NIGEL JONES is unimpressed by a fresh investigation into a conspiracy-laden ‘mystery’ that was solved long ago
The Death of Hitler: The Final Word on the Ultimate Cold Case By Jean-Christophe Brisard and Lana Parshina Hodder & Stoughton, 336 pages, £25
Around 3.30pm on 30 April 1945, Adolf Hitler, a cornered rat in a trap, sat on a sofa in his Berlin bunker and put a bullet through his head. His bride, Eva Braun, seated next to him, bit down on a cyanide capsule. His staff carried their bodies to the surface, placed them in a shell hole, doused them with petrol and imperfectly cremated them. These facts have been known for decades, but, like Elvis, the fallen führer has lived on in many people’s imaginations.
The myth of Hitler’s survival – that he enjoyed a long and uncharacteristically quiet retirement in South America after arriving there by U-boat – was originally propagated by Josef Stalin. Suspicious by nature, Stalin refused to believe that Hitler was dead until it was confirmed by his own intelligence agencies who had Hitler’s charred remains in their custody. Even then, for propagandist purposes, Stalin continued to spread the story that the dead führer was alive and well and being protected by the wicked west.
The legend of Hitler’s survival lives on among conspiracy theorists: only last year a popular US TV series was still peddling the same old garbage.
In fact, the basic circumstances of Hitler’s death were established just after the war by the British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper in The Last Days of Hitler, based on his interviews with survivors of the bunker who had escaped to the west. But concrete evidence, in the shape of Hitler’s carbonised bones, was in the hands of the Russians, and with the Cold War beginning, they weren’t telling.
French investigative journalist Jean-Christophe Brisard and Russian researcher Lana Parshina set out to find, photograph, and publicise the sparse evidence that still survives, buried in the Moscow archives of Russia’s FSB (formerly KGB) intelligence service. This book has two strands: a familiar chronological history of the last days in the bunker, and a protracted and frankly tedious account of the intrepid duo’s battle to get the obstructive bureaucrats guarding those archives to give them a glimpse of the crown jewels in their care.
It took two frustrating years, and when they did get to see the smoking guns, it must have been anti-climactic. Hidden in an old computer disc box was a skull fragment complete with bullet hole, and four teeth (Hitler had notoriously poor oral hygiene), along with the KGB reports detailing the finding of the führer’s remains, and what became of the rest of them. Buried in an unmarked grave in east Germany, Hitler and Braun’s scorched bones, along with those of the Goebbels family, were exhumed in 1970 on the orders of KGB boss Yuri Andropov, incinerated again, and the ashes poured into a local river.
If this is indeed the thrilling closure of a cold case, as the over-hyped book publicity claims, Hercule Poirot need not be troubled: most of us knew whodunnit ages ago.
Nigel Jones is the author of Countdown to Valkyrie: The July Plot to Assassinate Hitler (Frontline, 2009)
Conspiracy theorists have long speculated on the deaths of Hitler and Braun