Did Hitler escape from his bunker and live in Argentina after WW2? The real history that debunks the conspiracy
Did Adolf Hitler kill himself at the end of the Second World War, or did he actually escape and flee to South America? That question has enthralled conspiracy theorists for decades, and is the subject of the first episode of our new podcast series Conspiracy. Rob Attar spoke to Professor Richard J Evans about the origins of the theory and why it needs to be debunked once and for all
On 30 April 1945, as Allied forces closed in on Berlin from both east and west, Adolf Hitler went into his private study in the underground Führerbunker and shot himself in the right temple. An all-or-nothing gambler, he had always said that he would accept only total victory in the Second World War or total defeat; as his supposed 1,000-year Third Reich collapsed around him, he declared multiple times his intention to commit suicide rather than be captured.
His wife of one day, Eva Braun, also took her own life – by ingesting cyanide – before their bodies were taken up to the garden of the Reich Chancellery, doused with petrol and burned. By the time the Soviet Red Army arrived a couple of days later, almost nothing remained of Hitler's body other than parts of the jawbone and some teeth, from which his identity could be confirmed.
- On the podcast | Richard J Evans considers the idea that the Nazi leader escaped and led a long life in South America
The conspiracy theory: the escape of Hitler
However, some writers and journalists claim that, instead of killing himself upon realising the war was lost, Hitler managed to escape the bunker with Eva Braun, fled Germany and eventually made it to South America. In Argentina, he lived out the rest of his life under a new identity.
That is but one of the many sensational theories surrounding the fate of the Führer. Another suggests that he had been substituted in the bunker by a double (as had Braun and even his pet dog, Blondi), while another claims that Hitler lived for many years in a different underground bunker under the snow and ice of Antarctica.
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What is the source of the theory?
The Soviets captured Berlin on 2 May 1945 and a Red Army report confirmed that Hitler was dead, based on the discovery of the remains in the Reich Chancellery garden and the testimonies of people who had been in the bunker in the last days of the war. This report, however, was suppressed by the Soviet leader Josef Stalin in an attempt to stay one step ahead of the other Allied nations.
“Stalin decided he wanted to sow confusion amongst the Western allies, so he started to hint strongly that Hitler had survived,” says Sir Richard J Evans, a leading expert on Nazi Germany and author of The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination (Allen Lane, 2020).
So almost immediately after the war, Soviet disinformation spread the idea that laid the foundations of the conspiracy theory. There were reports that Hitler had been spotted in venues located all over the world, from a café in Austria to Indonesia, and doctored mugshots were printed in newspapers in many countries. “There was even an unfortunate German who was interviewed many times by the police because he rather looked like Hitler,” says Professor Evans.
The specific claim that he ended up in Argentina was rooted in the fact that some Nazis did indeed escape there after the war. Stories emerged, based on zero corroborative evidence, including of one elderly Argentinian woman named Catalina Gomera, who worked in a house where a mysterious German man came to stay. She was not allowed to see him, but was told he was Hitler and she had to leave typical German meals of Wiener Schnitzel, Wurst and sausages outside his room. But Hitler, of course, was an uncompromising vegetarian.
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Why some believe that Hitler survived
The disinformation instigated by the Soviets convinced enough people that Hitler was alive. While top Nazi officers, like Goebbels and Himmler, had all killed themselves or been arrested, where they faced trial at Nuremberg, some lower-ranked personnel did manage to escape from Germany. Adolf Eichmann, the man in charge of implementing the Final Solution, and Josef Mengele, the so-called ‘Angel of Death’ and doctor at Auschwitz, both found their way to Argentina, while the Treblinka death camp Kommandant Franz Stangl escaped to Brazil.
Of course, a figure as well-known and instantly recognizable as Hitler would have been a different matter, but when claims that he had been spotted were sent to it, the US Central Intelligence Agency in the US was obliged to investigate, further giving credence to the conspiracy theory. That was despite, says Professor Evans, the CIA concluding “unambiguously” that each claim was “phoney and false”.
As for the persistence of the theory, Professor Evans highlights another key motivation: admiration. “He’d fooled the Allies so many times previously, he must have fooled them again, was the belief. He couldn’t possibly have died, such a great man as he was, by shooting himself in a squalid suicide pact underneath the ground. He must’ve escaped.”
Undeniably, there is a connection between the conspiracy and neo-Nazism. But as late as the 1950s and 60s, some people also wanted to believe Hitler lived so that he could be tracked down and brought to justice for the atrocities committed in the war. A “kind of wish-fulfilment”, as Professor Evans puts it.
The claims and hearsay, the grainy photographs, and the desire to believe in the theory continued over the years. From 2015 to 2018, a television series titled Hunting Hitler ran on the History Channel, in which investigators travelled across South America looking for any trace of the Führer. Unsurprisingly, they failed to find any.
The evidence that debunks the conspiracy
From the days immediately following Hitler’s suicide, the evidence has been conclusive: both the forensic examination of the remains and interviews with Hitler’s adjutant Otto Günsche and assistants, like his valet Heinz Linge. Their testimonies featured in a Red Army report on Hitler's death, but after Stalin’s suppression this ultimately remained secret until the fall of the Soviet Union.
Other witnesses also spoke to Hugh Trevor Roper, the historian sent by British intelligence to investigate what happened in the bunker. His report, confirming that Hitler killed himself, was published in 1947, followed by his book, The Last Days of Hitler, the next year. The third piece of evidence, says Professor Evans, was a “thorough report compiled by legal authorities in Bavaria” in the 1950s in order to issue a death certificate for Hitler. This was necessary to “establish a legal basis for the return of some looted art that he had in his possession”.
It is worth considering the personalities of the main people involved too. Eva Braun, a professional photographer, took lots of photos and home movies before and during the war, but not a single thing emerged after the war's end, which seems unlikely if she had survived. Then there is Hitler himself, a political figure to the core, says Professor Evans. “He would have been plotting a comeback. He would not, as the conspiracy theorists suggest, have sat in quiet retirement, enjoying cups of tea and cake.”
Richard J Evans is a historian whose latest book, The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination (2020), is published by Allen Lane, 2020
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.