Short Cuts

Andrew O’Hagan

I don’t have many regrets in life, but the ones I do have run very deep. For instance, I find it very hard to accept that I have never had a valet. My grandfather didn’t have a valet, my father didn’t have one, and now it looks like I won’t have a valet either. That’s a helluva lot of no-valet in one family. On the other hand, it probably means I’ll hold onto my many shocking secrets, for it seems the role of valet has long since gone from being one where he presses your Y-fronts and shines your buttons to being one where he spills the beans big time.

Heinz Linge had a head start in this respect – and not just because he’s called Heinz. He enjoyed a prime position that few of his rivals could possibly compete with. He was Hitler’s valet. In the way of these things, Linge’s intimacy with his boss was not merely about whether the Führer dressed to the left or the right, but involved such issues as whether Mussolini did or didn’t know anything about warfare and had or hadn’t chosen the wrong time to enter the war on Germany’s side. In the valley of the valets, overhearing often cedes very quickly to advising, and by the end of Linge’s memoirs it becomes clear the valet was actually in charge of the Third Reich.[*] The future under Linge would be a place of inordinate neatness and firm protocol, where the fingernails of the Axis powers would be checked every morning for dirt as well as for biting.

In the category of History, the valet is not merely a subgenre, it is a subgenre of Staff, which itself is a subgenre of Snitches and Bores. In truth, these trousseau-packing guys are often not so boring as they appear. This can be established by a sideways glance at some of Linge’s rivals. If you were looking for a rival almost in his exact class, you’d have to mention George Jacobs, valet to Frank Sinatra, who made his name, and unmade Frank’s to a small degree, by detailing his boss’s general dexterity when it came to smashing up a hotel room. Another rival would be Ernest A. Forssgren, Proust’s Swedish valet, a dapper but conceited fellow who introduced to the world the notion that Marcel was not quite as gay as all that.

Proust, incidentally, was a glutton for punishment. On the novelist’s last trip to the Grand Hotel in Cabourg in 1914 he decided to take the valet and the housekeeper, Céleste Albaret. Both wrote memoirs. Yet Hitler must by now have improved on that impressive record: the publishers of his valet’s memoir can boast several other hot titles, including He Was My Chief: The Memoirs of Adolf Hitler’s Secretary and I Was Hitler’s Chauffeur: The Memoirs of Erich Kempka. A bit like his boss, Herr Kempka wasn’t keeping his eyes on the road, preferring instead to rest them on the rear-view mirror, all the better to catch Hitler in tender embraces with a very giggly Eva Braun.

The valet sets his sights higher, but not so high that you won’t find, on reading his book, full explanations of such world-encompassing subjects as Hitler’s views on diet and the evils of smoking, subjects which have a whole chapter to themselves.

Wine tasted to him ‘so sour’ that he thought it could be improved ‘with a spoonful of sugar’. Beer, as he often informed us, he had liked very much when he was young, but now he found it ‘too bitter’. As for nicotine, he agreed with Goethe that the odour of tobacco smoke was the vilest of all. Premature hardening of the veins and arteries of the heart and brain was considered by Hitler to be the consequence of smoking, and the cause of change to the heart muscle itself which could have fatal results. Tobacco was ‘the brown man’s revenge’ on the white man for having ‘brought him firewater’ and thus damaging him.

Right enough about the arteries, not so clued up about the brown man. But then, it is hardly ever the natural habit of staff memoirs to show their boss to have been a font of everyday kindness and domestic ease. Even James Boswell, who wasn’t on Dr Johnson’s payroll but was on the staff as his quietly acknowledged biographer-elect, found time to draw attention to the great moralist’s horrible way of eating an orange. If you stick with Hitler’s valet long enough you will be rewarded with his memories of what he considers to have been one of the operatic subjects of the period, ‘the Eternal Stomach Problem’. This comes after a summary excursion past some of Nazi Germany’s ‘leading personalities’: Ribbentrop, ‘married into the famous Henkell champagne family … was very arrogant in his manner. This brought him into opposition with Göring and Goebbels, both of whom were free of it despite their high offices.’ But nobody’s office, high or low, can deflect the valet’s interest in the stomach problem and the necessary powders with which to bring relief. Even with the sails of one’s humour fully open to catch Linge’s drift, it is quite hard to forgive the waywardness of his record. He notes that the Führer took opium to settle his stomach, ‘followed by a medicine to kill gastric bacteria’, but he never comes round to acknowledging the horrors that followed from his boss’s larger commands.

Modern celebrities are often in the habit of making their staff sign confidentiality agreements. Perhaps we could institute a quite different habit for dictators. Anyone who goes to work for one of them must sign a document promising to reveal what they know about how the big things came about.

[*] With Hitler to the End (Frontline Books, £19.99).