When Ranulf Rayner was 10 years old, his father, Brig. Sir Ralph Rayner, returned home from Germany at the end of World War II with a stunning trophy of war: a bright red, three-pound telephone used by Adolf Hitler during the final two years of his life.
“The telephone was built by Siemens and they confirmed that it was built for the German Wehrmacht, who themselves coveted red,” Rayner told Alexander Historical Auctions. “It was then inscribed with the German swastika – an eagle – and the name Adolf Hitler, probably the only instrument or artifact with his full name on it.”
“As an instrument it was then used, no doubt, as a cellphone and went wherever Hitler was traveling,” Rayner added.
Rayner’s father recovered the phone from the charred ruins of the Fuhrerbunker almost by chance, he told the auction house. At the time, he said, Russian officers occupying the bunker invited the elder Rayner – then a communications officer in the British army – to tour Hitler’s living quarters after Germany surrendered in early May 1945. Initially, as a token of goodwill, the Russians offered Rayner a black telephone that sat beside Eva Braun’s bed, but Rayner refused the gift.
“He knew, and saw, that Hitler had a red telephone beside his bed and he loved the color red,” his son said, later telling CNN that his father was probably the first non-Russian to enter the bunker, which still smelled of “burning flesh” and was a “dreadful hellhole.”
Rayner brought the phone back to his country home in Devonshire, England, where it remained in a leather carrying case for more than 70 years. Rayner, 82, told CNN that he inherited the phone when his father died in 1977.
“My father didn’t see it as a relic of Hitler’s glory days, more a battered remnant of his defeat, a sort of war trophy,” he told CNN, noting that he’s always feared it would bring him bad luck. “He never thought it would become an important artifact.”
The phone exchanged hands once again Sunday afternoon when it was auctioned off for $243,000, according to Bill Panagopulos, the company president of Alexander Historical Auctions in Chesapeake City, Maryland.
“This was not a staid office telephone used to solicit contributions to the party, or to answer polite calls at the Berghof. … This was Hitler’s mobile device of destruction, used in vehicles, trains, his field headquarters, at the Wolf’s Lair . . . and in the last desperate days deep beneath Berlin,” the auction house description says.
Panagopulos said the auction house does not reveal the name of buyers, but he described the purchaser as an American from the East Coast who made the purchase via phone.
Bidding for Hitler’s phone started at $100,000 and was expected to go as high as $300,000.
“It’s very unusual to find an item like this,” Panagopulos said. “We’ll hear about Hitler’s tableware and Hitler’s bedsheets and Eva Braun’s undergarments, which have been sold. But things like this phone, with good provenance and that have come from the bunker, have always been highly sought after.”
Panagopulos said the phone “looks like it’s 70 years old,” partially because it was scorched when German guards set fire to the Berlin bunker, presumably to destroy evidence inside before Russian troops converged. The bunker was airtight and the fire didn’t last, Panagopulos said, and the red phone was spared, but covered in soot and damaged by heat.
Panagopulos – who said his father comes from a Greek town that was slaughtered by the Nazis during World War II – considers the phone “criminal evidence” and a “weapon of mass destruction” because of the lives that were claimed through its use. Both he and the phone’s buyer believe the device belongs in a museum, he said.
“I get lots of Jewish buyers when it comes to German militaria,” Panagopulos said. “They want to keep the Nazi history alive so it’s never forgotten, but I also get emails at every auction from people saying, ‘Why do you sell this material instead of burning it?’ ”
“To me, that’s like ISIS demolishing idols in Syria or Iraq,” he added. “This is history and we should preserve it.”
Ranulf Rayner agrees, tellin CNN that he doesn’t want to see the phone “hidden again.”
“I want them to remind the world of the horrors of war,” he said.
According to the auction house, the phone’s provenance is “unshakable” and includes verification from a member of Hitler’s inner circle:
“An original fax message (faded) with translation from ROCHUS MISCH (1917-2013), SS-Oberscharführer and a member of Hitler’s personal bodyguard, from Jan. 16, 1945 telephone operator in the bunker, states: ‘ … From the photo I agree this was the red telephone that accompanied my Father [Hitler] constantly during the last two years of the war …’ ”
Despite its age, the rotary phone includes some forward-thinking features. Rayner said the device was designed so that the handset must be tilted before it can be lifted from “the cradle” and raised to the user’s ear. The idea, he said, was to keep the handset from falling off during a bumpy ride in the command vehicle.
In addition, Rayner said, the phone’s “cable had looped ends to it,” which allowed the phone “to be plugged in wherever Hitler went.”
Rayner said his father also left the bunker with a white porcelain figure of an Alsatian dog, one that was reportedly given to Hitler by the German police force and probably by SS chief Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Final Solution.
Himmler “ran the Allach porcelain factory, which happened to be in Dachau concentration camp,” Rayner noted.
Normally, Panagopulos said, a similar porcelain figure might be worth $2,500, but Rayner’s sold Sunday to a different bidder for $24,300. Panagopulos said the figure has SS lightning bolts on the bottom and was made by slave labor. Any time an item is connected to Hitler, he said, collectors are willing to shell out tens of thousands of dollars.
“It’s the direct connection with such a notorious, horrible figure,” he said. “The connection to that evil mentality and to history is very appealing to some people.”
Panagopulos – who has run his auction house for close to 30 years – said he’s accustomed to coming into contact with macabre items connected to troubling historical figures. He described holding Hitler’s phone as “a little scary and intimidating” and not something he enjoyed handling. But as a mechanical device, he said, the phone lacked the emotional impact of some other pieces of German militaria that he’s encountered.
“I had Joseph Mengele’s postwar journals at one point,” Panagopulos recalled. “They were sold to an orthodox Jew and they just stopped me dead in my tracks because they were handwritten by one of the most evil men in history.”
“They really messed me up for days,” he added.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Peter Holley