UNTIL THE FINAL HOUR

Hitler's Last Secretary

By Traudl Junge

Edited by Melissa Mueller

Translated from the German by Anthea Bell

Arcade. 261 pp. $26

In 1942, a 22-year-old woman named Gertraud Humps, known as Traudl, was working in her native Munich as a secretary, but what she wanted to do more than anything else was dance. She had passed her examinations in dance and "triumphantly gave notice to the firm where I was working" in the expectation of taking up the career for which she longed, but in wartime Germany "rules about the state control of jobs and workplaces had come into effect" and "secretaries and shorthand-typists were needed a great deal more urgently than dancers."

She was furious, and wanted to exact revenge upon her employer, so when her sister got her an invitation "to work at the Fuhrer's Chancellery in Berlin" -- her sister was friendly with a relative of the notorious Bormann brothers, Albert and Martin -- she leaped at it. After a while "there was a rumor going round that Hitler needed new secretaries, and they were to be chosen from the staff of the Reich Chancellery." The rumor was accurate. In January 1943 she found herself at the Wolf's Lair, Hitler's bunker in East Prussia, and then in the Fuehrer's presence. Soon after, he offered her the job: "I couldn't resist the temptation. I was twenty-two, I had no idea of politics, and I just thought it was wonderfully exciting to be offered such a special position, so in short I said yes."

These quotations are from "My Time With Adolf Hitler," a memoir that Traudl Junge -- she married Hans Junge, one of Hitler's valets, in June 1943 -- wrote in 1947 and 1948. She had survived the ghastly scene at Hitler's Berlin bunker in April 1945, had been briefly imprisoned by the Russians but managed to escape, and was living in Munich trying to put her life back together. She "set about writing my memoirs objectively, trying to record the outstanding events and episodes of the immediate past before details that might later be of interest faded or were forgotten entirely," but she did not permit them to be published in Germany until shortly before her death in 2002 at age 82, at the urging of a sympathetic younger woman, Melissa Mueller, who edited the work and has provided extensive commentary.

The book is fascinating on its own merits but is best read as a companion piece to "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary," a documentary film by Andre Heller and Othmar Schmiderer that is now available on video. It consists entirely of headshots as Junge, in her early eighties, talks for almost an hour and a half about her two years on the outskirts of Hitler's inner circle. The film covers more material than the memoir does and also provides an opportunity to look Junge in the face, to listen to her calm, deliberate voice as she describes life amid the unspeakable.

Junge's reluctance to publish her memoir seems to have had nothing to do with secretiveness about her past or sympathy with the Nazi cause. After the war she was interrogated by the Allies and spoke with historians, and her testimony provided important evidence about the last hours before the suicides of Hitler and Eva Braun: viz., in Hugh Trevor-Roper's seminal "The Last Days of Hitler" (1947) and various subsequent accounts. She always insisted that as a young woman she was utterly apolitical, but she did not attempt to whitewash her time with Hitler. As she says in her introduction to the memoir, written in January 2002:

"Not until the middle of the 1960s did I gradually and seriously begin to confront my past and my growing sense of guilt. Over the last thirty-five years that confrontation has become an increasingly painful process: an exhausting attempt to understand myself and my motivation at the time. I have learned to admit that in 1942, when I was twenty-two and eager for adventure, I was fascinated by Adolf Hitler, thought him an agreeable employer, paternal and friendly, and deliberately ignored the warning voice inside me, although I heard it clearly enough. I have learned to admit that I enjoyed working for him almost to the bitter end. After the revelation of his crimes, I shall always live with a sense that I must share the guilt."

The phrase "paternal and friendly" is really the key to the book. The man for whom Junge worked wasn't a monster, at least not as he presented himself to her and the other women in his entourage, but a kindly and somewhat eccentric old gent who loved his mistress and his dogs. He was most comfortable with the thermostat set low, he got angry if Eva Braun changed her hairdo, he gathered the whole bunker gang together late each night -- "Hitler always looked forward to his little tea-party every night like a child" -- and "he liked arranging marriages," other people's, not his own.

Why didn't he marry? "I don't want children of my own," he told Junge when she asked. "I think the offspring of men of genius usually have a very hard time of it." This was "the first expression of personal megalomania that I heard from Hitler, or the first to be taken seriously," and it rattled her, though not enough to alter the complacent acceptance with which she went about her job. It's easy to criticize her on that count, but Mueller gets it right:

"Traudl Junge served a criminal regime, but she took no part in the murders committed by the National Socialists. That does not excuse her, but it should be borne in mind if we want to understand what happened. Although she was so close to those criminal actions, she does not fit the black-and-white ideological pattern of those who see the situation as polarized between Nazi villains and anti-Fascist heroes."

To grasp that requires a suppleness of mind that ideologues simply do not possess, certain as they are that the world consists solely of right and wrong, that shades of gray do not exist. Yet Traudl Junge clearly existed in a state of gray during her Hitler years: She liked her job, she liked the perks, she liked (most of) her co-workers, she even liked her boss. She lived in a cocoon, utterly isolated from external reality. She reports without comment the revulsion that Hitler, a vegetarian, claimed to feel for "the horrors of an abattoir," because at the time she was completely unaware that he was presiding over a human abattoir of unimaginable dimensions.

She writes with sorrow, but also with honesty: "Only a few salient points stand out from the regular course of our days, and now they look like signposts along the rapid downward course of the avalanche that buried everything. All the separate small parts that added up to the great event are blurred in my mind. Hitler lived, worked, played with his dog, ranted and raged at his generals, ate meals with his secretaries, and drove Europe towards its fate -- and we hardly noticed." Not until the very end, as the Allies closed in on the bunker, did she begin to understand what was happening around her, and even then she went for years before it fully sank in. Like innumerable other Germans who had been innocent bystanders, albeit perhaps silently complicit, she simply wanted to forget. As it turned out, she couldn't.

Mueller's extensive postscript leaves no doubt that for the rest of her life Junge was haunted by those two years. Not long before her death she said: "Today I mourn for two things: for the fate of those millions of people who were murdered by the National Socialists. And for the girl Traudl Humps who lacked the self-confidence and good sense to speak out against them at the right moment." How many others could, and should, say the same?

Junge, in the film "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary."