[Image: The History Channel]
By Andy Brockman
There is a deliciously and inadvertently satirical moment in Episode 6 of the latest series of the History Channels hit fantasy series “Hunting Hitler”. British historian James Holland and an American sidekick are in the Morocco purportedly to investigate reports that, after being killed trying to escape from Berlin on the night of 2 May 1945, Hitler’s Secretary Martin Bormann had spent time in the North Africa organising the rise of the Fourth Reich. As part of the investigation into whether fleeing Nazi’s could escape unseen down a hotel storm drain to pick up a passing U-boat in the bay, the team send a sewer crawler into the drain. That is a tough looking little tracked robot which is capable of pushing through streams of effluent recording the whole experience with high definition cameras. It would be impossible to find a better metaphor for “Hunting Hitler”. Week after week the HD cameras of Kaga Seven Pictures push through the streams of effluent put out by the Nazi conspiracy industry to produce a slick pseudo thriller, which is designed, not to solve the mystery as to whether the Fuhrer, Mrs Fuhrer, and Blondi the dog, escaped form Berlin in the Spring of 1945, but to deliver ratings, and enough loose ends to justify the commissioning of Series 3.
The second series of “Hunting Hitler”, which was Broadcast in the United States towards the end of 2016 and which is currently running in the UK on the H2 channel of the Sky platform, does make one concession to the lack of on screen historical expertise which was such a conspicuous failing of series one. This time the team has been expanded to include the plucky little sewer explorer, a cute throwbot, and British historian James Holland. Mr Holland is an experienced and competent TV hand with a string of legitimate documentaries behind him, as well as a number of well regarded narrative histories of aspects of World War Two. However, he is also responsible for the Jack Tanner series of historical novels set during World War Two, and here one assumes that he joined the Hunting Hitler Project with his novelist hat on rather than that of the historian. For “Hunting Hitler”, rather than interrogate the series of documents and alleged witness accounts in detail, Mr Holland is reduced to the role of a noddy. That is a presenter who introduces a succession of “witnesses” and “local experts” by asking leading questions and then nodding sagely while they describe the latest rumour they were told by someone who heard from someone else that Martin Borman/a leading Nazi Scientist/Eva Braun/the Fuhrer himself, once enjoyed the ballet at such and such a location before watching a nuclear test and catching a passing submarine home to Argentina.
All right, that last sentence is an exaggeration, but not by much. In “Hunting Hitler” the format demands that witnesses are never questioned in detail, the reason for this being simple. If witness statements were treated forensically in the way any bona fide researcher would, rather than as storytellers offering the next move in the plot, and their testimony tested against a range of documents and other expert witnesses, the whole farrago would collapse, not even making it to the first commercial break in Series 1.
I could set out to deconstruct the thesis and evidence put forward across entire series, but that would be to do the job which should actually have been undertaken by the series researchers [Note to Kaga Seven Pictures, I would be more than happy to do this if you would care to contact me to discuss an appropriate fee], so for the sake of this review I will concentrate on the “evidence” contained in one episode. This has the additional advantage to you, our reader, of saving you the frustration of wasting sixteen hours of your life, watching sequences of travelogue interspersed with unsubstantiated rumour, and speculation, with added constant repetition for the short of attention and hard of thinking. The episode concerned has the dog whistle title, “The Secret Island”. and has been chosen to illustrate neatly the essential dishonesty of the the History Channel selling “Hunting Hitler” as a being documentary in any recognised sense of the word.
