Five Top Nazi Mysteries

The Third Reich was one of the most evil regimes of all time and continues to morbidly fascinate audiences up to the present day. I grew up in the 1970s with Hitler still casting a long shadow over England. Many of my school teachers had fought in the Second World War or had seen their homes destroyed during the Blitz. Hitler and the Nazi legacy loomed large. But what grips many today are the unsolved mysteries that surround the Nazis.

So – let’s look at some of the main examples.

The Nazis in Argentina

In 2017, Argentinian police officers found a secret treasure room. It was accessed via a door hidden behind a bookcase in a suburban house near Buenos Aires. They could hardly believe their eyes as a massive Nazi eagle presented itself plus a silver bust of Adolf Hitler. More than 75 objects covered in swastikas were taken to the offices of Interpol. These items were most likely the property of one or more high ranking officials of the Third Reich.

This included a magnifying glass that was found to be identical to one being held by Hitler in a photograph. Even more disturbing were children’s toys including harmonicas emblazoned with swastikas. An example of Nazi brainwashing. There was also a tool used to measure people’s heads – possibly linked to the Third Reich’s racial purity program.

All of which resurrected stories of Nazis fleeing to Latin America using so-called ‘ratlines’ – well established routes to escape Allied justice. One of those who managed to evade capture at the end of World War Two was the notorious concentration camp doctor Josef Mengele. He passed through Buenos Aires eventually ending up in Brazil where he drowned while swimming in the sea in 1979 after suffering a stroke.

DISCOVER: How the movies depicted the Nazis

Hall of the Supreme SS Leaders

What on earth was Heinrich Himmler up to at Wewelsburg Castle? The Reichsfuhrer of the SS – the elite squadron of the Third Reich – took over this Renaissance castle in the 1933, the year the Nazis took power. From that date, he seems to have tried to transform this building into a Nazi Camelot. It wasn’t just a conference centre for the SS but some kind of sacred site, even described as being the centre of the world.

Using concentration camp labour, Himmler set about turning the castle into something more daunting to the eye. Apparently the original medieval builders hadn’t created a stunning enough piece of architecture. So the moat was deepened to create a more forbidding elevation and the interiors were given a very Nazi makeover.

This included the creation of the so-called Hall of the Supreme SS Leaders. Quite what was supposed to happen in this space died with Himmler when he committed suicide rather than face the hangman’s noose at the Nuremberg trials. SS officers did attempt to destroy the castle before its capture by American forces in 1945 – clearly determined to keep its rituals a secret.

This is certainly one of the more intriguing Nazi mysteries.

The death of Otto Rahn

Otto Rahn was a German medievalist with an interest in the Cathars and the legends of the Holy Grail. In any other era, he might have written some esoteric books and presented a TV documentary or two. But in the Third Reich, Rahn was almost destined to cross paths with Nazi Grail obsessive and right hand man to Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler. Rahn’s 1933 book, Crusade Against the Grail, brought him to Himmler’s attention.

Initially ignoring Rahn’s homosexuality (which carried a potential death sentence under the Third Reich) Himmler enlisted the medievalist into the SS and sent him off looking for the Holy Grail. This was one of several insane projects being run by Himmler to variously discover the roots of the Aryan race (possibly in Atlantis) or seize sacred relics that might guarantee victory for the Nazis in the Second World War.

Rahn’s mission was of course futile. The Grail eluded him in France, Spain, Italy and Iceland. Himmler became steadily disenchanted with Rahn who in turn took to having very open gay relationships and voicing his criticism of the Nazis. This led to the disillusioned medievalist being forced to work as a guard at Dachau concentration camp.

On 13 March 1939, his frozen body was discovered in the Austrian Alps. Accidental death was the official ruling. Many however doubt this was the case.

The missing Amber Room

One of the most spectacular examples of art theft by the Nazis was the plundering of the 18th century Amber Room from the Catherine Palace near St Petersburg in Russia. Ironically, it was a present from the King of Prussia, Frederick William the First, to Tsar Peter the Great in 1716 when it was shipped from Berlin to St Petersburg. In effect, the Nazis were taking it back on an illegal return journey. But then it vanished.

One theory was that in the closing stages of World War Two, it was loaded on to a ship – the Wilhelm Gustloff – which was promptly torpedoed by Soviet forces. Tragically, the ship may have been transporting over 9,000 people fleeing the Soviet advance against Germany. If true, that would massively eclipse the death toll of the Titanic.

In 2020, the wreck of another ship – the Karlsruhe – was investigated by Polish divers who claimed there was possible evidence that parts of the Amber Room may have been on that vessel.

The Nazis turn on the Freemasons

Quite why the Nazis suddenly on the Freemasons breaking up lodges and killing members is one of the more curious Nazi mysteries. At some point, the Third Reich decided that they constituted an alternative and threatening network beyond Nazi control. In 1935, all lodges were ordered to disband.

Incredibly vicious propaganda linked Freemasonry to Judaism which was clearly a death sentence. The head of the security police Reinhard Heydrich declared that masonry had to be eliminated as quickly as possible and formed a special division to carry out this gruesome task.

The anti-masonic hysteria reached a fever pitch in the mid-1930s but as war loomed, even Hitler had the sense to realise this was wrecking the civil service and other public institutions where people had been forced to leave their jobs after being revealed as Freemasons. Some were pardoned and able to resume work.

