Book Review: Hitler’s Death

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A dry subject perhaps, but Hitler’s Death was spellbinding at least to this reviewer. Compiled by three Russian authors under the supervision of an editorial board this book is subtitled “Russia‘s last great secret from the files of the KGB”. This is an apt subtitle. Stalin knew of the death within hours of Hitler’s suicide at 3pm on April 30, 1945 and was given the whereabouts of his remains within days, yet he chose to keep this a secret and cast doubt on the Führer’s death for the sake of one-upmanship.

Stalin was never the type to trust his allies and foresaw the Cold War as an inevitable consequence of the demise of Hitler. Say the authors: “Clearly, Hitler`s death and the circumstances surrounding the event immediately became an important factor in political intrigue between the anti-Hitler coalition allies.

It seems Stalin quite clearly understood this and skilfully used it in his relations with the West. Numerous witness statements and the results of identification and medical examinations had proved the fact of Hitler`s death, but Stalin was in no hurry to publish these conclusions.” Instead he chose to cast doubt on Hitler`s fate and allude that the West had helped him escape. “He planned his moves for many years ahead…,” the authors add.

So what are the facts of Hitler`s demise? According to the authors Stalin learned of Hitler`s death at 4am on the morning of May 1, minutes after General Hans Krebs, the German Army`s last Chief of Staff had informed General VI Chuikov, commander of the 8th Guards Army of the fact. Chuikov then informed his superior, Marshal GK Zhukov, who phoned Stalin.

The Smersh (Smiert Spionam, Death to Spies, the Soviet Army`s counterintelligence corps) detachment of the 79th Infantry Corps found and recovered the remains of Adolf and Eva Hitler on May 5. The bodies were buried a month later, on June 3, in wooden coffins near Rathenau in Brandenburg, together with the remains of Krebs (who had also committed suicide) and that of Joseph and Magda Goebbels and their six children. (The Goebbels` had committed suicide after Magda had murdered the children.) In February 1946 they were exhumed and reburied in the yard of 36 Westendstrasse, Magdeburg, then part of Smersh`s German headquarters. There the corpses remained until 1970.

In March of that year Chairman of State Security Yuri Andropov ordered the execution of “Operation Archive”. Under his orders, KGB agents exhumed the bodies on April 4 and on April 5, 1970 performed a “physical annihilation” consisting firstly of burning the bones on charcoal and then pounding the remains to dust at a military training area at Faulsee (near Magdeburg) and lastly dumping the fragments into a nearby lake.                   

The book is less a chronology of events than a collection of witness interrogations and Smersh investigative reports on the discovery and identification of the remains of the Goebbels family and the Hitlers.

The reports are now contained in the archives of the Russian Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB, into which Smersh had been re-absorbed. The book is divided into three parts, the first titled “establishing the truth” and bringing together reports on the finding of the Hitler and Goebbels remains, dental records and statements by witnesses to their suicide as well as the disposal of their remains.

Also included is a site survey and photographs of the courtyard of the Führerbunker indicating where Adolf and Eva were found buried in a bomb crater and the spot nearby where they had been partially cremated. Part II describes the “last days of the doomed” in which various witnesses described the Führer`s last hours, including naval liaison officer Vice Admiral Hans-Erich Voss, Hitler`s head bodyguard Hans Rattenhuber, Berlin garrison commander General Helmuth Weidling and others.

Part III addresses conjecture (mostly in the West) surrounding Hitler`s death and/or possible escape from Berlin. The afterword describes Operation Archive and a set of appendixes contain texts rarely seen there days, including Nazi Germany`s unconditional surrender, the verdict of the Nurnberg International War Crimes Tribunal and the Allied Control Council for Germany`s October 1946 proclamation criminalising Nazism and membership of a slew of Nazi organisations.

Even more intriguing – and valuable – are the photographs that dot Hitler`s Death, most of which had never been published before. Interrogation reports are accompanied by Smersh mug shots (front and side) of the witnesses – most staring forlornly into the camera. Also reproduced are photographs of their pay books and in the case of Goebbels his transport pass. Of particular interest is a photograph of Goebbels` remains and one of Hitler in a wooden crate: a morbid but curiously satisfying sight.          

Hitler`s Death – Russia`s last great secret from the files of the KGB

VK Vinogradov, JF Pogonyi & NV Teptzov

Chaucer Press

London

2005