Hunting Hitler Part VI: The Search Begins, May 1945 by Dr. Greg Bradsher - National Archives
With Adolf Hitler’s death just before 4pm on April 30, 1945, Hitler’s right-hand man Martin Bormann realized he had no position at all, unless Grand AdmiralKarl Doenitz should confirm his appointment as Party Minister in the new government that Hitler had provided for in his political testament. He also knew it was improbable that any copy of Hitler’s political testament had yet reached Doenitz, who was therefore unaware of Hitler’s death, but also of his own right of succession. Sometime between 615pm and 750pm, Bormann, Goebbels, and Admiral Voss drafted and sent to Doenitz an ambiguous radio signal in the secure naval cipher, not bothering to mention Hitler was dead. It seemed as if Bormann wished to prolong yet a little longer the authority which he loved but could no longer legally exercise. The message stated “In place of the former Reich-Marshal Goering the Fuehrer appoints you, Herr Grand Admiral, as his successor. Written authorization is on its way. You will immediately take all such measures as the situation requires. Bormann.” 
At Ploen, Doenitz, in the presence of Admiral Kummetz, the naval Commander-in-Chief, Baltic, and Albert Speer, received a message, which had just arrived from Berlin. The message was from Bormann announcing that Doenitz was Hitler’s successor in place of Goering. Doenitz was surprised. He incorrectly assumed that Hitler had nominated him because he wished to clear the way to enable an officer of the Armed Forces to put an end to the war. Doenitz did not find out until the winter of 1945-46, when for the first time he heard the provisions of Hitler’s will, in which he demanded that the struggle should be continued.That evening Doenitz met with Keitel and Jodl and discussed the message. They agreed that Hitler was dead. They discussed making offers of an immediate armistice.
On the morning of May 1, Bormann decided, or agreed, to inform Doenitz that his reign had begun. Still, he avoided an explicit admission of Hitler’s death. His message, which was sent for dispatch at 740am and received by Doenitz at 1053am stated: “The will has become effective. I shall come to see you at the earliest possible moment. In my opinion, publication should be postponed until we meet.”
From that Doenitz presumed that Hitler was dead. Contrary to Bormann’s opinion to hold an announcement, Doenitz felt that the German Armed Forces ought to be told what had happened as quickly as possible.Doenitz would later write: “Of his suicide I knew nothing. Nor from the assessment of his character that I had formed did I for a moment think of suicide as a possibility. I assumed that he had met his end seeking death in battle in Berlin. I felt therefore that the announcement of his death should be couched in respectful terms.”
On May 1 Doenitz broadcast the following announcement:
The Fuehrer has nominated me as his successor. In full consciousness of my responsibilities I therefore assume the leadership of the German people at this fateful hour. My first task is to save German men and women from destruction by the advancing Bolshevist enemy. It is to serve this purpose alone that the military struggle continues. For as long as the British and the Americans continue to impede the accomplishment of this task, we must also continue to fight and defend ourselves against them.
The British and the Americans in that case will not be fighting in the interest of their own people, but solely for the expansion of Bolshevism in Europe.
He also issued his Order of the Day to the Armed Forces:
The Fuehrer has nominated me as his successor as Head of the State and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. I assume command of all Services of the Armed Forces with the firm intention of continuing the fight against the Bolsheviks until our troops and the hundreds of thousands of German families in our eastern provinces have been saved from slavery or destruction. Against the British and the Americans I must continue to fight as long as they persist in hindering the accomplishment of my primary object.
At 318pm Doenitz received a third and last signal from the Chancellery in Berlin, whence it had been dispatched at 246pm. It was from Goebbels and Bormann, and signed by Goebbels, who would commit suicide some six hours later. It read:
The Fuehrer died yesterday at 1530 hours. Testament of 29 April appoints you as Reich President, Reich Minister Dr. Goebbels as Reich Chancellor, Reichsleiter Bormann as Party Minister, Reich Minister Seyss-Inquart as Foreign Minister. By order of the Fuehrer, the Testament has been sent out of Berlin to you, to Field-Marshal Schoerner, and for preservation and publication. Reichsleiter Bormann intends to go to you today and to inform you of the situation. Time and form of announcement to the Press and to the troops is left to you. Confirm receipt.-Goebbels.
