The idea that Hitler did not die in 1945, as commonly believed, but survived long afterwards and lived peacefully into old age has become more widespread in the past few years. If you type “Hitler Argentina” into a search engine, you’ll be taken to page after page of reports alleging that the Nazi dictator did not shoot himself in his bunker beneath the garden of the Reich Chancellery on 30 April 1945, but, on the contrary, escaped by plane and submarine to Argentina, and lived there with his partner Eva Braun for many years.
The story has been told in articles, press reports, books and even a 24-part television series. This is not fiction, as in novels such as Timur Vermes’s 2012 bestseller Er Ist Wieder Da (published in the UK as Look Who’s Back), or fantasy, as in the 1976 episode of the TV series The New Avengers, which both depict Hitler being kept in suspended animation for decades after the war. This claims to be fact, with the real Hitler carrying on in South America with an animation that is anything but suspended.
The story of Hitler’s survival has escaped the confines of the lunatic fringe and made its way into the mainstream media. Fuzzy photographs have appeared in the press purporting to be images of Hitler in old age. Time and again, the US national press has reported the discovery of newly released secret service files reporting sightings of the former Nazi dictator after the end of the war. Not only will the story not go away, it seems to be finding new traction in the age of social media and the internet. Hitler sells.
Even where, as usually happens, the survival story advertised in headlines turns out to be an invention if you read the article through to the end, readers will be drawn to the paper by the idea there might be evidence that Hitler survived. From 2015 to 2018, the television series Hunting Hitler showed a group of investigators travelling across South America looking for traces of the former dictator who, it claimed, had lived in Argentina for many years and died in peaceful old age. Appearing on the History channel (watched by more than 300 million households worldwide), Hunting Hitler ran for three series with an average three million viewers per episode.
These claims are easily debunked, and have been many times. Hunting Hitler doesn’t present any hard evidence at all, just innuendo, conjecture and supposition. As Variety magazine commented in its review of the series: “If viewers were to take a shot of alcohol every time someone uses a phrase like, ‘There could have been…’ or, ‘There’s a chance that Hitler might have come here…’ or, ‘If there was in fact a bunker…’ they would be plastered by the second or third commercial break.”
“Proof” of Hitler’s survival crumbles into dust as soon as it is subjected to critical examination. Submarines that are supposed to have carried Hitler and his companions to Argentina turn out to have been sunk before the end of the war, or to have carried unlikely cargoes such as cartons of cigarettes (Hitler neither smoked nor allowed smoking in his presence). “Evidence” from reports of sightings turns out to have been concocted by fantasists. The FBI was duty bound to investigate many such stories, but in every instance concluded that they were unverifiable. Many Hitler sightings rest on nothing more than hearsay – an interviewee’s mother or grandfather remembered seeing someone who looked like Hitler – or uncorroborated, like the claim of one supposed eyewitness, who said he had seen Hitler in an Argentinian town in 1953 “wearing huge boots and riding a black ladies’ bicycle from house to house selling herbs”.
[see also: The return of American fascism]
The reports of Hitler sightings, or near-sightings, betray a staggering ignorance of the literature on the Nazi dictator. An elderly Argentinian woman, Catalina Gomero, says she had worked in a house where she had to leave meals for a mysterious German visitor outside his room, and was not allowed to see him: it must have been Hitler, since they were “typical German meals – sausage, ham, vegetables”. According to the book Grey Wolf: The Escape of Adolf Hitler, this is apparently “confirmation from a real human being that Adolf Hitler didn’t die in the bunker in 1945”.
But a little research on Hitler in any one of the many available biographies would have revealed that he was a strict vegetarian. Hunting Hitler claims that: “All these stories we’ve been told about Hitler’s bunker, there’s nothing to back it up.” But there is a huge amount of research to back it up; it’s simply that none of the purveyors of the survival myth has bothered to read it.
To start with, there’s The Last Days of Hitler, published in 1947, in which the Oxford historian Hugh Trevor-Roper presented the results of the investigation he was commissioned to undertake while he was working for the British intelligence service. Trevor-Roper tracked down eyewitnesses who had been with Hitler in the bunker and reconstructed the sequence of events in meticulous detail. Those he was unable to contact because they were in Soviet custody were interrogated by the Russians, who produced their own report, which confirmed his main findings, though it was not released until many years later.
Then there was the evidence collected by a Bavarian court in the 1950s in order for the formal issue of a death certificate for Hitler, which was finally signed in 1956. Members of Hitler’s entourage who were with him in the bunker at the last, notably his personal aides Heinz Linge and Otto Günsche, who took the corpses of Hitler and Eva Braun up from the Führerbunker into the Reich Chancellery garden, poured copious quantities of gasoline over them and burned them until there was almost nothing left, also produced their accounts. So, too, did Hitler’s personal secretaries, who were with him to the end.
