In a 1948 film never before shown to the American public, former Nuremberg trials judge and Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice Michael Musmanno proclaimed: "I have brought a number of eye witnesses on the subject of Hitler's disappearance. In their own words, they will tell you what happened to the Führer of Germany."
For two years following World War II, Musmanno tracked down members of Hitler's staff, including his secretary and the leader of the Nazi Youth, among others, in an effort to prove the Führer’s death. The interviewees describe Hitler in his last moments as the Soviet Army invaded Germany in 1945, detailing everything from the claustrophobic quarters of the Führer's underground bunker, to his marriage to Eva Braun, to his final meal and eventual suicide.
Tonight, the Smithsonian Channel will air this footage, never broadcast in the United States, as part of "The Day Hitler Died," a groundbreaking special that recalls the final 48 hours of Adolf Hitler from the perspective of those who accompanied him. The program will air at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT.
While the Musmanno collection, comprising 1,000 linear feet of photographs, papers and artifacts, came to Duquesne University in Pittsburgh several years after the judge's death, the recordings remained inaccessible until the mid-2000s, around the time that Thomas White, Duquesne's archivist and curator of special collections, began working at the school. We spoke with White about the interviews.
Who discovered the recordings and how did they come to Duquesne?
The collection was given by the Musmanno family to Duquesne in 1980. Literally, they had everything that was his. We were aware that the films existed, but the canisters were unlabeled, and of course they’re on old reel film, so we had no way to play them. The physical papers in the collection were mostly processed by the mid-to-early 2000s. Eventually, the idea was made, with the family’s permission, to send the films off for preservation and to have copies made—that was around 2007.
When did you first see the footage?
I only saw it around 2007-2008 when we first had it transferred. We didn’t know what was on the footage. The first film was a birthday party from years ago with Musmanno and his family. But then after that you got into the interviews, and we realized that they were the ones that he arranged to have done. The judge thought it was important to document the stories. He had the transcript copy, but he wanted some kind of video documentation.
Musmanno published a book called Ten Days to Die, in which he talks about the interviews. How does the footage add to that narrative?
First of all, it gives you more a sense of the person talking, but also it makes it a little more real and grounded as far as what was going on. It’s interesting to see these people and see how they react. You see some of the younger staff members, you see some of the older staff members. It gives you a better sense of the physical dynamic of what was going on in the bunker.
Many of these people were interviewed [by others] later in their lives—in the '50s, '60s or even '70s. I haven’t thoroughly examined these later interviews, but stories can get more polished as you tell them over and over. [The Musmanno interviews] are kind of the first tellings of what happened.
A few details stood out to me from the interviews. One was the love letters that women wrote to the Führer, also the last meal that they ate—he and Eva Braun—and the fact that he poisoned his dog. Is there one moment when you were looking through these clips that stood out to you?
I always find it fascinating how they disposed of his body. One thing Musmanno wanted to do was demonstrate that Hitler was in fact dead. He would become very angry later in his life when people claimed Hitler was alive. Somewhere in the interviews [someone] talks about throwing gasoline on Hitler’s body to burn it. They tried to eliminate all trace of him, or at least make his body unusable for propaganda purposes. Also, as you said, the fact that he poisoned his dog, and the meticulous way he went about ending his life is interesting—the fact that he didn’t want to go out and fight; he just wanted to end it in the bunker.
The footage has been described as “lost to history,” but starting in the early 2000s the films came back up into conversation. Was there any point in history during which they were completely lost?
It depends on who you ask. We knew they existed. At one point, I didn’t know which canisters they were or which batch of film they were a part of. Certainly when I started they were “lost.” There was no access to them for many years as far as people being able to come in and watch them.
There actually were more of them that are lost still. Musmanno originally had around six hours of footage. Some of it he sent to California to be stored in a Hollywood facility at a film company, and nobody knows what happened to it. We don’t know if it came back, or was just thrown out by them eventually.
Following the expiration of a contract between the Musmanno family and the producers of Witnesses of Doom: The Lost Interviews, which aired on German television, Finestripe Productions in Scotland teamed up with Smithsonian Channel to produce a documentary for the rest of the world to see. The original interview tapes, consisting of about 50 minutes of footage, reside in a temperature-controlled room in Duquesne's archives, locked away behind several doors. Copies of the taped interviews and transcripts are available for viewing at Duquesne's Gumberg Library, and digitized versions of the transcripts are available online.
Catch the premiere of Smithsonian Channel's "The Day Hitler Died" on Monday, November 16, at 8 p.m. ET/PT. Check local listings.