In 1976, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein published The Final Days, their account of the last months of the Nixon presidency. While Woodward and Bernstein were heroes to a generation of idealistic young journalists, Washington Monthly contributing editor Arthur Levine couldn’t help noticing that The Final Days was larded with flattering portrayals of cooperative sources. How, Levine wondered, might Woodward and Bernstein have approached a history of another notable administration?
his was an extraordinary mission. Reichsmarshal Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler, the Gestapo chief, settled in for the two-hour train trip to Berchtesgaden. The two sensitive and brilliant aides were leaving behind a hot, sunny Munich. It was September 15, 1943. Ahead of them lay the mountains and lakes of western Germany and Austria. The sun poured in at a forty-seven-degree angle through the windows. For most of the travelers, the trip was an occasion for relaxation, a brief respite from the war. Yet these two public servants were not in a holiday mood.
Goering and Himmler had heard rumors that the Führer was anti-Semitic. It was all hearsay, innuendo, but still, the two men were troubled. They had reached an inescapable conclusion: they must go to Berchtesgaden, confront the Führer with these allegations, and ask him to put all doubts to rest.
As the train moved through western Germany, the amiable, flamboyant Goering mused about his own attitudes toward the Jewish people. He tapped his engraved swastika ring on the armrest as he recalled his lifelong admiration for the Jews. A plump, avuncular man with a fondness for expensive paintings, Goering had many Jewish friends from his days as a World War I air force hero. He kept up his contacts after he joined the National Socialist German Worker’s Party (“Nazis”) in the 1920s. The Jews, Goering thought, were bright, hardworking, patriotic.
Goering was well equipped to judge the finer qualities of man. As president of the Reichstag, then as air minister and founder of the Gestapo, Goering had impressed associates with his willingness to work long hours and his insider’s knowledge of the bureaucracy. He was tough, shrewd, and loyal. Goering was an aesthete and an elegant dresser. With his lacquered fingernails and green velvet capes, he cut an impressive figure at the Reichschancellery.
As the pastoral scene outside sped by their windows, Himmler and Goering were in a reflective mood. “You know, Heinrich,” Goering said, twirling his three-foot gold baton, “lately I sure miss having my close Jewish friends around to talk to. There used to be so many of them, and now I can’t seem to get them on the phone anymore. Where have they gone?”
“Beats me, Hermann,” Himmler answered. He tugged absentmindedly on his lapels with their provocative death’s-head insignia. A fly hovered two inches above the windowsill. Goering moved over to crush it, but Himmler reached out instinctively to grab his hand. “Don’t do that, Herman!” Himmler exclaimed. “All life is sacred, down to the lowliest animal in God’s creation.” The two men lapsed into silence for seventy-two seconds. Finally, Goering asked, “Have you heard anything about these so-called concentration camps?”
Not really, Himmler said. Rumors here and there, but nothing solid, no firm evidence. They must ask the Führer about them.
Yes, Goering said, that was a good idea.
When they arrived at Hitler’s chalet, the two men were led through a living room that was sixty feet long and fifty feet wide, with Italian paintings and Gobelin tapestries hanging on the walls. The soft-spoken Martin Bormann, often called the conscience of the Reichschancellery, greeted them in the anteroom outside Hitler’s office. He was reading a travel guide to Argentina when they came in.
“I’m so glad you could come here,” Bormann said, adjusting his argyle socks. The Führer, Bormann said, had been withdrawn and uncommunicative, making decisions in isolation. He had been in this mood for at least five years, maybe more.
Bormann felt he didn’t really know the Führer. His decisions were unpredictable: one day, silence; the next day, they invaded Russia. It was eerie.
Goering and Himmler were finally led into Hitler’s office. The Führer was seated at his desk, drinking a Löwenbräu. He looked pale and exhausted. He had not been sleeping well. He had been troubled by the defeat at Stalingrad, the Allied landing in Italy, the fall of Africa. Events were closing in on him.
“The Jews, mein Führer, what’s happened to all the Jews?” Goering asked. “There used to be so many of them.”
“I’m dying to find out,” Hitler said, winking broadly. “Get it?” He collapsed with laughter, then composed himself.
Himmler was disturbed. The Führer was not being very cooperative in dispelling any lingering doubts. Finally, he asked point-blank: “Mein Führer, what are your true feelings about the Jewish people?”
Hitler exploded. “I don’t give a shit how you do it, just get rid of them. That’s the plan.” The two men greeted these remarks with a disappointed silence. There was not much room for maneuvering here. It could be a problem.
They kept their concerns to themselves, however. They did not wish to add to the Führer’s burdens. Standing up to leave, Himmler said, “Thanks for giving us fresh insights into your views on the Jewish people.” The three men shook hands, and Himmler and Goering simultaneously realized how little they really knew the Führer, even after all these years.
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From “The Final Days of the Third Reich, As Told to Woodward and Bernstein,” September 1976. Arthur Levine is now a freelance writer, and blogs for In These Times and Huffington Post.