It is now ten years since my book The Last Days of Hitler was written. In those ten years some mysteries of the last war have been resolved, others deepened. Eyewitnesses who were unattainable in 1945 have at last re-emerged from their long imprisonment in Russia. New books and articles have been written, and old judgments challenged or changed. But no new revelation has altered the story of Hitler’s last ten days of life as it was first reconstructed in 1945 and published in 1947.
Such evidence as has since been revealed does not alter the story as told in the book but does, I think, shed interesting light on other matters, and, in particular, upon the Russian attitude towards the last days of Hitler. In particular, I shall deal with the evidence of those witnesses who, when I began my inquiry, had already disappeared into Russian prisons but who now, ten years later, have at last been released.
The principal witnesses whom I sought and failed to find in 1945 were five. They were Otto Günsche, Hitler’s SS adjutant, and Heinz Linge, his personal servant, both of whom undoubtedly saw Hitler dead and took part in the burning of his body; Johann Rattenhuber, who commanded Hitler’s detective bodyguard and who, I believed, knew the place of his burial; Hans Baur, Hitler’s personal pilot, who was with him to the end; and Harry Mengershausen, an officer of the bodyguard who was reported to know about the burial of the bodies. There were of course other important witnesses whom I had missed, but it was these five whom I particularly sought.
Günsche and Linge had both been seen and identified among Russian prisoners in Berlin, and the Russians had themselves included the names of Baur and Rattenhuber among their prisoners in an official communique published on May 6, 1945. However, my queries addressed to the Russians were unavailing: they declined to answer any questions and in the end I wrote my book without the help of these missing witnesses. Nevertheless, in the following years I occasionally had news of them from more fortunate fellow-prisoners who had returned to Germany. Thus I learned that some of them were still alive in the Lubianka prison in Moscow, or in the Arctic prisons of Vorkuta, or the great prison camp at Sverdlovsk. I sometimes even received, at second hand, snatches of their stories of the last days in Hitler’s bunker. Then suddenly, in the autumn of 1955, after Dr. Adenauer’s visit to Moscow, the prison gates opened, and by January 1956 all five men had returned. It is true, one of them has remained inaccessible. Günsche, still classified by the Russians as a war criminal, returned to East Germany. There the compliant Pankow government took charge of him and he has promptly disappeared again into the silence of another Communist prison in Bautzen. But the other four, having returned to Western Germany, have been able to tell their stories to the world. Linge, in Berlin, lost no time in publishing his account in the press. Baur, Rattenhuber, and Mengershausen freely answered all the questions which I put to them in private interviews at their homes.
What is the result of these revelations? The essential fact is that they everywhere confirm the story as already told by me from other sources. At no point do they conflict with it or even modify it. But do they perhaps extend or complete it? In particular, do they shed any light on those mysteries which I had been obliged to leave unsolved? To answer this question, we must first ask: what are these unsolved mysteries? They are two. First, what was done with the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun after they had been burnt in the Chancellery garden? Secondly, What happened to Martin Bormann?
Concerning the ultimate disposal of Hitler’s and Eva Braun’s bodies, I had, in 1945, no firsthand evidence. The best evidence was that of the guard Erich Mansfeld who, at midnight on April 30, 1945, noticed that a bomb crater near the emergency exit of the bunker had been newly worked into a rectangular shape, and deduced that the bodies had been buried there. There was further evidence that members of the detective guard had buried the bodies, and Artur Axmann, the Hitler Youth leader, stated emphatically, though without claiming to have seen it, that the burial was “in one of the many bomb craters which exist around the Reich Chancellery.” On the other hand, there were also other accounts which circulated in the bunker, rendering certainty impossible, and so, in 1945, I ended by leaving the question open. But now it can be closed.
Both Linge and Rattenhuber, when they returned to Germany in October 1955, stated circumstantially that, although they had not witnessed the burial, they had been told that the bodies had been buried in the bomb crater. Rattenhuber added that he had himself been asked to find a flag in which to wrap Hitler’s body for such burial, but had been unable to provide it. Three months later Mengershausen arrived in his home town of Bremen and confirmed these statements, admitting that he had actually dug the grave. The bodies, he said, were not consumed by the fire or even unrecognizable, and he buried them on three wooden boards three feet deep in the ground. He was helped by a colleague called Glanzer who, he says, was afterwards killed in the fighting in Berlin. Thus Hitler’s burial place in the Chancellery is no longer a mystery. On the other hand, this does not finally settle the matter, since, as will appear, we now know that the body was afterwards exhumed and transferred to a still unknown destination.
So much for the first question: what of the second, the question of the fate of Martin Bormann? In 1945 the evidence on this question was conflicting and uncertain. Several witnesses maintained that Bormann had been killed in a tank which exploded When hit by a Panzerfaust on the Weidendammer Bridge during the attempted break-through on the night of May 1-2. On the other hand, all these witnesses have admitted that the scene was one of great confusion and none of them claims to have seen Bormann’s body. One of them has even admitted that he was himself blinded by the same explosion, and it is therefore difficult to understand how he can have seen Bormann’s death or anything else. Further, even in 1945 I had three witnesses who independently claimed to have accompanied Bormann in his attempted escape. One of these witnesses, Artur Axmann, claimed afterwards to have seen him dead. Whether we believe Axmann or not is entirely a matter of choice, for his word is unsupported by any other testimony. In his favor it can be said that his evidence on all other points has been vindicated. On the other hand, if he wished to protect Bormann against further search, his natural course would be to give false evidence of his death. This being so I came, in 1945, to the only permissible conclusion, viz. that Bormann had certainly survived the tank explosion but had possibly, though by no means certainly, been killed later that night. Such was the balance of evidence in 1945. How far is it altered by the new evidence of 1956?
