Examining the evidence, theories, and counter-theories
It doesn’t matter where you look in history, you’ll always find a conspiracy theory lurking nearby. Whether it’s that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays, that Lewis Carroll was Jack the Ripper, that the CIA had John F. Kennedy assassinated [the topic of a future Bite-Size History] or that the Apollo moon landings were faked by NASA, there’s no shortage.
One of the most enduring is whether Nazi leader, Adolf Hitler, faked his own death in 1945, fled the bunker, and escaped to South America. On the face of it, this seems ridiculous, and not something you’ll see any prominent historian put their name to. But the theories and questions remain almost 80 years later.
Let’s examine just what happened at the end of World War II and the credibility of some of the “Hitler escaped theories”.
The Last Days of Hitler and the Third Reich
The failure of Hitler’s Ardennes Offensive, or The Battle of the Bulge, (16 December 1944–25 January 1945), was the last significant German offensive of World War II. The aim of this last desperate military gamble was an attempt to prevent Allied use of the strategic port of Antwerp and physically divide the Allied armies pushing towards Germany.
Alongside this defeat, Nazi Germany was being pushed to collapse on all sides. Control of Poland had been lost to the advancing Red Army, and which was soon to cross the Oder, just over 50 miles from Berlin. To the East, British and Canadian forces were crossing the Rhine and spreading into the industrial Ruhr region with US forces advancing through Southern Germany.
With the net irrevocably tightening around the “Thousand Year Reich”, Hitler took two key decisions.
First, rather than fleeing Berlin to the relative safety of the Berghof, his residence in the Obersalzberg area of Bavaria, Hitler remained in Berlin in the depths of the Führerbunker to issue increasingly desperate orders for army units that no longer existed.
Second, 19 March saw the issuing of what became known as Hitler’s “Nero Decree” or the Befehl betreffend Zerstörungsmaßnahmen im Reichsgebiet (Decree Concerning Demolitions in the Reich Territory). Entrenched in the view that Germans had failed him and the historical mission of National Socialism, the population did not deserve did survive beyond Hitler himself. The Decree Concerning Demolitions in the Reich Territory was an attempt to destroy German infrastructure and deny its use by the approaching Allied forces. As events transpired, the decree was not enacted by notable Nazis, including by the Minister of Armaments and War Production, Albert Speer.
From the Allies’ perspective, agreements at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 had determined post-war zones of occupation and influence after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Central to this was Berlin, which sat in the future Soviet zone of occupation.
By April 1945, with Allied forces advancing rapidly, some voices such as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US General George S. Patton were calling for their forces to take Berlin first with Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s units able to reach Berlin in three days. In contrast, both Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower (Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR)) and Omar Bradley had concerns, with the latter citing concerns over the risk of 100,000 casualties in the future Soviet occupation zone. By mid-April Eisenhower ordered his troops to halt at the Elbe and Mulde rivers, allowing the armies under Soviet Generals Georgy Zhukov and Ivan Konev to “race for Berlin”, a task deliberately stoked by Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin.
In the face of overwhelming odds, inevitable defeat, and the “desertion” and covert dealings of Hitler’s most senior acolytes — Hermann Göring positioning himself to take over as successor, condemned as treachery by Hitler; and Heinrich Himmler offering surrender and soliciting terms in exchange for the release of Jewish prisoners — he was keen not to suffer the same fate as his Axis partner, Benito Mussolini.
Italy’s former fascist leader had been attempting to flee Italy and was apprehended by Communist partisans on 27 April 1945. The following day, Mussolini and his mistress, Claretta Petacci, were executed in the village of Giulino di Mezzegra, before their bodies were taken to Milan, strung upside down in a service station, and physically absued by angry crowds.
Keen not to suffer a similar fate following his own death, Hitler carried out plans to end his own life, and that of his new wife Eva Braun, who he’d married in the Führerbunker on 29 April 1945. Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, head of German armed forces (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW)), informed Hitler early on 30 April that all Nazi forces were either surrounded or unable to mount offensive actions.
Shortly after 3.30 p.m., Hitler and his new wife retreated to his study for the final time and according to the account of Heinz Lunge, Hitler’s valet, who entered the study shortly after, Hitler had shot himself with a Walther PPK pistol and Eva Braun had died from cyanide poisoning.
