Touring the Third Reich
When Americans plan their vacations to foreign lands, they may think of some tropical paradise like Fiji. Or how about taking in some European castles? Perhaps a look at the splendors of China’s Forbidden City? But there are other options if you want to go international. In particular, what about a 10-day tour of southern Germany that hits all of Adolf Hitler’s favorite spots, like the famous Eagle’s Nest built by the führer’s private secretary, Martin Bormann, for his 50th birthday?If a pro-Hitler itinerary like that is to your liking, then a Sharkhunters International tour is for you. The Hernando, Fla.-based outfit, which you can join for a fee in return for certain benefits, fetishizes the Nazis and U-boat history, taking its travelers to the hidden gems of the Third Reich.
To advertise its southern Germany tour, Sharkhunters says: “Adolf Hitler really loved the Bavarian Alps and eventually, under the direction of Martin Bormann, an entire sicherheitsdienstzone (security zone) was constructed atop the Obersalzberg [a mountainside Nazi retreat near Berchtesgaden].” If you join the Sharkhunters tour, you get to see where Nazi high officials — Bormann, Hitler, Albert Speer (who was an architect who designed several prominent Nazi buildings), and others — “had nice homes built.” The tour also takes you to “the very tunnel where Hermann Göring, chief of the Luftwaffe and a high-ranking member of the Third Reich, hid his train filled with art treasures and who knows what else in preparation for his escape to Salzburg.” You’ll even get a look at Hitler’s favorite rock in the Obersee.
If Bavaria doesn’t suit your Hitlerian interests, there’s always the Sharkhunters tours to northern Germany. There, visitors get to take in such sights as the Wolf’s Lair, which was Hitler’s Eastern Front military headquarters, the place where the invasion of Russia was planned. And you get to see Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels’ former home. Or maybe you would rather take a gander at what Argentina has in store for a Nazi-lover because, as the Sharkhunters website says, South America “had a love affair with the Third Reich.” That Sharkhunters trip will take you to the places where prominent Nazis supposedly hid out after the war.
Who, exactly, are these Sharkhunters?
Harry Cooper, now 70, started the group in 1983, professing a love of U-boats and World War II history, and it has been offering tours since 1987. It sells all kinds of Nazi-related memorabilia — like Hitler girlfriend Eva Braun’s home movies — and publishes a newsletter, KTB Magazine, that reports on submarine research. Today, the organization claims 7,700 members in 76 countries.
Cooper denies that Sharkhunters glorifies the Nazis or is driven by anti-Semitism. “We’re nonpolitical,” he insisted in an interview with the Intelligence Report, adding, without a trace of irony, that his best friend is Jewish. When asked why his tours and website are so focused on Nazi history from the Nazi point of view, Cooper said, “It’s a field that I’m interested in, the warfare.” He added, “Now if I was studying the history of the Romans, would you call me a Roman?”
But the evidence contradicts his claims.
Advertisements for Sharkhunters tours have run regularly in wildly pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic publications. Cooper has counted prominent neo-Nazis, leading anti-Semites, Holocaust deniers, foreign extremist leaders, and even unrepentant members of the Third Reich among his friends, associates and members. His advisory board includes a prominent former member of a leading American neo-Nazi group. He’s enjoyed a friendly dinner with neo-Nazi and former Klan leader David Duke, and spoken at a major Holocaust denial conference. Harry Cooper, the “nonpolitical” tour guide of Nazi Germany, even wears a ring emblazoned with a swastika.
Race Cars and Racists
Cooper’s biography on his website reads as if he’s angling for the title of “Most Interesting Man in the World,” like the bearded man in the Dos Equis beer commercial. It’s filled with an array of impressive-looking medals and honors, obscure and dubious-sounding though they may be.
His story, according to him, began when he joined the Air Force fresh out of high school, hoping to become a fighter pilot. After serving four years, he worked for large corporations. Then he became an accomplished racecar driver. In drag racing, Cooper claims to have set “a number of national records,” spent time in “Figure 8” racing, short-track stock car racing and “spending Sunday afternoons at 190 mph on the superspeedways.” He was an editor for Stock Car Racing Magazine, and had monthly columns in Australian Speedway News and an American racing magazine that is now out of business. For a short time, Cooper was a Chicago newscaster on “Motorsports International,” which covered stock car events.
