicious of the whole enterprise, one of Hitler’s favorite children, and much photographed. She had confided to her father, at a rowing match, when she grew up she would have two children of her own. In 1939 she needed surgery on her throat, from which she had recovered nicely. Later examiners found bruises on her arms, fighting off the morphine injections just before the end and cyanide. She had a rather chubby smile, and a stern little presence.

40Next came Hildegarde, commonly called “Hilde,” quite often photographed alongside Helge, as at the 1937 Berlin Früh Regatta, when she acquired the name of “little mouse.” Helmut Christian born 2 October, 1935, sapiently named by his father “clown,” while dutifully recording his ambition to be a subway conductor. This was the child who, when overhearing Hitler’s fatal gunshot, cried out, “That was a direct hit.” His mother did not know whether to laugh or cry at such prescience. One of the rumors about him suggested he was in fact Hitler’s child.

41Hedwig Johanna, born 19 February, 1937, was commonly called “Hedda,” and claimed that when she was old enough she would marry SS Adjutant Günter Schwägermann, having been captivated by his one fake eye. She had a dreamy smile; a born romantic.

42Next came, 1 May, 1938, Holdine Kathrine, according to her mother “an arduous birth,” according to some the product of an incestuous affair between Hitler and Magda. She and the other children were killed on the night of her seventh birthday.

43That left only Heidrum Elisabeth, born 20 October, 1940, dead on the same date. Josef claimed that he and his wife were supported in their decision by the children, but later qualified this to read would have been supported if the mature had aged. They could hardly know what they were getting into. Reincarnation, as Magda said, might give her more chance at a better life. She and Josef left behind them letters for Harald, currently in an allied pow Camp.

44The morphine took ten minutes to distribute itself, the dentist told Magda, refusing to administer the second, lethal dose of cyanide. She insisted on Dr. Stumpfeggen, who was found after five minutes or so, and who witnessed her silently watching over her six drugged children. With admirable finesse, he laid out the six ampoules, a family man himself, each a phial of blue-tinted glass with a red dot in the center. While Magda prised open each mouth, Stumpfegger crushed the glass with long, expert fingers and emptied its contents into the waiting space. Young Helmut still wore braces around his upper teeth. Just like Father’s was the family joke.

45The grisly chore ended, she rushed outside and threw her arms around Günther Schwägermann, who steadied her. Stumpfegger entered, signaled that the evil deed had been accomplished, and Magda fainted away. When Alfred Rach entered a few minutes later, she was closing the dead children’s eyes and kissing each one. “It’s so wretched for me,” she said through her sobs, “It was so painful bringing each one into the world, and to leave it like this.” They led her downstairs to Josef and she told him, “It’s done. The children are all dead. Now for ourselves.”

46Magda’s letter to Harald was defiant in the extreme: “Our magnificent ideology is all for naught,” she wrote, “and with it everything beautiful, admirable, noble, and good that I have come to know in my life. Since there will be nothing to live for in the world that will endure after the Führer and national socialism, I am taking the children with me. They are too good for the kind of life that will ensue, and a merciful God will understand me for delivering them.” She went on to be even more stoical: “We have only one aim—to keep faith with the Führer unto death. That we are to be allowed to end our lives together with him is a favor from Fate that we never dared to hope for.”

47Her husband’s own farewell letter was similarly defiant. “We are confined to the Reich Chancellery Führer’s bunker, fighting for our lives and honor […] I think it unlikely that we shall ever meet again.” Justifying his role with Magda, he went on “We do not have to be present in flesh and blood to have an impact on the future of our country. It may well be that you are left alone to continue the family tradition. Germany will survive this terrible war, but only if our people have examples they can look to for inspiration.” He added, “The lies shall one day come tumbling down and, truth shall triumph over all.”

48Neither was a good farewell letter, but Harald was not Winston Churchill, and what was lacking amounted to turbulent, irresistible emotion on her part, bureaucratic pomposity on his. They were not brought into this world for their prose style, after all, though some of his sarcastic letters had had a jussive edge to them whereas she was at her best when berating him for the neglect of the wisteria, or for being a ladies’ man. They were sent to us to get in the way of superior enterprises. With them gone, there was an awful lot of catching up to do, all their fault. As they at last send themselves out on life’s last stanza, one can hope that next time he will stick to German romantic poetry, and she never met him at all.

49It was about 8:30 when Magda and Josef mounted the stairs, said their good-byes to whoever cared, and approached the denuded garden full of ruined steps and broken chairs. An SS officer greeted them as if in the order of appreciable human beings they were the least to be considered. Goebbels said something about there being enough gerri-cans for a good blaze. The SS man nodded, and they turned their back on him, who without more ado shot Magda through the back of the head, and awaited the second signal from Josef, enough time for him to mutter Toxic and then finished him off with one shot.


© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2009

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