Thursday, October 16, 2014

How Goering Committed Suicide

A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside Some Cyanide

Hermann Goering
Hermann Goering after his suicide.

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?

Hermann Goering
Hermann Goering was marched into captivity by an American serviceman in May 1945. The original caption [partially blurred] reads "Falstaff Goering is as ugly as he looks. [Look at the] sickeningly ingratiating smile -- It won't save him."

Some things about Hermann Goering's death are known with certainty. Goering somehow obtained cyanide poison concealed in a rifle cartridge and managed to conceal it for an unknown length of time prior to his demise. Goering took the poison on 15 November 1946, shortly before his scheduled hanging. Sources differ on where Goering’s ashes were scattered. Some state that Goering's ashes were (poetically) thrown from a plane above the Auschwitz concentration camp, but this is unlikely (it was not a time of when much thought went into the mechanics of body disposal for defeated Germans). Goering's ashes were probably scattered in the Isar River (some sources are more precise and state it was the Wenzbach/Conwentzbach, a small stream in Munich). This was the same place as the scattering of the ashes of Joachim Ribbentrop and the others who actually were hanged. Cremation and scattering of the ashes instead of burial was the chosen method to prevent the creation of any memorials for latter-day fascists.

There are many theories as to how Goering got his poison - though it is undisputed that he somehow obtained some. From the broadest perspective, nobody knows now (though obviously someone knew then) how the onetime German second in command was able to commit suicide despite around-the-clock surveillance of his military prison cell. Col. Burton Andrus 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.

Hermann Goering
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 -- perhaps a U.S. Army officer Goering bribed with a watch, or the German doctor who regularly checked on him, or a 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 Hermann Goering
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.

Hermann Goering
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
Hermann Goering's perp photos
According to Stivers, Goering escaped the hangman because of a teenager's puppy love.

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 German 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."

Hermann Goering death

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.

Hermann Goering

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 Goering.

"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 German 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.

Hermann Goering at Nuremberg
Hermann Goering awaits his fate.

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 1944 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). 

Critically, Bach-Zalewski did not explain how the capsules got from him to Goering. However, if you believe his story which does have some circumstantial proof, that rules out Wheelis as the source of the poison. This is because the only reason Wheelis is a suspect is because of his control of the storeroom. If Bach-Zalewski was the source of the poison, it didn't come from the storeroom at all.

Von dem Bach-Zalewski
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 end was fashionable in certain circles. These were the peak days of the Stahlhelm League (largely seen as a crypto-fascist 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 elsewhere 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 that has never been refuted.

Hermann Goering death hanging

The Likeliest Culprit

Some Jewish leaders have wondered if Goering escaped the hangman with help from a sympathetic American. This seems quite possible.

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.

Hermann Goering

Swearingen did not explain how the closely watched Goering might have gotten to the storeroom. But his research does suggest how the captives 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.

Wheelis is not the likeliest suspect. There's no evidence that he did anything wrong. Stivers is the likeliest culprit, as deathbed confessions do mean something in the law.

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 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.

Let's pull two seemingly separate threads together. Bach-Zalewski claimed to have gotten the cyanide capsule to Goering, and there is some circumstantial evidence - the fact that he did have materials in his possession that make this at least theoretically possible - that Bach-Zalewski was telling the truth. Obviously, he didn't smuggle the poison in himself, as he was in prison and couldn't. Instead, let's suppose that Bach-Zalewski used his contacts to find someone else - perhaps a nublile young German girl working for the Gestapo. She took great pains to seduce the one American who could get the poison from outside the prison to Goering's cell.

Yes, much of this speculation - but all of the Wheelis theory is speculation grounded only in opportunity. Stivers had just as much opportunity as Wheelis to get the poison to Goering, perhaps even more considering how closely the storeroom was watched while nobody was watching the outside prison guards too closely.

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.

Goering suicide Nuremberg Andrus
Col. Burton Andrus announces Goering's suicide.

If the story is true, Col. Andrus was an incompetent fool. The first thing you do if you are worried about your charges trying to commit 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 a court martial and possible firing squad. Not questioning the prison guards beyond "did you see anything suspicious" smacks of the authorities either assuming that Andrus 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 aging 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.

Goering suicide Nuremberg
Hermann Goering talking to his lawyer at Nuremberg.