Sometime in the early 1980s, he retired and moved onto a sailboat in the Bahamas, where he dreamed up the idea for Sharkhunters after hearing “rumors passed on by local inhabitants about U-Boats.” After that, Cooper joined the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and started picking up some bizarre credentials. His bio lists him as being a commissar of the Soviet Union for the Peace of the Oceans (whatever that is), an honorary submarine officer of the Russian Navy and recipient of the “Grand Ulrichsberg badge.” It is unclear what that badge is, but Ulrichsberg, Austria, is where an always-controversial annual reunion is held for veterans of the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS. According to one media report, Cooper took 20 of his Sharkhunters members there in 2011, and a couple of them had drinks with former SS members after the event. Cooper also claims to have been named an ambassador to Ulrichsberg (he has taken Sharkhunters tour groups to Ulrichsberg more than once). Once, he says, he received a medal from the mayor of Redipuglia, Italy, after visiting the battlefield “where young Erwin Rommel earned his Pour l’Merit [Prussia’s highest order of merit].”
Cooper also touts his “Man of the Year 2011” award, issued by the American Biographical Institute (ABI), for “accomplishments in your field.” But that achievement may be a little less grand than it seems. The Raleigh, N.C.-based ABI is a vanity publisher that invites individuals to pay a fee to be included in its “Who’s Who” books. Its “awards” have been widely denounced as scams.
Great White Sharks
Despite his claim that Sharkhunters has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, Cooper isn’t shy about soliciting anti-Semites for his tours. Starting in the early 1990s, Sharkhunters events were advertised in publications like National Christian News, whose tagline was “Talmudism is Treason!” and whose publisher viewed Hitler as the savior of Christian Germans against a global Jewish conspiracy. In a 1994 ad there, Sharkhunters suggested that members could “re-live the history of the German U-boats” by sending their name and address to National Christian News so they could receive a discount for joining Sharkhunters.
GANPAC Brief, long run by the now-deceased former SS member Hans Schmidt, a Holocaust denier and naturalized American, is another venue where Sharkhunters’ wares were advertised (when the author of this piece signed up for Sharkhunters, she received a picture of Schmidt from his SS days). In 1991, the Brief plumped for a Sharkhunters convention. In 1995, the Brief advised that its readers should consider a “very unique opportunity” to travel with the Sharkhunters to Russia and Ukraine so that they can “visit places no average tourist would ever be permitted to see.” Cooper also ran ads in The Spotlight, like one in 1997 for his 10th anniversary convention. That tabloid was frequently anti-Semitic and run by longtime Holocaust denier Willis Carto, a close ally of Cooper’s to this day.
Sharkhunters has long celebrated several members with notorious extremist pasts. In 1993, Nazi fan and filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl, who is described as an “extraordinary woman!” on the website, signed on. Her most famous film was Triumph of the Will, a dramatically pro-Nazi propaganda film made at the 1934 Nazi Party congress in Nuremberg for which Hitler served as unofficial executive producer. Riefenstahl’s prominence in the Third Reich, along with her personal association with Hitler, destroyed her film career following Germany’s defeat in World War II, after which she was arrested but eventually released without any charges. Those associations didn’t stop Cooper from repeatedly visiting Reifenstahl at her home in Munich and selling her memoirs.
Also a member was Leon DeGrelle, a Belgian who joined the SS and whom the Sharkhunter’s website says “met both Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler” as his pre-war anti-Communist activities were funded by these men. Sharkhunters doesn’t mention that DeGrelle was an ardent Nazi who said at one point that Hitler had told him, “If I had a son, I wish he’d resemble you.” DeGrelle was involved in extremist politics until he died in 1994. He was granted Spanish citizenship by the fascist Francisco Franco regime.
A lifetime member of Sharkhunters is Manfred Roeder, a prominent German Holocaust denier who forged ties with the far-right political scene in Germany and abroad, including the Ku Klux Klan. In 1980, the German Action Group, a neo-Nazi organization founded by Roeder, carried out attacks against buildings that housed foreign workers and asylum seekers. Roeder was classified as a terrorist by German legal authorities as a result of these activities. Cooper says on his website that he has visited Roeder’s home several times, and he provides the pictures to prove it. Other foreign members are former Hitler youth and German World War II veterans from different service branches, in particular U-boat commanders.
The Sharkhunters advisory board currently includes at least one notable extremist — Dr. Charles Ellis, for a long time a psychologist for the state of Alaska. Ellis was also for many years a prominent member of the National Alliance, the most important neo-Nazi group in America during the 1990s and early 2000s. He attended one of that group’s leadership conferences, which are open only to high-ranking members, in 2002. The Sharkhunters website has pictures of Ellis on a tour traipsing through Nazi tunnels in Southern Bavaria in 2009. Ellis has been on at least two German tours as well as one to Argentina, to which he brought his daughters.
Another pal of Cooper’s appears to be David Duke, the longtime Klansman and neo-Nazi who was once a Louisiana state senator. Duke joined up with the group in 2009 for the same tour Ellis took in Bavaria. A photo of Duke and Cooper having dinner together is on the site.
