The ferocious commitment of the Third Reich to fight to the last man even when World War II provided the occasion (or the pretext) for many of that bloody conflict’s most poignant and pointless deaths.
In these execution-focused pages we have seen the death penalty meted out to ideological enemies whom the Nazis hastened to dispose of in their last hours; almost infinitely more numerous were everyday people who by Berlin’s Götterdämmerung were made so much meat for the ordnance of the advancing Allies.
On this date in 1945, Robert Limpert’s effort to avoid the latter fate for his native Ansbach caused him to suffer the pangs of an entirely gratuitous execution.
Only 19 years old, Limpert had been disqualified from even desperate war’s-end military conscription by a severe heart problem.
He had made little secret of his antiwar views in the earlier years of the war. Even so, it was a deep shock while he was studying at the University of Wurzburg to see that ancient city devastated by a March 16 bombing raid that claimed 5,000 lives and destroyed most of its historic center.
He wandered back to Ansbach horrified, and sure that this city ought not share Wurzburg’s ordeal.
By April 18, American troops were just a few kilometers from the town. Limpert had spent the night before surreptitiously distributing pamphlets calling for a bloodless surrender, as he had on several earlier days. (Sample rhetoric: “Death to the Nazi hangmen.”)
According to Stephen Fritz, who describes this story in detail in his Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Death of the Third Reich, Ansbach was in a state of near-collapse that Wednesday. Party officials were discreetly discarding their soon-to-be-incriminating insignia, and crowds jostled each other to loot canned goods for the prospective months of want ahead.
Though the Ansbach populace was violently hostile to the idea of inviting bombardment by fighting the Americans, word was that the rigorous commandant, Col. Ernst Meyer, did indeed mean to do so. Trying to prevent a disaster from befalling his city, Limpert that morning cut the telephone wires from the Col. Meyer’s command post to the nearby troops at the front — an act observed and reported by two diligent Hitler Youth.
What followed was a cruel exertion of a military machine aggrieved by Limpert’s entirely well-founded lese-majeste. The cut wire didn’t matter at all because the command post had already been abandoned. But it was reported, and policemen and bureaucrats began mindlessly following procedures. “In the chaos, nothing would have been easier than to drop the matter quietly and let Limpert go,” Fritz observes.
Meyer was frenetically trying to organize defenses that did not want to be organized and by the time he caught wind of of the Limpert investigation he was fit to be tied.
“For me,” he said later, “there was no doubt that I had found the man who had already engaged in treason for the past eight days [pamphleting against the war] … While forward in the front lines … brave soldiers risked their lives to defend the homeland, a coward attacked them in the back. I now had to act. I said, ‘Gentlemen, we’ll now immediately form a court-martial …’ Silence everywhere. I had the impression of a certain helplessness.” (Fritz, again)
Meyer’s aides were reluctant to speak. It was obvious that the Americans would occupy Ansbach with hours, but also obvious that an insufficiency of zeal could have any one of them shot on the spot. One or two of them hesitatingly suggested further investigation — an overtly correct notion that would be tantamount to dropping the case under the circumstances.
Meyer brusquely announced, “I sentence Limpert to death by hanging; the sentence will be carried out immediately.” According to Zippold [a constable], Meyer also declared that the entire Limpert family would be executed, whereupon both policem[e]n rushed to their defense. Unwilling to press the issue, Meyer said curtly, “We don’t have any time, let’s get going.”
In NS-Offizier war ich nicht, Col. Meyer’s daughter, Ute Althaus, grapples with his perspective on Limpert’s hanging — which Meyer always felt was justified.
It was past 1 in the afternoon when Meyer stalked out to the entrance of the city hall to conduct the execution personally. While all of Ansbach, all of the western front, sabotaged his frenzied defense of the Reich, Meyer had this boy at his mercy. The colonel poured all of his rectitude and despair into taking away at least this one life.
Nevertheless, Meyer was not an executioner. Nothing was ready for his improvised hanging, and while the colonel tied up the nearest rope he could get someone to fetch him, Robert Limpert twisted away and escaped. He made it maybe 100 yards: no bystander dared to answer his pleas for help as he was tackled, kicked, and dragged back to his gallows.
