No, Hitler Did Not Escape
Whatever else they may have been, Hitler and the Nazis will always be grist for the mill of sensationalized pseudohistory. Urban legends and unapologetic fiction will always supplement their actual histories. No manifestation of this is more popular than the claim that Hitler did not die in Berlin, as history and forensics tell us he did; but rather that he lived to escape to Argentina and lived out his life in comfort with all the other Nazi refugees. Today we're going to look at the reasons why some people take this alternative history so seriously.
Here's the basic narrative. The historical account holds that Hitler, along with his wife Eva Braun, committed suicide in his underground Führerbunker in Berlin as Soviet troops invaded the city on April 30, 1945. Only fragments of his body were recovered because it was burned repeatedly and possibly was struck by at least one Soviet shell during the battle, but it was ultimately identified by forensic proof.
Initially, this was not an easy conclusion to be certain of. Hitler's body was recovered by the Soviets, who handled it poorly, didn't disclose it to the Allies for weeks, and even got its remains mixed with those of other bodies who were buried and reburied several times as they were moved around. Smersh counterintelligence made several visits to the cremation site collecting remains. What they gathered was locked up in Smersh archives until it was all destroyed in 1970, save for a skull fragment with a nice bullet hole that was kept on display. 2009 DNA tests proved it to be from a young woman, fanning the flames of the escape theory. But as it turned out, the evidence for Hitler's suicide had never included that skull fragment at all.
The primary effort to learn the hard facts fell to a young MI-5 intelligence officer, Maj. Hugh Trevor-Roper. In September 1945, he began an investigation that ultimately lasted two years, with full Allied cooperation. He examined every piece of evidence and interviewed every witness, German, Soviet, and more. The result was finally published as his book The Last Days of Hitler, which includes a moment-by-moment account of Hitler's final days in the Führerbunker, his suicide, and the disposal and recovery of the bodies.
The forensic proof took somewhat longer, at least in its presentation to the world outside the Soviet Union. Fortunately for this endeavor, Hitler had terrible teeth and a mouth full of oddball dental work. He had missing teeth, strange bridgework, crowns, and teeth that had grown into the jawbone. Following one assassination attempt in 1944 he had five head X-rays taken which survive and provided a baseline for comparison. Perhaps the most exhaustive explanation of this forensic identification was the 1973 article The odontological identification of Adolf Hitler: Definitive documentation by X-rays, interrogations and autopsy findings published in Acta Odontologica Scandinavica. Its abstract concludes:
The details are far too myriad and involved to go into here, but claims that parts of the evidence on which this finding is based could have been faked strain credulity too far. The evidence is simply too firm, comes from too many sources, and includes physical evidence that could not have been faked, such as a very specific signature of periodontal bone breakdown and tooth by tooth variances in radiolucency.
But despite this certainty which meets every legal and historical standard, combined with the seamless firsthand eyewitness narrative, alternative revisionists have clung to preferred claims ever since the day Hitler died, when loyal Nazi officers throughout Europe spat assertions that any claims of the Führer's death were lies and propaganda. The version that has the most traction says that Hitler and Braun escaped Berlin via tunnels connected to the bunker, made it to an airport, and somehow got to a submarine which delivered them safely to Argentina, where they lived out their lives in comfort. This pseudohistory has been most prominently promoted recently on the History Channel's shockumentary series Hunting Hitler.
They're able to sustain the series because hooks throughout the narrative are hung on actual events. For example, the submarine's part of the story is true, at least in large part. On and about May 8, 1945 — just over a week after Hitler's suicide — the Kriegsmarine ordered all German subs to jettison their ammunition, fly blue flags, and to surrender at the nearest United Nations port, traveling only the surface. Most U-boats did so, but some believed it was a trick and laid low until they verified it. U-530, commanded by Lt. Otto Wermuth, was about 1600 km northeast of Puerto Rico when the order was received. Nothing more was known of U-530 until two months later, when it sailed into the Mar del Plata submarine base and surrendered to the Argentinian Navy. Its logs and a lot of equipment had been jettisoned, and where U-530 spent those two missing months is known only from the statement Wermuth gave to the Argentinians.
The alternative historians claim that those two months were probably used to go pick up Hitler in Europe, then transport him and Eva Braun to Argentina. But Wermuth's account was perfectly reasonable. Hoping for better treatment, Wermuth elected to go to Argentina instead of the United States; other U-boat commanders worldwide made similar decisions. The journey from 1600 km northeast of Puerto Rico to Mar del Plata is some 5,000 nautical miles, and for his own safety, Wermuth ignored the order to travel on the surface and instead remained submerged. He'd last taken on 225 tons of fuel in Norway, and had enough left to make it to Mar del Plata, but only if traveling at a reduced (and more economical) speed. During the day, U-530 made 2 knots submerged and 7.5 knots on the surface at night to recharge batteries; and once Wermuth crossed 20° South latitude, he increased speed to 9 knots on the surface. It does work out to about a two-month journey; with no secret detours needed to explain the time and fuel consumption.
Renewed interest in this mythology has been driven by the fact that in 2014, the FBI released 742 pages of documents in response to a Freedom of Information Act request seeking to find out what the American government knew about Hitler's presumed escape to South America. These documents are publicly available on the FBI Vault website (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4).
Since these documents are on an official FBI website, headlines about them often say something like FBI Documents Prove Hitler Escaped to South America. But that's a gross mischaracterization of the documents. They are not the findings of investigations; they are simply filed-away reports received by the FBI from any and every random crank who thought he saw Hitler somewhere. This is the same database where you can find 130 pages of cattle mutilations reported by alien hunters, 59 pages of reports of Amelia Earhart's whereabouts, and 119 pages pondering the potentially Communist nature of the lyrics of the song Louie Louie.
If I call up the FBI and tell them I just saw Barney the Purple Dinosaur crooning outside the White House with a ukulele, that report is going to be filed away somewhere. And if, years later, some Barney conspiracy theorist rolls a Freedom of Information Act request on it, that report is going to be a matter of public record. You would see exactly the same articles on the conspiracy theory websites as we have with the Hitler story: FBI Documents Prove Barney Serenaded the US President. It doesn't mean there's any truth to it; it only means someone reported it. Just like they still report Elvis sightings — and there are 663 pages in there about Elvis. Frankly, I'm surprised there are only 742 pages of crazy Hitler reports.
Central to the alternative historians' value of these documents are reports of the U-530 stopping to drop off civilian passengers, a man and a woman; or of a German man who lived to a happy, ripe old age in anonymity. But all such reports were made to the FBI after the U-530's history became publicly known. Investigators have never turned up anything remotely credible that could challenge the suicide proof. Television cranks aside, no serious historians put any weight on the alternative Hitler tales.
At about 3:30pm on April 30, 1945, Hitler and Eva finally escaped the last distractions, and the iron security door to Hitler's study was closed for good. Although they'd been together 14 years, they'd been married only 40 hours ago, right there in the bunker. Since then, Eva had been planning which dress she'd wear this afternoon: black with white roses around the neck. Hitler had spent the time, at least in part, testing cyanide capsules on his Alsatian dog, Blondi, and found that they worked. No record tells us what else might have happened behind that door, but the two of them bit down on their cyanide capsules, Eva taking hers from a vial she carried with her in a small brass box. She curled on the sofa, leaving her shoes on the floor. Hitler sat beside his wife and together they sunk toward oblivion from histotoxic hypoxia. When Hitler saw her eyes close for the final time, he drew his Walther PPK, the pistol issued to high-ranking Nazi officers, and fired a single shot into his right temple. The gun, along with a second one he kept as a backup, dropped to the floor at his feet. His blood drenched the blue and white sofa.
Minutes later, Hitler's valet Heinz Linge followed his instructions. Together with Hitler's adjutant and three SS guards, he carried the bodies upstairs and outside, and dropped them in the garden, pocked with shell craters. Gunfire and shelling from the Soviet troops who were already taking the city surrounded them. As the others poured petrol, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels produced a book of matches, and Linge lit the fire. Goebbels and at least seven other officers saluted as the bodies burned.
Soon the garden was a circus of Soviet soldiers pocketing evidence as souvenirs, haphazard piling of bodies, and raiding of the bunker's substantial liquor stores; and the order of the Nazi regime melted into Soviet chaos. And in that chaos might the question of Hitler's ultimate fate have remained, had not Trevor-Roper and the investigators who followed him shined the light of science and condensed away the fog. Hitler died in Berlin, bloody and with violence of his own hand. He might have cheated the hangman, but justice had its way with him all the same.
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