Arnold H. Weiss, a Washington lawyer and former Nazi-hunter, is referred to as Albert Weiss in a headline in today's Magazine, which was printed in advance. The headline on this online version of the article has been corrected.
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Giving Hitler Hell
Hitler sightings soon spanned the globe, from Sweden and Ireland all the way to Argentina, where Hitler, having undergone plastic surgery, was said to be developing long-range robot bombs in an underground hideout. Even Washington caught the paranoia bug, sending an urgent classified cable to its embassy in Buenos Aires to run down the lead: "Source indicates that there is a western entrance to the underground hideout, which consists of a stone wall operated by photo-electric cells, activated by code signals from ordinary flashlights." The matter was apparently taken seriously enough, according to a 1989 book on the CIC, America's Secret Army, by Ian Sayer and Douglas Botting, that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover became involved in the investigation. By October 1945, speculation over Hitler's whereabouts had reached such a fever pitch that a decision "at the highest level," says Weiss, was made to put the mystery to rest once and for all. The British -- who were particularly incensed at the Soviet suggestion that Hitler was living untrammeled under their noses -- were charged with finding definitive proof that Hitler was dead. Messages now clattered off the CIC teletype machines to give the highest priority to the search for eyewitnesses who may have been in the bunker with Hitler during his last days.
"The highest-ranking Nazi who was still on the loose was Bormann," says Weiss. Martin Bormann, the Brown Eminence, had been the Nazi Party secretary and Hitler's gatekeeper. He had controlled access to the Fuhrer. If anyone knew what had happened to Hitler, it was Bormann. "I remembered vaguely that his adjutant was from Munich."
Weiss scoured the records, and discovered that Bormann's right-hand man, SS Standartenfuhrer Wilhelm Zander, indeed hailed from Munich, and was still unaccounted for. Zander not only might know where his boss was hiding, there was a good chance that he had been in his bunker just before the Red Army stormed it. Weiss picked up the Munich phone book. Sure enough, there were several Zanders listed.
"I rounded up his mother and sister," Weiss recalls. He was struck by how ordinary they seemed. That was something Weiss would grow accustomed to: how monsters could come from such seemingly normal families.
Though the mother and sister were defensive and insisted that Zander had done nothing wrong, eventually one of them let slip that he had a much younger girlfriend in Munich. She was a striking 21-year-old brunette who still lived with her parents. Weiss had her arrested. Though he himself was barely old enough to legally buy beer by today's standards, Weiss could back then cordon off entire city blocks and incarcerate everyone for any period of time. Warrants were not needed, and there was no judicial oversight. "We had absolute power," he says, with a small smile. "The Germans were already calling us the American Gestapo."
Weiss sent the girlfriend not to CIC headquarters at the posh Gauleiter Haus, but to a larger jail filled with common criminals on the outskirts of Munich. There, he let her sit alone in a cell for two days to contemplate her fate. "I wanted her frightened, to give her time to think" of all the terrible things that could happen to her. It was a standard interrogation technique with subjects who were considered weak. Breaking hard cases required a completely different approach, and Weiss, since he was one of the few American officers who spoke German, was rapidly gaining experience as a skilled interrogator.
When he had deemed that she had stewed long enough, Weiss had the woman brought to a barren interrogation room. He made her stand, another small but apparently effective psychological tactic. "She was ready to talk," he recalls. "She immediately admitted to being Zander's lover." Weiss asked when she had last seen him. He expected her to say that it had been years, but instead she said six weeks earlier. "My teeth just about dropped," Weiss recalls. That meant the trail might still be hot. The woman had another surprise for Weiss. Zander had foolishly told her the alias he was using and where he was hiding. Weiss immediately sent a coded communique to CIC headquarters in Frankfurt. U.S. intelligence notified British Intelligence, which dispatched its lead investigator to join Weiss in the chase.
Maj. Hugh Trevor-Roper made an unlikely secret agent. Tall, gaunt and nearsighted, he seemed more like a distracted academic, which in fact he was in civilian life, a history professor at Oxford. Weiss briefed Trevor-Roper. Zander was using the name Paustin and was posing as a farmhand for someone named Irmgard Unterholzener in a village not too far from Munich called Tegernsee. The pair made hasty arrangements to raid the place, but by the time they arrived, Zander had bolted. For the next three weeks, Weiss chased down blind leads without luck. Then, just before Christmas, Weiss got a call from the CIC field office in Munsingen, Germany. A Paustin had registered for a residence permit -- the Germans, apparently even when on the lam, were very punctilious about recordkeeping -- with the local police in a small German village near the Czech border called Vilshofen. Weiss got on the horn to Trevor-Roper. "We found him," Weiss said excitedly. It took 24 long hours for Trevor-Roper to get to Munich, during which Weiss paced impatiently.
When he finally arrived, the pair shouldered their weapons -- Weiss had a holstered .38; Trevor-Roper opted for the larger Colt .45 -- and set out in an open jeep for the chilly 90-minute drive to Vilshofen.
Hollywood, in Weiss's own words, could not have cast a more unlikely pair of Nazi hunters. In photos, Trevor-Roper, in an ill-fitting uniform and Coke-bottle glasses, towers thinly over Weiss, who though he weighed a scant 120 pounds when he enlisted, had rounded out his diminutive frame, thanks to the Gauleiter Haus' well-provisioned mess table. But looks can be deceiving. The aristocratic Oxford don (Trevor-Roper, who became one of the most preeminent WWII historians, died Lord Dacre) and the brash Jewish-American refugee made a formidable team.
At the Munsingen field office, they called for backup -- several MPs and a junior CIC officer. Weiss is fuzzy on the latter's full name; a military intelligence document of the period lists him only as Special Agent Rosener.
Weiss, Rosener and Trevor-Roper found the farmhouse shortly before 4 a.m. It was an old stone building, prosperous and well kept, and all was quiet despite the impending holiday. (At this stage, there seems to be some discrepancy as to the chronology of events. Petrova and Watson list the raid as occurring on Boxing Day, or December 26. Sayer and Botting have the date as December 28. But Weiss, whose key role is noted in both books, still has a memo he wrote at the time on CIC letterhead that puts the raid as having taken place on Christmas Eve.) As the MPs broke down the door, a shot rang out from the house. Weiss's first instinct after diving for cover was to disarm Trevor-Roper. "He was pretty much legally blind, and I was more afraid of getting shot by him than Zander," Weiss recalls. The MPs found the startled Zander naked in bed with a woman (not his girlfriend) and quickly overpowered him. Weiss grabbed Zander's Italian Beretta -- a memento he has kept to this day.