The Hunt for Hitler
Another outing for one of the 20th century's most pernicious myths.
This piece has been edited since it was first published to reflect a more critical view of the programme.
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the myth of Hitler's surival beyond the end of the Second World War still attracts supporters and conspiracy theorists. The latest comes via a new eight-part documentary series on the television channel HISTORY whcih repeats the theory that Adolf Hitler may not have committed suicide in his Berlin Führerbunker as the Third Reich imploded all around him on April 30th, 1945.
Rather, the series ventures, the Nazi leader may have escaped from the burning embers of the city via a newly discovered secret tunnel and been transported to a clandestine compound deep in the Argentine jungle to plan the ascent of the Fourth Reich.
The programme's makers have claimed that it may force the reassessment of one of the most pivotal chapters in the story of the 20th century. Undertaking a tour recently of the massive secret underground network that Hitler constructed underneath Berlin, I learnt more about these unlikely new claims.
The probe into whether Hitler may have in fact evaded capture in Berlin and been spirited away to South America was prompted by the declassification last year of more than 700 explosive FBI documents dating back to the end of the Second World War. These files, which feature numerous ‘sightings’ of the Nazi leader, reveal that the US authorities were sceptical about the official version of Hitler’s death. They call into question the received history, that as the Red Army marauded through the streets of the German capital in late April 1945, he shot himself in the Führerbunker and that his corpse was then burnt in the Reich Chancellery garden by his close followers. A secret memo from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself stated that, ‘American Army officials in Germany have not located Hitler's body nor is there any reliable source that will say definitely that Hitler is dead.’
Rumours circulated immediately after the war that the Führer had managed to fake his death – to such an extent that the US Army launched a covert ‘search and destroy’ mission to track him down in Spain. Meanwhile in 2009, when the Russian authorities finally handed over the skull they said was the Führer’s, American DNA tests showed that the body part in fact belonged to a woman under the age of 40.
In Berlin, we are introduced to the key members of the investigation team: Bob Baer, a 21-year CIA veteran, the basis for George Clooney's character in the 2005 film, Syriana, and one of America’s most high-ranking intelligence officers; Tim Kennedy, a US special forces operative who took part in the hunt for Osama Bin Laden after 9/11; and Sascha Keil, a German historian who is a leading member of the Berlin Underworlds Association. The team have unearthed rumours of leading Nazis departing from Tempelhof on April 21st, 1945, the day after the last known public sighting of Hitler. On that date, the Führer’s personal belongings were also spotted being put onto eight clandestine aeroplanes.
But if Hitler did follow his personal effects out of Tempelhof, how did he get there? If he had shown his face above ground for even a second he would have been shot on the spot by the legions of Soviet soldiers flooding into Berlin as the Nazi regime fell apart. The investigators calculated that the Führer could have made his way through the network of tunnels, as far as the subway station known then as U6 (and now named Luftbruecke), which lies some 200 metres from the airport.
So how could the Nazi leader have covered that vital final fifth of a kilometre without being apprehended? Ever since the end of the war there have been stories doing the rounds of a secret tunnel linking the subway to the airport. Utilising a ground-penetrating sonar device normally deployed by the US military, the team discovered a false wall concealing a tunnel running from the subway station all the way to Tempelhof, which they claim is the crucial ‘missing link’.
Keil said, ‘What was my feeling when we discovered the false wall? I thought, “This is the missing link!” I’m not new to this business. Over the last 20 years, I’ve had a few of what I call personal moon landings. But discovering the false wall was definitely one of my favourite personal moon landings!’
Jason Wolf, the executive producer on Hunting Hitler, raps on the hollow tiles which hide the false wall in Luftbruecke station. ‘It was a Eureka moment’, the executive producer recalls. ‘We were looking for the tunnel when Sascha suddenly went rogue down the subway. He knocked on the wall, and it sounded hollow. We brought out the sonar and that confirmed it was a false wall.’
The second strand of their theory that Hitler might have fled at the end of the war is the discovery of a clandestine compound at Misiones, deep in the Argentine jungle. Led to the site by the FBI documents, the team found a trove of Nazi memorabilia stashed away there.
Kennedy, who hacked his way through the dense jungle for five days to reach the hideaway, was persuaded by his discoveries there that the team might not have embarked on a complete wild goose chase. ‘If I was looking for a way to escape, that compound in the jungle in Misiones would be perfect.’ Baer agrees that Misiones furnished him with the most compelling evidence that this story might not exist merely in the realm of a conspiracy theorist’s fantasy. ‘I used to track people in that region, and it’s an area of great mystery. There’s something terribly wrong about it. If I were an SS officer assigned to get Hitler out of Berlin, I’d take him to Misiones. It fits.’
For all that, Baer confesses that when he was first approached about this project, he was not in the least convinced by it.
‘When I started this, I was completely sceptical’, admits Baer, who during more than two decades working for the CIA was involved in numerous manhunts for high-value targets, including Saddam Hussein. ‘I held onto the narrative that there was evidence that Hitler died in the bunker. ‘But once I realised that the Soviets were completely unreliable about this and had botched the investigation and that there were no eye witnesses and no corpus delicti, I became curious: was it possible that Hitler actually escaped?’
‘What are the chances of people in the bunker not pulling back the blanket over his corpse out of sheer curiosity? I have never known the death of someone of this historical stature where someone doesn’t say, “I saw him dead”. Also, why were Hitler’s personal effects flown out of Berlin?’
He continues, ‘Hitler was responsible for one of the greatest war crimes in history, and yet there was no DNA evidence of his death. I chased people for 21 years with the CIA and know that you have to have solid evidence that someone has died.’
Baer adds that, ‘After spending all those years working for the government, I know that there were too many documents about this for it to be merely an anomaly. After the War, the entire US military, the FBI and the CIA were all still looking for Hitler. ‘Everyone said, “Let it go.” But I don’t like to let history go without first seeing the evidence. It’s a fantastic story and a matter of great fascination to me.’
It all sounds implausible. But Hunting Hitler persists in its claim that the Führer might have managed to make good his escape at the end of the war.
The first episode of Hunting Hitler is broadcast in the UK on HISTORY at 10pm on Monday 2 November.
James Rampton is a feature writer and regularly contributes to the Independent, the Daily Telegraph, The Times and the Independent on Sunday.