There is the physical evidence of Hitler’s dental bridges, which were identified by the dental technicians who had made them.
Then there is the absence of genuine, first-hand evidence for Hitler’s survival. There is not one single photograph of him after 1945, not one single video, though his alleged companion in Argentina, Braun, was a professional photographer who was always making home movies of their life together in Bavaria before and during the war.
All the alleged photos of Hitler in Argentina are fakes, ranging from a digitally altered image of the actor Bruno Ganz playing him in the movie Downfall, to a picture of an old man with a moustache reclining in an armchair, which turns out to have been one of a series of photographs of the inmates of a British care home. Not one person alleged to have helped Hitler either in Germany or in Argentina has ever been tracked down and interviewed. Nobody who knew Hitler ever expressed the slightest doubt that he had died in 1945.
Quite apart from anything else, he himself had said he would take his own life if the war was lost. It is impossible to imagine him living in tranquillity in his Argentinian exile, having abandoned the ambitions that had consumed him during his lifetime – especially when other Nazis who really did escape to Latin America, such as Adolf Eichmann, spent much of their time devising wholly unrealistic schemes for their triumphant return in to Germany.
Why, then, in view of the overwhelming and incontrovertible evidence for Hitler’s death, do so many people appear to believe he survived? There is no one single answer to this question. For some on the far right it seems inconceivable that he would have died such a cowardly and ignominious death. Surely a political genius of his stature must have hoodwinked the Allies and proved once more his superiority to ordinary mortals. In some cases, the proponents of Hitler’s survival have strong links to the neo-Nazi scene, or betray anti-Semitic beliefs, or are involved with white supremacy organisations in the US that regard Hitler as an inspiration for their activities.
For others on the American right, Hitler appears as an evil being whose survival was the result of work by malign forces within the “deep state” of the US government and intelligence services that have brought “Nazi” policies such as “Obamacare” and other products of an imaginary socialist “New World Order” into being.
Hitler is a universally recognised figure, so any sensational “discoveries” about him are bound to attract worldwide attention, as the many gullible – or exploitative – press reactions to reports of his survival have demonstrated. Hitler survivalism can, it is clear, be a profitable business, and not all of its proponents are driven by political motives. Some fringe groups purveying various forms of “alternative” knowledge, such as occultists or UFO enthusiasts, seem to think that associating their beliefs with Hitler will gain them attention. So in some versions of the survival myth, Hitler’s escape was achieved by occult means, or involved his travelling to a secret Nazi flying saucer base beneath the Antarctic ice.
More generally, like other conspiracy theories, the idea of Hitler’s survival provides a kind of compensation for feelings of marginalisation and exclusion. Those who believe, or purport to believe, in it can boost their own self-esteem by assuring themselves that they know the truth, whereas everyone who takes a different view is either deliberately covering it up or is being hoodwinked by government agencies and agents.
[see also: QAnon: how a paranoid delusion is growing in the UK]
For conspiracy theorists like these, the accepted version of history is in reality the “official” version, to be disregarded because it is propaganda designed to fool people. No need, then, to read it or take it seriously. What matters is not what it says – namely, in this case, that Hitler shot himself dead on 30 April 1945 – but who says it. Professional historians, serious archival researchers, witnesses in the bunker, dental technicians, forensic scientists, court investigators – all are agents of a vast and malign conspiracy to suppress the truth.
In the age of social media, when 280-character tweets are, for many, taking on the main function of conveying information, opinion is replacing argument and prejudice is replacing knowledge. More and more people seem to think that it is pointless to make a judgement about a topic on the basis of detailed research and a careful appraisal of the evidence. The traditional gatekeepers of opinion, such as newspaper and magazine editors, radio and television producers, and book publishers, have been bypassed as even the most bizarre and irrational theories find their way into the public sphere.
That this is dangerous as well as disturbing seems obvious. Portraying Hitler as a genius who was never defeated undermines the legitimacy of the historical profession, demeans genuine researchers and writers, and insults the memory of the millions who suffered under Nazism or contributed to its overthrow.
But conspiracy theories of this and, indeed, other kinds also make evidence-based discourse more difficult, and open the way to decision-making, including at the highest levels of government, becoming detached from the rational appraisal of the situations it addresses. Dismissing serious historical research is no different in the end from dismissing serious climate research, or serious medical research. In a situation such as the one we face with the coronavirus pandemic, contempt for science and reason can, as we have already seen, cost lives. It could also, in the long run, cost the human race its future.
Richard J Evans’s new book, “The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination”, is published by Allen Lane
This article appears in the 02 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Crashed