Spartacus Blog

Murder Cases in the Classroom

Thursday, 6th November 2013

John Simkin

I first started teaching in 1977. The school was using some new Schools Council Project materials called "What is History?" It included the "Mystery of Mark Pullen". The lesson went really well until the end when the students were told that Mark Pullen was not a real person. They felt cheated that they had spent time investigating what they considered a murder case that was not true. My response to this was to create a lesson on a real mystery. I had recently read a book on the Mary Celeste. I therefore decided to create a lesson on a real-life mystery. The students loved it and a couple of years later the material became the first publication of Tressell, the teacher-run cooperative based in Brighton. For many years it was our best selling booklet. Children (and teachers) love mysteries. They especially love murder mysteries. Another best selling booklet was the "Assassination of John F. Kennedy".

One of the reasons that students are attracted to such issues is that it gives them a role in the learning process. Their opinion becomes important and they become active learners. It is also a marvellous exercise for inspecting the evidence. It gives them the chance to be a detective (or more importantly, an historian). The problem is finding enough time in the curriculum to spend on "mysteries". I recently came across a case which might indeed be worth spending a lesson on.

The case involves the death of Hitler's young niece, Geli Raubal. Officially, Geli killed herself on 18th September, 1931. She was aged 23 and had been having a sexual relationship with her uncle for over two years. The anti-Nazi press published stories suggesting that Adolf Hitler was romantically involved with Geli and that he had murdered her because she was expecting a child by a Jewish music teacher. Hitler issued a statement denying any involvement in her death but the left-wing newspapers continued to carry these stories. Rudolf Hess claimed that Hitler became suicidal because of the rumours that he had shot Geli. "He was so fearfully vilified by this new campaign of lies that he wanted to make an end of everything. He could no longer look at a newspaper because this frightful filth was killing him. He wanted to give up politics and never again appear in public."

Hitler feared that the death of Geli would end of his political career. He was also worried that the newspapers would begin to investigate his sex life. Some people were claiming that one of the motives for killing Geli was that she had been telling several of her friends about Hitler's sexual perversions. If this became public knowledge, Hitler would have had his political career ended, as it was in direct contrast to the public image he had been promoting. However, with the considerable help from Franz Gürtner, the Minister of Justice in Bavaria, the case was covered up. In less than two years Hitler was Chancellor and Gürtner was Minister of Justice in the Nazi government. Together they were able to close down those left-wing newspapers and many of those journalists who wrote those stories were imprisoned and sometimes killed. In 1934 Gürtner played a role in legitimizing the Night of the Long Knives, when hundreds of critics of Hitler were executed. Gürtner demonstrated his loyalty to the Nazi regime by writing a law that legalized the murders committed during the purge. Gürtner even quashed some initial efforts by local prosecutors to take legal action against those who carried out the murders. Gürtner was also involved in writing the Nuremberg Laws.

It would be possible to examine the case of Geli Raubal in one lesson. You will only need to spend about ten minutes to look at the background to Geli's relationship with Hitler. This will provide some motives for those who wished her dead. This not only included Hitler but her former boyfriend, Emil Maurice, and Heinrich Himmler, who was very concerned about the possible scandal concerning Hitler's sexuality, are also possible suspects.

On the morning of Saturday, 19th September, 1931, Geli's body was found on the floor of her room in the flat. According to the police report, she had been bleeding from a wound near her heart and her clothes were soaked with blood. She was lying face downwards, with her nose against the floor. One arm was stretched out towards the pistol, a Walther 6.35, which was on the couch. The bullet, which had missed her heart, had pierced her lung. Still in her body, it had lodged on the left side of her back above the level of her hip.

On the table was an unfinished letter, which was not a suicide note. It was addressed to someone in Vienna. The police report said that it was to a girlfriend but Baldur von Schirach has claimed it was to her music teacher. The tone was cheerful, and the letter broke off in the middle of the sentence: "When I come to Vienna - I hope very soon - we'll drive together to Semmering an..." (Semmering is an attractive health resort outside Vienna.)

