Wednesday, May 4, 2011

On the remains of evil and their disposition

A brief meme went out over the social networks on Monday, taking into account that the world learned of Adolf Hitler’s death on May 1, 1945, and Osama Bin Laden’s death on May 1, 2011. It’s a bit of a misnomer on the face of it. First of all, Hitler died – in his Berlin Bunker and by his own hand – on April 30th. In the pre-Internet age, and with Berlin bombed to smithereens, communication was going to naturally take longer. Bin Laden was killed on May 2, at around 1am local time. Some have complained about the delay from Bin Laden’s death until President Obama announced it to the world. But it took time to dispose of OBL’s remains and notify world leaders.

To be blunt, I'm glad Osama Bin Laden is dead, just as I'm sure many were glad to learn on May 1, 1945 that Hitler was dead. In both cases, the world would have been a lot better off if it had happened sooner. Both in 1945 and 2011, the decision arose as to how the physical remains of these evil people should be dealt with.

Let’s take a look back in time:

Following their suicides, Hitler’s and Eva Braun’s remains were incompletely burned and buried in a shallow bomb crater outside the bunker. Hitler’s death was reported by German radio on May 1st, with the report stating that the Fuhrer fought “to the last breath” for Germany. On May 2, Hitler’s remains were found by Soviet Intelligence forces, along with those of Joseph Goebells, his wife, and their six children. The question arose as to how to handle their remains. Benito Mussolini had recently been executed, his body then hung upside down after a mob had kicked, spat, and urinated on his corpse. These events were on the Soviets’ minds. So, the physical remains were dealt with in a manner that would prevent both the creation of a neo-Nazi shrine and the desecration of their remains: Hitler's remains (along with those of Eva Braun, the Goebells family, and Hitler's dog) were quietly buried in a secret location in Berlin. But, as would happen in 2011, rumors began to circulate. Rumors led to conspiracy theories that Hitler’s body had been taken to Moscow for an autopsy (which led to rumors, among other things, that the Fuhrer was mono-testicular). Later, there were rumors that he didn’t die but went to South America. A death photo, circulated shortly after Hitler’s death and later exposed as a fake, only served to fuel the conspiracy theorists.

In fact, the remains of Hitler and his entourage were moved several times over the decades, eventually to Magdeburg, a suburb of Berlin, were they were buried in the courtyard of SMERSH (later KGB) headquarters, which was promptly paved and used as a parking lot.

In 1970, Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, feared that knowledge of Hitler’s remains would spread and become a neo-Nazi shrine. So Andropov ordered remains of Hitler and his party exhumed, cremated, and scattered in the Elbe River. Andropov, by the way, later became head of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

The history of the end of Osama Bin Laden’s life is still being sifted through. But it’s already known that OBL died in an above ground bunker in Pakistan at the hands of Navy SEALs, and that his remains were buried at sea where the chances of them ever being found are nil to none. It’s reasonable to assume that the United States disposed of OBL’s remains in the way they did for much the same reasons as the Soviets were so careful with Hitler’s corpse. The difference is that the U. S. has been more open about what was done, and why. There has been a lot of second guessing over this decision, but I feel it was, on balance, the best decision possible.

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