The body of Gustav Simon. / © Thomas Harding, Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Windmill Books (2014)
RTL Today contributor Thomas Tutton interviews author Thomas Harding to shed new light on the mysterious death of the Nazi Gauleiter of Luxembourg, Gustav Simon.
In case you missed it, last week we investigated the remarkable tale of Captain Hanns Alexander, a Jewish refugee from Berlin in the service of the British Army, and his hunt through occupied Germany in December 1945 for Gauleiter Gustav Simon.
Today, we conclude this fascinating story with a deeper look at Captain Alexander’s role in Simon’s alleged suicide in a German prison. Once again, a special thanks must go to Thomas Harding, whose book Hanns and Rudolf – a dual biography of Captain Alexander, his great-uncle, and the Kommandant of Auschwitz Rudolf Höss, whom Alexander captured three months after discovering Simon – is highly recommended.
Captain Alexander’s second mission
Having delivered Gustav Simon, Nazi Gauleiter of Luxembourg from 1940 to 1944, to a prison in the German town of Paderborn on the night of 10 December 1945, Captain Hanns Alexander returned to his base at the liberated concentration camp in Belsen.
This wouldn’t be his last involvement with Simon, however. As he admitted years later in an interview, Alexander "wanted to hand him over to the Luxembourgers" himself – partly because "I hadn’t been to Luxembourg and I wanted to see it." (He went on to describe it as a "lovely little town, a miniature of everything.")
His commanding officers were happy for him to take the prisoner to Luxembourg, and detailed orders arrived on December 18th. Captain Alexander and his driver, accompanied by two Luxembourgish officers, were to pick up Gustav Simon and another captive, Richard Hengst, the Oberbuergermeister of Luxembourg City from 1942-1943. They would stay overnight in Bonn, before delivering the two prisoners to the Luxembourg authorities the next morning.
Captain Alexander's mission orders, including two prescient fragments. / © Thomas Harding, Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Windmill Books (2014)
Two prescient lines from Alexander’s orders stand out. The first warns that 'as the hostility of the Luxembourg population to SIMON is very strong it will be advisable that the prisoners be not seen in the car or in the streets to avoid any trouble.'
The second is even more ominous: Alexander is given responsibility for handling 'anti-suicidal instructions' for the prisoners during the planned stop-over in Bonn.
Unfortunately, it was too little, too late.
The official version: Simon’s suicide
The official record of what happened next comes directly from Captain Alexander’s report, filed on his return to Belsen in January 1946.
On December 19th, Alexander and his driver set off from the British Army of the Rhine HQ in Bad Oeynhausen with Captain Léone Muller of the Luxembourg War Crimes Bureau. They had already picked up the first prisoner, Hengst, and:
'proceeded to Paderborn with the intention of collecting Gustav SIMON, but on arrival were informed by the PSO [Public Safety Officer] of the Mil Gov Det [Military Government Detachment] at Paderborn that SIMON had hung himself on 18 Dec 1945, whilst in the Paderborn Police Prison.'
Gauleiter Simon was dead. He had apparently made an earlier attempt to commit suicide on December 11th, but had now succeeded on his second try. The report continues:
'I was informed that SIMON hung himself between 1145 hours and 1215 hours on 18th December 1945. A piece of rope made out of the canvas covering on his bed was used and SIMON hung himself on the bed post of his double bunk bed […] the prison had taken all necessary precautions against any such attempt and his braces and boots, etc, had been removed. In addition after the first attempt the guard was doubled.'
Captain Alexander's official report on the disposal of Gustav Simon and Richard Hengst, written in Belsen in January 1946. / © Thomas Harding, Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Windmill Books (2014)
Now with a dead body in tow, Captain Alexander decided that he would proceed with his mission regardless. As he later remembered in a 2003 interview,
"Mr. Simon had decided to hang himself the night before in his cell. So I couldn’t care less, dead or alive, I picked him up, put him on the back of the luggage rack in my car, and then put a blanket round him, a bit of string, and off we went."
Captain Alexander thus headed to Luxembourg with Simon’s body and arrived at the Luxembourgish border at Echternach, where it was handed over to the Minister of Justice, Victor Bodson.
The alternative account: Simon's assassination
This official version of events was never widely believed in the Grand Duchy.
Indeed, Luxembourgers have often told a completely different story of what happened to the former Gauleiter.
No one questions the fact that Captain Alexander took Gustav Simon from Paderborn to Luxembourg, but rumour has it that Simon was in fact alive when he was transported from Germany, and that he was then murdered at a site in the Gruenewald forest between Dommeldange and Junglinster.
If he was assassinated, who did it?
There are two principal theories. Some say Simon was killed by Luxembourgish partisans, as revenge for his terrible crimes. Others believe that he was murdered by collaborators who did not want him to reveal their secrets in a public trial.