The answer is, not at all. On the one hand, both Linge and Baur state that Bormann was killed in the tank explosion—or at least they say that they think he was killed, for, once again, they admit that the scene was confused and that they never saw his body. On the other hand, Mengershausen declares firmly that Bormann was not killed in that explosion. He says that although Bormann was riding in a tank, it was not his tank which was blown up. And further, another witness has turned up since 1945 who states that he was with Bormann after the explosion. This is a former SS Major, Joachim Tiburtius, who in 1953 made a statement to a Swiss newspaper. In the confusion after the explosion, Tiburtius says that he lost sight of Bormann, but afterwards he saw him again at the Hotel Atlas. “He had by then changed into civilian clothes. We pushed on together towards the Schiffbauerdamm and the Albrechtstrasse. Then I finally lost sight of him. But he had as good a chance to escape as I had.”
Thus the evidence still obliges us to believe that Bormann survived the explosion, and it still does not give the support which Axmann’s story requires before we can believe it. If we believe that Bormann is dead, it must be simply because no one has ever produced any acceptable evidence of his existence after May 1, 1945.
Such is the contribution which the newly returned prisoners have added to the story as reconstructed in 1945. Seen in its proper perspective, it does not amount to very much. The conjecture that Hitler’s body was buried in the bomb crater becomes a fact; the fate of Martin Bormann remains a mystery. But if these new witnesses do not add much to my story of the last days of Hitler, there is another subject upon which they shed new and interesting light: the attitude of the Russians to the problem of Hitler’s last days. Already in 1950, in the second edition of my book, I was able to give some outline of Russian policy in this respect. Now, with the aid of these new sources, I believe I can complete the story.
In theory the Russians had no great problem, for it was they who, from the start, controlled all the evidence. On May 2, 1945 they over-ran the bunker in which Hitler had perished. About the same time they captured, in a beer cellar in the Schönhäusen Allee, a number of Hitler’s immediate attendants who knew the facts, and at least two of whom were identified within four days. The Chancellery garden, which contained Hitler’s bones, was—and still is—under their control. Moreover, even before they occupied the Reich Chancellery, they had had a formal statement of Hitler’s death and perhaps an informal commentary on the circumstances of it. This statement had been given to them by General Hans Krebs.
On the night of April 30-May 1, 1945 General Krebs had been sent to the Russian headquarters with an offer of temporary local surrender by Bormann and Goebbels acting as Hitler’s de facto successors. Now this General Krebs was not only Hitler’s last Chief of General Staff and one of the witnesses of his last will and testament: he was also a former assistant military attaché in Moscow. He spoke Russian fluently, knew the leading men in the Red Army personally, and had always been accounted a warm advocate of Russo-German cooperation, as a living symbol of which he had once been publicly embraced by Stalin. Thus the emissary who presented himself either to Marshal Zhukov or to the local Russian commander, General Chuïkov, in the early hours of the morning after Hitler’s death was no stranger. Further, he had to explain his commission, and why the letter of authority which he brought was signed not by Hitler but by Bormann and Goebbels.
According to a contemporary Russian report, Krebs said, “I am authorized to inform the Soviet High Command that yesterday, April 30, the Führer Adolf Hitler departed from this world at his own wish.” This official Russian report is naturally bald and factual; we do not know whether, either during this visit or the second visit which he paid a few hours later, Krebs was called upon to amplify or substantiate it. All we can say is that, if so required, he could easily, as an eyewitness and a Russian-speaker, have done so. At any rate, the bare fact of Hitler’s suicide was first reported to the Russians by Krebs within a few hours of the event. All that remained was to verify it.
There can be no doubt that in the course of the next week the Russians set about verifying the report. For on May 13, Harry Mengershausen, the guard who had buried Hitler’s body, was shown an important document. Mengershausen had been captured on the night of May 1-2, but for ten days thereafter he had obstinately denied any connection with Hitler. In the face of this document, however, he now judged further denial useless, and surrendered at discretion. The document, which was dated May 9, was a full and circumstantial account of the death of Hitler and his burial by Mengershausen, and it had been compiled for the Russians by another German who had evidently taken part in the proceedings, possibly Günsche. This document was (at least) the second piece of evidence which the Russians now possessed, and its validity was shown by the fact that it had served to break down Mengershausen.
Immediately after admitting to the Russians that he had buried Hitler, Mengershausen was taken to the Chancellery garden and ordered to locate Hitler’s grave. He took his escort at once to the bomb crater, only to notice that the grave had already been dug up and the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun removed. Clearly the Russians had acted on the earlier evidence which Mengershausen had thus confirmed.
