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The Death of Hitler
The Final Word
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In 2017, after two years of painstaking negotiations with the Russian authorities, award-winning investigative journalists Jean-Christophe Brisard and Lana Parshina gained access to confidential Soviet files that finally revealed the truth behind the incredible hunt for Hitler’s body.
Their investigation includes new eyewitness accounts of Hitler’s final days, exclusive photographic evidence and interrogation records, and exhaustive research into the power struggle that ensued between Soviet, British, and American intelligence services. And for the first time since the end of World War II, official, cutting-edge forensic tests have been completed on the human remains recovered from the bunker graves–a piece of skull with traces of a lethal bullet, a fragment of bone, and teeth.
In The Death of Hitler — written as thrillingly as any spy novel–Brisard and Parshina debunk all previous conspiracy theories about the death of the Fuhrer. With breathtaking precision and immediacy they penetrate one of the most powerful and controversial secret services to take readers inside Hitler’s bunker in its last hours–and solve the most notorious cold case in history.
THE INVESTIGATION (I)
MOSCOW, 6 APRIL 2016
Lana is perplexed.
Her contacts within the senior Russian administration have made no bones about how hard it is going to be for us to achieve our objective. Our meeting for 11:00 has been confirmed, but in Russia that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Our faces are stung by frost as we approach the area around the “State Archives of the Russian Federation.” In Russia they’re called GARF (Gosudartstennyy Arkhiv Rossyskov Federatsii). A national institution right in the heart of Moscow. It is based around one of the biggest archive collections in the country, with almost 7 million documents from the nineteenth century to the present day. Chiefly paper documents, but also some photographs and secret files. And it’s for one of those secret files that we are braving the harsh Muscovite climate as well as the no less rough Russian bureaucracy. Lana Parshina isn’t entirely unknown in Russia. A journalist and documentary maker, this young Russian-American woman is regularly invited onto television platforms to talk about what remains her major achievement: the last interview with Lana Peters. Lana Peters was a penniless old woman, forgotten by everyone in a hospice for the poor in the depths of the United States. She hid herself away and refused to talk to journalists. Let alone discuss the memory of her father, one Josef Vissarionovich Djugashvili, otherwise known as Stalin. Lana Peters’ name was in fact Svetlana Stalin, and she was the dictator’s favourite daughter. At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, she had fled the country and applied to the US for political asylum. From that moment she became the symbol of those Soviets who were prepared to do anything to escape a tyrannical regime. Lana Parshina had managed to persuade the dictator’s shy descendant to grant her a series of filmed interviews. That was in 2008. It was a success that attracted attention all over Russia. Stalin has in fact been coming back into fashion in Moscow for a number of years. Lana Parshina knows the complex gear-wheels of the administrative and bureaucratic Russian machine only too well. She knows how to get access to secret, sensitive, and complex files.
And yet on that morning in April 2016, I sense that she’s worried. We have a meeting with the director of GARF, Larisa Alexandrovna Rogovaya. She alone can authorise us to consult File H. “H” for Hitler.
The tone is set as soon as we enter the main hall of GARF. A soldier with a very 1970s moustache, a bit like Freddie Mercury’s, demands to see our passports. “Check!” he bellows, as if we were intruders. Lana, with her Russian ID, isn’t a problem. My French passport complicates matters. The soldier doesn’t seem at ease with the Latin alphabet, and can’t decipher my name. In Cyrillic characters, Brisard becomes . That’s how I’m listed in the file of people who have been granted access for the day. After a long check and Lana’s life-saving assistance, we are finally allowed through. The office of the director general of the archives? The lowly official was horrified by the mere question. He was already tending to his next customer with the same cordial tone. “Right at the end, after the third building on the right.” The young woman who answered our question didn’t wait for our thanks before turning her back on us and climbing the dimly lit stairs. GARF looks like a Soviet workers’ city. It spreads over several buildings with sinister façades in the most austere Soviet style, a mixture of constructivism and rationalism. We wander from one building to another, trying to avoid the big puddles of muddy snow. “General Director,” large letters announce on a plaque above a double door in the distance. A black sedan bars the entrance. We have another twenty or so metres to go when a woman with an imposing build hurries from the building to dive into the vehicle.
“That’s the director,” Lana murmurs with a note of despair as she watches the car driving away.
It’s 10:55, and our 11:00 meeting has just flown away from under our noses.
Welcome to Russia.
The two secretaries of the director of GARF have shared out the roles between them: one nice, the other frankly unpleasant.
“What’s it about?”
Even if you don’t understand a language, which is my case with Russian, it’s easy to sense when someone’s being rude to you. So the younger woman–if I wished to be rude I would say the less old of the two–is not our friend.
