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December 4, 2016

Murder in Hitler's Bunker: Who Really Poisoned the Goebbels Children?

To this day, the murder by poisoning of the six children of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels remains a mystery. Newly discovered records show that a doctor confessed in the 1950s to having been an accomplice, but that the judges in the case let him go unpunished.

The Goebbels children.

These are the last days of their lives, but the children don't know it. There is 12-year-old Helga, who has the eyes and dark hair of her father, Joseph Goebbels. There is Hilde, 11, who is more of a brunette; anyone looking at her quickly realizes that she is about to blossom into a true beauty. And then there are eight-year-old Holde, six-year-old Hedda and the youngest of the girls, four-year-old Heide.

H for Hitler. The name of each child evokes the name of the Führer, for whom Goebbels works as propaganda chief. The family's only son is named Helmut, a slightly languorous nine-year-old.

Heidrun Elisabeth Goebbels (1940-1945)

Holdine Goebbels in 1939.

Helga in 1939.

Holdine Goebbels, December 1938.

Helga with Prinz, Hitler’s dog.

Berlin, the end of April 1945, the Reich Chancellery. Hitler's bunker, deep underground beneath the Chancellery, is a place of gray concrete, narrow passageways, iron doors and cold light. It isn't a welcoming place, particularly not for children who, only a few weeks earlier, were living a seemingly carefree and innocent life, playing with cats and dogs on a farm far away from Berlin.

Russian soldiers are only a few hundred meters away, and everyone in the bunker is urging the parents to finally take the children to a safe place. Hanna Reitsch, a celebrated German aviator, says: "My God, Mrs. Goebbels, the children cannot stay here, even if I have to fly in 20 times to get them out."

But the Goebbels remain unyielding.

"It is better for my children to die than to live in disgrace and humiliation," says their mother, Magda. Their father fears that Stalin could take the children to Moscow, where they would be brainwashed into becoming communists. "No, it's better that we take them along."

Joseph Goebbels with his children.

Unpunished Crime

Stories of brutality and rape by the advancing Soviet troops were circulating in Berlin, and there was much discussion in the Führerbunker about suicide as a means to escape humiliation or punishment from the Soviets. Joseph Goebbels added a postscript to Hitler's last will and testament, stating that he would disobey the order to leave Berlin: "For reasons of humanity and personal loyalty" he had to stay. Further, his wife and their children supported his refusal to leave Berlin and his resolution to die in the bunker.

Magda Goebbels with her son Helmut and daughter Holde sleeping in her lap. Schwanenwerder, summer 1939.

Helga and Hilde Goebbels with Edda Ciano, daughter of Benito Mussolini, circa 1936.

On the following day, Magda and Joseph Goebbels arranged for an SS dentist, Helmut Kunz, to inject their six children with morphine so that, when they were unconscious, ampules of cyanide could be crushed in their mouths. According to Kunz's later testimony, he gave the children morphine injections, but it was Magda and SS-Obersturmbannführer Ludwig Stumpfegger, Hitler's personal doctor, who administered the cyanide.

Rochus Misch, the bunker telephone/radio operator, stated that Werner Naumann told him that he had seen Hitler's personal physician, Dr Stumpfegger, give the children something "sweetened" to drink. Another account says that the children were told they would be leaving for Berchtesgaden in the morning, and Stumpfegger was said to have provided Magda with morphine to sedate them. Erna Flegel claims that Magda reassured the children about the morphine by telling them that they needed inoculations because they would be staying in the bunker for a long time. Author James P. O'Donnell concluded that, although Stumpfegger was probably involved in drugging the children, Magda killed them herself. He surmised that witnesses blamed the deaths on Stumpfegger because he was a convenient target, having died the following day. Moreover, as O'Donnell recorded, Stumpfegger may have been too intoxicated at the time of the deaths to have played a reliable role.

Helga and Hilde with their father at a Christmas event in Friedrichshain, 1937.

Helga, Hilde, and Helmut at a Christmas event in Friedrichshain, 1937.

Joseph Goebbels with his children Helga at Christmas Eve, 1937.

Joseph Goebbels with his daugter Helga, 1935.

Magda appears to have contemplated and talked about killing her children at least a month in advance. After the war, Günther Quandt's sister-in-law Eleanore recalled Magda saying she did not want her children to grow up hearing that their father had been one of the century's foremost criminals and that reincarnation might grant her children a better future life. Reitsch, who stayed in the bunker after flying Luftwaffe General von Greim in to meet with Hitler, said Magda asked her in the last days to help ensure she did not back away from killing the children if it came to that.

She refused several offers from others, such as Albert Speer, to take the children out of Berlin. The children seemed unaware of the impending danger, but the eldest child, Helga, seemed to sense that the adults were lying to her about the outcome of the war and asked what would happen to them. Misch was among the last to see the children alive. They were seated around a table in his work area as their mother combed their hair and kissed them, all wearing nightgowns as it was close to their bedtime. Heide, the youngest, had scrambled up onto the table. Helga, whom Misch called the brightest of the children, was "crying softly" just before bedtime on that final night and wore a glum expression. Misch felt Helga had little fondness for her mother. Magda had to push Helga towards the stairs that led up to the Vorbunker. Four-year-old Heide, who had tonsilitis and wore a scarf around her neck, turned back to look at Misch, giggling, and teasingly said, "Misch, Misch, du bist ein Fisch," or "Misch, Misch, you are a fish", just before her mother led her and her siblings upstairs. Misch recalled later that he suspected what was about to happen and would always regret not intervening.

The children's bodies, in nightclothes, with ribbons tied in the girls' hair, were found in the two-tiered bunk beds where they were killed, when Soviet troops entered the bunker a day later. A Soviet autopsy on Helga's body noted "several black and blue bruises", indicating that she probably woke up and struggled with her killer. A photograph taken during the autopsy showed heavy bruising on the dead child's face. The injuries were apparently caused when a cyanide capsule was forced into her mouth.


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