Eighty years ago on September 1, 1939, World War II began. One German who came through the war mostly unscathed was Eugen Dollman. Dollman came from an aristocratic family with roots in both Bavaria and Austria. He graduated magna cum laude from a university in Munich with a degree in history. In 1927, he moved to Rome to continue his studies.
Dollman seems to have spent very little time doing scholarly research. Most of his time was devoted to socializing. As a German national and minor aristocrat, he was invited to parties hosted by the German ambassador, Ulrich von Hassell. (Hassell was part of the anti-Hitler opposition. He was murdered in 1944 during the purges following the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt against Hitler.)
Italian countesses and princesses invited him to their parties where he was introduced to Count Ciano, son-in-law of Benito Mussolini and Italian Foreign Minister. Dollman also accompanied his landlady’s daughter to parties with her blue-collar friends, several of whom were smugglers and anti-Mussolini partisans.
Dollman’s primary skill was the ability to identify powerful patrons. His most important patron was Arturo Bocchini, head of the Italian secret police. They were bound together by their cynicism and love of Rome. In 1937, Bocchini insisted that Dollman should be his interpreter during a meeting with Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS.
Dollman spotted the opportunity and joined the SS because he saw it as his best chance to remain in Rome. The SS lacked individuals fluent in Italian and interdepartmental bickering meant they refused to use interpreters from the German Foreign Office. Dollman served as an interpreter for Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SS secret police, and other SS and Nazi officials when they visited Rome. He also accompanied Mussolini to meetings with Hitler beginning with the 1938 Munich Conference.
Through it all, Dollman privately mocked the disgraceful table manners and social gaucherie of Himmler, Hitler and Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Count Ciano was stigmatized as a buffoon who played too much golf and blabbed state secrets to his lady friends. Some of the ladies were English or American wives of Italian businessmen and politicians who were suspected of passing along Ciano’s indiscretions to their respective governments.
In 1943, Dollman temporarily lost most of his patrons when Mussolini was overthrown in a Cabinet coup and imprisoned. But Dollman’s extensive connections ensured he was quickly in favor with the new government. He didn’t abandon his old patrons, however, thinking they might prove useful in the future.
In July 1944, Dollman served as interpreter for Otto Skorzeny, an Austrian SS officer and extracurricular soldier, sent to Rome to rescue Mussolini. They hated each other at first sight. Skorzeny thought Dollman was an Italianized sissy. Dollman thought Skorzeny was a rude bully-boy. But they managed to collaborate in a plot that freed Mussolini and his former government ministers.
Dollman accompanied the newly-freed Italian ministers on their trip to Hitler’s headquarters at Rastenberg (now in Poland). They arrived shortly after the bomb explosion that failed to kill Hitler. Dollman described the two dictators as broken down men who had lost their convictions and only looked alive when talking of past glories.
Dollman’s last significant war-time patron was Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, commander of German forces in Italy. Kesselring allowed Dollman to stay in Rome in defiance of SS orders. As the Allies advanced, Dollman arranged escape routes for his friends including aristocrats, fascists and partisans.
Dollman’s connections also enabled him to contact the Americans which facilitated the negotiations for the surrender of German troops in northern Italy. Dollman spent a short stint in a prisoner-of-war camp. He eventually retired to Munich to write his memoirs. He died in Munich in 1985, surrounded by memorabilia of his glory days in Rome.
Dollman epitomizes a type of person we can easily recognize. He is the type that survives any boardroom coup or company reorganization by adapting to the changing winds. His wide network and willingness to connect people (useful to his career) make him indispensable to anyone climbing the social or business ladder. Few are willing to trust him because of his lack of convictions and cynicism but his easy charm and ready humor ensures he survives.
Dollman’s memoir is less self-serving than some of his compatriots but he repeatedly states that he did nothing for which he should apologize. His cynicism meant he never had any moral principles to violate. Some of his stories are scandalous and funny. See the 2017 version titled With Hitler and Mussolini, (translated by J. Maxwell Brownjohn).
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