10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won't Find in a History Book
10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book

Larry Holzwarth - December 27, 2017

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
Gestapo head Heinrich Mueller, in black uniform, circa 1939. Bundesarchiv

What happened to Heinrich Mueller?

As the Russian artillery pounded Berlin in late April 1945, and the western Allies closed the ring around Germany, there was little doubt among the Nazi leaders what their fate would be if they fell into Russian hands. Alternatives were surrendered to the Americans and British, escape to a neutral country and thence to South America, or suicide. For the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Mueller, it mattered little if he was taken into custody by Americans or Russians, his status as a war criminal was a given.

In the end, it didn’t matter. He was never taken into custody, at least not as Heinrich Mueller. What happened to Mueller remains a mystery to this day, with many possible answers arising from speculation, but nearly all of them disproved by facts. What is known is that the last confirmed sighting of Mueller was in Hitler’s bunker under Berlin on the evening of May 1, 1945, when he spoke to Hitler’s former pilot of his intention not to be taken by the Russians.

Early speculation over the fate of the Gestapo head centered round his recruitment by the Russians, but Mueller’s own fear of the Russians would seem to deny that possibility. Later it was proposed that he had been recruited by the American OSS (later CIA) but that seems equally implausible to all but the most hardened conspiracy buffs. If he died in the final assault on Berlin his body was never found, he was too well known to have escaped identification unless maimed beyond all recognition.

The possibility that he escaped to South America is supported simply by the fact that so many other senior Nazi officials, and a good many less senior, did just that. Mueller would have had access to all means of escape at the disposal of the Nazis, and presumably a few unknown to any but the most senior. Many reports of bodies being found bearing papers identifying the corpse as Mueller turned up in the rubble of Berlin, their sheer number support the theory of papers being planted on the dead to throw the hounds off the scent.

It is likely that the disappearance of Heinrich Mueller will never be solved. As the head of the Gestapo, he had access to all of the deepest secrets of Nazi Germany, as well as its considerable resources. He may have died in Berlin, he may have worked for the Russians, or he may have whiled away the rest of his life in an Argentine German village. There were many charming such villages there from which to choose.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
Reports from German weather stations like this one were crucial to operations on the Eastern Front. Daily Mail

What was the purpose of the Secret Polar Base?

During the German invasion of the Soviet Union, a detachment of German troops was sent to establish an outpost on Alexandra Island, about 600 nautical miles from the North Pole. By 1942 the small outpost was equipped and operational. It remained in operation until 1944 when the German’s abandoned the position and the island.

For the two years that the post was operational, it was resupplied solely by Luftwaffe airdrops. The base was established, according to most histories, for the purpose of collecting and supplying weather data to the armies stretched along the long front from Leningrad to the Caucasus. The base was code-named Schatzgraber – Treasure Hunter.

Nearby islands were occupied with weather data collection stations operated by the Americans, English, and Russian allies, so the presence of a German station dedicated to the same function is not unusual. Nor is the operational code name, military organizations often use seemingly exotic code names to identify the operations in which they are engaged.

Part of the Nazi philosophy of Aryan supremacy was based on Norse mythology, built upon a period of time when the Nordic peoples dominated the earth. Some believe that the true purpose of Schatzgraber was not the collection of weather data but the gathering of artifacts which could be used to support this most basic of Nazi philosophies. This theory is supported by the fact that the Germans’ abandoned the base – evacuating it by U Boat – just as the weather data which it allegedly provided was becoming most critical as the Russians prepared for the westward push in 1944.