In fact it is now clear that the Russians had exhumed the bodies on May 9—the very day on which they received the document describing the death and burial. For on that day two Russian officers, a man and a woman, called at the surgery of Dr. Hugo Blaschke, in the Uhlanstrasse. Dr. Blaschke was Hitler’s dentist; but he was not at home to the Russians. He had fled to Munich, and his practice was now being carried on by a Jewish dentist from Silesia who had replaced him, Dr. Feodor Bruck. The Russians asked Dr. Bruck for Hitler’s dental records. Bruck replied that he had no knowledge of Blaschke’s work and referred them to his assistant, Kate Heusemann, whom he had inherited from Blaschke and who, by an odd coincidence, had been a refugee in the Chancellery during the siege of Berlin and had witnessed many details of Hitler’s last days. Miss Heusemann told the Russians that Hitler had never come to Blaschke’s surgery—Blaschke had always gone to the Chancellery, and it was in the laboratory of the Chancellery, if anywhere, that his dental records must be sought. She herself had often accompanied Blaschke on these visits and was thoroughly familiar with Hitler’s teeth. They had, she said, certain peculiar characteristics: in particular, identifiable bridges on the upper and lower jaws and a “window crown,” seldom used in modern dentistry, on one of the incisors.1
Thereupon Miss Heusemann was taken to the Chancellery, but no records being found there, she was taken on to the Russian headquarters at Buch. There a Russian officer showed her a cigar box. In it were an Iron Cross decoration, a Nazi party badge, and a number of dental fittings. Asked whether she recognized these fittings, she replied that they were unmistakably those of the “Führer,” Adolf Hitler and—though these were less certain—of Eva Braun. On May 11 Miss Heusemann was released and returned to Dr. Bruck’s surgery to tell her tale. A few days later a boy brought her a message: she was to pack her bags for an absence of some weeks. That was the last Dr. Bruck saw of her. Eight years later a woman prisoner returning from Russia told how she had left behind her in the prison of Butyrka one Käte Heusemann, who had regaled her fellow-prisoners—ad nauseam—with the story of Hitler’s last days.
Miss Heusemann’s story is independently confirmed by another witness who was similarly summoned to identify Hitler’s dental system. This was a dental mechanic called Fritz Echtmann who had actually made the fittings for Hitler in 1944, as well as certain other fittings for Eva Braun. He too was summoned by the Russians and shown the same cigar box, the same contents. He too identified them as the fittings of Hitler and Eva Braun. And he too, for his pains, was carried off to Russia—to the Lubianka prison in Moscow. Later he shared a prison cell with Harry Mengershausen and was able to exchange reminiscences with him. In 1954 he was released and gave evidence of his experiences to the District Court of Berchtesgaden, which was considering whether to declare Hitler legally dead.
Thus by May 9, the day on which Echtmann and Heusemann were arrested, it is clear that the Russians had already exhumed the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun. It also seems likely that they had exhumed them on that same day, for it was then that the memorandum had been submitted which made it possible to locate the grave. The exhumation appears to have been carried out by a special detachment of the Russian intelligence service, the NKVD; for a member of this detachment, Captain Fyedor Pavlovich Vassilki, afterwards told the East Berlin police officer upon whom he was billeted how they had secured the bodies of both Hitler and Eva Braun. “Hitler’s skull,” said Vassilki, “was almost intact, as were the cranium and the upper and lower jaws.” Vassilki confirmed that its identity had afterwards been “indisputably” proved by the teeth. This identification by the teeth had been followed by Mengershausen’s identification of the grave on June 13. Finally, at the end of May, the Russians took a further positive step. They confronted Mengershausen with Hitler’s corpse.
Mengershausen has described the incident. He was taken by car to a wood at Finow near Berlin. There he was shown three charred and blackened corpses each lying in a wooden crate. He was asked if he recognized them. To him, in spite of the ravages of fire and decay, they were unmistakable. They were the corpses of Goebbels, Frau Goebbels, and Hitler. Goebbels and Frau Goebbels were only superficially burnt. The body of Hitler was in far worse state. The feet had been entirely consumed, the skin and flesh were blackened and burnt; but the facial structure remained clearly identifiable. There was a bullet hole in one temple, but the upper and lower jaw were both intact. Having identified the corpses, Mengershausen was taken back to prison. He does not know what was afterwards done with them. Three months later he too, like Heusemann and Echtmann, was removed to Russia—for eleven years.
Thus by the beginning of June the Russians had learnt the circumstances of Hitler’s death, and identified his grave and body, by a number of converging testimonies. Quite apart from the evidence of Krebs on the night of April 30-May 1, and any evidence which they may have obtained from other prisoners from the bunker, they had the document of May 9, whose validity had been shown by its success in breaking down the resistance of Mengershausen, and they had the evidence of Mengershausen both of the grave and of the corpse found therein; they had the independent evidence of Heusemann and of other prisoners about the last days in the bunker, and the separate technical evidence of Heusemann and Echtmann about Hitler’s teeth. Now all this evidence pointed clearly in the same direction, and although in theory it might conceivably have been concerted, in fact there were sufficient witnesses to make a serious and sustained conspiracy impossible. Altogether, by the first week in June, the Russians had a good deal more evidence (or at least the raw material for a good deal more evidence) for the last days of Hitler than I had for my reconstruction five months later.