For veterans of Series 1, the narrative structure of Hunting Hitler is still framed by the conceit that former CIA operative Bob Baer and “war crimes investigator” Dr John Cencich are “directing” their field assets from a West Coast situation room which looks quite unlike the kind of cluttered, whiteboarded, post it note and paper strewn office used in any genuine investigation, but quite a lot like the way a TV designer, who has been influenced by Hi Tech Hollywood thrillers, might imagine one, with a few neat pin boards, but a distinct lack of dead coffee cups, biros and desk clutter. It is now also something of a cliche that these field teams almost always include someone who is claimed ex special forces, or ex law enforcement, as though such a background is actually relevant to an investigation. Perhaps the series producers hope that this kind of GI Joe driven casting will assist in the pretense that this is a live mystery of the Fourth Reich, which could end up with a confrontation with some real live Nazis, and that it will escape the notice of the viewer that the youngest Nazi thug would now be well into their 90’s and that their modern day equivalents tend to sit at home in front of their computer reading Breitbart and Infowars.
Another cliche carried across from Series 1 is the presence of visually sexy technical gizmos to give the pretense that this is original on site research rather than what is for the most part a retread of existing sources identified by the series researchers and fixers via your friendly neighborhood search engine.
For the purposes of “The Secret Island” episode puppet masters Baer and Cencich are framing the investigation of two events, an allegedly mysterious set of explosions which allegedly took place at a military training area in Thuringia, central Germany, on 3/4? and 12 March 1945 and industrial activity which took place on Huemul Island, in the picture postcard perfect Lake Nahuel Huapi in the Bariloche department of Patagonia, in western Argentina in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. What ties the two stories together is the old chestnut that the so called Fourth Reich included scientists who were intent on continuing the weapons research and pseudo science of the Nazi Period. Here the fantasy is not that of the secret laboratory deep in the Amazon Rain Forest where Dr Mengele is trying to clone little Hitler’s of Ira Levin’s “The Boys from Brazil”; that is probably a scenario for Series 3 of “Hunting Hitler”; but instead the conceit is that in early 1945 the Nazi’s were on the verge of creating a viable nuclear weapon, and that after the formal part of hostilities ended in May 1945, some of the surviving true believers harboured ambitions to continue the work and use the Atomic bomb as the ultimate vengeance weapon.
In fact the Hitler had/almost had “the Bomb”, [the Atomic Bomb that is], plot line has been a staple of speculative history and pulp fiction almost since J Robert Oppenheimer became “death the destroyer of worlds” and lit up the desert at Alamogordo New Mexico with the light of a thousand suns at 5:29 am on 16 July 1945. For example, “The Final Countdown”, an episode of the short lived 1960’s ITV science fiction adventure series “The Champions” was predicated on a Luftwaffe General returning from imprisonment in the USSR to pick up where he had left off in 1945, recovering and using a Nazi Bomb. However, there is actually no proof that the Nazi Bomb project came even close to building a viable nuclear weapon. However, this has not stopped some researchers claiming otherwise.
In 2005 Berlin based historian Rainer Karlsch published a book called “Hitler’s Bomb,” which claimed that between late 1944 and March 1945 a secret military programme detonated three nuclear weapons, one on the Baltic island of Ruegen and two on a military firing range at Ohrdruf in Thuringia, in an area which would fall into the Soviet Zone of Occupation and then East Germany. A key piece of evidence, which is also central to the thesis put forward in “Hunting Hitler”, is the recorded statement of the late Clare Werner, which runs as follows,
“I can still remember the day very well. It was March 4, 1945. We had scheduled a birthday party for that evening, but it was cancelled. In the afternoon the BDM [Federation of German Girls] of Gotha was on the mountain. Hans was also there to help out and told us that world history would be written today in this area. It would be something the world had never seen before. We were to go on the mountain that evening and look off in the direction of Lake Röhren. He didn’t know himself what the new thing would look like. So we were on the site at 8 PM. At half past 9 PM the area behind Lake Röhren lit up like as though a hundred lightning bolts had struck. It was red inside and yellow on the outside. You could read the newspaper by the light. It all happened very quickly and we couldn’t see anything except what sounded like a squall, after which everything was quiet. I, like many inhabitants from Lake Röhren, Holzhausen, Mühlberg, Wechmar and Bittstädt had nose bleeds, headaches, and felt pressure on the ear, the next day.”
