Delving into UK and US intel files, a British historian takes aim at myriad of nonsensical stories that history’s greatest villain managed to escape and Hitler lived out his life in peace
LONDON — In November 1945, the British Legation in Copenhagen informed the Foreign Office that a Danish lady had reported to it her friend’s dream that Adolf Hitler was alive, disguised as a monk and had shaved off his mustache.
In London, civil servants understandably scoffed at the report and noted that “there will be no end to stories of this kind.”
As British academic Luke Daly-Groves writes in his new book, “Hitler’s Death” — a work that aims to rebut conspiracy theories surrounding the Führer’s demise — those words have proved somewhat prophetic.
In the weeks and months after the war, Hitler sightings from across the world were reported to British and American intelligence services.
Hitler, it was claimed, had been seen in Ireland dressed as a woman; in Egypt where he had converted to Islam; in a coffee house in Amsterdam; on a train traveling from New Orleans; in a Washington, DC, restaurant; and in Charlottesville, Virginia.
And, most famously, there were multiple reports that Hitler was living with old comrades in Argentina, having, by some accounts, been spirited out of Berlin, flown to a German airbase in Denmark, and then taken across the Atlantic by u-boat. The Führer, one FBI file reported, had arrived at his Argentinian ranch hideaway by horseback.
“Hitler at this stage could undoubtedly have written one of the most comprehensive travel guides of the 20th century,” Daly-Groves wryly argues. “But, of course, all available evidence suggests that such rumors were nonsense.”
However nonsensical, 74 years after he shot himself in Berlin and brought to a close the darkest chapter in human history, these rumors continue to feed a lucrative industry of Hitler conspiracy theories.
In recent years, books such as “Grey Wolf: The Escape of Adolf Hitler” by Simon Dunstan and Gerrard Williams; Harry Cooper’s “Hitler in Argentina: The Documented Truth of Hitler’s Escape from Berlin”; and “Hunting Hitler: New Scientific Evidence That Hitler Escaped Nazi Germany” by Jerome Corsi, have all pushed the notion that Hitler did not die as the Soviets advanced on Berlin, but lived out his final years in South America.
The books have been boosted by extensive newspaper coverage and supplemented by TV shows such as the History Channel’s multi-part series, “Hunting Hitler.”
This latest wave of conspiracy-mongering was sparked by the revelation in 2009 that DNA tests had shown that a piece of skull in Moscow which was believed to have been Hitler’s actually belonged to a woman.
Soviet fake news?
It was Soviet behavior immediately after Nazi Germany’s defeat which provided the initial grist for the seemingly never-ending rumor mill. While Soviet officers working for Marshal Zhukov, who commanded the Russian forces in the Battle of Berlin, initially told Western newspapers that Hitler’s body had been found, Stalin soon contradicted them. Less than a month after the war’s end, the Soviet leader told former president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s close confidant, Harry Hopkins, that Hitler was still alive. Within days, Zhukov had reversed course and said that the Führer’s body had not been found and that he may indeed have escaped.
The Soviets’ claims soon gained ground in Berlin and began to be reported in Allied newspapers. Thus in July 1945, British newspapers reported comments by a Russian officer that a charred body discovered by the Soviets was “a very poor double.” Across the Atlantic, US newspapers ran quotes attributed to the Russian garrison commandant of Berlin that Hitler had “gone into hiding somewhere in Europe,” with the Spanish dictator, General Francisco Franco, fingered for potentially sheltering him.
The concerted and officially backed nature of the Soviet campaign was evident in the fact that, in September 1945, all Russian newspapers ran an item asserting that British intelligence officers were hunting for Hitler in Hamburg, with the Führer’s appearance reportedly altered by a “plastic operation.”
The Communist party mouthpiece, Pravda, also ran comments by the deputy mayor of Berlin who was “convinced Hitler was alive.” Such was the persistence of the Soviets’ claims that, one month later, the Supreme Allied Commander, Dwight Eisenhower, suggested that Hitler might still be alive. The future president swiftly retracted the statement — which has nonetheless not prevented it being widely repeated.
Daly-Groves believes that these Soviet actions have contributed to the endurance of conspiracy theories.
“One of the reasons these stories are still going strong is because, in a large part, they originate with the Soviet government, so they have important officials, such as Stalin, who took part in the defeat of Nazi Germany, saying that they believe Hitler could have escaped,” Daly-Groves tells The Times of Israel.
Stalin’s motives have been much speculated upon by historians. Some believe that the Soviet leader wanted to discredit popular potential rivals at home, such as Zhukov. Attempting to place the blame on Spain and Argentina for sheltering Hitler served to help undermine Stalin’s fascist enemies overseas. He may also have wished to maintain the notion of a continuing threat from Hitler as part of a power play in territorial disputes as the Allies moved into their zones of occupation in Germany.
Indeed, some historians suggest that in this early example of fake news, there are parallels with Vladimir Putin. As the historian Guy Walters recently wrote: “Stalin was keen – just like his successor in the Kremlin today – to sow division and discord in the West by suggesting that the British or Americans were sheltering Hitler.”
