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What Happened to Hitler's Body

Most gravestones are a site of solemn remembrance, where mourners bring flowers and share memories. However, there are some people whose graves would be more likely to become public graffiti targets - no one more than Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. But no one's defacing Hitler's grave - because he doesn't have one. Which raises one big question - what happened to Hitler's body?

By Jayveer ValaPublished about a year ago 19 min read
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Adolf Hitler

Most gravestones are a site of solemn remembrance, where mourners bring flowers and share memories. However, there are some people whose graves would be more likely to become public graffiti targets - no one more than Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. But no one’s defacing Hitler’s grave - because he doesn’t have one. Which raises one big question - what happened to Hitler’s body? It was 1945, and the walls were closing in on the Nazi regime.

The Soviet Red Army was marching from the east, having liberated Poland. The attempt by the Nazis to bomb Britain into submission had long since failed, and now the united forces of Britain, the United States, and the rest of their allies were marching on Germany from the west. Hitler was surrounded and increasingly paranoid, and had retreated to his bunker, an air raid shelter in Berlin. As the Soviets approached the city, Hitler discovered that even his generals were starting to reject his orders. He was determined not to be taken alive. As Hitler planned to end his life rather than being taken alive, multiple Nazi leaders jockeyed for position. Hermann Goring attempted to take control in the aftermath and was rewarded by being stripped of his offices by Hitler and arrested. As communications around the city were cut off, Hitler heard bits and pieces of news about his top allies surrendering - with Heinrich Himmler even claiming he had the right to negotiate a surrender for the regime.

Hitler also heard word that his closest ally, Benito Mussolini, had been deposed and killed by Italian rebels. It was time for the last rites. Within his bunker, Hitler and his longtime mistress Eva Braun were married, and then Hitler dictated his last will to his secretary. Knowing the end was near, he was determined he wouldn’t allow his enemies to get ahold of him and execute him or put him on trial. He had already obtained capsules of poison from Himmler before Himmler’s attempted to surrender but now doubted if they would be effective or if they were just another betrayal. So he gave them to his beloved dog Blondi - and the dog died immediately, adding one final casualty to Hitler’s long list of kills. He soon said his goodbyes, retreated to his room with Eva Braun and prepared for the end. What happened next has been debated for almost eighty years. The leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, was a ruthless man and he wanted his revenge on Hitler for the Nazi’s betrayal. He had offered a medal to the person who found Hitler alive as they surged into Berlin, and Stalin hoped to capture him alive and make an example of him.

But it wasn’t to be. According to witnesses in the bunker, Hitler’s valet entered the chamber and immediately smelled gunpowder and a strange burnt almond smell. Both Hitler and Braun were dead - Braun apparently from poisoning, as she had no visible wounds, while Hitler was bleeding from a fresh wound to his temple and had a gun at his feet. The Nazi leader and his new wife were serious about not being taken alive. And there was a plan as soon as the news broke. The Nazi leaders knew Hitler’s body would be of great interest to the Allies, and they didn’t want them to get ahold of it. Led by the acting Nazi leader, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazis on site rolled the bodies up in a rug, gathered papers covered in petrol, and lit the entire thing on fire. This took place amid heavy Allied shelling of the area, which shows just how loyal Hitler’s die-hards were - they were willing to carry out these bizarre funeral rites even as their own lives were endangered. While Hitler’s body wasn’t destroyed by the burning, it was now unrecognizable and was buried in a bomb crater along with the rug soaked with his blood. And that was the end of the story - or at least, it should have been. Soon, the Soviets took control of Berlin, and the news that Hitler was already dead did not make Stalin happy. As word spread of Hitler’s death, millions of German troops left the battlefield to avoid the Soviet forces.

It would be several days before the Soviets arrived at the compound, and they dug up what is believed to be Hitler and Braun’s dental remains. A cursory analysis identified Hitler’s body, which seemed to put things to rest. But Stalin had other ideas. It just seemed too easy, didn’t it? Hitler had terrorized the continent and beyond for twelve years, and now he’s dead with no way to hold him accountable for his crimes. That sounds like exactly what he’d want them to think! Many Soviet operations in the area continued to dig up the bodies of the Nazi leadership, but it’s not clear if they found any more of Hitler’s body beyond what was believed to be his teeth. And without more proof, Stalin refused to believe his nemesis was truly gone. And as Stalin spoke, millions of people listened. And so began the great Hitler conspiracy battle. Early polls showed that over two-thirds of Americans thought Hitler might still be alive in June 1945, but the leadership didn’t seem to share those doubts. The same couldn’t be said for the Soviet Union, where Joseph Stalin actively spread conspiracies! Only a month after the discovery of the dental remains, Stalin ordered his Field Marshall Georgy Zhukov to present details on how Hitler could have survived. And a month after that, Stalin stated at the Potsdam Conference that Hitler had probably escaped to Spain or Argentina like so many other Nazi leaders. And this had some unintended consequences. Conspiracy theories don’t stay where they’re supposed to. Stalin’s motivation for insisting Hitler was alive may have been because he wasn’t willing to give up on bringing the Nazi leader to justice, but there were also still a lot of loyalists to Hitler. Soon enough, the former Nazi ambassador to Vichy France, Otto Abetz, was claiming that Hitler was still alive, just in hiding. Soon, the Allied forces were dealing with a more active Nazi resistance not willing to give up the war - because after all, if their leader was still alive, then they hadn’t have lost the war.

