Entertainment Books

Wednesday 21 November 2018

Russians cling to secrets of Hitler's suicide

History: The Death of Hitler, Jean-Christophe Brisard and Lana Parshina Hodder & Stoughton, €29.99

Hitler's burnt corpse lay in the Soviet zone of Berlin, giving Russia control over the narrative surrounding his death
Hitler's burnt corpse lay in the Soviet zone of Berlin, giving Russia control over the narrative surrounding his death
The Death of Hitler

JP O'Malley

On May 2, 1945 General Helmuth Weidling, the Nazi military commander of Berlin, announced that Adolf Hitler had committed suicide in his underground bunker.

The Allied powers immediately began asking two questions: where exactly was the body of the Fuhrer located within the fallen capital of the Third Reich? And how exactly did events unfold leading up to Hitler's suicide?

The Death of Hitler is a book whose raison d'etre is fundamentally rooted in both these questions.

Written by two investigative journalists from France and Russia - Jean-Christophe Brisard and Lana Parshina - it's a fascinating account about how the mysterious case of Adolf Hitler's burnt corpse became a political football between East and West during the Cold War.

Immediately following Hitler's death, conspiracy theories flourished as the Cold War intensified. Brisard and Parshina stress the significance of this: especially given that Berlin was Europe's Cold War dividing tightrope.

The British intelligence services, for example, concluded an investigation in October 1945, reporting that Hitler killed himself by firing a pistol into his mouth. The Russians, meanwhile, claimed Hitler died by swallowing cyanide. This latter narrative fitted neatly with the post-war Soviet unquestioning Stalinist consensus: that Hitler was merely a rat in a cage who ran from the might of his communist enemies when he saw that military defeat was upon him.

The book begins in April 2016 in The State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF): where both authors are confronted with a skull said to be that of Adolf Hitler. There were, of course, numerous reasons for both investigative hacks to disbelieve the legitimacy of this claim.

But they quickly kick any doubt to touch. Well, sort of. They call in the world's leading top forensic scientist, Philippe Charlier. His medical analysis confirms the teeth of Hitler's remains contained within the Russian state archives match the Nazi dictator's dental records. And Hitler's head? Well, that's a step too far with the evidence they have. Charlier also confirms that examination of Hitler's teeth show no signs of material that would indicate a bullet entered his mouth before death. This scientific analysis can finally put to bed for good the notion Hitler faked his own death.

The bullet theory, however, still remains debatable. And to categorically prove it would require further testing on Hitler's teeth. Something Moscow isn't prepared to allow. This reticence to really allow this story the full transparency it deserves is rooted in typical paranoid Soviet historiography.

On May 27, 1945 Joseph Stalin held an official report in his hand from SMERSH - a Soviet wartime counter-intelligence organisation - confirming Hitler's death was official. And yet, the Soviet dictator would continue to claim to the world, for a considerable period - especially to his political counterparts in Washington - that Hitler was still alive and well: hiding out in Argentina with other prominent Nazis.

Brisard and Parshina's book has all of the classic ingredients of a vintage Cold War spy novel: treachery, double crossing, bureaucratic confusion and stark east-west divisions.

They also point out how much control Russia has always possessed over the narrative: physically and ideologically.

Primarily because Hitler's burnt corpse lay in the Soviet zone of Berlin. We read, for example, numerous testimonies from those Nazi officers who were the final witnesses before Hitler died. Even as late as 1956 they were being threatened with torture and the gulag to play ball and cough up a narrative that matched how the Soviet Union envisioned Hitler's suicide. The KGB also secretly moved Hitler's body a number of times and incinerated it further. Several top classified documents are reproduced here explaining all of this. Remarkably, one comes from as late as 1970, under the name "Operation Archive".

Investigating the story of Hitler's death with scientific certainty, and historical accuracy, may well be the central question this book seeks to unravel. But analysing the subtle levers of power the Kremlin has used to control the telling of this tale is a background leitmotif that runs parallel, and, is arguably just as important. Only four days before the two journalists were granted access to vital classified Russian documents that helped them - nearly - complete their investigative puzzle, Putin signed a decree stipulating that the management, publication, and declassification of state archive documents fell directly with the president himself. Hardly known for his sense of fair play or transparency: why, then, did Putin invite two nosy hacks to prod around the Russian state archives to unlock a 73-year-old Soviet secret?

Both authors believe the Russian president wanted to convince the world that the decomposed head the Russian state archives currently holds in its possession is indeed Adolf Hitler's. Seven decades after Hitler's death, that narrative still continues to be cloaked in secrecy and politics; serving as an important propaganda tool: boosting Putin's obsession in reconstructing old Stalinist myths into new-found-nationalist sentiment in 21st Century Russia.

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