Film on Hitler's death result of Allegheny County judge's dedication
Little-known filmed interviews from the Duquesne University archives are at the heart ofa Smithsonian Channel film on the death of Adolf Hitler.
“The Day Hitler Died” will premiere at 8 p.m. Nov. 16 on the Smithsonian Channel, featuring interviews put together by one-time Allegheny County Judge Michael Musmanno (1897-1968), who later became a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice. The Stowe native was a presiding jurist in a 1947 session of the Nuremberg war trials.
After the trials, Musmanno spent more than two years tracking down witnesses and re-interviewing them on-camera in 1948 to prove Hitler was dead, hoping to thwart rumors spawned when Soviet dictator Josef Stalin claimed Hitler had escaped his underground Berlin bunker. He later wrote a book on the subject called “Ten Days to Die.”
“There can be no doubt that Adolf Hitler, the fuhrer of Germany, the master criminal of the world, the greatest gangster who ever disgraced the human race, is dead,” Musmanno said, concluding the interviews.
But convincing films don't always make good TV, says David Royle, executive vice president for programming and production at the Smithsonian Channel.
“Musmanno was acting as a jurist,” Royle says. “He was putting these together almost as a deposition. I doubt anyone but the most dedicated historian would watch them.”
One of the things both sides realized, he says, was the films were really “not meant for broadcast.” They simply were Musmanno's efforts to see the end to what could be an ugly “mythology.”
“Our task was to use the footage, but have the drama there, too,” Royle says.
The Smithsonian Channel tried to create a balancing act in the program, he says, with actors portraying the witnesses shown in the actual interviews.
The interviews vividly describe Hitler's volatile moods as the Russian Red Army moved into Berlin in April 1945.
Buoyed by news that U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt died April 12, 1945, “Hitler went into a dance and congratulated himself as if he had himself had brought about this event,” Hitler's press attache, Heinz Lorenz, told Musmanno. “He exclaimed, ‘This will mean I will win the war.' ”
But 10 days later, Hitler's mood permanently darkened upon learning one of his generals refused to lead a suicidal counter-attack with a rag-tag collection of German army units.
“(Hitler) collapsed and said, ‘It's all over, and I'll shoot myself,' ” Lorenz recalled.
When Musmanno was in Nuremberg, he was surrounded by stories about how Hitler survived the end of World War II, says Tom White, archivist and curator of special collections at Duquesne. Musmanno, who also was the author of novels and scholarly works, began doing interviews to ascertain the truth.
Included in the 22 interviews were talks with Artur Axmann, the head of Hitler Youth who saw Hitler's body after the Nazi leader shot himself, and Traudl Junge, who typed the Nazi leader's last will.
The use of the Musmanno interview film is another step in making it available for use by the public and researchers, White says. For many years, he says, the films were a bit of a mystery in the Duquesne archives.
Musmanno died in 1968 after a storied career in which he also represented on appeal Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian anarchists some believe were wrongfully executed in 1920.
The Musmanno family gave the jurist's collection to the university in 1980. Musmanno was not a Duquesne graduate, but there were family ties to the university, White says.
Common pleas and state Judge William Cercone (1913-2005) was his nephew and current federal judge David Cercone is his great-nephew, White says, and both came through Duquesne's law school.
Archive workers at Duquesne knew the 8 millimeter films were part of the collection, but were afraid they would break if viewed, so they didn't watch them, White says. The family had kept the copyright on the films, so the university was cautious about problems that could emerge.
In 2007, a German film company arranged with the family to use the films in a documentary on the end of Hitler. The Musmanno family donated the money it received from that production for Duquesne to use in digitizing the collection, White says.
The same thing is happening with this production, he says, which began when a Scottish firm, Finestripe Productions, became interested in doing a similar documentary.
Bob Karlovits is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media. The Associated Press also contributed to this report.