Yet in Paris in 1940 and Brussels in 1941, we find the Nazi occupying authorities organising anti-Masonic exhibitions with artefacts stolen from lodges. It seems that the Third Reich was spooked by Freemasonry viewing it as some kind of existential threat.

Hitler really only had one ball

In the Second World War, British soldiers used to sing a saucy song suggesting that Hitler only had one testicle. I always assumed this single ball slander had no basis in fact.

Interestingly, medical reports on Hitler when he was imprisoned in the 1920s suggest that far from being an invention of British propaganda, the Fuhrer may indeed have only possessed one properly descended ball.

The lyrics to the song sung by soldiers varies. As a child growing up in London in the 1970s, this ditty was still being belted out by kids. We all knew the words!

Hitler has only got one ball
Göring has two but very small
Himmler is rather sim’lar
But poor old Goebbels has no balls at all

British Army song – possible author: Toby O’Brien in 1939

Another version says that Hitler’s missing ball is in the Albert Hall – rhymes you see!

It’s been asserted that an even earlier version of the song had Göring, a leader of the Nazi high command, with the testicular deficit. He was said to have lost half his manhood during a Nazi failed coup d’etat in 1923 in Munich known as the Beer Hall Putsch.

DISCOVER: The forgotten American Nazis in the 1930s

It was after that 1923 attempt at a Nazi revolt that Hitler was put in prison. While under lock and key, he was examined by Dr Josef Brinsteiner. His report, alluding to the missing ball, was discovered in an archive by a professor at the University of Erlangen and published a few years ago in the German mass circulation tabloid Bild.

Here I am discussing this on Private Lives – the history documentary series presented by Tracy Borman and broadcast on UKTV and Yesterday.

It’s true – Hitler only had one

How the movie industry depicts the Nazis

The Nazis ran the worst dictatorship in history that plunged Europe into a devastating war and murdered millions in concentration camps. So, how has the movie industry depicted the horror of Adolf Hitler. Well, let’s take a look:

Gritty realism: “Downfall” (2004)

A brilliant German movie about Hitler’s final days in Berlin as the Soviet Red Army and Allied forces closed in on the city, leaving it a smouldering ruin.

An incredibly atmospheric film that captures the claustrophobic atmosphere in the bunker where Hitler and the Nazis were holed up. Bit by bit we see the Third Reich crumbling leading to the Fuhrer’s suicide.

Tense thriller: “Valkyrie” (2008)

In July, 1944, a group of German military officers tried to blow Adolf Hitler and the Nazi high command up as they met at the so-called Wolf’s Lair. Tom Cruise plays Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, the one-eyed hero who tries and fails to implement the mission. Casting in this movie on the Nazis was spot on and you empathise completely with the doomed plotters.

Musical: “The Sound of Music” (1965) and “Cabaret” (1972)

The Nazis have been taken on in musicals. The Sound of Music tells the story of a singing family against the backdrop of the Nazi takeover of Austria. Made twenty years after World War II, it’s not an in-depth look at German fascism, more a romantic tale in which the Nazis intrude.

Ditto Cabaret, another love story set in the Weimar republic. Starring Liza Minelli, that movie is based on a story by the English poet Christopher Isherwood. Again, it’s not really about the Nazis but they do turn up at the end of the movie to spoil everything, closing down the fun night life of Berlin.

Sentimental and whimsical: “Life is Beautiful” (1997) and “The Day the Clown Cried” (1972)

My least favourite movie type on the Nazis is the very sentimental and treacly films about life in concentration camps. I realise that many moviegoers adored Life is Beautiful, about a father resorting to comic routines to obscure the nightmare of concentration camp life from his son, but I found it unbearably mawkish.

Twenty five years before, comedian Jerry Lewis made a similar movie called The Day the Clown cried. It was so bad that even Lewis insisted it should never be released – and thankfully it never was.

Dark comedy: “The Producers” (1967) and “The Great Dictator” (1940)

Comedy is a genre that’s had mixed results. The director Mel Brooks featured a fictional musical called “Springtime for Hitler” in his musical The Producers, which was in deliberately bad taste but very funny.

In contrast, I’ve never known what to make of Charlie Chaplin’s well-intentioned but unwatchable comic take on Hitler, The Great Dictator. Might have worked when it was made in 1940 as an anti-Nazi film but today it’s just clunky and cloying.

Out and out propaganda: “Triumph of the Will” (1935)

Then of course, there are films the Nazis made themselves heroising their dictatorship. The in-house director for the Third Reich was a woman called Leni Riefenstahl. Technically very proficient, she glorified the Reich in a movie called Triumph of the Will in 1935.

It’s more of a fly on the wall documentary with no voice over that bombards the viewer with rallies, goose-stepping SS and endless speeches by Hitler and others. Riefenstahl managed not to get imprisoned after the war and died in 2001 aged over 100.

Portraying Adolf Hitler is still a very emotive subject. But the further we move away from World War II and the Holocaust, the more it seems that directors are prepared to take on the subject in ways that would have once seemed unthinkable.

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, Hitler was a demonic figure. The debate now is to what extent he can be depicted as a human being without diminishing what he did.