Bormann was born on June 17, 1900, in Halberstadt, Germany. The son of a former Prussian regimental sergeant-major who later became a post-office employee, Bormann dropped out of school to work on a farming estate in Mecklenburg. After serving briefly as a cannoneer in a field artillery regiment at the end of World War I, Bormann subsequently joined the rightist Rossbach Freikorps in Mecklenburg and was connected with the so-called 'Feme' murders.
In March 1924, Bormann was sentenced to one year's imprisonment as an accomplice of Rudolf Hoss in the brutal, vengeance murder of Walther Kadow (his former teacher at elementary school), who had supposedly betrayed the proto-Nazi martyr Leo Schlageter to the French occupation authorities in the Ruhr.
After his release he entered the Nazi Party, becoming its regional press officer in Thuringia and then business manager in 1928. From 1928 to 1930, Bormann was attached to the SA Supreme Command and in October 1933 he became a Reichsleiter of the NSDAP. A month later he was elected as a Nazi delegate to the Reichstag. From July 1933 until 1941, Bormann was the Chief of Cabinet in the Office of the Deputy Fuhrer, Rudolf Hess , acting as his personal secretary and right-hand man.
During this period, the
model secretary, diligent, adaptable and efficient, began his silent, imperceptible rise to the centre of the power apparatus, slowly acquiring master of the bureaucratic mechanism and Hitler's personal trust. He developed and administered the Adolf Hitler Endowment Fund of German industry, a huge fund of 'voluntary' contributions by successful business entrepreneurs to the Fuhrer, which Bormann then reallocated as gifts to almost all the top Party functionaries.
In addition to administering Hitler's personal finances, buying the Berghof at Berchtesgaden and running it as well as the whole complex of properties on the Obersalzberg, Bormann acquired the power to control the living standards of Gauleiters and Reichsleiters, not to speak of members of the Fuhrer's intimate circle. Bormann's brutality, coarseness, lack of culture and his apparent insignificance led the Nazi Old Guard to underestimate his silent persistence and ability to make himself indispensable. Rudolf Hess's flight to Britain opened the way for the
Brown Eminence to step into his shoes on May 12, 1941, as head of the Parteikanzlei and to gather the reins of the Party into his own hands and steadily undermine all his rivals for power. Until the end of the war, the short, squat Bormann, working in the anonymity of his seemingly unimportant office, proved himself a master of intrigue, manipulation and political in-fighting. Always the 'narrow Party man' and a fierce guardian of Nazi orthodoxy (he was an arch-fanatic when it came to racial policy, anti-semitism and the Kirchenkampf [war between the churches]), Bormann strengthened the position of the Party against the Wehrmacht and the SS, and increased his grip on domestic policy.
Increasingly, he controlled all questions concerning the security of the regime, acts of legislation, appointments and promotions, especially if they concerned Party personnel. He also established espionage in the army, getting younger officers promoted to spy on the political attitudes of their colleagues. He reopened the fight against the Christian churches, declaring in a confidential memo to Gauleiters in 1942 that their power 'must absolutely and finally be broken.' Nazism, based as it was on a 'scientific' world-view, was completely incompatible with Christianity whose influence was regarded by Bormann as a serious obstacle to totalitarian rule. The sharpest anti-cleric in the Nazi leadership (he collected all the files of cases against the clergy that he could lay his hands on), Bormann was the driving force of the Kirchenkampf, which Hitler for tactical reasons had wished to postpone until after the war.
Bormann was invariably the advocate of extremely harsh, radical measures when it came to the treatment of Jews, of the conquered eastern peoples or prisoners of war. He signed the decree of October 9, 1942 prescribing that
the permanent elimination of the Jews from the territories of Greater Germany can no longer be carried out by emigration but by the use of ruthless force in the special camps of the East. A further decree, signed by Bormann on July 1, 1943, gave Adolf Eichmann absolute powers over Jews, who now came under the exclusive jurisdiction of the Gestapo. A few days later, on July 11, he forwarded an order from Hitler barring public reference to the Final Solution.
