10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book

Larry Holzwarth - December 27, 2017

Whether one is an avowed conspiracy theorist or not, the Third Reich still retains unanswered questions and mysterious circumstances which have led to speculation by historians for decades. Since the end of the war, there have been questions over what happened to Adolf Hitler. Most historians agree that he died by suicide in his bunker under the Chancellery in Berlin, some cite evidence indicating he did not. Even before the Third Reich crumbled under the guns of the Allies, mysteries over its activities were rife. What was Rudolph Hess really doing when he flew to Scotland? Was there really an Amerika bomber? Why was there such a large Nazi (and German) presence in South America?

As most of the senior Nazi and Wehrmacht authorities were accounted for, either as prisoners of the Allies or documented as war casualties, mysteries arose over those who had somehow eluded their enemies. Where did they go? Who helped them escape? Mysteries over Nazi activities and the collapse of the German nation helped feed the mutual distrust between the Russians and their English-speaking Allies as the shooting ended and the desire to consolidate territory and influence took over. Some mysteries were solved when the collapse of the Soviet Union gave access to Soviet records, others merely deepen as long believed answers proved to be untrue.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
A likely retouched photograph of a German Superweapon, this one called the Landkreuzer. Wikimedia

Here are ten mysteries left behind by the Nazis following the collapse of the Third Reich and the end of World War II.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
A swastika formed by larch trees surrounded by pines is just one of several forestry swastikas surviving from the 1930s. Wikimedia

The Swastikas in the trees

In 1992 a young intern for a landscaping company in Brandenberg approached his boss with a photograph. The intern had been working on the mind-numbing task of searching through aerial photographs for irrigation lines in wooded areas when he discovered a shocking image. In the midst of a densely wooded pine forest, there was a group of about 140 larch trees. Larches, unlike pines, change color in the autumn, as first their needles yellow, then turn brown. In the summer from the air, they are indistinguishable from pines to the untrained eye.

In the autumn, when the photo is reviewed by the intern was taken, the larches stood out plainly, yellow in a sea of dark green. And the 140 larch trees were not a naturally evolving copse. They had been planted in a pattern, which would only be visible for a few weeks a year, and then only from the air at the proper angle. The pattern was a swastika. The size of the trees indicated that they had been there for some time.

Measurement of the trees dated the larch swastika to the 1930s. For nearly sixty years a vivid yellow swastika had appeared every autumn in the woods in Kutzerower Heath, Germany, undetected throughout the Soviet occupation and the domination of the Communist East German government. The question was why was it planted and by whom? As the news of the larch swastika spread reports arose over similar plantings throughout Germany.

A swastika of Douglas firs was reported growing in the midst of a deciduous forest near Wiesbaden which when it shed its leaves in the fall found itself emblazoned with a green, albeit reversed, symbol of the Nazi Party. A complete forest near Kyrgystan was reported in the shape of a reversed swastika, supposed to have been planted by German prisoners of war, at least according to local legend. A spruce forest near Asterode was decorated with a larch swastika and the year 1933, according to US troops who reported it to the government of the Federal State of Hesse in the 1970s. It should be remembered that the swastika symbol is banned in Germany today, as it was in West Germany then.

When the swastikas in the woods originated can be scientifically estimated and most that have been discovered were planted in the 1930s. How they were planted and by whom remain unanswered questions. Their appearances seemingly at random locations and the fact that they eluded detection for so long are both intriguing elements to a mystery which, like the larch swastika, remains concealed by the shadows unless one knows where and when to look.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
German U boat U530 after its surrender to Argentine authorities, Mar del Plata 1945. Wikipedia

What Happened to U 530?

When the Germans surrendered to the Allies in May 1945, Grand Admiral Karl Donitz, then serving as the head of the Navy as well as the Head of State and Reich President, ordered the U Boat fleet to surrender immediately to Allied ships or other authority. U 530 was then at sea. The boat had received a new commanding officer in January, a Lieutenant named Otto Wermuth. For the next two months, the whereabouts of the U 530 were unknown to the Allies.

On July 10, 1945, U 530 arrived at Mar del Plata in Argentina, and its commander surrendered his command to the Argentine Navy. Normally a voyage from European waters to the Argentine port would have taken less than two weeks, let alone two months. The delay in travel to Argentina, as well as why the port of Mar del Plata was selected as the point of surrender, was not explained.

Nor was the fact that the U boat was not carrying its deck gun, which had been jettisoned at sea, explained to the Argentine authorities. None of the crew of the German submarine was carrying any identification, highly unusual for a regime in which proper documentation had been demanded of all citizens at all times. Strangest of all, the submarine carried no ship’s log, and there was no record of its activities or travels for the preceding two months. What documents remained aboard the U boat were heavily censored.

