Rochus Misch, who served as Adolf Hitler's devoted bodyguard for most of World War II and was the last remaining witness to the Nazi leader's final hours in his Berlin bunker, has died. He was 96.
Misch died Thursday in Berlin after a short illness, Burkhard Nachtigall, who helped him write his 2008 memoir, told The Associated Press in an email on Friday.
Misch remained proud to the end about his years with Hitler, whom he affectionately called "boss." In a 2005 interview with The Associated Press, Misch recalled Hitler as "a very normal man" and gave a riveting account of the German dictator's last days before he and his wife Eva Braun killed themselves as the Soviet Red Army closed in around their bunker in Berlin.
"He was no brute. He was no monster. He was no superman," Misch said.
Born July 29, 1917, in the tiny Silesian town of Alt Schalkowitz, in what today is Poland, Misch was orphaned at an early age. At age 20, he decided to join the SS — an organization that he saw as a counterweight to a rising threat from the left. He signed up for the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, a unit that was founded to serve as Hitler's personal protection.
"It was anti-communist, against Stalin — to protect Europe," Misch said. "I signed up in the war against Bolshevism, not for Adolf Hitler."
But when Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Misch found himself in the vanguard, as his SS division was attached to a regular army unit for the blitzkrieg attack.
Misch was shot and nearly killed while trying to negotiate the surrender of a fortress near Warsaw, and he was sent to Germany to recover. There, he was chosen in May 1940 as one of two SS men who would serve as Hitler's bodyguards and general assistants, doing everything from answering the telephones to greeting dignitaries.
Misch and comrade Johannes Hentschel accompanied Hitler almost everywhere he went — including his Alpine retreat in Berchtesgaden and his forward "Wolf's Lair" headquarters.
He lived between the Fuehrer's apartments in the New Reich Chancellery and the home in a working-class Berlin neighborhood that he kept until his death.
"He was a wonderful boss," Misch said. "I lived with him for five years. We were the closest people who worked with him ... we were always there. Hitler was never without us day and night."
In the last days of Hitler's life, Misch followed him to live underground, protected by the so-called Fuehrerbunker's heavily reinforced concrete ceilings and walls.
"Hentschel ran the lights, air and water and I did the telephones — there was nobody else," he said. "When someone would come downstairs we couldn't even offer them a place to sit. It was far too small."
After the Soviet assault began, Misch remembered generals and Nazi brass coming and going as they tried desperately to cobble together a defense of the capital with the ragtag remains of the German military.
He recalled that on April 22, two days before two Soviet armies completed their encirclement of the city, Hitler said: "That's it. The war is lost. Everybody can go."
"Everyone except those who still had jobs to do like us — we had to stay," Misch said. "The lights, water, telephone ... those had to be kept going but everybody else was allowed to go and almost all were gone immediately."
However, Hitler clung to a report — false, as it turned out — that the Western Allies had called upon Germany to hold Berlin for two more weeks against the Soviets so that they could battle communism together.
"He still believed in a union between West and East," Misch said. "Hitler liked England — except for (then-Prime Minister Winston) Churchill — and didn't think that a people like the English would bind themselves with the communists to crush Germany."
On April 28, Misch saw Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and Hitler confidant Martin Bormann enter the bunker with a man he had never seen before.
"I asked who it was and they said that's the civil magistrate who has come to perform Hitler's marriage," Misch said. That night, Hitler and longtime mistress Eva Braun were married in a short ceremony.
Two days later, Misch saw Goebbels and Bormann talking with Hitler and his adjutant, SS Maj. Otto Guensche, in the bunker's corridor.
"I saw him go into his room ... and someone, Guensche, said that he shouldn't be disturbed," Misch said. "We all knew that it was happening. He said he wasn't going to leave Berlin, he would stay here."
"We heard no shot, we heard nothing, but one of those who was in the hallway, I don't remember if it was Guensche or Bormann, said, 'Linge, Linge, I think it's done,'" Misch said, referring to Hitler's valet Heinz Linge.
"Then everything was really quiet ... who opened the door I don't remember, Guensche or Linge. They opened the door, and I naturally looked, and then there was a short pause and the second door was opened... and I saw Hitler lying on the table like so," Misch said, putting his head down on his hands on his living-room table.
"And Eva lay like so on the sofa with knees up, her head to him."
Misch ran up to the chancellery to tell his superior the news and then back downstairs, where Hitler's corpse had been put on the floor with a blanket over it.
"Then they bundled Hitler up and said 'What do we do now?'" Misch said. "As they took Hitler out ... they walked by me about three or four meters away. I saw his shoes sticking outside the sack."
An SS guard ran down the stairs and tried to get Misch to watch as the two were covered in gasoline and set alight.
"He said, 'The boss is being burned. Come on out,'" Misch recalled. But instead Misch hastily retreated deeper into the bunker to talk with comrade Hentschel.
"I said 'I saw the Gestapo upstairs in the ... chancellery, and it could be that they'll want to kill us as witnesses,'" Misch said.
But Misch stuck to his post in the bunker — which he described as "a coffin of concrete" — taking and directing telephone calls with Goebbels as his new boss until May 2, when he was given permission to flee.
Goebbels, he said, "came down and said: 'You have a chance to live. You don't have to stay here and die.'"
Misch grabbed the rucksack he had packed and fled with a few others into the rubble of Berlin.
Working his way through cellars and subways, Misch decided to surface after hearing German being spoken above through an air ventilation shaft. But the voices came from about 300 soldiers who had been taken prisoner, and the Soviet guards grabbed him as well.
Following the German surrender May 7, Misch was taken to the Soviet Union, where he spent the next nine years in prisoner of war camps before being allowed to return to Berlin in 1954.
He reunited with his wife Gerda, whom he had married in 1942 and who died in 1997, and opened up a shop.
At age 87, when he talked with the AP, Misch still cut the image of an SS man, with a rigid posture, broad shoulders and neatly combed white hair.
He stayed away from questions of guilt or responsibility for the Holocaust, saying he knew nothing of the murder of 6 million Jews and that Hitler never brought up the Final Solution in his presence.
"That was never a topic," he said emphatically. "Never."