It got intense enough that governments had to get involved. With the Soviets consistently boosting the conspiracy theory that Hitler was still alive, the British counter-intelligence division in Berlin launched an investigation. They found no conclusive evidence that Hitler was still alive - but that didn’t stop the conspiracies. The official report stated that “the desire to invent legends and fairy tales is greater than the love of the truth” - which is probably proven right every time someone watches an infomercial for a miracle product and picks up the phone immediately. Even after this investigation, almost half of the US population still believed the conspiracy. And it was about to get a major boost. It was only a year after the war when letters started going out around the country from someone calling himself “Furrier No. 1”. The mysterious madman not only claimed to be Hitler but insisted he was living in Kentucky under an assumed name with Eva Braun - and he had not given up the war effort. The “Furrier” claimed to be building tunnels under Washington DC, and to be armed with sleeper cells and nuclear bombs - and even invisible spaceships to take the Nazi regime to space. Needless to say, the writer wasn’t Hitler, he was a miner and Baptist preacher who used his scam to defraud his supporters of $15,000 before being arrested for mail fraud. But the next conspiracy would have more meat on the bones. Arthur F. Mackensen wasn’t a bigwig in the German military during World War II, just a Lieutenant - but he claimed that fate put him in the most important role of all. In 1948, he spoke to major newspapers and claimed that on May 5th, 1945 - five days after Hitler’s supposed death - he had fled Berlin in tanks alongside Nazi official Martin Bormann, Hitler and Eva Braun, who had faked their deaths.

They flew to Denmark, and Hitler and Braun then boarded a submarine to Argentina. The only problem with this? Not only was there no record of this crazy escape mission, but there was no record of Arthur F. Mackensen, who may have been named after First World War field marshal August von Mackensen. So the entire affair may have been a creative work of fiction by some newspaper writers - who sold papers off it. The question for these conspiracists is if Hitler survived and escaped, whose body was dug up in that Berlin bomb crater? For the conspiracy theorists, the answer is simple - he planned. Hitler was known to be paranoid, and frequently was surrounded by food tasters, bodyguards, and even body doubles to prevent him from being assassinated. While it worked, none of them could save him from his fate in that Berlin bunker - unless they did. The idea is that one of Hitler’s body doubles died in his place, allowing their body to be burned and then discovered, only for the real Hitler to escape to a safe space for former Nazis. And the conspiracies would continue for years. During the 1950s, the FBI and CIA constantly received tips that Hitler was alive - often living in the United States. Maybe that man at the grocery store had a slightly suspicious moustache.

Maybe that traffic cop was a little too into order when he gave someone that ticket. All these tips were taken by the government, briefly investigated - and quickly dumped in the circular storage file. But that didn’t stop the paranoia - the conspiracy about Hitler still being alive made it to the Nuremberg trial, where one judge briefly examined the evidence. But in 1956, the West German judicial system issued a final report stating that the circumstances of Hitler’s death were exactly what everyone thought they were. And that should put an end to the conspiracies…right? While the Allies were mostly united on the fact that Hitler was dead, the Soviets had a different opinion. The question is, why? Stalin likely saw the same evidence everyone else did, but he had an ulterior motive for keeping the truth muddled. After all, if Hitler was supposedly still alive, he had a reason to keep a heavier hand on occupied Germany. From the start, he was obstructing investigations of Hitler’s bunker - only briefly allowing a limited investigation of the site months after the fact. While they found some evidence of Hitler and Braun’s belongings in the ruins, they would have no chance to investigate them - and the Soviets quickly barred them from the grounds again on shady accusations. But behind the scenes, a different picture was forming. By the end of 1945, Stalin wanted the truth, so he ordered his intelligence agencies to launch a second investigation. This time, they used modern science to comb every corner of the bunker and gather evidence pointing to Hitler’s death. To start, they took blood samples from the sofa and wall where Hitler supposedly died. They tested the blood type and found it was a match to Hitler’s type-a blood.

They dug through the crater again and found fragments of a skull, which had damage from a bullet wound. It was pretty strong evidence that Hitler had died in the bunker - just like all the non-conspiracy theorists knew - but it wouldn’t be enough to put the issue to rest completely. Because there was one question still to be answered. Hitler hadn’t survived the end of World War II, and there was no real evidence he ever had. The conspiracy was the product of a combination of Soviet disinformation, and Nazi wish fulfilment, combined with the successful escapes of many lower-profile Nazis like Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele to South America. But while they weren’t household names, Hitler avoiding detection while the whole world was looking for him was highly unlikely. But while everyone knew he wasn’t alive, they still didn’t know exactly where he was. Because Hitler’s body was essentially disappeared by the Soviets. He died in the bunker, and then his body was exhumed and examined by the Soviets. At this point, it just disappeared. The decision to not have any sort of memorial was undoubtedly the correct one - after all, not only did he not deserve one, but a gravestone would become a rallying point for Neo-Nazis.

But many people wanted more transparency - and they were not going to get it from the people responsible for investigating Hitler’s death - because they were among the most feared spy agencies to ever grace the planet. And no, they weren’t the KGB. The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, usually referred to as the NKVD, was the internal security spy agency for the Soviets. Similar to the FBI, it handled domestic affairs while the KGB handled foreign affairs. Unlike the FBI, it had near-universal authority - and there was usually no appeals process when they got their hands on you. Not only did they take responsibility for the nation’s regular police work when they were created in 1917, but they also oversaw the prison and labour camp systems. While they were eventually disbanded, Joseph Stalin brought them back stronger than ever and made them the country’s official secret police. They were responsible for the investigation of Hitler’s death, and the disposal of his body. And if you had any questions, the NKVD would answer by sending you to a work camp. Around the same time as the Hitler investigation was ramping up, the NKVD became the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and Stalin’s brutal repression of his own country ramped up. The Hitler remains went uncatalogued and became just another artefact within the Russian State Archives. And much of the archives - which contained documents from pre-Soviet Russia and the height of the empire - were sealed up tight until the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s. In the chaos in the aftermath, people had other things on their minds beyond the remains of the Nazi dictator from the 1940s. But that would change with one big discovery.

In 1993, the bone fragments that were used to identify Hitler and Eva Braun’s remains resurfaced in the archives, and interest in the case surged once again. Suddenly, everyone was taking a look back at all the research and theories about the Nazi leader’s death for the last half-century. The most prominent work of literature about the events was “The Death of Adolf Hitler”, by Russian journalist Lev Bezymenski. He detailed a supposed Soviet investigation - top secret, of course - that shed more light on the causes of Hitler’s death. Details included Hitler’s supposed death by cyanide poisoning, which turned out to be long and painful. The book was dramatic - and also likely completely false, as no evidence of this secret investigation surfaced, and other historians criticized it as a work of fiction. But in the 1990s, things would change once again. The archives were now wide open, and as Russia opened to the world under Boris Yeltsin, the true investigations came to light. What was originally a dossier would be published in 2005 under the title “The Hitler Book”, and it revealed exactly what Stalin had wanted to know about Hitler. And it seemed the answer was - everything. Originally classified and in the archives since the time of Nikita Kruschev, the dossier was over four hundred pages long. It confirmed that Stalin originally believed that Hitler had escaped and that the Allies in the west were hiding him.

Which raises the question - how do you tell a dictator that he’s completely wrong without being shipped off to Siberia? The report was put together when the Soviets had control of Berlin and took four years before it was presented to Stalin in 1949. It started as an investigation into Hitler’s death - but there really wasn’t all that much meat there, and they couldn’t go back to Stalin with a one-page report stating that Hitler was dead as suspected. So the report turned into an elaborate look into Hitler’s reign in power from 1933 to 1945 and incorporated hundreds of secret Nazi documents and interviews with imprisoned Nazi officials in Soviet gulags. So how did Stalin’s report shape the debate? Historians believe the report is one of the most exhaustive looks into the Nazi political system, as well as into Hitler’s declining mindset as the war went on. What it is lacking, though, is a lot of political contexts. That’s because it was written for an audience of one, and Stalin was one of the harshest literary critics out there. After all, if he didn’t like what you wrote about him, you were headed to the gulag, not getting a bad review. So the report was haunted by political inaccuracies, including the deletion of the pact between Stalin and Hitler early in the war, and the Soviet Union’s antisemitism. Also, many of the interviews of Nazi officials were conducted under torture, so any information they gave has shaky reputability at best. And the one thing it didn’t provide? Any evidence that Hitler survived.

