The question of whether Saddam Hussein is alive or dead may not affect the future of Iraq, but it has consumed the attention of the press and the public. Did he die in the attacks on Baghdad? Was that him on the videotape? Did he abscond with his treasure, and to where?
All this conjecture about Saddam’s fate, however beside the point, has ample precedent in the annals of deposed tyrants—most memorably in the feverish speculation after World War II about whether Adolf Hitler survived the fall of Berlin. The Hitler mystery—born of real confusion, stoked by the Soviet Union for political purposes, nurtured by conspiracy theorists, and spun into kitschy movies and novels—has spawned a full-fledged body of lore, what historian Donald McKale labeled (in the title of his book on the subject) “The Survival Myth.” The myth that McKale documents is worth revisiting since its longevity indicates the tenacious hold that fallen dictators have over our imagination—and reveals our surprising ambivalence about total victory.
In the last months of World War II, as the Allies closed in on Berlin, rumors spread about what happened to Hitler. Many of those rumors have found echoes in today’s guesswork about Saddam. Some said that Hitler had a body double who had died in his place, even as the Nazi leader decamped to South America or to his Bavarian mountain retreat. Others held that Eva Braun had borne Hitler a child who might someday revive Nazism—worries akin to the fear that even if Saddam has died, his sons may be alive.
Although Hitler and Braun, it is now known, committed suicide on April 30, 1945, that was not certain for many months. The interval of ambiguity allowed wild suppositions to flourish. The first seemingly authoritative statement came on May 1, with the Soviet Army in Berlin, when a Hamburg radio station announced that the Führer, fighting valiantly at his offices at the Reich Chancellery, had been killed and named Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz, the head of the Navy, as his successor. “Our Führer Adolf Hitler is dead,” Doenitz came on the radio to say. “… He died a hero’s death.” But just then a voice of unknown origin interrupted, declaring, “This is a lie!” and urging listeners to “rise against Doenitz.”
This bizarre broadcast, especially in the context of the Nazis’ well-known mastery of propaganda, produced a strange blend of hope and disbelief. That the German capital had fallen not to the Americans or the British but to the Soviets—hardly known themselves for objective and honest news reporting—added to the unreliability of the information. Little in the following weeks clarified Hitler’s fate. On May 2, President Harry Truman told reporters that the United States had “official information” that Hitler was dead, but neither he nor his aides could provide any proof. For months, conflicting press reports fed the confusion. One much-hyped article in the Chicago Times placed Hitler and Braun in Argentina, living on an estate in frigid Patagonia; though based wholly on hearsay, it was picked up by every major American and European newspaper.
Soviet leader Josef Stalin and his regime actively encouraged doubts about Hitler’s death. On May 2, Tass, the Soviet news agency, warned that the radio announcement of the Führer’s demise was a “fascist trick” designed to allow him to go “underground.” This proposition became the official Soviet line. On June 6, Red Army officials in Berlin declared that they had found Hitler’s corpse, but just three days later, their commander, Marshal Georgi Zhukov, denied that Hitler’s body had been identified and suggested that “He could have flown away from Berlin at the very last moment.” In June and July, Stalin personally told Truman, Secretary of State James Byrnes, and American envoy Harry Hopkins that he was sure Hitler was alive. Most audaciously, Moscow charged in September 1945 that the British had been hiding Hitler and Braun in a castle in Westphalia.
Stalin’s motives for this disinformation remain inscrutable. Although given his paranoia, he might have believed it, more likely he hoped to use the threat of Hitler’s survival for strategic advantage. If the resurgence of a Nazi-led, expansionist Germany remained a prospect, then Stalin might gain leverage for reparations and more favorable postwar borders. In the ideological war with the West, he could portray the capitalist Allies as soft on fascism and Soviet communism as fascism’s true enemy.
The British sought to refute the outrageous charge with a thorough investigation that involved numerous interviews with witnesses to Hitler’s death. The resulting report, which conclusively fixed Hitler’s death as a suicide on April 30 in his bunker, helped quell much rumor-mongering. So did the publication (and astonishing popularity) two years later of The Last Days of Hitler, by the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper, who had helped conduct the British government’s inquiry and enriched that account with meticulous sourcing.
But even these reports couldn’t satisfy every skeptic. Because they stated that the bodies of Hitler and Braun were burned with as much as 180 liters of gasoline, some enterprising amateur scientists undertook showing that such an amount of gas couldn’t consume a human body, in one experiment setting fire to a pig. Others revived the doppelgänger thesis, suggesting that the man whom witnesses saw retreat to his room to shoot himself wasn’t really Hitler at all.
The survival myth endured for decades in a multitude of forms, even as additional witnesses and information from the Soviet Union emerged to confirm Hitler’s death. Pulp magazines ran lurid headlines proclaiming that his suicide had been faked or recounted stories about his absconding to distant shores. A Hungarian exile in Buenos Aires, Argentina, published a book entitled, Je Sais Que Hitler Est Vivant (I Know Hitler Is Alive). In 1955, a magazine that was circulated to American high-school students demanded that the government “Clear Up Hitler’s Death.”
One set of stories argued, in all seriousness, that Hitler was hiding out at the South Pole. Real-life Hitler look-alikes continued to get stopped at customs, and as late as 1969, German authorities were still rounding up men who resembled Hitler—including one retired miner, Albert Pankla, whose refusal to change his hairstyle or shave his mustache led to his arrest, he claimed, on some 300 occasions. In more recent times, the trope has been fodder for an endless catalog of bad (and some good) art, from the delightfully trashy 1976 novel (and 1978 movie) The Boys From Brazil (which had Josef Mengele surviving Berlin’s fall to undertake Hitler’s resurrection) to George Steiner’s novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.
The persistence of the survival myth suggests several interpretations. It reveals a worry over the rebirth of Nazism, a fear that all the sacrifices of World War II still might not have permanently expunged this horrible evil. It is also a vehicle for admitting a perverse kind of awe for Hitler, a way to acknowledge his power without seeming to profess admiration. Or, as McKale suggests, it may betray an unwillingness “to allow Hitler to have the peace of death.”
But there is something more universal in the survival myth as well. The trope of the monstrous villain that won’t die has a long lineage. In Spenser’s Faerie Queene, when St. George slays the dragon, the onlookers at first refuse to believe it is dead. In almost every Hollywood action or slasher movie of the last 20 years, the bad guy, when presumed dead, rises one last time to give the audience a final scare. Our emotions in watching the war are not so different. In the Onion’s recent parody “Military Promises ‘Huge Numbers’ For Gulf War II: The Vengeance,” Donald Rumsfeld is quoted as saying, “In the original, as you no doubt know, we defeat Saddam Hussein, only to let him slip away at the very end,” and promises to finish the job this time around.
As is often the case, the Onion may be onto something. I suspect that for all of our triumphalism, we are actually ambivalent about total victory. There is pride, of course, in having achieved Saddam’s quick removal, just as there was in ending the Third Reich. But it makes sense, too, that we should at some level want to see our victory as less than complete. Swift and total conquest brings the disconcerting shock that our military might is even more potent than we knew. It induces an anxiety about the ease with which we decide to topple a regime. And it leaves a let-down and dissipated sense of purpose after an all-out fight against an arrant villain. After all, if Saddam is really dead—if evil personified is permanently put down—what’s left for the United States and its military to do?
Thanks to Donald McKale’s Hitler:The Survival Myth and to Ron Rosenbaum and his book Explaining Hitler.