Book review: Living With Hitler

Eva Burke ponders on curious matters


The fact that the Daily Mail bought the serial rights to Greenhill Books’ edition of the recollections — expressed in interviews, diary entries and letters — of three members of Adolf Hitler’s household staff is a fair indicator that many thousands of readers are interested in knowing what it felt like to live close to, and indeed work for, one of history’s most monstrous mass murderers.

What is the reason for such widespread curiosity? Historian Roger Moorhouse, in a foreword, and publisher and editor Michael Leventhal suggest that it is the very ordinariness of such individuals as Hitler’s closest staff members — his housekeeper Herbert Döhring, his valet Karl Krause, and his chambermaid Anna Plaim (née Mittlstrasser).

No matter how familiar people might be with a national or wartime leader’s life — and, in Hitler’s case, the atrocities of the Third Reich unleashed by this barbaric man — they are still intrigued by the person’s three-dimensional character even to the mundane extent of wondering what was Hitler’s favourite colour (it was green) or what books he kept on his bedside table.

The subjects of Living with Hitler — or others in similar situations — do not offer profound historical insights; “these were ordinary people”, Moorhouse writes, “cast in extraordinary times”. Moreover, the trio quoted in his book would have seen themselves as ordinary employees of an ordinary, albeit powerful boss who, but for the occasional outburst, gave presents at weddings and Christmas, supported close family members in need and watched Hollywood movies nearly every day.

And yet, Moorhouse adds: “these accounts are nonetheless instructive and in their own way revelatory.”

It is for us readers to remind ourselves that, behind the blue sky of Hitler’s Berchtesgaden orchards, where Anna chose the flowers for the villa’s reception rooms, rose the dark smoke of Mauthausen; or that, behind the car Hitler preferred to drive with Karl Krause sitting close to him, there was a factory whose slave workers toiled under inhuman conditions.

The three staff members in Living With Hitler offer “recollections of intimate observers; those who were present but uninvolved, forever at one remove from the momentous historical events upon whose fringes they stood.”

The glimpses they give us into the deceptive normality of Hitler’s private life irresistibly and graphically reinforce the significance of Hannah Arendt’s often criticised concept of the “banality of evil.”


Eva Burke is a journalist and translator who grew up in Vienna

Living With Hitler

By Michael Leventhal (Ed)

Greenhill Books, £19.99

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