In the 2004 film Heim ins Reich, a documentary about Luxembourg’s experience under Nazi occupation, Aloyse Schiltz, a celebrated resistance fighter and national hero, alleged that someone had in fact been paid to assassinate the Gauleiter before he returned to Luxembourg.
Did Gustav Simon really commit suicide in a Paderborn prison? And if not, what was the role of Captain Hanns Alexander in his death in Luxembourg? To find out more, I interviewed author Thomas Harding, Alexander’s great-nephew.
Holes in the official story
Harding is suspicious of some aspects of the official account of Simon’s death.
As he remarked in his book, 'how could a man who was 1.6m high possibly hang himself from a bedpost that was 1.4m high?'
Furthermore, as noted by Alexander in his official report, Simon was being closely watched after a previous attempt at suicide. Harding says: "the guy was on suicide watch. There were at least two people looking out for him. To strangle yourself takes a long time - it’s not a momentary thing. So it doesn’t add up for me."
The death certificate for Gustav Simon, issued in February 1946. / © Thomas Harding, Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Windmill Books (2014)
Even more suspicious is the fact that Simon's death certificate was only issued in February 1946, two months after his death.
This, argues Harding, is "ridiculous."
"To have one two months later seems like someone said we need a death certificate. That in itself to me looks like a cover-up."
Partisans or collaborators?
If Gustav Simon did not commit suicide in a Paderborn prison, who killed him?
"I don’t think it would be collaborators," says Harding. "Hanns wouldn’t have helped them. A collaborator is not just a collaborator: we’re talking about Nazis. I think that’s highly, highly unlikely."
"Everyone places him – Hans – as part of this. If Gustav Simon was killed, it must have been by the patriots: the partisans, the anti-Nazis, the resistance."
Author Thomas Harding, pictured during our interview.
I ask Harding why partisans would have killed Simon. Would they not have preferred to hear his potentially damning testimony against Luxembourg's wartime collaborators?
"These people are so angry. It happened all the time. Nuremberg had literally just started; there’s no guarantee anyone’s going to actually face justice properly."
"Every indication," he continues, "was that the Allies are more interested in Russia and worried about Russia. All these rocket scientists and other former Nazis were finding new lives in America. There’s no guarantee that these people would face justice."
"And people are incandescent. Gustav Simon wasn’t just the leader: he was very well-known. His name was associated with Nazis in Luxembourg – the occupation, the treatment of Jews. I don’t think that’s surprising at all."
A look at the evidence
The evidence that has survived concerning the death of Gustav Simon is inconclusive, but as Harding suggests there is surprisingly little proof of the official story.
From Paderborn, the only record of Simon’s suicide comes from the official report of Captain Alexander, filed in early January, allowing for the possibility of a cover-up.
Furthermore, there is a contradiction between different accounts of where exactly Alexander handed over Simon’s body. Alexander’s report, as mentioned above, states that it was transferred to Victor Bodson, Luxembourg’s Minister of Justice, at the border in Echternach.
The certificate issued by Minister of Justice Victor Bodson. / © Thomas Harding, Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Windmill Books (2014)
On the Luxembourg side, however, we have a certificate from Bodson, confirming that Captain Alexander 'delivered into the jail of Luxembourg-City the dead body of Gustav SIMON, former Gauleiter of Luxembourg, on 19.12.1945.'
Another document that has survived is a letter of 22 December 1945 from Judge Léon Hammes, Luxembourg representative of the War Crimes Commission, addressed to the Public Safety Officer in Paderborn, who allegedly reported the suicide to Alexander.
'As SIMON can be considered as the major war criminal who opperated [sic] in Luxembourg we should be most grateful to receive from you an official statement of his death and if possible a copy of the inquest if there has been any.'
As far as we know, Hammes never received any letter in return from this PSO, whose identity I was unable to uncover.
Judge Hammes' letter to the Paderborn PSO. / © Thomas Harding, Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Windmill Books (2014)
Simon’s murder at the hands of Luxembourgish partisans is certainly plausible. But why has it remained a fringe story, a tale repeated by older generations without ever receiving official recognition?
It was commonly believed that Simon’s killers swore an oath of secrecy to protect their reputations, and that Captain Alexander made up the Paderborn suicide story to cover up the murder.
Harding’s recollections of his great-uncle bolster this account: he was "a teller of tales, a larger-than-life character," but he never spoke of his wartime experiences.
Harding continues: "I think he was embarrassed about it, and one of the things he was really cut up about was this Gustav Simon thing. They made a commitment – all these guys did – not to change the official story."
Such an oath of secrecy would also help to explain why, in interviews Alexander gave to family members 50 years after the events, he still remained faithful to the official story.
