You may have seen this series on the so-called “History Channel,” if you could spot it in your program guide against the wall-to-wall junk about ancient aliens and auctioning off abandoned storage units. Hunting Hitler purports to gather a dream team of ex-military, intelligence, and police operatives in order to prove that Adolf Hitler did not die in the bunker in Berlin, but escaped to South America.
The show jumps around between Europe, the U.S., and South America as teams of investigators look into various possibilities of Adolfian escape. Its first hurdle: why shouldn’t we believe the official version–that Adolf and Eva Hitler (née Braun) committed suicide in the Führerbunker on April 30, 1945? The airy dismissal: evidently the bone fragments in Russian possession have been tested and found not to be Adolf Hitler’s, but of a woman under forty years old. What’s wrong with that? Well, assuming the fragments in Moscow do come from the Hitler burial/cremation site just outside the bunker (not proven, and probably not provable), there would seem to be the chance the tested portions belonged to Eva Hitler. She turned 33 in February 1945. There are more questions one should ask and the show does not: so what if the Russians have the wrong bones? All that would prove is the Russians are not showing Adolf Hitler’s bones; it does not prove they do not have them. They might not have them, but that’s a negative beyond our power to prove. But even if they don’t have Adolf’s bones, that doesn’t prove he survived the war. It only means we are not supplied physical proof of his death.
The Russian version, released after the fall of the USSR, is that the NKVD conducted an extensive examination of the bunker’s surrounds. They found the charred remains of the Hitlers, two dogs, and the Goebbels family (children murdered by parents, who then committed suicide). To identify Adolf, they hunted up his dentist and checked his extensive dental work against the records. They gathered up all of it and buried it at an airbase near Magdeburg, in what would become East Germany, without any special preservation efforts. There the remains lay decaying until the late 1960s, when the Soviet Air Force prepared to hand the base over to the East Germans. Someone realized, Oh scheisse, we buried Hitler and Goebbels and all the other bones at that base. You nincompoops! Go dig it up, all of it, incinerate it, pulverize it, and dump it in a river! This was done, say the Russians. In the mood to evaluate the presentation for yourself? Good. Think and research for yourself, rather than just taking me at face value. Hitler’s Death, by Vinogradov, Pogonyi, and Teptzov, presents the evidence. Decide for yourself whether this is all an elaborate hoax. I don’t think it is.
Until the fall of the USSR, we might have dismissed the Soviet version as unreliable for all sorts of reasons. Had they offered it, we might have asked: why then? What would they gain? One thing Soviet leaders did not historically do was reveal hidden truths simply to clear up misunderstandings, especially as Stalin’s stance in the postwar period had shifted to hinting that the Americans had helped Hitler escape. (We didn’t exactly get a lick amiss, as Aunt Polly said to Tom Sawyer, considering that we did cover up for some German and Japanese war criminals where we felt it suited our interests.) Post-Soviet leaders revealed a number of hidden truths, though; logical motives might include improving relations, a spirit of new beginnings, and just to put the matter fully to bed. What is more, the Soviet version makes a fair bit of sense. They had much on their minds in the postwar period, what with half a dozen new satellites to absorb and control, a vast military to stand down in an orderly way, plus the growing tension with their former allies. In order to believe these Hunting Hitler people, we first must dismiss the Russian version. I do not see why we should.
Then there are the real Nazi hunters: Simon Wiesenthal, Beate and Serge Klarsfeld, and Israel’s famous intelligence agency we know as the Mossad (failing that, the Holocaust Center at Yad Vashem). Wiesenthal has passed on, but he left behind the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Surely all of the above have at least considered the possibilities behind hunting down every unaccounted-for Nazi of noteworthy infamy, even just to learn what became of him or her. If you and I decided to go chasing Hitler, kind reader, I’d probably say: “All right. My first idea is let’s get in touch with the Wiesenthal Center, the Klarsfelds, and if they will talk to us, the Mossad. If you can think of anyone else, great, let’s contact them too. I speak some Hebrew, which may or may not help. If Mossad ignores us, Yad Vashem probably won’t. Let’s ask all of them what they think happened to Hitler, without agenda, and why they believe what they believe. Then let’s examine their reasoning and see if we’ve got a sound basis to think that all these highly intelligent, sophisticated, focused, and very personally motivated people and institutions have somehow given up too quickly.” Then I’d listen to what you thought of my idea, but I’ll take a guess you’d consider that a sound start. The show doesn’t even bring this idea up. Why not?