Doenitz decided not to wait for Bormann’s arrival to inform the Germans of Hitler’s death and did so that evening. At 930pm Hamburg Radio warned the German people that “a grave and important announcement” would be made; then, came strains from Wagner’s operas and the slow movement of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony was played, followed at 10:26pm by Doenitz announcing Hitler’s death and his own succession. The Fuehrer, he said, had fallen “this afternoon;” he had died fighting “at the head of his troops.”
Meanwhile on the morning of May 1, Lorenz, Zander, Johannmeier (the three couriers with Hitler’s personal will, political testament, and marriage certificate) were on the Wannsee peninsula opposite Schwanenwerder. On May 2, the day Berlin surrendered, they were on the Havel, a tributary of the Elbe. Before dawn on May 3, they set out again, and made their way to Potsdam and Brandenburg, and on May 11 crossed the Elbe at Parey, between Magdeburg and Genthin, and passed ultimately, as foreign workers, into the area of the Western Allies, transported by American trucks. By this time the war was over, and Zander and Lorenz lost heart and easily convinced themselves that their mission had now no purpose or possibility of fulfillment. Johannmeier allowed himself to be influenced by them, although he still believed he would have been able to complete his mission. After abandoning their mission, the men split up. Zander and Lorenz went to the house of Zander’s relatives in Hanover. From there, Zander proceeded south until he reached Munich, where he stayed with his wife, and then continued to Tegernsee. At Tegernsee, Zander hid his documents in a trunk. He changed his name, identity, status, and began a new life under the name of Friedrich Wilhelm Paustin. Johannmeier meanwhile went to his family’s home in Iserlohn in Westphalia, and buried his documents in a bottle in the back garden. Lorenz ended up in Luxembourg and found work as a journalist under an assumed name. Their existence and mission would not be known to the Allies until November. 
The Moscow radio’s first announcement of the German report of Hitler’s death, broadcast at 312am on May 2 to the Russian people, declared that “The German radio statement evidently represents a new Fascist trick.” The radio announcement was prefaced by the phrase “it is asserted that,” indicating that the Russians were skeptical of the German version of Hitler’s fate. The broadcast said that Doenitz’s order to the German troops was repeating “the usual trickery and twists of Hitlerite propaganda.” The Moscow broadcast said that, “by the dissemination of the statement on the death of Hitler, the German Fascists evidently hope to prepare for Hitler the possibility of disappearing from the scene and going to an underground position.”
The New York Times on May 2 carried an editorial entitled “The End of Hitler,” referencing the German radio announcement that Hitler had died the previous afternoon in his command post at the Reich Chancellery in Berlin “fighting to his last breath against bolshevism.” The editorial, after noting that the announcement indicated that Doenitz had been named as Hitler’s successor, observed that:
The Nazis have made lies so much a part of their politics, and their reports about Hitler’s alleged doubles have been so widely spread, that these announcements are bound to leave in many minds the suspicion that the master liar is attempting to perpetrate one last great hoax on the world in an effort to save himself, and perhaps prepare the way for his return at a later and more auspicious time. Yet, whether true or not, the announcement does mark the end of Hitler and the regime that plunged the world into this war and formed the core of the fanatical German resistance which has cost so much Allied blood and effort.
All things considered, there seems to be no good reason to doubt that Hitler is dead, or that he died as the announcement says he did. Logically, he had to die that way, and had he tried to evade his fate, it is difficult to believe that even his most devoted followers would have permitted him to do so.
The editorial added that it seemed probably that Hitler “fell as he was supposed to fall-in the roar and terror of battle, amid the crumbling walls of his capital, in the Chancellery which he had built as the seat of his world dominion, and at a moment when the conquering Russian armies were planting their victory banners on the scenes of his former triumphs.”
Near the end of President Truman’s news conference on May 2, he was asked if he would care to comment on the death of Hitler or Mussolini. He responded “Well, of course, the two principal war criminals will not have to come to trial; and I am very happy they are out of the way.” He was then asked if that meant “that we know officially that Hitler is dead?” Truman responded “Yes.” He was then asked if he knew how Hitler died, to which Truman said “No, we do not.” Truman was asked “Is it official? This is confirmation that Hitler is dead?” Truman responded: “We have the best–on the best authority possible to obtain at this time that Hitler is dead. But how he died we are not-we are not familiar with the details as yet.” Truman was asked if he could name the authority. “I would rather not” Truman replied. Finally, Truman was asked if he was convinced that the authority he gave was the best possible and that the information was true. “Yes” was his reply. The next day Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson followed the lead of Truman in expressing the opinion that Hitler was dead.