The police doctor, Dr Müller, certified that the time of Geli's death was the evening of 18th September: "Rigor mortis had set in several hours previously. It was a fatal shot that penetrated through the dress to pass directly through the skin above the heart, which it in any case missed. It did not come out of the body but lodged in the left side of the back, rather above the level of the hip, where it could be felt beneath the skin."

There is some confusion about who found the body. George Winter, the husband of Anni Winter, Hitler's housekeeper, claimed: "As the thing seemed to me rather suspicious, at ten o'clock I forced the double-door open with a screwdriver. As I broke the door open, my wife, Frau Reichert and Anna Kirmair were present. As I'd opened the door I stepped into the room and found Raubal lying on the floor as a corpse. She'd shot herself. I can't give any reason why she should have shot herself." Rudolf Hess claimed that he broke the door down, whereas one of the servants, Maria Reichert, said Max Amann sent for a locksmith to open the door. It has been suggested that the door was not locked at the time of the shooting and that someone locked it afterwards and the door was then broken down and the key placed on the inside to cover-up the murder.

Heinrich Hoffmann claimed that Anni Winter, told him that a torn-up letter from Eva Braun was found in Geli's room on the night of her suicide which read: "Dear Herr Hitler, Thank you again for the wonderful invitation to the theatre. It was a memorable evening. I am most grateful to you for your kindness. I am counting the hours until I may have the joy of another meeting. Yours, Eva." At the time, Eva was Geli's main rival for Hitler's affections. Frau Winter believed that Geli had killed herself because she had lost Hitler's love to another woman.

On 20th September, 1931, the socialist newspaper, The Münchener Post, reported the fact that Hitler had been involved in an argument about Geli wanting to be engaged to a man in Vienna: "In a flat on Prinzregentenplatz a 23-year-old music student, a niece of Hitler's, has shot herself. For two years the girl had been living in a furnished room in a flat on the same floor on which Hitler's flat was situated. What drove the student to kill herself is still unknown. She was Angela Raubal, the daughter of Hitler's half-sister. On Friday 18 September there was once again a violent quarrel between Herr Hitler and his niece. What was the reason? The vivacious 23-year-old music student, Geli, wanted to go to Vienna, she wanted to become engaged. Hitler was strongly opposed to this. The two of them had recurrent disagreements about it. After a violent scene, Hitler left his flat on the second floor of 16 Prinzregentenplatz."

The newspaper also reported that Geli's nose was broken and revealed the contents of the letter she was writing when she died: "On Saturday 19 September it was reported that Fraulein Geli had been found shot in the flat with Hitler's gun in her hand. The dead woman's nose was broken, and there were other serious injuries on the body. From a letter to a female friend living in Vienna, it is clear that Fraulein Geli had the firm intention of going to Vienna. The letter was never posted. The mother of the girl, a half-sister of Herr Hitler, lives in Berchtesgaden; she was summoned to Munich. Gentlemen from the Brown House then conferred on what should be published about the motive for the suicide. It was agreed that Geli's death should be explained in terms of frustrated artistic ambitions."

The same day The Münchener Neueste Nachrichten reported that the man in Vienna was a music teacher: "According to a police communique, a twenty-three-year-old student fired a pistol aimed at the heart in a room of her flat in the Bogenhausen district. The unfortunate young woman, Angela Raubal, was the daughter of Adolf Hitler's half-sister, and she and her uncle lived on the same floor of a block of flats on Prinzregentenplatz. On Friday afternoon the owners of the flat heard a cry but it did not occur to them that it came from their tenant's room. When there was no sign of life from this room in the course of the evening, the door was forced. Angela Raubal was found lying face down on the floor, dead. Near her on the sofa was a small-calibre Walther pistol. The motives for this action are not yet clear. Some say that Fraulein Raubal had met a singer in Vienna, but that her uncle would not allow her to leave Munich. Others affirm that the poor girl killed herself because she was supposed to make her debut as a singer but did not believe herself capable of facing the public."

