The story of Operation Bodysnatch begins on April 27, 1945, just three days before Adolf Hitler’s suicide. On this day, seven members of the U.S. Army Ordnance Corp were searching the northern reaches of Germany’s Thuringian Forest – basically the middle of nowhere – for hidden ammo dumps. That is when they stumbled across a salt mine in Bernterode that had been used as a munitions manufacturing and storage facility.
To provide you with a bit of sense as to the size of this mine, let me just tell you that one reached it by taking an elevator down about 1800 feet – that’s about a 1/3 of a mile or ½ a kilometer from the surface. Down there, the men found an estimated 400,000 tons of stored ammo in its estimated 14 miles or 23 kilometers of tunnels. These guys were sure that they found the mother lode, but there was an even bigger surprise in store for them.
About 1/4 of a mile or 4/10 of a kilometer from the elevator shaft, the soldiers stumbled across a side passageway that appeared to be sealed off with fresh cement. Curiosity got the better of them and they decided to find out what was behind that newly mortared wall. They tunneled an opening through an estimated 6-feet or 2-meters of masonry and rubble. And what they found on the other side was simply astounding.
It was a room that had been partitioned off into bays that were filled with artwork, boxes, and tapestries. An estimated 225 Prussian flags and banners were hanging unfurled. More importantly, all this stuff surrounded four coffins, one of which was adorned with a large wreath and red ribbons with swastikas and bore the name Adolph Hitler.
Holy cow! They had found the body of Adolph Hitler. But, as history later would show, they had not.
Upon closer inspection, they noticed that someone had quickly scribbled a few words in red crayon on each casket. Three of these were the remains of Germany’s most celebrated rulers: King Frederick Wilhelm I, King Frederick the Great, and Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg. The fourth casket belonged to Frau von Hindenburg.
These remains had been placed down in the mine about three weeks earlier as the Russians were closing in on Potsdam, the location of the Tannenberg Memorial. The Nazis feared that the Russians would destroy not just the monument, but also the remains that were buried there – those of Hindenburg and his wife. They quickly removed the caskets and blew up the remaining sarcophagi, ultimately finding their way, along with the two Fredericks, to the Bernterode mine.
It has been theorized that this room deep in the mine was set up to preserve the most precious artifacts of German military history for the next rise of the German Reich.
The job of getting these four coffins and all of the associated regalia up and out of the mine became the responsibility of the MFA&A – or the Monuments, Fine Arts, & Archives – branch of the military. This was a group of 345 art historians, museum directors, architects, educators, and curators that hailed from thirteen different countries. Better known today as the Monuments Men and the subject of a soon-to-be-released George Clooney movie, their chief goal was to preserve all of the treasures plundered by the Nazis during WWII.
The coffins were the last objects to be removed from the mine. Frau von Hindenburg had the lightest casket and was the first one to take the fourteen-minute ride up to the surface. Next was Frederick Wilhelm I, followed by Field Marshall von Hindenburg.
The last coffin, however, was not going to return to the surface easily. Frederick the Great’s casket was massive and weighed over half-a-ton. In addition to being incredibly difficult to maneuver, it wouldn’t fit into the elevator car.
But, as everyone knows, what goes up, must come down. In this case, it was the reverse – what went down in the elevator should surely be able to come back up by the elevator. And it did, with just inches to spare.
To the surprise of the men accompanying Frederick the Great on his journey skyward, as they approached the surface they could hear a radio blasting the Star Spangled banner followed by God Save the King. Germany had just surrendered the war.
And that is generally where this story ends in most books. In my case, since I tend to gravitate toward the more obscure, this is the point where my research had really started. That’s because I found the story of what happened to these caskets after they left the mine to be far more interesting than what occurred up to that point.
These four caskets created an incredible dilemma for the US Army. Three of these four caskets belonged to men that played a significant role in Germany’s military history. They couldn’t be reburied in just any ordinary way. On the other hand, giving each a grand burial with an ornate tombstone or monument could help bring the Nazi party back to life.
So, the Army did what others would do in a situation like this. They basically said it wasn’t their problem and quickly passed the responsibility on to the higher-ups in Washington, DC to deal with. Since the US government was dealing with the bodies of dignitaries, the issue was deferred to the State Department, the branch of our government that deals with international relations.
And what did the State Department do with the bodies? Absolutely nothing. For an entire year, the coffins didn’t move from their guarded storage location in the basement of a castle in Marburg.
Ultimately, it was decided that these bodies were of historical importance and should be treated just like any other historical treasure or artwork plundered during the war. This top-secret reinternment of the bodies once again became the responsibility of the Monuments Men. Three officers were assigned: Theodore Heinrich, Francis Bilodeau, and Everett Lesley Jr. It was Lesley that coined the name of this top-secret mission: Operation Bodysnatch.
