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Hitler’s Last Minute

The Death of Adolf Hitler, Unknown Documents from Soviet Archives

by Lev Bezymenskl
Harcourt, Brace & World, 114 pp., $3.95

A few months ago, the German publisher Christian Wegner offered to his Western colleagues a share in a great scoop. From Russia he had obtained a book which, he said, would be “a sensation to all, not only the historians”; for it would, “for the very first time,” show to the world the true story of Hitler’s death, as documented from Soviet archives. This new story, he said, would “considerably alter the picture which the world has had of Hitler’s death.”

In making his offer, Dr. Wegner gave nothing away. The author of the new book was not named. The text was not to be divulged till it had been paid for. A similar technique, it may be recalled, was adopted in respect of Svetlana Stalin’s memoirs, which might or might not encourage the purchaser. Finally, after sale, no advance review copies were sent out: the bomb was to explode all at once.

Now it has exploded. The author is revealed as Mr. Lev Bezymenski, co-editor of the Soviet journal Novoe Vremia. Mr. Bezymenski was evidently an interpreter during the war and was present at the battle for Berlin. He has since written, we are told, “numerous articles on current events which were published throughout the Eastern countries.” This makes it all the more remarkable that his present book is apparently for Western consumption only. No publication in communist countries (I am told) is envisaged. No Russian text has been seen. The newly published Russian documents will not be available in the original tongue. The English translation has been made from the German, in which Bezymenski appears to have written it. No explanation is offered of these interesting facts, which suggest a propagandist rather than an historical purpose.

But let us examine the book objectively, on its merits and its claims. How new, how explosive is it? We can best approach this question by summarizing the evidence concerning Hitler’s death which was available before Bezymenski’s book appeared.

The fact of Hitler’s death was first announced privately to the Russian commander in Berlin, General Zhukov, by the German Chief of Staff, General Hans Krebs, on the morning of May 1, 1945. Later in the same day it was published by the German radio, on the orders of Admiral Doenitz, at Flensburg. Next day the Russians took Berlin and the world waited for confirmation and details. None came. Admittedly, by the beginning of June, the Russians in Berlin stated unofficially that they had discovered Hitler’s body and identified it “with fair certainty.” They also revealed that, before his death, he had married the hitherto unknown Eva Braun. But this brief flicker of unofficial light was soon officially extinguished, and darkness was restored, thicker than ever. Stalin in Moscow, Zhukov in Berlin, pronounced firmly that there was no evidence of Hitler’s death. On the contrary, they said, he was most probably still alive, in Spain or South America. Three months later the Russians became more precise. They accused the British of harboring Hitler in their zone of Germany, with malevolent intent. It was at this point, and as a direct consequence of this accusation, that I was appointed by the British authorities to establish, as far as possible, the truth.

Naturally I realized from the beginning that the Russians possessed vital evidence. It was they who had captured Berlin. It was they who controlled the Chancellery area. They probably had some documents (though they had surprisingly overlooked some). They certainly had important witnesses. I therefore asked for their cooperation; and in order to make that cooperation easier, I named four witnesses whom I knew to be in their hands: Otto Günsche, Hitler’s S.S. adjutant; Heinz Linge, his personal servant; Hans Baur, his pilot; and Johann Rattenhuber, the commander of his bodyguard. However, all my requests for Russian cooperation were totally ignored, and I was obliged to carry out my inquiry on the basis of Western evidence only.

Fortunately, there was enough of this, I was able to locate and interrogate several witnesses living, captive or free, in the Western zones. I had the documents seized by the British at Flensburg, including the last telegrams from Hitler’s bunker. Afterwards I was able to add to these Hitler’s two testaments and their companion texts, which were discovered in Western Germany. On this and other evidence I based my conclusions, which were first submitted to the Four Powers and afterwards published in my book, The Last Days of Hitler.

The Russians showed no interest in my inquiry or my conclusions, and did not welcome my book. Wherever their writ ran, the book was silently banned. A Polish edition was stifled in the press. An edition which was actually printed in Bulgaria was immediately seized and destroyed. As late as 1960, when the British Council organized an exhibition of British books in Moscow, the Russian authorities forbade its opening unless certain books, including The Last Days of Hitler, were first withdrawn. In all these years the Russians only once, as far as I know, publicly referred to Hitler’s fate. That was in their propaganda-film The Fall of Berlin, which was first exhibited in 1949. In this film Hitler was incidentally shown taking poison. But even that admission did not last long. After the death of Stalin the film was explicitly condemned by Khrushchev. Its vulgar worship of Stalin, he said, “made one sick”; and it was pulped.

