History of poisons has been mingling with that of mankind for thousands of years. As soon as prehistoric times, tribes have known about venomous species and learnt to coat their weapons with poison so as to weaken their preys. However, one would have to wait for the advent of Ancient Rome for poisons to get used as (rather radical) a political tool.
Knowledge of poisonous plants and animals required, at the time, vast erudition and dexterity to concoct the lethal potions. Thus druids, apothecaries, enchanters, and other scholars used to the subtle mixture of ingredients soon curried favor with political leaders and power-hungry people.
Contrasting with the violence of blood gushes, poisons conferred a discreet and ruthless power upon their users, enabling the poisoners to remain hidden in the shadows without raising any suspicion. Political challengers longing to clear the upper reaches of power became the first adepts of poisons.
As the poisoners’ all-consuming ambition reached the ears of political leaders, the latter decided to hire experts to guarantee the quality of their meals – that is to say, check it not in terms of good taste, but rather non-lethality. This marked the beginning of a partnership still prevalent to this day: rulers of the world started to employ their own food tasters.
From India to Minor Asia, from Cleopatra’s palace to the royal Tudor dynasty, from Roman Emperor Claudius – who was in all likelihood poisoned by his own taster, Halotus – to Barack Obama, there had been numerous occurrences in the course of history of leaders employing other taste buds than theirs to check if their food was safe to eat or not.
This practice kept on throughout the 20th century; it came as no surprise that Adolf Hitler, the German chancellor sitting at the center of the diplomatic web at the time, also hired some food tasters to deter poisoners from taking action against him. The Nazi leader forcibly recruited fifteen young women to sample his nourishment at ‘the Wolf’s Lair’ – his remote secret headquarters located in Eastern Prussia. Margot Wölk was one of them.
She was born in Berlin in 1917. Most of German children grew up with a vengeful spirit during the 1920’s (Hitler famously stated in a speech: “a violently active, dominating, intrepid, brutal youth—that is what I am after”) since WW1 had been lost, but Margot did not follow suit. Actually she refused to join the Bund Deutscher Mädel – girls’ equivalent of Hitler Youth – when she was young; but despite her little disagreements with the political regime implemented from 1933 on, life went on and at the outbreak of WW2, she worked as secretary in Berlin. She had just married Karl, a German soldier who soon got called up for service within the Wehrmacht ranks.
The capital city was heavily bombed within the first few years of the war: Margot had to leave her parents’ flat during the winter of 1941. This is how she was requisitioned by S.S. officers and driven to the Wolf’s Lair to work, alike fourteen other young women, as food taster for Adolf Hitler.
From eleven to midday, every day, all fifteen of them would try the dictator’s meals at the risk of their lives. Then, would no anomaly be detected by the women’s taste buds – that is to say, none of them gets ill or drops dead – the food would eventually be served to the most powerful man in the world… This did not happen without strong emotions, as Margot Wölk vividly recalls:
“Some of the girls started to shed tears as they began eating because they were so afraid. We had to eat it all up. Then we had to wait an hour, and every time we were frightened that we were going to be ill. We used to cry like dogs because we were so glad to have survived.”
Two and a half years later, while WW2 had definitely changed course, Margot kept on going with her terrible, spine-chilling duties. “The food was good – very good. But we couldn’t enjoy it,” she remembers. The 20th of July, 1944, would be a red-letter day. A bomb placed by the German colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, in an attempt to kill the German chancellor, narrowly failed. Nevertheless Hitler got through and ordered his personal security at the Wolf’s Lair to be tightly reinforced.
His safety, however, was more than ever threatened. The Red Army gained ground day by day, approaching the Wolf’s Lair in late-1944. A German lieutenant, very aware of the upcoming taking of the Nazi headquarters, advised Margot to flee and she boarded a train heading to Berlin. She thought she had escaped the worst upon reaching her hometown: but Soviet soldiers turned her life into a real nightmare when she wandered across the city’s streets. She was violently and multiple times raped during two hellish weeks, as were 100,000 other Berliner women suffering the Red Army’s war crimes; one out of ten was to die from an abortion attempt throughout the following months. Margot herself was not able to bear children anymore because of the wounds caused by her Soviet torturers.
Sometime later, Margot met up with the lieutenant who had saved her life back at the Wolf’s Lair. He informed her that the fourteen other young women working as food tasters there had been executed in cold blood by Soviets when they reached the Nazi headquarters. Margot was thus the only one to survive the war.
In spite of the many wartime atrocities she experienced, Margot regained hope in 1946 when her allegedly-killed-in-action husband Karl came back to her. Together, they patiently learned to overcome these painful memories and have been living happily for the next thirty-four years.