The story has it that Meyer, after hanging Limpert twice — the noose broke the first time — pinned some of the treasonable pamphlets to the body, then immediately hopped on a bicycle and fled directly out of town. Maybe the folklore has become a bit exaggerated on that point … but he can’t have stayed much longer. The Americans were there by supper time to cut Robert Limpert’s body down.
On this date in 1969, the Central African Republic’s dictator Jean-Bedel Bokassa had his number two condemned for plotting against him, and summarily shot.
Back on New Year’s Eve of 1965, Alexandre Banza had been on the same team as Bokassa in the conspiring business — achieving a rapid promotion from Captain when he leveraged his command of the Camp Kassai military base in support of Bokassa’s successful coup against his (Bokassa’s) cousin, David Dacko.
This was a great career move for Captain Banza, who speedily became Colonel Banza and the Minister of State and Minister of Finance to boot. But it wasn’t long before this made man looked to Bokassa like his main threat.
Notorious for his vanity — a few years after the events of this post, Bokassa, an unabashed admirer of Napoleon, would proclaim himself Emperor of the “Central African Empire” — the chief looked askance at his finance minister’s willingness to challenge Bokassa’s profligacy. Over the year or two prior to Banza’s execution, Bokassa maneuvered to push him away from power … and Banza maneuvered to create a power base for himself from which to launch his own putsch.
In the end it was Camp Kassai that played the decisive role once again. The guy with Banza’s old job as camp commandant, one Lt. Jean-Claude Mandaba, was supposed to be in on the plan, but on the eve of the intended April 9, 1969 coup, he tipped off Bokassa.
As he stepped from his car, Mandaba and a couple of soldiers grabbed him. So fiercely did he struggle to escape that the soldiers had to break one of his arms before overpowering him. The ambushers then tied him up, stuffed him the trunk of a Mercedes, and took him to meet the man he had sought to depose. … [Bokassa] was jubilant at the sight of his former companion-in-arms being brought to him in chains. Banza was in poor shape after the journey to Berengo, but his torments were only beginning. Bokassa launched the interrogation by beating the prisoner almost senseless with his ever-present walking stick.
Bokassa was only narrowly dissuaded from thrashing this turncoat to death on the spot, and instead consented to a pro forma military tribunal — although rumors of the pre-death punishment visited on Banza once he was captured have muddied the waters quite a bit. Banza was reportedly hailed before the Cabinet and personally brutalized by Bokassa; Le Monde even reported that he’d been outright killed in this meeting and dragged through the streets by soldiers.
Bokassa was deposed by the French in 1979,* and condemned to death in absentia the following year. The former strongman voluntarily returned from exile in 1986 to face trial for a variety of abuses during his reign; his treatment of Alexandre Banza — and that of Banza’s family, a number of whom were arrested and some “disappeared” — formed part of the very extensive charge sheet. Though sentenced to death himself in that trial, Bokassa’s sentence was eventually commuted. The ex-emperor lived out his last years in a private home of his former capital.
On the night of the crime, Hopper and four other soldiers were hanging out in a cafe in the town of Welkenraedt, Belgium, just outside of Liege. Just after midnight, Hopper got into an argument with one of his companions, Private Randolph Jackson Jr.
The two men argued frequently and the other three in the group were used to it, and didn’t take them seriously when they started threatening to shoot each other. Finally Private Jackson handed Hopper his gun, presumably daring him to shoot. Hopper shot him dead, then told the witnesses, “You didn’t see nothing.”
At his court-martial, he did not testify and there was no defense. Hopper protested about this later, saying he didn’t get a fair trial: “My Defense Counsel said he was going to tell them. Told me to stay silent. So, he got up and told them I wasn’t guilty. He didn’t say much else.”
Unlike many military men sentenced to death during World War II, Hopper showed remorse for what he had done. Still he asked for leniency and penned a letter to General Eisenhower beginning:
Dear Sir, I was tried for mudder and the court find me guilty and sences me to be hong Sir. And Sir I am asking you to please Sir look in to this mader close Sir for me because I have made a great mucstake Sir and wont you give me another chanch in the armey.
Hopper’s IQ tested at 50, putting him in the moderately mentally retarded range, and a psychiatrist who evaluated him stated he had a mental age of about nine, “bordering on mental deficiency.” Someone with that degree of mental disability would not be permitted to be executed today.