Adolf Hitler responded to these reports with a statement on the death of Geli Raubal: "(1) It is untrue that I had either "recurrent disagreements" or "a violent quarrel" with my niece Angela Raubal on Friday 18 September or previously. (2) It is untrue that I was "strongly opposed" to my niece's travelling to Vienna. The truth is that I was never against the trip my niece had planned to Vienna. (3) It is untrue that my niece wanted to become engaged in Vienna or that I had some objection to my niece's engagement. The truth is that my niece, tortured by anxiety about whether she really had the talent necessary for a public appearance, wanted to go to Vienna in order to have a new assessment of her voice by a qualified voice specialist. (4) It is untrue that I left my flat on 18 September 1931 "after a violent scene". The truth is that there was no kind of scene and no agitation of any kind when I left my flat on that day."

Dr Müller issued another statement that helped to back-up Hitler's version of Geli's injuries: "On the face and especially on the nose were to be found no wounds connected with bleeding of any kind. Nothing was to be found on the face except dark greyish death marks which had proceeded from the fact that Raubal expired with her face to the floor and remained in this position for about 17-18 hours. That the tip of the nose was pressed slightly flat is due entirely to her lying with her face on the floor for several hours. The extreme discoloration of the death marks in the face is probably to be explained by the fact that death was primarily consequent on suffocation following the shot in the lung."

Unfortunately, there was no inquest, and only one doctor examined her body before it was released, taken out of the country and buried in Vienna. One of the advantages of having the body taken across the frontier was that this would rule out any possibility of exhuming her for an inquest. Franz Gürtner, the Minister of Justice in Bavaria, was in a good position to cover up if she had been murdered. He held extreme right wing views and protected the Nazis during this period.

Geli Raubal was given a Catholic funeral when she was buried at the Zentralfriedhof Cemetery on 23rd September, 1931. Of course, people who had committed suicide were not allowed to have a Catholic funeral. Father Johann Pant, who conducted the funeral, later said that he could not have done what he did if Geli had died by her own hand. Pant, who had known Hitler for over twenty years, was obviously convinced that Geli had been murdered. He later fled Nazi Germany and went to live in Paris. In 1939 he wrote to the Courier d'Autriche newspaper: "They pretended that she committed suicide; I should never have allowed a suicide to be buried in consecrated ground. From the fact that I gave her Christian burial you can draw conclusions which I cannot communicate to you."

Otto Wagener, who worked for Hitler, believes the death was an accident: "The bullet's trajectory showed that she had the pistol in her left hand with the barrel towards her body. Since she was sitting at her desk and writing a totally innocent letter which was unfinished, we must assume that it came into her head to fetch the pistol and check whether it was loaded, at which point it went off and hit her in the heart - an unfortunate accident." Her mother, Angela Raubal, took a similar view: "I can't understand why she did it. Perhaps it was an accident, and Geli killed herself while she was playing with the pistol which she got from him (Hitler)."

According to Ronald Hayman, the author of Hitler & Geli (1997), the whole investigation process was deeply flawed: "It would have been easy to check whether there were powder burns on her skin or her dress, confirming that the pistol had been fired at close quarters. Questions should have been asked, too, about the trajectory of the bullet, which entered above the heart and ended up slightly above the level of the hip. This means that if she was standing or sitting when the shot was fired, the barrel of the pistol was pointing downwards, and the hand holding it was higher than her heart. Even if she was lying on the couch or the floor, it would not have been easy for her to shoot herself in this way. And why should she want to? Having been taught how to use a Walther, she could, if she wanted to kill herself, easily have avoided such a slow and painful death."

The anti-Nazi journalist, Konrad Heiden, believes that Geli was pregnant by a Jewish man and that just before her death she was visited by Heinrich Himmler. He told her that she had "betrayed the man who was her guardian, her lover and her Führer in one - according to National Socialist conceptions there was only one way of making good such a betrayal." However, Rudolf Hess came up with a different theory. He believed that she had been killed by a jealous woman who got into the flat during the night.

Six years after Geli's death Bridget Hitler visited Ernst Hanfstaengel, who was then living in London. Bridget told Hanfstaengel that she was convinced that it was suicide rather than murder. She claimed that "the immediate family knew very well that the cause of Gerli's suicide was the fact that she was pregnant by a young Jewish art teacher in Linz, whom she had met in 1928 and wanted to marry at the time of her death."

