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What If Hitler Escaped?

a woman and child looking at a video screen with an image of Hitler
Imperial War Museum, Lambeth, U.K. Photo by Barney Moss.

Possibly the most newsworthy discovery to come out of the JFK assassination documents released last week is the confirmation that, as late as the mid-1950s, the CIA considered the possibility that Adolf Hitler had survived the war and escaped to South America.

The McClatchy newspapers reported on a few documents that provide evidence the CIA was investigating information that Hitler might have made his way to Colombia, and included a 1954 photograph of a man purported to be the ex-fuhrer. An unnamed informant said he had been in contact with a former member of the SS (the armed wing of the Nazi Party), Phillip Citroen, who further claimed Hitler moved to Argentina the following year.

While the documents show the CIA was skeptical, even at the time, the agency took the information seriously enough to look into it. However, the matter appears to have been dropped by the end of 1955.

Most likely, the escape to South America never happened. After all, this was Hitler, and secrets like that don’t tend to stay hidden for very long, let alone for three-quarters of a century. The historical consensus is that Hitler committed suicide in 1945 as Russian troops closed in on his Berlin bunker, and that is almost certainly what happened.

But suppose for a moment it were true. Say Hitler managed to live in hiding to age 75, which would have been 1964, with the world none the wiser.

He would have seen his Nazi party forbidden in Germany, its symbols outlawed and “Mein Kampf” banned. Hitler would have seen how quickly most Germans turned their back on his movement and his Reich as the Allies’ comprehensive “denazification” program took hold. At the start of 1945, Nazis still ruled Germany, and everyone of any importance was a party member. A year later, there was nary an open Nazi to be found.

Hitler would have lived to see his adopted country divided between a Soviet-dominated, communist east and a free, democratic and prosperous west, with consequences lasting far beyond those he would live to observe. He would have seen Berlin physically divided by a wall in 1961, and U.S. troops based in in the western half of his adopted homeland to defend it against any threat from the Soviet Union, which had thwarted and ultimately reversed Hitler’s eastward expansion.

He would have seen his own name and likeness become the very embodiment of evil in popular culture. He would see himself depicted as a monster in countless films, books and broadcasts. The vehemence with which he was globally despised would continue to grow with the discoveries of the magnitude of the Holocaust, despite the wartime cover-up efforts by the Nazi regime. Even his given name, once so common in German-speaking countries as to be completely unremarkable, practically vanished by the early 1950s.

Hitler would have watched from afar as a Jewish state was proclaimed in Palestine. In 1960 he would have seen its agents kidnap his accomplice Adolf Eichmann from Argentina, where he had assumed a false identity, and bring him to Jerusalem to stand trial for his crimes the following year. Eichmann was hanged in 1962. Whatever sycophants surrounded Hitler in his hiding place would have already long since known that their fuhrer looked after himself, as he would have presumably done while 22 of his chief supporters faced justice in Nuremburg.

A peaceful death in exile would not have been a fitting end. For that, Hitler would need to have been brought to account for his horrific crimes. But an escape to South America to watch all of this as a powerless observer would not have been a comfortable or satisfying end, either.

Hitler probably did not escape. But if he had, it might not be so much worse than the alternative. The man who once saw himself as the savior of his people might have lived long enough to know that he failed, and that his country and the world considered themselves far better off without him.

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