Is Hitler Dead or Alive?

How the frenzy around Hitler’s death lasted for years after World War II’s end.

Retouched photographs of Hitler created by Eddie Senz

Background: As the tide of war turned, the Allies prepared for the possibility that high-ranking Nazis, including Hitler himself, might try to escape the country. In 1944 for example, the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) wartime intelligence agency created a set of retouched photographs of Hitler in order to show how he could disguise himself to escape capture after Germany's defeat. It never came to that. On May 1, 1945, Hitler’s appointed successor, Admiral Donitz, announced on the radio that the German dictator had died. President Truman relayed it to the American people the next day. The catchphrase, however, was “to the best possible information,” and much doubt remained. In a June 1945 poll, for example, 68% of Americans did not believe Hitler was dead.

Photograph of the destroyed Führerbunker, Bild 183-M1204-319, Bundesarchiv.

 

How do you think the average American responded to this April 1947 poll about whether Hitler was dead or not?

Do you think Adolf Hitler is dead, April 1947

_____ Yes
_____ No
_____ No Opinion

Headline of Stars and Stripes, May 2, 1945.

The Results:

Source: Gallup Poll, April 1947, Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell University.

What Happened: The first information about Hitler’s death came from the Russians, who were the first to enter Berlin during the final months of World War II and performed the first autopsy of the dictator’s charred body. Although Stalin had demanded, and received, confirmation of Hitler’s death, he started a campaign of state-sponsored disinformation, arguing that Hitler was shielded by the former Western Allies. In the chaotic months and years that followed, a disguised Hitler was supposedly spotted across Europe. In June 11, 1945, for example, Spain’s foreign minister Felix Lequerica had to publically deny a Russian report indicating Hitler had found shelter in Spain.

Eager to prevent the creation of a “myth” that would benefit the Soviets and distract from the postwar reconstruction, Western powers appointed British counter-intelligence agent Hugh Trevor-Roper in November 1945 to investigate the death of Hitler. An historian in civilian life, Trevor-Roper was able to use investigations and interviews with hundreds of British, American, and Canadian intelligence officers, as well as several German officials who had been present in the Führerbunker with Hitler. The Soviets refused to help. Trevor-Roper drafted his report confirming the death of the German dictator within a year and turned his investigation into a gripping book, The Last Days of Hitler, published in March 1947 in England and in the United States in August 1947. Despite efforts by conspiracy theorists, Hitler’s death is a fact accepted by every serious historian.

Medical examination’s report of the remains of Hitler’s body. National Library of Medicine.

 

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WWII Polls

Public opinion polls give us unique insight into America in the WWII era. Each week, historians from the Institute of War and Democracy work with the archives of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research to explore what Americans believed and how they felt about events and people related to the WWII years.

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Christelle Le Faucheur

Christelle Le Faucher, PhD, is a Research Historian in the Institute for the Study of War and Democracy. She came to the Institute in 201...
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