Officially, the Germans abandoned the facility after a rash of food poisoning among the staff, caused by eating Polar bear meat contaminated with roundworms. The base remained abandoned and unexamined for decades, with many questioning its existence, comparing it to a similar, mythical facility in the Antarctic. In 2016 Russian scientists and technicians began examining the remains of Schatzgraber, including a trove of more than 500 documents, superbly preserved by the cold, in an attempt to unravel the mystery of the true purpose of the Nazi presence in the Arctic during the Second World War.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
Many believe that the fabled Nazi Gold train is concealed in a hidden Silesian tunnel similar to the one. Daily Mail

The Nazi Gold Train

During the final months of the Second World War, goes the legend, German officials loaded stolen Polish and Russian art, currency, and bullion and loaded it on a train bound for Silesia. There the train was concealed in an underground complex built by forced labor provided by prisoners of war. According to some “witnesses”, the train also contained operational prototypes of weapons intended for use on the Eastern Front.

The train was concealed by the retreating Germans and after the war remained under Soviet control. During the years since efforts by Polish scientists and historians to locate the train and its contents have been in vain. The train is alleged to have been concealed in the Owl Mountains near the Polish city of Walbrzych (which was then a German city). According to the story, over 300 tons of gold and weapons were concealed from the advancing Russians on the train.

The Polish government has sponsored searches for the train by agreeing to a finder’s fee to be paid to any expedition which succeeds in locating it. The Poles have also conducted searches using the Polish Army to no avail. In 2016, a search spearheaded by a German mining company claimed to have identified a train of sufficient length concealed underground in the vicinity where the gold train was supposed to have been hidden. After this information was leaked to the press – according to the miners the leak was through the Polish government – the government formally denied the existence of the train.

Later that summer excavation and exploration teams from both Polish and German organizations, government sponsored and private, explored the area in detail. Neither developed any proof of the existence of a buried train, and the Polish team determined the area in question to be a naturally occurring buried ice formation. After exhaustive research, including some excavation, no evidence of the train was unearthed.

Despite anecdotal evidence from eyewitnesses, who witnessed the train being loaded and later concealed in Silesia, no physical evidence of the train’s existence nor its treasure has ever been found. Nor has any documentation describing the train or its contents, unusual given the meticulous record keeping proclivities of the Germans.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
After months in the custody of the United States Military Police Herman Goering committed suicide by cyanide capsule. The Atlantic

How did convicted Herman Goering obtain cyanide?

Herman Goering was a leader of the Nazi Party and Luftwaffe, one of the men closest to Adolf Hitler, and with Hitler and Himmler both dead, the most senior Nazi-held prisoner by the Allies after World War II. He sat in the dock at Nuremberg unrepentant, a defiant and largely despicable Nazi throughout the war trials which convicted him. There was never any doubt that he would be convicted, and no doubt what his sentence would be.

When Goering was given the opportunity to testify at his trial, he echoed the statements made by witnesses on his behalf, namely that he had been a political and theological moderate, unaware of the atrocities being committed in the concentration camps. Goering presented the argument that to disobey Hitler was tantamount to suicide, and in order to maintain his position and authority – which he used among other things to protect captured Allied airmen – he needed to appease the Fuhrer.

Convicted and sentenced to death, Goering requested to be shot by firing squad rather than hanged. Denied, he appeared to be resigned to his fate until he committed suicide by cyanide capsule on the eve of his execution, after months in the custody of the United States Military Police.

How Goering obtained the cyanide with which he cheated the hangman has been a mystery since. The military police conducted a half-hearted investigation into the incident but appeared to be less than interested in the result. Goering was just as dead as if he had hanged, and the persecution of an accomplice or accomplices was of little concern. Obviously, someone had violated security by smuggling the poison into him, finding out who had was not a pressing issue.

In 2005 a former US Military Policemen who had guarded Goering claimed to have smuggled the poison into the prisoner in a fountain pen received from his girlfriend, who told him the pen contained medicine needed by Goering. He never saw the girl again. Several others came forward in the years following Goering’s death with claims to have facilitated it, all have been questioned by historians and many disproved. Even if the fountain pen story were true it raises the question of an organization actively defying the will of the occupation troops in 1946, not the answer to a mystery, but another mystery entirely.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
Argentina’s Juan Peron welcomed escaping Nazis and roundly condemned the International Tribunal which labelled many of them War Criminals. Biography.com

How did so many Nazi criminals escape?