Hanns Alexander in a 2003 interview. / © Thomas Harding
He did not keep totally silent, however. Harding reveals that Alexander actually hinted to more than one family member that he was involved in Simon’s murder.
In the notes to his book Hanns and Rudolf, Harding describes one of Alexander’s nephews, Peter Sussmann, as having been left with the 'impression that Gustav Simon was not dead when he picked him up at the prison.'
Harding tells me that another "cousin said that he [Captain Alexander] admitted that he had killed, or been involved with the killing of Gustav Simon."
Is this his final verdict, then? Does Harding believe that Captain Alexander participated in and covered up the death of Gustav Simon?
He points out that "there is no definite proof," but, on balance, he thinks that it is "more likely than not that he was part of the extrajudicial murder."
A Luxembourg historian's view
To investigate the unofficial story further, I corresponded via email with historian Paul Dostert, the former head of the History section of Luxembourg’s national academy, the Grand Ducal Institute.
Dostert collaborated with Harding extensively in his research for Hanns and Rudolf, and after its publication hosted him at an event at the British Embassy in Luxembourg in July 2014.
The historian says that while he has heard a whole range of different accounts of Simon’s alleged murder, there are 'big arguments that speak in favour of a suicide.'
He points to the presence of Richard Hengst, the second prisoner, and of Captain Léone Muller, both of whom would have witnessed Simon's murder. 'All these people never spoke about an assassination,' writes Dostert.
Dostert provides a further insight into why the suspicious circumstances surrounding Simon’s death were not properly investigated at the time.
He writes: 'There was no autopsy made after Simon's death. At the time nobody was interested in an autopsy and at the same time General Patton dies [the American war hero, who died on 21/12/1945] and was then buried in Luxembourg. People were more interested in Patton than in Simon.'
Does he believe that Captain Alexander was involved in the murder of Gustav Simon?
He is not convinced: 'I still believe that there was no need to kill the Gauleiter as he had killed himself when he saw no way out after being arrested by captain Alexander.'
Epilogue: Captain Alexander in Luxembourg
Captain Hanns Alexander (centre) pictured in Luxembourg with the Minister of Justice, Victor Bodson, and another official. / © Thomas Harding, Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Windmill Books (2014)
On 20 December 1945, having either brought Gustav Simon’s body from Paderborn or allowed him to be killed en route, Captain Hanns Alexander gave a press conference in fluent German in Luxembourg.
He recounted the story of his search for Simon, and regretted that he had been unable to bring the Gauleiter back to Luxembourg alive to face justice. His words were reported on the front page of the Escher Tageblatt.
The front page of the Escher Tageblatt, 21 December 1945. / © Thomas Harding, Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Windmill Books (2014)
As he later recounted, Alexander made the most of his short time in the Grand Duchy, celebrating his successful capture of Simon for several days before returning to Belsen. "They entertained us well," he told his nephew in an interview, "we were saluted everywhere."
Alexander even had a conversation with Grand Duchess Charlotte herself. She apparently thanked him for his work, and told him "not to get involved in politics, because there are two sides to every story," referencing tensions between the Luxembourgers who had fled with her during the war and those who had stayed under Nazi rule.
A letter from Judge Hammes, calling for Alexander to be rewarded with the Order of the Oak Crown. / © Thomas Harding, Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz, Windmill Books (2014)
Alexander’s efforts did not go unrecognised by the Luxembourgish authorities. On 9 January 1946, Judge Hammes sent a letter to Minister of Justice Bodson, arguing that given Alexander’s hard work and humility, it would be 'just and appropriate to mark the services rendered to the Grand Duchy by this officer with a conferral of the national Order of the Oak Crown.'
Harding states that the Luxembourg government did in fact decide to award him the honour in 1949, but it was turned down by the British authorities, who ruled that only services rendered during the war could be recognised by foreign countries. Sadly, Alexander himself was never informed about the award.
Hanns Alexander left the British Army in 1946. He settled in London after the war, forming an integral part of the Jewish community in Belsize Park alongside his twin Paul, until his death in December 2006. His involvement in the capture of both Gustav Simon and Rudolf Höss, the Kommandant of Auschwitz, remained largely a secret until the publication of Hanns and Rudolf by Thomas Harding in 2013.
Did he also cover up the murder of Gauleiter Simon?
I'm wary of contradicting the general consensus without full access to Luxembourgish archives. But Harding's testimony is persuasive: there is little direct evidence from Paderborn of Simon's suicide, Alexander's relatives believe in his culpability, and native Luxembourgers, including our own RTL Today editor Gerry Erang, firmly believe Simon was killed.
Overall, I lean towards the unofficial version. What do you think? Make your own mind up!
Thomas Tutton is a freelance editor for RTL Today. His thanks for this article go to Thomas Harding, who provided advice, photos and and documents, and to Paul Dostert.