Disappeared: historical figures who vanished

There’s probably been a few points in your life when you wished a prominent figure would just vanish off of the face of the planet. 

While this may seem like a good solution to problems like, say, a disagreement over who won a certain US election, the practical ramifications of a high-profile disappearance can be devastating.

When cultures and nations suddenly lose their leaders without closure it destablises the succession process, creating a sort of cultural and political limbo that can be difficult to emerge from.

It is similar when figures who should have been brought to justice were not, because the world seemingly opened up and swallowed them.

Without knowing the full story, without getting the closure that human beings so desperately crave, societies and communities can become paralysed. 

This article takes a look at some of the 20th century’s most high profile disappearances, highlighting why the figures were so significant, and the rift that formed when they vanished. 

Harold Holt, Australian Prime Minister

The clothes and spearfishing equipment left on Cheviot Beach by Australian PM Harold Holt. Holt never returned from this quick swim. (Source: Hulton Archive)

On a hot Sunday afternoon in December 1967, Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt went for a swim off of Cheviot Beach, near Melbourne. He never came back.

It took two days for him to formally be declared missing, but there was never any hope of survival.

His lover Marjorie Gillespie was with him on the beach, and said that she had watched him slowly drift out of sight “like a leaf being taken out.”

The waters around Cheviot Beach are notoriously rough, and the swells are buffeted by currents moving up from the Antarctic. On this particular day the tide was said to be noticeably high.

Holt was a keen spear fisherman but was said to not be the best outright swimmer. Moreover, at the time of his disappearance he was struggling with a shoulder injury which meant that he couldn’t perform a forward stroke. 

This seems like a fairly straightforward case then, doesn’t it? A 59 year old man was tragically dragged out to sea by strong currents, never to be seen again. An accident, but nothing more sinister than a misjudgement of nature’s perils. 

That may have been the case if this wasn’t the head of a western government, and if this wasn’t the height of the Cold War. 

JFK had been assassinated just four years earlier, and conspiracy theories were rife.

Like JFK, Holt was involved with the Vietnam War. His government had rapidly increased Australia’s involvement in the conflict as part of a wider strategy to become a major regional power in Asia Pacific. 

Widespread protests against the war led to speculation that his assassination had been carried out by activists who wanted to pull Australia out of Vietnam. 

There was also speculation that his death was to do with the treasurer Billy McMahon, who was universally distrusted within Australian politics. 

The most outlandish theory however relates to China. 200,000 Chinese students study at Australian Universities today, but back in 1967 the two nations had very little to do with one another.

Back then Australia recognised the Republic of China (Taiwan), not Beijing. The Chinese meanwhile were in the midst of Mao Zedong’s catastrophic Cultural Revolution.

Despite this, a book released in 1983, titled The Prime Minister Was a Spy, argued that Holt worked for the Chinese government. He wasn’t washed out to sea as had been claimed, instead he had been picked up by a Chinese submarine and evacuated to Beijing before his identity could be revealed.

There is no evidence to support these claims, and it is now almost universally accepted that Holt died by drowning in the turbulent depths of the South Pacific. 

In line with the Australian tradition of gallows humour, a memorial to the late Prime Minister was unveiled in Melbourne in 1969: The Harold Holt Memorial Swimming Centre.

Gedhun Choekyi Niyma, the Panchen Lama

Gedhun Choekyi Niyma, recognised at the 11th Panchen Lama within the Gelug Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, was kidnapped aged 6 by the Chinese Government. His whereabouts are still unknown. (Source: Free Tibet)

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual leader of the Gelug Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Despite ceding partial control of the Tibetan government in exile in 2001, the Dalai Lama still holds tremendous political influence within the struggle for Tibetan autonomy. 

The Panchen Lama is second only to the Dalai Lama himself in terms of importance, and is the figure that officially recognises the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation.

Once the Lamas were forced into exile in Dharamsala following the 1959 Tibetan Uprising, the Panchen Lama of the time, Lobsang Trinley Lhundrup Choekyi Gyaltsen, was an outspoken critic of Communist China and chronicled the Tibetan famines of the 1960s.

The CCP ordered his arrest and he died in jail in 1989. Keen to crush the Tibetan independence struggle, Beijing quickly set about locating the Panchen Lama’s reincarnation. 

Gedhun Choekyi Niyma was recognised as the 11th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama in May 1995. Six weeks later Gedhun, who was just six years old, was abducted by the Chinese government. 

He has never been seen since, and Beijing has consistently refused to disclose any information relating to his whereabouts or wellbeing.

Six months after Gedhun’s abduction the CCP announced that it had found the ‘real’ incarnation of the Panchen Lama – Gyaltsen Norbu. Gyaltsen also happens to be the son of two CCP members.

Gyaltsen is a strong supporter of ‘national unity’, and only ever visits Tibet in heavily guarded scenarios in order to prevent Tibetans from protesting what they call the ‘Panchen Zuma’ or ‘false Panchen’.

Possible locations for the true Panchen Lama include Beijing, Lhari in Tibet, or Gansu Province. In May 2016 Free Tibet confronted the Chinese Ambassador to the UK over Gedhun’s whereabouts, to which he responded that he is ‘just an ordinary boy’. 

The abduction of the Panchen Lama has been devastating for Tibetan culture. The Dalai Lama has speculated that he may be the last incarnation. The struggle for Tibetan autonomy continues, but China’s grip is tightening. 

Olof Palme’s killer

Stig Engström was named by Swedish authorities this year as the man responsible for the 1986 assassination of Swedish PM Olof Palme. Most Swedes remain unconvinced.

If you asked people in the west to name a country that seems like it has its sh*t together, Sweden would probably be a common answer.

