Nazi hunters eager for CIA file


Mystery: Historians hope to find out what happened to the Gestapo's leader after World War II.

March 07, 2001|By Henry Weinstein | Henry Weinstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

For more than 50 years, Nazi hunters and historians have tried in vain to discover what happened to Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller, who vanished in 1945 at the end of World War II.

Of all the major Nazis, Muller, who was Adolf Eichmann's immediate superior, is the most important still unaccounted for, according to many Holocaust experts.

Now, efforts to solve the mystery are resuming, including attempts to answer the most provocative question: Was Muller briefly in U.S. custody after the war? If so, did he escape, or, if he was freed, was it to become a CIA spy?

Muller, who was born in 1900, is officially registered as dead in Berlin. But his grave was found to contain the remains of two unknown soldiers when it was opened more than 30 years ago. His children removed the headstone from the burial plot.

U.S. Army Intelligence records indicate that Muller was captured by Americans in 1945, said historian George Chalou, who worked at the National Archives for 28 years. But what happened after that "is the $64 question," Chalou said.

According to sometimes contradictory documents and media reports, Muller was "sighted" in East Germany; Czechoslovakia; Switzerland; Brazil; Argentina; Paraguay; Cairo, Egypt; Damascus, Syria; Moscow; Washington; and Portsmouth, N.H.

In about a month, the National Archives plans to release a 500-page Central Intelligence Agency file on Muller, which may shed light on his postwar activities, according to Greg Bradsher, a historian at the National Archives. So far, the bulk of publicly available material on Muller has come from Army Intelligence files and material gathered by historians.

Muller "has been the subject of interest for decades, including to this day by my office," said Eli M. Rosenbaum, who heads the Office of Special Investigations, the Justice Department's Nazi war-criminal unit. Rosenbaum believes it is possible that Muller became a Soviet intelligence agent at the end of World War II. He scoffs at the idea that the Nazi ever played such a role for the United States.

The reason for interest in Muller is clear. He rounded up thousands of Jews from the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia to be sent to Auschwitz for extermination. One recently released U.S. document states that Muller ordered the execution of prisoners at Buchenwald, a death camp near Weimar, Germany.

"We've never given up" the hope of finding Muller, "though it is now more a historical question than a law-enforcement question," Rosenbaum said.

Last week, a German television network aired a program - based in part on documents from the U.S. National Archives - claiming that Muller was captured by the U.S. Army but released. The program speculated that Muller might have been employed by a U.S. intelligence agency but offered no substantiation.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said that if there is any possibility that Muller played such a role, "the U.S. government should launch a formal inquiry. There is an obligation to those who suffered under the Gestapo."

However, said Rosenbaum, who reviewed the same records, "the conclusion that `Gestapo Muller' was apprehended by American authorities and used by American intelligence is supported by no credible evidence."

Efraim Zuroff, who runs the Wiesenthal Center's office in Israel, said he thinks it highly unlikely that the United States would have used someone of Muller's stature after the war.

The veteran Nazi hunter said he thought it probable that Muller - who was reportedly in Hitler's secret bunker the day before the Fuhrer killed himself on April 29 or April 30, 1945 - was killed at the end of the war. But he quickly added, "I have no proof." What happened to Muller remains "the big question mark in terms of the perpetrators of the Holocaust."

Muller was born in Munich. He served as a fighter pilot in the German Air Force during World War I and was awarded several medals. After the war, he joined the Munich police force.

In the late 1920s, he became the Munich police's expert in the battle against "leftist movements," according to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Muller became a key aide to Reinhard Heydrich, the Bavarian police chief. His reports on communists brought him to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, who became the second-highest official in Nazi Germany.

During the 1930s, Muller won a rapid series of promotions in the SS, the German secret police.

He was one of 15 people who participated in the January 1942 Wannsee conference, where the "final solution," Hitler's program to exterminate the Jewish people, was planned. Within a few months, the first gas-chamber camps were set up in Poland, according to professor Louis L. Snyder's Encyclopedia of the Third Reich.

Muller also played a key role in investigating a plot by German army officers to kill Hitler in 1944 and remained loyal to Hitler until the end, according to Holocaust historians.

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