I have become alarmed at how many people appear to be taking the TV series Hunting Hitler seriously. The show, which started production in 2015 and has been aired on the History Channel, has now seen three seasons, the second of which is currently being shown in the UK. Viewer ratings have apparently been good and advertisers seem pleased, but I suspect serious historians will have major concerns.
The series has, at its heart, the bizarre claim that Adolf Hitler (along with his mistress- turned-wife Eva Braun) may have escaped from his Berlin bunker in April, 1945, and made his way by U-boat to South America, where he lived with Mrs. Hitler in utmost secrecy, planning a ‘Fourth Reich’ from the safety of a jungle in Argentina. The key word here is may. Regrettably, though, the documentary series ignores its own brief nod to theory and seeks to ‘prove’ beyond all doubt that Hitler did indeed escape. The ‘evidence’ that he did so is treated as being beyond question.
First of all, let’s remind ourselves about some key facts, which are accepted by the vast majority of serious academic historians, scholars who have studied the Third Reich and the last days of Hitler in near-forensic detail.
The Nazi leader, by then in very poor health, made his last public appearance (which was also filmed) outside his Berlin bunker on April 20th, 1945, when he inspected a line-up of young boy soldiers who were involved in the last desperate defence of the Reich’s capital city (see photo). Careful scrutiny of the footage shows a man who is exhausted and frail, barely able to smile, his hand shaking uncontrollably behind his back. Hitler was also photographed on April 28th (the last photo taken of him) surveying some bomb damage just outside the bunker.
In his final Will and Political Testimony, dictated to his young secretary, Traudl Junge, on April 29th, 1945, the day before he committed suicide in the bunker, the Nazi leader made it abundantly clear that he was choosing death rather than allow himself to fall into the hands of the Russians. He had also firmly rejected any pleas from his close associates to leave Berlin.
There was also overwhelming eyewitness evidence about Hitler’s last hours in the bunker, testimony collected from numerous interrogations and interviews conducted by British, American and Russian investigators. Moreover, Otto Gunsche (who died in 2003) was personally given the task by Hitler of cremating the Fuhrer’s remains, which Gunsche faithfully did in the garden just outside the bunker, placing the body of Eva Braun (the new Mrs. Hitler) alongside her late husband in a shallow ditch. Petrol was poured over the corpses to speed up the process of destruction. Despite this, Russian investigators were still able to collect some bone fragments.
Yet here we have another TV programme which refutes this history and, frankly, re-writes the past in the name of ‘infotainment’. Historical accuracy and factual evidence is pushed aside in order to construct a new and more glamorous version of the biographical details of Hitler’s life. The first series of Hunting Hitler used declassified FBI documents from 1947 (700 pages were declassified in 2014). These files contained reports which were devoted to collating all possible sightings of Hitler in the immediate years after the war. The second series expanded the range of documents to include declassified and other material from CIA and British intelligence sources, along with a diverse range of ‘documents’ from Argentina, Russia and Germany. All of this material has been put into a ‘database’ assembled especially for the documentary, which the show’s main host – Bob Baer – regularly draws on to find ‘evidence’ (or, rather, in his mind, confirmation) concerning the route Hitler took to get away and the names of those who supposedly helped him.
The problem with all this is that, although it uses the format of a documentary, it is not a carefully researched or authoritative documentary, backed up with contributions from professional historians or recognised experts on Nazism or the Third Reich. Instead, it is a frankly silly piece of conspiracy theory, which often treats gossip and newspaper rumour as ‘fact’, exploits the public’s continuing fascination with all things ‘Nazi’, and offers no credible evidence to back up its hugely misleading claims. I write as one who has specialised in the study of fascism for most of my academic career.
At one level, I suppose, I should just relax and simply file the programme under ‘fiction’, placing it alongside such conspiratorial series as Ancient Aliens. I should quietly accept that the misleadingly named ‘History’ channel has churned out yet another piece of hokum. At another level, though, I feel distinctly uncomfortable: Hunting Hitler is potentially dangerous. In fact, to my mind, it is a classic example of history dressed up as very irresponsible entertainment, a TV programme which breaks many of the accepted rules of serious historical research and makes some quite ludicrous assertions.
The inspiration for the series goes back to a very poorly reviewed book published a few years ago, Grey Wolf: The Escape of Adolf Hitler (2011), co-authored by two British writers, Simon Dunstan and Gerrard Williams. The latter author, Williams, is one of the ‘team’ whose ‘crack’ members feature in each episode of Hunting Hitler. Bob Baer, the main presenter of the series, is a former CIA officer who, since his retirement, has reinvented himself as an author and occasional TV commentator on ‘intelligence’ matters. How on earth he became involved in the series is puzzling – the programme-makers must have made him an offer he simply could not refuse.
