It's Wednesday, April 14, 1943, a spring evening in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp north of Berlin. A man jumps from a window in Barrack 3 at Special Camp A.
The special camp is an area for prominent prisoners separated from the rest of the prison population. It's 140 meters (460 feet) long and 50 meters wide, sealed off from the main camp by a brick wall. A 2.6-meter high-voltage fence is intended to prevent inmates from escaping.
The man is wearing high boots and soldiers' trousers, and his black hair is uncovered. "Corporal, corporal," he shouts at SS Rottenführer Konrad Hafrich. "Shoot me!"
Hafrich shouts that he should return to the barrack, but the man keeps going. "Don't be a coward," the prisoner yells, as he walks toward the electric fence. "When he grabbed the wire," Hafrich said, "I shot him, as ordered."
It is shortly after 9 p.m. The man at the fence is dead. His body stiffened as he was jumping. The left leg is almost horizontal in the trip wire, and the right leg is bent. The body is left in this position for a considerable amount of time. It's a sensitive case for camp commandant Anton Kaindl, who has notified the Reich Security Main Office in Berlin. When an SS officer and two professors arrive the next day, the dead man is photographed, lifted out of the barbed wire and taken to the camp crematorium.
The coroners examine the body. In their report, they write that a bullet entered the head four centimeters behind the right ear and shattered the skull. But according to their assessment, the victim had already died after being electrocuted by the high-voltage fence. The body is cremated on the spot, and the urn is sent to the Reich Security Main Office along with the investigative report and the death certificate.
Eight days later, Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop receives a matter of "secret Reich business" from SS chief Heinrich Himmler. It reads: "Dear Ribbentrop, please find enclosed a report on the fact that prisoner of war Yakov Dzhugashvili, son of Stalin, was shot to death during an attempted escape at Special Camp A in Sachsenhausen, near Oranienburg."
Prisoner or Traitor?
For decades after the war ended, it remained unclear exactly how Dzhugashvili, the eldest son of Soviet dictator Joseph Dzhugashvili, better known as Stalin, had died. Dzhugashvili, a lieutenant in the Red Army, had fallen into German hands in the summer of 1941, but his father had vehemently refused to include him in any prisoner exchanges.
It was only in 1968 that documents turned up at the State Department in Washington that made it possible to reconstruct the prisoner's last few years. They indicate that Stalin's son succumbed to a prison psychosis and conclude that his death was tantamount to a suicide.
But another question has remained unanswered: Did the Germans truly capture Stalin's son during combat in 1941, or did he surrender? Did this officer in the Red Army, of all people, desert to the Germans shortly after the war had begun? And did his father know it and consequently refuse to lift a finger for his son?
Starting in 1940, the military oath of the Red Army read: "Surrendering to the enemy is treason." It was a sentence that sealed the fate of tens of thousands of Soviet citizens. Many who returned safely from German war captivity at the end of the war were executed at home or sent to prison camps for 25 years.
But Russians were not told that Stalin's own son had been in German captivity since one month after the war began. This meant that Yakov Dzhugashvili himself was considered a traitor to his country.
Was he? Even after Stalin's death, there was no mention of his son anywhere. His fate only became an issue when party leader Mikhail Gorbachev had the Moscow archives opened to the public during the perestroika era, although many documents still remained secret.
Dad, the Dictator
To this day, they are still kept at the central archive of the Russian Defense Ministry in Podolsk, south of Moscow. SPIEGEL was recently given access to the Stalin file. A 389-page document tells the story of a young man whose life was spent in the shadow of his overpowering father and ended after only 35 years. They also provide, 70 years after the Battle of Stalingrad, unexpected insights into the family life of a dictator.
Unlike his half-siblings Vasily and Svetlana, Yakov, nicknamed Yasha, born in 1908, was the product of Stalin's first marriage with a Georgian seamstress. The boy grew up essentially without parents. His mother died of typhus when he was eight months old, and Stalin paid hardly any attention to him. Dzhugashvili was entirely correct when he told authorities that his father was a "professional revolutionary."
Yakov was unable to cope with the pressure from his powerful and inconsiderate father. But he was popular among the girls. When he finished high school in 1925, he moved in with Zoya Gunina, a 16-year-old classmate and daughter of an Orthodox priest.
When Stalin found out, he turned it into such a scandal that his 18-year-old son grabbed a pistol in the kitchen of his Kremlin apartment one night and tried to shoot himself in the heart. But the bullet missed his heart, and after spending three months in the hospital, Yakov fled to Leningrad, where he stayed with relatives of his stepmother. But he married Soya.
In April 1928, Stalin wrote to his wife: "Tell Yasha that I think he behaved like a thug and an extortionist, someone with whom I no longer have anything in common and with whom I no longer want a relationship. Let him live where and with whom he wants. J. Stalin."
