Thursday, 5 January 2012

Part of the Second World War Conspiracy Theory Industry

There's a particular genre of writing, very specifically aimed at amateur history buffs, which focuses on alleged Great Mysteries of the Second World War, almost entirely based on claims that the official fates of certain top Nazis are polite fictions. The pioneer of this genre was Hugh Thomas who wrote two books dedicated to proving that Rudolf Hess was not exactly the same person as the man imprisoned for over forty years in Berlin; his research was laughable, his arguments full of holes, and yet he made a fortune. Soon enough he was claiming that Heinrich Himmler survived the fall of the Nazi state and someone else had committed suicide in his place. Meanwhile, Ladislas Farago "proved" (in 'Aftermath: Martin Bormann and the Fourth Reich') that Hitler's deputy Bormann had fled to Argentina and created a Fourth Reich there amongst émigrés (in reality, Bormann's skull was found in Berlin and verified to be his by DNA testing). And there was Hitler, with an entire mythology already dedicated to discussing his alleged escape and survival. This book (Grey Wolf: The Escape Of Adolf Hitler by Simon Dunstan and Gerrard Williams) is merely a belated entry on that list.

The book’s theory, if one can put it that way, is that Hitler and Eva Braun escaped from Berlin on 27th April 1945 (by which time it was surrounded by the Red Army and elements of Marshal Zhukov’s forces were already inside the city limits). They were replaced by a “double” of Hitler and an actress, who played Braun, and who went through a sham marriage on the 29th April before being executed the next day as the Russians were approaching the Reich Chancellery*. Hitler and Braun went off to Denmark, returned to Germany, thence left for Spain and finally to Argentina, where they lived near the Andes, had two daughters, and divorced before dying of old age (in Hitler’s case, in 1962 at the age of 73).  

Actually, the evidence - physical evidence, in the form of documents (including Hitler's will and testament), survivor accounts, Hitler's state of mind and health - is overwhelming that Adolf did kill himself on the morning of 30th April 1945. Anyone who doubts this is welcome to read well-annotated (unlike this book) accounts such as Hugh Trevor-Roper's 'The Last Days Of Hitler'. If Hitler had actually escaped, in fact, it's more than likely that G öring or Himmler - both eager to succeed him to the last - would have had him quietly bumped off; and in any case by 1945 Hitler was aged decades beyond his years, a complete physical wreck, addicted to "Dr" Theodor Morell's drugs, possibly suffering from Parkinsonism, and certainly from severe neurological trauma from the assassination attempt on him in July 1944.

Also, Hitler was "historically minded" - he had refused to escape when he easily could have, with the Russians still far from Berlin, and had chosen a "Norse" end in the city - a Götterdämmerung (the Twilight Of the Viking Gods). Determined as he was to die mythologically, it's inconceivable that he would have tried to escape (as I said, he had repeatedly turned down desperate suggestions by his staff that he get away while there was time). Escaping would have been a complete betrayal of his own character. He always thought, and said so out loud and clear, that the German people were "unworthy of his genius", and so he was determined to pull the nation down with him.

Most Second World War Conspiracy Theory Industry books are hung on one minor and essentially unimportant point, which is blown out of all proportion and frequently fictionalised as well. With Hugh Thomas it was a “scar” Rudolf Hess should have had on his chest as a result of a wound in the First World War – but the Spandau prisoner, according to Thomas, did not. In reality, the “scar” was still there, though much faded, and Thomas misrepresented (or simply ignored) the type of bullet which caused it, and therefore its treatment, and its very nature. Bormann’s alleged survival revolved around rumours among Nazi émigrés in Argentina, with a fairly transparent impostor (whom the author Farago interviewed) stepping in to fill the role. Himmler’s case (Thomas again) revolved around the allegedly “incredible” way the man (a notoriously weak-willed Nazi whom Thomas built up into a monster of efficiency) allowed himself to be captured by the British and then committed suicide. And in this case, it turns on the fact that the skull alleged to be Hitler’s and which lies in a Moscow vault turned out to be female. (Actually, it wasn’t the skull the Soviets used to identify Hitler – it was a jaw fragment found near it – which is a point completely missed by the authors, for who knows what reasons of their own. Or, I might say I know quite well...)

These starting points, in the Industry literature, are then built up as the core of the investigation (they have to be, because usually there is exactly nothing else to go on), and other rumours, innuendo, insinuations and fantasies are weaved round them in order to make a whole structure that looks impressive on the outside but stands up to not even cursory scrutiny. Thomas never answers the question, for example, why the prisoner in Spandau prison in Berlin never revealed that he wasn’t Hess, when a word from him would have set him free. Farago never answers the question (which he himself raises) of why the “Bormann” he interviewed never seemed to allude in detail to his life in the Führer’s company, but almost exclusively focused on the Fourth Reich in Argentina. And the authors of this book never even approach the question of why Hitler should have been helped to escape by so many people, when it would have been in their own interests to see him dead and gone.

For instance, for the Nazis, a dead Hitler would have been a martyr and a symbol. A half-mad, cranky old man would have been a security risk, an embarrassment, and an anti-symbol as it were, living proof that Nazism had failed and was a thing of crackpot theorising and insane delusions of grandeur. For the Americans (the book claims they helped him get away in return for weapons secrets) Hitler alive would have been irrelevant to those weapons. He wasn’t a scientist and the Americans and Russians between them recruited the ex-Nazi scientific corps for their own efforts quite nicely without Hitler, thank you very much (check up Werner von Braun sometime). For the Spaniards and Argentines who allegedly helped him along and sheltered him, he would be another security risk and embarrassment (it’s one matter sheltering some relatively minor SS thug, quite another where it’s the Monster himself). And in any case these authors make absolutely no effort to prove, by hard evidence even approaching (let alone surpassing) the evidence proving otherwise, that Hitler got away. And in instance after instance they openly state that certain conclusions are the result of their “intuitive thinking” (a rather Hitleresque term, I find). They do not even attempt to track down Hitler’s two daughters – who would of course be priceless proof of the rightness of their theory, and whose DNA could be compared to the descendants of Hitler’s siblings to confirm their identity.

I’m not saying that Hitler didn’t get away. I suppose it’s possible. But there’s a hell of a distance, measurable in parsecs, between admitting that the evidence for his death (gathered in the ruins of a nation falling to pieces and with the shadow of the Cold War already looming overhead) might have holes in it, and claiming that Hitler actually did get away, had daughters, died at a specific time – and failing to back any of this up with evidence a court wouldn’t throw out in five minutes.

Even in styling the book is badly faulted, with most of the first hundred-odd pages devoted to a history of the Second World War. Pardon me for assuming that anyone who reads this book will already know all about the history of the V-weapon attacks on London, for instance, or the Allied offensives of early 1945. He or she is reading this book to know what the authors claim happened to Hitler. That information, such as it is, is singularly late coming. And when it does come, it is as full of logic and factual holes as the genre as a whole (no pun intended) is.

Verdict: save your money. I'm giving it half a star out of five, and that's because I'm feeling generous.

Go read a good novel instead.

*The "evidence" for this is a claim by a single "facial recognition expert" that some photos of Hitler taken on 20 March 1945 do not in fact depict Hitler, with no other backup of even this claim.

Note: I found an excellent dissection of this figment of the authors' imagination here.

See "Buyer Beware: Fantasy History" by Roger Clark on that page. 

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