During the many years in which I wrote for a powerful political figure, I made a discovery that jolted me out of my innocence. There is a breed drawn to power-uncritical workhorses capable of any excess out of slavish devotion to the master. They surface in every court, in executive suites, papal chanceries and White House staffs. Their zealotry is curbed only by the decency of people above and around them. Martin Bormann was such a servant to Adolph Hitler. His zeal, however, was subject to no civilizing restraints.

What distinguishes Martin Bormann among other faceless super functionaries? Not much really, except that at the war's end, he disappeared. Thus was sown the mystery of one of the least mysterious figures to stride the World War II stage, and certainly the most lackluster specimen in Nazi Germany's pantheon of ogres. Had Martin Bormann died on the gallows at Nuremburg with his fellow war criminals, one doubts that so deep and detailed a biography of this unarresting figure would have emerged over 30 years later.

Bormann first caught Hitler's eye for his efficient management of a relief fund to cover medical bills of injured Nazi street brawlers. He proved a master of that acrobatic feat, kissing posteriors above him while simultaneously kicking those below. Gradually, he insinuated himself into Hitler's confidence until, in 1943, he became personal assistant and "Secretary to the Fuehrer."

Bormann's formal charter rang grandly, but much of his world involved determining who was permitted to wear the olive-green greatcoat and who the brown; did party members greet each otehr with "Heil Hitler" or simply "Heil!"; who was to sit where at high state functions; and who could dip into Hitler's private slush fund (purse strings held, of course, by M. Bormann).

Hitler granted his personal assistant wide latitude in translating his midnight monologues into taut policy directives. And Bormann did largely control access to the Fuehrer. Thus, he exercised genuine and formidable power. But his clout was second hand.

Then, at the war's end, Bormann vanished. He was reported seen in Australia, Morocco, Chile, Rome. Some said he had been a Soviet agent all along and had fled to Moscow. His fellow Nazis in the Nuremberg docket were only too eager to shift credit for their own villainies onto their missing comrade. Bormann's infamy soared in absentia. A myth flourished that there had been a "secret ruler" in Nazi Germany, "the man who manipulated Hitler," as this book's subtitle overstates. Nonsense. Had it not been Bormann, some other talented, unprincipled paper pusher would have implemented Hitler's will.

"The Secretary" is skilfully translated from the German and reads well for those with the patience and desire to know the labyrinthine conflicts waged within the Nazi corridors of power as well as on the fields of battle. The price of admission is met mostly in the last chapter, where the author, a German investigate journalist, gives a fascinating account of how he proved that Bormann died in Berlin in the final hours of the war, thus putting to rest the only intriguing aspect of Borman's life: nearly three decades of speculation over what happened to him.