Argentine authorities interrogated the German commander and other officers outside of the presence of American officials from the US Embassy, “…because the interrogating officer felt that if they were present the Germans would talk less…” according to the report of the United States Naval Attache to the Embassy.

After the arrival of the U 530 and the detention of the boat’s crew by the Argentine authorities, an Argentine reporter wrote of a Buenos Aires police report which described an unidentified submarine disembarking a man dressed as a high ranking officer and a civilian, at a remote spot on the Argentine coastline. This report was one of many which fueled rumors of Adolf Hitler’s escape to Argentina. Regardless, the question of where U 530 was and what the U Boat had been doing for two months has never been adequately explained.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
This hand colored photograph depicts a corner of the Amber Room as it would have appeared in 1931. University of California Santa Cruz

What happened to the Amber Room?

Built beginning in 1701, the Amber Room was a chamber of gold-backed amber panels and mirrors, originally constructed in Prussia before being installed in the Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. By World War II St. Petersburg was known as Leningrad, and when the German Army closed in on that city in 1941 they overran the Catherine Palace. The Amber Room was taken apart by German troops and sent to Konigsberg, where it was intended the originally German splendor of the work would be displayed to boost morale.

By the autumn of 1941 the room, which was considered to be priceless, was under reconstruction in Konigsberg, and the following January announcements appeared in newspapers describing its exhibition. There is little further documentation concerning the room. In 1945 a general order to remove looted artwork and other items from the path of the advancing Red Army went out from Berlin.

There were no reports of the Amber Room being moved in the post-war German records and the officer in charge of the room and removing it to safety fled his post in the face of the Russians. The Amber Room and its fate was not discovered at the end of the war and has not been determined since, although a few cryptic clues have emerged. A single mosaic authenticated to have been from the room showed up at an auction in the late 1990s, leading experts to speculate it had been stolen by a German soldier when the room was shipped to Konigsberg in 1941.

Experts are building a growing consensus that the Amber Room was shipped to an underground bunker facility built by the Germans in Poland, near the town of Mamerki. The site has yet to be excavated and tests are being used to determine what contents it may be hiding, but to date, they have been inconclusive.

The Russians gave a collective shrug of their shoulders and built a new Amber Room, a twenty-four-year project which was completed in 2003. Motivated in part by the belief that the original Amber Room could not have survived more than seventy years of improper storage, the new Amber Room has been placed on display near St. Petersberg, which the Russians claim is its rightful and proper home. The whereabouts of the original remain to be explained.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
Gestapo head Heinrich Mueller, in black uniform, circa 1939. Bundesarchiv

What happened to Heinrich Mueller?

As the Russian artillery pounded Berlin in late April 1945, and the western Allies closed the ring around Germany, there was little doubt among the Nazi leaders what their fate would be if they fell into Russian hands. Alternatives were surrendered to the Americans and British, escape to a neutral country and thence to South America, or suicide. For the head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Mueller, it mattered little if he was taken into custody by Americans or Russians, his status as a war criminal was a given.

In the end, it didn’t matter. He was never taken into custody, at least not as Heinrich Mueller. What happened to Mueller remains a mystery to this day, with many possible answers arising from speculation, but nearly all of them disproved by facts. What is known is that the last confirmed sighting of Mueller was in Hitler’s bunker under Berlin on the evening of May 1, 1945, when he spoke to Hitler’s former pilot of his intention not to be taken by the Russians.

Early speculation over the fate of the Gestapo head centered round his recruitment by the Russians, but Mueller’s own fear of the Russians would seem to deny that possibility. Later it was proposed that he had been recruited by the American OSS (later CIA) but that seems equally implausible to all but the most hardened conspiracy buffs. If he died in the final assault on Berlin his body was never found, he was too well known to have escaped identification unless maimed beyond all recognition.

The possibility that he escaped to South America is supported simply by the fact that so many other senior Nazi officials, and a good many less senior, did just that. Mueller would have had access to all means of escape at the disposal of the Nazis, and presumably a few unknown to any but the most senior. Many reports of bodies being found bearing papers identifying the corpse as Mueller turned up in the rubble of Berlin, their sheer number support the theory of papers being planted on the dead to throw the hounds off the scent.

It is likely that the disappearance of Heinrich Mueller will never be solved. As the head of the Gestapo, he had access to all of the deepest secrets of Nazi Germany, as well as its considerable resources. He may have died in Berlin, he may have worked for the Russians, or he may have whiled away the rest of his life in an Argentine German village. There were many charming such villages there from which to choose.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
Reports from German weather stations like this one were crucial to operations on the Eastern Front. Daily Mail

What was the purpose of the Secret Polar Base?

