The soldier, his sweetheart and the suicide of Hermann Goering

A case of puppy love has been revealed as the key to a 60-year- old mystery surrounding the death of one of Hitler's key henchmen. David Usborne reports

It has taken almost 60 years, but historians may now have the answer to one of the oldest mysteries concerning the demise of the Third Reich. How did Hermann Goering, the former commander of the Luftwaffe and architect of the Nazi concentration camps, manage to cheat the gallows in Nuremberg by taking his own life on the eve of his scheduled execution after more than a year in captivity?

It seems that a 19-year-old American guard, charmed by a dark-haired German beauty, may have slipped him the poison.

Not provable and perhaps barely believable, but this - long-delayed - explanation of one of the last century's most teasing puzzles has come not from some scholar or researcher of the Nuremberg era but from that same guard, now a 78-year-old retired sheet-metal worker in southern California.

"I did it," he told the Los Angeles Times. "I gave Goering the vial of cyanide that dispatched him before the hangman had a chance. It does not makes me proud."

It is a version of history that contradicts a multitude of theories that have surrounded the Goering suicide over the decades. His success in cheating justice - robbing the Allies of the satisfaction of executing a man who embodied the essence of Nazi evil - spawned academic papers and books.

That this suicide should have generated so much fascination is not surprising. Goering, as vain as he was obese, did more than build the Luftwaffe from scratch and command its operations. He was Deputy Fuhrer and the most trusted member of Adolph Hitler's inner circle. He drove the effort to build Germany's concentration camps and was one of the signatories to the so-called Final Solution that called for all Jews to be exterminated. Executing such a figure was meant to be a defining moment in the process of post-war punishment and catharsis. Yet, despite all the security around him, Goering was able to short-circuit the efforts at justice by the Allies. If somebody helped him do it, it is no wonder they kept quiet about it. Especially if it was someone on the Allies' side.

In telling his story to the LA Times, Mr Stivers provides numerous intriguing details - where he got the cyanide vial that killed Goering, and what drove him to pass it to the prisoner in the first place, apparently hidden inside the barrel of a fountain pen.

All the other characters in his tale, who might have been in a position to corroborate it, have long ago died. Some scholars seem willing, though, to accept what he says.

Did Mr Stivers have some calculated intent when he so dramatically subverted the cause of post-war justice and, indeed, of post-war history? Therein lies perhaps the most startling element of his story, published by the LA Times yesterday. He gave Goering the vial, he says, for no better reason than to impress a pretty local girl.

Some Jewish scholars have asserted over the years that it was indeed an American who gave Goering the vial with which he took his own life because of some lingering sympathies for the Nazis. Other historians have posited that a guard slipped him the vial in return for a bribe, like the gift of his watch. Or maybe the poison came from the German doctor who regularly visited him, squeezed inside a bar of soap. Even more tantalising has been speculation that his wife, Emmy, passed Goering the vial mouth to mouth during a last "kiss of death".

More popular, however, has been the more prosaic theory that Goering, even though he was in solitary confinement and under relentless round-the-clock surveillance, simply managed, somehow, to keep hold of a single cyanide vial all the way through his trial. It was hidden, perhaps, somewhere on his body or under a crown on a tooth. That was the explanation given by the US Army after a formal investigation into Goering's suicide.

In their official report, the US investigators concluded that Goering had always had the suicide vial, which was standard issue to Nazi commanders as their war effort crumbled. It had been "secreted in the cavity of the umbilical" or otherwise "in his alimentary tract", they argued. Adding credence to this scenario, it was noted that Goering had refused to bathe in the prison showers for two weeks before he died.

And indeed this is what Goering himself asserted in a note written in his cell before he succeeded in taking his life on 15 October 1946, shortly after he had been convicted and sentenced to hang. He boasted in his note that he had indeed been in possession of the cyanide all along.

But still doubts persisted, and one man who never believed that this was the real story was Mr Stivers. He remained convinced that he had been instrumental in allowing Goering to frustrate the hangman - a secret that he held, with feelings of deep regret, over all these years.

"I felt very bad after his suicide. I had a funny feeling; I didn't think there was any way he could have hidden it on his body," Mr Stivers said.

And there was something else that made Mr Stivers uneasy about the official explanation. Over the months, he had got to know Goering fairly well. They chatted from time to time, often about aviation.