Werner’s account was actually recorded in 1962, seventeen years after the event she purports to describe and came about as part of an investigation into rumours about what had happened at Ohrdruf in 1945 by the then East German authorities.
The accounts of Werner’s testimony in the public domain also appear to vary in some of the details. In the version recounted in Hunting Hitler Werner sees the alleged explosion from a window, not from the mountainside as described in the version above. Even so, had Karlsch got his story even broadly right there is no doubt history would have to be re-written. However, the fact that you might never have heard of these incidents suggests that, just maybe, Herr Karlsch over egged the Butterkuchen. In fact writing in the German magazine Der Spiegel Klaus Wiegrefe observed,
“The only problem with all the hype is that the historian has no real proof to back up his spectacular theories.
His witnesses either lack credibility or have no first-hand knowledge of the events described in the book. What Karlsch insists are key documents can, in truth, be interpreted in various ways, some of which contradict his theory.”
Another critic, physicist Michael Schaaf, himself the author of a book about the Nazi nuclear programme, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper
“Karlsch displays a catastrophic lack of understanding of physics,” adding “Karlsch has done us a service in showing that German research into uranium went further than we’d thought up till now, but there was not a German atom bomb.”
Most awkwardly of all for the Nazi nuclear weapon theory, Wiegrefe noted that Gerald Kirchner of Germany’s Federal Office for Radiation Protection had stated that soil samples taken from the alleged test site gave,
“no indication of the explosion of an atomic bomb”.
This result was confirmed in a press release by the Federal German Science body the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstal which was issued on 15 February 2006, and which stated,
” The measurements do not indicate that sources other than the fallout of the above-ground atomic bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s and the reactor accident in Chernobyl in 1986 were responsible for soil contamination [at the alleged test site]. Overall, the PTB results for a nuclear explosion show “no results”.
Of course none of this easily available evidence is cited, let alone discussed in “Hunting Hitler”. An omission which amounts to either staggering incompetence on the part of the programme researchers, or the deliberate misrepresentation of the story for dramatic effect.
Instead, in addition to recounting, but not testing in any meaningful sense, the alleged witness account of Clare Werner, Holland visits the site of a tunnel system in the Jonas valley, close to the alleged test site, which was claimed to be the site of secret Nazi facilities including a possible Fuhrer Headquarters. In true “Hunting Hitler” style the site is treated as mysterious and the fact that the Soviet Army sealed the entrances with explosives is regarded as reinforcing the sense of cover up. In fact the tunnel complexes at Ohrdruf, while not fully explored are reasonably well known. Most crucially, most of the tunnels appear to have been started too late in the war to have been finished and become fully operational before General Patton’s American Third Army overran the area in the Spring of 1945, freeing the surviving inmates of the 12,000 prisoners who had been transferred to Camp SIII from Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, Dachau and Auschwitz by December 1944.
There is also nothing in the programme to suggest that the researchers who worked on Hunting Hitler ever looked at the excellent German Language website dedicated to the wartime history of the Jonas Valley area. A fact which is once again unforgivable as it is easily found with Google. The website says this of the alleged weapons tests of 4 and 12 March 1945,
March 3[4?] and March 12 reportedly a successful nuclear weapon test in the area of the Ohrdruf military training center (in the so-called triangle). (Based, among other things, on statements by Clare Werner, former administrator of the Wachsenburg)
However, as the website also records, Reiner Fröbe told the 1st Ohrdrufer Conference on June 25, 2005
“There has been no explosion of an atomic explosive device in Thuringia in 1945, no kind whatever.”
Another researcher, W.-D. Holz told the conference that the distance from the alleged explosion site to the tree line was a mere 208 meters yet there was no sign of damage to trees, nor of any melting of the geology caused by the colossal heat of even a small nuclear explosion. This is important because the US Government’s guidance on the response to the detonation of an improvised explosive device in an urban area suggests that the zone of severe to moderate damage caused by even a one kiloton explosion, which is small in nuclear terms, extends for approximately a quarter of a mile from ground zero. That is approximately twice the estimated distance to the treeline at the alleged test site. The effects of such an explosion should be traceable even after seventy years.