Their instructions were fairly straightforward. The two kings were to be reburied in the US-controlled zone Greater Hesse, while the two Hindenburgs were to be buried near Hanover in the British Zone. Why Hanover? That’s because Hindenburg had requested that he be buried on his family plot there. It was Hitler who decided to override his final wishes and have his remains placed at the Tannenberg Memorial.
The US was simply trying to respect Hindenburg’s wishes, but it was not to be. The British government wanted nothing to do with the bodies. Word came back from London that would not allow the bodies into their zone under any condition.
Okay, since burying the Hindenburgs in the place that they had chosen was clearly out of the question, the three Monuments Men decided to focus their energies on the two kings. The solution seemed straightforward – the kings were Hohenzollerns – so why not bury them on one of the properties still owned by their descendants?
This also proved to be problematic. After their great loss in World War I, the Hohenzollerns now only owned two pieces of land in Germany. One was being used as a lodging for French troops, so there was no way to bury two kings in secret there. The second was Burg Hohenzollern castle, but it was located in the French-controlled zone. Like the British, the French also said no way.
So, they couldn’t be buried in the British or French zones. It became clear that all four bodies needed to be buried somewhere in the US zone. And, since all four of these corpses were of the Protestant faith, it seemed logical to bury them in a Protestant church. That idea quickly fizzled after it was determined that all of the suitable Protestant churches were either badly damaged or totally destroyed in the war.
The next step of the three Monuments men was to see if they could find a place, any place, that had even a slight connection to the Hohenzollern family. After careful research, the Kronberg castle near Frankfurt seemed like the perfect fit.
Once again, luck was not on their side. The Monuments Men, Theodore Heinrich in particular, had a bigger problem thrown on their plate. Someone had stolen the jewels that had been hidden in the Kronberg castle. Valued at $7.6 million dollars in 1947 or about $77 million today, the great mystery of the theft focused worldwide attention on the castle. Certainly not the place to try to have the secret reburials of nobility.
Their search for a suitable burial ground continued. A former Hohenzollern summer castle had a chapel but lacked a burial crypt. Another smaller castle was found to have been badly damaged during the war. And yet another was ruled out because its current owner forbid the digging because it would have meant possible damage to his prize rhododendrons.
Ultimately, the answer they had been seeking was hidden right under their noses: St. Elizabeth’s church in Marburg. The church had survived the war in good shape and lie just a few hundred yards from where the bodies were currently being stored.
But, the real question was whether or not the church had any space left to bury the bodies. The church was built way back in 1235 and the odds were that every bit of available real estate may have been occupied by others. The three officers spent a considerable amount of time searching through the church’s burial records to locate possible burial spots.
It was decided that the two Fredericks would be buried below the floor of the north transept, while the Hindenburgs would find final rest at the base of its north tower.
Before moving forward with their plan, descendants of both families were consulted to seek their approval. The French would not allow Crown Prince Wilhelm, the eldest son of Germany’s last Emperor, to leave their zone, so a letter notifying him that his eldest daughter Cecilia, along with Captain Leslie, would be coming to see him was sent. When they showed up, the Crown Prince initially refused to give permission. Why? Because he thought that Captain Leslie was coming to ask for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Once the misunderstanding was cleared up, he wholeheartedly gave his permission for the reburial to take place.
Getting Hindenburg family approval didn’t go smoothly either. They were to meet his only son Oskar in Wiesbaden, but he was a no-show. It turns out that he had been arrested by the American security police for signing a Wiesbaden hotel register with his full military title. Once released, Hindenburg was taken to St. Elizabeth’s and granted his family’s approval for the reburial plan.
The digging of the two burial plots added another wrinkle to this ongoing saga. While excavating the hole for the two kings, workers uncovered the remains of undocumented pre-Reformation monks. Their remains were gently moved aside, leaving enough space for the two caskets to fit in. In the Hindenbergs’ case, workers hit bedrock at a depth of 2-feet or 2/3 of a meter. Since using explosives in an old church like St. Elizabeth’s was clearly out of the question, they took the advice of a local architect who recommended elevating the church’s floor by several steps in the area around the coffins.
The four bodies were finally laid to rest on August 19th of 1946, 479 days after they were first discovered deep down in that Thuringian mine. There was fear that fanatics may want to steal the bodies, so the graves were covered with steel plates and a layer of concrete. Large sandstone blocks, weighing in at two tons apiece, were placed over each gravesite, with the names and dates of its personages chiseled in.
The Hindenbergs are still buried there to this day. In September of 1952, the caskets of the two kings were moved once again. This time they were taken to Hohenzollern Castle in Hechingen where a family spokesman declared they were to remain “until Germany is united again and they can return to Potsdam.” When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the decision was made to do just that. On August 17th of 1991, the 205th anniversary of Frederick the Great’s death, they were interred one last time. At least I hope it is the last time…
Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide.