On April 30, 1945, Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz, appointed by Hitler as his successor, announced Hitler’s death by radio. Its leader, he said, had died “fighting Bolshevism to the last breath.” The death of the Nazi leader immediately made headlines around the world. On May 1, 1945, General Hans Krebs, the last head of the German High Command, realized that all was lost and crossed the front line in Berlin to negotiate a ceasefire, hoping that the Dönitz government would be recognized. and a small vestige of the Third Reich will be preserved in the ruins of the German capital. He was authorized to tell – he told the Russian general Vasili Chuikov – that Hitler had committed suicide the day before. But Chuikov stuck to what was agreed with the Allies and insisted on demanding an unconditional surrender. Krebs returned to headquarters and, desperate, also took his own life, like several hundred other Nazis during those last weeks and months: government ministers, generals, high officials and public officials in general. Meanwhile, in order to protect itself from any accusation of negligence in allowing the Nazi leader to escape, the Red Army printed the news of Hitler’s suicide in its newspaper. Red Star.
But within a few weeks, from the Kremlin, the Soviet leadership reported very different news. In a private meeting with American legate Harry Hopkins on May 26, 1945, Stalin declared that “Hitler is not dead, but is hiding somewhere.” Perhaps he had fled to Japan in a submarine, added the Soviet dictator. In fact, some time before, several second-level Red Army officers had informed Western journalists that Hitler’s body was among the mortal remains of four people found outside the bunker in early May. On June 5, Russian General Staff officers again told their American counterparts that they were “almost certain” that Hitler had died and his body had been identified. Four days later, however, the Soviet commander Georgy Zhukov denied it, at Stalin’s urging. Why did Stalin dismiss the reports of his own troops from the front? For political reasons: for the Soviet leader, maintaining that Hitler was still alive reinforced his argument that it was essential to treat the Germans with extreme harshness, to avoid a rebirth of Nazism. The Soviet leader wanted to silence the idea that Hitler had died heroically, as narrated by Dönitz, and describe him as a coward who had fled the scene of his defeat to hide in who knows what corner of the world, like a criminal trying to avoid your responsibility.
As the confusion continued, the rumors began to multiply. It was repeatedly reported that the Nazi leader had been seen alive; The FBI wrote down many references in the dossier that this organization soon dedicated to this case:
“Some said that his own officers had killed him in the Tiergarten; others, that he had escaped from Berlin by air; or from Germany in a submarine. They had seen him living on a foggy island in the Baltic; in a rock fortress in the Rhineland; in a Spanish monastery; on a ranch in South America; he had been sighted wild among the bandits of Albania. A Swiss journalist formally declared that she was absolutely certain that Hitler was living with Eva Braun on a Bavarian estate. The Soviet news agency Tass, for its part, reported that Hitler had been seen in Dublin, dressed in women’s clothing.
Its presence was communicated in half the world, from Indonesia to, for example, Colombia. American intelligence came to prepare illustrations of what it could look like in disguise. If Hitler was indeed still alive, there was a risk that he might emulate his predecessor, the Emperor Napoleon, and return to face, with new armies, the victorious powers. The idea was too terrible.
In September 1945, while Stalin was sowing uncertainty among the Western Allies, Dick White, head of MI5, ate with two young intelligence officers: the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper and the philosopher Herbert Hart. “With the third bottle of white wine” – according to Adam Sisman in his biography of the historian -, White gave Trevor-Roper full powers to investigate the matter, and told his superiors that unless the work “we would do some first-rate kid, it won’t be worth doing for us ”. They were correct in regarding Trevor-Roper as a top-notch employee, but their investigation was not as solitary a undertaking as later claimed: British intelligence services had been concerned for many weeks about the Nazi leader’s fate and had already gathered enough information about his death, although they had waited some time to use it in the vain hope that the Soviet side would allow them access to the materials they had and interview the captives they had seized in the Imperial Chancellery bunker. In the course of his investigation, Trevor-Roper had the opportunity to use the intelligence material, in addition to the new news gathered by the security services. With the help of his colleagues, he tracked down those who had survived the last few weeks in the bunker, examined the interior of this shelter, found the latest journal of Hitler’s meetings, and also located a copy of the Führer’s will. In November he presented his findings, which he later wrote in the book The Last Days of Hitler, published by Macmillan on March 18, 1947, after obtaining official permission. It immediately became a world bestseller, allowing Trevor-Roper to purchase a “gray Bentley that ostentatiously parked in Tom Quad,” the great quadrangle of Christ Church, his Oxonian university.
To support his conclusions, Trevor-Roper had obtained personal statements from a very diverse spectrum of witnesses, had painstakingly compared (in his own words) the various accounts, and ended up concluding that the existing discrepancies revealed that they were neither narratives nor coordinated or rehearsed. But the investigation, which was carried out in haste because he was urged to reach a conclusion as soon as possible, turned out to be too rushed and incomplete. He was unable to contact a good number of people (some, still in Soviet custody) who had been in the bunker in the last days of the Reich. Of the people he claimed to have questioned, several said they had never spoken to him, and others said they had lied to him. Much of the testimonies he cited were hearsay. The claim that he had conducted the research alone, included in his best-selling book, was misleading. Above all, he could not access any of the materials collected by the Soviets on Hitler’s death, based on eyewitness testimony of the solution that had been given to the corpse.
Richard J. Evans (1947, London) is a historian and professor at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of several books on the history of the Third Reich. This excerpt is an editorial preview of the book ‘Hitler and conspiracy theories. The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination ‘, by the Crítica publishing house, which will be published on June 9.
Subscribe here to the weekly Ideas newsletter.