Wednesday, August 26, 2009

He Was My Chief by Christa Schroeder

Emilie Christine "Christa" Schroeder (1908-1984) was one of Adolf Hitler's secretaries from 1933, when he became Germany's chancellor, to 1945, the end of World War II. She was an accomplished stenotypist, even winning awards for her shorthand abilities. She became a secretary for the NSDAP (Nazi party) in 1930, officially joining the party to keep her job.

He Was My Chief: The Memoirs of Adolf Hitler's Secretary marks the first time that Schroeder's notes have been published in English. The book was first published in German (Er war mein Chef) in 1985, not long after her death. Schroeder asked Anton Joachimsthaler in 1982 to publish her notes. Joachimsthaler, a technical and historical writer, was an acquaintance of Schroeder's with whom she felt she could discuss her experiences, given that when they met, he was writing a book about a broad-gauge railway planned by Hitler. He complied with Schroeder's wishes to publish the book posthumously and included clarifications of certain events, as well as footnotes to provide more detailed information about people named in her notes.

Schroeder claimed to have had little interest in politics and to have known nothing about the Holocaust, and she provided few details about war strategies or Nazi policies. I found this hard to believe, given that she was so close to Hitler, having worked at the Reich Chancellery until 1939, traveled to various Führer headquarters during the war, and resided in Hitler's bunker in the Reich Chancellery until ordered to leave on April 20, 1945. (She hadn't even planned on leaving, trading whiskey for a cyanide capsule instead.)

However, in the introduction to He Was My Chief, historian Roger Moorhouse says Schroeder was responsible primarily for typing up speeches and daily correspondence that would not contain sensitive information. Also, Schroeder was so close to Hitler and his inner circle that she was isolated from the "real world" and unable to view the events of the war objectively. In fact, Schroeder's memoirs have a bitter tone to them, mainly when she mentions this isolation, how she had to be ready at a moment's notice to travel, and how she couldn't get time off to have a "real" life.

Much of her notes detail the teas, dinners, and other events she attended as Hitler's guest and recount her travels and extended stays in Führer headquarters. She provided details about Hitler's personality, his mannerisms, his mood swings, his iron will, his food and conversation preferences. These passages are written in a gossipy tone, which made it hard to put the book down. I kept thinking to myself that it was a good thing she waited until Hitler was dead to say some of these things, and the quotes she attributed to Hitler show that he truly believed what he said...and he had some serious psychological issues.

Hitler's nose was very large and fairly pointed. I do not know whether his teeth were ever very attractive, but by 1945 they were yellow and he had bad breath. He should have grown a beard to cover his mouth. (page 49)

Despite the effort Hitler made to surprise people with his rich trove of knowledge, and to show them his superiority, he made sure he never let them know the sources of this knowledge. He was expert at convincing his listeners that everything he said was the result of his own deliberations and critical thinking. ...One day Hitler launched into a philosophical dissertation on one of his favourite themes. To my astonishment I realised that he was reciting a page from Schopenhauer which I had just finished reading myself. Hitler, taken a little aback, threw me a glance and then explained in fatherly tones: 'Do not forget, my child, that all knowledge comes from others and that every person only contributes a minute piece to the whole.' (page 54)

In the staircase room, we asked Hitler once, 'Why have you never married?' He replied:

I would not have made a good father and I would consider it irresponsible to have founded a family if I had not been able to devote myself sufficiently to the wife. Moreover I do not want children of my own. I find that the descendants of a genius mostly have it very difficult in the world. One expects them to have the same ability as their famous forebear and do not forgive them for being average. Apart from that they mostly turn out cretins. (page 132)
Schroeder was never apologetic, and she was quick to separate fact from fiction -- especially when it came to the women in Hitler's life. She devoted chapters to Eva Braun, the woman Hitler married just before their double suicide, and Geli Raubal, the half-niece whom he loved and whose suicide devastated him. Schroeder also covered in great detail Hitler's medical problems, his household at the Berghof, and the final days in Hitler's bunker as the Allies closed in.

While He Was My Chief is fascinating for the inside look at Hitler as a person, rather than as a dictator, it also was interesting to learn more about Schroeder herself, particularly why she would remain loyal to him until the end. Schroeder, even decades after the war, never seemed to regret her involvement, however little it might have been. Seeing Hitler through the eyes of someone who worked with him, respected him, and challenged him does not alter the common perception of him as a madman but provides a fuller picture of one of history's most notorious mass murderers.

He Was My Chief is the 20th book I've read for the WWII reading challenge at War Through the Generations. The ARC was my favorite find at the recent Book Expo America, and I even got my hands on a hardcover to add to my collection!

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of He Was My Chief at Book Expo America 2009, and I later purchased a hardcover copy.


Serena said...

This sounds like a book that I should get my hands on and read.

Amanda said...

What a strange book!

Alyce said...

I've been waiting to see what you thought of this one. I think her story would be fascinating, but it really doesn't surprise me that she denied any involvement. I can't imagine that it would be something that one would want to own up to if it was at all possible not to.

I need to go make sure this one got on my list the first time I saw it. Excellent review.

The Reading Momster said...

Awesome review.... This is one book I think we must read to get a fuller picture of Hitler - as in his personal life...

Julie P. said...

So interesting! I didn't get this one at BEA (unfortunately.)

bermudaonion said...

I didn't get this one at BEA either and it does sound fascinating. Like you, I do have trouble believing she knew nothing about the Holocaust - I guess that's the skeptic in me. Great review.

Anonymous said...

Your review of this book is fascinating, so the book must be equally fascinating! I'm going to have to get this one asap. Thanks for the review!

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a fascinating book, a different way of seeing Hilter. I don't see how she could have known nothing of the Holocaust, though.

Lisa said...

This book sounds very interesting! Great review!

Anonymous said...

Wow, this sounds like such an interesting book. I found WWII history to be fascinating and this insiders look at Hitler sounds really great. Wonderful review.

The Bookworm said...

This does sound different!

Tracey said...

Wonderful review Anna and great to read a bit more of the background around how the story came to be written and Christa Schroeder herself.

Anna said...

~Serena: Don't forget you snagged a copy at BEA! Can't wait for your thoughts.

~Amanda: I agree, but it was very interesting and worth reading.

~Alyce: Thanks. I hope you get a chance to read it. I'd love to hear your thoughts. I wasn't surprised either, I just wonder if she really expected that people would believe her.

~Veens: You certainly get a fuller picture of him! I thought it was a fascinating book.

~Julie: It was an unexpected find at BEA. We were on our way to a particular booth, and I caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye. I'm so glad I did.

~Bermudaonion: Thanks! Maybe she didn't know, but I'm skeptical like you.

~regularrumination: Thanks! I hope you get a chance to read it.

~Carolsnotebook: It definitely provides a view of Hitler I haven't seen anywhere before.

~Lisa: Thanks!

~justicejenniferreads: Thanks!

~naida: That certainly is a word for it! ;)

~Tracey: Thanks!