Sunday, April 27, 2014

Hitler's Maid, Elisabeth Kalhammer

Inside the Berghof

Elisabeth Kahlammer
Elisabeth Kahlammer in 2014.
Dictators always seem to have women about who see them through to the end - which is usually not a very pretty sight - and then just go off and live their lives. That was the case with Moammar Khaddafy, for instance, who had a Russian girl hanging around with him until he sent her away a short while before his bloody passing. It also was the case with Adolf Hitler.

In Hitler's case, he had a whole passel of young women - nurses, secretaries, maids, Eva Braun - around until things went south, and in some cases, they stuck around even after he committed suicide. As these support staffs reach the end of their lives in the 2000s - the ones, obviously, who survived, unlike Braun - they have had an occasional tendency to step forward and tell their stories (though many took their stories to the grave, too).

Telling all as they get older is not a new phenomenon for the Hitler girls. It was done, for instance, by daredevil aviatrix Hanna Reitsch in the 1970s. Reitsch, realizing her days were running short (she died a few years later), donned her Third Reich medals with pride in 1976, put on a broad smile and gave a lengthy filmed interview heavy on her experiences as a test pilot but woefully short on her interactions with Hitler. You can hear the pride in her voice as she talks about the Third Reich. Reitsch was the poster child for unrepentant former members of the regime.

It has taken much longer for most of the other girls in the bunker to reach that point, though. Only in the 2000s did many of these young girls of the 1940s reach that age where they felt comfortable popularizing their Hitler experiences because their own years were running short. Unfortunately, they, too, like Reitsch, tend to have little of significance to say about Hitler personally, though they give some interesting background color.

Elisabeth Kahlammer
For geographical context, here is a map of the area where Kalhammer lived. Munich is at the far left (unmarked), Berchtesgaden is at the center bottom, Wels is in a bit from the right edge of the map in the middle, where the blue line diverts, and Mauthausen is marked at the extreme right with a red arrow.
Elisabeth Kalhammer née Marchtrenkerin, born in 1925 and 89 in 2014 when she revealed her story to the world media, grew up in or near Wels, Austria. She worked at a bakery in Wels until some time in 1943, when she left that area. For context, Wels is about a 45-km drive to the southwest of Mauthausen, the notorious work camp. However, Mauthausen did not begin housing female inmates until 1944, so it is unlikely that Kalhammer would have had any opportunities there to work or cause to see what was going on. Kalhammer claims to have never known what was happening at the camps until after she returned to Wels in late April or May 1945.

Perhaps the bakery closed in 1943 because the owner entered the military. Or, perhaps the Germans simply closed the bakery because "unnecessary" shops were wasting resources. They did this increasingly as the war dragged on, particularly right after the Stalingrad defeat in February 1943 when Joseph Goebbels launched his "Total War" campaign.

Whatever the cause, in 1943 (apparently early in the year) Elisabeth needed a job. Extremely naïve, Kalhammer innocently answered an ad for a job in Berchtesgaden:
Maid wanted. Location: The Berghof on the Obersalzberg.
Berchtesgaden was about 130 km by car to the southwest, a long distance in those days, but a girl had to eat. In any event, it was a live-in position with room and board. Against her mother's opposition (why her mother objected is unclear, but probably simply because 19-year-old girls in that culture were supposed to stay at home until they got married), Elisabeth took the job. Kalhammer claims that she beat out "thousands" of other girls, or at least she was told that.

Elisabeth Kahlammer
Eva Braun living the high life at the Berghof. My understanding is that Eva liked to dress up in peasant outfits occasionally along with her girlfriends - perhaps because it was more comfortable than the somewhat severe suits then fashionable for women in the Reich. So, this kind of peasant attire would not have been completely unusual at the Berghof. Incidentally, Kalhammer says that she wore a blue uniform while the other staff wore red - why she was given blue is unclear.
Now, who might that employer be? It was no secret in 1930s Germany who lived at the Berghof. However, Elisabeth was just an uneducated peasant girl who likely had never ventured further than 10 kilometers from her home. This was common for the time, especially up in the mountains. It is not inconceivable that she would have known who Hitler was and that he was a powerful and rich man by hearing people talk, but not know anything else about him, such as where he lived or his reputation for starting wars.

Kalhammer only realized later that she would be working for Herr Hitler in the laundry and sewing rooms. Perhaps the three SS guard posts through which she had to pass on her first day was a tip-off? There were 21 other maids on staff, all sworn to secrecy, and one can tell from how long they have kept their silence how serious they were about that promise.

Elisabeth Kahlammer

It is important not to overstate Kalhammer's importance. Anyone looking for insights into Hitler's 1944 Ardennes strategy or the response to D-Day is sure to be disappointed by the likes of Kalhammer. She claims never to have met the man or spoken to him, only to have seen him through the window or perhaps while going about her duties. Anyone who has worked on a modern-day yacht of a wealthy dilettante would know the routine: once Kalhammer broke a cup and was disciplined harshly. That's how it was then, and how it is now. Actually, now the servant who broke a cup likely would be fired. Kalhammer was only grounded for a week, like a little girl. So, if you've ever worked on such a ship, your boss likely was worse than Hitler.

Kalhammer's major contribution to history? That Hitler enjoyed eating a special ‘Fuhrer Cake’ – an apple cake strewn with nuts and raisins – at night. This comports with a general understanding that Hitler liked to stay up late and sleep in, and he liked late-night snacks after his daily midnight war briefing. He went to bed at 4 a.m. and rarely got up before 2 p.m. Service staff like Kalhammer were not permitted to speak to Hitler or listen in on his conversations, much like modern-day pop stars who order the little people not to look them in the eye. Some folks put a great deal of stock in Kalhammer's recollection that Hitler liked to sleep late, but that fact already was very well known.

So, we get some trivia you won't find elsewhere. Another tidbit from Kalhammer is that Hitler's girlfriend Eva Braun ran the Berghof like an empress and that the staff greeted Braun with "Heil M’lady’, kind of an odd form of greeting. Obviously, Braun did not mingle with the servants. Kalhammer liked Braun, who turned out to be a big fan of propaganda actress Marika Roekk. Braun wasn't quite as popular later in the Berlin bunker, where people resented her presence as people will when powerful people lose power. But, in Berchtesgaden, Eva Braun ruled the roost.

Kalhammer worked at the Berghof for two years - until it was bombed into rubble at the very end of the war - and then disappeared into the mists of history like all the other girls. She probably lived thereafter at her parents' home until she got married. Hey, steady work is good to find even when your world is collapsing around you! She did not make it to Berlin for the bunker scene, there was a completely separate support staff there. But at least Kalhammer made this final effort to tell her story and is to be commended for that.



  1. Dear Mr. Bjorkman, Please do consider the following aides of Hitler for your future photographic essays - (a) Heinrich Hoffman - Hitler's personal Photographer, (b) Hans Baur - Hitler's personal Pilot, (c) Erich Kempka - Hitler's personal Driver and (d) Dr. Theodore Morell - Hitler's personal Doctor. I am very sure you will be able to unearth many rare photographs and bring to light various aspects of Hitler's peculiar personality for aficionados of your site. Regards, Raja

    1. Thanks for the suggestions, Raja. I do have a couple of pictures of them scattered about here and there, but they each deserve more attentions. I will give them more attention in future posts. James

  2. In an interview I watched Kalhammer indicates that Mauthausen was located near the village she came from.

    Can you clarify whether or not she was located near Mauthausen per se or one of its many sub-camps and, if so, what was done to prisoners at that camp before she was hired to work at Berghof?

    1. Hello, I added some details along those lines to the extent that I know them. Thanks for asking.