Was Hitler Closer to Nuclear Weapons Than We Thought?
German Nuclear Programme: it remains a phantom that has been dismissed by scholars for decades as producing nothing. That common view, however, may be changing.
The story line for the past 70 years has been that the Germans during World War II made only a few preliminary gestures toward the basic science underpinning nuclear power. They did not have the brainpower to get very far after Albert Einstein in March 1933 and other top researchers became émigrés working for the United States government. In addition, targeted Allied interventions such as at Vemork Norsk Hydro plant in the town of Rjukan in the county of Telemark, Norway, where a barge full of heavy water supposedly was sunk and ended the Germans' nuclear program, were said to have played a key role in stopping the research.
Because of Kammler's association with top-secret, cutting edge projects and his apparently clean get-away, he remains the subject of conspiracy theories about what the Germans were really up to with their advanced weapons programs. These theories get quite fantastic, but the evidence for them is non-existent. Still, people love conspiracies and 'secrets,' so the stories likely never will die.
|Advanced weapons facilities were not only plausible during World War II, but reality. This is the main control room at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where the Americans developed the atomic bomb.|
Hans Kammler, shrouded in mystery and with his hands deep in the most advanced research of his day, invariably turns up as the protagonist in such activities, perhaps pulling off his disappearing act by riding to another century or dimension in 'Die Glocke' (the 'bell'), a mythical advanced transportation device.
That is the basic story, and it hasn't changed since the war. Until recently, that is. Simply repeating these stories makes you appear to be on the fringe, a nut, but you must understand the theories to discount them - and see if there indeed is any grain of truth to them. And, in this field, there are lots of such grains that taken together are fascinating, but do not add up to much..
Researchers are still trying to piece everything together, but the picture is becoming clearer and a bit more elaborate than the common sketchy (and satisfying) tale of bungling failure. This is a story of a shadowy program which still isn't completely understood, led by that even shadowier figure, Dr. Hans Kammler.
This is a story of a major war criminal who got away. General Dr Ing. Hans (Heinz) Friedrich Karl Franz Kammler was one of the chief architects of German 'special projects.' He was in charge of the ballistic missile and jet aircraft programs. More chillingly, he was in charge of the concentration camps. The infamous gas chambers and crematoria at the camps were as much his doing as anybody's. He was in charge of designing and building the camps across Europe. Many Germans gained notoriety after the war when their crimes were exposed, but Kammler remains largely unknown to this day. And, from some perspectives, Kammler was the biggest fish of them all. Had he been brought to trial, he almost certainly would have received the death sentence at the first Nuremberg tribunal, and it would have been carried out.
|Underground facilities under Hans Kammler's jurisdiction, constructing the He 162 Salamander jet fighter|
May 1945 was a chaotic time in Germany, giving anyone with a place to go ample opportunities to get there without being apprehended. And Hans Kammler still had the means even at that late date to get wherever he wanted to go in complete secrecy. Kammler did manage to disappear at the end of the war, which is a bit more difficult to achieve than it sounds, especially for someone as prominent as him. Some perfunctory searches were made for him, but people said he went here, others said he went there; he was supposed to attend a conference in this city or that on certain dates and never showed up - none of which made any sense at all and led nowhere. It was almost as if there were a deliberate, organized campaign to obscure his trail. Kammler simply was there one day and gone the next. He went somewhere - his body never was found and there was absolutely no evidence from any source that he perished. They've been able to ascertain the end of Martin Bormann and Dr. Mengele, but not Kammler. Now, at last, there may be a slender clue as to exactly where he went and what he was worried about in those last frantic days, indeed, a place he never would have been found it that was his destination.
|Entrance to the Mittelwerk facility, where they built the ME 262 jet fighter|
What interests us here is that Kammler was in charge of the underground facilities where German war production moved at the end of the war. He was given this authority by Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering and Armaments Minister Albert Speer. Almost all of those underground facilities are well-known and now empty. However, those of us in the field know that there also have been what can best be called 'legends' of vast underground facilities that never were found and may, in addition, have served as a sort of shelter for certain top government officials and their SS guards at the end of the war. There is no use pointing to sources for these tales, as any sources for this are without sources themselves and just uncorroborated stories. The typical location for these 'redoubts' are usually placed deep in Poland, which is a convenient location for such tales because western researchers haven't been able to examine them until recently and the area is vast and often desolate. The stories are often embellished by the presence of skeletons of SS guards at the entrances, still holding their rifles - you get the picture.