Daly-Groves doesn’t dispute the possibility of any of these motives. However, he adds one of his own: that the Soviet leader may have been embarrassed by the bungled investigation into Hitler’s death carried out by his forces when they took control of Berlin. The shoddy nature of this probe is exemplified by the fact that the first Soviets to enter the Führerbunker were a group of women who proceeded to steal Eva Braun’s lingerie.
“That just sets the tone for the Soviet investigation,” says Daly-Groves.
The 2009 DNA test results thus may simply point to the fact that the Soviets’ inquiries in the days after Hitler’s death were more botched than previously thought. Perhaps, he speculates, soldiers ordered by Stalin to determine Hitler’s whereabouts were too terrified to say they hadn’t been able to recover his body and “picked up whatever mush they could find in front of Hitler’s bunker exit, put it in a box and claimed it was the corpses of Adolf and Eva Hitler, when in reality all that was left was little more than teeth, ash and a garbled mess, barely recognizable as a ‘body.’”
The Trevor-Roper dossier
The Russian disinformation campaign did not, however, go unchallenged, with Britain appointing the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in September 1945 to conduct its own investigation into what occurred in the bunker in Hitler’s last days. While the Soviets blocked access to forensic evidence (they did not finally release it for two decades), Trevor-Roper managed to compile a dossier of compelling eyewitness accounts that Hitler had taken his own life in the face of impending defeat, and that his body, along with that of Braun, was incinerated in the ruins of his Chancellery garden as Russian shells rained down.
Because of this conclusion, which was later released in his best-selling book, Trevor-Roper has subsequently been heavily targeted by conspiracy theorists. Gerrard Williams, co-author of “Grey Wolf,” for instance, told British television in 2011: “I have no idea why Hugh Trevor-Roper was actually chosen by the Secret Services to do the death of Hitler.”
Trevor-Roper is accused of being unqualified for the task and his work alleged to have been driven by a political desire to clear Britain of Soviet insinuations of harboring Hitler. The fact that, in 1983, he also initially believed the infamous Hitler diaries – ultimately revealed to be the work of a German fraudster – to be genuine, has also been used to undermine the credibility of his investigation in 1945.
But, Daly-Groves argues, Trevor-Roper was eminently qualified to examine whether Hitler had escaped. A highly regarded MI6 officer who had taught himself German, he was also renowned for having cracked an Abwehr code while soaking in the bath during an air raid.
“You only have to read the biography of Trevor-Roper to see how skilled he was in intelligence and why he was chosen,” he suggests. “He was the foremost expert on the German intelligence services at the time and if anybody was going to help Hitler escape it was going to be the German intelligence services, because it would have involved a major covert operation.”
Daly-Groves believes any errors Trevor-Roper made in 1983 as a then-elderly man should not reflect on his work in 1945.
“His letters show how meticulous he was and that his motivations were to discover the truth about the past,” Daly-Groves argues. “It’s very clear to me that if he had any credible evidence to suggest that Hitler escaped he would have been one of the first to go out to try and catch him.”
Daly-Groves’s examination of British intelligence files prove, he claims, that conspiracy theorists’ allegations about the UK’s motivations for appointing Trevor-Roper are far off the mark. Britain was keen to scotch rumors that Hitler was hiding in their zone because it believed they threatened to sour the prospects of postwar cooperation with the Russians.
It was also concerned to prevent the growth of a “Hitler myth” – based on the notion that he was either alive or had died heroically – from developing. Such a myth, it was feared, might hinder de-Nazification in Germany and was also being used to encourage last-ditch Nazi resistance efforts and, later, neo-Nazi underground movements.
Finally, the British wanted the truth about Hitler’s death recorded for posterity.
“The book is intended as history rather than propaganda,” Trevor-Roper informed intelligence chiefs in London.
The flip side of seeking truth
Trevor-Roper was, however, also fully aware that the truth surrounding Hitler’s demise – at the very moment young boys and old men were giving their lives and deserters were being mercilessly executed by his fanatical supporters – would itself act as “the best … form of propaganda.”
Daly-Groves’s analysis of US military intelligence files indicates that the Americans’ motivations for aiding Trevor-Roper’s investigation largely tallied with those of Britain. The US, it was stated, hoped that further material useful for “debunking … numerous Hitler Myths” might be obtained, as well as “the knowledge needed to expose those frauds who in later years may claim to be Hitler, or who may claim to have seen him or talked to him.”
It was, however, the opening of previously secret British and American files in recent years which have provided perhaps the greatest fillip for modern-day conspiracy theorists.
“In these files there are thousands of leads,” one CIA veteran tells the “Hunting Hitler” program, while a narrator later excitedly claims that “hundreds of FBI documents place Hitler in Argentina.”
The very fact that the investigations were taking place is also used by some authors of books that claim that the truth about Hitler’s survival has been concealed. “If Adolf Hitler killed himself in Berlin,” asks one, “why were the world’s spy services still looking for him into the middle of the 1950s?”
