Sunday 20 January 2002
Getting to know the Hitlers
FOR more than 50 years, the relatives of Adolf Hitler have hidden under false names in Long Island, New York. They have not spoken publicly since the Second World War. In a revelatory new book to be launched this week, they break their silence. David Gardner tells their story.
THE faint lilt of German folk music floated through the open window of the dark-wood alpine bungalow as I walked down the short path to the front door. The property straddled two small roads on a forested private estate nestling into one of the bays tucked behind slivers of land protecting the New York coastline from the full impact of the Atlantic Ocean.
Neither close enough to New York city to be overrun by urban sprawl nor fashionable enough to compete with the wealthy weekend getaways in the Hamptons, it was a community left largely untouched by the passing of the years.
This was the place where Liverpool-born William Patrick Hitler had chosen to escape from the world.
For more than five decades, scores of historians and academics had been searching in vain for any clues that would solve one of the untold mysteries of the Second World War: whatever happened to the English Hitler? William Patrick was the son of Adolf Hitler's half-brother, Alois, but there was little family affection: "Uncle Adolf" referred to William Patrick as "my loathsome nephew".
After a difficult childhood in England, a spell in Germany before the war, and a tour of duty as a US seaman fighting with the Allies during the war, the burden of his name simply became too much. William Patrick Hitler adopted a double-barrelled surname and dropped out of sight in 1946, creating a new life for himself a world away from the horror of the Holocaust.
Now I was about to ask his widow the question she had been dreading for 50 years: "Is your real name Mrs Hitler?"
I knew William Patrick would not be answering the door. I had just been to visit his grave, a 20-minute drive away, at the closest Roman Catholic cemetery, where I was given the name and address of his widow, Phyllis. The music stopped and a tall, elegantly-dressed woman peered from behind he screen and spoke with a distinct German accent.
Even from behind the grey mesh I could tell the reason for my visit was already dawning on her. She must have envisaged this very conversation countless times over the years. "Perhaps we will talk about it when the boys are older," she said. "We were married a long time and my husband never wanted anyone to know who he as. Now my sons don't want anything to do with it. It was all too long ago. There has been enough trouble with this name."
Despite my polite attempts to persuade her to tell me more, she was adamant she did not want to talk about her extraordinary family secret. It was only when I drove slowly away from the house that I realised the implications of what Phyllis had told me; that the Hitler line did not die out with William Patrick Hitler when he died in 1987, aged 76. It lived on through her sons.
From that first, short conversation with William Patrick's widow through subsequent dealings with her family over a period of three years for my book, The Last of the Hitlers, and a Channel 5 documentary, set to be screened on February 4, I have kept a pledge not to reveal the name adopted by the Hitler family in New York, nor the town where they live.
I was to discover that the Hitler bloodline was carried on through William Patrick's four sons - one of whom died in a road accident in 1989 - and that the brothers had decided in a remarkable pact not to have children themselves in order that Adolf Hitler's genes would die with them. The eldest of these sons holds an even more remarkable secret; he was named after his despotic uncle. So an Adolf Hitler lives on to this day in a forgotten corner of America. Alexander Adolf Hitler understands the enduring fascination with his great-uncle but, like his mother, he doesn't want his life overturned, and possibly endangered, by revealing his true identity.
He told me: "I know that in England there is still a lot of interest in Hitler and it is on the television and in books and newspapers more often than it is here. Just make sure you say good things about my father because he was a good guy. He came to the United States, he served in the US Navy, he had four kids and he had a pretty good life."
Just in case I was in any doubt, Alex wanted to spell it out: "My father was definitely anti-Nazi and anti-Hitler." So why did he name his eldest son Adolf? "I don't know. I wasn't there when that was decided." The naming of Alexander Adolf is one of the many contradictions in the fascinating saga of a family's attempt to escape from its surname. As a journalist working in New York, I spent nearly four years trying to unravel the secret of William Patrick's disappearance. I was fascinated and intrigued by what I unearthed - with the help of FBI files, intelligence reports and, eventually, through interviews with his family and friends - about his remarkable life.
