The Second World War ended 72 years ago. Historians have produced a voluminous history chronicling its course. Yet almost three-quarters of a century later, there are still many unanswered questions about the war, and there is considerable material about wartime military and intelligence operations that, inexplicably, remains classified.
Not surprisingly, those unanswered questions have given rise to a spate of conspiracy theories challenging the conventional narrative about the war. Among those theories is the claim that Adolf Hitler did not die in his Berlin bunker but escaped Berlin and found refuge in South America.
The theme that Hitler lived has fuelled countless movie scripts and thrillers, and has even led to recent documentaries. Let me summarize the principal evidence for and against the argument.
British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper documented the official account of the death of Hitler in his book The Last Days of Hitler. Trevor-Roper was a British intelligence officer during the war. In June 1945, he was assigned the task of documenting Hitler’s last days to prove Hitler died in his bunker.
Critics of his book have argued that Trevor-Roper was an odd choice for the task. Notwithstanding the fact that he would go on to become a distinguished military historian and the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford from 1957 to 1980, in 1945 Trevor-Roper was known as a specialist in 16th and 17th century British history. Moreover, he neither spoke nor read German.
Trevor-Roper completed his research over 10 days. He appeared to have relied on summaries of interrogations of various people who were believed to have been in the bunker with Hitler in the last week of April, provided to him by U.S. intelligence officers. He did not have access to any Nazi prisoners held by the Soviets and it’s unclear whether he spoke to any of the alleged witnesses.
The testimony obtained from eyewitnesses was contradictory, claiming that Hitler’s death had occurred on any one of five days between April 27 and May 1. Accounts of death ranged from natural causes to poisoning to suicide. There was a consensus that the body had been burned, but the descriptions of the body and how it was dressed varied considerably.
Widely varying eyewitness descriptions is nothing new. Police investigators deal with this phenomenon all the time.
It does appear, however, that Trevor-Roper constructed a narrative of Hitler’s death by combining the various eyewitness accounts, even though those accounts had widely varying timelines.
One would think that if there was any chance that Hitler escaped from Berlin, it would have been in the interest of the Allies to publicize it and organize the world’s greatest manhunt. In fact, the Allies had a vested interest in advancing the narrative that Hitler died in the bunker by his own hand. The Allies believed the German population would be more accepting of the occupation if they believed Hitler dead and the prospect of a Hitler-led Nazi resurgence impossible.
Moreover, they were determined to show that Hitler died a coward’s death and wanted to nip in the bud any possibility that the Nazis could ever advance a repeat of the “stabbed in the back” explanation that followed Germany’s defeat in the First World War. Trevor-Roper’s task was not to determine what happened in Hitler’s final days; it was to put together an argument that he died in the bunker. This he did, in the process creating a bestseller.
There was another reason the Allies wanted Hitler dead: Operation Sunrise. Hitler’s alpine retreat in Bavaria, Berchtesgaden, was more than just the Fuhrer’s vacation hideaway. It was designed to be an alternative command centre in the event that Berlin fell. All of the major figures in the Nazi government had homes in Berchtesgaden, in some cases as annexes to Hitler’s palatial estate. There were kilometres of tunnels built into the mountain below Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest, including a 240,000-square-foot command centre.
The Nazis intended, after the fall of Berlin, to continue the war from their mountain fortress in Bavaria. Significantly, Hermann Goering was captured by the Allies in Bavaria, as were scores of other Nazi party bigwigs. After the war, the German government destroyed what was left of Berchtesgaden, bulldozing the debris and planting trees over the site to ensure it didn’t become a shrine to Hitler. The tunnels and the underground bunker were sealed.
In March 1945, with the end of the war in sight, the OSS, with the assistance of Swiss intelligence operatives, began a series of negotiations, dubbed Operation Sunrise or Operation Sunrise-Crossroads, between American diplomat Allen Dulles and Waffen-SS Gen. Karl Wolff over the surrender of Army Group C in northern Italy and western Austria. Army Group C was tasked with the defence of northern Italy. It numbered some one million Wehrmacht soldiers, most of whom were being held in reserve.
It had another purpose, however. Army Group C was tasked with manning the Alpine redoubt the Nazi’s intended to use to continue the war in Europe after Berlin’s fall.
