31st July 1998
Should Hitler be killed if he were still alive now?
In the best thrillers, you know the ending from the very first moment. Watch Edward Fox in The Day Of The Jackal and you’ll be breathless with suspense, even though it’s plain his nameless assassin cannot kill Charles de Gaulle.
History didn’t happen that way. But as the rifle sights are trained on the back of president’s head, you’re squinting through the cracks between your fingers.
I felt the same thrill this week as an argument flared over the British secret service plots to assassinate Hitler. In autumn 1941, 12 Polish resistance fighters trained by Britain’s Special Operations Executive laid explosives along the Freidorf-Schwarzwasser railway line.
The unit, armed with rifles and grenades, split into six bomb-makers, five look-outs and a radio operator. Their target – the Führerzug, Hitler’s private train. As the locomotive thundered through the freezing Polish countryside, several kilos of high explosive were detonated. The line was blocked for two days. 430 Germans died. Adolf Hitler was not among them. His train had made an unscheduled stop, allowing another to go ahead.
The secret documents which revealed Britain’s plans to finish the Führer also uncovered a deep split of opinion, with some generals fearing that Hitler’s death could help Germany. With their insane, blundering strategist gone, the Reich could be reborn – and even if it lost the war, a Fourth Reich might rise from the ashes, inspired by the Holy Martyr Hitler.
Incredibly, that split continues. Historians have argued furiously this week that Hitler alive was a powerful asset to the Allies – and Hitler dead was worse than useless. Strong hints emerged that Churchill and Roosevelt could have agreed to hold back from assassination, to prolong the war and give Stalin’s Red Army the opportunity of annexing Eastern Europe.
Should Hitler have been assassinated? No one has suggested putting the question to an imaginary inhabitant of Warsaw during the massacre of August 1942. Suppose you could travel back to a death-camp, Treblinka or Sobibor, and ask one of the skeletons in striped rags – “Ought we kill Hitler?” What would their answer be?
Poland 1941 was not the first time Hitler had cheated death. He was gassed in the Flanders trenches – and when police machine-gunned Nazi marchers in Munich on November 9, 1923, Hitler’s bodyguard was killed shielding the Führer from the bullets. And it would not be the last death-plot – on July 20, 1944, Colonel Claus Stauffenburg placed at bomb at Hitler’s feet in Rastenburg. Hitler escaped serious injury – it was the colonel who died, by firing squad the next day.
His ability to survive seemed almost paranormal, as if by a series of evil miracles. He certainly believed in his own psychic abilities – it is hard to know how much of the rumoured Nazi obsession with black masses and occult ritual orgies was invented by propagandists, but Hitler’s reliance on astrologers is unquestioned. Karl Ernst Krafft attracted German High Command’s attention by predicting the bombing of a beer-hall in November 1939, when seven people died in a blast minutes after Hitler left the podium.
Krafft became Nazi astrologer-in-chief, but he was made the scapegoat when Hess was captured in Scotland, and suffered a nervous breakdown in prison when Goebbels demanded a series of false forecasts for propaganda.
Meanwhile SOE chief Colin Gubbins was discussing murder plots with Churchill.
Marksmen with Mausers and telescopic sights could pick off the Führer as he took his customary morning stroll at the Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps; anthrax could be injected into his milk or his water (Hitler was a tea addict); a hypodermic syringe disguised as a fountain pen could be plunged into the dictator’s rear end; an SAS team could parachute in to obliterate his bullet-proof Mercedes with a bazooka.
It’s all chillingly fascinating – even though we know Hitler was not blown up by partisans, he was not a victim of bad astrology and he did not die at the point of a poisoned fountain pen. He was left to kill himself in his bunker, to become a neo-Nazi icon despite the best efforts of the SOE.
The fact is, when governments plot to assassinate leaders they do it in a half-hearted fashion. Hitler’s name might have been written on a death warrrant, but it was only in pencil. The same applied to Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot and Slobodan Milosevic. The sabre rattles, but it never applies the coup de grace. Only the lone gunman can assassinate – and then the victim is usually not a genocidal maniac but a man of peace, a Lincoln, a Gandhi, a Rabin.
When Saddam wrote the death warrant of the Kurds, and Milosevic the Bosnian Muslims’, they did not use pencil.
So imagine yourself in 1941, in Brest-Litovsk. In Minsk. In Vilna, in Kovno, in Riga, in Jelgava, in Cernowitz, in Marculesti, in Lvov, in David Grodek, in Pinsk, in Kamenets Podolsk, in Kishinev, in Vienna, in Lublin, in Bremen. In Auschwitz.
And answer the question: “If it is humanly possible, should Hitler be killed today?”
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