Did Adolf Hitler escape from the Bunker after all?
Were reports of Hitler's death "greatly exaggerated"?
Cover of Time Magazine, May 7, 1945
BACK WHEN I WAS growing up, Hitler sightings were a running joke, a semi-comical preview of the Elvis and Jacko sightings that haunt our tabloids today. I still have a vivid memory of one such story in the National Enquirer. The front page depicted a wrinkled, grizzled ex-Führer hiding out in Argentina. According to the Enquirer, Hitler had been the driving force behind the recent Falklands War and was now on the run yet again. This came just a couple of years after the appearance of The Boys from Brazil starring poor old Gregory Peck as Josef Mengele in the most thankless role he ever let himself get talked into playing. These sightings finally dried up around 1989, when Hitler passed the hundred mark, and I thought we were well rid of them. But now that new evidence has surfaced challenging the standard version of Hitler's suicide in the Reich Chancellery Bunker in April of 1945, you would be well advised to fasten your seatbelt and prepare for a Hitler sighting renaissance.
A scoop to die for
The sudden upsurge in online speculation about Hitler’s true fate has been provoked by a History Channel documentary called Hitler’s Escape, which was first aired on September 26. It promises to be the scoop of the young century. For the making of the film, American archaeologist and bone specialist Nick Bellantoni from the University of Connecticut flew to the Moscow State Archive to examine a skull fragment with a bullet hole through it that the Russian government has been publicly claiming belonged to Hitler since 2000. Bellantoni swabbed the bone fragment and had the genetic material analyzed at a laboratory back home in New England. His examination revealed it to be not that of the fifty-six year-old dictator but rather the remains of a young woman. “The bone seemed very thin. Male bone tends to be more robust,” he says. “And the sutures where the skull plates come together seemed to correspond to someone under 40.” A DNA examination also proved that the skull is female. Did it instead belong to Eva Braun, Hitler’s thirty-three year-old girlfriend and – for some forty hours – his wife, who supposedly died with him in the Bunker? No, Bellantoni says. Eva is known to have died after biting a cyanide capsule.
Adolf and Eva enjoying some quality time together
Hitler - a man of many graves
Now does this evidence prove that Hitler “escaped” the Bunker and took off for South America, as the History Channel would have us believe? Since the TV show’s case rests on the identity of the bone fragment, it is worth taking a look at the story behind it. According to official Soviet reports, on May 4, 1945 the military intelligence agency SMERSH unearthed Hitler’s purported remains on Stalin’s personal orders after seizing the ruins of the Reich Chancellery and examined them at a commandeered laboratory in the town of Buch on the outskirts of Berlin. These remains included the skull fragment and part of a jaw bone, which the SMERSH pathologists confirmed as belonging to Hitler after interrogating Hitler’s dentist and nurse. The jaw contained glass fragments of the kind one would absorb after biting on a poison capsule. According to the report they filed on May 8, Hitler had died of cyanide poisoning and not from a bullet after all. It also claimed that he had only one testicle. Many Western historians have assumed that both of these statements have little basis in fact and were merely intended to humiliate Hitler in the eyes of the world. SMERSH then buried the Führer’s remains near the eastern German town of Rathenow.
But Stalin still did not believe his nemesis was really dead. In late 1945 Soviet General Bogdan Kobulov began a new investigation. The eyewitness accounts he gathered told that Hitler had shot himself through the head. In early 1946 the Soviets dug up the bones and examined them once more, then took them to a SMERSH base near Magdeburg and buried them a second time. In 1970 KGB boss Yuri Andropov was growing uneasy that the East Germans would come across the remains after they took possession of the base from the KGB and possibly revert to fascism. He ordered the bones unearthed and destroyed in a top secret operation. Special agents placed the bones in Kalashnikov crates and soaked them with twenty liters of gasoline before setting them on fire. They then scattered the ashes across a vacant lot outside the town of Schönebeck. Only the skull fragment was secured and deposited in the Moscow archive.
Is this bone fragment Hitler's skull?
