Today is the sixty-ninth Führertodestag, a holiday that not nearly enough of us celebrate. The word itself means "dead leader day." My anarchist and hyper-libertarian friends will be disappointed to find out that this is not a holiday marked by joyous assassinations. No, it is the commemoration of the death of one particular leader. I'm sure you have figured out who I mean. On this day in 1945, Adolf Hitler killed himself along with Eva Hitler, nee Braun, his wife of two days. Within days of their deaths, witnesses to the events surrounding their suicides and to the disposal of their remains had been interviewed and enough remains recovered to make positive identification of both of the Hitlers. Yet, for the rest of the century, rumors persisted that he had survived (no one really cared about Eva). Elaborate mythologies were created combining Hitler's last days, rumored Nazi super-weapons, Cold War rivalries, ancient mystical orders, UFOs, Atlantis, and even a physically impossible hollow earth. How did all this begin?
Hitler's ability to survive was legendary long before the end. He survived over twenty known assassination attempts before July 20, 1944. It became common knowledge that he employed look-alikes to camouflage his movements and confuse potential assassins. As a student I wrote a short paper on how the news of the July 1944 assassination attempt was diffused through the West. Within hours of the first reports, the idea that the plot had failed because the conspirators had tried to kill the wrong Hitler was being reported throughout the world. I traced the first mention of this idea to a newspaper in Zurich. I suspect that the writer jumped to that conclusion by looking at a list of the casualties released by the Germans and seized on the one name unknown to the writer. All of the others were easily identified military figures, the odd man out was "Dr. Berger". Who was he and why was he meeting with these important men? Obviously, he must have been Hitler's double. In fact, he was a stenographer. Hitler survived that attempt because the bomb was misplaced and because the blast shields over the windows were opened, allowing the pressure from the blast to disperse. Had it been a colder day, Hitler would have died along with Dr. Berger.
Following the July 1944 assassination attempt, Hitler stopped making public appearances. His whereabouts were never publicly mentioned. This led to a new set of rumors and a fascinating schizophrenia of rumors. With his retreat from the public eye, some observers began to speculate that he was dead and that the regime was only pretending he was alive because they needed his image. Once the regime announced he was dead, conspiracy minded observers claimed it was a ruse to cover his escape. The closest analogue I can think of is L. Ron Hubbard, the inventor of Scientology. For the last twenty years of his life, he moved in and out of seclusion, traveling around the world, leaving detractors to wonder if he was still alive. Once his death was announced, other, or even the same, detractors speculated that his death had been faked. I'm fairly certain both Hitler and Hubbard are dead.
Hitler did not die in July 1944. He survived and watched the capture, "trial," and execution of anyone even remotely associated with the plotters. He saw the failure of the counter-offensive on the Western Front which we call the Battle of the Bulge. He watched the Western Allies liberate France, the Low Countries, cross the Rhine and conqueror Western Germany. He watched the despised Slavic/Communist hordes conquer the Balkans, Poland, and march into the center of Berlin. He might have escaped the city, but he chose to stay and sent emissaries to rally imagined reserves beyond the capitol to come to his aid for a last stand.
By the last week of April 1945, Hitler, Eva, their dogs, the Göbbels family, some military commanders, and support personnel were held up in the Führerbunker, a heavily fortified complex beneath the courtyard of the central government complex, the Chancellery. This was more than a mere bomb shelter. It was a command center with private suites for the leaders of the Reich, their families, and top military personnel. The grounds above were pleasant gardens with off-season greenhouses. But, in April 1945, the gardens weren't that pleasant. Combat between the final German reserves and the Soviet juggernaut had reduced most of the city to ruins. The front line was blocks from the Führerbunker.
When Adolf and Eva married, they knew the end had come and it was a curiously sentimental act in their already-planned joint suicide. A few hours after their marriage, they tested their planned method of cyanide and gunshot on Hitler's dog Blondi. At about three-thirty in the afternoon of Monday, April 30, 1945, Mr. and Mrs. Hitler retired to their private suite and killed themselves. A half hour later the other inhabitants of the bunker, entered the suite to see if Hitler was really dead. While his doctor checked the two bodies, Hitler's valet tidied up a spill made when Eva knocked over a vase full of cut flowers in her death throes. They wrapped the bodies in blankets and carried them up to the Chancellery courtyard for disposal. On the way out, they were met by Hitler's chauffeur, Erich Kempka, returning from a scavenging expedition to find enough gasoline to cremate the bodies. He had been able to find 200 liters, which was more than enough for the task. The group placed the bodies in a prepared ditch, drenched them in the gas, and, after a few false starts, set them on fire.
This private cremation was in accordance with Hitler's last wishes. He had left explicit instructions that his body be completely destroyed and that the only witnesses be his innermost, trusted circle of associates. They failed him on both accounts. The private ceremony, conducted under artillery fire from the Russian army only a few blocks away, was witnessed by at least two German soldiers patrolling the Chancellery buildings. Though the fire burned for nearly eight hours, with no one to tend it, it failed to completely destroy the bodies. We can only speculate about Hitler's motives in ordering his body to be disposed of in such a manner. While he may have been concerned about denying his enemies--especially Stalin--a ghoulish trophy, his main objective was probably pure mischief. He wanted to leave his enemies in confusion, fearing his return and suspecting each other of knowing more than they were telling. In this, he was a tremendous success.
