'The Death of Hitler': Book Review

Brisard and Parshina’s new publication shows that, in some ways, very little has changed in 73 years…

Adolf Hitler is dead, and has been since 30 April, 1945. There have been numerous fantastical (and often bizarre) conspiracy theories surrounding his whereabouts at the end of the war: he escaped to Argentina by U-boat; he was flown to Denmark; he fled to Japan; he is, somehow, still alive (bearing in mind that would make him 129). There is enough evidence, however, from a variety of sources, that confirm Hitler and his new bride Eva Braun took their own lives a few days before the Red Army overran Berlin. Their bodies were taken from the underground bunker, in which Hitler had lived for some time, into the gardens of the Reich Chancellery, and (at least partially) cremated. The F├╝hrer was insistent that his remains would not fall into the hands of the Allies, to be paraded as trophies, or subject to the same brutal mutilation as those of Benito Mussolini and his family.

In some ways, he got his wish. When the Soviets discovered two bodies in the Chancellery gardens, alleged to be those of Hitler and Braun, they were hastily removed, buried, and reburied elsewhere before being pulverised and dumped in a river. Unlike the bodies of Joseph Goebbels and his family, no photographs appear to exist of these remains.
It was Stalin who spread the first conspiracy theory regarding Hitler’s disappearance. Although he knew that the German leader was dead, he informed the Allies that Hitler had most likely escaped to South America. The Soviets refused to co-operate with Allied investigations into Hitler’s disappearance and/or death, thus wasting valuable time and resources. Deliberately. This use of disinformation (and that is disinformation, not misinformation) was not dissimilar to the types of disinformation disseminated by the Russian government and media today, particularly orchestrated against ‘the West’.

On the other hand, Russia eventually publicly dismissed this story with the opening of an exhibition in Moscow in 2000, shortly after Vladimir Putin became President. ‘The Agony of the Third Reich: Retribution’ displayed hundreds of items associated with, and belonging to, the Nazis, including some of Hitler’s watercolours and Joseph Goebbels’ pistol. But its centrepiece was a small case displaying what was claimed to be a fragment of Hitler’s skull, a bullet hole clearly visible. Unsurprisingly, this garnered international media attention – did this fragment of bone, locked away in the Soviet/Russian archives for decades, really belong to Hitler? A study by an American archaeologist in 2009 claimed that, no, this fragment was too thin to belong to an adult male, and most probably belonged to a woman aged between 20 and 40. Did that mean it was actually part of Eva Braun’s skull? Hadn’t Braun taken cyanide rather than shoot herself? The Russians vehemently denied the findings, but a shadow of doubt was once again cast on the final hours of Adolf Hitler.

What is, perhaps, less well known is that within the Russian archives there are also several pieces of jawbone, containing teeth and prostheses, said to belong to Hitler. These had never before been scientifically examined until a recent investigation conducted by Jean-Christophe Brisard and Lana Parshina, with the help of French anthropologist and archaeologist Phillipe Charlier. Their findings have now been published in 'The Death of Hitler: The Final Word on the Ultimate Cold Case: The Search for Hitler's Body'. Both the teeth and skull fragment were examined, along with pieces from the sofa on which Hitler died, 1944 X-rays of Hitler’s head, witness testimonies and official Soviet reports. Charlier could not draw any definitive conclusions from the skull (though he dismissed the American archaeologist’s claims), but confirmed that the teeth and prostheses matched the X-rays. In short: yes, the Russians do own some of the remains of Adolf Hitler.

But this was not an easy conclusion to reach – not from a scientific point of view, but from a bureaucratic one. During the investigation, Brisard and Parshina were faced with numerous obstacles from the Russian authorities. The files and items related to Hitler’s death are housed in three different archives in Moscow, none of which are particularly willing to co-operate with the others. Confirmation of permissions was delayed by weeks, or months. Appointments arranged months in advance were cancelled at the last moment. Charlier was not allowed to handle the skull fragment, and so had to carry out a purely visual observation. The Russian authorities were, of course, relieved when Charlier published his findings, but made the process of obtaining them extremely frustrating and time-consuming. At points in the book, the reader is almost kept in suspense of whether or not the investigation will be able to continue.

The narrative of the book also flits between the investigation (2016-2017) and the aftermath of the Second World War. It highlights the competition and independent work of different Soviet organisations, especially the security services, and rivalry between various officials. It seems as though not much has changed in the Soviet/Russian administration over the last 70 years…

’The Death of Hitler’ is a blend of history, forensic science, journalism and political commentary. At times, it even reads somewhat like a detective story. Although Brisard and Parshina’s conclusions are not necessarily surprising – conspiracy theories are just that: theories – I was gripped by the narrative and shared the authors’ disbelief and frustration in attempting to navigate the complex labyrinth of contemporary Russian bureaucracy. The book is also supported by photographs of documents and items which have never before been published, which greatly appealed to my inner historian! I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in 20th century history and politics, but also those interested in crime writing and forensics.

Perhaps, now, the absurd conspiracy theories will finally be put to rest?