A dramatic exit
If we choose to believe Bellantoni’s account, the fragment most definitely did not belong to Hitler. But why should it have anyway? Let’s look at what happened in the Bunker in the spring of 1945. With the war as good as lost, Hitler informed his immediate circle that he intended to take his own life rather than to allow himself to be captured by the approaching Red Army and ordered that his body be completely destroyed by fire. He asked physician Werner Haase to try out one of his cyanide capsules on his beloved dog Blondi and then prepared for his own suicide.
According to sworn testimony by witnesses on the scene, Hitler and Eva Braun entered their private quarters in the Bunker on the afternoon of April 30 with strict orders not to be disturbed. Some witnesses heard a shot. Hitler’s SS valet, Heinz Linge, and his private secretary, Martin Bormann, then entered the room to find Hitler slumped on the couch with a bullet wound in the side of his head. Eva Braun also lay dead. A scent of burnt almonds hovered over both corpses, suggesting that both had taken cyanide.
Hitler’s adjutant Otto Günsche joined Linge in wrapping the bodies in blankets and carrying them up into the open air. There they laid them in a shell crater and poured two hundred liters of gasoline onto them. They set fire to the corpses and watched them burn. After the flames had consumed this grueseome offering, all that was left of Hitler and his wife were a few scorched bones that crumbled into dust at a touch of Linge's boot. He and some other men transferred these remains to another crater and covered them over with rubble, stamping it tight.
That is the official version. Heinz Linge died in 1980 and Otto Günsche passed away in 2003. So why not ask a living eyewitness? Well, one such witness has been asked. In fact, he’s been asked and asked. Rochus Misch was Hitler’s personal bodyguard and is alive and unrepentant in Berlin at the age of 92. The Soviets interrogated him for nine years at Lubyanka Prison and at Butyrka military prison in Moscow before finally releasing him to West Germany in 1954. He published his memoirs, Der letzte Zeuge [The Last Witness] – based on a series of interviews with a French journalist – in 2008. In an exclusive interview for Salon.com back in 2005, Misch told his version of events to freelance journalist Ida Hattemer-Higgins:
I was curious. I still don't remember whether it was Linge or Günsche who first opened the door to Hitler's rooms, but one of the two. I was really curious and came forward a few steps. Then somebody opened the second door - I still don't know who it was, probably Linge. And it was then, as the second door opened, I saw Hitler, dead, lying on a chair. Eva [Braun] on the couch completely clothed. In a dark dress and white, white skin. She was lying back. … Then I was on my way over to the Reich Chancellery, already in the passageway, but I had an uncanny feeling, very scared and uncertain, so I turned around. When I got back they already had Hitler down on the floor. I watched them packing him up, in a blanket. Well, so it went. Then they carried him out, and I went away finally and made the communication to the commanding officer.
Rochus Misch at Hitler's retreat in Berchtesgaden,1941
A new lease on life?
So did Hitler somehow miraculously escape from the Bunker after refusing all the many opportunities he was offered to do so – including a dramatic airplane flight out of the besieged city with Nazi flying ace Hanna Reitsch at the controls? And, at age 120, is he still out there somewhere up to his old tricks, advising Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and secretly designing Barack Obama’s “death panels”? Considering how often Hitler’s name pops up in political discourse these days, it sure seems as if he still walks among us. All we have to go on is the sworn testimony of those who were on the scene in Berlin.
So what are we to make of the skull fragment? It may have belonged to Eva Braun after all. Or how about this: Perhaps the SMERSH, faced with an impossible task forced on them by grand inquisitor Stalin himself, simply pounced on the first scrap of human material they could find and swore on their mothers’ lives that it belonged to Hitler in a desperate effort to save their own miserable existence. It’s not as if there weren’t enough skull fragments to choose from in those days.
But how accurate is this entire report in the first place? On the Monday following the History Channel broadcast, a spokesperson for the Moscow State Archive issued a statement that his institution had never heard of anybody called Bellantoni, and no one had taken any samples from any bone fragments. In any case, the spokesperson pointed out, while the Soviet government used to enjoy showing the bone off to guests as a sort of trophy, the Archive itself had never claimed the fragment positively belonged to Hitler. And even Bellantoni admits that the bone “could have been [from] anyone. Many people died near the bunker.”
Archaeologist Nick Bellantoni -
The scoop of the century?
So we're back to the old dilemma: Who are you going to believe – your own common sense or the History Channel? I know who I’m going to choose. Now it’s your turn.