The historical account of what followed states that under his instructions, Hitler’s body was wrapped in a rug, and with his dead wife, their bodies were taken to the garden behind the Reich Chancellery. There, both bodies were doused with petrol in an attempt to burn them, which eventually succeeded after additional papers were added to the pyre.
In light of the “treacheries” of other high-ranking Nazis, Großadmiral (Grand Admiral) Karl Dönitz was named in Hitler’s last will and testament as Reichspräsident (President) and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces upon his death. On 5 May, Dönitz and his short-lived Flensburg Goverment, began to negotiate the surrender of German forces. The Chief of Staff of OKW, Generaloberst (Colonel-General) Alfred Jodl signed the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany on 7 May, an act repeated by Field Marshal Keitel in Berlin at Marshal Georgy Zhukov’s headquarters on 8 May at Stalin’s instruction.
Theories, Counter-Theories and Conspiracy Theory
A name closely linked to the defeated Nazi dictator is the late Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford, Hugh Trevor Roper. His book, The Last Days of Hitler (1947) is an account of his task as a British Intelligence Officer in 1945, to determine what happened to Hitler and firmly rejects any suggestion of survival and escape from Berlin.
Yet despite this and other extensive writings on the death of Hitler that still continue today, theories still abound about whether Adolf Hitler somehow faked his death, or at least had the corpse of a “double” killed and burned in his place, and fled to South America. Let’s examine some of the theories.
The “Soviet Skull” Theory
In the aftermath of the war, and in response to rumours of Hitler’s escape from Berlin and the Red Army, Joseph Stalin ordered further investigation into the Nazi leader’s death. The Soviet discovery of a skull fragment following further exhumation of the crater Hitler’s body was burned in, has led to lingering views of a conspiracy. The portion of skull, with accompanying bullet exit wound, and said to belong to Hitler, underwent further examination in 2009 by Connecticut archaeologist and bone specialist, Nick Bellatoni. After examination, the following conclusion was shared:
“The bone seemed very thin; male bone tends to be more robust. And the sutures where the skull plates come together seemed to correspond to someone under 40.”
Hitler turned 56 on 20 April 1945. Additional analysis of samples taken from the exhumation site by the Soviets underwent DNA analysis which conclusively proved to belong to a woman and could not have been Hitler’s.
The “Dental Records” Theory
As a counter-point to the “Soviet Skull” theory is that relating to analysis of the dental remains obtained from the garden of the Reich Chancellery. As part of the Soviet exhumation of Hitler and Eva Braun’s bodies, their dental evidence is central to this theory.
Hitler’s personal dentist, Dr Hugo Blaschke, maintained detailed records of Hitler’s dental work, including X-rays and descriptions of various procedures. In May 1945, in response to Stalin’s concerns about survival rumours, Blaschke’s dental assistant Käthe Heusermann and dental technician Fritz Echtmann identified the dental remains of Hitler and Braun.
The dental remains were identified as Hitler’s based on a thorough examination of the dental records provided by Dr. Blaschke. The match was deemed conclusive, as the dental work, fillings, and bridges were consistent with the documented history of Hitler’s oral health.
Some doubt has been cast over the reliability of these claims given the propaganda value to Stalin, and that Käthe Heusermann and Fritz Echtmann were both also held as prisoners by the Soviets for many years.
But the field of forensic dentistry has later dismissed these doubts. Dr Reidar F. Sognnaes, an American forensic odontologist, examined the dental records in 1972 and concluded that chances of misidentification were minimal. The alignment of dental evidence, historical context, and eyewitness accounts collectively supported the official narrative of Hitler’s death in 1945.
In 2017, French forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier also reported the same conclusion as the lead author of a study published in the European Journal of Internal Medicine. An examination of the remains, including teeth on part of a jawbone, found them to be in “perfect agreement” with X-rays taken of Hitler in 1944. Charlier commented:
“The teeth are authentic, there is no possible doubt. Our study proves that Hitler died in 1945. We can stop all the conspiracy theories about Hitler. He did not flee to Argentina in a submarine, he is not in a hidden base in Antarctica or on the dark side of the moon.”