Five days before Hitler's suicide, Pravda wrote that he was not in Berlin, but that he had escaped to Bavaria to make a last stand in the mountains and had left a double to die in his place. The writers and editors of this article left no documentation as to why they said this. Why not report such a rumor? If the Red Army cleared Berlin and didn't find Hitler, the responsibility for his escape would his cleverness and the Americans' gormlessness. If they did capture him, woot! But what if it wasn't so clear?
According to his political will, Hitler divided his powers between three of his associates: Admiral Karl Dönitz was to be President of the Reich and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Göbbels became Chancellor, and Martin Bormann became the head of the Nazi Party. The absence of better known names such as Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler, is explained by some last minute back-stabbing by Bormann. Joseph and Magda Göbbels were at the bunker and managed to protect Joseph's position.
Around midnight, as the cremation fires were dying, General Hans Krebs left the bunker and began crawling through the rubble of the city toward Soviet army headquarters. The trip of a few blocks took hours and it was almost sunrise when he arrived and escorted into the presence of General Vasily Chuikov. Krebs described the events of the previous day and said he was authorized by Chancellor Goebbels to negotiate a cease-fire. Chuikov had an aide get on the phone with the head of the Soviet army, Marshall Grigory Zhukov, and Zhukov had an aide get on the phone with Stalin. This means Stalin definitely knew of Hitler's death on the morning of May 1.
Stalin rejected Krebs' offer. Around noon, Chuikov notified him of this fact had the general escorted back to the bunker. Having done his duty, Krebs joined two other army officers to get roaring drunk, sing American sea shanties, and kill themselves. After dinner, Magda Göbbels, the wife of the new Chancellor, poisoned six of their children. Then she and her husband dressed as if stepping out for the evening, climbed the stairs to the courtyard, and killed themselves. At 9:40, Admiral Dönitz--now President Dönitz--addressed the German people from a Hamburg radio station. In introducing the new president, the announcer said, "It is reported from the Führer's headquarters that our Führer, Adolph Hitler, fighting to the last breath against Bolshevism, fell for Germany this afternoon in his operational command post at the Reich Chancellery." There were at least two lies in the announcement. Hitler died a day earlier than Dönitz said and he did not die in battle. The remaining inhabitants of the bunker, including Martin Bormann, divided into two groups and made a break for freedom near midnight. Most were killed or captured by the Russians in the attempt.
The last person in the bunker was Johannes Hentschel, a lowly mechanic who had dutifully kept the ventilation, electricity, and water running during the previous dramatic days. At one point, he had climbed up to the greenhouse and gathered up enough garden hoses to run a water line from the bunker's private well to an army field hospital that had been set up on the far side of the Chancellery building. By keeping the water running he may have saved the lives of over three hundred wounded soldiers. Now, on May 2, he stayed on to watch his machinery. At dawn, he returned to the ruins of the greenhouse and cut several bouquets of tulips and lilacs, which he placed around the bunker to freshen the stale air. He fixed a large breakfast and did the dishes. With his duties complete, he waited for the Russians to arrive.
A few minutes after nine, he heard foreign voices in the upper bunker and prepared to surrender. The first Russians into the bunker were a group of women medical officers on a looting expedition. They had no interest in prisoners and left Hentschel in the hallway while they went to dig through Eva Braun's closets. A few minutes later, two commissars with drawn pistols arrived. Hentschel prepared to surrender again, and could easily have been shot on the spot, except for the fact that the doctors chose that moment to rush up the stairs, giggling and waving Eva's frilly underwear over their heads. The commissars listened to Hentschel's story of the Fuehrer's end. Another, larger, group of officers had arrived while he was telling the story and discovered the liquor supply. One of them handed Hentschel a mug of champagne and toasted the end of the war. Other arriving groups insisted on Hentschel repeating his story and giving tours of the bunker, but they let him take a short nap before sending him off as a POW.
Hentschel was already gone when a team arrived in the afternoon to hunt for Hitler's body. This team recovered the Göbbels' bodies and left. A second team found a bloated body in a water tank that had correct mustache and immediately declared it to be Hitler. This body is rumored to have been Gustav Weler, one of his doubles (I can't find a decent source to confirm this). On May 3, a Soviet private found the charred bodies of a man, woman, and two dogs hastily buried in a shell crater in the garden. This fact was duly noted by the inspectors, but it was two more days, on the fifth, before they combined that fact with the stories of Hentschel and Krebs and thought to examine the bodies. The following week, the Soviet inspectors located a dental assistant who had worked on Hitler's teeth the previous winter. Showing her a cigar box full of jaw fragments, she correctly identified both Hitler and Braun.
