He has been the subject of more books, films, and documentaries than any other individual, living or dead. However, despite this intense and enduring interest, there is still a great deal about Hitler that we do not know for sure.
These are 10 of the most debated theories about the life and death of Adolf Hitler.
- Was Hitler a brave soldier?
In the Second World War, Adolf Hitler (pictured above on the far right) was one of the most powerful men in the world, but in World War One he never rose beyond the rank of corporal. Nonetheless, he served in the Imperial German Army for several years, even being awarded the Iron Cross, one of Imperial Germany’s highest medals for valor.
While there isn’t much good to say about Hitler, history does record that he was a brave soldier who danced with death on a regular basis. This was certainly the version of history put forward by the Nazis, but recent research suggests his war record may have been vastly inflated.
Dr. Thomas Weber of Aberdeen University tracked down every diary entry and letter he could find written by the men who had served in Hitler’s regiment. They revealed that Hitler may not, as previously believed, have served as a regimental runner – a dangerous job that would have seen him delivering messages to the frontlines under heavy fire.
It seems that he had instead been employed to deliver messages between company headquarters. This would have placed him several miles behind the front-lines. Weber argues that Hitler’s medals for bravery were awarded simply because his job brought him into contact with the officers who issued the medals, rather than for any specific act of heroism.
While this might not be enough to completely overturn the general consensus concerning Hitler’s military service, it certainly brings it into question.
- Was Hitler partly Jewish?
The details of Adolf Hitler’s family tree on his mother’s side have been established with a good degree of certainty. The same cannot be said for his father. Alois Schicklgruber, who later changed his name to Hitler, was an illegitimate child. Since nobody knew who the young Shicklgruber’s father was, that space was left blank on his birth certificate.
Historians have invested considerable effort in attempting to work out the true identity of Adolf Hitler’s paternal grandfather. The mystery has never been solved, but one of the potential candidates put forward was a Jew by the name of Leopold Frankenberger.
The suggestion that he might be partly Jewish dogged Hitler throughout his life, but thanks to modern techniques scientists have been able to attempt to provide an answer.
Some 39 of Hitler’s closest surviving relatives gave saliva samples in order for their DNA to be tested. The results found a chromosome called E1b1b1, which is very rare amongst Europeans, but is associated with the Berbers of North Africa and Jewish people. This suggests that Hitler might well have been related to the very people he despised.
- Did Hitler murder his niece?
Geli Raubal was said to be a beautiful young woman. Adolf Hitler apparently agreed, and in 1929 the pair became entwined in a love affair. This was despite the fact that Hitler was 19 years her senior and also her half-uncle.
Hitler was by all accounts utterly besotted, and Geli accompanied him everywhere. For a time, it appears that Hitler’s infatuation was reciprocated, but the future Fuhrer’s obsession soon became suffocating. He refused to let Geli leave his side and became enraged if she dared to speak to another man.
The couple shared an apartment in Munich, and neighbors reported that on the evening of September 18, 1931 a huge row erupted between Hitler and his niece. The next morning Geli was found shot dead with Hitler’s revolver at her side.
Sections of the press speculated that Geli had been murdered by her lover in a fit of jealous rage.
Unfortunately, the truth will probably never be known. Hitler had not yet seized power, but his connections and influence within Germany were considerable. He had many friends in high places. These included the pro-Nazi Minister of Justice for Bavaria, who ensured that Geli’s body was swiftly removed from the country for burial in Austria. Claims that she had suffered a broken nose in addition to the gunshot wound that claimed her life could no longer be verified one way or the other.
- Was Hitler really blinded by poison gas?
On November 11, 1918 the slaughter of World War One finally came to an end as the armistice came into effect. For the vast majority of soldiers on either side the overriding emotion was of relief that they had survived. That was not the case for Adolf Hitler.
Having been caught in a poison gas attack some weeks earlier he had been temporarily blinded and was undergoing treatment in a field hospital. When news reached him of what amounted to Germany’s capitulation, he fell to his knees and broke down in tears. At least, that’s the story that Hitler always told, and despite him being one of history’s most prolific liars it went unchallenged for almost a century.
In 2011 the historian Thomas Weber decided to take a closer look into Hitler’s claims. Hitler’s Great War medical records had long since been lost or destroyed. However, a renowned German neurosurgeon named Otfrid Forster claimed to have seen them. Weber found letters that Forster had written to his American colleagues during the 1930s. According to Forster, Hitler had been hospitalized due to hysterical blindness and not poison gas.
If this is accurate, then it would not be at all surprising that Hitler invented a different narrative to portray himself in a more heroic light.
- Did A British soldier spare Hitler’s life?
Henry Tandey was a war hero, one of the most decorated soldiers in the entire British Army, and perhaps a man who unwittingly missed an opportunity to prevent the Second World War.
Legend has it that Tandey and Hitler met face-to-face on a World War I battlefield. Tandey allegedly had Germany’s future leader at his mercy, but he chose to let him live rather than gun down a defenseless opponent. It’s a remarkable story, even more so since its source can be traced back to none other than Adolf Hitler himself.
In September 1938 Britain’s Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Germany in an optimistic but ultimately doomed attempt to secure peace in Europe. While there he noticed a picture of a British soldier, Henry Tandey, displayed on the wall of Hitler’s study. It seemed very odd indeed that an arch-nationalist such as Germany’s Fuhrer would choose to display a picture of a British soldier.
Hitler explained that he’d noticed Tandey’s photograph in the press and recognized him as the man who spared his life during the Great War.
It may be that Hitler was mistaken. Perhaps he even invented the story to bolster the myth of himself as a man protected by providence and destiny. However, Tandey confirmed that he had indeed spared the lives of several Germans. It is possible that one of those men was Adolf Hitler.