Another person attending the same event, Ulrich Brunzel also questioned the testimony of Clare Werner, saying
“… I also tried to research myself. …. It was not confirmed to me that there was nasal bleeding and such things in these places namely, Lake Tubing and other areas. I did not find anyone to confirm this. … ”
Most importantly, the website responds to the genuine dark heritage of the area on behalf of the local community as it remembers the un-numbered victims of the Ohrdruf Concentration Camp and Jonas Valley tunnels,
“Let us remember those who are here at this really beautiful spot
Death, humiliation, and agony.
Let us remember the victims of SIII!”
However, while the producers of “Hunting Hitler” allow an emotional moment to remember the victims of the alleged weapons test of 3/4 and 12 March 1945, there is no mention of this much larger and proven tragedy and war crime. Too much reality would intrude on the fantasy by begging too many genuine questions.
Oh and by the way, the tests by the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstal were undertaken on samples provided by the German Television Channel ZDF who were making a documentary about the site. “Hunting Hitler” is not even an original investigation into the alleged Ohrdruf weapon tests.
All of which brings us to the post war career of Dr Ronald Richter, according to the insinuations of the “Hunting Hitler” script, the Fuhrer’s nuclear bomb maker and the dark hero of the second strand of The Secret Island.
In fact, in spite of the insinuations of the programme, there is nothing published which links Dr Richter of with the alleged [non] nuclear events at Ohrdruf in Thuringia in 1944-1945. Indeed, all the evidence is that Dr Richter was a relatively low level scientist in the German nuclear programme, with a particular interest in the possibilities of nuclear fusion. Trying to make a living in the commercial world after the war, Richter was able to travel to Argentina after falling in with the famous aircraft designer Kurt Tank, who had designed the Luftwaffe’s deadly Focke-Wulf 190 fighter and was now working for the Argentine Government. Like many aircraft designers in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s Tank was investigating the theoretical use of nuclear energy to power aircraft. Tank appears to have met Richter in London and both ended up in Argentina, employed the President of Argentina Juan Peron and not by Fourth Reich GmbH.
Once in Argentina Richter appears to have been able to persuade President Peron that low temperature nuclear fusion offered Peron’s “new Argentina” the solution to the country’s acute shortage of electricity, at a time when Peron was wanting to push for industrial growth. As a result Richter was given what amounted to a blank check, a substantial portion of the nation’s available brick and concrete, and Huemul Island. But again, none of this documented history is shown in “Hunting Hitler”. Instead, back on location in Baraloche the field assets are briefed about what is called ambivalently, Richter’s “technology”. Of course, this use of a neutral word such as “technology” enables the programme makers to be able to claim they did not actually lie about what happened on Huemul Island, they simply do not tell the whole inconvenient truth that the project was Peron’s, not Hitler’s and that the aim was nuclear power, not developing an Argentine Bomb, let alone a Nazi Bomb for the Fourth Reich to deliver to New York [deliver with what?].
In spite of the low key language Gerrard Williams responds to the briefing saying “We’ve got to get onto that Island.” as though it is a matter of life and death, rather than simply the latest twist in the plot.
“Give me some time. I will pull some strings I will make some phone calls,” says says local Argentinian historian and fixer Frederico suggesting such a visit might in some way be difficult, even clandestine.
In fact the phone calls could have been to a local tourist firm to book a boat trip, because hiring a boat to visit the Island is now part of the tourism offer in Bariloche, but we will let that one pass.
Once ashore on the, not so, secret island the burly figure of Williams and his ex US Special Forces [and Mixed Martial Arts fighter] partner Tim Kennedy, are able to wander around the ruins of Juan Peron’s dream of limitless cheap power. Except that in their eyes the site is possibly a frightening vision of Nazi nuclear ambitions, overseen by the vengeful Fuhrer, who was alleged to be living at the other end of the lake.