“What’s different about these conspiracy theories,” argues Daly-Groves, “is that they are saying we’ve got documentary evidence that Hitler escaped and the evidence that they point to are the postwar investigations which British and American intelligence organized into reports of Hitler’s survival.”
But working through a slew of British and American intelligence files – some of them only recently declassified – Daly-Groves believes he has placed these documents back into their proper context. He has looked at the motivations of investigators, as well as their views at the outset and their conclusions.
“The reason they were investigating these stories in the 1940s and 1950s was not because they believed Hitler could have escaped — it was often more because they were concerned with who was spreading these rumors and why they were doing so,” Daly-Groves says.
A 1949 investigation, for instance, revealed that stories that Hitler had survived were inspiring neo-Nazi activity in occupied Germany.
The intelligence services also hoped, he adds, that their inquiries might help them to track down other Nazis who had indeed escaped to Argentina.
Daly-Groves cites one of the longest and most important investigations carried out by the Intelligence Division of the British occupation force in Germany. For six months in 1948, it probed the claim of Luftwaffe captain Peter Baumgart that he flew Hitler and Braun to safety in Denmark on April 28, 1945, stopping overnight in Magdeburg due to Allied bombing. Made during his trial for war crimes in Poland in December 1947, Baumgart’s story was reported in newspapers throughout the world.
British intelligence tracked down Luftwaffe pilots stationed in Berlin and Magdeburg in the last month of the war. They all contested Baumgart’s claims. Having established that Magdeburg had fallen into American hands 10 days earlier, the UK probe bluntly concluded: “Baumgart is telling lies.”
But that hasn’t stopped “the testimony from a Warsaw court of the pilot who flew them out” being cited by one of the “Grey Wolf” authors to support his contention that Hitler and Braun escaped to Argentina. Indeed, Daly-Groves believes, it’s a hallmark of many conspiracy theorists that, while happy to cite the rumors in Anglo-American intelligence files, they rarely, if ever, cite the conclusions which disprove them.
Daly-Groves is also unimpressed by conspiracy theorists’ suggestion that “hundreds of FBI files place Hitler in Argentina.”
“There are folders which concern Hitler survival rumors, [but] these tales of Hitler in Argentina are filed alongside documents which place him all over the world,” he explains. “What conspiracy theorists do is they ignore these reports of Hitler being seen in Canada and Japan and New York and elsewhere and they go through these folders and pick out the ones that say [he is in] Argentina because they obviously see that as a more plausible theory to sell, because other Nazis did escape to Argentina.”
The intelligence files do, moreover, shed light on the motives of those reporting and spreading rumors of Hitler’s survival: the desire to make money, gain employment or garner publicity. Keen to sell papers, many journalists and editors – as they still do – were happy to collude with such storytelling. There were undoubtedly also instances where mental illness played a role. More sinisterly, some rumors were spread for ideological reasons by those wishing to stoke the embers of the Nazi regime and spark a far-right revival in the newly democratic West Germany.
‘Overwhelming and comprehensive’ evidence
Daly-Groves concludes his book by asserting that it is “beyond all reasonable doubt” that Hitler committed suicide as Berlin went up in flames on April 30, 1945. What makes him so sure? The evidence, he maintains, is “overwhelming and comprehensive.”
There are the words of Hitler himself, contained in his last will and testament, which explicitly stated that he and Braun had chosen to die in the capital of the Reich.
There is the late Führer’s teeth and jaw, which now sit in a Moscow archive. They were first positively identified for the Russians by two of Hitler’s dentists. Only last year, a team of forensic scientists compared the remains to records produced by his dentists. Again, the conclusion was clear: Despite some conspiracy theorists’ maintaining that the body burned by the bunker was that of a double, the teeth in Moscow are those of Hitler.
But perhaps most compelling is the testimony from multiple eyewitnesses. One of the “most important” interrogations conducted for Trevor-Roper’s report, suggests Daly-Groves, was that of Hermann Karnau, a guard on duty outside the bunker on the day of Hitler’s death.
Ordered away from the Chancellery for a time by the SS, he returned to see the burning bodies of Hitler and Braun “two meters from the emergency exit.” A sketch he provided to investigators of the location where the couple were buried – which closely matches similar diagrams in Soviet documents – is published by Daly-Groves for the first time. Another guard interviewed by intelligence officers corroborated Karnau’s testimony.
“What’s so convincing about these eyewitness testimonies to me,” Daly-Groves suggests, “is that many of them are circumstantial.”
Aside from Karnau, for instance, there is a witness who overheard a phone call in which Hitler’s bodyguard, Otto Günsche, ordered the Führer’s chauffeur, Erich Kempka, to bring 200 liters (about 53 gallons) of petrol to the bunker.
“People who weren’t supposed to see and hear things saw and heard things,” argues Daly-Groves. “It all adds up.”
The same cannot, perhaps, be said for the tales of Hitler roaming across Argentina on horseback, sipping coffee in Amsterdam or riding the railroad through the American Deep South with which Britain and America’s intelligence services had to contend in the days, weeks and months after his death.