- Was Hitler a weak dictator?
At the height of his power Adolf Hitler presided over a vast empire that spanned almost all of continental Europe, and a sizeable chunk of North Africa. The conventional image of Hitler is as the overlord at the center of this vast web, making all the important decisions and pulling all the strings.
Some historians, most notably Hans Mommsen, have argued that this picture credits Hitler with far more control than he ever actually wielded. Advocates of the weak dictator theory accept that Hitler was the most powerful man in the Reich, but they argue that he was either unable or unwilling to exercise the kind of direct control over his subordinates that the likes of the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin insisted upon.
Rather than Hitler dictating his decisions from above, many policies were implemented from below as his henchman, such as Himmler and Martin Bormann, fought turf wars amongst themselves and attempted to dream up schemes to please their Fuhrer.
On this reading Hitler never really had a grand plan, he was instead buffeted around by the forces of history and the chaotic nature of the brutal party apparatus he had created.
- Was Hitler obsessed with the occult?
Nazis are one of the go-to staples for any fiction writer in need of a baddie. Frequently, as in Raiders of the Lost Ark, those Nazis are attempting to harness supernatural powers.
This isn’t actually a million miles from reality. Several members of Hitler’s inner circle were fascinated by and firmly believed in the power of the supernatural and magic.
Heinrich Himmler created a special unit within the SS to collect information on witches and magic, and the German Navy even set up the National Pendulum Institute in Berlin. While the British used sonar to hunt down German U-boats, the Germans attempted to locate British shipping by dangling pendulums over maps of the Atlantic Ocean.
The biggest believer of all was Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s second in command, who in 1941 stole a Messerschmitt fighter aircraft, flew to Scotland, and attempted to broker a peace deal between Nazi Germany and the thoroughly bemused British. It seems that Hess’s astrologer had convinced him he was destined to be the man to bring the war to an end.
Quite how convinced Hitler was of the existence of supernatural powers is debatable. However, there is no question that he often spoke of a force he called “providence” protecting him and guiding his actions.
- Was Hitler suffering from Parkinson’s disease?
During his rise to power Hitler proved himself to be an exceptionally shrewd, manipulative, and cunning politician. He later demonstrated these same abilities on the international stage as he routinely outmaneuvered the established statesmen of Europe.
As World War Two progressed, Hitler’s agility of mind abandoned him as his mental and physical health deteriorated rapidly. His decision making became so poor that the Allies abandoned plans to assassinate him, on the grounds that his mistakes were helping to shorten the war.
By 1945 visitors to Hitler’s Berlin bunker were shocked to find their Fuhrer had become a physical wreck. His left hand shook uncontrollably, and he dragged his leg behind him as he walked.
The stress and strain of directing a world war that seemed increasingly certain to lead to his death no doubt played their part in Hitler’s dramatic decline, but some neuroscientists believe Hitler was suffering from the degenerative mental and physical impact of Parkinson’s disease.
Bruno Ganz, the actor who played Hitler in the 2005 film Downfall, was convinced this was the case and attempted to portray this in his performance.
- Was Hitler a junkie?
Adolf Hitler didn’t smoke, didn’t touch alcohol, and didn’t eat meat. He reportedly even abstained from coffee. Nazi propaganda portrayed him as having dedicated his entire life in the service of Germany: he had neither the time nor the inclination to pursue Earthly pleasures.
The reality, which has only recently begun to emerge, was that Hitler spent much of the war doped up on a terrifying cocktail of drugs.
Hitler’s slide into addiction began when he fell ill in 1941, and his personal physician, Theodor Morell, treated him with a course of injections of methamphetamine.
Hitler, not surprisingly, found this perked him up to no end. Morell soon became indispensable to Germany’s leader; accompanying Hitler everywhere he would administer opiates to help his Fuhrer sleep and cocaine to pep him up before important meetings.
While Hitler didn’t see himself as a junkie, he needed drugs in order to function and was almost certainly severely addicted. In early 1945 the factories that produced the drugs he relied on were destroyed by Allied bombers, cutting off much of his supply. Hitler was forced to go cold turkey, and some historians have speculated that it may have been this, and not Parkinson’s disease, that accounted for his mental and physical deterioration as the war in Europe approached its end.
- Did Hitler survive the war?
Of all the theories swirling around Adolf Hitler perhaps the most infamous, and the most persistent, is that he may have somehow survived the destruction of his murderous Third Reich.
We know with a good deal of certainty that Hitler was still in Berlin on his birthday of 20 April 1945, just two weeks before the city fell. However, Berlin was ultimately captured by the Soviets, and Stalin’s secret police prevented even Georgy Zhukov, the senior Soviet commander on the entire Eastern Front, from inspecting Hitler’s bunker beneath the Reich Chancellery.
By the time the Americans and British were finally allowed access, Hitler, whether alive or dead, was long gone. With the lack of any physical remains to examine, the FBI and the CIA initially remained open to the possibility that Hitler may just have escaped.
It was by no means entirely implausible; even in the final months of the war Hitler still had the ability to call upon immense resources had he chosen to attempt to flee. However, the weight of evidence indicates this was most likely not the case.
Dozens of mutually corroborating eyewitness accounts place Hitler in Berlin as the Soviet Red Army closed in around his bunker. The U-boat in which he was rumored to have escaped was recently found wrecked in the North Sea between Denmark and Norway, and in 2018 the Russian National Archives allowed experts to study a set of teeth said to belong to Hitler. A team of French pathologists compared them with x-rays taken of Hitler’s teeth in 1944 and found them to be an exact match.
Most World War Two historians believe that Adolf Hitler committed suicide amidst the ruins of his shattered Reich in April of 1945, but rumors that he escaped to South America, or even Antarctica, do not easily die.