La Croix: Editions Perrin publishes this March 23, 2023 Until the fall: memoirs of Hitler’s butler, by Heinz Linge (1), for the first time in French, 43 years after the German version. What does this testimony bring?
Johann Chapoutot : Information about Hitler’s life right down to the very last moments of the bunker. They match the other testimonies of his secretary or his bodyguard. It is an account of everyday life in recent days. What is interesting, apart from the factual, which is true, is that the book shows the psychology of Hitler, his mental universe. It teaches us more things subjectively than objectively.
The memoirs of this loyal Hitler are preceded by a brief presentation by historian Thierry Lentz. Is this critical device sufficient?
JC: Admittedly, the critical apparatus added to personal historical testimony makes it possible to recontextualize it, but historians gain much more by reading and integrating these documents into general works. I had read the memoirs of Heinz Linge, published in Germany in June 1980. The interest of these raw testimonies is that they clearly show that there are no “former” Nazis.
Inner Circle Nazis are so caught up in a belief that they can’t get out of it. This belief gives meaning to their life, their existence, their actions, their history. This is what is interesting today, because this logic resonates in echo with the phenomena of contemporary fanaticism, and in particular jihadism. This is a phenomenon that I describe in my essay The Law of Blood (2), in which I talk about the solidity of the psychic structure of fanatics.
These memories were one of the main sources of the film The Fall, released in 2004. Do you think that by showing the last days of Hitler, sick and besieged in his bunker, we end up making the unacceptable almost moving?
JC: Testimonies can be interesting to reconstruct the general picture. This was the goal pursued by the historian Joachim Fest, when he published the work which then served as the basis for this feature film. The Fall is a good film that shows the impregnability of Nazi radicalization to destruction. He had indeed been criticized for humanizing the Nazi leaders, but they were human beings, not from any mythology or theology, and it is important to show it.
The Nazis were men of their time, who had provided their answers to the questions of the time, which explains the reasons for the success of Nazism with the German population. The Fall made it possible to understand this, because by using Heinz Linge as a source, the film brought precisely this reflection on the human, cultural and social reasons for Nazism. So many questions that Linge’s raw story dissipates by confining them to anecdote.
Why is this testimony translated only now?
JC: This publication is in an editorial vein that consists of taking advantage of all the original documents that can be found on the Second World War and Nazism. These works flatter the interest of the public for anecdotal aspects, by showing the human, too human sides of the great historical figures.
But we can deplore that the publication of these documents reduces the focus to the single character of Hitler. In doing so, we evade more general themes of reflection on the reasons for the accession to power of the Nazis and the duration of their regime. And we maintain a reductive personalization of history, which is a form of historiographical regression.
In what way is this personalization “reductive of history”?
JC: For the Nazi question, this phenomenon has existed since the 1920s. We are looking for the causes of the adhesion of a very large number of people to Nazism in the personality of its leader. It is a form of dependence on Nazi propaganda which insisted on the demiurgic, charismatic, divine character of the Führer.