Why then, we may ask, did they never publish their conclusions? Was it that they did not wish to discover the facts? Their whole attitude at the time—their search for records, arrest of witnesses, repeated identifications—belies that assumption.2 Was it then that they were, in intelligence matters, incompetent? Their search in Hitler’s bunker itself was amazingly incomplete: they left Hitler’s diary—a stout bound volume 14 inches by 7—lying in his chair for four months, to be discovered by a British visitor. But no one can regard the Russians as unintelligent or unsystematic in their interrogation of prisoners, and I do not think that we should flatter ourselves by supposing them less efficient than we are. If we wish to answer this question we must abstain from such assumptions and look closely at the actual facts in the case.
For there can be no doubt that in the first week of June the Russians in Berlin did admit Hitler’s death. On June 5, when the Allied commanders-in-chief met in Berlin to set up the machinery of quadripartite government, “responsible Russian officers” told officers of General Eisenhower’s staff that Hitler’s body had been recovered and identified with “fair certainty.” The body, they said, was one of four found in the bunker. It was badly charred—a fact which they then ascribed (wrongly, as we now know) to the flame-throwers with which the Russian troops had cleared the place. The bodies, they said, had been examined by Russian doctors, and this examination had yielded “almost certain identification.” If the Russians did not make an official announcement of Hitler’s death, that (said the Russian officers) was merely because they were reluctant to commit themselves so long as “any shred of doubt” remained. But they made it clear that, as far as the evidence went, it seemed conclusive.
Four days later, on June 9, Marshal Zhukov made a public statement to the press. He described the last days in the Chancellery. He related—it was the first time it had been published—the marriage of Hitler and Eva Braun, whom he described, incorrectly, as a film actress. He based his knowledge of these facts, he said, “on the diaries of Hitler’s aides, which had fallen into Russian hands.” But on the crucial question of the death of Hitler, he faltered. He said nothing of Russian investigations, nothing of German revelations, nothing of the burning or the burial, the exhumation, the dentists or the teeth. “The circumstances are very mysterious,” he said. “We have not identified the body of Hitler. I can say nothing definite about his fate. He could have flown away from Berlin at the very last moment. The state of the runway would have allowed him to do so.” Then the Russian military commandant of Berlin, Colonel General Berzarin, spoke. He said that Hitler might well be alive. “We have found several bodies that might be Hitler’s, but we cannot state that he is dead. My opinion is that Hitler has gone into hiding and is somewhere in Europe, possibly with General Franco.” Therewith the subject was closed. From that moment Russian headquarters in Berlin never again mentioned the subject or circumstances of Hitler’s death. Total silence enveloped the ostentatiously unsolved mystery, and this apparent repudiation of past admissions led, more than any other cause, to the growing belief that Hitler was alive after all.
This gradual reversal of belief was clearly shown in the attitude of General Eisenhower. Up to June 9, Eisenhower had publicly assumed Hitler to be dead. But on June 10, the day after Zhukov’s public statement, Eisenhower and Zhukov met at Frankfurt. Five days later, in Paris, Eisenhower bore witness to the change of doctrine which had followed this meeting. Previously, he said, he had accepted the fact of Hitler’s death, but more recently he had met high Russian leaders who had great doubts. These doubts were so strong that a week later, when the British published the story of Hermann Karnau, a member of Hitler’s detective guard who had witnessed the burning of the bodies, he was generally disbelieved. In September the Russians carried their disbelief further: they accused the British of harboring both Hitler and Eva Braun in their zone of Germany, presumably for eventual use against their Russian allies, and it was this accusation which led directly to my appointment to establish the facts. On October 6 General Eisenhower paid a visit to Holland, and was quoted as telling Dutch journalists at Utrecht that although he had at first believed Hitler to be dead, now “there was reason to believe that he was alive.” It happened that I was at General Eisenhower’s headquarters at Frankfurt at the time, and was able to point out that however defective the positive evidence of death might be, there was no reason to believe that Hitler was alive. On his return to Frankfurt General Eisenhower thereupon modified his statement. He himself, he said, found it hard to believe that Hitler was alive, “but his Russian friends assured him that they had been unable to unearth any tangible evidence of his death.”
Not only did the Russians insist that they had unearthed nothing themselves: they declined to show any interest in evidence unearthed by their allies. When they failed to find Dr. Blaschke in Berlin, they never asked us to find him in Munich. They ignored Hermann Karnau and his story. On November 1, 1945, when I made my report in Berlin, the Russians received it with complete lack of interest. It was not even mentioned in the Russian press. My request that certain Russian prisoners might be interrogated was ignored. Eighteen months later, when my book was published, their attitude remained the same. Though it was translated into most European and some Asiatic languages, The Last Days of Hitler never penetrated behind the Iron Curtain. The apparent exceptions to this rule are in fact confirmations of it. The Czech edition was published before the Communist coup d’état of February 1948, the Yugoslav edition after the Titoist emancipation of June 1948; the Polish edition was stifled in the publisher’s office, the Bulgarian edition destroyed by the police on its appearance. For years after June 9, 1945, the official Russian doctrine remained unchanged by the evidence. It was never allowed that Hitler might be dead. It was assumed, and sometimes openly stated, that he was alive.
How can we account for this extraordinary reversal? Certainty indeed is impossible to attain; but there are suggestive straws of evidence. To detect them we must look not at Berlin, or any such subordinate office, but at the center of Russian orthodoxy, Moscow.