Some people argued that the death sentence should be commuted to life in prison, citing Hopper’s intellectual impairment and the lack of premeditation. Weighing against that was his prior recorded offenses of going AWOL and being in Liege without an official pass. The Brigadier General who reviewed the case recommended that the death sentence stand, and Eisenhower agreed.
Hopper died on a clear, warm morning in Le Mans, France. At 11:00 a.m., his hands and ankles were bound and he said his last words to the chaplain: “Father, I would like you to write to my mother.” The trap sprung at 11:01 and Hopper was pronounced dead at 11:24.
As a Shia religious party, Al-Dawa stood starkly at odds with the Sunni-based and secular Ba’ath dictatorship — and Sadr faced state harassment throughout the 1970s. Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, whose leadership explicitly took inspiration from Sadr, Baghdad eliminated Sadr fearing he might lead a similar uprising in Iraq’s Shia south. (Sadr’s sister Amina al-Sadr — known as Bint al-Huda — was also arrested and executed around the same time.)
And Saddam Hussein may have been quite right to fear this. The name Sadr, of course, will be familiar to any observer of contemporary Iraq — for Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr’s son-in-law Muqtada al-Sadr today holds sway in the south and in Baghdad’s Shia stronghold, Sadr City.
* Iraq’s president from 2006 to 2014, Nouri al-Maliki, represented the Dawa Party. He was known to show off to guests the ring that Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr attained his martyrdom.
George Cudmore was on March 25, 1830 executed at Devon County Gaol, the present-day site of Exeter Prison.
Wanting to run off with his mistress, Cudmore slipped his wife a lethal dose of the 19th century’s prolific domestic assassin, arsenic. But suspecting the foul play, the surgeon opened Grace Cudmore’s belly and found the incriminating powder. At trial, Cudmore was convicted of the murder while the mistress, Sarah Dunn, was acquitted — somewhat to her own surprise.
The man’s strange last request was for Dunn to witness his hanging — grandly justified as a means to scare straight his ex-lover’s amoral libido. (Dunn already had four children out of wedlock at this point.) Exeter’s Western Times (March 27, 1830) reported that the ghastly sight of her Cudmore’s strangling on the rope “sunk [Dunn] down, and violent hysterics deprived her for awhile, of any further consciousness.”
More strange by far than the man’s late turn to righteousness was the disposal of his remains.
Austria’s last execution took place on this date in 1950. Johann Trnka, murderer of a 51-year-old widow and her maid — the late Hermine Kolle’s apartment became popularly notorious as the Grauen Haus (“horror house”) after Trnka had finished with it* — holds the distinction.
Austria abolished the death penalty for ordinary civilian crimes on June 30 of that same year, and for all crimes in 1968. It’s gone, but naturally not forgotten; German speakers might enjoy this short pdf survey of the annals of Austrian executioners.
David Cobb, Private, Company C, 827th Engineer Battalion (Aviation), on March 12, 1943 achieved the milestone distinction of becoming the first U.S. soldier executed in Great Britain.
On December 27, 1942 — a mere 11 days after arriving in Britain — Cobb was ordered by a Lt. Robert Cobner to surrender his weapon when the private popped off to him during a routine inspection. Instead, Cobb shot Cobner dead.
He was hanged by the British executioner Thomas Pierrepoint at Shepton Mallet prison — a fortress dating to 1610 and still in use to the present day. The U.S. Army employed part of the prison during World War II to carry out 18 military executions; over half of these men were, like Cobb, black.
Igo Sym tickles the ivories in Zona i nie zona (Wife and No Wife) … his last role.
On this date in 1941, the Germans occupying Poland took revenge for the loss of an artist.
Handsome Austrian-born silver screen luminary Igo Sym, whose silent film credits included roles opposite Marlene Dietrich and Lillian Harvey, had become a prominent fixture of the Warsaw stage when the Germans overran Poland in 1939.
This attracted the hostility of the Polish underground, which secretly condemned him to death — and executed that sentence on the morning of March 7, 1941, with a knock at Sym’s apartment door and a sudden 9 mm pistol.