By mid-May the Soviets had eyewitness accounts of Hitler's death, the physical remains of his body, and a positive identification of those remains. They should have been able to make a positive announcement that the monster was dead, thanks to the work of the Soviet army who backed him into a corner from which he could not escape. On May 2, even as the first investigators were searching through the Chancellery grounds, Tass declared that the announcement from Dönitz was a trick. That same day, Eisenhower told reporters that Himmler, while attempting to negotiate a truce through Swedish intermediaries a week earlier had claimed Hitler was terminally ill. On the third, the official Soviet announcement of the surrender of the last German troops in Berlin mentioned witnesses talking about his suicide. German radio in the enclave under Dönitz's control continued to claim Hitler had died a hero's death in battle. In the space of a week, alert news watchers were offered three different causes of death and two dates of death, as well as well-grounded speculation that Hitler might have escaped. They didn't do that. Soviet news agencies were would remain contradictory and unhelpful for weeks after the fall of Berlin. Western media had only rumor and speculation to give their readers. The Atlanta Constitution demonstrated the dilemma of the Western press by reporting Dönitz's announcement of Hitler's death under the headline "If Hitler is Dead, Good Riddance." When honest facts emerged, there was no way to tell them apart from fantasy and rumor. The facts vanished into the white noise.
The Soviets continued to be difficult. They refused to allow Westerners into Berlin even after the surrender of Dönitz's government and the last armies in the field on May 7-9. On May 10, they announced the existence of the burned bodies in the Chancellery courtyard, but only allowed it might be Hitler. The same report went on to say that his body might never be found. On June 6, a spokesman for the Soviet army in Berlin announced unequivocally that Hitler had committed suicide and that his body had been identified. Three days later, Marshall Zhukov, gave a press conference with Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Vishinski looking over his shoulder. "We did not identify the body of Hitler," he said. "I can say nothing definite about his fate. He could have flown away from Berlin at the very last moment."
Stalin, by now, had discovered that a live Hitler might be useful to him. The possibility of a return of Hitler justified a harsh occupation and division of Germany. The same possibility required keeping tight control on Eastern Europe; only the Soviet big brother could protect them from a resurgent Germany should Hitler return. The possibility that Hitler might be hiding in Spain was used as an excuse to demand the Western Allies treat the Franco regime roughly. At one point, he even insisted that Britain and the US invade Spain just to make sure Hitler wasn't there. The suggestion that the Soviet army had allowed Hitler to escape, allowed Stalin to treat the generals with contempt and hide them from the public eye.
By June, the veil of secrecy that the Soviets had kept on Berlin had created a darkness too complete to be pierced by facts. They had given permission for the wildest imaginations to run free. Every story about Hitler's doubles and every sighting of the Führer, no matter how remote, was given straight-faced coverage by supposedly serious news outlets. The possibility that the Führer had escaped led numerous die-hard Nazis to brag about their part in helping him escape. Lieut. Arthur Mackensen told how he had flown Hitler from the Tiergarten Park on May 5 to Denmark, where the local Nazis held a mass rally to say farewell before the Führer departed for parts unknown. Others flew him to Spain or Japan or saw him board a U-boat for South America.
The last suggestion generated a flurry of excitement as the last U-boats at sea began surrendering during the summer. When the submarine U-530 surrendered to the Argentine authorities in early July, a Buenos Aries paper reported that the captain had delivered Hitler and Braun to a secret base in Antarctica before returning to South America to surrender. The same story was reported and embellished by the Chicago Times the following day. In August, the story had a second round with the surrender of U-977 to the Argentine authorities. The Hitler escaped to Antarctica myth transformed escape stories from the realm of the possible into the realm of the fantastic and spawned a whole sub-genre of conspiracy literature.
When I was growing up, Hitler sightings were a staple of tabloid news and it wasn't entirely unreasonable to think he might have escaped. There really were prominent Nazis living in South America and being protected by the military governments there. Adolf Eichmann lived in Argentina until 1960 when he was captured by Israeli Mosad agents. Josef Mengele lived in Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil until 1979 when he accidentally drowned. During the war crimes trials after the war it was revealed that an underground organization of SS officers known as ODESSA was involved in smuggling war criminals out of Europe. The rumors that Hitler might have been one of the escapees persisted until the late eighties when he would have been almost a hundred years old. Just last month, the discovery of FBI files showing that J. Edgar Hoover ordered an investigation of one of the escape rumors in late 1945 made the rounds of the tabloids as proof that he survived the war.
For most of the world, Hitler didn't so die as vanish. A burned skeleton in the ruins of Chancellery was too anti-climactic. He had become such a personification of evil that people needed unquestionable proof that he was dead. They needed to see the monster with a stake through his heart before they could really believe he was gone. The Cold War world helped keep him alive. The Soviets didn't plan from the beginning to hide his death. Incompetence and confusion caused them to send out conflicting versions of his fate. At some point, Stalin discovered that keeping Hitler's fate ambiguous was useful. After Stalin's death, when the Soviets told the truth about what they knew, there was too much distrust of them in the West for people to unquestioningly accept their word. The best most people would say was that the Soviets were probably telling the truth. Only Hitler's hundredth birthday and the end of the Cold War finally allowed him to die.
NOTE: Much of this post is a representation of a post I wrote on this day in 2006.