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Hunting Bormann: the Most Senior Nazi to Vanish after the Second World War

During those final days of the German front of the Second World War in May 1945, rumours often were rife about the disappearance, vanishing and fleeing of high-ranking officials of the Nazi regime that was about to be overthrown. One of the most curious and well-known cases is about the man that is described by some as the most influential man behind Hitler himself. His name was Martin Bormann, and during the war, he assumed a position of significant influence among the highest ranks of the regime. 

Yet in the aftermath of the war, when most of his peers were arrested and stood trial for their crimes, he was tried and sentenced to death in absentia. Because although some people said he died during those last days, most likely by taking his own life, nobody knew for sure what happened to him. No body was found, all that was sure is that he disappeared in the Ruins of Berlin during those last days. Over the years, occasionally, information would arise that cast doubt on his fate. A persistent myth started to form around his disappearance, with books, films and articles written about it, and an exhaustive search conducted by the Israeli Mossad and CIA. It wasn’t until 50 years after the war ended that it was conclusively proven what happened to Bormann, making him one of the highest-ranking Nazi officials to vanish after the Second World War.

Martin Bormann in 1934

Bormann’s career

Martin Bormann was born in June 1900, in Halberstadt, a town in Saxony. Although he served in an Artillery Unit during the First World War, he didn’t see any action, and it was mostly uneventful. Already in the immediate aftermath of the war, Bormann was known to have far-right sympathies. When the French and Belgians occupied the German industrial Ruhr Area because the Germans couldn’t pay their war reparations, German nationalists often sabotaged the resource transports to France. Now, Bormann wasn’t necessarily known to participate in undermining. Instead, it is near-certain he was directly involved in the murder of Walther Kadow. Kadow was thought to have betrayed Albert Leo Schlageter, a saboteur, that was subsequently executed by the French. Bormann served a little under two years in prison for the murder. In 1927 he joined the National-Socialist German Worker’s Party. He was both a member of the Sturmabteilung, the paramilitary wing of the party, and controlled the party’s finances. 

In October 1933 Bormann became secretary to the Deputy Führer of the Nazi Party, Rudolf Hess. As the secretary to Hess, he was quickly appointed as one of the 16 Reichsleiter. This rank was the second-highest political rank of the Nazi Party, with only Hitler himself above it. Following the success of the Nazi party in the March 1933 elections, where the party gained 288 seats, he was appointed as a Deputy to the Reichstag, the German parliament. 

Throughout the years, Bormann rapidly rose in importance among Hitler’s inner circle. However, to the public, he mainly remained in the shadows, unlike the extravagant Hermann Göring and the cunning Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS.

Among the tasks delegated to him was the administration of Hitler’s personal finances, which included managing the royalties received for Mein Kampf and his portrait on post stamps. Furthermore, together with the wealthy German industrialist Gustav von Krupp, Bormann set up the Adolf Hitler Fund of German Trade and Industry – or the Adolf-Hitler-Spende der Deutschen Wirtschaft. This fund started out as a voluntary donation by German businesses, entrepreneurs and industrialists as a sign of appreciation for the economic boom thanks to Hitler’s policies. However, as the years progressed, it became a compulsory fee the private sector had to pay to the Nazi party. 

Furthermore, in 1934 Bormann was trusted with arranging the logistics and overseeing the construction of a Führersperrgebiet on the Obersalzberg. Now, the initial owners of the land didn’t want to sell their territory, but Bormann threatened to send them off to a concentration camp if they didn’t. And as such, the domain was acquired. A sperrgebiet was a sort of exclusion zone. This zone did not just house private mansions of many prominent Nazi politicians, but the area also contained Hitler’s Berghof. The Berghof was Hitler’s residence, where he spent more time than anywhere else during the war. Many famous photographs were taken of prominent officials during the war that came here for meetings. On the mountain top above the Berghof, the so-called Kehlsteinhaus was built. It was nicknamed the Eagle’s Nest and built three years after the construction of the Berghof was finished.

Bormann was 39 when the Second World War broke out. He kept competently fulfilling his duties and took on any administrative task to be carried out behind the scenes, rapidly developing himself to one of Hitler’s most trusted and loyal advisors. He did so until 1941 when something radically changed. Not so much because of Bormann, though. His boss, Rudolf Hess, embarked on perhaps one of the strangest journeys of the war. The man was known for his instability and had slowly been pushed out of power by Bormann already. Hess, convinced he still held considerable influence, decided to fly to the United Kingdom to try and negotiate a peace with the Nazis. Now this action is strange in itself and will be explored in another video. But it’s safe to say that once he landed in Scotland, Hess was promptly arrested by the Home Guard Militia and would not be released for the rest of the war… or his entire life for that matter.

