It is rare that you get what could be a decisive answer to one of the greatest mysteries of the World War II era. However, it appears that is the case in the enduring mystery of Hermann Goering's death. The answer is as mundane and odd as you might expect, and thus has the ring of truth.
Specifically, how did convicted war criminal Hermann Goering manage to poison himself minutes before U.S. soldiers prepared to hang him?
There are many theories. Nobody knows how the onetime Nazi second in command was able to commit suicide despite around-the-clock surveillance of his military prison cell. Col. Burton Andros was in charge of keeping Goering alive - that basically was his only job - and he failed despite taking elaborate precautions. It was a failure that haunted him to his own dying day years later.
|Goering during a break in the Nuremberg trial. It is said that he lost a great deal of weight during captivity.|
Some historians simply assert that Goering had the cyanide poison with him throughout his 11-month war crimes trial in Nuremberg, Germany. The poison was hidden under a gold dental crown, or in a hollowed-out tooth, or beneath slicked-back hair, or inserted in his navel or his rectum, and so on and so forth. He was thoroughly searched after his death - there was no physical evidence of any of that.
Others contend that someone sneaked poison to him shortly before his death -- maybe a U.S. Army officer Goering bribed with a watch, or the German doctor who regularly checked on him, or a Nazi SS officer who passed it to him in a bar of GI soap, or his wife, Emmy, who slipped it from her mouth to his in "a kiss of death" on their last visit.
|Jack G. Wheelis and Hermann Goering|
One of the most durable theories is that one of Goering's U.S. guards slipped it to him out of some shared bond. This was supposedly Lt. Jack G. Wheelis, who died eight years after Goering died. One theory is that he supposedly gave the pill to Goering in exchange for souvenirs, including Goering's watch, which Wheelis is seen wearing in a photo after the war. However, Goering was giving a number of the guards souvenirs in return for small favors or simply because he felt like it (more likely for favors), so Wheelis risking his career for one seems kind of unrealistic.
Or, another theory is that the poison was hidden in a bottle of lotion that Wheelis is said to have retrieved for the prisoner from Goering's luggage (perhaps for the souvenirs, the beauty of abstract theories with no proof is that you can mix and match them to your heart's content). There has been absolutely no evidence of this, however, and Wheelis died in the 1950s - though, if the pill were in the lotion, Wheelis wouldn't know anything useful anyway. That theory is absolutely impossible to prove or disprove.
Anyway, they're all wrong, according to one Herbert Lee Stivers.
"I gave it to him," said the retired sheet-metal worker from Hesperia in 2005.
|Herbert Lee Stivers|
Stivers, 78, said he had kept the secret of his role in Goering's death for nearly 60 years, fearful that he could face charges by the U.S. military. Now, at the urging of his daughter, he has decided to go public, he said.
Whether Stivers is telling the truth is impossible to know. Other key players in Goering's case are dead.
An Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon declined to comment on Stivers' statement. But military records do show that Stivers was a guard at the Nuremberg trials.
And some historians contacted by The Times believe his story has a ring of truth. At the very least, they say, Stivers' account underlines the continuing puzzle of how one of the 20th century's worst criminals evaded final justice.
"It doesn't sound like something made up," Cornelius Schnauber, a USC professor who is director of the Max Kade Institute for Austrian-German-Swiss Studies, said of Stivers' tale.
"It sounds even more believable than the common story about the poison being in the dental crown."
Schnauber said he believes that someone smuggled in the poison ampul that Goering bit into two hours before he was to be hanged. "It could have been this soldier," he said.
|Hermann Goering's perp photos|
A 19-year-old Army private when he was assigned guard duty at Nuremberg, Stivers said he was only trying to impress a local girl he had met on the street when he agreed to take "medicine" to a supposedly ailing Goering.
Stivers was a member of the 1st Infantry Division's 26th Regiment, whose Company D was assigned to serve as the trial's honor guard. The white-helmeted guards escorted the 22 Nazi defendants in and out of the Palace of Justice courtroom and stood at parade rest behind them during court sessions.
It was boring, Stivers said.
"We spent two hours on and four hours off. They wanted us to be alert and look neat. People had come from all over the world to see the trial," he recalled.
"We didn't carry guns. We had short billy clubs that we held behind our backs. That helped us hold our hands behind us. You'd get pretty tired standing at parade rest."
The guards were free to chat with the prisoners and even collect their autographs.
"Goering was a very pleasant guy. He spoke pretty good English. We'd talk about sports, ballgames. He was a flier, and we talked about Lindbergh," Stivers said. Charles Lindbergh, the first man to fly nonstop across the Atlantic, had received a medal from Goering before World War II.