Although the connection was not actually severed, Stalin was displeased by his son's behavior. Yakov was soon living with another woman, and the couple had a child together.
After finishing school, Yakov attended the workers' faculty, a preparatory institute for the university, and at 23 he enrolled in the Dzerzhinsky Transport Institute. He completed his degree in 1935 and then spent a year working as an engineer in an auto factory in Moscow named after his father before joining the artillery academy of the Red Army.
Becoming an Officer
"I don't know why Yasha became a career officer," his half-sister Svetlana later wrote. "He was a deeply peaceful person -- soft, a little clumsy, very quiet, but inwardly solid and committed. He had nothing in common with his father except the almond-shaped Caucasian eyes. He had no brilliant abilities whatsoever. He was modest, simple and hard-working."
Yakov wasn't like his father, and he desperately tried to escape his influence. He wanted to emerge from the shadow of the forbidding family name and be a patriot, as others did, when it came to the fate of the fatherland. He rejected all offers to give him a special position.
He volunteered for the army in 1937, a choice that was also a way of fleeing from his father. In 1938, he finally married ballerina Yulia Meltzer, a Jew from Odessa. Yakov had met her in a restaurant, and their daughter, Galina, was born the same year. Stalin was also unable to warm to this daughter-in-law. Yakov became a lieutenant in 1940, and the next year, on May 6, 1941, he received a diploma from the artillery academy. He assumed his first official position three days later, as a commander in the 14th Howitzer Regiment of the 14th Tank Division.
The photo in his file shows him wearing the Red Army uniform, with collar patches but no epaulets, as well as a leather strap pulled across his chest and shoulder. His mouth and eyes look soft, and his black hair is combed back. The photo was taken only six weeks before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union.
The war took him by surprise during firing practice near Naro-Fominsk, a town 70 kilometers (44 miles) west of Moscow. His regiment was mobilized and began marching westward in the direction of Minsk, and toward the enemy. He was unable to see his father before he left, but he did telephone him. "Go and fight," Stalin told his son.
Fighting the German Invasion
But what did fighting mean in June 1941? The army was in chaos, and Soviet soldiers were being sent to the front unprepared. In the first three weeks, 1.3 million Red Army soldiers were killed or captured.
Yakov's division was also marching to its doom, and its path can be reconstructed with the help of the files. The political officers' daily reports to the army leadership are full of propaganda messages, and yet they also contain hints of uncertainty and despair.
June 28: The soldiers and commanders are burning to plunge into battle with the fascist cutthroats … However, there are also negative moods: They say the Germans are very experienced, and that it's difficult to fight them … Some 300 men are missing in the mid-level leadership section of the division, 800 noncommissioned officers are missing, 35 percent of the planned trucks are missing, only 24 percent of all tanker trucks are here, and only 53 percent of armored vehicles.
The Russians launched a counteroffensive at 4 a.m. on July 7, but the Germans destroyed half of their tanks, and 200 soldiers died in the flames. Yakov's battery fired at the Germans from a knoll near the edge of the forest, but it soon fell silent as well. In the evening, regiment commander Abalashov was reported missing.
Four days after surviving the firestorm, Yakov and what was left of his unit turned up again. In a note to the division chief, written in pencil, his commanding officer said that Dzhugashvili was "especially brave," recommending him and 50 other men in the division for a medal.
When the Germans captured Vitebsk, in modern-day Belarus, on July 9, the Soviet army corps began to retreat. Yakov and his unit were given the task of covering the withdrawal.
The morning of July 14 must have been pure hell for Yakov and his men. The Germans were attacking the town of Yartsevo with 30 aircraft. Russian tanks were exploding, and so were the tanker trucks behind them.
According to the staff reports from that evening, there was no information about the whereabouts of the 14th Howitzer Regiment.
Yakov Dzhugashvili, Stalin's son, had also disappeared.
Disappearance and Capture
On July 26, brigade commissar Alexei Rumyanzev typed a three-page letter to the political director of the Red Army. The disappearance of Stalin's son had become an important matter. Rumyanzev, knowing that the report would end up on Stalin's desk, insisted that the army had treated the Soviet leader's son very carefully.
Rumyanzev wrote that the army: "had tried from the start to assign Comrade Dzhugashvili to the regiment staff, but that he had stubbornly insisted on being deployed as a battery commander. Comrade Dzhugashvili even asked the commissioner of the regiment to speed up his acceptance into the battery."
The letter describes Yakov's behavior at the front as "impeccable and fearless." When his unit came under bombardment from the fascists, Rumyanzev wrote, the head of the operations division had offered to drive him to a safer area. But Comrade Dzhugashvili reportedly replied: "I will only return with my battery."
