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 alleged wartime exploits. His list of 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 crucial Nazi files from destruction.
Um, not quite. Although some of his claims checked out, others were exaggerated or completely made up. In 2001, when the Los Angeles Times debunked several of his tales, Thomas began rewriting key details in his stories to line up with records the newspaper found. Here's a look at several of his biggest whoppers.
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." Thomas threatened to sue the film's director, but never followed 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. But in 2001, Thomas' publicist asked a Los Angeles Times reporter to do a story on 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, leases and other debts), the newspaper decided to fact-check a few of his war stories (read the full L.A. Times article here):
- 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 two sets of 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
- His Ever-Changing Birthplace. At Klaus Barbie's trial,
Thomas said he was born in
Poland. However, for decades 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
- Dachau Flip-Flops. Thomas has changed his Dachau liberation story several times. In his biography, Thomas
falsely claimed 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
admitted 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 affidavit for 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. It's also worth noting that the Dachau photos Thomas submitted as evidence with his libel lawsuit were marked "May 1945" on the back, although the camp was liberated April 29. And none showed U.S. troops entering the camp or freeing prisoners.
- Tripped Up By Wartime Records. Thomas claimed 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 contradicted by military records, 1945
articles in the New York Times and London Express, and an Army journalist's detailed account. In fact, shortly after the L.A. Times article, Thomas changed his story substantially. Why? Because his legal team checked the same historical records found by the L.A. Times and realized much of what Thomas said didn't hold up.
Thomas' original tale consisted of three main claims -- that he found
the ID cards on his own and prevented their destruction, that he engineered worldwide 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 indisputably false, and Thomas had to backtrack on both assertions in a sworn affidavit for his unsuccessful libel lawsuit. The first claim is
also questionable, considering Thomas'
fabrications on other details.
Here's what really happened: In May 1945, paper mill
manager 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 drove to 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 Michel reportedly came to possess several
documents from the mill), but that's sharply different from Thomas' claim that he learned about
the mill from his scout and made a solo rescue of the files. Also untrue is Thomas' claim that he
leaked word of the ID cards to the press, thereby
goading 7th Army officials into removing the files
from the mill in May. In reality, there was no press
coverage until October of that year -- and Thomas had nothing to do with it, as he conceded in a sworn court affidavit. Military records say the 7th Army "abandoned" the Nazi ID cards, leaving them at the paper mill as the unit moved to
another part of Germany. If not for the persistence of mill manager Huber and
the arrival of the 3rd Army months later, the documents
might never have been preserved. The NY Times and London
Express make clear that the real hero was Huber, a German who defied Nazi orders to destroy the
files. Army journalist Stefan Heym's 1945 account agrees,
and his lengthy history of the cards dovetails with the
press stories. In other words, every source from that
era -- newspapers, Heym and military records --
contradicts major elements of Thomas' story and
gives credit to Huber for saving the files and alerting American troops to their existence.
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. (He also couldn't recall the unusual color of the cards.) Although it might seem logical to assume Thomas' memory would have gaps so long after the war, his book claims he had a photographic recollection of everything in his life. Think about that: How is it that Thomas' biography is loaded with intricate details, yet when it comes to one of the most momentous finds of the war, he can't accurately describe the scene inside the building or the ID cards whose importance he "immediately understood"? Answer: Because he wasn't there. The most logical conclusion is that Thomas never set foot inside the mill. He simply pocketed a handful of the sample documents brought back by CIC Agent Quaranta. It's also telling that Thomas took no photos of this blockbuster discovery, even though it supposedly happened just days after he was snapping pictures at Dachau.
The kicker to all this is that even if you believe Thomas was at the paper mill, the real hero is still Hans Huber, the mill manager. According to military records, the files were delivered to the mill several weeks before Thomas was even in the vicinity. So if Huber hadn't disobeyed Nazi orders to destroy the documents, there would have been nothing for Thomas or anyone else to "rescue." Without question, Huber is the person responsible for preserving the files, not Thomas.
- 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 suspiciously
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 positive thinking could have saved Holocaust victims from execution. He said if concentration camp prisoners hadn't given up hope and surrendered to the "Siren Song" of death, they could have followed his example of (allegedly) escaping multiple camps. In his biography, Thomas describes fellow inmates slowly “succumbing to their fate. They were gone, as surely as a prisoner on death row is gone long before he reaches the electric chair. Nature seems to provide the condemned man with … a natural anesthetic that floods the conscious mind with an almost euphoric invitation to surrender. … Anyone who accepts the invitation is beyond help. … Death becomes a welcome relief.” Thomas claims he was the only prisoner with enough willpower to ward off this “insidious phenomenon” and escape not one, not two, but three different concentration/slave labor camps.
- 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 article and in no way refutes or undercuts the paper's investigation. Also, as Newsday noted, the Silver Star was not given for American military service. It was for Thomas' work as a French army lieutenant.
Times Editor John Carroll's 2004 statement about Michel
"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
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
exception of Mr. Thomas, all the witnesses are of good
- Prosecutor Pierre Truche,
slamming Thomas' testimony at Klaus Barbie's 1987 trial