The story begins with William Patrick's father, Alois - Adolf Hitler's older half-brother. He was touring Britain studying, he said, the hotel industry and met a farm girl called Brigid Dowling in Dublin in 1909. The couple eloped to London before moving up to Liverpool where Brigid gave birth to their only son, William Patrick, in a flat at 102 Upper Stanhope Street, Toxteth, in 1911.
Alois ran in turn a small restaurant in Dale Street, a boarding house on Parliament Street and a hotel on Mount Pleasant, which went bust. Bankrupt, Alois left his wife and young child to fend for themselves and returned to Germany.
When William Patrick grew up he moved to London but by this time his uncle had risen to power in Germany. For the first, but not last, time the curse of his surname struck and he was laid off from the job he had found. He decided, therefore, to travel to Germany and make full use of the Hitler family connections. His father and uncle helped him find work but the young William Patrick thought that he deserved something better than the book-keeping jobs he was given. He eventually fell foul of his uncle when he suggested that if he wasn't found something more befitting a member of the Fuhrer's family, he would go public with rumours that the Nazi leader's grandfather was an Austrian Jew.
This prompted an ultimatum by Hitler: William Patrick was ordered to renounce his British citizenship and take a senior position in the Third Reich. The young man instead chose to flee from Germany. It was now 1939 and he received a cold welcome in London, so he left England with his mother for a lecture tour of America on the subject of "My Uncle Adolf".
He arrived in New York at the end of March 1939 and "divested himself of a lot of uncomplimentary remarks about uncle Adolf", according to a report in the New York Daily News. His lectures attracted considerable attention at first but once America was forced into the war at the end of 1941 interest began to wane.
In 1942 William Patrick wrote to President Roosevelt asking to be allowed to join the US army. "I have attempted to join the British forces," he wrote. "The British are an insular people and while they are kind and courteous, it is my impression, rightly or wrongly, that they could not in the long run feel overly cordial or sympathetic towards an individual bearing the name I do."
He continued by saying that he and his mother owed a "great debt" to the United States and pleaded: "More than anything else I would like to see active combat as soon as possible and thereby be accepted by my friends and comrades as one of them in this great struggle for liberty." As a result of the letter William Patrick was investigated by the FBI, who found no evidence of any subversive activities, and he was given hope that he may be allowed to join up. But it wasn't until 1944 that he was finally enlisted into the US navy.
There was one moment of comic coincidence when William Patrick arrived at the draft office and was asked his name by the recruiting officer. "Hitler," he replied.
"Glad to see you Hitler," said the officer, "my name's Hess." The event was recorded by several newspapers - it was the last time that William Patrick Hitler was seen or heard of in public. Once in uniform he disappeared from public sight for ever.
My inquiries to discover what had happened to him eventually led me to a small cemetery tucked beside a freeway in Long Island, where I found that Brigid and William Patrick shared the same grave. He died in 1987, 18 years after his mother, in the anonymity he craved for much of his life. His family even considered leaving the grave unmarked, but decided instead to bury him under the false name that had brought him peace.
I discovered that William Patrick had first met his wife Phyllis in Germany in the 1930s through her brother. With war looming, the brother had asked William Patrick to look after Phyllis in New York and dispatched the girl - who was 12 years younger than Hitler - into his safekeeping. Romance blossomed and the couple married after the war in 1947. Their three surviving sons - Alex, 52, Louis, 50, and Brian, 36 - fiercely guard their privacy and their family secret. Alex is a social worker and his brothers run a gardening business.
Their father, they told me, was wounded in action during the war and later set up a blood analysis laboratory in the home he moved to in the countryside to escape from prying eyes.
None of the three sons has married, and there are no children. Alex initially denied that there had been a pact between the brothers to ensure that the Hitler line was not continued. Then he told me: "Maybe my other two brothers did [make a pact], but I never did." It was just one more contradiction to add to the many that already cloud his family history.
David Gardner's book The Last of the Hitlers (BMM, £16.99) is on sale this week. A Channel 5 programme based on the book, Hitler's Living Relatives, will be shown on February 4  at 8pm.
Related files on this website