Heike B. Görtemaker
Hitlers Hofstaat. Der innere Kreis im Dritten Reich und danach
[Hitler’s Court: The Führer’s Inner Circle in the Third Reich and Afterward]
Hitler’s Substitute Family
Görtemaker distinguishes between two phases of Hitler’s inner circle: before and after 1933. Hitler’s rise over the course of the 1920s was made possible by the support of important members of the high society back then. Hitler was just one of many figures who cropped on Germany’s jingoist-racist völkisch scene after the revolution of 1918, but early on he found influential patrons. The publishing couple Hugo and Elsa Bruckmann and the piano makers Erwin and Helene Bechstein enthusiastically financed the penniless rabble-rouser, who quickly became the leader of strange fringe political party, the NSDAP. A few weeks before the failed “Beer Hall Putsch” in November 1923, Hitler met Winifred Wagner and the racist ideologue Houston Stewart Chamberlain in Bayreuth, and Elsa, Helene and Winifred became some of Hitler’s most loyal fans. They visited him frequently during his time in prison, paid for his later apartment in Munich, equipped him with clothes and tableware and provided him with access to better classes of people. Readers cannot help but be horrified at how obsessed these cultured, anti-Semitic society doyens were about making the fledgling fanatic respectable enough for the Bavarian capital’s well-heeled salons.
The other members of Hitler’s entourage were highly disparate figures including fanatic Nazis like Rudolf Hess, paramilitary organizers like SA head Ernst Röhm (whose 1934 murder marked a caesura for the circle), the loyal “fighter from the old days” Hermann Esser, who later recalled having lunch everyday with Hitler for 30 pfennigs at a soup kitchen, blowhards like Ernst Hanfstaengl and, perhaps most importantly, Hitler’s personal photographer, Heinrich Hoffmann, whom he met in 1921. Hoffmann’s pictorial ideas created the visual mythology surrounding the Führer. By 1930 Hitler had become a highly modern political campaigner, and Hoffmann created much of the propaganda that eventually helped Hitler gain power. In 1932, when Hoffmann’s daughter Henriette married Baldur von Schirach, Hitler and Röhm served as witnesses – a function Hitler performed frequently for people associated with his circle.
But by 1933 or 1934, the inner circle changed. Hitler, who had always liked the region around Berchtesgaden, constructed an Alpine residence there, the Berghof. Once his regime had been consolidated, he increasingly retreated to the Obersalzberg mountain. The Berghof community became a kind of ersatz family, consisting of Hoffmann’s former assistant Eva Braun, Braun’s sisters, and other figures old and new. Before long, the international press was publishing pictorial spreads of the German dictator’s retreat. Series of Hoffmann’s photos ran in Vogue and the New York Times Magazine. But domestically, Hitler was to remain the solitary, self-sacrificing Führer of internal propaganda, and great care was taken to see that no information on Hitler’s circle – least of all about Eva Braun – leaked out into the public at large. Hitler grew increasingly close to the architect Albert Speer, whom he considered an artistic soulmate, and his personal physicians Karl Brandt and Theodor Morell. Whenever Hitler needed company, this court of followers hastened from Berlin and Munich to the Berghof.
Hitler’s adjutant Nicolaus von Below later characterized the pre-war years on the Obersalzberg as the “best of his life.” With great virtuosity, Görtemaker describes the chaos of the final days of the regime between the Führer’s bunker in Berlin and the Berghof, where another adjutant, Julius Schaub, burned Hitler’s papers on the terrace.
After 1945, the surviving principles immediately set about trying to obscure the past. Whether they were adjutants, physicians or secretaries, everyone from Speer to Hoffmann tried to present him- or herself as an apolitical underling who had known nothing about the Holocaust. Görtemaker minutely reconstructs a very different picture of Hitler’s former inner circle, all of whose members were committed Nazis, often for many years. They were accomplices and people in the know who had been part of the autocrat’s everyday existence and had remained loyal to the “boss” through his final days in the bunker and beyond. Many of the surviving members of the Berghof society remained in constant contact with one another in post-war West Germany.
Nicolaus von Below died in 1983, and his son later recalled the children growing up within their father’s “system.” Hitler’s long shadow extended well into post-war democratic West Germany.
By Alexander Cammann, 09.06.2020
Who was part of Hitler’s inner circle? What was their function? And how did they make history after 1945? Working with hitherto unknown sources, Heike Görtemaker studies Hitler’s private associates and shows that it was his circle who made him. As Görtemaker gets intimately close to the historical figure, she brilliantly deconstructs the myth.
As Ian Kershaw once noted about Hitler, ‘if you take away the politics, you’re left with nothing’; Joachim Fest claimed that he had ‘no private life’ and for Alan Bullock, the ‘führer’ was ‘an uprooted man without home or family.’ On this point, Hitler’s biographers make the mistake of swallowing his propaganda. His inner circle, the Berghof-community, was his private space of retreat; but it was more than that. It gave Hitler the requisite support to be able to command the role of the ‘führer’ in the first place. It produced trusted allies that were politically expedient. And it became a close-knit confederacy whose lowest common denominator was their anti-Semitism. Heike Görtemaker’s book is a pioneering achievement: she tracks down hitherto unknown sources, asks new questions of well-known materials, and for the first time, offers a study of the ‘circle without führer’: the group’s connections after 1945.
(Text: C.H.Beck Verlag)