Between court sessions, there were few diversions for the guards. "Off-hours, we had company clubs," Stivers said. "That was the only recreation, except for Frauleins."
Stivers had a German girlfriend -- an 18-year-old named Hildegarde Bruner -- to whom he gave candy bars, peanuts and cigarettes he got from the military commissary so she and her mother could trade them for food on the black market.
But he had an eye for pretty girls. And one day outside a hotel housing a military officers' club, Stivers said, he was approached by a flirtatious, dark-haired beauty who said her name was Mona.
"She asked me what I did, and I told her I was a guard. She said, 'Do you get to see all the prisoners?' 'Every day,' I said. She said, 'You don't look like a guard.' I said, 'I can prove it.' I'd just gotten an autograph from [defendant] Baldur von Schirach, and I showed it to her.
"She said, 'Oh, can I have that?' and I said sure. The next day I guarded Goering and got his autograph and handed that to her. She told me that she had a friend she wanted me to meet. The following day we went to his house."
There, Stivers said he was introduced to two men who called themselves Erich and Mathias. They told him that Goering was "a very sick man" who wasn't being given the medicine he needed in prison.
Twice, Stivers said, he took notes hidden by Erich in a fountain pen to Goering. The third time, Erich put a capsule in the pen for him to take to the Nazi.
"He said it was medication, and that if it worked and Goering felt better, they'd send him some more," Stivers said. "He said they'd give him a couple of weeks and that Mona would tell me if they wanted to send him more medicine."
After delivering the "medicine" to Goering, Stivers said, he returned the pen to the young woman.
"I never saw Mona again. I guess she used me," Stivers said. "I wasn't thinking of suicide when I took it to Goering. He was never in a bad frame of mind. He didn't seem suicidal. I would have never knowingly taken something in that I thought was going to be used to help someone cheat the gallows."
But two weeks later -- Oct. 15, 1946 -- Goering did just that. He left a suicide note bragging that he'd had the cyanide in his possession all along. A subsequent search of Goering's belongings locked in a prison storeroom uncovered another cyanide vial -- standard-issue for Nazi leaders -- hidden in luggage.
Stivers was shaken by Goering's suicide. Guards who were on duty at the time of the death were grilled by Army investigators. But Stivers and other honor guard team members were asked only if they had seen anything suspicious.
The Army's investigation concluded that Goering had the cyanide all along. The report pointed to Goering's note and concluded that the vial was "secreted in the cavity of the umbilical" and at other times "in his alimentary tract" and behind the rim of his cell toilet.
The Source of the Poison?
Some historians and others have long been skeptical of the official account, that Goering somehow kept the poison despite daily searches of his person and cell. They reason that he had to have some kind of outside aid. Somewhat surprisingly, some people have stepped forward to claim that they helped the Reichsmarschall.
While his claims were widely derided as unlikely if not impossible, SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Polizei. Höherer SS- und Polizeiführer Erich von dem Bach-Zalewski, the commander of the German forces during the Warsaw uprising, in 1951 took partial credit for the suicide. He claimed to have gotten the cyanide capsule to Goering somehow; as evidence, he produced some cyanide capsules similar to the one used by the Reichsmarschall (the serial numbers were close, so apparently they came from the same batch). He did not explain how the capsules got from him to Goering.
|Erich von dem Bach-Zalewski.|
Why Bach-Zalewski later took "credit" for Goering's suicide is a mystery. Many odd and perhaps fanciful tales were told during the voluminous testimony of former Wehrmacht officers throughout the sequence of trials that followed the first Nuremberg proceeding. In early 1950s Germany, being seen as loyal to the Nazi end was fashionable in certain circles. These were the peak days of the Stahlhelm League (largely seen as a crypto-Nazi post-war veterans organization). Since Bach-Zalewski was arrested in August 1945 and remained in prison until 1949, his direct participation in the Goering suicide in 1946 was unlikely. So, Bach-Zalewski may simply have been grandstanding.
On the other hand, Bach-Zalewski may indeed have had some very peripheral role in the plot. He may have told someone else where to find the poison, who then smuggled it to Goering. But that still does not answer the real question: how did the poison get to the condemned and closely watched prisoner? There is a very reasonable answer to that question which has never been refuted.
The Likeliest Culprit
Some Jewish leaders have wondered if Goering escaped the hangman with help from a sympathetic American.
In his 1984 book "The Mystery of Hermann Goering's Suicide," the late author Ben Swearingen brushed aside the Army's conclusion as well as numerous alternative theories.