For during all this time, even when the Russians in Berlin had come nearest to announcing Hitler’s death, Stalin in Moscow was firmly declaring that he was alive. Early in the morning of May 2, before the Russians had even captured the Reich Chancellery, the official Russian news agency, Tass, had declared the German broadcast statement of Hitler’s death to be “a fresh fascist trick.” “By spreading statements about Hitler’s death,” it added, “the German fascists evidently hope to prepare the possibility for Hitler to disappear from the stage and go underground.”
On May 26, while the Russians in Berlin were still collecting and digesting the evidence, Stalin, in the Kremlin, told Harry L. Hopkins that he believed “that Bormann, Goebbels, Hitler and probably Krebs had escaped and were in hiding.”
This statement can hardly have been based on evidence from Berlin, where the body of Goebbels had long ago been found and identified, as the Russians in Berlin admitted, “without any doubt.” It therefore seems to represent a personal prejudice of Stalin, who either believed it because he wanted to believe it, or stated it because he wanted it to be believed. Again, on June 6, when Zhukov’s staff officers were assuring Eisenhower’s staff officers that Hitler’s body had been discovered, exhumed, and scientically identified, Stalin in Moscow was repeating to Hopkins not merely that he had no evidence of Hitler’s death but that “he was sure that Hitler was alive.” Three days later Zhukov publicly changed his view. Stalin kept to his. On July 16, he came himself to Berlin for the Potsdam Conference. There, next day, be surprised Secretary of State Byrnes by saying that he believed Hitler to be alive, probably in Spain or Argentina. Admiral Leahy, the representative of President Truman, also noted the remark. “Concerning Hitler,” he records, “Stalin repeated what he had told Hopkins at Moscow. He believed that the Führer had escaped and was in hiding somewhere. He said careful search by Soviet investigators had not found any trace of Hitler’s remains or any other positive evidence of his death.” Ten days later he repeated that his opinion was unchanged.
Faced with this evidence, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Zhukov in Berlin had been corrected from Moscow: that he had been ordered, some time between June 5 and 9, to abandon his belief, based on the evidence, that Hitler was dead and to substitute for it the view of Stalin, derived from some other motive, that he was alive, “in hiding . . possibly with General Franco.” Some plausibility is given to this conclusion by the fact that at precisely this time Andrei Vyshinsky, the first Soviet vice-commissar for foreign affairs, arrived in Berlin from Moscow, evidently in order to put Zhukov firmly in his place. On June 5, in Berlin, Eisenhower had observed that “Zhukov had seemed unwilling to reply to any of his questions without first consulting Vyshinsky.” Two days later, Hopkins, who had just been told by Stalin in Moscow that “Zhukov would have very little power concerning political affairs in Berlin,” noticed that Vyshinsky was “in Zhukov’s car all during our conversation.” On June 9, when Zhukov made his announcement that Hitler might be alive after all, Vyshinsky was standing beside him; and next day, when Zhukov visited Frankfurt and told Eisenhower of the change of doctrine, Vyshinsky came with him. At Frankfurt Zhukov, in Vyshinsky’s presence, made a speech dwelling on the soldier’s duty to obey the politicians—a doctrine which he seems subsequently to have revised. There seems no doubt that at this time, as Hopkins told Eisenhower, “the Russian government intended to control General Zhukov completely.” A few months later, Zhukov—whom his German enemies had recognized as the ablest of Russian generals—was removed from Germany into virtual exile, first as commander-in-chief of Russian home forces, then, more ignominiously, as military governor of Odessa: an exile from which he only emerged—and he emerged with some éclat–on the death of Stalin.
Why did Stalin thus correct Zhukov, and replace the “almost certain” and at least legitimate conclusion that Hitler was dead by categorical statements that he was alive? Why did he require a veil of silence or denial to be drawn over the patient researches of Russian officers in Berlin, their interrogations, exhumations, identifications? Why did he refuse to accept from his Western allies evidence which would perhaps have clinched the matter if there was any genuine doubt?3 Was it that he regarded the belief in Hitler’s death or survival as a “political” question: that he judged it politically necessary, whatever the evidence, to maintain publicly that Hitler, so far from suffering a Heldentod in his ruined capital, had slunk away into hiding? Did he perhaps fear that an admission of Hitler’s death might lead, if Nazism were to revive, to an identification of holy places, of pilgrimages, shrines, and relics, which in turn would sustain the spirit of later anti-Russian, anti-Bolshevik crusaders? Did he fear the political power of the successful Russian generals and so resolve to take this “political” issue out of their control? His treatment of Zhukov, like his assumption of the title of Generalissimo, suggests that he did distrust them; and the events after his death, when the Red Army leaders in general and Zhukov in particular took their revenge on his successor and his “Georgian” party in Russia, suggest there was a real opposition between them.
Conceivably—when we remember the narrow and recondite fronts upon which intra-Bolshevik struggles are fought—the question of Hitler’s death, and the official doctrine about it, may have been the symbol of some deeper tension in Russian politics. Or again, was Stalin perhaps preparing a useful stick with which to beat his bête noire, General Franco? Or is all this too elaborate an analysis? May it not be that Stalin was simply wrong, and that his ill-considered dogmatism, like a papal indiscretion, became, by the mere machinery of ideological power, a necessary truth? We cannot exclude this possibility.
