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Tales From The 'Myth File.'

It is one of the last mysteries of World War II: exactly how did Adolf Hitler die, and what happened to his body? On May 1, 1945, Hitler's death was announced by his successor, Grand Adm. Karl Donitz, who claimed the fuhrer had fallen while fighting "at the head of his troops." Only the Soviets, who recovered the corpse, knew what had happened to Hitler, and during the cold war they guarded the information like a military secret. Contradictory stories eventually emerged, none of which told the full truth. One version said Hitler had shot himself in the mouth, while his new wife (and longtime mistress), Eva Braun, took poison in their bunker beneath Berlin. Another said the fuhrer also killed himself with poison. A third said he swallowed poison and, in the same instant, shot himself through the temple. Some people thought Hitler still lived. Like a prototypical Elvis, he was "sighted" everywhere: in Switzerland, in Argentina, in France, where he supposedly worked as a croupier at a gambling casino. Now the archives of the former Soviet Union have given up their secrets. The story is told in a new book, "The Death of Hitler," by Russian journalist Ada Petrova and British writer Peter Watson. Below, exclusive excerpts:

The complete story finally began to come out in the summer of 1992, when Moscow television journalist Ada Petrova became interested in making a program on the death of Stalin. She approached Sergei Mironenko, a director of the State Archives of the Russian Federation in Moscow, to see what light his documents might throw on the subject. As they talked, Petrova heard a radio playing music from Verdi's "Nabucco." She remarked: "Did you know that 'Nabucco' was one of Hitler's favorite operas?" Mumbling that he didn't know much about Hitler's tastes in opera, Mironenko then added something that was to take Ada's mind off Stalin completely. "What I do know," he said, "is that I've got Hitler's skull right here in this archive."

It was stored in a box made of very thin cardboard, secured with a wax seal. The skull was in four fragments: two larger pieces, one with an exit wound formed by a bullet, and two smaller pieces. Ada was subsequently shown the entire Hitler archive, six buff colored files of documents, plus charts and photographs mounted on blue board. Known as the "Operation Myth" file, its official number was 1-G-23. Its subtitle was "Hitler and His Entourage."

The bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun had been burned incompletely and then buried by the Germans. The Russians dug up and reburied the remains several times, finally destroying all but this skull. The authors commissioned a study by one of Russia's leading forensic experts, Prof. Viktor Zyagin. He handled the skull, measured it, photographed it, probed the edges and the bullet hole itself. Lacking DNA tests, there could be no absolutely positive identification, but we are convinced that the skull in Moscow is Hitler's. For one thing, Professor Zyagin said the yellow color of the skull was typical of a vegetarian. Hitler, of course, had his own vegetarian cook in the bunker. The examination suggests how Hitler killed himself: he placed an ampule of cyanide in his mouth and pointed his pistol at the underside of his chin. Then he bit through the glass capsule only moments before he squeezed the trigger.

The Myth documents show that some 800 people were interrogated about Hitler's last days in the bunker and that roughly 70 members of his entourage were taken to Russia in 1945, including the fuhrer's dog handler, secretaries, chauffeur, signals and telegraph officers -- anyone who could have been an eye-witness. The testimony of Hitler's head bodyguard, Johann Rattenhuber -- as revealed in the Myth File -- was extensive and contains four particularly important pieces of new information relating to Hitler's suicide.

At about 9 a.m. on April 30, Eva Braun left the bunker and stood for some minutes in the garden of the Reich Chancellery. As she returned, she said, "I wanted to look at the sun for the last time." This seems to confirm that she planned suicide.

When Rattenhuber was slumped in the chair in the corridor outside Hitler's suite, he could smell bitter almonds, the odor of cyanide, coming out of the death room.

During the last days, Hitler used to rail at Hermann Goring, the air force chief who had just been fired as the fuhrer's deputy. "The fat pig!" Rattenhuber says Hitler screamed. "The fat pig! He doesn't have enough courage to die with us!"

Rattenhuber also said that Hitler witnessed the death of his dog Blondi--poisoned to demonstrate cyanide's supposedly quick effect-but that the dog did not die immediately. Instead he "yelped out loudly and died after some convulsions, quivering. Hitler was definitely shocked."