Baer, according to the premise of the series, assembled a crack ‘team’ of investigators in 2015, which, as well as Williams, has included an ex-American Special Forces operative Tim Kennedy (who is in real life a mixed martial arts fighter), a former Green Beret soldier, various local guides, and a ‘historian’ (James Holland) who has written popular histories of the Second World War. Again, in my estimation, any historian worth their salt would not associate themselves with this series, or risk serious damage to their reputation. But, on reflection, such opportunities must be a huge temptation for an author to help generate additional publicity for their books on military history.
Over the course of the three series of Hunting Hitler, the special ‘team’ has been sent to various locations across the globe (ranging from Germany, Spain, Norway and Austria in Europe, to Argentina in South America). They have been ‘tasked’ (to use the lingo) with seeking out and assembling the evidence for the trail (or trails) that the Nazi dictator took to enable his masterly ‘escape’. There has been plenty of talk about secret tunnels, clandestine S.S. ‘networks’, gold dumped in lakes, hidden Nazi safety deposit boxes, and forgotten advanced technology. Strong hints have been dropped that Hitler used a new Nazi ‘jet’ aircraft, or an advanced U-boat or seaplane, and may even have taken some ‘heavy water’ with him (i.e. to develop a Nazi nuclear bomb). It is all very Indiana Jones.
In series one, for example, members of the team came across what was described as ‘a mysterious Nazi lair in the Argentinian jungle’ (see photo), while in the second series much time was devoted to pursuing leads in far-flung valleys in Austria and Italy. The difference between a novel and a documentary was increasingly blurred, and the line between fantasy and reality has been frequently crossed. It is a (very poor) Hollywood version of history.
With a dramatic voice-over provided by narrator Dave Hoffman, some atmospheric music at key moments, and plenty of hand-held camera angles and reality-TV style shots, the purpose of the ‘documentary’ is clearly to present the theory of Hitler’s escape as not just a theory, but as a ‘no-brainer’ fact. In each new episode, the standard formula is that the ‘team’, directed by Baer and his assistant from an office in Los Angeles, collects new intelligence and clues in an urgent race against time, as if they were on a major international manhunt.
The reality is that this gallant team assembles and selects evidence to fit their own predetermined belief that Hitler definitely escaped from Europe and reached his new haven. Any new bit of evidence that does not quite fit their conviction is often brushed aside or dismissed. When members of the team interview people, there are lots of over-dramatized exchanges and knowing looks caught on camera between the main team members (or ‘investigators’). And if they don’t get what they want to hear from ‘eye-witnesses’ or other people they have tracked down, or the interviewee has seemed hesitant or reluctant, the team’s usual line is that the interviewee is ‘still afraid’ of the consequences of talking, some seventy or so years after the war.
At times, the ‘hunt’ for Hitler’s escape route has been treated like a modern-day manhunt for somebody who is still alive, with the ‘team’ racing about in a small convoy of dark-coloured four-by-four cars, driving into villages or towns in excited expectation. Much of the investigative work, though, has bordered on the farcical. In one episode of series two, where members of the team followed a Nazi ‘ratline’ to a hotel in the South Tyrol, a piece of ‘state-of-the-art’ equipment was used to identify possible burial sites in the hotel grounds for Nazi safe deposit boxes, which one member of the team suggested would contain ‘stashed secret plans’ for safe routes and ‘money, maps, contacts’. Once an airborne drone had been used to identify two possible locations, a mechanical digger was then brought in on the ground to dig down at the sites: but all that was finally dug up was rubble and some old hotel sewage pipes at one site, and an old shovel head at the other site! Trying to explain away the latter, it was claimed that somebody had already dug there and the holes had been ‘looted in 1945’.
There has been plenty of this kind of nonsense in other episodes, ranging from trawling lakes for crashed planes to engaging in underwater dives to sunken wrecks, or trying to gain entry to locked churches. If people do not co-operate with the team’s inquiries, there are dark hints that such individuals may be part of the ‘cover-up’ of the real story.
Unfortunately, the History channel regularly chooses to put ratings above any historical accuracy, and Hunting Hitler is a typical example of this. It is a Hollywood-style version of history; it is seriously flawed in its treatment of evidence and is a classic lesson in how not to conduct objective historical research. This should always be borne in mind if you happen to catch an episode.
Dr. Steven Woodbridge is Senior Lecturer in History at Kingston University
(All images: WikiMedia Commons)