By 1945 Stalin was already, in his own eyes, the greatest statesman, the greatest strategist, the greatest philosopher in the world, the Father and Teacher of Mankind; and thanks to a vast hierarchy of obedient yes-men beneath him, his lightest observations could become infallible truths before which inconvenient evidence must bow and retire. It is quite possible that Stalin declared Hitler alive without any ulterior purpose, merely out of the abundant self-assurance of the great, and that the mere bureaucracy of ideological tyranny then converted this casual utterance into a dogma. At all events, the dogma prevailed. The Russians in Berlin knew the evidence against it. For them it was a dogma difficult to support and yet impolitic to deny. In such circumstances their best policy was silence. I now see how tiresome it must have been for them when, in response to that silence, their Western allies officiously offered to help them by producing what of all things they least wanted—more evidence.
However, the dogma did not last forever. In 1950, when the second English edition of my book was published, its sway was still unbroken, at least in public. But meanwhile, in Russia, the ground was being silently prepared for a change. In 1949 a new “documentary” color film was being prepared called “The Fall of Berlin.” In June 1950 it was released in the Russian sector of Berlin. It was produced by M. Chiaureli, and its chief characteristic was an unremitting, fulsome, indeed nauseating worship of Stalin, who was then still alive and enjoying the last stages of his apotheosis on earth. But in one respect the film deviated from the previous Stalinist orthodoxy. Hitler was now represented not as fleeing to Spain or Argentina, but as perishing, by his own hand, in the Chancellery bunker, substantially as narrated in my book.
What had happened to cause this sudden, unheralded, unexplained volte-face in Russia? Examination of the prisoners newly returned from Russia gives some clue towards the solution of this problem. For after the volte-face of June 9 the whole stage, the cast, and the stage properties were all removed from Germany to Russia. By the end of August they had all arrived—including, it seems, the central figure in the drama, the charred and moldering remains of the “Führer.”4 The witnesses, who had formerly been prisoners of the Red Army, were now classed as political prisoners, and as such were concentrated in the Lubianka prison in Moscow, but they were not allowed to communicate with each other. There were Baur and Rattenhuber, Mengershausen, Echtmann, Linge, Günsche, and others. They were known as “the Reich Chancellery Group.” And now, when the stage had thus been reset, they were all separately and systematically reexamined. They were made to write down the full history of their experiences in the last, catastrophic days of Nazi Berlin.
Wearily they repeated the facts which they had already stated in Germany. For long they were not believed. The Russians accused Baur, since he had been Hitler’s pilot, of having flown the “Führer,” or having arranged his flight, out of Berlin to safety. Was he not now in Spain or the Argentine? They accused Rattenhuber, since he had been responsible for Hitler’s security, of having prepared his secret escape by U-Boat to the Argentine. Always it was Spain or the Argentine, just as Stalin had insisted in May 1945. “Come,” the interrogator once said to Rattenhuber, after he had told the old facts for the umpteenth time, “enough of these fairy tales. Tell us the truth.” Ultimately, after almost a year of interrogation, Baur at least had the impression that the incredulity of his captors was beginning to melt. Then, in the summer of 1946, a new scene was enacted in this grim, insistent, slow, nagging Russian comedy.
The “Reich Chancellery Group” were suddenly assembled and taken out of their prison. Without explanation they wereput on a train and then into an airplane. They landed, and found that they were in Berlin. They were taken to the Chancellery; and there they were made to re-enact, on its original site, the whole scene of Hitler’s death, burial, and burning. This macabre incident seems finally to have satisfied the Russians. At one moment, while in Berlin, they even promised to show Baur and others the mortal relics of the “Führer”; but this promise was never carried out.
Then, having satisfied themselves of the conclusions, the Russians set to work to dissipate the evidence. They took the witnesses back to Russia and dispersed them to different prisons, some to the Arctic, some to the Urals; they laid waste the Chancellery, blew up the bunker with high explosive; and as for Hitler’s body, which he himself had taken such pains to hide from them lest they should insult it, they now, having identified it, sought to hide it from the Germans lest they should revere it.
Three years later a German prisoner, brought from the Urals to the Lubianka prison and asked if he could recognize a photograph of the charred bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun, felt unable to give a positive answer. To give a positive answer, he said, he would need to see the bodies themselves. “Then you don’t believe that the bodies are in Moscow?” asked his interrogator. The prisoner admitted that he did not. “Hitler’s body,” he was then told, “is in better keeping with us than under the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The dead can be more dangerous than the living. If Frederick the Great had not been buried in state in Potsdam the Germans would not have started so many wars in the last two centuries. The Germans like martyrs!” But this martyr they were not to have. Though further knowledge has altered its circumstantial background, my original remark remains accidentally true: “Like Alaric, buried secretly under the river bed of Busento, the modern destroyer of mankind is now immune from discovery.”
Thus after long incredulity and in spite of official prejudices the Russians at last accepted the truth about the last days of Hitler substantially as it is recorded in my book. Their methods and their sources were different; their investigation was entirely—indeed gratuitously—independent; and they arrived more reluctantly at their conclusions. But their conclusions are the same as mine. Such agreement, in such circumstances, seems to me the strongest support that I could hope for, if indeed I felt the need of any support for conclusions already reached by rational methods. Before long such evidence will surely convince even the German law courts which still, in February 1956, hesitated to pronounce Hitler dead.5
I have said that the Russian version is “substantially” the same as mine, for in one small detail I must admit that we differ. Both in their early admissions and in their later film they stated or implied that Hitler had killed himself by taking poison. On June 5, 1945 Zhukov’s staff officers stated that Russian doctors had established, by an examination of Hitler’s body, that he had died of poison. In their film Hitler is shown swallowing a poison capsule. On the other hand, I have stated that he shot himself through the mouth. Since the Russians had possession of Hitler’s body and I had not, they were obviously in a more favorable position than I was to determine the cause of his death. On the other hand, none of their pronouncements have been authoritative, reasoned, or even circumstantial. Their early statements, before June 9, 1945, were unofficial and secondhand: in some respects they were certainly inaccurate—at least in the form in which they were reported; and their film was unashamed propaganda full of tendentious inaccuracies: it cannot be taken as scientific documentation. In these circumstances perhaps it is best to go behind their loose statements and re-examine the available evidence.