Lana introduces us, we are the two journalists, she is Russian and I’m French. We’re here because we had a meeting with the director, and also to view a rather special object.
“You won’t see her!” the hostile secretary cuts in. “She’s left for the day. She isn’t here.” Lana explains that we know that already–the dark car outside, the director forgetting that we’re there and evaporating right in front of us. She says all that without shedding an ounce of her enthusiasm. Might waiting be an option? “If it amuses you,” the secretary says at last, leaving the room with a stack of files under her arm, to suggest the importance of the time of which we have dared to deprive her. A Swiss cuckoo clock hangs on the wall above her desk. It says 11:10. The other assistant has been listening to her colleague without a word. Her contrite expression hasn’t escaped us. Lana walks over to her.
A meeting at the Kremlin, in the president’s office. It wasn’t in the director’s diary. Clearly, when Putin or, more probably, his cabinet rings, you run, the secretary explains, lowering her voice, in short phrases. She seems so sweet and her voice is comforting, in spite of the rather negative nature of the information that she’s giving us. And who knows when the director will be back? She doesn’t, at any rate. Has she been summoned away at the last minute because of us? “No. Why would it be because of you?”
It’s just after 5:00 pm. Our patience has paid off at last. Right in front of our eyes a stiff cardboard box has just been opened. Inside, there it is, very small, delicately preserved in a casket.
“So is that him? Is it really him?”
“Yes, she’s saying yes.”
“Thank you, Lana. And that’s all that’s left?”
“You don’t need to translate, Lana.”
Looking more closely, the casket is very like a box for computer disks. In fact that’s exactly what it is. Hitler’s skull is preserved in a disk box! To be precise, it’s a piece of skull presented by the Russian authorities as being Hitler’s. Stalin’s trophy! One of the best-guarded secrets in the Soviet Union and then in post-Communist Russia. And for us, the end of a year of waiting and investigation.
You need to imagine the scene to understand the strange feeling that comes over us. A rectangular room big enough to hold about ten people. A table, rectangular too, in dark lacquered wood. On the wall, a series of drawings under glass, with red frames. “Original posters,” we are told. They date from the Revolutionary era. The Revolution, the big one, the Russian one, the one organised by Lenin in October or November 1917, depending on whether you follow the Julian or the Gregorian calendar. They show proud workers with concave stomachs. Their powerful arms hold a scarlet banner up to the world. A capitalist, an oppressor of the people, crosses their path. How can you tell he is a capitalist? He is wearing a very smart suit and a top hat and has a big fat paunch. He exudes smugness, the smugness of the powerful in the face of the weak. In the last poster, the man with the hat has lost his pride. He is lying on the ground on his back, his head crushed by the worker’s huge hammer.
That perennial symbol. However powerful you might be, you will end up crushed, your head smashed in by the resistance of the Russian people. Had Hitler seen these drawings?
Too bad if he had, because the Russians got him in the end. Or at least they got his skull.
But let us return to the description of the scene.
This little room, this conference room with its hints of revolution, is on the ground floor of GARF, just beside the secretaries’ office where we waited patiently for the return of the director, Larisa Alexandrovna Rogovaya. That opulent woman in her fifties doesn’t just impress her interlocutors with her imposing physical presence. Her sense of calm and her natural charisma distinguish her from the run of Moscow functionaries. Back from the Kremlin, she had passed through the secretaries’ office. Without seeing us. Lana and I had taken our seats in the only two armchairs in the room. An enormous potted plant stood between them, and generously invaded the little space remaining to us. Even if you concentrated very hard, even if you were in a terrible hurry, it was impossible not to notice the presence of two human beings around the giant ficus. It was 4:00 pm at that point. We had leapt to our feet; hope was returning. The telephone had just rung. “In the next room? The conference room? In thirty minutes…” The nice secretary repeated the orders given to her into the receiver. Lana leaned towards me with a smile. It was for us.
In silence, the director had sat down at the end of the big rectangular table. On either side of her, standing to attention, stood two clerks. On her right, a woman old enough to have laid claim to a well-deserved pension. On her left, a man with a sepulchral appearance straight out of a Bram Stoker novel. The woman’s name was Dina Nikolaevna Nokhotovich, and she was in charge of the special collections. The man’s name was Nikolai Igorevich Vladimirsev (he prefers Nikolai); he is head of the department of document preservation at GARF.
Nikolai had set a large cardboard box gently in front of the director. Dina helped him lift the lid. Then they stepped back, hands behind their backs, and focused their eyes on us. An attitude intended as a warning by these two sentries, who were ready to intervene if necessary. Larisa, still seated, put her hands on either side of the box as if to protect it, and invited us to look inside.