Swearingen speculated that Army Lt. Jack Wheelis, who had a key to the prison storeroom, had allowed Goering to visit the storage area shortly before his death to retrieve the poison pill from his luggage. Wheelis -- who died in 1954 -- had previously been given a wristwatch and other personal items by Goering.
Swearingen did not explain how the closely watched Goering might have gotten to the storeroom. But his research does suggest how the Nazi might have briefly hidden something like the "medicine" Stivers said he delivered.
Goering, who was obese, had lost a lot of weight in prison. By the end of the trial, he was draped in sagging skin that could have easily concealed the capsule. And during the two weeks before his suicide, Goering had passed up opportunities to bathe in a heavily guarded shower area where a concealed vial might have been spotted.
Stivers said he has been haunted by his actions with the fountain pen for 58 years.
He said he has pondered the various theories on Goering's poisoning in an unsuccessful search for a plausible explanation that would ease his sense of guilt.
"I felt very bad after his suicide. I had a funny feeling; I didn't think there was any way he could have hidden it on his body," he said.
The Army's explanation never rang true to him, Stivers said, noting that Goering "was there over a year -- why would he wait all that time if he had the cyanide?"
It was daughter Linda Dadey who urged him to reveal his role. He disclosed the fountain pen story to her about 15 years ago.
"I said, 'Dad, you're a part of history. You need to tell the story before you pass away,' " said Dadey, 46, of Beaumont. "It's been on his conscience all his life."
Stivers agreed to do so after learning that the statute of limitations had run out long ago, preventing any prosecution of a case against him.
His story "is crazy enough to be true," said Aaron Breitbart, senior researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "But there's no way in the world it can be proven. Nobody really knows who did it except the person who did it."
That's not quite true. There were Germans involved. They likely told people at the the time and no doubt recorded it somehow. Who knows, they conceivably could be alive today. That story is too good to simply disappear, though they may not wish it publicized. It now is only a question of some corroboration on the German side - contemporaneous evidence that can be placed in some time earlier than Stivers gave his account in 2005 - surfacing for this to become the definitive account. Stivers' story is the key - somewhere in Germany could be the lock.
As for Stivers, he's convinced that he's that person. And, he said, "I feel very bad about it." He sounds quite naive at the time, and, frankly, still quite naive about the dark forces at work in 1946 Nuremberg.
|Col. Burton Andros announces Goering's suicide.|
If the story is true, Col. Andros was an incompetent fool. The first thing you do if you are worried about your charges committing suicide is to tell each and every person that comes into contact with them that they are not to smuggle anything to the convicted men upon pain of court martial and possible firing squad. Not questioning the prison guards beyond "did you see anything suspicious" smacks of the authorities either assuming that Andros did his job - or not really wanting to know.
The main - and really only - argument against Stivers' claim is that he is intentionally lying in order to make a fast buck before he passes away. There is no evidence that he has become rich from this, but maybe he was expecting to. It is fairly common for these ageing fellows with secrets that aren't going to involve them in true legal trouble because of the passage of time to admit what they did very late in life. A recent well-known example was the famous/infamous "Deep Throat" informant. That guy admitted that he was doing it for the money, though he actually was what he claimed to be. The incentive to lie or keep important information secret tends to wane as you reach old age. And, it may all have been innocent - nothing poisonous in the pens, and the "medicine" harmless - though why Goering would suddenly need medicine he had been without for well over a year, and right before his scheduled execution, is a little, er, hard to swallow.
Draw your own conclusions.
The main argument in favor of believing Stivers' claim is that it has the ring of authenticity. If you wanted to get something to Goering, finding some gullible young fool guarding him and seducing him into slipping the item to the prisoner was absolutely the top choice by a wide margin. The obviousness of it stares out at you after seventy years. The woman was an exquisitely well-placed plant and did her job exceedingly well. She was quite an actress - and maybe, in fact, was one in Germany, Stivers certainly wouldn't have known the difference. Once she had the proof that Stivers had access to Goering - the autograph, which Goering perhaps was told by Emmy or his lawyer or one of his other visitors specifically to give to Stivers - she pounced. It sounds like a classic Gestapo operation.
|Hermann Goering talking to his lawyer at Nuremberg.|
So, if you believe this tale - and there is no evidence to support it and no reason it cannot be 100% true - the Nazi bond between Reichsmarshall and people outlasted the Third Reich, and some unknown woman - imagine that, and if you do not believe that women were the backbone of the Third Reich you are sorely mistaken - performed the last true service of the German people to the Third Reich over a year after its dissolution.