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The FBI, Hitler’s Death and Rumours of Escape to Argentina
Luke Daly-Groves, a PhD researcher at the University of Leeds, looks at the FBI’s reaction to rumours of Hitler’s post-war escape to Argentina
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According to the late, great, critical thinker and icon of Anglo-American literary relations, Christopher Hitchens: ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and that what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence’. Of course, with this, as with most things, he was right. You can imagine my alarm, therefore, when I learned that books such as Grey Wolf: The Escape of Adolf Hitler and television programmes such as the History Channel’s Hunting Hitler were suggesting that recently declassified FBI files proved that Hitler escaped his Führerbunker in war torn Berlin and lived out the end of his days in Argentina. It is one thing to assert that Hitler escaped (in the same way one might assert that Elvis is still alive) but quite another to put forward evidence to support such assertions. As a historian, I am trained to form conclusions based on evidence and to alter them accordingly when fresh evidence comes to light. Consequently, in my new book, Hitler’s Death: The Case Against Conspiracy, I have properly analysed the FBI documents which are used to support theories of Hitler’s escape – and found them all to be nonsense. Allow me to explain:
Rumours of Hitler’s post-war survival are nothing new. In 1945, stories of ‘Hitler’s’ exploits in Argentina filled the desks of British and American intelligence organisations ever since Stalin (for his own political reasons) claimed Hitler could have escaped Berlin, even though the Soviets were in possession of the Führer’s teeth. One of those desks belonged to J. Edgar Hoover, the Director of the FBI. Fortunately for historians, he took a personal interest in Hitler survival rumours which resulted in many of them being thoroughly investigated. What motivated Hoover’s interest is never explicitly stated, though it is certain that he did not believe Hitler had escaped. Since many of these rumours are mashed together and used again in recent conspiratorial publications, the conclusions of FBI agents concerning their reliability provide a powerful argument against the most modern theories. So, what evidence do these FBI files actually contain?
The great majority of the survival rumours described in these files stem from questionable sources. For example, amongst those telling the FBI that Hitler was hiding in Argentina was ‘a 97 year old spiritualist, leader of a spiritualist cult and a spiritualist prophet’ and a ‘journalist of the most sensational and unreliable nature’. Unsurprisingly, Hoover concluded in September 1945 that he had received ‘no serious indication…that Adolf Hitler is in Argentina’. Later, he claimed that the idea of Hitler staying at a Brazilian Hotel in 1947 (portrayed as fact in Grey Wolf) was ‘a rather fantastic story’. Only by ignoring the unreliable authors of these stories and linking them together, ignoring factual inaccuracies and the opinion of the intelligence agents actually investigating the rumours do conspiracy theorists manage to construct elaborate stories of Hitler’s escape. But that is not all.
On the first episode of the popular television series Hunting Hitler, CIA veteran Bob Baer claims ‘In these files there are thousands of leads’. However, it is precisely this rich variety of contradictory stories of Hitler’s survival which render the arguments of conspiracy theorists more unconvincing. Although, as the narrator of Hunting Hitler exclaims: ‘hundreds of FBI documents place Hitler in Argentina’, conspiracy theorists often choose to focus solely on these reports, ignoring the fact that such rumours were filed alongside stories of Hitler’s escape to Canada, Japan and America by individuals with motives comparable to those who claimed the Führer was in Argentina. The first detailed analysis of these motives can be read in my book - they ranged from the tragic to the absurd. Neo-Nazis spread rumours to help inspire underground movements, journalists did so in the hope of making money, pranksters to create a sensation, political opponents in an attempt to discredit each other, other individuals to draw attention to personal problems or to distract attention away from their crimes. Some, too, were mentally ill. None of them, as the FBI discovered, had any tangible evidence of Hitler’s escape.
So much for extraordinary evidence. But for all their faults, conspiracy theorists do pose some interesting questions. For example, Harry Cooper, author of Hitler in Argentina, asks, ‘If Adolf Hitler killed himself in Berlin...why were the world’ s spy services still looking for him into the middle of the 1950s?’. Several likely motives for the FBI’s continued ‘Hitler hunt’ are outlined in my book. First, responding to public queries concerning Hitler’s alleged survival was a good way for Hoover to keep the public onside at a time when the FBI was suffering a negative press involving unflattering comparisons with the Gestapo. Second, using his contacts in Argentina and the surrounding countries to investigate rumours of Hitler’s survival was a convenient way for Hoover to cling on to the FBI’s overseas influence which was legally curtailed by the National Security Act in 1947.
But why, then, did other American intelligence agencies investigate rumours of Hitler’s survival? Moreover, how can historians explain the fact that in 2009 a bullet-hole-damaged piece of skull held in Moscow’s archives that was believed to belong to Hitler was DNA tested and found to be female? The answers to these questions are in my book – none of them suggest that Hitler escaped from the bunker.
Luke Daly-Groves is a PhD researcher based at the University of Leeds. His new book, Hitler's Death: The Case Against Conspiracy, is the first attempt by an academic historian to return to the evidence of Hitler's suicide in order to scrutinise the most recent arguments of conspiracy theorists. It was published on 21 March 2019, by Osprey Publishing.
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