"Goering was a very pleasant guy," he told the LA Times. "He spoke pretty good English. We'd talked about sports, ball-games. He was a flier and we talked about Lindberg." Most of all, Mr Stivers did not see a man who seemed on the verge of suicide. "He was never in a bad frame of mind."

Fear was apparently what persuaded Mr Stivers to keep quiet about what he had done. But he had told a daughter, Linda Dadey, 15 years ago about what he thought he had done back in Germany, and it was she who finally induced him to tell the story while he was still alive. He was further encouaged to shed light on the mystery when he understood that, because the statute of limitations on the episode had run out long ago, there was no risk of the authorities stepping forward and trying to prosecute him.

By his account, it was a combination of tedium and teenage infatuation that led him to insert himself into history. Mr Stivers was one of a phalanx of young GIs who, always in green uniforms and shiny white helmets, formed a backdrop to the proceedings at Nuremberg. Their tasks were mundane, however. They escorted the defendants to and from the courtrooms in the Palace of Justice and, during testimony and arguments, stood half at attention along the back wall.

Entertainment was hard to come by for these young men. But there were always the girls. Mr Stivers, who already had one girlfriend, an 18-year- old local named Hildegaard Bruner, relates how one day he met another girl, dark-haired and beautiful, outside a building that housed a military officers' club. They talked and flirted a little and he told her that he was a guard of the defendants at the trial. A day later he proved it to her by bringing the autograph of one the less important prisoners, Baldur von Schirach.

When next he saw her, he gave her a new autograph, this time from Goering himself. At this point, the girl, apparently named Mona, said she had two friends who were anxious to meet him. They were called Erich and Mathias, and they were interested in knowing if Mr Stivers would be willing to take notes to Goering hidden in a fountain pen. He willingly acquiesced, seeing no harm in it and still intent on impressing the girl.

Then, the third time that they met, the two men said they wanted him to take something else to Goering hidden in a pen. It was medication, because Goering, they said, "was a very sick man". They told him that: "It was medication, and that if it worked and Goering felt better, they'd send him some more." Mr Stivers, apparently not thinking much of it, duly obliged, saying he would return the pen empty to Mona another day. But after the "medicine" reached Goering's hands, Mona and the two men disappeared. "I never saw Mona again, I guess she used me."

It was just two weeks later, on 15 October 1946, that the shocking news broke that Goering had taken his own life and the execution that was set for the next day had become moot. Mr Stivers immediately thought he was responsible. But investigators never interrogated him or any of the other guards, beyond asking them if they had seen anything suspicious about Goering's behaviour or activities.

The regret and anxiety never left Mr Stivers. "I would have never knowingly taken in something that I thought was going to be used to help someone cheat the gallows," he told the LA Times. But neither could he ever really believe the explanation offered by the Army - that Goering had been in possession of the cyanide all the time he was in captivity.

It is true that, when the investigation was under way, officials found another vial of cyanide in belongings that had come with Goering when he was first transferred to Nuremberg. But his baggage had been kept under lock and key in a storage room. How would the prisoner have had access to it unless taken there by one of the guards. This always seemed unlikely given how closely Goering was monitored.

In the Fifties, the late Ben Swearingen wrote a book, The Mystery of Hermann Goering's Suicide, in which he named a US Army lieutenant, Jack Wheelis, as having allowing Goering into the storeroom to retrieve a vial of poison shortly before his suicide. But the book never explains how the two could have entered the storeroom without being seen.

As for keeping a vial on his body over a period of around a year, this also stretched belief. What was true was that Goering had arrived very rotund and, as he lost weight, the folds of loose skin may have made concealing a vial a little easier. But, if he had the poison all that time, why did he wait so long to use it?

Among those who think that the confessions of Mr Stivers could be plausible is Aaron Breitbart, a researcher at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in Los Angeles. His story, he said, "is crazy enough to be true," adding: "Nobody really knows who did it except the person who did it."

"It doesn't sound like something made up," said Cornelius Schnauber of the University of Southern California. "It sounds even more believable than the common story about the poison being in the dental crown."

If Mr Stivers feels better now for having lifted the guilt of his actions off his chest, he has his daughter to thank. Ms Dadey, 46, explained to the LA Times, "I said: `Dad, you're part of history. You need to tell this story before you pass away.' It's been on his conscience all his life."

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