On July 21, the division sent a motorcycle unit to the area where it believed Stalin's son was to be found. The men encountered Red Army soldier Popuride, who had managed to escape with Yakov. Rumyanyev's letter reads: "They buried their papers together and put on civilian clothing. When they reached the lakeside, Comrade Dzhugashvili told Popuride to keep going, but that he wanted to stay and rest." The episode Rumyanzev described suggests that Yakov had allowed himself to be taken prisoner.
On July 25, a group of intelligence officers set out to find Yakov once again, but they also returned empty-handed. By then, Yakov was already in German hands.
Dzhugashvili's first interrogation took place on July 18. After the end of the war, the Soviets found the original interrogation report in the archives at the Aviation Ministry in Berlin. The document provides insight into the young officer's mind. Stalin's son was proud and defended the political system in his country, and yet he made no secret of his disappointment in the Soviet army, whose commander-in-chief was his own father:
When they were surrounded, they went into such a panic that everyone scattered in different directions… We had no maps at all. In our unit, everything was slovenly and poorly organized…The division wasn't prepared for the war at all…
Question: How did this affect the leadership?
Dzhugashvili: They were completely worthless because they spent all their time in the field camps. That's all they did for three years. We lost about 70 percent of the tanks.
Question: What exactly are the reasons for your army's poor fitness for action?
Dzhugashvili: The German Stuka bombers, the unwise actions of our leadership, the stupid and idiotic actions … They sent the units into the fire, directly into the fire.
Another segment of the interrogation is noteworthy -- when the Germans discuss the role of the Jews with Yakov.
Dzhugashvili: Based on my personal experience, I can tell you that the Russian people have never shown any sympathy for the Jews… Jews and Gypsies are the same -- they simply don't want to work. In their view, making business deals is the most important thing. The Jew doesn't want to work because he can't.
What Stalin's son said about the Jews reflected popular opinions in the Soviet Union. It just sounded especially disconcerting because his wife, Yulia, was Jewish. When the Germans asked him whether she was to be notified of his capture, Dzhugashvili said: "If you want to do me one favor, then don't do it." Perhaps he had an idea of what was in store for her.
In fact, Stalin had Yulia Dzhugashvili arrested that fall. "Yasha's daughter should stay with you for now," he told his daughter, Svetlana, referring to Yakov's daughter Galina. "His wife is apparently a dishonest person, and we have to look into that."
Disputes about His Fate
In her memoirs, Svetlana Alliluyeva wrote that their father had believed that Yakov, instigated by his wife, had deliberately surrendered to the Germans. "That absurd idea got Yulia Isaakovna several years in prison. First it was Lubyanka, with nightly interrogations, the ice chamber and constant electric light. Then the prison in the city of Engels, and then back to Moscow, to Lefortovo (Prison)."
Stalin remained suspicious when it came to his son. In the winter of 1943, after the Battle of Stalingrad, he told Svetlana that the Germans had proposed trading Yakov for a few of their own. "I will not negotiate with them," Svetlana quoted her father as saying.
In his memoirs, Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the winner of the Battle of Berlin, describes a walk he took with Stalin, during which he had asked the Soviet leader about Yakov. According to Zhukov, Stalin said nothing for a while and then replied: "Yakov will not escape captivity. The fascists will shoot him."
Zhukov also said that Stalin was pained by his son's fate, but that seems unlikely. When director Mikheil Chiaureli later made the 1949 film "The Fall of Berlin," he tried to portray Yakov Dzhugashvili as a tragic war hero, but Stalin prevented him from doing so. And when Stalin received a telegram from the Soviet military administration in Germany in 1945 that informed him about the search for his son's remains, Stalin didn't even feel the need to respond.
Dzhugashvili's odyssey through the German camps lasted almost two years. From Hammelburg in the Franconia region of Bavaria, he was transferred to Lübeck in northern Germany in the spring of 1942, just as the British had started bombing the city. After that, he was sent east to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
The years leading up to his death are well documented. Nevertheless, to this day, many Russians do not believe that Stalin's son was ever in German captivity. Some believe he later fled to Italy, the United States or Canada, while others were convinced that he had gone to Iraq and married into the family of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
His daughter, Galina, who saw her father for the last time when she was three, also believed that the Germans had presented the world with a look-alike and claimed that her father had been killed in an unevenly matched battle in the middle of July 1941. The Germans, she insisted, had merely acquired his papers.
Of course, the documents contradict such claims, but there was a reason why the speculation over how Yakov died never ended: The urn containing the ashes of the man killed in Sachsenhausen arrived in Berlin, but then it mysteriously disappeared -- and, with it, the last traces of Yakov Dzhugashvili.