The Office of Military Government for Greater Hesse and “Operation Bodysnatch”

Today’s post is written by Dr. Greg Bradsher.

On September 7, 1946, the OMG (Office of Military Government) for Greater Hesse informed OMGUS (Office of Military Government, U.S.) that the Marburg Central Collecting Point closed its career on August 19, when the military guard was relieved following transfer to the church of its last charge, the bodies of the four German notables. OMGUS was further informed that “The final activities of the Marburg Collecting Point were principally concentrated on bringing Operation Bodysnatch…to a successful conclusion.”

Page 2 of memorandum from Capt. Robert Wallach, Assistant Executive Office to OMGUS

Operation Bodysnatch began in the latter part of January 1945 as the Russians moved closer to the German Tannenberg Memorial near Hohenstein, the German commander of Army Group Center, ordered the memorial to be blown up after the removal of the sarcophagi containing the remains of former Field Marshal and Weimar President Paul von Hindenburg and of his wife.  The Hindenburg bodies were then moved to Berlin.  Subsequently their bodies, along with the caskets of Frederick Wilhelm I and Frederick the Great (both of whom had been buried in the church of the Potsdam garrison) were moved to the Heeres-Munitionsanstalt at Bernterode, a salt mine in the northern reaches of the Thuringian Forest.

In 1950 a Life magazine writer speculated that “the corpses were to be concealed until some future movement when their reappearance could be timed by resurgent Nazis to fire another German generation to rise and conquer again.” Whether this is true or not, the caskets were not concealed for long.  By the end of April the caskets would be in American hands and taken on May 8 to Marburg to be stored until such time as a political decisions as to what to do with them was made. The four caskets were deposited in a room in the Schloss [Castle] Marburg. The Military Government officials in Marburg now awaited instructions.

The instructions came in the form of a request by the Department of State in mid-November 1945 that the bodies not be turned over to the German authorities and for Military Government authorities to arrange for the safe-keeping of the caskets for some time to come.  When American and British authorities vacated the castle in February 1946, the caskets were brought to the Marburg Central Collecting Point (MCCP) at the Staatsarchiv building, whose archival holdings had been moved elsewhere during the war, so that they could remain under twenty-four hours U.S. military guard.

During the latter part of March, anticipating the time in the near future when the Staatsarchiv building would be returned to the custody of the German officials and the MCCP shut down, OMG for Greater Hesse requested OMGUS to make a decision on the disposition of the four caskets stored in the Staatsarchiv building.  During the spring and summer of 1946 State Department officials, the U.S. Political Adviser for Germany, the U.S. Military Governor for Germany, and the War Department wrangled with the problem of what to do with the caskets before the Americans vacated the Staatsarchiv building.

Meanwhile, Oskar von Hindenburg, the son of the former German President, tried to have the remains of his parents moved to Hanover in the British Zone of Occupation and OMG Greater Hesse consulted with Wilhelm, the former Crown Prince of Prussia, head of the house of Hohenzollern, about the possibility of moving the remains of his ancestors to Burg Hohenzollern, the mountain peak castle considered the ancestral seat of the Hohenzollern family. But the castle was in the French Zone and the French authorities wanted no Hohenzollerns buried in their zone.  Then the British informed the Americans that under no conditions would they permit the Hindenburgs to be buried in their zone.

It was about this time, in May 1946, that Capt. Everett P. Lesley, Jr., Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFA&A) Specialist Officer, OMG for Greater Hesse, dubbed the project of what to do with the caskets “Operation Bodysnatch.”  Thereafter the codename for the issues involving the caskets “Operation Bodysnatch,” (sometimes “Operation B.”) was often used in official communications.

After the French and British rebuffs OMG Greater Hesse began for a suitable burying place in the U.S. Zone. The military government officials settled on Elizabethkirche, in Marburg, not far from where the caskets were being kept.  They decided the two kings would be buried below the floor in the north transept near a medieval shrine marking the supposed resting pace of St. Elizabeth, a Hohenzollern ancestor. The Hindenburgs would be buried at the base of the north church tower.