It was a moment we had stopped hoping would happen. That bit of skull had seemed inaccessible only that morning. After months and months of interminable negotiations, repeated demands formulated by email, by regular mail, by telephone, by fax (well yes, still often used in Russia), in person with stubborn officials, here we were at last looking at this human fragment. The remains of a cranial box, a good quarter of one, to the naked eye, from the back left part (two parietals and a bit of occipital, to be precise). The object of so much greed on the part of historians and journalists from across the world. Is it Hitler’s, as the Russian authorities claim? Or does it belong to a woman in her forties, as an American scientist recently asserted? To ask that question within the GARF fortress is to talk politics, to cast doubts on the official word of the Kremlin. An option unimaginable to the director of the archives. Absolutely unimaginable.
Larisa Rogovaya has only been the director of GARF for a few days. She has replaced the former director, Sergei Mironenko. An oh-so political and sensitive position in this Putin-era Russia. In our presence, Larisa Rogovaya weighs each word. She is the only one who answers our questions, the two clerks don’t get to say a word. Always concise, two or maybe three words, and that face, in a permanent state of tension. The senior official already seems to regret granting our request. To be precise, she hasn’t granted anything at all. The order to let us study this bit of skull comes from someone higher up than her. How high exactly? Hard to guess. From the Kremlin? Most definitely. But who at the Kremlin? Lana is convinced that it all comes straight from the President’s office. As in the days of the Soviet Union, the State Archives have once again become an effectively secret place. On 4 April 2016 Vladimir Putin signed a decree stipulating that the management, publication, and declassification of the archives, and access to them, fell directly within the remit of the President of the Russian Federation, meaning Putin himself.
The end of the period of open access to historical documents that began under Boris Yeltsin. Exit the charismatic director of GARF, Sergei Mironenko, a friend to many foreign historians and advocate of almost free access to hundreds of thousands of historical pieces in his institution. “Fewer commentaries, more documents. The documents must speak for themselves,” was the refrain he liked to give by way of reply to his colleagues, surprised by this open-door policy. It’s over! Mironenko has gone. His twenty-four years of good and true service as director of GARF changed nothing. With a stroke of the pen, the Kremlin demoted him. He wasn’t fired, he wasn’t retired (at sixty-five he would have been due to retire anyway), he wasn’t moved to a different service–he was demoted. Humiliation was added to disgrace because, of course, the new director is none other than his former subordinate, our dear Larisa Rogovaya. Stalin couldn’t have done better.
Putin’s decree dates from 4 April 2016. And we are standing in front of the box with that piece of skull on 6 April 2016. The thought that Larisa Rogovaya would give a lot to get rid of us doesn’t take away the feeling of paranoia. Her whole body cries out her aversion towards us, her fear of ending up like Mironenko. Then, when we ask if we can take the diskette case from the cardboard box, the tension in the little room immediately goes up a notch. Larisa turns towards her two sentries. A brief confabulation ensues. Nikolai shakes his head disapprovingly. Dina picks up a piece of paper at the bottom of the cardboard box, adjusts her little glasses, which give her a sly look, and walks over to Lana.
At that very moment, the director waves to Nikolai to indicate that she hasn’t changed her mind. He is still dubious, and hesitates for a moment. Then, reluctantly, he plunges his thin arms into the box and delicately takes out the diskette case. “You need to sign the visitor log. Put the date, the time and your names.” Dina shows us where to fill in the form. Lana carefully does so. I let her get on with it and start inspecting the skull. Nikolai interposes himself. He places himself in front of me and, with an appalled “tsutsut” points out my mistake. “First fill in the visitor log,” the director insists. Lana excuses my blunder. The blunder of a Frenchman, a foreigner. He doesn’t understand, she tries to explain to them with a smile, embarrassed as if by a fractious child. Why so many precautions, why this tension? Mironenko passes in front of the open door of the little room. I recognise him from having seen him several times in reports when researching the Hitler file.
