The death of Adolf Hitler – 72 years ago today – always intrigues me because of the way it has been so shrouded in conspiracy thinking.
These conspiracies – none of which are consistent – all claim that Hitler did not die, grubbily by his own hand, in his Berlin bunker. They range from the notion that Hitler staged his death and was snatched out of the city by crack pilot Hannah Reitsch, who flew a Fieseler Storch into a rubble-filled street to get him. Or he had never been there and the body found was one of his six doubles. Where he allegedly went was also never nailed down. Either he escaped to Argentina by U-boat where he lived under an assumed name until 1962, or later.
Or perhaps he flew by Focke-Wulf FW-200 Kondor to Brazil. Or maybe he went by Nazi flying saucer to the Moon, or to Antarctica where he ended up riding a tamed T-Rex in an underground Lost World. Yeah, I’m getting at the Norwegian ‘Iron Sky’ comedies, but it’s about as likely.
The problem with the conspiracy theories that there is no direct evidence whatsoever for such an escape and survival – whereas the evidence of Hitler’s death was well documented and proven. The files were published in 2015. The issue wasn’t lack of hard evidence, it was the fact that the Soviets obfuscated it at the time, giving traction to wild speculation.
In point of fact the more realistic place for Hitler to have gone – and the one feared by the Allies – was in the complex of tunnels and fortifications the Nazi regime were frantically building in the Bavarian mountains. The fact of this large-scale refuge was known to the Allies, and it would have been extremely time-consuming and costly in lives to conquer. We forget, these days, that in 1945 there were concerns of Nazi guerrilla resistance after the war was over. Nobody anticipated that Nazi-ism, as an organised social phenomenon among the German people, would collapse as quickly as it did in 1945.
So how did these conspiracies get traction to begin with? There are several reasons, but the main one was political – coupled with the confusion into which Berlin had fallen as the Soviets took it. By the time Hitler shot himself at 3.30 pm on 30 April 1945, his bunker beneath the Chancellery building was effectively in the battlefield. The Soviets were just 400 metres distant in the Reichstag. Hitler’s aides dragged his body and that of his mistress, Eva Braun, up to the Chancellery garden and spent the next two and a half hours burning them to the point where identification, later, was possible only through dental remains.
When the Soviets arrived at the Chancellery on 2 May they found the bunker and the bodies in the courtyard. Hitler’s dentist, Hugo Blaschke, confirmed to SMERSH agents that the bodies in the Chancellery courtyard were Hitler and Braun. Other remains were then also found in the garden – Joseph Goebbels, his wife, their children; and Hitler’s two dogs – one of which had been sacrificed to test the cyanide that Braun used to kill herself. The remains, after being put in various places, were eventually taken to an air base in Magdeburg and buried.
The Allies were very keen to get their hands on all the senior Nazis; but the issue of Hitler’s death became wrapped up in Stalin’s paranoia and the politics of the emerging Cold War. It suited Stalin to obfuscate the death of Hitler, even denying that he had the body to the Allies. That stood against what the Allies already knew: and so the British had sent a young intelligence officer (and qualified historian), Hugh Trevor-Roper, to find out what had happened in the bunker. His account remains the most likely. But the story did not end until some 25 years later, when Soviet authorities – concerned that any discovery of Hitler’s remains might provoke neo-Nazi sympathies in their staunch ally, East Germany, ordered the bodies dug up and destroyed.
There is a lesson in all this. It seems to me that the multiple stories, the ‘holes’ spotted in the tales by conspiracy theorists – all these things – give what happened a ring of truth. The reality of history is that it is going to be messy. Individual observers will have different tales of the same events – often contradictory, even – depending on viewpoint. In short – and paradoxically – a single and consistent tale of the dramatic last hours in the Fuhrerbunker would smack of fabrication. Confusion does not. It’s a reality of how humans observe things, particularly in dramatic moments.
The unfortunate part of was that Hitler was never brought to justice and put on trial for his monstrous crimes against humanity – crimes that remain the darkest and most evil ever perpetrated.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017