The Eureka Moments along the Lonely Road to Discovery

Research can be a hard slog. But there are a few rare moments where the stars seem to align. Join William again on his journey to uncover the story of Albert Göring, for every twist and high.

William Hastings Burke in Burg Veldenstein

Research can be a long and lonely road. It took me a good five years of research, travel and hard graft to write my first book, Thirty Four. And yes, there were many times when I stopped to ask myself the eternal question: what am I doing?

But there are a few rare victories along the way, where a bit of nous, perseverance and luck mix to give you one big breakthrough. These mere seconds of discovery can make the years of digging all worth it.

The research gods were on my side on a few occasions while tracking down the story of Albert Göring. At one stage, the serendipity was so immense that I nearly convinced myself that Albert had somehow intervened.

So, dust off your backpack, it’s time to hit the research road again, for every twist and high.

Warning: this is purely an Instagram road trip where only the good parts will be shown.

Where it all began

It doesn’t seem big or special. As a matter of fact, looking back two decades later, it was a little bit crazy that a documentary sparked it all for me. I mean, we watch documentaries all the time. The Netflix algorithm makes it our business to do so. But it’s not often that we learn another language and set off across the world, chasing the ghost of a dead, white German guy. 

But that’s exactly what happened to me in 2001 when I first watched the documentary, The Real Albert Goering

I was in my first year of university. It was late – maybe two in the morning. I had just finished cramming for my exams and I booted up the History Channel. Enter Swastikas and Hermann Göring in some scary pose. Interesting, my history buff mind said. And then appeared that classic photo of Albert Göring, with a bakelite cigarette holder in hand and a thin Clark Gable moustache. He seemed to stare down the tube at me.

The narrator continued to try to give me some fib that Albert was an anti-Nazi and that he had risked his life to save the persecuted. They even called in witnesses to attest to the fact.

“So, let’s get this straight,” I interrogated the TV. “You’re trying to tell me that the heir to the Nazi throne and the man who signed in the Final Solution had an Oskar Schindler for a brother?”

No, no, you’re dreaming, as we say in Australia.

This led to a quick Google search. Not much apart from a couple of sparse web pages. My next stop was my local library followed by the university library. Nichts, nada. There was not one book on Albert Göring.

I was hooked. I needed to find out more, if only to find out whether this apparition was in fact real, as the title of the documentary suggested.

A few years later, I was on a plane to Washington DC.

Timing was on my side. I was young, full of energy and fuelled by the romantic notion that I could do some good. In other words, I was delusional.

Nevertheless, it was a knock-out moment that I used to sustain me for all those low times on the road.

The Anschluss lands in Sydney

The List of Thirty-Four Page 1
Albert’s list of thirty-four witnesses that he drafted up after the war in US custody.

Like most students, I worked a few part-time jobs during university. One was at Blockbuster. 

Refresher: Blockbuster was like Netflix only that you had to get off the couch, visit a physical store, browse film titles with your legs and pay a one-off charge (+ late fees) to hire a physical reproduction of a film (i.e., a VHS or DVD), which you would put in your … Forget it. RIP Blockbuster.

By then, I had begun to look for survivors and other potential witnesses related to the story. One interesting case was Dr Kurt von Schuschnigg. He was listed as a witness on Albert’s list (more on that later), with Albert claiming that he had freed the former Austrian Chancellor from Gestapo custody in Vienna. 

I tried searching for the Schuschnigg family. I scanned the internet and the world’s phone books for a family member without much luck … until one walked into my video shop.

It was a busy Friday, with a queue reaching all the way back to the Arthouse section. The idiotic blurp of the Blockbuster promo video competed with the never-ending beep of my scanning gun. A middle-aged man, tall with sandy brown hair, stepped in and presented his membership card. Beep and up flashed the last name of Tschuschnigg. Hello!

The spelling was slightly different, but I had to ask:

“Excuse me, I don’t suppose you’re related to Dr Kurt von Schuschnigg?”

“Yeah, he was my uncle,” Mr Tschuschnigg casually said.

My mind nearly exploded. Here we were on the other side of the world, deep in Sydney’s suburbia, and I was staring at a potential relation to No. 27 on Albert’s list. I had been looking in the wrong place. I had only needed to look in my local suburb.

It turned out that  Mr Tscuschnigg’s father was only a cousin. I ended up getting in contact with the direct family later, including Schuschnigg’s son, Krut Jnr, in New York. 

But still. I mean, wowsers!

Breaking into Fort Knox

The main reading room at the US National Archives in College Park, MD

The US National Archives in College Park, MD, is a daunting place. It didn’t help that I arrived there only a few years after September 11. I had to fill out reams of forms just to get my foot in the door. These forms usually ended with the question: Are you a terrorist?

I called it Fort Knox.

Then came the Babushka game of file retrieval. First, you need to scour through a whole series of research aids to find the section most appropriate to your research. Next, you have to fill out and submit a pull slip – otherwise known as Reference Service Slip. After an hour, your files will be ready for collection. Only that it would be an index (a name index in my case) that directs you to another index or if you’re lucky, a file. This process is repeated like a series of Russian nesting dolls until your desired documents land on your desk. 

Things have no doubt changed now and the good archivists of the National Archives were a godsend for me. But at the end of the day, it took me until the end of the day to collect two manila folders entitled Albert Göring. 

In the light-filled reading room, the Nuremberg Trials came alive for me. I leafed through US Army correspondence and intelligence reports on the subject: “BROTHER OF REICHSFELDMARSCHAL (sic) GOERING”. 