Conspiracy theories persisted even amid more evidence, and newspapers like the Weekly World News frequently published fictional stories. Was Hitler living next door to Elvis in Florida? Probably not, but that would make a good sitcom premise. It did - an ill-advised British sitcom titled “Heil Honey, I’m Home” featured an undercover Hitler living in Britain in the years after the war. To add another wacky wrinkle, his new neighbours were Jewish! Needless to say, this series did about as well as was to be expected - it became one of the very few shows to be cancelled after a single episode. But the actual truth is much less dramatic. From the start, the people who believed Hitler dead relied on some key pieces of evidence. The first was the skull fragment with a bullet hole, but the most important piece was the jawbone fragment and dental bridges. Hitler’s dentist and his associates who worked on the Nazi leader’s dentistry over the years were able to examine them and identify them, and all came to the same conclusion - Hitler and Eva Braun died in that Berlin bunker after taking poison, with Hitler speeding up the process with a single bullet. But that still left the question of the rest of the body.

While Hitler’s body was burned, it was burned in the open air and wasn’t likely to be largely destroyed in the same way cremated remains would be. It would be unrecognizable, but still identifiable as human remains. So it’s likely someone spirited the rest of the remains away - and in 2009, more details emerged. Russian General Vasily Khristoforov, then the head archivist of the Russian Federal Security Service, claimed that the body had been in Soviet custody for the entirety of Stalin’s reign and beyond - until the 1980s when Yuri Andropov took over. The KGB took the body, burned it to nothing, and dumped the ashes into a German river. This ensured that no matter what happened, Neo-Nazis would never have a gathering place for Hitler’s remains. And so closed the mystery for good…right? Wrong. Because there was one last act. Philippe Charlier was quickly gaining a reputation as one of France’s top forensic experts, gaining renown for studying the remains of European royals. He worked on the remnants of Kings including Richard Lionheart and Louis IX, as well as proved several supposed relics of Joan of Arc to be forgeries. So when the chance emerged to investigate the greatest mystery of the 20th century, he wasn’t turning it down. And so began the final chapter in the story of Hitler’s body - stretching into 2017, over seventy years after the Nazi leader died. Was there a hidden secret there that a forensic genius would discover?

Nope! Using modern forensic science, Charlier was able to do a deeper analysis of the teeth fragment, based on the documents of those who examined them previously and those who worked on Hitler. In every case, it proved a match and indicated that Hitler died in 1945 and was buried in that shallow grave outside his bunker. While no further evidence was found on Eva Braun’s remains, all the conspiracy theories surrounding her centre on her and Hitler escaping together - and so it’s likely that her final day at the bunker played out exactly as the official story claimed decades ago. So that should put all those conspiracies to rest, right? One would think, but conspiracies don’t die easily. Any resolution to the theory that Hitler survived would be out of reach now anyway, as the Nazi leader would be over 130 years old now and long dead, even if he had managed to escape. While Neo-Nazis still exist around the world, most of them have long since moved on to other leaders. And the Soviet Union’s desire to control the narrative around Hitler’s fate collapsed along with that empire in the 1990s. So who would still have an interest in spreading this conspiracy? The answer might surprise you.

Sure, some of the sources were your typical Nazis who didn’t want to admit their idol had died like a coward in a Berlin bunker or Soviet loyalists who didn’t want to admit he had died without seeing justice. But the larger, more common motivation was simply - it makes for a better story. If Hitler’s story ends in 1945, there’s nothing more to say but the post-mortem. But by creating the idea that there’s a whole other chapter to his life, you can create a new narrative - no matter how fictionalized it might be. And that’s exactly what one TV channel did. The History Channel. Sounds like a pretty credible name - except that for the TV show “Hunting Hitler”, they made most things up. Their source was some declassified FBI documents that investigated whether Hitler might have escaped Berlin - and the answer was no, but that didn’t stop the network from crafting three seasons and a two-hour special out of the idea. Most of the evidence was circumstantial, exploring possible escape routes and landing places without revealing any concrete evidence that he had used any of them. But one other factor explains the persistence of these theories. Most wars, even World Wars, are messy and a complicated mix of political factors and old grudges.

The First World War’s German leader, Kaiser Wilhelm II, was a relatively low-key figure in the public mind. But Hitler was an over-the-top evil leader, equally obsessed with racial purity and determined to conquer all of Europe. Eventually, even his military men hated him and tried to kill him.

He was one of the most dramatic villains in the history of warfare, almost like a real-life supervillain. And what do supervillains do all the time? Survive certain death and return when the heroes least expect it. 

Mystery
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About the Creator

Jayveer Vala

I write.

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