There are several extensive histories of Operation Sunrise. There are also a lot of unanswered questions. The OSS files regarding the negotiations ended up at the CIA and it’s not clear if they’ve all been released. Wolff was not authorized to conduct negotiations with the Allies. The surrender of Army Group C on May 2, five days before Germany’s official surrender, sealed the fate of the Third Reich and eliminated any possibility of continuing the war in the Bavarian Alps.
This is where the conspiracy theories have taken root. One version of the story is that Wolff convinced Hitler that he was negotiating with the western Allies an anti-Soviet alliance that would cease hostilities on the western front and allow Allied armies, along with the remaining German forces, to immediately advance east and stop Soviet advances. Such an explanation isn’t that far-fetched. Hitler harboured fantasies until his death that he could create a split between the Soviets and the western Allies.
A related version of the story is that as part of this new alliance, Hitler would be given safe passage out of Germany. That addendum might have come from Wolff or it might have been created by the Soviets. Allied records of the negotiations, at least those that have been released, make no reference to such a deal even being broached, much less negotiated.
Another version of this story is that Hitler proposed an alliance with the Soviets and the western Allies, offering the remaining German military forces to whichever side agreed first to the German alliance. The combined force would push either the western Allies or the Soviets out of the European territory they controlled.
This would have been a replay of the negotiations between the Nazis and the British and French on one side and the Soviets on the other side that ultimately led to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. That Hitler might have believed such a scenario was plausible isn’t surprising, but there is no evidence that any such substantive discussions ever occurred.
The Soviets were eventually informed by the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow Averell Harriman of the negotiations. Stalin insisted a Soviet representative be included in the deliberations. Wolff, however, threatened to break off the negotiations if the Soviets were part of the discussions.
By March 1945, it was clear that Germany’s defeat was only a matter of time. It was also clear that Moscow intended to organize national governments in the territories it had liberated that would be to its liking.
Stalin’s armies were steadily expanding over Central Europe and he had no interest in bringing the war to a faster end. From the Kremlin’s perspective, the longer the war lasted, the more territory would fall into Soviet hands. After the end of the war, Soviet media sources began citing the Sunrise negotiations as proof the Allies had made a deal to grant Hitler safe passage. The Trevor-Roper investigation was designed to refute that rumour by demonstrating Hitler had died in the bunker.
The physical evidence of Hitler’s death was collected by SMERSH. Most people know SMERSH as a mythical organization of bad guys in the early James Bond films. In reality, SMERSH was the Russian acronym for “Death to Spies.”
It referred to three counterintelligence agencies in the Soviet Red Army that operated from 1942, or possibly late 1941, until 1946. Stalin was deeply suspicious of the loyalty of the Red Army and was concerned about Nazi attempts to suborn it. SMERSH played a variety of roles, including identifying potential traitors in the army and verifying the loyalty of returning prisoners of war captured by the Nazis.
The story of Hitler’s physical remains is an incredibly convoluted one. It was documented extensively by Australian researcher Giordan Smith.
Over the years the Soviets and Russians have trotted out various skulls they claim were Hitler’s. They have all been rejected. In the most recent case, a University of Connecticut team in 2009 found that a skull Russian authorities claimed was Hitler’s was in fact that of a woman.
The most definitive forensic evidence was a jaw whose dental analysis matched the dental records obtained from Hitler’s personal dentist. Normally dental records, especially when they show extensive dental work, are taken as proof of identity. Smith, however, points to circumstantial evidence that the records might have been faked. He notes that Hitler’s dentist was subsequently arrested by Soviet authorities and disappeared.
According to the Soviets, all but two of the bones recovered from the chancellery grounds were eventually cremated and the ashes dispersed to ensure that Hitler’s remains would not become a shrine for Nazi diehards. What remains, according to the Kremlin, are the skull and lower jaw.
The Soviets, and now the Russians, have seemed reluctant to settle the question of Hitler’s death. They control whatever forensic evidence, however questionable, exists. DNA analysis might confirm the bones are Hitler’s. It’s not clear why Moscow would not want to settle the issue other than it’s in the Kremlin’s interest to preserve the narrative that the western Allies helped Hitler escape.
Several years ago, the FBI released around 700 pages of documents relating to Hitler’s death. Conspiracy theorists were quick to pounce on them as proof that Hitler escaped. Those documents, however, offer no such proof.
Generally, they cover three issues.