The German infrastructure of railroads, highways, air routes and canals was in total shambles by early 1945, making even legitimate travel problematic. Allied troops occupied major travel hubs, and security by frontline troops and military police scrutinized the documents of any Germans attempting to travel, either those fleeing from the war or those few still attempting to go about their legitimate business. Europe was clamped down as tight as a drum, yet hundreds of Nazi officials, escaping war criminals, SS Officers, and more managed to escape the continent of Europe and find sanctuary in South America.

Ratlines were established and operational even before the war came to an end, providing a pipeline for escaping Nazis to Argentina, where they were welcomed by Juan Peron, and to other safe-havens. Two main routes were established, through Franco’s Spain and through Italy via Rome and Genoa. Initially independent of each other, they eventually came to work together. Both received the support of the Catholic Church at the destination points and along the routes.

Within a year of the war’s end in Europe, Spain was littered with thousands of former Nazis, including several hundred being sought by authorities for war crimes, and efforts by the US State Department to obtain the support of the Vatican turning them over to the United States were futile. From Spain, these refugees traveled to South America with the covert assistance of the Catholic bureaucracy in Spain, Portugal, and Argentina, including Argentine Cardinal Antonio Caggiano.

In Italy, the Vatican Secretariat of State established a liaison in the winter of 1944 to support the German interns in Italy, in the form of Bishop Alois Hudal, the rector of a seminary for Austrian and German priests in Rome. Through this liaison office, numerous Nazi war criminals received the credentials necessary to legally travel to South American countries, where they were welcomed as Catholic immigrants. Some of the war criminals who escaped via this route were Franz Stengl, the former commanding officer of the Treblinka death camp, Gustav Wagner, commandant of Sobibor, and the infamous Adolf Eichmann.

By 1947 and through at least 1950 the United States Army, through its own and other intelligence services, was actively working with these and other ratlines for the purpose of evaluating suspected Nazi war criminals rather than handing them over to the Russians for trial. Faced with the potential embarrassment of holding prisoners wanted by the Russians, the US Army allowed them to evacuate Europe via the ratlines, often with overt assistance.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
The fate of Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg remains hidden behind a shroud of mystery and misinformation. Wikipedia

What Happened to Raoul Wallenberg?

Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish businessman and diplomat credited with saving thousands of Jews from the Germans in the waning days of the Second World War. From the summer of 1944 until late in the year he protected Hungarian Jews by issuing them Swedish passports and sheltering them on properties designated as Swedish territory under diplomatic and international law.

When the Soviet Army besieged Budapest Wallenberg was arrested by Russian authorities under suspicion of espionage and imprisoned. Over a decade later it was reported that he had died while in Soviet custody, of natural causes. The Soviets reported his death to have occurred in July 1947, with the cause of death being heart failure.

After his “death” was reported by the Soviets, several former prisoners and even guards reported having seen Wallenberg, at least one as late as the 1960s. Wallenberg was reported as being in Soviet custody in the infamous Lubyanka Prison. Reasons for his being held by the Soviets have been largely speculation, ranging from his alleged connections with US intelligence to his having been involved in espionage activities against the Hungarians.

Wallenberg was reported as being murdered by the Gestapo in 1945, dead of natural causes in 1947, murdered by the Russians while in custody in 1947, alive on Wrangel Island in 1962, and alive in another Soviet prison in 1987. He was finally officially declared dead in 2016 by Swedish Authorities.

Wallenberg’s relationship with US intelligence, as well as his activities subverting the pro-Nazi Hungarian government during the Second World War is still the subject of speculation, with the governments of several nations, including Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Hungary, the United States, and Sweden all issuing conflicting statements regarding his actions. The story of Raoul Wallenberg, which includes his often visibly contentious relationship with representatives of Nazi Germany in Budapest, remains a mystery which becomes more entangled the more one attempts to unravel it.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
Rudolph Hess was Spandau Prison’s sole inmate for many years before he is alleged to have committed suicide. Daily Mail

Why did Rudolph Hess fly to Scotland?