It is a common mistake of totalitarian regimes to suppose that by slamming the front door they can stop anyone from entering the house. They forget the back door and the windows. In fact, long before the Russians broke their own silence, their secrets were out. For in 1955-56 the Russian government at last released its German prisoners, whom it had held since 1945, and these prisoners included those four witnesses of Hitler’s last days whom I had identified but had been unable to interrogate in 1945. I therefore went to Germany and obtained all the evidence that I could, both from them and from certain other newly released prisoners. I found that their evidence did not alter my story, though it might add detail here and there. However, it did enable me to solve one mystery: a mystery not of substance but of method. By interrogating the returned German witnesses, I learned of their experiences in Russian hands, and I was thus able to reconstruct the hitherto secret history of the Russian inquiry into the death of Hitler. I thereupon wrote a full account of this inquiry, which I published as a new introductory chapter to the third British edition of my book (1956). It has been published in all subsequent impressions and translations.

Briefly, I showed that, immediately after capturing Berlin, the Russians carried out a search of Hitler’s bunker; that they soon dug up the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun which, as I had surmised, had been buried in a bomb-crater in the Chancellery garden; that they took steps to identify them, and in the end did identify them, by the teeth; and that by the end of May, 1945, they were in possession of all the essential facts. But I also showed that, on June 9, 1945, Stalin intervened. Zhukov in Berlin was then ordered to suppress the facts which he had discovered—and indeed partly revealed. Although he knew that Hitler was dead, he was ordered to maintain in public that he was still alive. This was the background to my inquiry in September, 1945. Then I showed how the inquiry, though stifled in Berlin, had been continued in Moscow, until the Russian government finally yielded to the evidence and, by 1948, had accepted the verdict of their own inquiry of 1945. Between their account and my account there was only one significant difference. Whereas I had accepted the statements of all personal witnesses—both those whom I had interrogated in 1945 and those who had returned from Russian captivity in 1956—that Hitler had shot himself through the head, the Russians maintained that he had poisoned himself with cyanide. I therefore examined this outstanding question and concluded that, on the balance of evidence, “although Hitler may conceivably have taken poison as well, he certainly killed himself with a revolver-shot.”

Thus already by 1956 it was established that the Russians had conducted an inquiry and come to certain conclusions. But still they did not admit the inquiry or publish the conclusions. It was not till 1965 that any Russian writer was permitted to break this silence. The first to do so was Yelena Rzhevskaya, who published a somewhat fragmentary and rhetorical article, entitled “Berlin Notes,” in a special commemorative number of the Russian periodical Znamya: an article which she has since extended into a book. Mme. Rzhevskaya wrote with some authority because she had been attached as an interpreter to the Russian unit charged to discover Hitler, alive or dead, in 1945.

In her article, Rzhevskaya described how the Russians had discovered the bodies of Hitler, Eva Braun, Krebs, and the Goebbels family, and also certain important documents, including part of the text of Goebbels’s diaries, a telegram from Bormann to his representative at Obersalzberg, Helmut von Hummel, and a presumed diary of Bormann. She also described the examination of the bodies and the autopsy on them conducted by a Russian army doctor, F. I. Shkarovsky. By this autopsy, she said, it was determined that all had died by cyanide poisoning. She then described the methods used to identify the bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun; exactly as I had described them in 1956. But, she added, “by then some of our chiefs, aware of the way the wind was blowing at the top, had lost interest in our investigation.” It was not till 1965 that Rzhevskaya was allowed to see the documents in the case and so enabled to write up her “Berlin Notes.”

Even then, it seems, she did not see them all. For instance, she seems not to have realized that German witnesses were available. She evidently knew nothing of the later investigation in Moscow, or of the Western evidence. She afterward admitted that she had never read the public statements—far less the secret interrogations—of Heinz Linge, Hitler’s servant, who had been a Russian prisoner for eleven years. On the other hand she did quote an alleged speculation by Johann Rattenhuber, based on an alleged cryptic remark by Linge, that Linge might have given Hitler the coup de grace with a revolver, after Hitler had taken poison. However, Rzhevskaya only mentions this hypothesis in order to dismiss it. According to the autopsy report, she says, Hitler died of poison, “and the doctors added that they could find no other possible cause of death.”

