To this day, the murder by poisoning of the six children of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels remains a mystery. Newly discovered records show that a doctor confessed in the 1950s to having been an accomplice, but that the judges in the case let him go unpunished.
These are the last days of their lives, but the children don't know it. There is 12-year-old Helga, who has the eyes and dark hair of her father, Joseph Goebbels. There is Hilde, 11, who is more of a brunette; anyone looking at her quickly realizes that she is about to blossom into a true beauty. And then there are eight-year-old Holde, six-year-old Hedda and the youngest of the girls, four-year-old Heide.
H for Hitler. The name of each child evokes the name of the Führer, for whom Goebbels works as propaganda chief. The family's only son is named Helmut, a slightly languorous nine-year-old.
Berlin, the end of April 1945, the Reich Chancellery. Hitler's bunker, deep underground beneath the Chancellery, is a place of gray concrete, narrow passageways, iron doors and cold light. It isn't a welcoming place, particularly not for children who, only a few weeks earlier, were living a seemingly carefree and innocent life, playing with cats and dogs on a farm far away from Berlin.
Russian soldiers are only a few hundred meters away, and everyone in the bunker is urging the parents to finally take the children to a safe place. Hanna Reitsch, a celebrated German aviator, says: "My God, Mrs. Goebbels, the children cannot stay here, even if I have to fly in 20 times to get them out."
But the Goebbels remain unyielding.
"It is better for my children to die than to live in disgrace and humiliation," says their mother, Magda. Their father fears that Stalin could take the children to Moscow, where they would be brainwashed into becoming communists. "No, it's better that we take them along."
On April 30, at about 3:30 p.m., Hitler shoots himself in the head, and his companion Eva Braun dies with him. The double suicide is a signal for the others. By the next day, the six Goebbels children are also dead. After receiving morphine injections to render them unconscious, they are poisoned with cyanide, a substance that causes rapid death by suffocation.
Six dead children, and yet the act was never punished. Astonishingly, no historian has ever truly delved into this tragic crime, which was part of the final act of the Third Reich. To this day, the episode remains the subject of speculation and misinterpretation.
However there was a remarkable judicial sequel in the late 1950s, involving a case that was heard by a regional appeals court in the western German city of Hamm. The case files are stored at the national archive in nearby Münster. They have remained unnoticed until now, even though they highlight the "leniency and questionable argumentation with which the courts addressed Nazi crimes at the time," says chief prosecutor Maik Wogersien, who recently stumbled upon the documents, more or less by accident. Wogersien is conducting research on precisely this subject at the Legal Academy of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia.
According to the documents, the judges who prosecuted the Goebbels case were former members of the Nazi Party, as was so often the case in trials dealing with Nazi crimes in the newly formed Federal Republic of Germany. For example, the judges managed to disregard a completed indictment for infanticide, using incorrect and possibly even illegal arguments. The defendant was acquitted.
The newly discovered records now make it possible, for the first time, to reconstruct what actually happened.
The man who is the focus of all the documents was Helmut Kunz, who was born in the southwestern town of Ettlingen in 1910. After studying law, he went on to obtain a doctorate in dental medicine, writing a doctoral thesis titled "Studies of Dental Caries in Schoolchildren as Related to Their Feeding in Infancy." In 1936 he opened a dental practice in Lucka, south of the eastern city of Leipzig. Kunz was also a member of the Sturm 10/48 unit of the SS.
When Hitler began the war, Kunz served as a medical officer in the SS's notorious Totenkopf (Death's Head) division. He was seriously wounded in 1941, and after his recovery he was transferred to the medical unit of the Waffen-SS, the SS's combat arm, in Berlin. In April 1945, at the rank of Sturmbannführer, Kunz was transferred again, this time to the Reich Chancellery. For Kunz, who a confidant of Hitler had described as having an "erect soldierly bearing," it was to become a fateful moment.
Orders from Hitler
It was April 22, and the Goebbels were ready. It was too dangerous for the family to remain in their apartment in Berlin's Hermann-Göring-Strasse, and so their suitcases were packed and the children were dressed and told to put on their coats and hats. It was also a final goodbye for Käthe Hübner, their governess, nicknamed "Hübi." "We're going to stay with the Führer in his bunker now," said little Helmut. "Are you coming with us?" The young woman stayed behind, looking on as Magda Goebbels voluntarily followed the Führer "into his hopeless situation."
