Kidnapped During World War II, These German Corpses Proved A Headache for the U.S. Army
As Germany crumbled in fire and rubble in the final months of World War II, Adolf Hitler issued orders for four famous Germans to be held hostage—not living Germans, but dead ones. All of them had died before the war had even started; two, in fact, had died in the 1700s.
The unlikely quartet of corpses consisted of two Prussian warrior kings—Frederick William I and Frederick the Great—plus the late German Weimar Republic President Paul von Hindenburg and his unassuming wife Gertrud. The bodies would be hauled cross country, transported by sea, dragged up mountains, carted through forests and eventually entrenched in darkness, where bewildered American soldiers accidentally stumbled upon them in April 1945.
Yet the story of the kidnapped corpses did not end there. The U.S. Army would soon discover that the dead could be just as troublesome as the living.
In view of Germany’s catastrophic military situation, most logical people would not have seen much point in the Third Reich’s focus on famous corpses. Yet Nazi officials placed uncanny emphasis on the dead. Deaths, funerals and memorial events were used for propaganda from the earliest days of the Nazi regime. The Nazis showed a total lack of respect for dead individuals as well as a perverse interest in human remains. Bodies of famous historical figures were frequently dug up, analyzed, poked at, made into centerpieces for speeches and heaped with swastika wreaths. One of the chief tomb violators was Reichsführer -SS Heinrich Himmler, whose minions became expert grave robbers in pursuit of famous bones and artifacts. Hitler and Goebbels became masters of funeral ceremonies, creating spectacles for dead compatriots that were less memorial services than political rallies.
Two famous Germans treated to funerary theatrics were the Hindenburgs. Mustachioed Prussian Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg went down in history as the lackluster second President of the Weimar Republic who appointed Hitler as Germany’s Chancellor and opened the door to one of the darkest chapters in world history. Little could he have known that the “Bohemian corporal” he infamously shook hands with would someday uproot his remains—and those of his late wife, Gertrud, who lay buried at the family estate.
Paul von Hindenburg offers a military salute as crowds hail Hitler walking behind him.
When Hindenburg died, Hitler decided that the old man needed to go out in style—preferably with a boom of propaganda to impress the living. Therefore the deceased Field Marshal—along with Frau Hindenburg, unceremoniously dug up to come along for the ride—was hauled to the Tannenberg Memorial, a gargantuan stone temple in the plains of East Prussia partially designed to commemorate a 1914 battle and mostly designed to make Germans forget that the Teutonic knights had lost the first Battle of Tannenberg centuries earlier in 1410.
The memorial sported no less than eight towers and enough space in the middle for a large crowd and probably several orchestras. In 1934, during a long and elaborate ceremony in which the memorial brimmed with wreaths and glittering uniforms enough to make one’s eyes water, the Hindenburg couple were buried in their very own tower. It was complete with a statue of Hindenburg himself, who had expressly wished to be buried with his wife at home. For the pair to end up entombed in the wilderness of East Prussia was similar to being buried at a frontier outpost like Fort Apache.
Hitler gives a speech at Hindenburg's elaborate funeral at the Tannenberg Memorial.
The Hindenburgs weren’t the only dignitaries whose last wishes would be ignored. Destined to accompany them in a posthumous adventure were two famous kings of Prussia’s Hohenzollern dynasty—Frederick William I and his son Frederick II, known as Frederick the Great. Both kings had attained fame for extraordinary military achievements. Neither king had intended to keep traveling after death. Frederick the Great left instructions in 1769: “Bury me in Sans Souci [Potsdam]…in a tomb which I have had prepared for myself…” Yet the two royals were not destined to rest in peace.
A Salt Mine…and Red Crayon
As the Allies closed in across Germany in 1945, all four bodies ended up taking a wild ride to avoid being captured by combatants in a conflict they had taken no part in during their lifetimes. On Hitler’s orders, both Hindenburgs were pried out of the tower at the Tannenberg Memorial and shoved onto a ship; it was assumed that the Russians wouldn’t react well upon finding the memorial and realizing the fiercely anti-Russian Field Marshal was stuffed into its walls.
The cruiser Emden hauled the Hindenburg coffins to Berlin, where they were joined by the coffins of the royal Fredericks Senior and Junior. From there, the coffins were packed off cross-country to the rugged mountainous region of Thuringia, where they were intended to remain hidden underground until the time was appropriate for an underground Nazi resistance movement to bring them to the surface.
A view inside one of the many salt mines used by the Nazis as caches and secret storage facilities.
On April 27, 1945, men of the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps shuffled wearily through the formidable Thuringian Forest and set to work clearing out a wickedly deep salt mine near the town of Bernterode. Navigating a network of tunnels stretching on for about 14 miles, they came across not only hidden ammunition reserves but a passageway sealed with rubble. Digging through six feet of debris, they found a secret chamber containing tapestries and valuable paintings. They also discovered four giant coffins staring back at them.
The soldiers were baffled. Thankfully the Germans had seen fit to label the coffins by writing the names of the dead on them in red crayon.
A Delicate Problem
Moving the coffins proved a hellish task. European dignitaries were often buried in sarcophagi forged of metal alloys. This process would seal the body in an airtight vacuum and prevent rapid decomposition, instead prompting a process of natural mummification. Such sarcophagi weren’t intended to be mobile—in fact they were, quite reasonably, built to stay in one place. It took the Americans an hour to get Frederick the Great’s casket, which weighed no less than 1,200 pounds, into an elevator for removal.
