On the final day of April 1945, with the Third Reich rapidly collapsing under a two-pronged military onslaught, Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler holed up in a secret bunker in central Berlin and prepared to carry out his own macabre exit strategy. Hitler knew the war was lost, and reportedly did not want to befall the same ignominious fate as his Axis ally Benito Mussolini, whose executed corpse had been trucked to Milan two days before and hung on a meathook in a public square so onlookers could defile it. Hitler planned to stave off such posthumous abuse at the hands of the rapidly approaching Soviet Army. By various accounts, at 3:30 p.m. that day, the Fuhrer swallowed cyanide and then, for good measure, put a gun to his right temple and pulled the trigger. Then, his body vanished.
But what happened after that became perhaps World War II’s most peculiar mystery, one that inspired decades of conspiracy theories and wild fantasies, ranging from the 1978 Hollywood thriller The Boys From Brazil, which imagined fugitive Nazi scientists cloning Hitler’s DNA in an attempt to create a master race, to the more recent appearance of a few Hitler autopsy photos of dubious authenticity on the Web, and Russian officials’ claim that they still possess fragments of the hated dictator’s skull. But the story of Hitler’s posthumous odyssey still remains murky, despite the advent of forensic technology that didn’t exist back in 1945.
Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, when he learned of Hitler’s death the next day, had one question. “Where is his corpse?” he demanded. Stalin was obsessed with making sure that his former ally-turned-bitter adversary was indeed gone, and ordered an exhaustive secret investigation. The result is reproduced in The Hitler Book, a 2006 translation of a file prepared for Stalin in the late 1940s, based upon captured Nazi officials’ eyewitness accounts of what happened in the wake of Hitler’s suicide.
According to the file, Martin Bormann and another aide wrapped the dead dictator’s still-warm corpse in a blanket and carried him outside. Because of the bombardment, they couldn’t take the body into the garden, as originally planned, so they laid it down about six feet from the entrance and doused it with 200 liters of benzene. Hitler’s mistress Eva Braun, who also had committed suicide, got similar treatment. Then the bodies were ignited with a burning piece of paper, and the door to the bunker was slammed shut because of the heat. Then the aides set about hastily removing the blood-soaked carpet, Hitler’s personal possessions and papers, and whatever other traces of his presence and demise remained, in order to throw Soviet trophy hunters off the trail.
Nevertheless, on May 4, members of the Soviet military counter-intelligence agency Smersh found two badly burned bodies outside the Fuhrerbunker. Not immediately realizing that they were Hitler and his mistress, the soldiers buried them in a bomb crater. The next day, however, after a search of the bunker turned up nothing, the Smersh officials remembered the two bodies and hastily disinterred them and moved them to their new working HQ in Berlin. They imposed tight secrecy, perhaps fearful of arousing Stalin’s wrath if it turned out that they didn’t have Hitler after all. On May 8, an autopsy reportedly was performed, and finally, on May 11, a dentist reportedly verified that the bodies belonged to Hitler and Braun.
The Soviets long kept those results a secret from their Western allies. So what did they do with Hitler’s supposed remains? In 2009, according to this CNN story, Gen. Vasily Khristoforov, head archivist of Russia’s Federal Security Service, said that long-secret Soviet documents revealed the official version of events. In June 1945, a month after Hitler’s suicide, Smersh supposedly moved his corpse and buried it in a forest near the German town of Rathenau. Eight months later, they exhumed the dead dictator and re-buried his remains, along with those of Eva Braun and Hitler’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels and his family, in the Soviet Army garrison in Magdeburg. The body remained in that grave until 1970, when the Kremlin decided to close the military outpost and turn it over to the East German government. The Soviets still feared that Hitler’s grave site might somehow be discovered by neo-Nazis and turned into a shrine. KGB head Yuri Andropov (who later would briefly become head of state) ordered his agents to dispose of the USSR’s most hated enemy, this time for good.
But as the official story goes, the Soviets couldn’t resist keeping a few pieces of Hitler for posterity, though their existence wasn’t revealed to the world until after the USSR’s own demise. In 1993, the Russian state archive revealed that it had found what officials believed to be a piece of the Nazi dictator’s skull, complete with damage from a gunshot wound, and other bone fragments, in a cardboard box marked “Blue Ink for Pens.”
Investigators from other countries, however, were skeptical of the skull’s authenticity. New Scientist reported at the time that French forensic dental experts concluded that the grisly trophy actually came from another corpse, one they believed that Smersh officials may have shipped to Moscow in 1945 and passed off as Hitler’s remains, in an attempt to placate Stalin’s blood lust. Finally, in 2009, as this Spiegel article details, a DNA analysis by University of Connecticut researchers revealed the the skull actually was that of a woman between the ages of 20 and 40, who had died in Hitler’s bunker. (It was not Eva Braun’s, since she reportedly died from cyanide poisoning, not a bullet.)
That revelation, however, raises scores of other questions. If the skull that the Russians presented as Hitler’s is clearly not his, how reliable was Smersh’s original dental identification of Hitler’s remains? Was the account given by captured aides of Hitler’s suicide and the subsequent attempt to cremate him really truthful, or was it a clever hoax? Did Hitler really die in the bunker, or could he possibly have escaped? Unless scientists invent a time machine, we may never know the complete story.