Hans Fritzsche, former Ministerial Director of the Propaganda Ministry, on May 2, being held captive in Berlin, spoke about Hitler’s end. A reporter with the First U.S. Army on May 2 reported that a former high official of the German Foreign Office [Hans Fritzsche] said that day that he and his colleagues believed that Hitler was dead, his body would not be discovered, and that the Nazis would claim cremation. He also said “But admittedly there exists a possibility he is alive and attempting to disappear through feigning death.” A communiqué issued in Moscow during the night of May 2-3 announced that Hitler and Goebbels had committed suicide. This statement was attributed to Fritzsche. From London on May 3 a report was made, citing the Soviet communiqué that Fritsche had said General Krebs, Goebbels, and Hitler had all committed suicide. From London on May 3 it was reported that a deposition made by Goebbels’ chief assistant that both Goebbels and Hitler had committed suicide in Berlin was given to the world early that day by Red Army forces after they had occupied Berlin. Fritsche, was quoted in the Soviet communiqué as having reported also the suicide of Krebs. The statement of Fritsche, noted a reporter, added another version of Hitler’s demise to two already given: that he had died in battle and that he had succumbed to cerebral hemorrhage.
From Moscow on May 3 came a story that the Soviets were looking for Hitler and were not convinced that he, Goebbels, and other Nazi leaders actually committed suicide. Well-known Pravda writer Nikolai Tikhonoff, wrote: “We shall see what has really happened to him. And if he escaped, we shall find him, no matter where he is.”
The official Soviet news agency on May 6 sent a wireless communiqué to all communist newspapers published outside the Soviet Union that Soviet authorities were conducting a very thorough investigation into the matter of Hitler’s fate and the world would soon know the true facts. “Up to now Nazi deviousness and Machiavellian finesse have succeeded in shrouding this in mystery.”An Associated Press reporter in Moscow on May 7 reported that Russian investigators combed Berlin again that day for evidence of Hitler, and although a group of German generals insisted anew that he was dead by his own hand there was nothing to indicate the Soviets were any closer to a final resolution of his reported death. A Pravda dispatch from Berlin said the examination of bodies discovered in the courtyard of the Chancellery annex, the Reichstag and other public buildings where high Nazis shot themselves, was continuing. Nothing had been discovered to back up the Hitler suicide theory, however, it stated. AP ended the piece: “As each day goes by without confirmation of Hitler’s and Goebbels’ reported suicides the suspicion grows here that Hitler and his henchmen are still alive. Most speculation is that they have gone to some neutral country, or perhaps by long-range submarine to Japan.”
Adolf Hitler had been buried, dead or alive, in the rubble of his collapsing Third Reich. Whether or not he had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage (as reported from Stockholm), or had “fallen in his command post at the Reich chancellery” (as reported by the Hamburg radio, which said that he had been succeeded as Führer by Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz), or was a prisoner of Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler, Adolf Hitler as a political force had been expunged. If he were indeed dead, the hope of most of mankind had been realized. For seldom had so many millions of people hoped so implacably for the death of one man.
At Berlin on May 10, SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) issued a press release indicating that at least four bodies, one of which may be Hitler, had been found by the Russians in Berlin. However, none of them has been identified as being definitely that of Hitler. The press release added that the bodies of Goebbels and his family, of Martin Bormann, and of a number of other top Nazis had been found and identified with fair certainty. For a week, the press release continued, the Russians had searched through the ruins of the underground fortress where Hitler and his gang were. Somewhere amid the underground ruins, Hitler’s body charred beyond real recognition by flamethrowers, Hitler probably met his death. The Russians believe he might have been killed beforehand by the people around him.
Hermann Goering on May 11, at Augsburg, told reporters that he was satisfied that Hitler was dead and that Hitler’s body had been disposed of so it would not fall into the hands of the Russians. On May 15, at Berchtesgaden, one of Hitler’s stenographers, Gerhard Herrgesell, told a reporter he thought there still was a possibility that Hitler was alive, but was personally convinced that Hitler died in the Bunker with Eva Braun, some SS men and probably Bormann. Herrgesell speculated that plans were made some time ago to prevent Hitler’s body from falling into the hands of the Russians. He thought the bodies of Hitler and a few close associates may have been placed in a vault in the basement of one of the government buildings and then sealed by blasting debris down upon it. Dr. Theodor Morrell, Hitler’s personal physician for eight years, told a reporter on May 21 that he did not believe Hitler had committed suicide, but believed that Hitler was dead, probably from a heart condition. 
