The Myth of Michel Thomas
|In 2001, my editors at
the Los Angeles Times asked me to investigate some of the
hard-to-believe World War II tales being spun by Michel Thomas, a language instructor known for
his work with celebrities. I soon discovered we weren't
the first to question Thomas' truthfulness. Eighteen
years earlier, the U.S. Department of Justice's chief
Nazi investigator called a press conference to denounce
Thomas' Klaus Barbie stories. "I find it pretty hard
to put any credibility in what Thomas says," the DoJ
investigator told reporters. Nobody paid much heed, but
four years later, after Thomas testified at Barbie's
trial in France, prosecutor Pierre Truche reached the
same conclusion, telling the jury that "with the
exception of Mr. Thomas, all the witnesses are of good
faith." Other skeptics included an Oscar-winning
documentary ("Hotel Terminus"), Le Monde and
Histoire, France's version of the History Channel. (Thomas
had also been sued numerous times for failure to pay
taxes, rents and other debts.)
Our research found additional dubious stories:
1. Thomas claimed he was an officer in the U.S. Army. In fact, he was a civilian employee, and the Los Angeles Times has National Archives military documents from 1946 bearing Thomas' signature over the words "civilian assistant." Rather than admit exaggerating, Thomas sued the paper for questioning his military status. (The lawsuit was thrown out of court by a federal judge and Thomas' appeal was rejected by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. He was ordered to pay the Times $98,000 for legal fees). In July 2004, his private investigator finally conceded to Newsday that Thomas was never inducted.
2. In his 1999 biography, "Test of Courage," Thomas said he was born in Poland. However, for 38 years, he told reporters he was born in France -- and different parts of France at that. A minor detail, perhaps, but one that again reflects on his credibility.
3. In the book, Thomas said he accompanied the first battalion of U.S. troops when it entered the Dachau concentration camp on the morning of April 29, 1945. After the L.A. Times proved otherwise (to the point that even his biographer acknowledged the story was wrong), Thomas tried to backtrack by claiming he never said he was with the first battalion, only that he arrived at Dachau sometime later that day. Unfortunately for Thomas, he had repeated his original tale in a sworn deposition filed with his libel lawsuit ("On April 29, 1945, the 3rd battalion of the 157th Regiment liberated the Dachau concentration camp. I accompanied these troops"). Only after his private investigator interviewed the commander of that battalion, Felix Sparks, and realized Thomas' claim was bogus, did Thomas begin insisting he never said he was with the 3rd battalion.
4. Thomas said he single-handedly discovered and rescued millions of Nazi Party ID cards from destruction at a paper mill near Munich in May 1945. But his version of events is flatly contradicted by 1945 articles in the New York Times and London Express. It's no accident these detailed articles were never mentioned in Thomas' libel lawsuit or on his website attacking our investigation. Their very existence blows apart several linchpins in his story. Thomas' version of events can be broken down into three separate claims -- that he found the ID cards on his own, that he engineered press coverage of the discovery in May 1945, and that the media spotlight forced his 7th Army superiors to swiftly remove all the documents from the mill for safekeeping. Two of those claims are false beyond any doubt. The third is also questionable, especially considering Thomas' indisputable fabrications on the rest of the story. Here's what really happened: In May 1945, paper mill owner Hans Huber went to 7th Army officials and told them about the ID cards. In response, according to military records, Counter Intelligence Corps agent Francesco Quaranta visited the mill, and returned with some samples. It's conceivable that Thomas accompanied Quaranta (which might explain how he reportedly came to possess several documents from the mill), but that's a radically different scenario from Thomas' tale of learning about the ID cards from his scout and making a solo rescue of them. There's also no truth to Thomas' claim that he leaked word of the discovery to the press, thereby goading his 7th Army superiors into removing the files from the mill in May. In reality, there was no press coverage until October of that year -- and it's clear from reading the stories that Thomas played no role in causing it. More importantly, military records state that the 7th Army "abandoned" the Nazi ID cards after Quaranta's visit to the mill. It moved on to another part of Germany and left the cards at the paper mill. If not for the persistence of mill owner Huber and the arrival of the 3rd Army months later, the documents might never have been saved. The NY Times and London Express make it clear that the real hero was Huber, a German who defied the Nazis. Army journalist Stefan Heym's 1945 account agrees, and his lengthy history of the cards dovetails with the press stories. In other words, all the sources from that era -- newspapers, Heym and military records -- unanimously contradict key details of Thomas' story and give full credit to Huber. Moreover, when Thomas was interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, he couldn't name the town where the mill was located, couldn't describe the building and even claimed the ID cards specifically mentioned the Nazi Party, which they don't.
5. Elsewhere in the biography, Thomas portrayed himself as a real-life Hogan's Heroes, able to escape concentration and slave labor camps repeatedly at will. In one story, after learning his girlfriend secured his release by granting a romantic favor to a diplomat, Thomas claimed he voluntarily returned to imprisonment because he didn't want to be freed under such circumstances. Another prison-break tale featured him crawling under a bed when some guards unexpectedly came into the room where he was hiding on his way out of camp. In a scene that is curiously reminiscent of several movie scripts, the guards got drunk and one passed out on the bed, pinning Thomas underneath all night. Another story depicts Thomas hiding in a well, telepathically ordering a dog to stop barking and go away, lest Thomas be discovered by Nazi pursuers.
Thomas claimed other Holocaust victims could have escaped too, if only they hadn't given up hope and surrendered to their fate. After The Times published that comment, Thomas tried to say he was misquoted. But it's spelled out in detail in his biography. See "hope, loss of" in the index.
L.A. Times Editor John Carroll's 2004 statement about Michel Thomas:
"We published a story awhile back, by a very good and clever reporter named Roy Rivenburg, about a man who published his autobiography. And, if you read the [book], you'd be amazed you'd never heard of this man, because he pretty much single-handedly won World War II for us. It was a preposterous book, and our review of it was an investigative review. It debunked many of the claims in the book and had some fun doing it, had a few laughs at the author's expense. When you put yourself out in public and make claims that are preposterous, and publish a book on it, you're likely to get a reviewer who will look into that and set the record straight. I'm very proud of that story. We haven't retracted a word of it; we don't intend to because it was true."
Hoaxes Journal: Michel Thomas Dies
L.A. Observed (third item)