Admittedly, I need very little encouragement to go on a tangent about Quentin Tarantino movies, and will do it ad nauseam, even when there’s no one else around. Typically, it’ll be about your standard Tarantino-isms: cinematography, pop culture references, general nerding out over the practical effects used during the over-the-top scenes of gratuitous violence… that sort of thing. That being said, when these “alternate history” movies like Inglourious Basterds are made, they can raise the question, “Did any of this actually happen?”
Well, the short answer is, not really… but kind of.
While our history books won’t corroborate Hitler’s (arguably much more satisfying) demise in that final theater scene, enough of the movie was inspired by real people and events that I will gladly ramble on about a few of the most interesting instances (and yes, Eli Roth’s glove gun was a real thing and we’ll get into it later on).
There are some characters whose stories walk the line between imagination and reality more than others.
The first parallel of history and Hollywood is Brad Pitt’s character, Lt. Aldo Raine. Artistic liberties (and abrasively memorable pronunciation of “Nazi”) aside, much of Raine’s personality, and even some plot points, can be directly compared to real-life OSS agent Frederick Mayer, and his involvement in Operation Greenup. German-born and of Jewish descent, Mayer and his family fled to America in 1938, a year before the war. During an interview for the documentary The Real Inglorious Bastards, Mayer describes his time in service in detail, from going to the local recruiting station in Brooklyn the day after Pearl Harbor, to the conclusion of Operation Greenup — which significantly impacted the Nazis’ presence in Austria, and undoubtedly helped to shorten the war.
Operation Greenup focused on Tyrol, a region within the Alps of Western Austria, and had two main objectives: to monitor the railway system in the Brenner Pass (the main supply route between northern Germany and Italy), and to gather intel on the Alpine Redoubt. Ultimately, being more propaganda and rumor than anything else, the Redoubt was rumored at the time to be an “impenetrable fortress” being constructed to aid Nazi Germany and prolong the war.
Mayer was the lead on Operation Greenup. With him were Hans Wijnberg, a Dutch-American OSS agent he had been alongside since basic training, and Franz Weber, a former Wehrmacht officer who had deserted (due to having a conscience). Weber was chosen by Mayer and Wijnberg after they found and questioned him at a German POW camp. Weber knew Austria well, and because he was actually from a town in Tyrol, he knew they would have at least some civilian help in the heavily pro-Nazi area.
Due to its location, the mission was deemed so dangerous that the Royal Air Force refused to fly it, and the three ended up parachuting into the Alps with the volunteered help of American pilot Lt. John Billings. Upon their arrival to Tyrol, the team had immediate support from Weber’s fiancé, Ani, and her mother, “Mama Niederkircher,” who was considered to be the leader of the community.
Niederkircher knew a farmer willing to house Weber as well Wijnberg, who was the team’s radio operator. Within hours of their arrival, the radio had been set up and the first correspondence back to intelligence headquarters in Bari, Italy was successfully sent. Moving forward, Weber’s sister Eva was also instrumental in the passage of messages and information from her home in Innsbruck, the capital of Tyrol and an area rife with German intel, to Oberperfuss, where Weber and Wijnberg would remain, transmitting and receiving messages.
Another of Weber’s sisters, Louisa, helped Mayer take on one of the most dangerous parts of the mission: going undercover as a German soldier. A nurse at a local hospital, she was able to forge the necessary paperwork, and steal a uniform from a deceased soldier, so that Mayer could take on the role of a convalescing officer. Now able to check into local barracks and officers quarters, Mayer had access to those who had information. Since he was born and raised in Germany, he knew the language and specific cultural nuances that would keep him from being outed (including the proper “German” way to hold up three fingers, thus avoiding any Mexican standoffs in a basement).
A far cry from fictional Aldo Raine’s success metric of “one hundred Nazi scalps, taken from the heads of one hundred dead Nazis” (and general ‘hands-on’ approach to gathering information), Mayer employed a different tack: he would meet German soldiers, and just talk to them, and they would talk back… a lot.