He’s alone in the corridor. With a heavy, bowed body, he drags his carcass around without even so much as glancing at us. He clearly knows what we’re doing. Before, he was the one who used to meet journalists. He knows the skull extremely well. It is 5:30 pm, he’s already picked up his thick coat, his cap hides his grey hair, his day is over. Larisa’s isn’t. “Everything has to be done according to the rules. Times change. We must be careful,” the director says as Mironenko leaves the building. “The central administration have given us the green light to show you the skull, but we need to give an account of what happened.” We say we understand, that’s quite normal, obviously, not a problem. Larisa wouldn’t hear a word of complaint from us. This skull, or what is left of it, is becoming a source of discord, of controversy between Russia and… a large part of the rest of the world. Is it Hitler’s? Is Russia lying? Larisa is waiting for us to ask the essential question, the one about the authenticity of the bones. She gives a two-word answer: “I know!” Dina and Nikolai, her deputies, know too. We don’t know. “How can you be so sure?” The precise phrases, prepared in advance, mechanically repeated–Larisa recites them to us perfectly. The years of investigation, of analysis, of cross-checking carried out by the KGB and the Soviet scientists, the best there are.… This skull is him, it’s Hitler. “At any rate, officially, it’s him.” For the first time, the director of GARF modulates her discourse. Her confidence cracks slightly. “Officially.” It’s not an anodyne term. It isn’t scientifically, but “officially” Hitler’s skull.
Nikolai melts away as if by magic. The diskette case and the skull are all ours. Our faces approach the plastic lid. A big label, the brand of computer disk, obstructs our vision. Our contortions as we try to see it from the side change nothing. With a gesture of my hand I ask if we might lift the lid. The key, turn the key? My pantomime works. Nikolai returns, takes a small key from his pocket and frees the bolt. Then he returns to his place just behind us. But he hasn’t lifted the lid. So I repeat my gesture. This time I perform the motion of opening, of lifting. I do it twice, slowly. Larisa blinks, Nikolai has understood and, grumbling, opens the box. The skull is really in front of us at last.
So, this is Hitler. The fragment of bone stored in an ordinary diskette case from the 1990s. What irony for someone who wanted to crush part of Europe and enslave millions of human beings! Hitler, who dreaded ending up in a glass case in Moscow, exhibited by his Russian enemy as a vulgar trophy. He doesn’t have the right to a display worthy of the importance that he has assumed in contemporary history: that of the absolute incarnation of Evil. The Russians put him away in a forgotten corner of their archives and, deliberately or not, they are treating him with as much respect as the remains of a dog. And if it’s so hard to obtain the right to look at it, it isn’t because the Russians fear that it might be damaged, or its preservation compromised, but for political reasons. No one must examine it any more and call into question its authenticity. The skull is Hitler’s. No conditional tense. At least for the Russians.
To be frank, I feel a certain disappointment. Is this really the most secret item in the Russian archives: a sad little bit of bone stored in a diskette case? Remembering that this may be the last human remains of one of the biggest monsters the planet has ever known adds a feeling of disgust to the disappointment. But we must rally. Return to the investigation and remember why we are here: to lift the veil on Hitler’s last hours. To do that, we have to ask the right questions. Where was this skull found? By whom? When? And most of all, how to prove that it really is Hitler’s. We want all that. And to start, we have to analyse this skull. “Analyse?” Larisa says in astonishment as she catches the conversation in English between me and Lana. “Yes, tests… DNA, for example. Bring in a specialist, a medical examiner…” Lana translates our request in detail into Russian. Politely, the director listens to her without interrupting. “That way there would be no more doubt. None. No more questions about the identity of the skull. Hitler or not. Isn’t that important?” And it would put an end to the crazy rumours about the last days of the Nazi tyrant. Hitler in Brazil, Hitler in Japan, at the South Pole…
BERLIN, MAY 1945
A legendary monster or terrifying ghost, Hitler continues to haunt the imagination. After the fall of Berlin on 2 May 1945 two questions remained: Is he dead? Or has he escaped? According to the survivors of his bunker, he took his own life on 30 April 1945. Then he was burnt so that his corpse would not be found. It is precisely this absence of a body that would inevitably prompt a series of rumours to the effect that he might in fact have survived. On 8 May 1945 Leonid Leonov, an author hailed by the Soviet regime, published a passionate text in Pravda: “We demand material proof that this wily corporal has not turned into a werewolf. The little children of the world can sleep peacefully in their cradles. The Soviet armies, like their Western allies, want to see the Führer’s corpse ‘as large as life.’” The tone was set. While that ultimate “large as life” proof was still missing, Hitler’s ghost would linger in people’s minds. And an increasing number of people claimed to have seen him. Among the stories, some were based on tangible facts. One of them is like a spy film. It concerns the journey of the U-530–U for Unterseeboot, the German for submarine. In spite of the fall of the Third Reich, this vessel refused to surrender to the Allies and reached the coast of Argentina on 10 July 1945. Perhaps with secret passengers on board.
