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Of Flowers and Murder

Feb 1, 1999 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:36 AM


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While digging the foundation for a building in the German town of Magdeburg in 1994, workers were startled to discover a mass grave. Hitler was rumored to have been buried in the area, yet an examination of the grave turned up the remains of neither Hitler nor Eva Braun, as some had suspected it might, but the skeletons of 32 young men. All had died violently sometime between 1945 and 1960. Now a new forensic method has apparently settled the issue. The killers were most likely Soviet secret police.

Researchers had theorized that the grave in Magdeburg was created by one of two notorious organizations. The Gestapo, while capable of many horrors, would not normally have created a mass grave in the center of a city. But they may have done so in the spring of 1945, during the last few chaotic weeks of the Second World War. After the German defeat, the Gestapo was succeeded by SMERSH, a Soviet counterintelligence agency. (The name derives from a Russian phrase meaning "death to spies.")

SMERSH had its East German headquarters in Magdeburg and reportedly executed Soviet soldiers who refused to help quash a revolt in the former German Democratic Republic in June 1953. Forensic scientists have often used pollen found on victims to determine where a murder took place, but Reinhard Szibor, a biologist and forensic specialist at Otto von Guericke University in Magdeburg, realized that pollen could also be used to determine when death occurred, a crucial point in the case of the Magdeburg mass grave.

Pollen, as allergy sufferers know, is released by different plants at different times of the year, depending on when they flower. "So everyone who dies at a particular time will have that pollen in his nose," Szibor explains. (Only the nasal cavities contained much pollen, suggesting that it was inhaled and didn't come from the soil.) One of his graduate students tested the theory by examining the pollen he blew into his handkerchief over the period of a year. The pollen from his nose matched the seasonal pollen exactly.

Szibor rinsed out the nasal cavities of 21 skulls from the Magdeburg grave. Seven contained large amounts of pollen from plantains, and smaller amounts from lime trees and rye, all of which release their pollen in June and July.

The victims apparently died in the summertime, supporting the theory that they were Soviet soldiers killed in June by SMERSH. Researchers are now looking for corroborative evidence in archives in Moscow.

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