One night at a local tavern, Mayer met an engineering officer from Berlin who (presumably after a few drinks) described the entire layout and construction process of Hitler’s infamous bunker, even down to the thickness of the walls and where the office he spent most of his time in was located.
It was around this time that Mayer was given a side mission: infiltrate the manufacturing facility located in the side of a mountain (fitting for a villainous aerial weapon factory). The factory was constructing Messerschmitt 262s, the first jet-powered fighter. His mission was to determine if there was enough manpower and resources to consider them a lasting threat. To do this, the Jewish and German Frederick Mayer became Frédéric Mayer, French electrician. Mayer was quickly able to learn that Allied forces had finally become successful at impacting Brenner Pass, to the point that the supply route had been cut off, and production was nearly at a halt.
This would be one of the last things Mayer would do before being captured by the Gestapo one night in Innsbruck during a surprise sweep. Upon learning of their entry into the house he was staying at, he had tried to burn gathered intelligence in the fireplace, when he was confronted by six men with submachine guns, and in his words, “You don’t argue with six submachine guns.” Taken to a Gestapo prison, Mayer was tortured within an inch of his life, even failing a suicide attempt by cyanide pill. The pill was knocked out of his mouth, along with all of his back teeth, when he was forced to bite down on a pistol while being repeatedly hit in the jaw.
After days of continuous torture, Mayer was taken to the home of Franz Hofer, the Nazi leader of Tyrol. In a glorious overestimation of Mayer’s authority within the military, Hofer began negotiations to avoid post-war prosecution (not unlike Christoph Waltz’s ‘Colonel Hans Landa’ following the discovery of the plan to assassinate the top four figures within the Third Reich). Mayer decided to make him a deal he had zero power to: declare Innsbruck an open city, and instead of inevitably being killed, Hofer would be treated as a prisoner of war.
Does that sound a little like that ending scene between Lt. Raine and Col. Landa? The real version, dubbed, “one of the great bluffs of the war,” ended with Mayer handing Hofer over to a U.S. Army Major, peacefully, and sans forehead swastika. Whether or not Christoph Waltz’s cultivation of skin-crawling, palpable tension was in any way inspired by Hofer himself, or if Waltz just has the natural ability to be the only person on Earth to make the word “Bingo” feel uncomfortable, remains unclear.
Maryland’s Camp Ritchie trained European-born soldiers in interrogation and counterintelligence (instead of scalping).
Over 15,000 soldiers passed through Camp Ritchie’s barracks and training facilities, and with nearly half of them being non-U.S. born service members, it’s easy to see why the “Ritchie Boys”, as they’re known, could be used as a real-world comparison to the fictional unit. Bernard Lubran, son of Ritchie Boy Walter Lubran and President of the educational non-profit “Friends of Camp Ritchie,” detailed the inner workings of their training in a webinar last June. Their training consisted of 31, eight-week classes, covering POW interrogation, photo interpretation, signal and terrain intelligence, counterintelligence, and interpreting military intelligence acquired from civilians.
Taking a stark turn from the on-screen players, the Ritchie Boys learned psychological warfare and the art of persuasion, in lieu of violence and torture techniques. Part of that included creating and distributing their own counter-propaganda, in an attempt to appeal to the remaining humanity of any German soldiers that may see it. Over 250 Ritchie Boys would go on to serve directly with the OSS, and thousands of immigrants from Camp Ritchie were able to become U.S. citizens, find safety and contribute to the war effort in a way that felt meaningful to them. Some were even utilized after the war as interrogators during the Nuremberg trials.
There were a couple of notable names that were among those at Camp Ritchie. Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger studied counterintelligence there. Ralph Baer was a Ritchie Boy as well. Better known as the “Father of Video Games,” he is credited with inventing the first gaming console — the “Brown Box”– as well as everyone’s peak nostalgia game, “Pong.”
Hugo Stiglitz may not have been real, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t real Germans working against Hitler on the inside.
