Fifty years after the Red Army fought its way into Hitler's bunker the manner of the Fuhrer's death and the identification of his body remain in dispute. John Erickson recounts the tales of those Soviet soldiers who saw the corpses, including a possible Hitler double in worn socks. In Moscow's spring sunshine on April 17, 1963, coincidentally my birthday, a meeting with the marshal of the Soviet Union V. D. Sokolovskii proved to be an unexpected but welcome present.
Marshal Sokolovskii made an official and formal statement confirming that Hitler was dead, a much belated Soviet admission, accompanied as if by way of proof, by the offer of a guided tour of the Fuhrer's lower jaw. Though this was deliberately intended to set off a buzz of excitement in the world's press it failed to do so save for some half-columns here and there.
Looking back at the passage of 32 years I am more than surprised at the lengths to which Soviet military men, from marshals to machine-gunners, were prepared to go in recounting their part in investigating the circumstances of the Fuhrerbunker, every word of which I recorded. No prohibitions, no censorship. What Marshal Sokolovskii intended to convey in his formal announcement was evidently the accepted view of the Soviet establishment: that there was no further mystery, Hitler was dead, an identified Hitler, shot.
But the marshal's statement had been preceded by lengthy discussions on the fate of the inhabitants of Hitler's Berlin bunker in 1945 and the findings of those Red Army officers who had been on the scene from the moment the HQwas invaded by the Russians. Informed of Hitler's suicide, Stalin asked about the location of the body, to be told that General Krebs, chief of the German general staff, had told Marshal Chuikov, commander of the Soviet 8th Guards Army, that it had been burned. But speculation, first as to the genuineness of the remains ascribed to Hitler and second over the manner of his death, continues.
Paradoxically the recent disclosure of new evidence, a piece of Hitler's skull - is used in very different ways in two recent books on the subject. Ada Petrova and Peter Watson in The Death of Hitler seize upon the piece of skull as confirmation of both Hitler's identity and the manner of his death. Hugh Thomas, by contrast, in his Doppelgangers: the Truth about the Bodies in the Berlin Bunker uses it to expose suspected forensic fraud and deception, "very cogent reasons" to justify caution.
To those Red Army officers and men who first stumbled upon Hitler's Fuhrerbunker on May 2, 1945, these and previous books must have come as a surprise that the quest for the truth about the bunker and the fate of its inhabitants should have consumed so much labour and so many years. From talking with them it was clear that their impressions two to three hours after the bunker had been secured were coloured by fears that the whole installation was mined. Soldiers sweeping for mines came across the Goebbels family, on the same floor as Hitler's study. The children were dressed in sports clothes, the face of the eldest bruised. The part of Goebbels's own face which was closest to the stone floor was not burned. Those bodies were moved out of the bunker and taken away to be officially identified.
Those officers who were present recounted how several bodies discovered outside the bunker were disinterred and subjected to a fairly rough and ready process of identification. Germans from the bunker and from the nearby Reichskanzlei were rounded up and asked to make their own identification. In this tumble of shell-craters and garbage there was the discovery of the famous Hitler double, the dvoinik, with the equally famous darned socks which ruled him out as the genuine ruler of the Reich. The photographs of this body shot in the head, duly supplied for inspection, did nevertheless show a remarkable likeness to the Fuhrer.
The question of doubles masquerading as German leaders seems to have haunted the imaginations of some Soviet interrogators. Goering was asked in his interrogation whether a double might have existed for him. The Reichsmarschall simply pointed to his enormous girth, dismissing with a gesture the complete improbability of such an idea.
As for Hitler's body, badly burned as it was, a certain confusion was generated by the presence of a number of lookalikes, apart from the one certified double. The bodies were hastily reburied on May 4 after this first cursory inspection, only to be dug up on May 5, whereupon one Red Army general said that there was a burned body with a bullet hole in the forehead, which he was convinced was Hitler's. As for the double and those bodies resembling the Furher, he added that these were perhaps deliberately arranged as part of the myth, "to spread the notion that Hitler would return".
Where matters seemed to have gone wrong was with the first autopsy carried out on May 8. That was apparently bungled, possibly by officers overwhelmed by party spirit connected with the celebrations signalling the end of the war. Whatever the reason, these original autopsies affirmed that both Hitler and Eva Braun had died by cyanide poisoning, a startling conclusion which echoed round the world when Lev Bezymenskii wrote his book The Death of Adolf Hitler, published in 1968. Dr Shkaravskii from the autopsy team evidently had no time for "imaginary reconstructions of a shooting". "Our Commission could not detect any traces of a gun shot on May 8, 1945. Hitler poisoned himself."
The Red Army generals and others were presumably blind or misguided when they said that the corpse they saw and identified, albeit provisionally, was that of Hitler with a bullet hole in the forehead? On May 8, 13 bodies were laid out for final identification. Several Red Army senior officers believed that this was the end of the matter, adhering to the line that "we were not entirely sure which body was that of Hitler himself but we were sure that one was". The mission was henceforth to take the bodies, Hitler's among them together with those of the Goebbels family, to the woods outside Berlin, burn them and scatter the ashes to the winds, so that there could be no resurrection of a Hitler cult based on some grave or specific burial spot.
But events did not develop in that direction. One thing is certain: Bezymenskii was clearly not given access to all the available Russian material. He remained ignorant of a second Russian commission of enquiry into the circumstances surrounding Hitler's death. What is odd is that if Bezymenskii was given special access to Russian records showing that Hitler died by poisoning, what then was the point of Marshal Sokolovskii and his officers taking pains to affirm Hitler had died of a gunshot wound?
The second commission of enquiry, which has only recently been disclosed, together with the discovery of parts of Hitler's skull, does raise some intriguing questions and might lend a certain credence to Hugh Thomas's theory of forensic fraudulence. What is clear is that the intelligence services were responsible for the original autopsies, which were bungled, and somehow the Soviet authorities had to derive from the available evidence conclusions which ran counter to that same evidence.
Marshal Chuikov also told me in an interview about his famous encounter with the German General Krebs, when the Soviet side received the first intimation of Hitler's death. Chuikov's forward command post had only a few operational officers. Ebgenii Dolmatovskii, the poet and Matvei Blanter, the composer, were present, both commissioned to provide victory odes and music for the fall of Berlin. When General Krebs arrived to talk possible capitulation, Chuikov hurriedly promoted his two vistors to the rank of colonel, but Blanter's heavily bandaged carbuncle on his face rather spoiled the effect. General Krebs bore duelling scars on his face. Colonel-general Chuikov, as he then was, wore gloves on his hands. scarred with eczema after the nightmare battle of Stalingrad.
This is from Chuikov's own account of that exchange: "Krebs: 'You are the first non-German who will learn great news.' Chuikov: 'Nothing will surprise me.' Krebs:'Hitler is dead.' Chuikov: 'I know that,' I answered automatically."
Did Chuikov know because he was informed by the "Soviet spy" in the bunker uncovered by Ada Petrova and Peter Watson, or was he bluffing? I still think he was bluffing, though he carried it off magnificently.
John Erickson is professor of defence studies at Edinburgh University.
The Death of Hitler: The Final Words From Russia's Secret Archives, by Ada Petrova and Peter Watson, Richard Cohern Books, Pounds 17.99.
Doppelgangers: the Truth about the Bodies in the Berlin Bunker, by Hugh Thomas, Fourth Estate, Pounds 17.99.