After obtaining approvals of the Hohenzollerns and Hindenburgs as well those of German Land Government authorities, OMG Greater Hesse consulted the U.S. Political Adviser for Germany, who informed them in mid-June that OMGUS approved the proposal to inter all four caskets in the Elizabethkirche in private family ceremonies.

During the summer OMG Greater Hesse made architectural arrangements at the church for the burials and logistical arrangements for transferring the contents of the MCCP to the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point.  The latter activity was completed on August 8 and the Americans and a small number of German officials then focused on Operation Bodysnatch.  They were pushed by General Lucius Clay, the U.S. Military Governor, who was getting impatient over the delays in bringing the matter to a close.

Once special gravestones were delivered to Marburg, on the morning of August 16 they were moved to Elizabethkirche. Later that day the four caskets were moved to the church and within a few days the Staatsarchiv building was delivered to the German authorities and attention focused on the burial. The actual burial of the four was accomplished on August 19 before the formal funerals.  The coffins were lowered into open graves and the graves were sealed with a sheet of steel and a layer of cement. After the gravestones were pushed over the opening, a stone cutter then worked with hammer and chisel cutting inscriptions, simply the names and dates of the personages buried, on the unmarked burial slabs.  Then small private funeral ceremonies were held on August 21 for members of the Hohenzollern family and several days later for the Hindenburg family.

The OMG Greater Hesse Deputy Director in Charge of Operations, Lt. Col. Francis E. Sheehan, with Operation Bodysnatch completed, wrote a report for General Clay. He stated that both families expressed to the Military Government their deepest gratitude for its magnanimity and delicacy of feeling, for the choice of Elizabethkirche as the site of the interment, and their satisfaction with the manner in which all arrangements were carried out.  In concluding his report Sheehan observed that the opinion of OMG Greater Hesse was:

…that the conduct of the entire operation is a great credit to the Office of Military Government as a whole, as well as to German civilian authorities in Marburg, who were charged with an exceedingly delicate and potentially compromising task. Any delays encountered could not well have been overridden without giving the impression that Military Government was too anxious to dispose of an awkward situation, an impression which in turn might have been used to advantage by seditious elements. It is believed that any questions arising in the future concerning the propriety of the undertaking can be more than sufficiently answered by referring to the expressed appreciation of the two families, the ecclesiastical authorities and the German people as represented in the city of Marburg.

Of course, a story like this needs a postscript. And indeed there is one.  In early September 1952 the caskets of Frederick the Great and his father, Frederick Wilhelm I, were taken from the Elizabethkirche to the ancient Hohenzollern Castle near Hechingen, where it was intended they remain, according to the words of one of the family members, “until Germany is united again and they can return to Potsdam.”  On September 14 the bodies were laid to rest in the castle’s chapel in the presence of about 200 members of Germany’s royalty.  But the story does not end here.  With Germany reunited, on August 16, 1991 a train left from near the Hohenzollern family castle with the coffins and made its way to Potsdam around noon August 17. The coffins, were unloaded and Frederick William I received a simple reinterment in a church.  Frederick the Great’s coffin lay in a courtyard of his palace, Sans Souci, where he had asked in his will to be buried next to his favorite dog.  During the day some 60,000 Germans, including Chancellor Helmut Kohl, walked by to pay their respects.  At midnight the coffin, draped in Prussia’s black and white colors, was brought to the gravesite and lowered into the grave that Frederick had picked out over two hundred years before.  The Hindenburgs are still at Marburg.

The document is page 2 from the Memorandum, Capt. Robert Wallach, Assistant Executive Office, Office of Military Government for Greater Hesse to OMGUS, Attn: MFA&A Section, Restitution Branch, Economics Division, Subject: MFA&A Status of Collecting Points and Archival Depot Report, September 7, 1946, File: Monthly Report: Office of Military Government for Hesse, August 1946, Activity Reports, 1945-1951, Records of the Wiesbaden Central Collecting Point, Office of Military Government (OMGUS), Records of U.S. Occupation Headquarters, World War II, Record Group 260 (Roll 52 of National Archives Microfilm Publication M-1947).