Antony Beevor: Hitler's Jaws of Death

Roundup: Talking About History

[Antony Beevor is the author of “D-Day: The Battle for Normandy” and “The Fall of Berlin 1945.”]

THE assertion by American researchers that Hitler might have escaped from Berlin because a skull fragment in a Moscow archive was not his but a young woman’s is rich in paradox. Stalin went to great lengths in 1945 to conceal the fact that Hitler’s body had been identified by pathologists working for Smersh, the Soviet military counterintelligence agency. Stalin even misled his own commander in chief, Marshal Georgi Zhukov, demanding to know why he had failed to find Hitler’s corpse. And Pravda declared that rumors of the discovery of Hitler’s body were a fascist provocation.

Stalin ruled by creating fear and uncertainty among both subordinates at home and among his Western allies abroad, who were of course seen as potential enemies. Even after Hitler’s jaws, with their distinctive bridgework, had been identified by the assistant to the Führer’s personal dentist, the Soviet authorities nurtured rumors that Hitler was hiding in Bavaria. As Bavaria was part of the American zone of occupation, the implication was that the Americans had concealed him and were somehow in league with the Nazis. Now, 64 years later, an episode of the History Channel series “MysteryQuest” — with the outrageous title of “Hitler’s Escape” — has distorted the revelation of the skull to scare up a similar fugitive ghost, to the furious exasperation of the Russian authorities.

On May 2, 1945, members of the Smersh detachment of the Soviet Third Shock Army, having heard of Hitler’s suicide two days earlier, sealed off the Reich Chancellery garden and Hitler’s bunker there as they searched for the body. All those on the Smersh team were sworn to secrecy and warned that any mention of their work would be treated as treason. Even Marshal Zhukov was refused entry to the bunker during the search on the ground that “it wasn’t safe down there.”

All members of Hitler’s household who had been identified were held in the Reich Institute for the Blind, on the Oranienstrasse. One after another they were interrogated by a major known to history only as Bystrov. Stalin was so desperate for news that a general from the N.K.V.D., the K.G.B.’s predecessor, was sent to supervise the interrogations. He was given a secure line with a scrambler so that he could report back to Moscow after each interview.

On May 5, Smersh operatives finally discovered Hitler’s body along with that of Eva Braun in the chancellery garden; the two corpses had been doused in gasoline and set on fire by SS aides, in accordance with Hitler’s orders, and then buried in a shell crater. The Soviets smuggled the remains to an improvised morgue in Buch, a suburb of Berlin. Hitler’s body was too badly burned to be recognizable, so the jaws were removed since they offered the best means of identification. The assistant to Hitler’s dentist was tracked down and brought to examine them.

Yelena Rzhevskaya, the interpreter with the Smersh group, later recounted how on the evening of May 8, when Soviet troops prepared to celebrate the German surrender, she was given a box covered in red satin and told to guard it with her life. She described it as “the sort used for cheap jewelry.” The box held Hitler’s jaws. Rzhevskaya was given it because, as a woman, she was considered less likely to get drunk that night and lose it...

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