For more than 50 years, Nazi hunters and historians have tried in vain to discover what happened to Gestapo chieftain Heinrich Muller, who vanished in 1945 at the end of World War II.
Of all the major Nazis, Muller, who was Adolf Eichmann's immediate superior, is the most important still unaccounted for, according to numerous Holocaust experts.
Now, efforts to solve the mystery are resurfacing, including attempts to answer the most provocative question of all: Was Muller briefly in U.S. custody after the war? If so, did he escape, or was he freed to become a CIA spy?
Muller is officially registered as dead in Berlin. But his grave turned out to contain two unknown soldiers when it was opened more than 30 years ago. His children subsequently removed the headstone from the burial plot.
U.S. Army Intelligence records indicate that Muller--who was nicknamed "Gestapo Muller" to distinguish him from the hundreds of other Mullers in the Nazi hierarchy--was captured by Americans in 1945, says historian George Chalou, who worked at the National Archives for 28 years. But what happened after that "is the $64 question," he said.
According to sometimes contradictory intelligence documents and media reports, over the years Muller was "sighted" in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Cairo, Damascus, Moscow, Washington, D.C., and Portsmouth, N.H.
In about a month, the National Archives plans to release a 500-page Central Intelligence Agency file on Muller, which may shed further light on his postwar activities, according to Greg Bradsher, a historian at the archives. So far, the bulk of publicly available material on Muller comes from U.S. Army Intelligence files and material gathered by historians.
Muller "has been the subject of interest for decades, including to this day by my office," said Eli M. Rosenbaum, head of the Office of Special Investigations, the Justice Department's Nazi war criminal unit, who believes it is possible that Muller became a Soviet intelligence agent at the end of World War II and scoffs at the idea that he ever played a similar role for the United States.
The reason for Rosenbaum's interest is clear. Muller rounded up thousands of Jews from the Netherlands, Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia to be deported to Auschwitz for extermination. In addition, one recently released U.S. government document states that Muller ordered the execution of prisoners at Buchenwald, a death camp near Weimar, Germany.
"We've never given up" the hope of finding Muller, "though it is now more a historical question than a law enforcement question," Rosenbaum said. Muller, who was born in 1900, is presumed to be dead.
Last week, a German television network aired a program--based in part on documents from the U.S. National Archives in Maryland--claiming that Muller was captured by the U.S. Army, but released for unknown reasons.
The program speculated that Muller may have been employed by a U.S. intelligence agency, but offered no substantiation for that assertion.
This weekend, Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said if there is any possibility that Muller played such a role "the U.S. government should launch a formal inquiry. There is an obligation to those who suffered under the Gestapo."
However, Rosenbaum, who reviewed the same records, said "the conclusion that 'Gestapo' Muller was apprehended by American authorities and used by American intelligence is supported by no credible evidence."
Efraim Zuroff, who runs the Wiesenthal Center's office in Israel, said he thought it highly unlikely that the United States would have used Muller after the war. "It would be surprising if the Americans tried to use someone of Muller's stature. . . . He was an incredibly important player in the implementation of the 'final solution' "--Hitler's program to exterminate the Jewish people, Zuroff said.
The veteran Nazi hunter said he thought it probable that Muller, who was reportedly in Hitler's secret bunker the day before the Fuehrer killed himself on April 29, 1945, was killed at the end of the war. But he quickly added, "I have no proof." What happened to Muller remains "the big question mark in terms of the perpetrators of the Holocaust," Zuroff said from Jerusalem.
Muller was born in Munich, attended elementary school there and volunteered for the German Air Force in World War I. He became a fighter pilot and was awarded several medals. After the war, he joined the Munich police force.
In the late 1920s, he became the Munich police's expert in the battle against "leftist movements," according to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Muller became a key aide to Reinhard Heydrich, the Bavarian police chief. His reports on Communists brought him to the attention of Heinrich Himmler, who eventually became the second- highest official in Nazi Germany.
During the 1930s, Muller won a rapid series of promotions in the SS, the German secret police that served as the Nazi regime's principal tool of terror, and his power continued to grow.
He was one of 15 people who participated in the January 1942 Wannsee conference, where the "final solution" was planned. Within a few months, the first gas chamber camps were set up in Poland, according to professor Louis L. Snyder's Encyclopedia of the Third Reich.
Muller also played a key role in investigating a plot by a group of German army officers to kill Hitler in 1944 and remained loyal to Hitler until the end, according to Holocaust historians.
Whether Muller lived past April 29, 1945, has been the subject of intense speculation for years. There have been unconfirmed reports that he served as an "enforcer" for former Nazis living in South America and that he was kidnapped from Argentina in 1956 by Czech agents.
When famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal issued a list of the 10 most wanted former Nazis in 1987, Muller was on it.
In December 1999, the National Archives issued a one-paragraph news release stating that it was opening 135 pages of files on Muller, primarily covering the period from 1945 to 1963, but also including some earlier Nazi government documents.
The files contain tantalizing material, including many items that contradict one another. Despite the fact that the files were opened more than 50 years after the end of World War II, numerous portions have been redacted. In February1999, eight months before the Army records were made public by the National Archives, Army officials sent Rabbi Hier a letter saying some of his requests for information on Muller were being denied on grounds of "national security," including the possibility that more complete disclosure could compromise intelligence-gathering methods.
Among the materials the National Archives made public are the following:
* A December 1945 interview with a former Nazi stating that Muller escaped from Berlin through a secret underground passage that only he and Eichmann knew about.
* A July 1946 Army Counter-Intelligence Corps document saying "reports from the Russian zone of Berlin seem to indicate" that Muller shot and killed his wife and three children and then himself, two days before Hitler died.
* Index cards stating that Muller was in custody first in the town of Ilmenau and then in December 1945 in a "civilian internment" camp in Altenstadt in Upper Bavaria. The card does not state what happened to Muller at Altenstadt. It ends with the cryptic and provocative sentence, "case closed 29 Jan 46." It is unclear who placed the information on the card, which states that a Muller dossier was to be sent to Frankfurt.
* Another U.S. Army document dated July 11, 1946, states that British officials requested an investigation of Muller in the Wurzburg area, saying that it was believed he was dead. But the document ends with: "results negative."
* A 1951 document, saying an informant had said Muller was in Czechoslovakia where he "is supposedly directing intelligence activities for the Soviets against the U.S. zone of Germany."
* An August 1960 document saying Muller was believed to be corresponding with relatives.
* Numerous other documents from the 1950s and early 1960s indicating the belief that Muller was alive and that U.S. officials were interested in finding him. There are no new reports after 1963.
Hier said he hopes that the soon- to-be-released CIA files will shed new light on Muller. Rosenbaum, who has spent nearly two decades in the Justice Department's Nazi war crimes unit, said he has reviewed those files and they provide no definitive answer.
"If ever a Nazi just disappeared into the mist, it was Muller," Rosenbaum said. "It's one of the great unsolved mysteries of World War II. The answer may be in Soviet files," he said.
Times Washington Bureau Chief Doyle McManus contributed to this story.