Magda Goebbels became Kunz's first patient at the Reich Chancellery after she developed an abscess under a bridge in her lower jaw. Magda Goebbels saw herself as a model mother and a kind of first lady. Even Hitler addressed her respectfully as "madam." This status alone made Magda Goebbels, a woman who could be very gentle at times but at other times strident, into a person of authority.
In late April, she took Kunz aside and literally asked him to "help with the killing of her children," as the dentist would later testify. Kunz, however, claimed: "I refused and told her that I was simply incapable of doing it."
He told her that he had just lost his two daughters a few months earlier during an American air ride on Lucka, and that he couldn't do it "for that reason alone." His daughter Maike was five when she died in the wreckage, and the other daughter, Maren, was barely a year old.
But Magda Goebbels insisted and is believed to have said, a short time later, that it was "no longer a request" of hers, "but a direct order from Hitler," according to Kunz's recollection of what Goebbels said during the argument. "She asked me if it was sufficient that she was delivering the order, or whether I wished to speak with Hitler in person."
Kunz allegedly replied: "That's sufficient for me." He reportedly attempted to escape a short time later, to the nearby Hotel Adlon, where one of his fellow SS members was believed to have set up a sick bay. But Magda Goebbels apparently ordered him brought back, threatening that if her husband found out about his attempted escape he would be "a dead man."
'Don't Be Afraid'
May 1, 1945, in the evening. The daughters and the son were already in bed, but were not asleep yet. "Don't be afraid," their mother said. "The doctor is going to give you a shot now, one that all children and soldiers are getting." She left the room, and Kunz injected the morphine, "first into the two older girls, then the boy and then the other girls." Each child received a dose of 0.5 cc. It "took eight to 10 minutes."
When the children had fallen asleep, Magda Goebbels went into the room, the cyanide pills in her hand, as Kunz testified. She returned a few seconds later, weeping and distraught. "Doctor, I can't do it, you have to do it," she said. The dentist replied: "I can't do it either." "Then get Dr. Stumpfegger," she said. Ludwig Stumpfegger, who was slightly younger than Kunz, had been one of SS chief Heinrich Himmler's personal doctors.
A week later, Russian coroners performed autopsies on the bodies of the children and concluded that their deaths had "occurred as a result of poisoning with cyanide compounds." The Goebbels themselves had committed suicide outside the bunker, and Stumpfegger died while attempting to break through the Russian lines in Berlin.
Kunz, however, survived. He was both a witness and a perpetrator, someone who could incriminate others and exonerate himself. Someone who could also give false testimony.
Back in Office
On July 30, 1945, the Russians flew Kunz to Moscow, where he joined hundreds of thousands of other German prisoners of war. He was imprisoned for six-and-a-half years. In February 1952, he was put on trial for being a member of the Nazi Party and the SS and, as Kunz would later claim, also for the death of the Goebbels children.
At the time of Kunz's trial in Moscow, several years had passed since the Allies had conducted the Nuremberg trials. At first, West German courts had also made a concerted effort to quickly convict Nazi war criminals. But soon, says German historian Norbert Frei, there was a "conspicuous decline in the level of enthusiasm for bringing people to justice." That development was triggered by a ruling that interpreted Article 131 of West Germany's new constitution, two years after it was passed in 1949, in favor of former civil servants. The new provision permitted the rehiring of civil servants who had been let go "on grounds other than bureaucratic or wage-related reasons" -- for example, reasons related to their Nazi past.
In other words, people who had been judges or prosecutors during the Nazi regime were in all likelihood serving in the same positions once again, officially rehabilitated and "less and less prepared to carry out a reasonable administration of justice," according to Frei.
In addition, the young Federal Republic of Germany had declared generous amnesties, the first in 1949, the year of its establishment, and a second one in 1954, which only crippled the process of justice even further. The intention of the new amnesty law was to provide immunity from prosecution for "certain crimes from the Nazi era," or at least to deal with them leniently if mitigating circumstances could be found.
Almost all the people who were now thinking about possible mitigating circumstances had connections to the Nazis in some way or another: as employees in Hitler's justice ministry, as wartime judges or as judges on special tribunals. And they were particularly eager to ensure that sympathetic sentences were passed relating to "acts that occurred during the collapse" -- namely from October 1944 through the end of the war in Europe on May 8, 1945 and until July 31, 1945 -- if they had been committed "under the assumption of an official or legal obligation, especially on the basis of an order."
The law came into effect on July 18, 1954. It would be of particular importance for one man: Helmut Kunz.