- They describe the FBI’s doubts, for a variety of reasons, that the physical remains shown to FBI investigators by Soviet intelligence officials were the remains of Hitler.
- They relate comments by various Soviet officials, including those from Josef Stalin and Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov that “Hitler got away.” That belief was not just limited to the Soviets. U.S. Gen. George Patton expressed the same view.
- They describe various purported sightings of Hitler. Many were in South America but reports came in from all over the world. In fact, Hitler sightings may be exceeded only by those of Elvis Presley. Some had remarkably accurate descriptions, not surprising given that Hitler was by then the most notorious person in the world, complete with his trademark toothbrush moustache.
The final body of documentation cited by conspiracy theorists relates to the evidence that the Nazis established a bolt-hole in Argentina and that following the war, scores of Nazis made their way there. Much of this information is credible and has been verified.
The Nazis began paying Argentine President Juan Peron a subsidy in 1932 to ensure they would have a safe refuge if they needed it. Nazi front organizations made large purchases of real estate in Argentina, including a giant ranch in Patagonia that had a dock capable of berthing ocean-going ships or submarines.
In the days following the German surrender, 40 submarines left German ports. 30 surrendered, 2 additional submarines surrendered after they had dropped off their cargoes including a U-977 the submarine that allegedly carried Hitler, eight submarines were never accounted for.
There are any number of plausible theories of how Hitler could have escaped Berlin, assuming he was even there. The city had an extensive underground subway system. In addition, on April 26, Luftwaffe pilot Hanna Reitsch, described as Hitler’s personal pilot or favourite pilot, landed a Fieseler Storch on an improvised airstrip in the Tiergarten near the Brandenburg Gate not far from the Chancellery grounds. She left a few hours later.
Conspiracy theorists are quick to say she might have carried Hitler safely out of Berlin. That’s entirely plausible, although there’s no evidence she had a passenger, much less who that passenger was. She would fly in and out of Berlin several times between April 26 and April 28.
There are other interesting tidbits in this narrative. Hitler supposedly had a thyroid condition that made him particularly sensitive to warm temperatures. His home in Berchtesgaden was built with north-facing windows to keep out the sun. There were frequent reports that visitors found the home cold. A German businessman in Argentina who often fronted for the Nazis built an exact replica of Hitler’s home in Berchtesgaden in San Carlos de Bariloche, in the province of Rio Negro.
The area had a large German community and its terrain was very similar to the Bavarian Alps. The house built in Bariloche had south-facing windows designed to keep out the sun. Even if the home was designed for Hitler, that doesn’t mean he made it there. It’s not conceivable Hitler planned to relocate there if he needed to.
There’s also the unresolved mystery of the Hitler fortune. The Nazis were notorious kleptocrats and Hitler is believed to have accumulated a substantial fortune. Tens of millions of copies of Mein Kampf were printed by the German government for which Hitler was paid a royalty. Hitler also received royalties for the use of his visage on German stamps. There were probably other sources of wealth accumulated. None of this wealth was ever found.
So what exactly do we know? There is no tangible evidence that Hitler died in the bunker in the closing days of April 1945. It’s entirely possible he escaped but, equally, there’s no tangible evidence that he actually did. The official accounts of the events leading up to his death are suspect. That doesn’t mean he didn’t die but it does mean that he could have died under significantly different circumstances.
There were certainly ways for Hitler to get to South America. Many Nazis did. Again, however, there’s no proof Hitler was one of them. The many reported sightings of Hitler after the end of the war were by people who have long since died. They are as believable as the reports about Elvis.
Had there been even a shred of possibility that Hitler lived, western intelligence agencies should have mounted a worldwide campaign to find him. If there was such a campaign, it’s hard to believe it could have stayed under wraps. Likewise, Israel’s Mossad would have made finding Hitler its absolute priority, but again there’s no evidence any such mission was undertaken.
The most likely scenario is the simplest one. Hitler died in the bunker but probably under very different conditions than the official history. The western Allies had a vested interest in perpetuating the narrative that he died a coward’s death at his own hand. The Soviets, who could have disputed that narrative, had their own interests for leaving the issue unresolved.
Barring the release of some smoking gun document buried in intelligence archives, the question will probably never be settled.
Joseph Micallef is a historian, best-selling author and, at times, sardonic commentator on world politics.
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