The first witness who was available in 1945 was Erich Kempka, Hitler’s chauffeur. He had escaped from Berlin and had been captured by the Americans. Under interrogation he stated that immediately after Hitler’s death, Günsche, who had inspected the body, had told him that Hitler had shot himself through the mouth. This of course is only secondhand evidence; but Kempka added that after helping to carry Eva Braun’s body out to the burning, he himself had gone into the “death room” and seen, lying on the floor, two revolvers, one a Walther 7.65, the other a Walther 6.35. Seven months later this evidence was confirmed and completed by the Hitler Youth leader, Artur Axmann, who had been at large in the Bavarian Alps and who is thus independent of Kempka. Axmann stated that he had been one of those who entered the “death room” immediately after Hitler’s suicide. “As we entered, we saw the Führer sitting on a small divan, Eva Braun at his side, with her head resting on his shoulder. The Führer was only slightly slumped forward and everyone recognized that he was dead. His jaw hung somewhat loosely down and a pistol lay on the floor. Blood was dripping from both temples, and his mouth was bloody and smeared, but there was not much blood spattered around. . . . I believe that Hitler took poison first and then shot himself through the mouth, and that the concussion of such a blast resulted in the blood on the Führer’s temples.”
Such was the evidence available to me in 1946. Now it is supplemented by the evidence of Linge and Mengershausen, who, having spent the intervening decade in Russian prisons, have had no opportunity of collusion with either Kempka or Axmann. Linge is a firsthand witness: he too went into the “death room” immediately after Hitler’s suicide, and it was he who carried the body out into the garden. According to his account, when he went into the room, “there, almost upright in a sitting position on a couch, was the body of Adolf Hitler. A small hole, the size of a German silver mark, showed on his right temple and a trickle of blood ran slowly down over his cheek.” After this statement, which exactly confirms the entirely independent account of Axmann, Linge goes on to confirm the details given by Kempka: “One pistol, a Walther 7.65, lay on the floor where it had dropped from his right hand. A yard or so away lay another gun of 6.35 caliber.”
To this must be added the evidence of Mengershausen, who states that when he was shown the remains of Hitler’s body about a month later, the head had a bullet hole in the temple. Mengershausen adds that he believes, from the state of the head when he inspected it, that Hitler had shot himself through the head, not through the mouth as I had written. The hole in the temple seemed to him to be the hole of an ingoing, not an outgoing, bullet. Had Hitler shot himself through the mouth, Mengershausen says, the air pressure would surely have broken the jaws, which, however, were intact. I am not competent to judge this matter, and the experts whom I consult give me such different answers that I am content to leave the matter in suspense. But the evidence seems clear that although Hitler may conceivably, as Axmann surmised, have taken poison as well, he certainly killed himself with a revolver shot.6
Indeed, this is what I should have expected from his character. Hitler liked to remember, and to show, that he was a soldier. He liked to set to his generals, whom he distrusted, an example of the correct behavior of a true German soldier. Already two years before, he had stated very clearly what that duty might be. It was in February 1943, when the news reached him that Field Marshal Paulus had surrendered at Stalingrad. On hearing this news Hitler was beside himself with rage, and treated his General Staff to a tirade on the subject. Why, he asked, bad he made Paulus, at this last minute, a Field Marshal? Why, except to show that the “Führer” was honoring him at his death? For of course he had expected Paulus and his commanders to commit suicide. They should have “closed ranks, formed a hedgehog, and shot themselves with their last bullet.” Why should they not have shot themselves? It is, he declared ominously, “the road that every man has to take some time.” Even in peacetime, “in Germany about 18,000 or 20,000 people a year chose to commit suicide, even without being in such a position.” How could there be any excuse for a defeated war leader? “When the nerves break down, there is nothing left but to admit that one can’t handle the situation and to shoot one’s self.” In April 1945 Hitler recognized that he had met his Stalingrad. I do not think he would have failed to follow his own prescription to the letter. He would have chosen the formal death of the soldier, with a revolver.
Why then did the Russians expurgate the revolver from their version of Hitler’s death? There is a perfectly rational explanation which, though conjectural, may well be true. The Russians may well have concealed the manner of Hitler’s suicide for precisely the same reason for which Hitler chose it: because it was a “soldier’s death.” I myself suspect that this was their reason. After all, it is in line with their general practice. Previous tyrannies of the spirit have sought to crush defeated but dangerous philosophies by emphatic, public executions: the gibbet, the block, the bloody quarters exhibited in terrorem populi. But such spectacular liquidations, however effective at the time, have a habit of breeding later myths: there are relics of the dead, pilgrimages to the place of execution. The Russian Bolsheviks have therefore preferred in general a less emphatic method: their ideological enemies have slid into oblivion in nameless graves at uncertain dates, and no relics of them are available for later veneration. I have already suggested that it was for this reason, and in accordance with this philosophy, that they concealed the circumstances of Hitler’s death, hid his bones, and destroyed the scene of his suicide and his “Nordic” funeral. It may well be that when such total concealment was no longer possible and they decided to admit the facts, there was one fact which they thought it expedient to alter. The soldier’s death might seem to the Germans heroic. Suicide by poison might well seem to the Russians a more expedient version.