The Monuments Men, in charge of recovering, handling and repatriating stolen works of art, found themselves tasked with returning four stolen German corpses in Operation Bodysnatch.
The U.S. Army trucked the bodies to a castle at Marburg, where the dead dignitaries were kept under guard in a cellar and stared at by wary soldiers for a year until the U.S. State Department, who classified the corpses as “political personages,” arrived at a decision about what to do with them. Lt. Gen. Lucius Clay, deputy U.S. governor in occupied Germany, was told to bury the dead in a dignified manner and delegated the task to Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Section Unit (MFAA), also known as the Monuments Men.
It turned out to be what the Monuments Men considered one of their strangest duties. They found that entombing the dead German dignitaries was almost as complicated as trying to make hotel arrangements for them. To bury these characters required navigating European history, international diplomacy and the wishes of next of kin—who were awkward political personages themselves.
No Room For Dead Militarists
The first version of the plan entailed that the Americans would take the two King Fredericks and their British cousins would relieve them of the Hindenburgs. A little bit of research would be required to decide appropriate locations—which would not become rally spots for any stray Nazis. After the logistics were settled, local German authorities were supposed to do the actual burying. The burials had to be kept secret.
Things went downhill quickly. The British were shocked to learn of the corpse problem and were “quite distressed” by the idea of having to put on a funeral for the infamously warlike Paul von Hindenburg, according to a 1950 article in Life magazine. After consultations in London, the British made it clear that Mr. and Mrs. von Hindenburg were not welcome to even set one skeletal foot in their zone, much less be buried in it. The U.S. Army scouted around for suitable old family castles to bury the two Prussian King Fredericks but inevitably found the properties in the possession of the French. The French, understandably, had no desire to do any favors for the two Hohenzollern kings.
Since most of Germany had been heavily bombed, there were not an abundance of churches where the kidnapped German dignitaries could be buried.
Fourteen months later, the hapless Americans were still the unwilling guardians of four famous dead Germans and hoped to bury them like any other dead people. Debates were held about whether to bury the lot together or separate them. Many churches had been bombed so available real estate for private funeral services was scarce. Castles bustled with billeted troops and jazz orchestras.
The Americans eventually agreed not to split the lot but instead to bury the bunch together in St. Elizabeth’s church in Marburg, an ancient local church down the road from where the bodies were already being kept in a cellar. Before the burials took place, the Monuments Men decided to share the news with living relatives and ask for their approval as a kind gesture.
A Wedding or a Funeral?
The Americans had no trouble contacting the son of the Hindenburg couple, Maj. Gen. Oskar von Hindenburg, but matters got complicated when the proud Prussian signed his military title on a hotel registry and, to his great indignation, was promptly arrested. The Monuments Men secured his release. Unsurprisingly, he was fully supportive of his parents being given a normal funeral after the posthumous misadventures they had endured.
Things got off to an awkward start with Crown Prince Wilhelm, the son of Kaiser Wilhelm II who had become infamous during the First World War. The Crown Prince, then age 64, was the head of the Hohenzollern family and thus the closest relative of the two King Fredericks. He found himself in the French zone, where the French guarded him peevishly and wouldn’t let him leave their sight. To clear the matter up while maintaining official secrecy, the Monuments Men sent the prince a message telling him that an American officer would come visit to discuss an important family matter, accompanied by the prince’s youngest daughter, Cecilia.
The Crown Prince assumed that the private family matter was something rather intimate when he saw Cecilia appear with U.S. Army Capt. Everett Parker Lesley Jr., known as Bill, of the Monuments Men. When Lesley broached the topic of holding the ceremony in a church, the suspicious father refused to give his permission.
“We are acting under orders from the Secretary of War!” rejoined Lesley. “What on earth has the Secretary of War to do with you marrying Cecilia?” demanded the prince. Lesley, astounded, explained he wasn’t there for marriage but for a funeral. The stern prince was overcome by laughter.
The Last Stop
After some problems digging in the church to clear room for the coffins, and some wandering tomb lids that almost got shipped to the Russian zone, the top- secret funerals were ready to happen. The Monuments Men expected it all to go quietly with nobody the wiser. Family members would attend but nobody else was supposed to know. However, on the day of the private burial ceremony, the Americans were mildly horrified to find about 500 Germans gathered around the church to watch.
The unlikely quartet of German dignitaries were buried together in Marburg, where they remained unobtrusively until the Hohenzollern family plucked their two King Fredericks out in 1952 and hustled them into a family castle. In August 1991, the two kings’ bodies were carted out again—this time they came full circle, returning to the starting point of their adventure at their original resting place in Potsdam. Their (hopefully) final reburial took place with a lavish televised ceremony following German Reunification.
The Hindenburgs remain in Marburg in a dignified but inconspicuous place, as the Monuments Men intended. Locals find the presence of Paul von Hindenburg a little bit awkward—even if the church pastor has expressed sympathy for the deceased’s overlooked wife.
But, like them or not, nobody can think of a better solution than the Americans did in 1945. Local mayor Thomas Spies told Hessenschau news: “From the city’s viewpoint, there is no reason why Hindenburg should rest here, but of course the man has to be buried someplace.”