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." 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 2001, Thomas' publicist asked a Los Angeles Times reporter to write 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 (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 inducted.

  • 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 his veracity.
Dachau gate
  • 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 conceded 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 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. 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.

  • 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 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 in a sworn affidavit for his unsuccessful libel lawsuit. The first claim is also suspect, especially 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 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 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 it 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 rich 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.

    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. If Huber hadn't disobeyed Nazi orders to destroy the files, which were delivered to the mill several weeks before Thomas was in the vicinity, there would have been nothing for anyone to "rescue."

  • 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.

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