The “Grey Wolf” Theory
One of the most popular theories that suggests Hitler escaped to South America is the book Grey Wolf: The Escape of Adolf Hitler, written by British authors Simon Dunstan and Gerrard Williams. The book claims Hitler survived and fled to Argentina, where he lived in hiding until his death in the 1960s. The authors propose the Allies either allowed his escape or were unaware of it because of a lack of conclusive evidence.
The theory gains traction from historical records and more declassified files, showing that after World War II, several high-ranking Nazi officials did escape to South America through various routes known as “Nazi Ratlines.” These escape routes were used by many fleeing Nazis, including Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele, leading some to believe Hitler might have used similar methods to evade capture.
In further support of the theory, are claims a German submarine, U-977, surrendered in Argentina months after the war’s end. Although U-977’s captain, Heinz Schäffer, asserted they never carried Hitler, the rumour of the submarine’s involvement in Hitler’s escape persisted.
The Airplane Escape Theory
Another popular theory posits that Hitler escaped Berlin using a small aircraft. Proponents of this theory claim that he flew to Spain, from where he could have travelled to South America, possibly with the assistance of sympathetic figures within Franco’s fascist Spanish government.
Despite some eyewitness accounts of suspicious plane activity in the area around the time of Hitler’s death, there is no compelling evidence to verify this claim. The Allied forces had significant control over European airspace by that time, making it unlikely that Hitler could have successfully flown undetected to another continent.
The Argentine Sanctuary Theory
One of the most persistent theories places Hitler in Argentina, particularly in the region around Bariloche. It suggests Hitler lived there under a false identity, surrounded by a community of German expatriates who provided him with support and protection.
At the centre of this proposition is that Hitler and Eva Braun lived for a period of time at the Inalco House on the Nahuel Huapi lake in Argentinian Northern Patagonia. The previously mentioned Grey Wolf book pushes this theory and is further explored through the Hunting Hitler television series. Despite the documented presence of guard towers, later discovery of a Nazi coin in the grounds, and German scientist Ronald Richter then working on a nuclear fusion project on nearby Huemul Island (backed by the Perón region), there is no definitive proof of Hitler’s residence at this site.
Supporters of this theory also often point to the large German population in Argentina during the mid-20th century and alleged sightings of Hitler in the country. None of these claims have been substantiated by credible evidence, and most historians dismiss them as mere speculation.
The Soviet Capture Theory
In contrast to the previous theories, some believe Hitler never left Germany and was instead captured by the advancing Soviet forces. According to this narrative, the Soviets kept Hitler’s capture a secret to avoid sparking sympathy or rallying points for remaining Nazi loyalists.
This theory aligns with the official Soviet stance, which claimed Hitler’s body was found and identified by the Red Army. The Soviets said they buried his remains and later exhumed them, reconfirming his identity through DNA testing in the 2000s. However, some skeptics question the veracity of these claims, as the Soviets had their own agenda during that period and may have distorted facts for political reasons.
So did Hitler escape the bunker, justice, and get to South America?
In a word — no.
While conspiracy theories that speak of an “alternative history” are interesting to contemplate, and sometimes vicarious in their nature, they need to be viewed for what they are: speculations. In this case, the evidence does not back up this claim, with scientific facts overwhelmingly supporting the official account of Hitler’s death. Equally, we should not let theories that have the potential to breed a revival of previous criminality, prejudice, injustice, and ultimately genocide, gain traction and cloud historical fact.
The assertion of Hitler’s alleged escape from Berlin is firmly rejected by the majority of prominent historians and esteemed scholars specialising in World War II and the Third Reich, such as Ian Kershaw, Antony Beevor, and Richard J Evans, who have consistently dismissed escape theories. They maintain Hitler’s suicide in the Berlin bunker is a well-documented historical fact, and any claims to the contrary lack credibility.
Theories surrounding Adolf Hitler’s alleged escape to South America at the end of World War II lack substantial evidence. The enduring fascination with conspiracy theories speaks not to historical facts but to the imagination and fascination of people intrigued by history’s most infamous figures and the allure of the unknown. Speculation about “What could have happened” might fuel a small, persistent shadow of doubt, but it doesn’t change the course of history. As historians, we look at facts, and the facts tell us that the dictator died in 1945.
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