In punishment for this gesture of national defiance, all of Warsaw was clapped under a harsh curfew and dozens of hostages seized as surety for the public’s promptly rendering the actor’s murderers for punishment. But the assassins were not so delivered: in revenge, the Germans executed 21 hostages at the nearby village of Palmiry.* Two University of Warsaw professors were among those hostages, biologist Stefan Kopec and historian Kazimierz Zakrzewski.
* Palmiry had the sorrow to host numerous similar mass-executions during the German occupation of Warsaw. Over 2,000 bodies have been recovered from the site.
Polish hostages (not necessarily those of March 11, 1941) being readied for execution at Palmiry. This photo (and others) via the Polish Wikipedia page on war crimes in Palmiry.
On this date in 1996, Antonio James downed a last meal of fried oysters and crab gumbo, then went to the death chamber of Angola Prison to suffer lethal injection for the murder of Henry Silver.
Silver was a 70-year-old fellow whom James shot dead in a New Orleans robbery way back in 1979. (Net return: $35.) A few weeks later, he bungled another robbery and ended up shot with his own gun … and under arrest. It was his second murder conviction. Although James dodged 13 death dates and was the senior figure on the state’s death row when his time came, his was pretty unremarkable as death penalty cases go.
This did chance to be the first execution in Louisiana after the film Dead Man Walking (which is set in that state) was released, and it got a bit of additional media coverage as a consequence.
Well, he was laying there, and then he kind of grabbed my hand, so I held his hand, and then I told him, ‘He’s waiting for us. Get ready, we’re going for the ride.’ And I said, ‘The angels are here.’ He kind of smiled, and he said, ‘Bless you.’ That’s the last words he said. And then I nodded my head to go ahead. He was holding my hand real tight. And then after a couple of minutes, he took about three or four deep breaths, and then he relaxed my hand. I do believe right now his soul is in heaven, and he’s OK. And since I believe that, it makes it easier.
When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, it committed a disproportionate quantity of its forces to the northern reaches of its target. Consequently, resistance was stronger in the south — and Ras Desta was one of its chiefs. In January 1936 he led Ethipoian forces at the Battle of Ganale Doria.
Though the two sides had forces of similar sizes, Italy’s was the mechanized, industrial army — and the Ras was routed by Gen. Rodolfo Graziani. It was a milepost for Graziani on his way to lasting infamy in Ethiopia as the conquered realm’s brutal Viceroy for 1937. (He was recalled at year’s end.) Graziani vowed that Italy would dominate Ethiopia “at whatever cost” and threatened “extreme severity towards anyone who resisted.”
On February 19, 1937 — Yekatit 12 by the Ethiopian calendar — two ethnic Eritreans expressed their resistance by pelting Graziani with grenades. He had shown his viceregal person at a hearts-and-minds almsgiving, and having been received with such cordiality, he returned immediately to the Extreme Severity plan.
While doctors dug shrapnel out of Graziani, somehow saving his life, an aide named Guido Cortese condemned up to 30,000** humans to punitive death with a dread order:
Comrades, today is the day when we should show our devotion to our Viceroy by reacting and destroying the Ethiopians for three days. For three days I give you carte blanche to destroy and kill and do what you want to the Ethiopians.
For the next several days, Italian forces delivered a punitive rampage to their new subjects, claiming up to 30,000 lives.**
Desta Damtew, who had been lucky to flee the battlefield slaughter after Ganale Doria, was not directly a casualty off this three days’ bloodbath, but when he was captured in the bush along with fellow insurgent commander Beyene Merid, no-quarter treatment was a given. Both men were immediately shot.
The flow’r of a nation’s strength
Had thrown their valour and their might
Against the charging hordes of death
In history’s most unequal fight!
One man remained — the last of them —
To stand for Ethiopia:
All else surrendered, died or fled
But, he, the lion-hearted-Ras Desta.
Graziani, Italian butcher
Had valiant Desta quickly shot,
To seal his lips and tie his hands
In fear of what he called a plot.
With death of such a noble man,
A reign has passed to history;
But time will bring to us again
More men to fight for victory.
* Ras is a title, literally meaning “Head” and akin to “Prince” or “Duke”. Before he was royalty, Haile Selassie was born Tafari Makonnen, and then eventually known as Ras Tafari … hence, rastafarianism.
** According to Ethiopian figures. Italy’s numbers put the post-Yekatit 12 casualties “merely” in the hundreds.