After Kunz had spent 10 years in Russian captivity, the Kremlin finally released him on Oct. 4, 1955. A short time later, the death of the Goebbels children became a case for the public prosecutor, but only because the district court in the Bavarian town of Berchtesgaden was conducting obligatory proceedings to verify Hitler's death. One of the many witnesses was Harri Mengershausen, a former assistant inspector and SS official, as well as a former prisoner of war.
Mengershausen first testified about Hitler's suicide, and then the judge, Heinrich Stephanus, began to probe into the Goebbels case: "The death of the children is still a complete mystery. We don't know who did it and what exactly was done Dr. Kunze was once mentioned in this context." Neither the judge nor the witness knew Kunz's correct name.
"Dr. Kunze refused three times to poison the children," Mengershausen said, "and then Goebbels pointed out to him that he still had the power to issue orders, and that he (Dr. Kunze) could be punished for disobeying a order. After that, he administered the injections "
"But you only know this from hearsay?" Stephanus asked.
"I know it because he told me himself," Mengershausen replied.
Six Counts of Murder
By that point, Kunz had settled in the northwestern German city of Münster, where he was working as a "voluntary assistant" at the university dental clinic, and as a contract physician with the new German armed forces, the Bundeswehr. Chief prosecutor Theodor Middeldorf launched a preliminary investigation against Kunz for six counts of murder, under case No. 6 Js 1041/56.
During the coming months, Middeldorf examined many witnesses who had persevered until the end in the Führer's bunker -- Hitler's last confidants. They included his secretary Traudl Junge, his valet Heinz Linge, his driver Erich Kempka and his chief pilot Hans Baur.
Some had never heard of Kunz, while others were familiar with him and his story. But Middeldorf had, in fact, no need for a classic incriminating witness. In the first hearing, the dentist confessed that he had administered morphine to the children, and he stated that his fellow doctor, Stumpfegger, and Magda Goebbels had been alone in the room. When Goebbels emerged from the room, Kunz testified, she was weeping and said: "Everything is over now!"
In January 1959, the public prosecutor's office in Münster brought charges, not for murder, but for aiding and abetting a homicide "through six independent actions." From the very beginning, the prosecutors had ruled out the possibility that the 1954 amnesty law could be applied in the Kunz case.
First, they argued, the "request to participate in the killing of the children" was not a "binding order" for Kunz, even if Magda Goebbels had insisted that it had come directly from either her husband or Hitler. And even if Kunz had believed Magda Goebbels, he ought to have refused, the prosecutors argued, because "killing the children was nothing but a crime."
Members of the Nazi Party
After examining the records for only three weeks, the First Criminal Chamber of the Münster State Court closed the proceedings, at the government's expense. "Anyone who incurred guilt in a situation which was not under their control should, as a rule, receive immunity from prosecution," the court suggested.
And this was to apply to a doctor who felt threatened by the regime in the form of the wife of a minister? The immunity law had not been enacted for a case like Kunz's, no matter how it was interpreted. Perhaps that was why the judges wrote, in the grounds for their decision, that it was time to finally draw a line "under the confusing circumstances."
Three months later, the regional appeals court in Hamm upheld the lower court's decision, while emphasizing how dangerous the situation had been for Kunz. Magda Goebbels, the court argued, had "made it clear to him that he would be killed if he refused to perform the task that was intended for him."
Describing the act of being an accomplice to the killings of six children as a "task that was intended for him" is a bitter way of phrasing it. These are the words of lawyers, and it is hardly surprising that both the presiding judge, Gerhard Rose, born in 1903, and the president of the regional appeals court, Gerhard Ahlich, born in 1905, had been members of the Nazi Party. Rose's membership number was 4 413 181, and Ahlich's was 4 079 094. Both men had joined the Nazi Party on May 1, 1937.
Coincidentally, it was the same day Kunz joined the party.
Scattered in the Elbe
The dentist died in Freudenstadt in southwestern Germany in 1976. He had been highly regarded in the community and had kept working until his death. He is buried in the municipal cemetery, division R, double grave 10/11.
According to the Russian account, after the autopsies the bodies of the children, as well as those of their parents and of Hitler and Eva Braun, were hastily buried near Buch in northeastern Berlin. They were moved again twice before the politburo in Moscow ordered their "final" destruction, "under strict orders of secrecy," because the Russians wanted to avoid attracting attention. The KGB was instructed to perform the clandestine mission, code-named "Operation Archive."
According to a secret document, on the night of April 4-5, 1970, a KGB unit disinterred "skulls, bones, ribs, vertebrae and so on." The agents threw everything they found onto a bonfire, and the "remains" were "burned completely" and "together with pieces of charcoal, were pounded into powder."
The ashes were scattered in the Elbe River.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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