At the command post of the U-530 was a very young officer, perhaps too young. His name was Otto Wermuth, and he was only twenty-four. This undistinguished Oberleutnant zur See (the equivalent of a British Sub-Lieutenant or an American Lieutenant Junior Grade) was swiftly promoted on 10 January 1945 to commander of this fighting submarine. In this last year of the war, the Kriegsmarine (the German navy) was suffering, like the rest of the armies of the Reich, from an all-too-obvious shortage of battle-hardened officers. Of course, Otto Wermuth wasn’t a complete beginner, but he hadn’t had time to put himself to the test. He was recruited to the Kriegsmarine with the outbreak of the war against Poland, France, and the United Kingdom, in September 1939. He was nineteen years old at the time, and a long way from the battling figure of the Aryan warrior celebrated by the German regime. Otto Wermuth looked more like an elegant student, with his long face and equally slender, almost skinny, physique. He was quickly appointed to the “U-Boot” division of the Nazi army. Once he had completed his training, he was sent on a mission, in September 1941, as a watch officer.
By the time he found himself in charge of the U-530, an up-to-date submarine with a very long range, in January 1945, Wermuth had never been a commander. The vessel under his command was quite daunting. It was over seventy-six metres long, and could hold a crew of up to fifty-six. With its torpedo and mine launchers, as well as its deck gun, it was a formidable weapon. But the young commander would not really have time to put it to the test.
Sent on a mission off the American coast in April 1945, the U-530 fired nine torpedoes on Allied ships just south of Long Island, near Hudson Bay. These attacks were a complete failure. None of the bombs hit their targets. Wermuth learned of the German capitulation and received the order from his staff to surrender. He refused and decided to flee to Argentina. At the time, that country was a military dictatorship. Even though, under pressure from the United States, the Argentinian rulers had declared war on Germany on 27 March 1945, they continued to feel a certain admiration for the Nazi model. On 10 July 1945, after a two-month voyage, the U-530 arrived 400 kilometres south of Buenos Aires, at the city of Mar del Plata. Wermuth was taken prisoner along with his vessel and its crew. The news spread very quickly. And with it, the suspicion of the presence of Adolf Hitler and his wife Eva Braun on board the submarine. As well as being drawn towards fascism, Argentina had a German community clustered together in Bavarian-style villages in Patagonia. Perfect ingredients for the scenario of Hitler taking refuge in South America.
As soon as he had disembarked, Wermuth was interrogated by both the Argentinian and US navies. The German officer was suspected of berthing in other small towns a few hours before his surrender on 10 July. Had he taken advantage of those stops to unload passengers or documents? On 14 July 1945, a memo was sent to Washington by the American naval attaché based in Buenos Aires. He reported the arrival of a submarine that had unloaded two unidentified passengers.
The Argentinian press also picked up the adventure of the U-530 and published article after article about Hitler still being alive. One of those reports, published in the magazine Critica on 18 July, claimed that the German dictator had found refuge at the South Pole, in an area where the temperature was bearable. The Argentinian Foreign Minister, César Ameghino, was obliged to intervene officially, to put a stop to these rumours. On the day of the publication of the article, he issued a formal denial. Hitler had not been set down on the Argentinian coast by a German submarine.
Still, the FBI investigated the South American trail. Not least because the American secret service had also received some surprising reports. In particular, one about Robert Dillon, a mediocre Hollywood actor. On 14 August 1945, he contacted the FBI to tell them he had met an Argentinian who had been involved in taking Hitler into his country. The story of the submarine again! Dillon went further in his details. The Führer had disembarked with two women, a doctor, and about fifty men. They had hidden in the hills of the Southern Andes. Hitler was suffering from asthma and ulcers. He had also shaved off his moustache. After being checked by the American special services, Dillon’s “scoop” melted away.
Over the years, reports of this kind piled up on the desks of the FBI. They concern Hitler, but also the presence of other Nazis in Brazil, Chile, Bolivia and, of course, Argentina. Not all of these rumours were wildly far-fetched. There really were systems of escape routes for Nazi criminals. One of the best-known of these was the Odessa network. Over the years, it would allow officials from the Third Reich to escape from Europe. It is also true that Argentina offered asylum to numerous Nazi torturers. Among the most notorious of these, Josef Mengele (a doctor in the Auschwitz concentration camp, guilty of barbarous medical experiments on the inmates there), Adolf Eichmann (an active organiser of the “Final Solution’), and Klaus Barbie (head of the Gestapo in the French city of Lyon). But not a trace of Adolf Hitler.
- "The story of how Brisard and Parshina were allowed into Russian archives is as compelling as the evidence of Hitler's death they were shown...a must-read."—Kirkus
- On Sale
- Sep 4, 2018
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Da Capo Press