The country ranks consistently high within indexes on factors such as happiness and social cohesion, and the Swedish brand of social democracy is often used as a barometer for progressives in the United States.

The strong external image of Swedish society masks a deep internal struggle that has torn at the heart of the country’s psyche since a fateful evening in February 1986. 

On that cold winter night, Prime Minister Olof Palme was walking in central Stockholm with his wife Lisbet when he was shot in the back.

He was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital, and Sweden lost its Nordic innocence.

Worse still is that the Swedish never found their Lee Harvey Oswald. The killer had made an amazingly clean escape, leaving no trace of evidence apart from two .357 Magnum bullet casings.

This was Sveavägen, one of Stockholm’s main streets. How could a gunman murder the Prime Minister in the centre of the capital and get away with it?

Naturally, the failure to identify a killer caused a host of theories and conspiracies to emerge around Palme’s death.

Palme was a divisive figure back in 1986. He was head of the Social Democrats, and as such was a vocal supporter of financial and social equality; putting him at odds with the Swedish right. 

On the international front Palme was a staunch opponent of the apartheid regime in South Africa. He also refused to align with either side in the Cold War and opposed US involvement in Vietnam, continuing the Swedish tradition of neutrality which had existed since 1814. 

Far right agitators, the Swedish Police, and South African Special Forces were among the groups highlighted as potential culprits for Palme’s murder.

These are more than just tenuous conspiracy theories: the South African link was formally investigated by the South African government, who handed over a dossier of their findings to Swedish investigators earlier this year.

The Swedes thought they had their man back in 1989. Christer Pettersson was identified from a 10-man line up by Lisbet Palme. Pettersson had been convicted of mansalughter back in 1970 for stabbing a man to death during a street brawl, and rumours of his involvement in Palme’s death had emerged within small-time criminal circles.

The evidence for Petersson’s involvement was tenuous from the start. No murder weapon was found, and prosecutors couldn’t even confirm that he was in central Stockholm at the time. 

His initial 1989 murder conviction was overturned in 1990, and he was awarded $50,000 in compensation.

In later life he went on to become a kind of minor celebrity, teasing his involvement in Palme’s death within high-profile TV interviews but never fully confessing or sticking to one story. 

The story was left to simmer for decades, spawning countless whodunnits, novels and podcasts investigating the murder. 

Then, in June 2020, Swedish investigators held a press conference in which they promised to announce the assassin’s identity, closing the case once and for all. 

As it turned out, the information presented only raised more questions and has given no closure to a Swedish population who just want to put the story to bed. 

Their man was Stig Engström, known as “Skandia man” because he worked at the Skandia offices next to where Palme was shot. 

Engström had been known to investigators and journalists, and gave several varying witness testimonies. The 2020 announcement demonstrated that Engström had weapons training, and had access to firearms via an associate. He was in the immediate vicinity on the night of the attack, and apparently had associates in “Palme-critical circles”. 

They still have no murder weapon. Engström’s motive is loose at best. A substantial amount of ‘evidence’ comes from original witness testimonies which were known to be problematic from the start. 

To make things worse, Engström had died back in 2000. Even if he was the killer, the lack of accountability means that a satisfying close to the saga was and remains impossible.

Sweden still hasn’t healed, and it looks like the uncertainty around Olof Palme’s death will continue to pull at the heart of Swedish society for decades to come. 

Heinrich Müller

Heinrich Müller (left) was the highest ranking Nazi to have disappeared. He played a central role in the Holocaust.

Müller is a slight departure from the rest of this list, as his disappearance was a tragedy not because of the loss of his life (if he did indeed die in 1945) but because he was never held to account for the central role he played in the Holocaust. 

Müller had been with Hitler in his Berlin bunker in 1945, and was last seen alive on the 1st of May 1945, the day after Hitler had committed suicide. 

He had been an outspoken critic of communism, and his success in investigating communist activities in Muncih had fuelled his rise to the top of the Nazi party. As such, he was terrified of what the soviets might do if they got their hands on him. 

Hitler’s pilot Hans Baur quoted Müller as having said: “I haven’t the faintest intention of being taken prisoner by the Russians.”

His fate is unknown. He may well have followed the lead of Hitler and Goebels and taken his own life in order to spare himself from the incoming Soviets. He might have done what so many other Nazis did and escaped to South America. No concrete evidence of these scenarios has been encountered.

In 1961 Polish triple-agent Michael Goleniewski, deputy head of Polish military counterintelligence, defected to the United States. He stated to the CIA that he had been told that Müller was captured by the Soviets and taken to Moscow.

He added that German officials who were interrogated at the end of the war gave weight to this information. No evidence has been found to support these claims beyond Goleniewski’s word.

The only hint that Müller may have escaped to live a free life came from another high-profile Nazi in Adolf Eichmann. 

Eichmann had managed the logistics of transporting Jews to ghettos and concentration camps before fleeing to Argentina. He remained there until 1960, when he was captured by Israeli Special Forces and sent to trial. He told investigators that he believed Müller to be alive, but gave no further details.

More recently, evidence emerged suggesting that Müller never managed to escape Berlin as it fell to ruin around him in 1945. Allied documents seem to indicate that Müller had been positively ID’d, dead, and buried in a mass grave at the Jewish cemetery in Berlin. Jewish laws forbid exhumations, meaning these claims can never be substantiated.

Müller was an outright monster. He was Chief of the Gestapo, and had ordered the arrest of 30,000 Jews during Kristallnacht. 200 people were executed on his orders following the attempted to assassinate Hitler in July 1944. He was also present at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, when leading Nazis formulated the plan for a ‘final solution’.

The vagueness surrounding Müller’s fate is a disservice to the thousands of people that he directly or indirectly had a hand in murdering and enslaving at the height of Nazi rule.


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