If this is so, it raises an interesting general question. For my book was also written, in the first place, for exactly the same reason which made the Russians frown upon it: to prevent (as far as such means can prevent) the rebirth of the Hitler myth. It would thus seem that we and the Russians, in this matter, seek exactly the same end by diametrically opposite means: they by suppressing the evidence, we by publishing it. Which of these two methods is the more effective is arguable. I will only say that I personally believe in my own. For when has the suppression of the truth prevented the rise of a myth, if a myth was wanted? When has the absence of genuine relics prevented the discovery of false relics, if they were needed? When has uncertainty about a true shrine prevented pilgrimages to a false one?
And besides, there seems to me in the Russian argument, if I have correctly described it, a somewhat sinister implication. If they fear the truth, does it not seem that they believe in its power: that they think that Hitler’s reign really was inspiring, that his end really was glorious, and that secrecy is necessary to prevent the spread of such a view? It is a view which I do not share. It seems to me, having perhaps too naive a faith in human nature and human reason, that Hitler’s reign was so evil, his character so detestable, that no one can be seduced into admiring him by reading the true history either of his life or of his melodramatic and carefully stage-managed end.
For that those last days of Hitler were a carefully produced theatrical piece is, I think, clear. It was not merely because he wished to escape a public trial, or hide his body from the Russians, that Hitler chose his form of death. His whole previous history had been consciously theatrical and perhaps even operatic; and it would have been contrary to all his thinking if he had ended such a career with an insipid or bungled finale. Long before, in the days of his triumph, he had often declared that the only satisfactory alternative to apotheosis was a spectacular annihilation: like Samson at Gaza, he would drag down with him the temples of his enemies. He had even indicated—long before he even conceived of failure—the ideal method of death. “In short,” he remarked in February 1942, “if one hadn’t a family to bequeath one’s house to, the best thing would be to be burnt in it with all its contents—a magnificent funeral pyrel”
Little did he think, in those months of triumph, that he would so soon be following, even to the letter, his own prescription. Fortunately, when the time came, he had with him the essential man, the impresario of the Nazi movement, Joseph Goebbels, who for twenty years had devised the décor, the accompaniment, and the advertisement of this dreadful Wagnerian melodrama. On March 27, 1945, Goebbels’ assistant, Rudolf Semler, recorded in his diary the preparations for this last act. “Goebbels,” he wrote, “has persuaded Hitler not to leave Berlin. He has reminded him of his oath taken on January 30, 1933. That evening Hitler had said to Goebbels in the Reich Chancellery, ‘We shall never leave this building again of our own free will. No power in the world can ever force us to abandon our position.’ Now all preparations are being made for the real Twilight of the Gods’ scene.” Does such a well-staged melodrama excite respect or inspire emulation? The reader must judge. Posterity will show.
1 The accuracy of these statements about Hitler’s dentures is confirmed by X-ray photographs of Hitler’s head taken in September 1944 (when Hitler was in the doctors’ hands in consequence of the bomb plot of July 20, 1944) and found among the medical records of Hitler’s personal physician Dr. Morell. I am grateful to D. S. Hayton Williams who has kindly interpreted these photographs for me.
2 The Russians identified the body of Goebbels at least three times. Once on May 2, when it was identified for them by Hans Fritzsche; once about May 20, when it was identified by Wilhelm Eckhold, Goebbels’ personal security officer; and once at the end of May, as described above, by Mengershausen.
3 For instance, the Western allies obtained copious medical records from Hitler’s doctors, including X-ray photographs of his head, which would have been conclusive for the identification of the skull.
4 It is not clear precisely when the bodies were taken to Russia. The Russians apparently gave Baur the impression that they were available in Berlin in the summer of 1946 and were only removed to Russia then; but this impression may have been false, or the bodies may have been temporarily brought to Berlin together with the “Reich Chancellery Group.” Vassilki seems to have implied that they were moved in the summer of 1945, and this seems a reasonable supposition. It is likely that the dead evidence and the living evidence were all transported together.
5 A legal declaration of Hitler’s death was sought, in 1952, in order to establish the Austrian government’s legal title to a confiscated painting by Vermeer, “The Artist in his Studio, which Hitler had acquired from Count Jaromir Czernin-Morzin in 1940. After a dispute as to competence between the courts (Amtsgerichte) of Berchtesgaden and Berlin-Schöneberg had been settled in favor of the former in July 1955, the victorious court of Berchtesgaden, in October 1955, postponed a final death certificate until all German prisoners should have returned from Russia.
6 Such a theory would account for any traces of poison which the Russians may have found in his body. But I am skeptical. Even to the Russians the bullet hole in Hitler’s head must have been more obvious than any traces of poison in his body. Since they were silent about the bullet hole, why should we believe the exclusive statement about the poison?