Bormann (third from left) directly next to Hitler

But although Hess royally screwed up, it was a blessing to Bormann. Although, to be fair, by this point Bormann had sidelined the slow-witted Hess considerably. In May 1941 he assumed all tasks of his former boss. The position of Deputy Führer was abolished, and Bormann was named Head of the Parteikanzlei. This meant so much as that Bormann was the administrative entity behind the scenes, making sure what information got fed to Hitler, who Hitler met and how Hitler was briefed. But also which party members were shortlisted for promotion. His influence wasn’t lost on many of Hitler’s inner circle, with Hitler’s chief of intelligence, Walter Schellenberg, referring to Bormann as a ‘pig in a potato field.’ Bormann now was one of the most influential men of the Nazi regime. 

And as the war progressed, his influence kept increasing. Settling in his new position he became more comfortable filtering telegrams and briefings of Hitler. In April 1943 he officially became the Secretary of Hitler, although in practice he had been performing those tasks for a while. Because of his membership to the inner circle, he also started to influence Göring, Himmler, and Albert Speer actively. Yet he was notorious for remaining in the background, never taking the spotlight. Professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, author of “The Last Days of Hitler” described Bormann as “a mole-like creature, who seemed to avoid the glare of daylight and publicity.” He kept running things behind the scenes, as the war went on and the tide severely turned against the Germans.

It got so bad that by the final days Bormann was locked with Adolf Hitler and other high-ranking Nazis in the Führerbunker in Berlin, as the Soviets rapidly advanced. Bormann was the best man at the marriage between Hitler and Eva Braun, during those final days in the Führerbunker. One day after their marriage, Hitler and Braun took their own lives together. In his testament Hitler left behind he described Bormann as the ‘most loyal of any party member’. 

The Disappearance

Now, the last days of the Second World War in Berlin were rather chaotic to put it mildly. That counts for the documentation of Bormann’s whereabouts as well, which is where all the myths surrounding his disappearance stem from. It is for certain that he was present when Hitler and Braun took their own lives, which was on April 30th.

One of Hitler’s last acts was to allow a group of men to try and break out of Berlin. The story goes that Bormann, together with Ludwig Stumpfegger, Hitler’s personal physician, and several other SS soldiers, tried to break out of the city centre. The centre was the grizzly scene of heavy fighting to the last man against the advancing Soviet forces. Initially, the leader of the Hitler youth, Artur Axmann, fled with Bormann and Stumpfegger. The group made their way through Berlin in a colonne, accompanied by several tanks, until they came under fire and scattered due to an explosion near them. 

Bormann in 1939

Supposedly, Bormann and Stumpfegger decided to take their own lives upon the realisation they weren’t going to escape, somewhere between one and three AM on May 2nd. When Axmann, together with his adjutant Weltzin, tried to find a way out the next morning, they discovered the bodies lying next to each other. They recognised Bormann and Stumpfegger, both still wearing their uniforms but without their medals. They went on their way, leaving the bodies, and Axmann actually managed to escape initially. 

And that’s the story. But several complications arose in the aftermath of the war. Axmann evaded capture by the Red Army and managed to stay underground for several months. It wasn’t until December that year he was arrested by the U.S. Army following a counterintelligence operation. During his interrogation, he basically laid out the details the way they were just described – so everything I just told is from Axmann’s perspective. That’s all logical and fine considering it was credible that he was the last person to see Bormann and Stumpfegger alive… except that their bodies weren’t found following the war. And, just like the case with Heinrich “Gestapo” Müller which I made a separate video about, that’s when a real legend started to form surrounding Bormann’s disappearance.

During the Nuremberg Trials, in October 1946 Bormann was convicted, in absentia, for his part in the war crimes of the Nazi regime and crimes against humanity. Yet uncertainty about his fate dominated the trial. The authorities occupying Germany issued an arrest warrant for him, which didn’t lead to any information. 

Right, so there were multiple theories about Bormann’s eventual fate. One rumour goes that the Red Army arrested Bormann on May 2nd, 1945. They transferred him to the Soviet Union, according to a witness. Although initially, this might be a likely turn of events, it wouldn’t explain why no documentation about this was ever released, not even after the fall of the Soviet Union and its declassification of secret archives. Not to mention that his body was never found, which is strange if he stood trial in the Soviet Union. It would have been a propaganda dream to execute the number two of the Nazi regime. 