Let's take a step back from the tales and return to known reality. The main work of producing planes and other armament was done at the Mittelwerk facility in the Kohnstein, which is fairly well known. However, there were many other underground facilities, developed as the Allied bombardment made surface production hazardous. One of these underground facilities was located in the Bergkristall (literally, 'rock crystal') site in Austria, which is near the mountain town St Georgen an der Gusen. It is a fairly typical small Austrian mountain town, blink and you'll miss it as you drive through. However, it has quite a history.
|Sankt Georgen an der Gusen|
Adolf Hitler, of course, was from Austria. St. Georgen an der Gusen is not far from where he grew up. Hitler's bizarre strategy during late 1944 and 1945 of allocating huge forces desperately needed elsewhere to guard that region often has been questioned. Now, researchers may be uncovering a very dark strategic reason for him to switch Panzer Armies in that direction when the Soviets only were 60 miles from Berlin. I don't want to overstate this: there is no evidence yet of anything happening in these mountains of any relevance to the last days of the war. However, the possibility does exist that researchers may uncover something important.
|The German experimental nuclear pile at Haigerloch|
The New Discovery
It always has been known that the Germans had a major underground weapons production facility at B8 Bergkristall. It churned out the Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter plane, which was operational by late 1944 and proved better in various performance categories than any Allied fighter. It could not turn the tide of the war, but the Me 262 was cutting edge technology and a giant leap beyond what the Allies were fielding at the time (yes, the Allies did have some jets of their own such as the British Gloster Meteor, but no Allied jet saw any action beyond patrolling against V-1 buzz bombs). There was a lot going on just behind the surface of the placid alpine town named Sankt Georgen an der Gusen.
|The Mauthausen concentration camp garage gate|
B8 Bergkristall is near the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. Mauthausen provided the slave labor that kept the Bergkristall factory humming along. There were a lot of slave laborers - up to 320,000 - and many were killed in various ways. The nearby town was the site of the Gusen 2 sub-camp which supplied the factory laborers.
|Gusen I and II|
The B8 Bergkristall - Esche II program was located in a series of caves (some 40 square miles are known) carved out of the mountains near Sankt Georgen an der Gusen. That is a very small town in the middle of the mountains. The census gave it a population of 1,429 in 1939. Even today, it only has a few thousand inhabitants. It remained under German control until the final surrender.
|An intersection in the BergKristall complex (Federal Archive)|
The underground plants were so extensive that it was difficult to uncover all of them. The Germans certainly were not forthcoming about them during or after the war. The Soviets were in charge of the area for the decade after the war, until 1955, but they did not seem particularly interested in exploring dusty old caves. They examined what they found, made sure it was harmless, and moved on. They do not appear to have launched any major expeditions to search for caves that weren't already disclosed to them.
|The 11th Armored Division liberated the Mauthausen camp. This photo was staged the next day, 6 May 1945, to celebrate the liberation.|
There are unexplained radioactive readings in the area that may be natural phenomena, but also could be man-made. If the latter, they could only come from the German war programme, as no (other) nuclear research has been performed in the area. If so, this would not be the first time that suspected radioactive material from Germany was found, as in June 2011, there was atomic waste - 126,000 barrels of it - found in an abandoned salt mine near Hanover.
|Andreas Sulzer is the researcher who thinks he is on to something at Mauthausen|
Some researchers have begun excavating in the area, led by filmmaker Andreas Sulzer of nearby Linz (yes, Hitler's home town). They have found what they believe is a hidden chamber where the nuclear research took place and was purposefully buried at the end of the war - right around the time when Kammler went missing. It is known that the Germans engaged in all sorts of end-times activity to hide and preserve things. There is little question that burying the traces at Sankt Georgen an der Gusen was part of that activity. The only questions remaining are why they bothered, and what might still be found there.
The hidden Bergkristall tunnels that are being examined now can only be entered after removing dirt, concrete and granite plates used to cover up all traces of the project. Filmmaker Sulzer had his team dig through a good six feet of clay at the site of a shooting club, only to find a manufactured granite cap underneath all that dirt. It could be seen to be covering some steep steps leading into the mountain. None of this had been known before. Something - it could be anything - is inside that mountain. A geological survey suggests a large underground cavern. It is easy to say, "Oh, it is nothing, probably just a guard post or SS quarters or something." Perhaps. However, someone went to an awful lot of trouble not only to bury this facility, but to hide it so well that it stayed hidden for 70 years with people literally walking right on top of it on a daily basis. That took some motivation.
|A Waffen SS helmet found by the Sulzer team in preliminary digging at the St Georgen site|
Sulzer followed proper procedure and informed the town of his finds, which quickly contacted the Heritage Office. The police ultimately halted excavations, demanding a permit which the researchers did not have. Naturally, this deepens the mystery. However, if there is something there, it ultimately will be found. The prestigious Graz Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Research on War Consequences will, together with the province of Upper Austria, continue the excavations, under the auspices of the Environment Councillor Rudi Anschober, at a date to be determined.
There may be nothing there. But why not have a look?