Cooper has a long history with Austrian extremist Jorg Haider, the late head of the Austrian Freedom Party and governor of the state of Carinthia. Haider has said that he met Cooper during a 1990 tour and they became “friends.” Haider was a controversial figure within Austria and abroad for comments that were widely condemned as praising Nazi policies and soldiers, some of which were made at Ulrichsberg in 2000. Haider, who also harbored anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic views, was killed in a car crash after leaving a gay bar in 2008. But that account does not sit well with Cooper. As is his conspiratorial wont, Cooper thinks there is a government plot behind the crash and that Haider actually may have been assassinated. According to various E-mails in 2012, Cooper circulated a secret report about the death to members of the Sharkhunters.
The group apparently also claims to have had some high-powered members who were very much part of the political mainstream. Cooper told the Report that former President Ronald Reagan was a member in the late 1980s. Other notables listed as members on the Sharkhunters site include the Texas billionaire and former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot, broadcaster Hugh Downs and CNN founder Ted Turner. Most likely, these men had no idea of Cooper’s Nazi interests but rather saw the group as a place to learn about the history of German U-boats.
Cooper’s extremist connections flatly contradict his claim to be apolitical. Many of his apparent opinions seem to do the very same thing.
In 1996, Cooper spoke at a conference put on by The Barnes Review, a leading Holocaust-denial publication named after Henry Elmer Barnes and run by Carto, who has been a Sharkhunters member since 1989. Cooper has served on that publication’s board of contributing editors since at least 2003. One of the Review’s most outlandish covers came the next year, in 2004, when a picture of Hitler was accompanied by the eyebrow-raising headline, “Hitler: Neglected Nobel Peace Prize Winner?”
At The Barnes Review conference, Cooper’s speech addressed whether Hitler and Bormann actually escaped the Berlin bunker in which Hitler and Eva Braun were said to have committed suicide in April 1945. Cooper is obsessed with the topic and has self-published a book about it. In a 2007 issue of the Review, he returned to this favorite topic, reporting on a letter he says was obtained by alleged Spanish spy Don Angel Alcazar de Velasco that claimed that Bormann drugged Hitler at the end of the war and the two then escaped to South America. His other contribution came in 2012, when the Review published a two-part article reprinting a declassified U.S. document Cooper had provided that details the interrogation of Herman Goering by American officials. The document reads like an apologia for Goering’s actions.
Cooper wears a ring that sports a death’s head with a rune on the left and a swastika on the right. The same ring is sold by pzg.biz, a Nazi memorabilia website that is linked to on the Sharkhunters website. And that kind of Nazi-love apparently runs in the family. Cooper told a reporter in 2011 that his wife believes that Nazi Reinhard Heydrich — who chaired the 1942 Wannsee Conference that finalized plans for the extermination of Europe’s Jews — was “the greatest guy.”
When pushed on his extremist connections, Cooper dissembled. He claimed, for example, that he just realized a year ago that he was on The Barnes Review board. That explanation doesn’t square, however, with his presence at the publication’s 2006 conference.
Despite all this, Cooper is sometimes able to share his views in mainstream venues. In July 2012, he gave two talks at the famed Adventurers Club in Chicago. A lifetime member of that private club, Cooper finds himself among illustrious ranks. The club was founded in 1911 by General W. Robert Foran, an Associated Press correspondent who was attached to Teddy Roosevelt’s big game expedition of 1909-1910. Other members have included adventurers Thor Heyerdahl and Sir Edmund Hilary.
What Cooper brought to the club was a speech on “How Adolf Hitler Escaped from the Bunker.” He gave the speech twice, over two sold-out nights, and by all accounts Cooper regaled his audience with this controversial topic. It wasn’t the first time he impressed the club. In the September 2008 club newsletter, a story on Cooper is titled, “The Real Indiana Jones?”
Cooper made other Nazi-related claims in Chicago. He argued that longtime Argentine First Lady Eva Peron offered Nazi fugitives —“wanted for so-called war crimes,” as he put it — safe haven in Argentina in exchange for gold. And that Adolf Eichmann, a key organizer of the Holocaust, was an unimportant low-level Nazi operative who was “thrown to the wolves” to protect more important targets.
Cooper was scheduled to take this show to the Los Angeles Adventurers Club, but that event was canceled. He claimed the club’s manager told him it was nixed due to “childish actions by their Board of Directors.” Another organization that has had it with Cooper is the uboat.net forum, where serious historians and aficionados trade information about submarines. The forum specifically bans posts about Sharkhunters because “these posts generally contain obnoxious remarks and are attempts to recruit new members.” A comment posted on the site offers a conclusion that many others would agree with: “They are a bunch of unsympathetic Nazi lovers.”