“It is obvious on the island that Dr Richter had money and infrastructure,” says Tim Kennedy, “That’s what we know. It’s what we don’t know that is scaring me.”
Williams joins in with the conspiracy shtick,
“Whatever Richter was doing everything has been stripped, light fittings, switches, the lot,” he says, adding later “What was so important to hide that they let the Navy bomb it?”
In fact the genuine history of the facilities relating to Proyecto Huemul on Huemul Island is well known in Argentina and was even the subject of press conferences at the time, including one held at the Presidential Palace, the Casa Rosada, on 24 March 1951, when none other than President Peron himself told the press,
“On February 16, 1951, in the atomic energy pilot plant on Huemul Island… thermonuclear experiments were carried out under conditions of control on a technical scale.”
Peron also briefed a visiting US diplomat, Edward Miller, the US Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, who promptly filed a memo on the subject.
Now, not only is it possible for anyone with an internet connection to read the sixteen page report written in the Autumn of 1952 by an Argentinian nuclear expert, Jose Antonio Balseiro which exposed Dr Richter’s incompetent and fraudulent research, the story has also been explored not just in books, but also numerous articles in Spanish, as well as some in English. The whole crazy saga has even been the subject of a 2003 opera, “Richter- Ópera Documental de Cámara” by Esteban Buch and Mario Lorenzo.
Reduced to a single line Richter managed to spend an estimated 62.5 million Argentine Pesos [approximately $135 million at 2017 rates] and achieved precisely nothing, except the spectacular, and distinctly non-nuclear, explosion of hydrogen gas in an electrical arc. In November 1952 Richter was “resigned” from his project and spent the next three years under effective house arrest in Buenos Aires. In 1955, with President Peron deposed, the new Argentine Government placed the nuclear fraudster on trial and Richter was jailed briefly. Released he lived the rest of his life in obscurity, before dying in Argentina in 1991. However, Richter’s failure did lead to a genuine nuclear connection with the Bailoche area which also explains why Richter’s facility was stripped out.
Also to be found in San Carlos de Bariloche is the Bariloche Atomic Center, which was founded by Jose Antonio Balseiro, the man who was recalled from the University of Manchester in 1952 to investigate what was going on at Huemul Island and wrote the report which told President Peron that his pet German Scientist was little better than a conman. With the facility at Huemel Island closed, the buildings were stripped of anything useful, including the latest machinery and instrumentation which Richter had ordered at great expense, some of which a commission of enquiry found had not even been connected. Thus equipped, the new research center hosted a genuine nuclear research programme.
Meanwhile the Argentine Navy was able to use the now empty buildings for some target practice with live weapons. Less a mystery than military training long after the event.
Writing in the New Yorker in 1994 Nathanial Nash described a visit to Huemul Island by the then director of the Atomic Center, Dr. Alfredo Caro who assessed the legacy of Richter’s work. According to Nash, Dr Caro wandered among the concrete ruins shaking his head and saying,
“What a crazy thing to do, a national embarrassment,” “But then,” Nash adds, Dr Caro said, “But if it weren’t for Richter, who knows if I’d be working here or not?”
In the end, while the well known ruins on Huemul Island may not have provided Argentina with the limitless cheap electrical power Richter promised Pesident Peron, they provided not just Herr Doktor Richter with a good living, at least until his scam was rumbled, it also provided the inspiration and a lot of the material resources for the real world research undertaken by Dr Caro and his colleagues.
Even more ironically, although Richter could not have known it, his hundred million pesos con-trick would also go on to provide gainful employment for the talent on “Hunting Hitler,” as part of another con-trick. That is the History Channel’s ongoing effort to con the viewing public into thinking that “Hunting Hitler is a piece of genuine and credible historical research and not a shameless piece of Nazi Conspiracy Porn.