November/December 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 6
The campaign to revise Hitler’s reputation has gone on for 50 years, but there’s another strategy now. Some of it is built on the work of the head of the Gestapo—who may have enjoyed a comfortable retirement in America.
There is nothing wrong in revising accepted notions or versions of history. History is revisionist by its very nature. What matters is the purpose of the revisionists. There are umpteen examples of revisionist historians employing documents out of context, citing them only in part, or ignoring or omitting evidence contrary to their theses. Such practices, too, are not new. But what about actual forgeries of documents? Alas, they exist too, and some of them are not easily detectable.
More than a half-century after its ending, there has been less “revisionism” about World War II than about World War I, and, more than a half-century after their deaths, Hitler has fewer defenders than had Napoleon. There have been attempts, here and there, to rehabilitate Hitler (and also Mussolini), most by obsessive revisionists—but some by forgers. There was the 1983 discovery of Hitler’s “diaries,” whose authenticity was soon proved completely false (even though a few eminent historians were briefly taken in by the forgery). There exists another Hitler document that is still questionable. Fragments of his table talk in early 1945, only a few weeks before the collapse of his Reich, and his suicide, were supposed to have been recorded by his minion Martin Bormann. They reflect a Hitler who is not only intelligent but prophetic. They also sound considerably authentic. Yet there is the question of their provenance. They ended up in the hands of François Genoud, a now-deceased Swiss lawyer whose shrewdness, as well as his unflagging admiration for Hitler and for the Third Reich, was truly exceptional. But Genoud would not reveal who had made the typescript, or who had brought it to him, or when and whether it had been edited, so there is some reason to think that these documents were at least partially altered for the purpose of elevating Hitler’s posthumous reputation.
There exist, however, other forgeries whose nature is different. They are meant to exonerate, or at least to revise, Hitler’s reputation by documenting all kinds of disreputable, indeed maleficent, plans on the part of his opponents. This is a shift, one aimed not so much at a whitening of Hitler as at the blackening of Churchill and Roosevelt. (It is detectable in the career of the “revisionist” David Irving, who followed his Hitler’s War with, 10 years later, Churchill’s War, the first exonerating Hitler from villainy, the second attributing to Churchill all kinds of villainies.) An outstanding example of this new kind of “revisionism” is the relatively recent publication of a forgery whose provenance is startling in itself. It involves the transcript—the verbatim record—of telephone conversations between Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 and 1943.
Sometime in late 1941 British and American technicians established a radiotelephone link (as it was called by the very few who knew about it) that they believed made it possible to have untappable conversations between London and Washington, usually going through New York. The British, not sure this line was 100 percent safe, appointed special telephone operators, so-called censors, to listen in on it. These were very intelligent and well-trained young women who were authorized to break into the line and warn the conversants—even Winston Churchill himself—when they seemed not careful enough in talking about highly secret matters. Churchill was not a particular telephone enthusiast, believing as he did in the primacy of the written word, but on several occasions he used the transatlantic radiotelephone link to speak with Roosevelt.
These conversations were not recorded in London or Washington. But the German Ministry of Posts had constructed a radiotelephone listening post in a house on the North Sea shore of Holland, where German technicians were able, on occasion, to break into the link. We know that on July 29, 1943, they listened to an entire telephone conversation between Churchill and Roosevelt. A transcript of this, of course in English but then translated into German, was sent to the German Army High Command and to Hitler. A German summary of that transcript (the army copy) does exist; it has been reprinted in at least two collections of documents. This summary has the marks of authenticity. It is historically interesting since Churchill and Roosevelt were talking only four days after Mussolini had been removed from power by the King of Italy and Marshal Pietro Badoglio. But a few years ago, not this summary but a full English transcript of that conversation was printed —together with another full transcript of a Churchill-Roosevelt conversation, on November 26, 1941—in a book published in California and thus made available to any researcher or historian or indeed visitor to American libraries or to any nimble user of the Internet. How did this happen?
Any historian knows, or ought to know, that documents by themselves do not make history, that it is history that makes documents. Who wrote them? And why? Who published them? And why? The provenance of these Churchill-Roosevelt transcripts is in itself surprising, to say the least.
The chief of the Gestapo in Hitler’s Germany was a former Bavarian police officer named Heinrich Müller. (The term Gestapo is often inaccurately used. Heinrich Himmler was the head not of the Gestapo but of the entire Reich security apparatus, of which the Gestapo was an important branch.) Müller was no middle-rank bureaucrat; among other things, he attended the infamous Wannsee Conference in January 1942, where the specific plan for the so-called Final SoIu- tion (liquidation of the Jewish population across Europe and in Russia) was decided upon.
It is almost certain that Müller survived the war. It seems that in 1945, during its last days or shortly thereafter, he fled Germany under an assumed name to Switzerland; that about three years later he was secretly brought to the United States, probably by Alien Dulles, who had been the chief of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in Switzerland during the war and who would become the first head of the CIA; that Müller was interrogated by the CIC (Army Counterintelligence Corps); that extensive records of his interrogations exist; that he lived for a while in a safe house in Washington; and that he eventually died somewhere in the United States. “It seems,” because there is no hard evidence about this amazing story, even though there are all kinds of other evidence, including the names of his American interrogators and his (edited or not) answers. What is certain is that both the Swiss and the American secret services have been extremely sensitive, if not altogether panicky, about revelations involving Müller. What is also certain is that the West Berlin grave marked with Heinrich Müller’s name, date of birth (1900), and supposed death (1945) was exhumed on orders of the West German government in 1963 and did not contain his body.