Thus by 1965 my conclusions about the early stages of the Russian inquiry had been confirmed and amplified. The fact of the inquiry in Berlin, and of its suppression by Stalin, had been confirmed. So had my account of the method of identification (by the teeth) and of the conclusion of the inquiry (the death by poison). The only discrepancy lay still in the difference between that conclusion and my own. I had concluded that Hitler had shot himself, though he might conceivably have taken poison too; the Russians had concluded that he had poisoned himself, though he might conceivably have been shot as well. This difference is not very great or important, and even if it were to be resolved one way or another, such resolution (we may think) would hardly constitute a “sensation,” radically altering the received version of events.

Now we can come to Bezymenski. In 1965, it seems, Bezymenski saw that something could be made of Rzhevskaya’s revelations. He therefore wrote a book, On the Trail of Martin Bormann: a work of crude anti-Western propaganda in which great (and indeed insupportable) weight is given to the Bormann-Hummel telegram and the Bormann diary, first mentioned by Rzhevskaya. He then moved on to Hitler and wrote his present book, which also contains its quota of anti-Western propaganda and also rests heavily (though with the minimum of acknowledgment) on the work of Rzhevskaya. Indeed the bulk of this short book is simply a more prejudiced re-hash of Rzhevskaya’s article. Although Bezymenski adds some decorative detail, his range of evidence is no wider than hers. He too says nothing of the later stages of the inquiry. He too has not questioned witnesses. He too has made no use of Western evidence. If he had, he could have avoided some errors. His independence of mind—as shown by his absurd “explanation” of Stalin’s suppression of the evidence—is no more than we would expect from a Soviet editor. The sole new contribution which he has made is the text of the autopsy reports, which Rzhevskaya claimed to have had in front of her when she wrote, but which Bezymenski now prints “in full,” and the sole question which these reports may enable us to answer is the limited, factual question, whether Hitler died by pistolshot or poison.

THE FIRST QUESTION which we naturally ask is, are the documents genuine? Bezymenski does not offer to authenticate them. He does not say where they are. The original Russian text is apparently not to be divulged, and Bezymenski’s handling of texts, in his book on Bormann, does not inspire unqualified confidence. At one point the autopsy report on Hitler contains an obvious (and admitted) interpolation. A skeptic might ask many questions. Why were these documents suppressed in 1945? Why, and where, have they been hidden for twenty-three years? Why, and by whom, have they been released now? The history of any document contains part of its authority, and any document without a history must be accepted with some reservations.

However, in this instance I am not disposed to be too skeptical. Russian editors, by now, have probably lost the habit of respecting the critical faculty of their readers, and documents may be authentic even if their presentation is unscholarly. I am therefore prepared to assume, for the time being, that these documents are, as stated, “complete and authentic,” and fairly translated. The question that we must then ask is, what do they tell us that we did not know before.

The answer is that they give documentary support to the well-known Russian allegation that Hitler died of poison. The doctors who examined his body declared that they had found in his mouth fragments of a crushed glass ampoule, and this, they wrote, “permitted them to conclude” that death was caused by cyanide. On the other hand, once this has been said, certain reservations must be added. To a critical eye the text is not so conclusive as it seems to those who, like Rzhevskaya and Bezymenski, are evidently determined in advance to show that Hitler died not “like a soldier,” gun in hand, but by poison “like a dog.” And even if it were, there is other evidence which cannot be altogether ignored. The evidence of the Russian doctors, who saw Hitler’s body after it had been “severely charred” and “greatly damaged,” must be supplemented by the evidence of the German witnesses who saw it before it had been so disfigured. And these witnesses agree that it had been shot through the head.

What is one to do when two sets of witnesses give apparently incompatible answers to the same question? One solution is to choose which witnesses one will believe and ignore or discredit the others. This is the method of the Russian commentators. Rzhevskaya simply ignores the difficulty. Bezymenski, more boldly, declares that all the German witnesses are liars: they are engaged in a conspiracy to pretend that Hitler died “a soldier’s death.” To prove his point he dwells heavily, and uncritically, on some trivial and often unreal discrepancies in their memories, and then casts them aside. He has questioned none of them and is not interested in what they may say. Of what significance are their loose allegations compared with the “hard,” scientific evidence of the Russian doctors?

