I recently took an extended (extended for me, anyway) vacation to the Baltic Sea area where I visited a number of countries. I saw many interesting places and was told about countless interesting facts. I re-learned a lot of history, much of which I’d actually lived through. On a tour of Berlin, one fact that struck me as particularly curious – one I had never heard about before – concerned forensic odontology. I had discussed the importance of this discipline in my very last blog, yet really had no idea how long it had been employed.
In reviewing the subject, I read that possibly the first instance of an identification based on teeth took place almost two thousand years ago in the Roman Empire. Did you know that Paul Revere (yes, that Paul Revere) was a dentist, who in 1776 identified a man killed in battle by a bridge he had fashioned for him? The man’s face had been disfigured by his injuries, making it impossible to identify him any other way and afford him a proper burial.
The first documented use of forensic odontology in a court case was in 1814, where again a bridge was used for identification, in this case to identify a dead woman. The crime took place in Scotland, where grave thieves removed the deceased woman from her grave, and sold her body to a medical school for dissection in an anatomy lab.
John Wilkes Booth (you all remember he shot Abraham Lincoln, right?) was killed by the US cavalry in 1865, after which he was buried. As seems to happen regularly, even back then, conspiracy theories started circulating, claiming Booth had escaped and was still alive. To put these theories to rest (as if it were possible to completely eradicate such rumors), Booth’s body was exhumed in 1893 and his family dentist made a positive identification of his remains based on the peculiar jaw formation the dentist had noted in his records when Booth had a filling restored. In what I read, no mention was made of the filling in the identification, leaving me to wonder if that tooth was missing for some reason, or if, perhaps, the corpse had no such filling, raising the possibility that it wasn’t Booth’s body in that grave. (Might he still be alive today?)
This brings me to what I learned in Berlin. Our guide brought us to a non-descript parking lot which happened to be built over the sight of Hitler’s bunker, the place where he died of suicide on April 30, 1945. The bunker underneath is now gone, blown up and excavated. The cement of the parking lot we stood on was probably poured in the late 1980’s. Located in East Berlin, the Soviet government made sure the bunker was destroyed, and kept the site unmarked to ensure no shrine would be built there by neo-Nazis. Finally, in 2006, the German government recognized the site as the place where Hitler had spent his last days. Today it is marked only by a single information board.
After his death, rumored to have been by cyanide and/or a gunshot to the head, Hitler’s aids doused his body with gasoline and burned it (along with the body of his blushing bride and partner in suicide, Eva Braun) nearby, as directed (he didn’t want their bodies desecrated, as happened to his buddy Mussolini and his mistress). According to our guide, he killed himself because he was disgusted that his military was so incompetent, it was unable to defeat the Allied power. He felt that neither Germany nor the world deserved him and therefore didn’t merit the honor of his leadership. It’s an interesting theory, but one I have not found commonly referenced.
When the Red Army arrived in Berlin several days later, they searched the area of the Chancellery. A private noticed a patch of loose dirt and, thinking he might find a Nazi treasure, began to dig. Instead of a treasure, he found the contents of a shallow grave holding the charred remains of two people.
Presumed to be the bodies of Hitler and Braun, autopsies were performed. Regarding the male’s body, the autopsy was performed by an army pathologist. She described the corpse as badly burned, smelling like burned meat. Only the jaw was fairly well preserved. The doctor apparently removed the jaw with attached teeth and placed it in a red jewelry box.
The head of the KGB at the time, Yuri Andropov (who later became a Soviet Premier, serving only fifteen months before he died of natural causes) ordered the remains (other than those in the jewelry box) to be secretly buried elsewhere, wanting to prevent the site of Hitler’s burial from becoming a shrine for fascists in the future. Over the years, Hitler’s remains were moved several times, reburned, and finally either thrown in an East Berlin river, or scattered in the wind around 1970 (I have read both scenarios; our guide said the remains were thrown in the river).
You may be wondering what happened to the jewelry box and its contents. The story now turns to Elena Rzhevskaya. A Russian Jew, she had been a literature student in Moscow when the Nazi’s attacked the Soviet Union. Wanting to help in the war effort, she became a Red Army interpreter because she spoke German. She mainly interrogated German POWs captured by the Red Army.
In April 1945, when Rzhevskaya was twenty-five years of age, she was transferred to the front for the final assault on Berlin. On May 2 she arrived at the Chancellery garden, where she was one of a handful to see the charred corpses, and served as an interpreter for the team trying to establish their identities. Before the world knew of Hitler’s demise, she was translating documents found in the bunker, and interviewing people who had been with him his final days.
After the autopsy, she was given the jewelry box to carry with her, tasked with finding someone who could confirm the teeth therein were those of Hitler. She was trusted with the teeth probably because she was an officer, and being female, wouldn’t get drunk on Victory Day.
While Hitler’s dentist had already fled to Bavaria, Rzhevskaya was able to find the dental assistant who had seen the Fuhrer days before his death. The assistant drew a sketch of Hitler’s teeth, which matched those of the charred remains.
The jaw and teeth remained secreted behind the iron curtain for many years because Stalin wanted to promote “Operation Myth,” a ruse to sow doubt about Hitler’s death, and spread the belief that Hitler was being hidden by the Americans or British. This was part of a perverse plan to associate the West with Nazi’s, but while that never gained traction, numerous theories arose that Hitler wasn’t dead (whether or not such theories would have sprung up if the Soviets hadn’t hidden the remains is debatable, but I would guess they would have, conspiracy theories generally not depending on facts).
Finally, in 2017, the Russian State Archive was given permission by Russia’s FSB (the successor to the KGB) to grant a team of French pathologists access to the jawbone and teeth. The team studied X-rays of Hitler’s teeth taken in 1944, as well as descriptions previously provided by his dentist and dental assistant, and found them to match the specimen that had been sequestered all those years. Hitler had gum disease and such bad teeth that only a few were left by the time he died. His crowns, bridges and dentures led to an easy and irrefutable match with the jawbone and teeth of the specimen. According to the lead author of the published study of Hitler’s teeth, “The teeth are authentic, there is no possible doubt. Our study proves that Hitler died in 1945.”
The exact cause of Hitler’s death remains in question, with varying sources saying he died by gunshot wound to the head (either self-inflicted or fired by an aid), cyanide, or both (a shot to the head at same time he bit down on a cyanide pill or ampule). No gunpowder was found in the jaw, indicating that if he’d been shot, it was through the forehead or neck, not the mouth. Bluish stains on some of his false teeth are said by some to be consistent with suicide by cyanide, although as cyanide is white, not blue, I question that conclusion.
The dental assistant who saw Hitler in his bunker every day until the end, was at the time hiding a Jewish dentist she had worked for in her home. She and Rzhevskaya became close, the dental assistant promising to take Rzhevskaya to her hairdresser when the Soviet interrogations were over. Unfortunately, Stalin sent Rzhevskaya’s friend to the gulag (along with others who knew Hitler had died) where she remained for ten years. She was told that instead of helping with Hitler’s teeth, she should have stopped the war by hitting him on the head with a bottle. In actuality, her crime was knowing Hitler was dead, a fact Stalin wanted to keep secret.
Rzhevskaya (who changed her name from Kagan after the war to hide her identity as a Jew so she could work) didn’t write openly about Hitler’s teeth until Stalin was dead. She died in 2017 at the age of 97 in Moscow after a career as a writer.