This is, of course, an at least potentially explosive story in itself. Various revelatory books published during the last 30 years have described the occasional cooperation of American secret services with former Nazi personages in the Cold War. But the protecting and paying and bringing to this country of the head of the Gestapo takes the cake. However, the writer of this article is a historian, not a Nazi hunter. Let a first-class reporter go after the Müller story. I am less interested in Müller than in what he brought here with him, and why.
Three smallish volumes containing the Müller interrogations and documents he produced have been published by a small firm in California under the title of Gestapo Chief: The 1948 Interrogation of Heinrich Müller, edited and with (a poor, but that is not the point) commentary by “Gregory Douglas,” most probably a pseudonym of an American of German origin who knew the name of at least one of Müller’s interrogators and got hold of the record of the interrogations and the documents. Some of these “documents” are patently false. Others have at least some marks of authenticity, as, for example, the transcripts of the Churchill-Roosevelt telephone conversations.
I was told of the existence of these Müller volumes five years ago by a German woman, the historian Marlis Steinert, who is the author of a very good biography of Hitler. Thereafter I was able to acquire them. My main interest was less Müller than the documents. Two things struck me as I read the transcripts of the Churchill-Roosevelt telephone talks. One was that unlike in other documents Müller brought forth, whoever produced them knew a great many accurate details and historical circumstances of the time. The other was my growing conviction that these transcripts were falsified—cleverly falsified, but falsified nonetheless—with the purpose of producing evidence of unspeakable conspiratorial endeavors by Roosevelt and Churchill. I had only circumstantial evidence that these transcripts were forgeries. A few examples: In the July 29, 1943, transcript, Churchill and Roosevelt talk at length about what to do with Mussolini and whether to have him assassinated. In the German Army’s summary of this conversation there is no mention of Mussolini. Moreover, between July 25 and 30, the six days after Mussolini’s fall from power, Churchill and Roosevelt exchanged 19 written messages; they contain just one very brief mention of Mussolini. Worse, Roosevelt in the Müller transcript keeps referring to Churchill’s alleged complicity in the assassination of the French admiral Jean Darlan seven months before and to Churchill’s role in the airplane accident that killed the Polish prime minister Gen. Wladyslaw Sikorski, four weeks after their supposed discussion on how to liquidate Mussolini. But perhaps more telling is that in this transcript Churchill does not at all sound the way he talked. ("Of course there are negative aspects to every business, Franklin.” “At this point in history, I feel a watershed has been passed and the momentum lies with us now.” Of all people, Winston Churchill was not a man for a mixed metaphor. And in 1941 and 1943 he did not call the President “Franklin"—surely not on the telephone.)
For about three years I made desultory attempts to find the original transcript in various German archives, without success. Then, early this year, I struck gold. I was able to contact one of the British censors of the transatlantic radiotelephone link who remembered the July 1943 conversation. This excellent lady, now in her eighties, confirmed that the style of the speech is far too lurid, too coarse of language, and grammatically incorrect, and subjects are discussed that would never have been authorized or allowed on the transatlantic radiotelephone link. Also, the Prime Minister and the President would never have referred to each other by name. In sum, the entire transcript is completely false.
What was Müller’s purpose, and what is the purpose of these publications 50 years after Hitler’s demise and the end of the Third Reich? It is “revisionism” of a kind, and shrewd: to cast doubts upon the generally accepted views of World War II by denigrating Hitler’s chief adversaries. It is almost certain that whatever other papers he had, Müller did not carry the Churchill-Roosevelt transcripts with him when he fled Germany with a minimum of baggage. He had not been a recipient of the transcripts in 1941 or 1943. It is likely that they were fed to him, perhaps through others, by National Socialist sympathizers (yes, there was and is such a network across Europe), with expectations that would be eventually fulfilled. And so they might. There is, for example, the transcript of a November 26, 1941, telephone conversation that may not even have taken place at all. In this conversation Churchill calls American anti-Communists “Fascists,” which is not only nonsensical but (unlike his famous pronunciation of “Naaazies") not a customary Churchillian usage. And then Churchill says to “Franklin” (again!): “You must trust me, Franklin, and I cannot be more specific.” (“I accept this,” Franklin replies.) According to British intelligence, the Japanese fleet has put to sea, going not southward but eastward. “I can assure you that their goal is … Pearl Harbor.” “You see by my notifying you where my loyalty lies. Certainly to one who is heart and soul with us against Hitler.” “I do appreciate your loyalty, Winston.”
A retired American naval officer, Lt. Comdr. Kenneth Landis, has recently written a book, Deceit at Pearl Harbor, that depends entirely on the Müller transcript. An advertisement for it, in respectable military and naval historical journals, begins: “From the last survivor of Admiral Kimmel’s staff, this new book reveals the astonishing transcript of a telephone warning between Winston Churchill and President Roosevelt eleven days before Pearl Harbor, showing that the British and even Hitler knew.… It is time the public learned the true story.”
“The true story. …” Truth is a very precious thing, perhaps the most precious thing in the world. And difficult. The greatest Christian thinkers knew that. Pascal said, “The truth is so subtle a point that our instruments are too blunt to touch it exactly.” Kierkegaard: “The pure truth is for God alone. What is given to us is the pursuit of truth.” Just as the purpose of medicine is not perfect health but the struggle against illness, just as the purpose of law is not perfect justice but the pursuit of injustice, so the purpose of the historian is not the establishment of perfect truth but the pursuit of truth through a reduction of ignorance, a struggle against the circulation of untruths. To the plagiarist he must say, “That may be so, but you are not the one who said it.” To obsessive revisionists he must say, “This may be true, but it is not true enough.” And to falsifiers and forgers he must say, “You are peddling lies.”