So perhaps Bormann managed to flee or evade capture just like Axmann. Since the heavy fighting in the city centre of Berlin prevented a breakout during those last days, he might have escaped via the sewer system. Rumour spread that Bormann assumed an alias and lived as a Polish priest in a remote village somewhere in rural Poland. Or that he lived in an abbey in Spain, indicating that he did, in fact, manage to escape. Yet investigations yielded no results, and for decades the United States, Germany and even Israel continued searching for him.

Searching for Bormann

So although his body wasn’t found for decades, a German court declared him officially deceased in March 1954, following Axmann’s narrative that he died on the night of the 2nd of May. It was an attempt to put a stop to the rumours. 

During the 1960s the public prosecutor’s office of Frankfurt am Main started to excavate parts in the vicinity of Lehrter Bahnhof in Berlin, the place Axmann and other witnesses pointed towards where Bormann was last seen. Yet these excavations yielded no result. In 1968 the newspaper der Spiegel published an interview with one of  Bormann’s confidants that survived the war. This man, who was once a Scharführer of the Waffen-SS, claimed he managed to get Bormann out of Germany following the last days of the war. He smuggled him, via submarine, to the so-called Colony Waldner 555, a colony of former Nazis living on the Brazilian-Paraguayan border. He revealed how in 1947, doctors messed up Bormann’s facial surgery, in order to hide a scar on his forehead. 

There were other rumours about Latin America as well, namely an escape to Argentina. Bormann certainly wouldn’t be the first Nazi to escape to the country, for Adolf Eichmann lived in a suburb of Buenos Aires before his capture by the Mossad, and Erich Priebke, a SS commander, lived in the country for 50 years. Among them were hundreds of other Nazi war criminals that escaped justice by fleeing there. An Italian journalist added credibility to this theory when in 1960 he stumbled upon a gravestone with the name “M. Bormann” on it in Bariloche, Argentina. Yet when the CIA investigated it the grave had been cleared, and no gravestone was found. 

That same year, the Jewish Telegraph Agency reported that the former Argentinian ambassador to Israel, Gregorio Topelevsky, confirmed Dr Josef Mengele and Martin Bormann had been living on the Brazilian side of the Argentinian border until earlier that year. Bormann supposedly was even employed by Juan Perón, president of Argentina. The abduction of Adolf Eichmann by the Israeli Mossad spooked Bormann in the early 1960s Bormann, and he subsequently went into hiding, according to this diplomat. It only added to the rumours that during Adolf Eichmann’s trial in Israel, Eichmann stated Bormann was alive and managed to flee Germany in the wake of the war. 

Bormann’s hiding place was even pinpointed to the small village in the jungle near the village San Ignacio in the Misiones province. Archaeologists came up with this theory because of items found in the now-overgrown ruins. Their location in the middle of the jungle and archaeological structure simply didn’t match the surroundings. Coins from the 1930s and 1940s and fragments of Meissen porcelain made in Germany were found there. After investigation they rejected the theory that Bormann lived there, however. Another potential hiding place was the little village Ita, in Paraguay. It seemed likely because Paraguay was governed by the dictator Alfredo Strössner, of German descent himself. Historian Ladislas Farago published the book ‘The Search for Martin Bormann’ investigating many Latin American countries and basing his claims on government documents. He claimed Bormann lived in at least six Latin American countries after hiding in Austria for three years. Yet every investigation by the CIA and Mossad proved fruitless, and no remains were ever found.

That is, until 1972, when construction work near Lehrter Bahnhof in Berlin took place. Two remains were found, with their dental features relatively intact. Because it was near the location where Axmann stated he saw the remains of Bormann and Stumpfegger, authorities set up a thorough investigation of their identity. They were examined by a coroner, doctors hired by the court, dentists and anthropologists. All of them identified the two remains as those of Bormann and Stumpfegger, thanks to dental documentation that matched the remains. They found splinters of cyanide capsules between their teeth. The most likely turn of events was that the men ran into a group of roaming Red Army soldiers. When the soldiers tried to arrest both men, they probably decided to take their own lives at that moment. Because the soldiers didn’t know they were dealing with two of the most wanted Nazis, they simply buried the bodies and continued on their way. Yet it wasn’t until 1998 that the identity of Bormann’s remains was conclusively confirmed with DNA-analysis. The DNA of Bormann’s, at the time 83-year-old niece, matched that of one of the remains. One year later his remains were cremated and scattered above the Baltic Sea. 

So although the rumours about Bormann’s whereabouts were rife, 53 years after the war ended it was conclusively proven he didn’t flee to Latin America or assumed an alias in Poland or Germany. He simply died during those last days of the war, like so many others.

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