During the German invasion of the Soviet Union, a detachment of German troops was sent to establish an outpost on Alexandra Island, about 600 nautical miles from the North Pole. By 1942 the small outpost was equipped and operational. It remained in operation until 1944 when the German’s abandoned the position and the island.

For the two years that the post was operational, it was resupplied solely by Luftwaffe airdrops. The base was established, according to most histories, for the purpose of collecting and supplying weather data to the armies stretched along the long front from Leningrad to the Caucasus. The base was code-named Schatzgraber – Treasure Hunter.

Nearby islands were occupied with weather data collection stations operated by the Americans, English, and Russian allies, so the presence of a German station dedicated to the same function is not unusual. Nor is the operational code name, military organizations often use seemingly exotic code names to identify the operations in which they are engaged.

Part of the Nazi philosophy of Aryan supremacy was based on Norse mythology, built upon a period of time when the Nordic peoples dominated the earth. Some believe that the true purpose of Schatzgraber was not the collection of weather data but the gathering of artifacts which could be used to support this most basic of Nazi philosophies. This theory is supported by the fact that the Germans’ abandoned the base – evacuating it by U Boat – just as the weather data which it allegedly provided was becoming most critical as the Russians prepared for the westward push in 1944.

Officially, the Germans abandoned the facility after a rash of food poisoning among the staff, caused by eating Polar bear meat contaminated with roundworms. The base remained abandoned and unexamined for decades, with many questioning its existence, comparing it to a similar, mythical facility in the Antarctic. In 2016 Russian scientists and technicians began examining the remains of Schatzgraber, including a trove of more than 500 documents, superbly preserved by the cold, in an attempt to unravel the mystery of the true purpose of the Nazi presence in the Arctic during the Second World War.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
Many believe that the fabled Nazi Gold train is concealed in a hidden Silesian tunnel similar to the one. Daily Mail

The Nazi Gold Train

During the final months of the Second World War, goes the legend, German officials loaded stolen Polish and Russian art, currency, and bullion and loaded it on a train bound for Silesia. There the train was concealed in an underground complex built by forced labor provided by prisoners of war. According to some “witnesses”, the train also contained operational prototypes of weapons intended for use on the Eastern Front.

The train was concealed by the retreating Germans and after the war remained under Soviet control. During the years since efforts by Polish scientists and historians to locate the train and its contents have been in vain. The train is alleged to have been concealed in the Owl Mountains near the Polish city of Walbrzych (which was then a German city). According to the story, over 300 tons of gold and weapons were concealed from the advancing Russians on the train.

The Polish government has sponsored searches for the train by agreeing to a finder’s fee to be paid to any expedition which succeeds in locating it. The Poles have also conducted searches using the Polish Army to no avail. In 2016, a search spearheaded by a German mining company claimed to have identified a train of sufficient length concealed underground in the vicinity where the gold train was supposed to have been hidden. After this information was leaked to the press – according to the miners the leak was through the Polish government – the government formally denied the existence of the train.

Later that summer excavation and exploration teams from both Polish and German organizations, government sponsored and private, explored the area in detail. Neither developed any proof of the existence of a buried train, and the Polish team determined the area in question to be a naturally occurring buried ice formation. After exhaustive research, including some excavation, no evidence of the train was unearthed.

Despite anecdotal evidence from eyewitnesses, who witnessed the train being loaded and later concealed in Silesia, no physical evidence of the train’s existence nor its treasure has ever been found. Nor has any documentation describing the train or its contents, unusual given the meticulous record keeping proclivities of the Germans.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
After months in the custody of the United States Military Police Herman Goering committed suicide by cyanide capsule. The Atlantic

How did convicted Herman Goering obtain cyanide?

Herman Goering was a leader of the Nazi Party and Luftwaffe, one of the men closest to Adolf Hitler, and with Hitler and Himmler both dead, the most senior Nazi-held prisoner by the Allies after World War II. He sat in the dock at Nuremberg unrepentant, a defiant and largely despicable Nazi throughout the war trials which convicted him. There was never any doubt that he would be convicted, and no doubt what his sentence would be.

When Goering was given the opportunity to testify at his trial, he echoed the statements made by witnesses on his behalf, namely that he had been a political and theological moderate, unaware of the atrocities being committed in the concentration camps. Goering presented the argument that to disobey Hitler was tantamount to suicide, and in order to maintain his position and authority – which he used among other things to protect captured Allied airmen – he needed to appease the Fuhrer.

Convicted and sentenced to death, Goering requested to be shot by firing squad rather than hanged. Denied, he appeared to be resigned to his fate until he committed suicide by cyanide capsule on the eve of his execution, after months in the custody of the United States Military Police.

How Goering obtained the cyanide with which he cheated the hangman has been a mystery since. The military police conducted a half-hearted investigation into the incident but appeared to be less than interested in the result. Goering was just as dead as if he had hanged, and the persecution of an accomplice or accomplices was of little concern. Obviously, someone had violated security by smuggling the poison into him, finding out who had was not a pressing issue.

In 2005 a former US Military Policemen who had guarded Goering claimed to have smuggled the poison into the prisoner in a fountain pen received from his girlfriend, who told him the pen contained medicine needed by Goering. He never saw the girl again. Several others came forward in the years following Goering’s death with claims to have facilitated it, all have been questioned by historians and many disproved. Even if the fountain pen story were true it raises the question of an organization actively defying the will of the occupation troops in 1946, not the answer to a mystery, but another mystery entirely.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
Argentina’s Juan Peron welcomed escaping Nazis and roundly condemned the International Tribunal which labelled many of them War Criminals. Biography.com

How did so many Nazi criminals escape?

The German infrastructure of railroads, highways, air routes and canals was in total shambles by early 1945, making even legitimate travel problematic. Allied troops occupied major travel hubs, and security by frontline troops and military police scrutinized the documents of any Germans attempting to travel, either those fleeing from the war or those few still attempting to go about their legitimate business. Europe was clamped down as tight as a drum, yet hundreds of Nazi officials, escaping war criminals, SS Officers, and more managed to escape the continent of Europe and find sanctuary in South America.

Ratlines were established and operational even before the war came to an end, providing a pipeline for escaping Nazis to Argentina, where they were welcomed by Juan Peron, and to other safe-havens. Two main routes were established, through Franco’s Spain and through Italy via Rome and Genoa. Initially independent of each other, they eventually came to work together. Both received the support of the Catholic Church at the destination points and along the routes.

Within a year of the war’s end in Europe, Spain was littered with thousands of former Nazis, including several hundred being sought by authorities for war crimes, and efforts by the US State Department to obtain the support of the Vatican turning them over to the United States were futile. From Spain, these refugees traveled to South America with the covert assistance of the Catholic bureaucracy in Spain, Portugal, and Argentina, including Argentine Cardinal Antonio Caggiano.

In Italy, the Vatican Secretariat of State established a liaison in the winter of 1944 to support the German interns in Italy, in the form of Bishop Alois Hudal, the rector of a seminary for Austrian and German priests in Rome. Through this liaison office, numerous Nazi war criminals received the credentials necessary to legally travel to South American countries, where they were welcomed as Catholic immigrants. Some of the war criminals who escaped via this route were Franz Stengl, the former commanding officer of the Treblinka death camp, Gustav Wagner, commandant of Sobibor, and the infamous Adolf Eichmann.

By 1947 and through at least 1950 the United States Army, through its own and other intelligence services, was actively working with these and other ratlines for the purpose of evaluating suspected Nazi war criminals rather than handing them over to the Russians for trial. Faced with the potential embarrassment of holding prisoners wanted by the Russians, the US Army allowed them to evacuate Europe via the ratlines, often with overt assistance.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
The fate of Sweden’s Raoul Wallenberg remains hidden behind a shroud of mystery and misinformation. Wikipedia

What Happened to Raoul Wallenberg?

Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish businessman and diplomat credited with saving thousands of Jews from the Germans in the waning days of the Second World War. From the summer of 1944 until late in the year he protected Hungarian Jews by issuing them Swedish passports and sheltering them on properties designated as Swedish territory under diplomatic and international law.

When the Soviet Army besieged Budapest Wallenberg was arrested by Russian authorities under suspicion of espionage and imprisoned. Over a decade later it was reported that he had died while in Soviet custody, of natural causes. The Soviets reported his death to have occurred in July 1947, with the cause of death being heart failure.

After his “death” was reported by the Soviets, several former prisoners and even guards reported having seen Wallenberg, at least one as late as the 1960s. Wallenberg was reported as being in Soviet custody in the infamous Lubyanka Prison. Reasons for his being held by the Soviets have been largely speculation, ranging from his alleged connections with US intelligence to his having been involved in espionage activities against the Hungarians.

Wallenberg was reported as being murdered by the Gestapo in 1945, dead of natural causes in 1947, murdered by the Russians while in custody in 1947, alive on Wrangel Island in 1962, and alive in another Soviet prison in 1987. He was finally officially declared dead in 2016 by Swedish Authorities.