Conclusion and Speculation

When important events happen, it is only natural to want to think that someone important caused them. For instance, for a long time Jack the Ripper was theorized to be some grand guy with ties to royalty even though there wasn't any pesky evidence to show he had anything whatsoever to do with the murders. Why, of course it was a person of importance and respect - right? This was an important deed and so obviously someone important did it. We all know how the world works, am I right?

More recent scholarship suggests the serial killer Jack the Ripper in fact was an insane nobody who died in an asylum. Well, okay, I'll try not to get off track here, I'm just trying to make an analogy and show how our biases can lead us astray.

We want the culprit to be "important," someone identifiable, some nefarious individual who betrayed everything he stood for. It fits our preconceptions, the person committing the foul deed must himself have been foul.

Jack Wheelis may not have been famous or very high in the military food chain, but at least he was an officer. As a lieutenant, Wheelis was someone of responsibility, a person of respect, with some influence in his very small corner of history. Surely it must have been an officer, someone thoughtful, who changed history by providing Goering with cyanide, not some poor schnook like Stivers who didn't care, wasn't around long, and basically had no interest in Goering or anything besides picking up a cute local girl.

Conveniently, Wheelis was long dead before his name ever came up. No possibility to deny anything or be upset that his name, his honor, his integrity as an officer was being smeared. The perfect mark.

Don't let yourself fall into that trap with preconceptions and stereotypes. While we can't rule Wheelis out (we can't rule anyone with access to Goering out), Herbert Stivers, a comma in the huge library of World War II, was much more likely to be the guy.

So, if you believe the tale I've spun - and there is scant evidence to support that this was a post-war Gestapo operation but also no reason it cannot be 100% true - the bond between Reichsmarshall and German people outlasted the Third Reich. Some unknown woman performed the last true service of the German people to the Third Reich over a year after its dissolution.

I even have a candidate for who that woman might have been: Ilse Hirsch. She was a committed Hitler supporter who participated in Operation Carnival, the successful March/April 1945 SS operation to assassinate the German mayor of Aachen after its capture by the Allies. 

Why Hirsch? She was a devoted and loyal follower of Hitler throughout the war. Gracing the cover of a 1940 party publication, Hirch came to know all the top SS brass. Smart, capable, brave, efficient, absolutely amoral, Hirsch also had the classic blonde hair, blue eyes beauty necessary for a seduction operation against a naive, gullible, overconfident, and - ahem - lonely American kid playing soldier.

Unlike Wheelis, Strivers had no "career" to jeopardize. GIs throughout Germany were looking for some "action" with the local delicacies. Well, this action fell right into his lap.

Hirsch broke her leg during Operation Carnival in the spring of 1945, an operation in which she played a key role. She may have been present at the assassination of the Aachen mayor itself, though, apparently, she did not pull the trigger. After the job was done, hoofing it through the rough countryside (full of mines) back toward German lines, she broke her leg. No, she didn't seek medical treatment, which could lead to her being captured. Instead, Ilse hobbled back home on foot while one of her companions (the triggerman) did not. This was one determined lady.

By 1946, Hirsch would have recovered from her broken leg. The Allies did not get around to rounding her up until years later. With the Gestapo looking for an utterly reliable agent, Hirsch was tailor-made for the part. Just as importantly, she was available. Already having proven her loyalty with the Reich crumbling, she was a "sure thing." Think of Ilse Hirsch as the female Otto Skorzeny without the notoriety.

Ilse Hirsch was a devoted and loyal operative, faithful until the very end (and perhaps longer). She undoubtedly would have risked her life to achieve this final mission just as she did during Operation Carnival. Were I in charge of this Gestapo operation and asking around for the top female agent to pull off such an unlikely scheme, Ilse Hirsch would have been at the very top of the list because she would have been ideal in all regards.

In any event, even if it wasn't Ilse Hirsch, the female operative was someone just like her. A devoted follower of Hitler, ready to do one last service for the Fatherland.

Ilse Hirsch Operation Carnival
Ilse Hirsch on the cover of a 1940 Party publication. A woman of mystery and an efficient, cold-blooded killer.



  1. How could you fit such a long and wide brass capsule in a fountain pen?

    1. Easy.. My dad told the truth exactly as it happened.I found one browsing a antique shop. Some were very large inside when the ink bladder was cut out inside-

  2. Interesting and plausible theory but you didn't state why you think Ilsa Hirsch is the mysterious Mona.