Henriette Hoffmann also believed that Geli had killed herself: "He (Hitler) fenced her life so tightly, confined her in such a narrow space that she saw no other way out. Finally she hated her uncle, she really wanted to kill him. She couldn't do that. So she killed herself, to hurt him deeply enough, to disturb him. She knew that nothing else would wound him so badly. And because he knew too, he was so desperate, he had to blame himself."

The students can be given a choice between several different interpretations of the evidence:

(1) Geli committed suicide. (2) Geli killed herself by accident. (3) Geli was murdered by Adolf Hitler, Emil Maurice, Heinrich Himmler or person unknown.

There are two major reasons why it is unlikely that Geli killed herself. The unfinished cheerful letter makes it clear that she was not in a depressed state when she died. The torn-up letter is probably not relevant as her friends make it clear that she was no longer in love with Hitler. Eva Braun's letter may well have been planted in Geli's room to give her a motive for killing herself.

The second reason why suicide is unlikely is the report on Geli's wounds. As Ronald Hayman pointed out: "questions should have been asked, too, about the trajectory of the bullet, which entered above the heart and ended up slightly above the level of the hip. This means that if she was standing or sitting when the shot was fired, the barrel of the pistol was pointing downwards, and the hand holding it was higher than her heart. Even if she was lying on the couch or the floor, it would not have been easy for her to shoot herself in this way. And why should she want to? Having been taught how to use a Walther, she could, if she wanted to kill herself, easily have avoided such a slow and painful death."

Geli's mother, Angela Raubal and Hitler's friend, Otto Wagener, have argued it was accidental death. However, this means believing that while Geli was writing a letter she went and got her pistol to play with. You also have to explain the strange position of the body at the time of death.

The evidence suggests that Geli was murdered. I would discount Emil Maurice because at the time of Geli's death he had been dismissed as Hitler's chauffeur and bodyguard and was involved in a legal case against his former employer. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that he would have been allowed into the apartment by the servants. The same argument could be used against the theory of Rudolf Hess that Geli had been murdered by some woman who was jealous of her relationship with Hitler.

The Heinrich Himmler theory is more plausible. The journalist, Konrad Heiden, who did a lot of work on the case, believes that Himmler might have tried to bully Geli into committing suicide. There was definitely a tradition of doing this in the Nazi Party. For example, the case of Ernst Roehm in 1934. However, Heiden believed it was suicide and therefore I reject this idea. There is no doubt that Himmler and his friends would have been willing to kill Geli. However, I think it is highly unlikely that the killing would have taken place in Hitler's flat. From the Nazi Party's point of view, the worst possible place for her corpse to be found was Hitler's flat.

The killing of Geli was not a planned act. Geli Raubal died because someone lost their temper. The fact that this was covered up, suggests it was Hitler himself who did the killing. It was an unwritten law that none of Hitler's inner-circle could mention Geli unless he did. On one occasion he told Eva Braun that Geli had killed herself out of love for him, and that "We are all responsible for the death of my dear Geli."

If Hitler did kill Geli it was the first person he had killed. He was a dispatch-runner during the First World War and there is no evidence that he killed anyone during the conflict. He was clearly devastated by the killing of someone who is probably the only one he really loved. Ronald Hayman, Geli's biographer, claims that not only did he love her "she was his only friend".

Eric Fromm points out in his book about Nazism, Escape from Freedom (1941) that Hitler did not have to kill people personally because he was a masochist rather than a sadist. That of course brings us back to Hitler's sexuality where the story begins.

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Why did the intelligence services murder Dr. Stephen Ward? (8th January 2014)

Solomon Northup and 12 Years a Slave (4th January 2014)

The Angel of Auschwitz (6th December 2013)

The Death of John F. Kennedy (23rd November 2013)

Adolf Hitler and Women (22nd November 2013)

New Evidence in the Geli Raubal Case (10th November 2013)

Murder Cases in the Classroom (6th November 2013)

Major Truman Smith and the Funding of Adolf Hitler (4th November 2013)

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Claud Cockburn and his fight against Appeasement (26th October 2013)

The Strange Case of William Wiseman (21st October 2013)

Robert Vansittart's Spy Network (17th October 2013)

British Newspaper Reporting of Appeasement and Nazi Germany (14th October 2013)

Paul Dacre, The Daily Mail and Fascism (12th October 2013)

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