Wallenberg’s relationship with US intelligence, as well as his activities subverting the pro-Nazi Hungarian government during the Second World War is still the subject of speculation, with the governments of several nations, including Russia, Ukraine, Germany, Hungary, the United States, and Sweden all issuing conflicting statements regarding his actions. The story of Raoul Wallenberg, which includes his often visibly contentious relationship with representatives of Nazi Germany in Budapest, remains a mystery which becomes more entangled the more one attempts to unravel it.

10 Unsolved Mysteries of World War II You Won’t Find in a History Book
Rudolph Hess was Spandau Prison’s sole inmate for many years before he is alleged to have committed suicide. Daily Mail

Why did Rudolph Hess fly to Scotland?

Rudolph Hess came to the Nazi Party early enough to bear member number 16. Along with other prisoners, Hess received dictation in prison from Adolf Hitler, the results of which were Hitler’s screed Mein Kampf. In 1933 Hess became Deputy Fuhrer when Hitler received his appointment as Reich Chancellor. Hess ran several departments of the Nazi government and his signature appeared alongside Hitler’s on numerous government decrees.

When the Second World War began Hitler made arrangements to continue the Nazi hierarchy should the Fuhrer fall in battle, designating Herman Goering as his successor, with Hess next in line. Hess was responsible for domestic affairs and issues to the exclusion of military activities, and with war underway, the amount of time available from Hitler was limited. Hess became marginalized as military affairs overrode to a large extent the daily internal affairs of the Reich.

As German plans to invade the Soviet Union coalesced, Hess was determined to find a means to bring England to the negotiating table to avoid the catastrophe of a two-front war. In May of 1941, Hess flew a Messerschmidt bf100 to the United Kingdom, bailed out over Scotland, and was arrested upon landing. He left behind him a letter to Hitler (among other items) which indicated his intention to enter into negotiations for a separate peace with the British, which when received by Hitler instigated a fit of rage and fears of a coup.

The German propaganda machine announced that Hess was exhausted from overwork, and distanced themselves from his actions. Under orders from Winston Churchill Hess was imprisoned – he was briefly held in the Tower of London – and despite questioning was not charged with any crime. Hess continued to be held throughout the war, attempting suicide twice, and following the war was charged with war crimes. He often pretended while in custody to be suffering from amnesia and other mental disorders.

After the war, he was tried as a war criminal and sentenced to life imprisonment. He was the sole remaining prisoner in Spandau Prison in Berlin when he finally committed suicide at the age of 93 in 1987. Immediately following his death it was asserted by his lawyer that Hess had been too frail to have committed suicide in the manner described by his British guards. Why Hess flew to Scotland, what happened during his questioning, and why he remained in custody for more than four decades before committing suicide, are all mysteries for which no reasonable answer has been forthcoming.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Encyclopedia Britannica – How the Symbolism of the Swastika Was Ruined

BBC News – How the World Loved the Swastika – Until Hitler Stole It

History Extra – Why Did Hitler Choose the Swastika, And How Did a Sanskrit Symbol Become A Nazi Emblem?

NY Daily News – Trees in Germany That Once Grew in Shape of Swastika Cause Lingering Mystery

War History Online – The Surrender of the Last Two German U-boats in WW2

Medium – Will the Legendary Lost ‘Amber Room’ Ever Be Found?

Sky History – The Mystery of The Amber Room: The World’s Greatest Lost Treasure

Los Angeles Times – Ending 68-Year Mystery, Scholar Confirms Gestapo Chief Died In 1945

Indian Express – In the Deep Arctic, Hitler’s Secret Base

Popular Mechanics – Mysterious Arctic Nazi Base Rediscovered

War History Online – A Secret Base, Built by The Nazis in WW2, Has Been Discovered in The Arctic

Smithsonian Magazine – Sorry, Treasure Hunters: That Legendary Nazi Gold Train Is a Total Bust

BBC News – Poland’s ‘Nazi Gold Train’ Find: Myth and Reality

BBC News – Nazi Gold Train: ‘No Evidence’ Of Discovery in Poland

BBC News – The Swedish Schindler Who Disappeared

Haaretz – Is the Mystery of Raoul Wallenberg’s Death Finally Solved?

Smithsonian Magazine – Raoul Wallenberg’s Biographer Uncovers Important Clues to What Happened in His Final Days

BBC News – Rudolf Hess: Inside the Mind Of Hitler’s Deputy

Warfare History Network – Was Rudolf Hess Murdered?