Even if we do reject the Russians’ version and others’ conclusions–for without doing so, the producers have no show; thus we proceed from here on a “for the sake of argument, let’s assume” basis–we then have to figure out how this frail, decrepit drug addict managed to escape the Soviet encirclement of Berlin. This encirclement was neither lazy nor casual, not with over two million Soviet and Soviet-allied troops ringing Berlin and thousands of Soviet aircraft blanketing an airspace perhaps ten miles in diameter. The show spent much time on one escape bolthole that would have provided a route to Tempelhof Airport, south and east of the bunker. It spent another batch of time on a long street that perhaps could have served as a runway for something like a Fieseler Storch (the Germans’ marvelous scout aircraft). This does not withstand scrutiny. The valid questions: all right, which was it? And why did you spend all this time on one route, then stop talking about it and develop a theory of another route? Unless the researchers answer that question, they’re just trying to establish the possibility. That is not the same thing as demonstrating proof; the most it can do is sow reasonable doubt, which I do not believe it does. Then there’s the question of the long odds against any German aircraft having the good luck (and avgas, in minimal supply) to take off from anywhere in encircled Berlin and escape Soviet combat air patrols. And then, to go where?
Again the show can’t make up its mind, and thus puts forth a couple of theories. Both lead to the southern cone of South America. One departs from northern Germany and then takes a U-boat from northern Norway to South America. The other escapes first to Bavaria, then Austria, to a Spanish U-boat base, then to South America. They can’t decide between these, either, but they find plenty of evidence that could more plausibly be explained by submarine warfare (a staple of the Nazi war effort) and postwar escapes under the aegis of ODESSA, the SS organization that certainly did help numerous war criminals flee the long arm of justice.
All along, the show salts in evidence of weapons manufacture, with dark hints that it could be nuclear. It refers to Hitler’s pipe dream ‘Amerika bomber,’ a series of prototype aircraft culminating in the Junkers Ju-390. Did Hitler want to bomb the U.S.? Of course he did. He also wanted non-Aryans to submit peacefully to slave labor and extermination, and he wasn’t going to get that either. Does that have any relevance to his supposed escape? Not unless one is positing that he somehow had a clandestine way to make these bombers in Argentina, or that he used one to escape–which the show doesn’t do. In any case, if he were to attempt escape by air, it would seem more sensible to use the proven, reliable aircraft used throughout the war for diplomatic missions to South America: the Focke-Wulf Fw-200 Condor, which existed in modest numbers, and could make it to and from Buenos Aires with suitable refueling stops. So that’s a nothingburger. Another such is when the team finds a supposed small arms manufacture plant in Argentina or Chile (I forget which). It drops the inference that this is where Hitler must have been planning his Fourth Reich. Yeah, makes a lot of sense: at most a few hundred guys and some homebrew weapons are going to Make Adolf Great Again. The host government surely won’t mind its territory used this way, right?
Case in point about weapons hints: the team ‘discovers’ that the Nazis were using the facilities at the Norsk Hydro plant near Rjukan, Norway, to manufacture heavy water. This substance can play a role in the manufacture of nuclear fuel. This is not terribly far, they discover, from an obsolete four-gun coastal defense battery near Kristiansand, which they have decided must be Very Special and perhaps part of Adolf’s bugout route. There must be a connection, and this must have been part of Hitler’s Fourth Reich plans! The actors’ eyes grow very wide. Those of their Norwegian guides do not.
Wait, why not? Doesn’t that sound at least a little suspicious? In 1943, Norwegian commandos with balls the size of watermelons sabotaged the heavy water production at Rjukan, generally accepted as the knockout blow to any remote possibility of a Nazi “nucular” weapon, as one of the cast members persists in calling it. This may hint at the educational level to which the show expects to appeal. The Nazis tried to ship out the remaining D2O, and got it as far as a boat in a fjord, which the Norwegians sank. That’s it. That’s the story of Norway and the Nazi atomic bomb, and everyone who knows much of anything about World War II understands this. The fact that the Nazis had a coastal defense battery in south Norway means nothing by 1945, because as a 15.5″ gun battery, it was outgunned more than double by a single Iowa-class US battleship. In an age of air power, the only reason not to bomb such a battery flat is that it was too useless to bother plastering.
So the battery means nothing, the heavy water plant activity is well documented and seriously impaired by 1945, and yet out of this the ‘investigators’ act as if they might find an elderly, disheveled Hitler alive in some hidden hole. In fact, they spend a fair bit of effort trying to find the basement of a long-demolished building which they opine will produce Big Revelations. What big revelations? That the Nazis used the hydroelectric plant to produce heavy water? I hate to think what Knut Haukelid, the senior Norwegian commando on the raid, would make of this garbage.
There is stuff like that in every episode. Found a Nazi coin? Proof of Hitler! Found some discarded Nazi decorations? Hitler Wuz Hear! A Nazi slogan or graffiti? This must surely be part of Hitler’s escape route! We’re onto Something Big!
This is a bad version of what we call historiography: the methods of researching, studying, and presenting history. Its key component is critical thinking. “OMG this fortress-like compound was armed and making weapons right here in Argentina! Proof of Hitler!” Oh, really. Yeah, looks like there was some weapons manufacture going on, but if anyone thinks such a location needed to be heavily fortified to protect itself from the Argentine government, ask yourself who could prevent the Argentines from sending a rifle division to surround and reduce this place as a field training exercise. Then ask yourself who else could do so without Argentine consent to the deed. Short of dropping an airborne regiment (which would be an act of war against Argentina), no one. There is no way such a compound could have existed without the assent, silent or otherwise, of the Argentine government. Then why build it?