I do not believe that this is a legitimate method. For after all, why should the German witnesses persevere in a false pretense? If Hitler merely poisoned himself, why not say so? Suicide by poison was not “cowardly.” Cyanide capsules were issued to German soldiers, for use in extremity, and no one has accused Goering, Himmler, and Ritter von Griem of “cowardice” for using them. Besides, loyalty to Hitler was dissolved by his death. Several witnesses have declared this: once the Führer had deserted them, they said, they felt no further obligation to him. “The Führer is dead: each for himself!” was the cry. And some of those who have described Hitler’s suicide by gunshot, or saw the wound, never had any personal loyalty to him to distort their observation. Therefore, I believe, the evidence of the German witnesses cannot be lightly dismissed. It must be respected.

Besides, if the German evidence, on inspection, is not altogether loose, the Russian evidence, on inspection, is not altogether hard. Rzhevskaya says firmly that the doctors “could find no other possible cause of death” except by poison; but this is not what they certified in the autopsy report. There they wrote not that the evidence compelled but that it “permitted” the conclusion of death by poison. And they included in their report one interesting sentence which reopens the whole question. That sentence reads, “Part of the cranium is missing.” No doubt it is because of this inconvenient sentence that Bezymenski involves himself in the most tortuous and evasive part of his whole narrative.

I have mentioned the hypothesis allegedly advanced by Johann Rattenhuber while in Russian captivity, viz: that Heinz Linge, obeying Hitler’s orders, finished his master off, after he had taken poison, with a revolver. We are told nothing of the circumstances in which Rattenhuber made this speculation, or the question to which it may have been the answer. Rattenhuber himself told me that the Russians persecuted him endlessly with silly questions. But presumably, in this instance, they were looking for an explanation of the head wound (the doctors say explicitly that they were “no visible signs of severe lethal injuries” on the body). In other words, they recognized that the head wound could be a gunshot wound and they wanted an explanation of it. Unfortunately, the only “evidence” for Rattenhuber’s alleged guess is another guess: a hypothesis about the hidden meaning of an alleged remark by Linge. Linge is said to have said that, after Hitler’s suicide, he had to carry out “the most difficult order of his life.” Linge has since explained, plausibly enough, that this was the order to burn his master’s body. The “evidence” is not, therefore, very convincing. Indeed, Rzhevskaya only mentioned Rattenhuber’s hypothesis in order to reject it as unnecessary and implausible. But then Rzhevskaya simplified her problem by ignoring the head wound which the hypothesis was called in to explain.

SO SIMPLE a solution cannot be adopted by Bezymenski, who publishes the autopsy report, with its reference to the broken skull. So what does he do? He avoids drawing attention to the difficulty but, in case anyone else notices it, he brings back the old hypothesis. He brings it back, it is true, in a somewhat half-hearted way. After all, if it is to be taken seriously, the Russians should have crossexamined Linge about it. He was at their mercy, for eleven years. But they seem not to have done so. Even now, Bezymenski refused to confront Linge and confute him. When the British Broadcasting Corporation invited Bezymenski to discuss his book on television, he agreed—upon one condition: Linge was not to be there.

Moreover, as if aware of the weakness of the case, Bezymenski clutches at an alternative explanation. “Soviet researchers,” he says vaguely, “are of opinion that it was Günsche [i.e., not Linge] who pulled the trigger.” Unfortunately it seems that neither these Soviet researchers nor Bezymenski troubled to test their “opinion” by cross-examining Günsche either. And anyway, this hypothesis is even more desperate than the other. For in transferring responsibility for a hypothetical act from Linge to Günsche, Bezymenski has incidentally detached the conclusion from the only shred of “evidence” on which it had rested—the alleged remark to Rattenhuber not of Günsche but of Linge. Having thus confused the issue, Bezymenski falls back on what he regards as the only certainty: the death by poison. Everything beyond this, he says, is mere conjecture. The broken skull is conveniently forgotten.

So there we are, back at Square One. What we are left with is evidence that Hitler shot himself—the evidence of the witnesses and the broken skull, and evidence that a crushed poison-capsule was found in his mouth (the doctors curiously avoid saying whether there was evidence that poison had been swallowed). This confirms what Artur Axmann deposed as a fact in 1946 and I endorsed as a possibility in 1956, viz: that Hitler put a capsule in his mouth before shooting himself, to make doubly sure. Bezymenski’s book contains some useful corroboration of accepted views, and some interesting circumstantial detail; but it is no bombshell. It is not a “sensation.” It does not (as the blurb claims) “end all speculation.” It does not “considerably alter the picture which the world has had of Hitler’s death.”


Kid Stuff November 21, 1968

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