Rudolph Hess came to the Nazi Party early enough to bear member number 16. Along with other prisoners, Hess received dictation in prison from Adolf Hitler, the results of which were Hitler’s screed Mein Kampf. In 1933 Hess became Deputy Fuhrer when Hitler received his appointment as Reich Chancellor. Hess ran several departments of the Nazi government and his signature appeared alongside Hitler’s on numerous government decrees.

When the Second World War began Hitler made arrangements to continue the Nazi hierarchy should the Fuhrer fall in battle, designating Herman Goering as his successor, with Hess next in line. Hess was responsible for domestic affairs and issues to the exclusion of military activities, and with war underway, the amount of time available from Hitler was limited. Hess became marginalized as military affairs overrode to a large extent the daily internal affairs of the Reich.

As German plans to invade the Soviet Union coalesced, Hess was determined to find a means to bring England to the negotiating table to avoid the catastrophe of a two-front war. In May of 1941, Hess flew a Messerschmidt bf100 to the United Kingdom, bailed out over Scotland, and was arrested upon landing. He left behind him a letter to Hitler (among other items) which indicated his intention to enter into negotiations for a separate peace with the British, which when received by Hitler instigated a fit of rage and fears of a coup.

The German propaganda machine announced that Hess was exhausted from overwork, and distanced themselves from his actions. Under orders from Winston Churchill Hess was imprisoned – he was briefly held in the Tower of London – and despite questioning was not charged with any crime. Hess continued to be held throughout the war, attempting suicide twice, and following the war was charged with war crimes. He often pretended while in custody to be suffering from amnesia and other mental disorders.

After the war, he was tried as a war criminal and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was the sole remaining prisoner in Spandau Prison in Berlin when he finally committed suicide at the age of 93 in 1987. Immediately following his death it was asserted by his lawyer that Hess had been too frail to have committed suicide in the manner described by his British guards. Why Hess flew to Scotland, what happened during his questioning, and why he remained in custody for more than four decades before committing suicide, are all mysteries for which no reasonable answer has been forthcoming.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Encyclopedia Britannica – How the Symbolism of the Swastika Was Ruined

BBC News – How the World Loved the Swastika – Until Hitler Stole It

History Extra – Why Did Hitler Choose the Swastika, And How Did a Sanskrit Symbol Become A Nazi Emblem?

NY Daily News – Trees in Germany That Once Grew in Shape of Swastika Cause Lingering Mystery

War History Online – The Surrender of the Last Two German U-boats in WW2

Medium – Will the Legendary Lost ‘Amber Room’ Ever Be Found?

Sky History – The Mystery of The Amber Room: The World’s Greatest Lost Treasure

Los Angeles Times – Ending 68-Year Mystery, Scholar Confirms Gestapo Chief Died In 1945

Indian Express – In the Deep Arctic, Hitler’s Secret Base

Popular Mechanics – Mysterious Arctic Nazi Base Rediscovered

War History Online – A Secret Base, Built by The Nazis in WW2, Has Been Discovered in The Arctic

Smithsonian Magazine – Sorry, Treasure Hunters: That Legendary Nazi Gold Train Is a Total Bust

BBC News – Poland’s ‘Nazi Gold Train’ Find: Myth and Reality

BBC News – Nazi Gold Train: ‘No Evidence’ Of Discovery in Poland

BBC News – The Swedish Schindler Who Disappeared

Haaretz – Is the Mystery of Raoul Wallenberg’s Death Finally Solved?

Smithsonian Magazine – Raoul Wallenberg’s Biographer Uncovers Important Clues to What Happened in His Final Days

BBC News – Rudolf Hess: Inside the Mind Of Hitler’s Deputy

Warfare History Network – Was Rudolf Hess Murdered?