Bormann's memos concerning the Slavs make it clear that he regarded them as a
Sovietized mass of sub-humans who had no claim to national independence. In a brutal memo of August 19, 1942, he wrote:
The Slavs are to work for us. In so far as we do not need them, they may die. Slav fertility is not desirable.
By the end of 1942, Bormann was virtually Hitler's deputy and his closest collaborator, showing an uncanny ability to exploit his weaknesses and personal peculiarities in order to increase his own power. Always in attendance on the Fuhrer, taking care of tiresome administrative detail and skilfully steering Hitler into approval of his own schemes, Bormann acquired the inside track for displacing dangerous rivals like Goering , Goebbels, Speer and even Himmler, whose access to the Fuhrer was controlled by him.
Bormann exploited his position of trust to build a Chinese wall against reality, in which Hitler could indulge his fantasies and in which more sensible, conciliatory proposals from other members of the Party were screened from him. Bormann reduced everything to simple, administrative formulae that freed Hitler from the burdens of paper work. He drew up his appointments calendar and decided whom he should see and whom he should not. Hitler rewarded these and other services by the trust he placed in Bormann, whom he once called
my most loyal Party comrade. He was made executive head of the Volkssturm, the desperate levy en masse of the German civilian population organized as the Allies stood poised to invade the Reich.
By now virtually the secret ruler of Germany, Bormann did not cease his Machiavellian bureaucratic intrigues against his rivals. As a result of his machinations, Hitler dismissed Goering and Himmler's influence was severely curtailed. It was the indispensable Bormann, the most mysterious and sinister figure in the Third Reich, who signed Hitler's political testament, who acted as the witness to his marriage to Eva Braun and watched his Fuhrer commit suicide in the Chancellery bunker. Ordered by Hitler
to put the interests of the nation before his own feelings and to save himself, Bormann left the Fuhrerbunker on April 30,1945. Accounts of what happened afterwards vary widely.
According to Erich Kempka (Hitler's chauffeur), Bormann was killed trying to cross the Russian lines by an anti-tank shell which hit the tank in which they were trying to escape, causing it to burst into flames. Kempka, who was temporarily blinded at the time, claimed nonetheless to have seen Bormann's dead body. Hitler Youth leader, Artur Axmann, on the other hand, believed that Bormann committed suicide and claimed to have seen Bormann's body on May 2, 1945, in the Invalidenstrasse, north of the River Spree in Berlin.
Doubts, however, have persisted and numerous sightings of Bormann have been reported, beginning in 1946 when his presence in a North Italian monastery was announced. In the same year, his wife Gerda (a rabid Nazi and daughter of Supreme Party Judge, Walter Buch) died of cancer in South Tyrol, though his ten children survived the war. It was then alleged that Bormann had escaped (like other loyal Nazis) via Rome to South America. Rumoured to have settled in Argentina where he was living secretly as a millionaire, allegedly spotted in Brazil and also in Chile, Bormann's traces proved as elusive as the anonymity in which he first rose to power.
Having been sentenced to death in absentia at Nuremberg on October 1, 1946, he was formally pronounced dead by a West German court in April 1973. Remains found in 1972 near the Lehrter station in West Berlin underwent genetic testing in 1998, which confirmed the remains to be Bormann's. Glass fragments were discovered in Bormann's jaw upon autopsy, and the cause of death was ruled suicide by cyanide capsule.
Sources: Wistrich, Robert S. Who's Who in Nazi Germany, Routledge, 1997;
Gutman, Israel. ed. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Vols. 1-4. NY: Macmillan, 1995;
Potterton, Louise. "Not His (God)Father's Son". The Jerusalem Report, August 22, 1998;
Photo courtesy of Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R14128A / CC-BY-SA.