The only former German soldier to earn the title of Basterd in the film, the character of Stiglitz got the backstory and claim to fame of killing 13 Gestapo officers before being broken out of a holding cell on the way back to Berlin by Lt. Raine & company. Already sharing similarities with real-world Franz Weber from Operation Greenup, there are even more examples of legitimate attempts to take Hitler and the Nazis down from the inside.
Franz Halder, who became Chief of Staff following the forced resignation of Ludwig Beck, secretly referred to Hitler as the “incarnation of evil” and began trying to spearhead a coup with the help of Col. Hans Oster and several others (which would later be known as the Oster Conspiracy). The plan dissolved for numerous reasons, and those involved moved on without any detection of deceit. That was until, ironically enough, another failed assassination plot against Hitler (the July Plot) lead to the discovery of Oster’s anti-Nazi work, for which he was subsequently executed in 1945.
Another aspect of truth to Stiglitz’s character is his SS “honor dagger,” or Ehrendolch. For a time, it was the official sidearm of the SS dress uniform, and was traditionally engraved with the motto of the SS: Meine Ehre heißt Treue, or “My honor is loyalty.” Tarantino’s decision to have Stiglitz use this specific weapon to kill German soldiers, in complete contradiction to the motto and adding literal insult to injury, was by any known accounts just a great, twisted creative choice.
Joseph Goebbels existed both on and off screen.
Nazi politician and district leader of Berlin during the war, Goebbels also served as Reich Minister of the Public Enlightenment and Propaganda agency from 1933-1945. Refusing to even try and bury the lead with that name, the agency’s main goals were to maintain a steady flow of Nazi ideologies throughout German communities, while also trying to sell the illusion to other countries that most, if not all, German civilians were on board with Goebbels contrived presentation of what was happening. Much like the fictional Goebbels, he was objectively skilled at the composition of film and radio, and was integral in the organization, filming and production of 1934’s Nuremberg Rally, the subject of the 1935 Nazi propagnda film Triumph of the Will, which would win the Gold Medal at that years Venice Film Festival.
Though Goebbels actual death didn’t happen in a theater at the hands of Jewish soldier with a painfully accurate Boston accent, it did have its own air of poetic justice. When Hitler committed suicide April 30, 1945, Goebbels assumed the role of Chancellor of Germany, as was decreed in Hitler’s will. Goebbels served a grand total of one day and his only official act, a ceasefire request to a Soviet General, was denied. Less than 24 hours after Hitler’s death, Goebbel committed suicide by cyanide tablet.
The least believable (and unequivocally coolest) weapon in the movie was 100% real.
Tarantino, as well as the whole of military weapons history, have created some unique feats of ingenuity and implements of destruction, but the “Glove Gun” should be at or near the top of this list on both accounts (but that could also just be personal preference). Known more technically as the Sedgley OSS .38, it was designed by Stanley Haight for the U.S. Naval Intelligence Office, and was specifically made for use by the Navy and Marines fighting in the Pacific Theater.
The way it’s used by Eli Roth’s character, Sgt. Donny Donowitz, against one of the soldiers guarding the door to Hitler’s opera box, is exactly how it would have been used in real life as well. Once loaded, it would be fired by the trigger, which extended past the barrel, being pushed directly against whatever the intended target was, with the wearer needing to have their hand in a fist and essentially just punch whatever they were trying to shoot. The close-range, single-shot weapon was meant to be used as an assassination tool by those completing covert operations. An incredibly niche weapon, akin to something Wolverine and Inspector Gadget would have dreamed up together, it’s estimated that less than 200 were ever manufactured, and there doesn’t appear to be any record of them ever being used during the war.
Never claiming to be a stickler for historical accuracy, Tarantino still manages to have a knack for including just enough realism to prompt overthinkers like me to do some digging to parse out fact from fiction. Depending on what you find, though, sometimes the facts can still feel like they should have only existed in the movies.
Read more from Sandboxx News:
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- How this one scene in ‘1917′ set me on the trail of my grandfather
- An OSS officer’s V-E Day letter home using Hitler’s personal stationery
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Feature image: Universal Pictures