Here is one reasonable speculation: Argentina was known for sporadic military coups in which the losing side’s leaders might well need a place to hide out for a while. Might some such leader work out a deal for such a hideout to be built for him with expatriated Nazi gold, and have it harbor a small private army loyal to this coronel (or whatever rank), useful in case of sudden security needs? Perhaps. There are many possible speculations as to why a few Nazi coins might be found in an abandoned jungle fortress, beginning with “Some SS cutthroat did indeed escape with a crapton of money, and did this because it made him feel better and he could afford it; the Argentines were glad to receive their regular payments for looking the other way.” That I could imagine. “That it was built to hide an escaped Hitler” is among the farthest-fetched. Historiography works out this reasoning, asks why people would or could do this or that, and seeks plausible explanations that fit the existing evidence and common sense. This show counts upon an audience with no grasp of historiography. It produces various little bits of interesting detail, then skips the whole reasoning process and leaps directly to the desired conclusion.
And what of local witnesses who seem to confirm rumors, or make statements? Don’t underestimate the motion picture industry. There is a term: the ‘frankenbite.’ A frankenbite is a manufactured speech clip, and the short version is this: if Hollywood wants to make you answer “yes” to “Did you have sex with ourangoutangs?”, that isn’t even a challenge for them. It’s a little more work to put a completely false sentence in your mouth, but they can do it. This is how reality shows work. It’s very interesting to talk to people off the record who have signed all those enormous NDAs (sorry, no names; I’m not Hollywood).
Those aren’t my only examples. I have a very close friend who appeared on a documentary as a subject matter expert, and they manipulated his footage so as to make him appear to confirm material he knew to be without substance. So just because some old Argentine granny seems to say in translated Spanish, “Yes, we saw Hitler every day; he liked gardening and hanging captured rats”, that doesn’t mean she actually said that. It means that the show needed her to say that. Hollywood lies. It’s in the lying business, and that’s not a slam; it is just what Hollywood does. It does it very well after many years of refined practice. When Hollywood wants someone to say something, it makes him or her say it. Never cooperate with Hollywood if you have any expectation that you will be presented with integrity. Hollywood does not do integrity.
Ah, but the scanned documents we see the investigators excerpting? Certainly look like the real thing, do they not? I expect they are real–but look what the producers do. Splatters of blocked-out text all over the document, hinting at classification (which is ludicrous in context)–and then the blacking peeled away to show you the five or six context-deprived words that seem to support whatever the show is pitching. Without the context, of course, the words are meaningless, even potentially distortive. For an imaginary example:
“Arcega claimed to have seen
copies of Hitler ‘s book on many occasions. He reported seeing a number of suspicious German -speaking Argentine nationals around town.”
Does the show go so far as to warp the meaning that badly? We do not know. If not, why do they not want us to see? We are given more than ample grounds to suspect any level of imaginable deception, and the sleight-of-hand here is the hint that the viewer is learning Very Big Secrets. The viewer is not supposed to ask: why are you hiding the majority of the text? Why not just show it all and color-highlight the relevant portion? Are you afraid that viewers will pause the DVR and read the whole document, discovering that it really doesn’t say what you imply it does? This one is so obvious I don’t see how anyone gets past it. It would insult a child’s intelligence.
While the show offers regular insults to the intellect, some of them are beyond the pale. One of the cast members is “Special Forces Tim Kennedy.” I have no reason to doubt that Tim was in SF. However, if he was in SF, he would know that this is not the way they say this. He would say he was ex-SF. He would not say he was “a Special Forces.” He might say he was Special Forces-qualified, or a Special Forces veteran, etc, but if he used it alone as a noun it would refer to SF as a whole. He would use it adjectivally to refer to a member, tactic, facility, or something else owned by SF. But that isn’t the comical part. Another ‘investigator’ is introduced, and we are told he is a ‘Green Beret.’ This term, of course, refers to Special Forces. Yes. I am serious. The show introduces one guy as ‘a Special Forces,’ one as ‘a Green Beret,’ and counts upon us not asking why they used two different terms for the exact same thing. Because it sounds cooler to the audience, is my guess.
I guess they figured that anyone who understands anything at all about World War II, military history, or even the modern military is not part of their audience. This one is aimed at the “too ignorant to know any better, too uneducated to think” demographic easily lured toward a TV by a whiff of Hitler.
Or, these days, perhaps they figure Hitler has enough closet fans (and nearly all of those are too dumb to think much, or they wouldn’t be closet Dolphies) to make a pretty big market for the demographic that would love to hear of Hitler’s escape.
I suspect the first. I don’t rule out the second.