Hardly anyone in Germany knew his name, but everyone near the top feared, respected, and/or hated him in varying mixtures. He was Hitler’s secretary, head of the Nazi Party chancellery, and so much the political tapeworm that he has become a slang term in my own world.
Of middle-class stock, Bormann served in the German military during the last days of World War I without seeing action. In the 1920s he joined the paramilitary Freikorps, then the Nazi Party. His work ethic and organizational skills had few equals, but Bormann did not attain a position of importance until the Nazi takeover in 1933. He became chief of staff to Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess, a muddled man whose disinterest and disorientation cried out for a functional assistant. It interests me because I have seen this phenomenon over and over: a weak or distracted leader gets that one employee or volunteer who makes all the troubles go away, and comes to depend on that person in all things.
Of course, Hess flew to the United Kingdom in 1941 in a controversial attempt to make peace. (Let’s here and now dismiss the conspiracy theories about him dying in captivity and replaced by a double. In the first place, the supposed double would have had to fool not only the senior Nazis locked up with Hess in Spandau, but Hess’s own wife and son. I think not. In the second, who a) happens to be a dead ringer for the odd-looking Hess, and b) signs on to spend his life in jail? That’s a nope.) With Hess’s departure, Bormann became the head of the Party Chancellery–the effective head of the Nazi Party’s day-to-day workings.
People rarely think about this, but Germany had several competing organizations running its affairs. While the National Socialist German Workers’ Party had no rival parties, its organization was not exactly synonymous with the government. Neither was the SS in its varying branches and functions. To get a good sense of how Nazi Germany worked, one should understand that Adolf Hitler always had his subordinates and their organizations competing with one another. Bormann’s power emanated from the fact that he was one of the only people who had daily personal contact with Hitler. This meant that a word from him had the power to bind and to loose. A tenacious, ruthless political infighter, he naturally used this power to strengthen his own authority, reward those who cooperated, and marginalize or destroy those who did not.
He was certainly complicit in the Holocaust because he was complicit in just about every action by the Nazi-led German state from 1933 to 1945. The most loyal of Nazis, he was expecting to retain some form of power even as he sought to escape the Soviet Union’s Berlin encirclement.
What kind of a person was Bormann? To some degree he was a living German caricature, the sort that a bad parody writer (and a committed Germanophobe) might devise. He was at your throat or at your feet, sullen in defeat and unbearable in victory, to borrow phrases from writers past. A tireless worker loyal to the chain of command–there being only one link above him–his meticulous ability to organize and maneuver could move mountains. An obsequious toady to Hitler and a bellowing tyrant to his staff, he loved his wife but made a habit of cheating on her. Bull-necked, squat, thick around the middle, and unpromising in appearance, his only serious limiter was the lack of any public speaking ability.
While there are always those seeking answers in conspiracy, in this case there isn’t much room for a reasonable person to believe that Martin Bormann survived World War II. He died on May 2, 1945, six days before the Third Reich surrendered to the Allies, probably from poison to avoid imminent capture. Forensics (1973) and eventually DNA testing (1998) leave no room for doubt.
In addition to his legacy of complicity in one of the most evil regimes of the modern day, Martin Bormann left me the perfect term for the political infighter, the tapeworm in the body politic, the ass-kisser who slithers into a position of great power. I saw Bormanns (Bormenn?) in most offices I worked in, and have seen them in several of my wife’s past employments. I have seen female and male Bormanns, ugly and attractive, thick and thin, smart and dumb (but with powerful animal cunning).
Any time there is a leader who punishes those who tell him or her what s/he needs but does not wish to hear, a Bormann scents opportunity and enters the body politic through the contaminated nourishment of zealous volunteerism and fawning humility. Once established, everything that passes through the body politic must pass the Bormann. After s/he destroys enough challengers, the rest learn not to provoke the tapeworm whose choice to bite in just the right spot can be fatal to a career.
Bormanns thrive in non-profits and for-profits alike, in government and business, even in social clubs.
If you can remember any Bormanns from your own experience, feel free to tell stories about them.