During an informal exchange on May 13, Allied counter-intelligence officers were told by Russian officers that Soviet specialists had found new proof that Hitler, mentally unbalanced and partially paralyzed, had been killed in his bunker on May 1 by an injection of poison administered to him by Dr. Stumpfegger.
Time magazine on May 14 carried a story with the title “Victory in Europe: The Many Deaths of Adolf Hitler,” in which it said that Hitler had died more deaths in one week than any man in history. The article noted that Hamburg radio had said that Hitler had died “at his command post in the Reich Chancellery, fighting the Russians to the last; said Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte, who had it from Heinrich Himmler on April 24; Hitler had a cerebral hemorrhage, might already be dead; said Dr. Hans Fritzsche, captured Goebbels deputy: Hitler had committed suicide; said the Tokyo radio: Hitler was killed by an exploding shell as he walked down the steps of his Berlin Chancellery; said the Paris-Presse: After a quarrel with Hitler over the continuation of the war, other Nazi leaders blew him to bits by a bomb placed in his underground fortress in the Tiergarten on April 21; said the London Daily Express: Hitler is on his way to Japan in a U-boat; and, said United Press war correspondent Edward W. Beattie Jr.: Germans believed that Hitler was killed in last year’s bomb plot.” The Time article stated that Soviet soldiers dug deep into the rubble of the Reich Chancellery for Hitler’s corpse. They did not find it, and Fritzsche explained to them: “The body has been hidden in a place impossible to find.” Time noted that the Russians were determined to find Hitler, dead or alive. Said Pravda: “Whether he escaped to hell, to the devil’s paws, or to the arms of fascist protectors, still he is no more. We shall find out what really happened to him. And if he escaped, we shall find him, no matter where he is.”
On May 26 Harry L. Hopkins (Adviser and Assistant to the President), W. Averell Harriman (Ambassador to the Soviet Union), and Charles E. Bohlen (Assistant to the Secretary of State) met with Joseph Stalin at the Kremlin in Moscow. Near the end of the meeting, Hopkins said he hoped the Russians would find the body of Hitler. Stalin replied that in his opinion Hitler was not dead but hiding somewhere. He said the Soviet doctors thought they had identified the body of Goebbels and Hitler’s chauffeur [Kempka], but that he, personally, even doubted if Goebbels was dead and said the whole matter was “strange and the various talks of funerals and burials struck him as being very dubious.” Stalin said he thought that Bormann, Goebbels, Hitler and probably Krebs had escaped and were in hiding. Hopkins said that he knew the Germans had several very large submarines but that no trace of them had been found and added that he hoped they would track Hitler down wherever he might be. Stalin said he also knew of those submarines which had been running back and forth between Germany and Japan taking gold and negotiable assets from Germany to Japan. He added that he had ordered his intelligence service to look into the matter of the submarines but so far they had failed to discover any trace and therefore he thought it was possible that Hitler and company had gone in them to Japan.
Office of Strategic Services officer Richard W. Cutler wrote that for a short time after their defeat, a number of Germans simply could not accept the fact that Hitler had died, even though the death had been proclaimed by Doenitz. Hitler’s body had not been found and rumors persisted that he was still alive. Senior British intelligence officer Dick White had recognized from the start the importance of solving the mystery of Hitler’s death. “Hitler had captured the imagination of the German people; so long as the possibility remained that he might be still alive, the stability and security of the occupied zones could not be guaranteed.” White had convinced Field Marshal Montgomery, Commander-in-Chief of the British Zone, of the need for an inquiry into Hitler’s fate. After the German surrender he had gone, with Montgomery’s blessing, to Berlin, where the Russians assured him that both Hitler and Goebbels had committed suicide, and that their bodies had been burnt. White had been shown a set of false teeth identified as Hitler’s. Now, at the end of May the mystery deepened and widened. Many Germans were convinced Hitler was not dead, and if he did die, he had done so in the matter explained by Doenitz. Meanwhile the Soviets seemed to be increasingly changing their story. During the summer the confusion and contradictions would continue.