Albert gave himself up to the US Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) in Salzburg on the 9th of May 1945 and spent the next year in US custody as a suspect and witness in the lead-up to the Nuremberg trials. More here.

There was an urgent request from MI5 for information on Albert’s whereabouts – Albert had escaped to Portugal, according to their intel. I read a letter written by Albert to the prison warden, pleading for medical treatment. In the interrogation transcripts, I watched Albert go blow-for-blow with the US prosecution – and lose miserably.

But my true Indiana Jones moment came when I had my hands on Albert’s list. Not a copy. This was the actual list of thirty-four witnesses that Albert had drafted up in his jail cell while awaiting interrogation in Nuremberg. It’s an extremely detailed document, including the contact information of those whom he helped. Albert no doubt hoped that his interrogators would use the list to verify his claims. And yet there was no evidence that a single person was tracked down.

I had known about the list. It was one of the main reasons why I was in DC. But that find crystalised everything for me. It turned my itch into a full-blown research project with the list as a map to guide me. My job from then on was to do the job that Albert’s interrogators failed to do. That is, track down the people on the list.

It was big, to say the least. So big that it became the title of my book.

The Mensch in the Deep South

Greenville, South Carolina

After my big find in Washington DC, I travelled down to Greenville, South Carolina. I had made the journey to interview Jacques Benbassat, who was an old family friend of Albert’s and No. 4 on Albert’s list.

He was in poor health at the time, fighting lung cancer. What’s more, he had to look after his dear wife, who had Alzheimer’s.

And yet he was one of the most energetic witnesses that I interviewed. He let me into his home and shared stories and family pics with me. He gave me a front-row seat to Albert Göring. He was one of the few living survivors to not only know Albert but call him a close friend. He grew up with Albert around in his family home, from a boy in Vienna to a US army recruit stationed in postwar Germany.

He was such a generous man, before, during and after our interview. We swapped emails back and forth over the years. Most emails would be prefaced with an apology. “Please accept my apologies for the later reply. They wouldn’t let me out of the hospital.” 

Jacques passed away in 2010. I am forever grateful for his time, help and simply, having the honour of knowing him.

He often referred to Albert as a Mensch. But I always thought that the title fitted him just as well.

Gestapo stash in Prague

Prague | Source: William Zhang/Unsplash

The bureaucratic side of book research can be testing, as already established here. Throw in a foreign language and things become interesting. The language/cultural barrier can either lead to a brick wall or fling the gates wide open. The ‘foreigner card’ has certainly saved me over the years.

That was the case for me on my visit to the Czech National Archives in Prague. All I had to do was utter “excuse me, do you speak English”, receive a hesitant nod and write down the name Albert Göring. Thirty minutes later, two burly men (I don’t know why there were two) pushed out a trolley into the reading room and deposited a couple of folders onto my table. 

At first, I was a little worried about the ease. Was I at the backend of a long queue of foreigners looking for files on Albert Göring? But as soon as I opened up the first folder and saw the words Geheime StaatspolizeiI realised that my reservations were misplaced. I hadn’t expected to see the whole Gestapo case file on Albert there. I hadn’t seen a reference to any Gestapo files in any book, film or website, let alone an account of the documents.

What’s more, the second folder contained the interrogation transcripts and sworn witness testimonies that were submitted during Albert’s 1946 trial in Prague.

Had the files just been declassified or moved from another facility? Whatever the case, I must have been one of the first non-Czechs to set eyes on the files. 

I had no familiarity with any Slavic language back then – it was much later before I learnt Polish. So, I had no hope at all to work out the true value of the Czech documents. I had to wait until they were translated.  But the German documents had me at the edge of my seat from the word go. 

I remember reading a 1944 telegram from Karl Hermann Frankin which he calls Albert “a defeatist of the worst kind” before requesting his immediate arrest. That one chilling missive alone made my day, if not year.

The Miracle of Mauterndorf 

Burg Mauterndorf
Source: Arne Müseler / / CC-BY-SA-3.0

The church bells had just rung in the sleepy town of Mauterndorf when my final discovery fell down from the heavens. It was a Sunday evening in the middle of winter in Austria’s Tauern mountains. My friend Dustin and I had driven from my base in Freiburg, Germany, to visit Burg Mauterndorf, a fairytale castle that the Görings once called home.

The only problem was that everything was closed. All our efforts had produced was a peak through the gates.

I was later given the full tour while filming the documentary Goering’s Last Secret.

Before heading back with our tails between our legs, we stopped for a meal at the only cafe open.

The church bells rung and in came a procession of local church-goers, finely dressed in local garb. I nearly choked on my schnitzel when I recognised a face in the crowd. It was Herr Hohensinn, a man I had briefly seen on the documentary all those years before. His father was No. 10 on Albert’s list.

I introduced myself and an hour later, we were sitting in the Hohensinns’ loungeroom across the road, eating gingerbread cake. He took us back to the night he saw the Gestapo take away his father and the day his father returned from Dachau concentration camp. His eyes lit up when he said it was no surprise that Albert and his sister Olga had won his father’s release.   

Mulling over the encounter in the car, spooky thoughts came to me. The chance meeting had divine intervention written all over it. A little bit how Albert had played guardian angel to all the people he saved. 

At one stage, my crazy thoughts slipped out. 

“Do you think Albert could have …” I stalled.

“Could have what?” Dustin asked. 

“Nah, it’s nothing,” I said.

But maybe it was something.

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