The Myth File also contains the interrogation of Hitler's valet, Heinz Linge, and an account he and Otto Gunsche, Hitler's adjutant, were forced to write. Linge claimed to have inspected the corpses of Hitler and Eva while they were burning in the Reich Chan-cellery garden. Hitler's body had a bullet wound in the skull the size of a kopek (smaller than a dime). Gunsche's testimony-as made available to us for this book--also contained new material. He did not think Hitler finally made up his mind to commit suicide until April 29. He says Hitler started worrying on that day because Russian troops had reached the Anhalt railway station and Konigsplatz and because the onslaught was beginning to affect civilian morale. It may have been this final twist of events that resolved Hitler not only to kill himself but also to many Eva Braun, which he did early that morning.

The half-burned bodies of Hitler and Eva Braun were buried in a shell crater outside the Reich Chancellery. The victorious Russians found them almost immediately, but ignored them because they thought they had already found Hitler's corpse. That body belonged to Hitler's official double, a look-alike named Gustav Weller, who was employed in some fairly menial capacity and was infrequently wheeled out to stand in for Hitler. The Russians quickly discovered their m/stake, dug up the bodies in the shell crater again, conducted an autopsy and correctly identified the remains by means of their teethwork. Then Hitler and Braun were repeatedly reburied, along with the bodies of propaganda chief Joseph Goeb-bels, his wife and their six children--who had been killed by their fanatical parents-plus German Gen. Hans Krebs and two dogs. The bodies were reburied first in Buch, then in Finow, then outside Rathenow and finally in the city of Magdeburg.

They lay in Magdeburg for a quarter of a century. Then in 1970, it was decided that the army base in Magdeburg would be handed over to the East Germans. That posed at least a potential problem--that Hitler's grave would become a shrine for neo-fas-cists. The Soviet regimental commander in Magdeburg, the only man aware of what was buried there, wrote to Yuri Andropov, then head of the KGB, for instructions. Andropov, who became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1982, ordered him to dig up the corpses, burn them and dispose of the ashes.

The task was completed on April 5, 1970. The report on the opening of the grave said the contents had "turned into a 'jellied mass,' the remains all mixed with earth." The bones of Hitler and Braun were intermingled with those of Krebs, the Goebbels family and the two dogs. The report continued: "The destruction was carried out by burning in the fire on the waste ground near Schonebeck, 11 kilometers from Magdeburg. The remains burned away, were ground with the embers into ashes and thrown into one of the Elbe tributaries."

After studying Hitler's skull and the Myth File, Ada Petrova worked her way through 10 other archives--finding Hitler's uniforms, his photograph album and a notebook containing 37 small paintings and drawings, mostly watercolors, which show the young Hitler to have been more talented than many seem willing to concede.

She also found incontrovertible proof that two blood relatives of Hitler had been imprisoned in Russia, where they died. The first is Maria Koppensteiner, his cousin. No mention of her appears in the biographies of Hitler that we consulted, but the Russian archives say her mother was the sister ofHitler's mother. Mafia was arrested by Smersh counterintelligence agents at the end of May 1945. She was taken to Lefortovo prison in Moscow and interrogated many times. The files say she confessed only "after hundreds of such interrogations when she was psychologically broken and finally understood what the interrogators wanted to get from her." What they wanted, apparently, was a denunciation of her cousin as a war criminal.

After her trial--no details of this are given -- she was sentenced to 25 years in prison. She was eventually transferred to one of the worst of the Soviet prison camps, the Upper Urals prison near Chelyabinsk. According to one document, she died there "suddenly" in 1953. There are, however, strong grounds for believing that she was killed, possibly by lethal injection. What her crimes were--other than being a relative of Hitler's-is never explained in the documents.

The second Hitler relative is Leo Raubal, the son of Hitler's half-sister and therefore a brother to Angela Raubal--Geli--with whom Hitler was so desperately in love that he drove her to suicide in 1981. Leo Raubal, a lieutenant in the air force, was taken prisoner near Stalingrad in early 1943. He was tried in 1949. The sentence said that Raubal, "being a relative of the main war criminal, Hitler, supported his aggressive policy" and committed war crimes. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison but was released in 1955. Exactly what became of him is impossible to say. From "The Death of Hitler" by Ada Petrova and Peter Watson. First U.S. edition to be published by W.W. Norton & Co. c 1995 by Ada Petrova and Peter Watson.