By Thomas Weber
It has been thirty years this month since the master forger Konrad Kujau had his fifteen minutes of fame. Kujau managed to fool Stern magazine in Germany and the Sunday Times into believing that Hitler had secretly kept a diary. On 25 April 1983, Stern went public with the sensational story that Hitler’s diaries – which Kujau had penned in the late 70s and early 80s – had surfaced and that the history of the century had to be rewritten. By 6 May, it had become clear that two of the most venerable German and British publications had become the laughing stock of their nations. While no-one still believes that Hitler kept a diary, many other untrue facts about Hitler have been surprisingly resilient:
1. Hitler was really called Schicklgruber.
Would Germans have been prepared to greet each other with a hearty ‘Heil Schicklgruber’ every day? Could Hitler have become a dictator if he had used his real name, Schicklgruber, or would this have been just too ridiculous aname for a dictator? These are the kind of questions that continue to be discussed regularly on internet discussion sites. They are, however, historically pointless questions, as Schicklgruber never was Hitler’s name. Hitler’s father had been born out of the wedlock to Maria Anna Schicklgruber. Yet he had changed his name to Hitler, the name of his step-father, who by all likelihood also was his biological father, well before Adolf Hitler was born. While the claim that Adolf Hitler was really called Adolf Schicklgruber is historical nonsense, it is nevertheless telling that people continue to spread the claim. It points to the urge of people to turn Hitler into an object of ridicule.
2. Hitler had a Jewish grandfather.
The idea that the nemesis of the Jews of Europe was, according the logic of his own Nuremberg laws, a ‘quarter-Jew’ himself dates back to the attempt of some of his opponents to prevent Hitler from coming to power. As Hitler’s father was born out of wedlock, the claim was that Hitler had been fathered by the head of the Jewish household for which Hitler’s grandmother Maria Anna had worked for a while.
If the results of the unethical DNA testing of Hitler’s Austrian and American relatives, carried out a few years ago by the Belgian journalist Jean-Paul Mulders, are to be trusted, we now finally know for certain that the step-father of Hitler’s father was indeed his biological father and therefore Hitler did not have a Jewish grand-father. Yet what may be more important than the question of whether objectively speaking Hitler had a Jewish grandfather is what Hitler himself thought of the matter. It is likely Hitler feared being the grandson of a Jew, as he seems to have commissioned Hans Frank, his chief jurist, to look into the claim that he had Jewish ancestry in 1930.
3. Hitler fathered a child in World War I before losing one of his testicles.
Another ‘fact’ which was exposed as untrue by Jean-Paul Mulders, if his DNA testing is to be trusted, is the idea – only revived by a French news magazine last year – that Hitler fathered a child with a French woman during the First World War. Most other evidence also suggests that Hitler was neither heterosexual nor, as some claim, homosexual but asexual. Then again, German authorities seem to have made payments to Hitler’s French family during World War Two which is odd if no relationship of any kind had existed between Hitler and the mother of Hitler’s purported son.
The belief popularized by an English Second World War rhyme that Hitler had only one ‘ball’ was recently claimed to have finally proven to be true as a result of newly available testimony of a German medical orderly who claimed to have treated Hitler after being wounded in his groin. However, nothing in this story really adds up.
4. Hitler survived World War II.
If we are to believe recent news reports, Adolf and Eva Hitler escaped from Berlin in the eleventh hour, as the Russians were closing in. On board a submarine they made their way to Argentina, where they lived happily ever after until Hitler died of old age in the 1960s. The Hitler-escaped-to-Argentina story is only the latest tale in the saga that has tried to explain why, in 1945 and after, no Western investigators managed to locate Hitler’s corpse. Yet eyewitness testimony of several people exists that confirms that Hitler committed suicide and that his body was soaked with petrol before being burned. Furthermore, parts of Hitler’s skull and teeth are almost certainly held in a Russian repository. Even in the absence of eye-witness testimony and forensic evidence, Hitler’s psychological make-up makes it implausible to argue that he would have wanted to continue to live after his downfall at the hand of the allies.
5. Hitler himself was the most significant creator of untrue Hitler facts.
What Hitler told the world about how he had turned from a postcard painter into a fascist leader was seldom supported by true facts. A pathological and talented liar, Hitler told people whatever they wanted to hear and what was politically opportune. The core of his invented story were the four years that he served in the German Army on the Western Front. It was a story that he told so successfully that it was believed for almost a century after the end of the Great War. Hitler used it when he wanted to tell his core supporters that National Socialism had been born in the trenches of the First World War and that the war had made him. He also used it when he tried to broaden his appeal to a skeptical public in the late 1920s. And he used it in 1938 to court and fool Neville Chamberlain by telling the British prime minister a tall story of how a British soldier had saved his life in 1918. Many other canards of Hitler and untrue facts created by his propagandists persist to the present day. As the young historian Norman Domeier recently put it, “today’s perception of Nazi Germany by the public at large is still dominated by Nazi propaganda.”
Thomas Weber teaches European and international history at the University of Aberdeen and directs the Centre for Global Security and Governance. He is also Fritz Thyssen Fellow at Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Since earning his DPhil from the University of Oxford, he has held fellowships or has taught at Harvard University, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, and the University of Glasgow. He is the author of Hitler’s First War: Adolf Hitler, the Men of the List Regiment, and the First World War (2010).