The Amazing (but Fake!)
World War II Tales
of Michel Thomas

How a celebrity language teacher with a briefcase full of
old documents hoodwinked the media, stole credit from real heroes and
almost undermined the trial of a Nazi war criminal

As an early pioneer of fake news, language instructor Michel Thomas grabbed considerable media attention in the 1970s and '80s with a series of incredible stories about his wartime exploits. His purported feats included helping to liberate Dachau, escaping three concentration camps (one of which he voluntarily returned to before escaping again), talking his way out of being executed by Gestapo chieftain Klaus Barbie and rescuing 40 tons of important Nazi files from destruction. Naturally, he slept with a bevy of beautiful women along the way (“As we were making love ... an American artillery position opened fire right above us in the hills," he said of one conquest. "The ground moved”).

Um, not quite. Although some of his claims checked out, others were exaggerated or completely made up. Here's a look at several of his tales.

Escaping Klaus Barbie? One of the first experts to question Michel Thomas' truthfulness was Allan Ryan, chief Nazi investigator for the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1983, after Thomas announced a wild tale about being interrogated and tortured for several hours by Gestapo chieftain Barbie in 1943, Ryan called a press conference to denounce the story, which Thomas had never mentioned to the media before Barbie was captured. "I find it pretty hard to put any credibility in what Thomas says," Ryan told reporters. Few paid much heed, but four years later, after Thomas testified at Barbie's trial in France and was skewered by the press, prosecutor Pierre Truche told jurors: "With the exception of Mr. Thomas, all the witnesses are of good faith." Later, in an Oscar-winning documentary about Barbie called "Hotel Terminus," Truche called Thomas' story "inconsistent" and said, "I can't build a case on what is hard to believe." Thomas threatened to sue the film's director, but didn't follow through.

Before Barbie, Thomas' claims were rarely challenged by the media. One of the dirty little secrets of journalism is that reporters usually don't have time to investigate the claims people make about their pasts. In Thomas' case, that pattern changed in 2001, when his publicist asked a Los Angeles Times reporter to write a story about Thomas and his recently released biography. After reviewing the book's claims (and discovering Thomas had been sued numerous times for failure to pay taxes, rents and other debts), the newspaper decided to fact-check a few of his war stories:

  • Misrepresenting His Military Status. Thomas claimed he was an officer in the U.S. Army, despite having no discharge papers or military service ID number. In reality, he was a civilian employee, and the Los Angeles Times found National Archives military documents from 1946 bearing Thomas' signature over the words "civilian assistant." Rather than admit exaggerating, Thomas unsuccessfully sued the paper for "implying" he was a civilian employee. (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). In July 2004, his private investigator finally conceded to Newsday that Thomas was never inducted.

  • His Ever-Changing Birthplace. At Klaus Barbie's trial, Thomas said he was born in Poland. However, for 38 years before that, he told reporters he was born in France -- and different parts of France at that. A minor detail, but one that again reflects on his veracity.
Dachau gate
  • Dachau Flip-Flops. Thomas has changed his Dachau liberation story half a dozen times. In his biography, 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 Thomas' biographer acknowledged the book's account was wrong), Thomas tried to backtrack by claiming he never said he was with the initial battalion, only that he arrived at Dachau sometime later that day. Unfortunately for Thomas, he had repeated his original tale in a sworn deposition during his unsuccessful libel lawsuit against the L.A. Times ("On April 29, 1945, the 3rd battalion of the 157th Regiment liberated the Dachau concentration camp," he said. "I accompanied these troops"), as well as in press interviews dating back to 1950. Later, after his private investigator interviewed the commander of that battalion, Felix Sparks, and realized Thomas' claim was bogus, Thomas flip-flopped again, insisting he never said he was with the 3rd battalion.

  • Tripped Up By Historical Records. 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 military records and 1945 articles in the New York Times and London Express. Thomas' version of events involves 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. The last two of those claims are false beyond any doubt. The first 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. Although the records make no mention of Thomas, it's conceivable that he accompanied Quaranta (which might explain how he reportedly came to possess several documents from the mill), but that's sharply different from Thomas' claim that he learned about the ID cards from his scout and made 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 important, military records state that the 7th Army "abandoned" the Nazi ID cards after Quaranta's visit to the mill. The 7th Army 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 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 incorrectly claimed the ID cards specifically mention the Nazi Party, which they don't. Although it might seem logical to assume Thomas' memory would have some gaps so long after the war, his book claims he had a photographic recollection of everything in his life.

  • The Houdini of World War II? Elsewhere in his 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.

  • His Criticism of Holocaust Victims. One of Thomas' most outlandish claims was that other concentration camp victims could have escaped like he did, 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.

  • OK, but what about the Silver Star that Thomas received after the L.A. Times article? Not all of Thomas' stories were fabricated, and presumably that was the case for this honor. But the story behind his Silver Star is unrelated to the incidents described in the Los Angeles Times and in no way refutes or undercuts the paper's investigation.

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."

Further reading:

Washington Post obituary

Proof of Thomas' civilian status in Army

 

"I find it pretty hard to put any credibility in what Thomas says."
- Allan Ryan, former director,
U.S. Justice Department Office of Special Investigations

"With the exception of Mr. Thomas, all the witnesses are of good faith."

- Prosecutor Pierre Truche,
slamming Thomas' testimony at Klaus Barbie's 1987 trial