On November 7, 1918, mere days before the end of World War I, British privates Louis Harris and Ernest Jackson were shot for desertion and cowardice. Jackson, of the 24th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, and Harris, of the 10th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment, were the last British soldiers shot for military offenses in the First World War.
Jackson had been conscripted into the military in July 1916 and sent to France in November. He first ran into trouble in April 1917, when he went AWOL for 28 hours and was sentenced to two years in prison. In most cases the sentence would have been suspended, but for some reason that didn’t happen with Jackson and he spent sixteen months behind bars before he was released and returned to his battalion in August 1918.
A little over a month later, on September 29, he disappeared from his battalion transport lines near Flesquières, where he’d been sick and waiting to be sent to the field ambulance.
Arrested on October 3, Jackson got sent back to the to the 24th Battalion, which was then at Noyelles, 3,000 yards from the front lines. By mid-afternoon he had dropped out of sight again, but was arrested by the military police the next day at Douellens. On October 8, Jackson’s NCO found his arms and equipment in a shelter not far from where he’d gone missing.
Jackson faced a Field General Court Martial (FGCM) on three charges:
Going AWOL on September 29
Deserting on October 4
“Shamefully casting away his arms, ammunition and equipment in the presence of the enemy” on October 4
When asked to explain himself before the tribunal, Jackson said, “I left because I could not stand the treatment I was receiving. I wanted to get away from everything … I have been looked down on by everyone and that is the cause of my being here today.” He added that both his parents had died in insane asylums and he himself suffered from “mental problems caused by worries.”
The FGCM would have none of it and sentenced Jackson to death. He was shot at St. Python in northern France at 6:10 a.m. He was 32 years old.
Nineteen minutes later and 25 kilometers away, at Locquignol, Private Louis Harris faced the firing squad.
Harris had volunteered for the Army in 1915, but was discharged as unfit. He got conscripted in 1916, however, and was sent to France in July, where he served as part of a Lewis gun team. On September 2, in the middle of an attack at Rocquigny, while there was “no firing and practically no opposition,” Harris ditched his kit and his comrades and vanished. He was arrested the next day and faced an FGCM for desertion and cowardice.
Harris — surprisingly … was not defended at his trial and made no attempt to cross-examine any of the witnesses, nor did he make a statement in his own defence. It would appear that the 23-year-old soldier either did not understand the seriousness of his position, or was resigned to his fate.
He was found not guilty of cowardice, but guilty of desertion, and his bad record (which included repeated charges of insubordination) was held against him. His CO wrote, “Pte. Harris L. has not got a good record in this Battalion. His fighting value is NIL.” The Brigade Commander agreed, summing up his case thusly:
I recommend that the extreme penalty be carried out for the following reasons:
Pte. Harris’s action was deliberate.
He has previously attempted to desert unsuccessfully.
He is worthless as a soldier.
During an action he deliberately abandoned his comrades.
His example is a disgraceful one.
Harris’s execution was, as previously stated, the last. Four days later on November 11, the war ended and all death sentences for military offenses were commuted to penal servitude. In 1929 the death penalty was abolished for desertion and other military crimes.
This dispatch to the New York Herald was published on June 16, 1863.
Mr. W. Young’s Letter.
Near Beallton Station, Va., June 14, 1863.
THE DESERTER J.P. WOOD.
John P. Wood, of Company F, Nineteenth Indiana, who had deserted once or twice before, again deserted on the 28th of May, and was subsequently arrsted at Aquia Creek, tried by court martial, and sentenced to be shot on Friday last.
Wood was about nineteen years old, quite intelligent, and when arrested was dressed in rebel uniform and represented himself as belonging to the Nineteenth Tennessee.
He alleged that he deserted because he had come to the conclusion that the war was not right, and he could not therefore go into action. He admitted that when he volunteered his views were somewhat different, and that he enlisted because he did not wish to see the Union dissolved.
He regarded his sentence as just, and expressed the belief that his execution for desertion would be of more service to the army than he could render it in any other manner.
THE EXECUTION, AND THE EFFECT UPON THE ARMY.
As this is the first instance of an execution for desertion in the Army of the Potomac, it created considerable sensation.
The sentence was executed upon the prisoner on Friday, near Berea church. About two P.M., near Berea church, the corps was halted. The First brigade was ordered out, with the balance of the division to which the prisoner belonged, the First brigade in advance.
Two ambulances, in the first of which was seated the prisoner, and the other containing his coffin, at the head of the division, advanced about half a mile, when the division was drawn up, occupying three sides of an oblong parallelogram. On the fourth side were placed the coffin, the criminal and the guard. The men were selected to do the firing, and received their muskets from the guard properly loaded.
HIS LAST MOMENTS.
A clergyman —- was with the prisoner, who displayed no emotion. General Wadsworth then went to the men who were to perform the duty of execution, and spoke to them in regard to the disagreeable nature of the duty to be performed — the shooting of a comrade — and urged them, as a matter of humanity, to take good aim.
The General then returned to the right, Colonel Morrow to the left. The guard was then withdrawn, and the Provost Marshall, Lieutenant Rogers, took the prisoner to the coffin, upon which he was seated, his eyes blindfolded, his hands tied behind him, his knees tied together and his breast bared.
All having retired, except the executions and the Provost Marshal, the order to take aim was given. Before the order to fire was given two pieces were discharged, but without effect.
At the order to fire, the remainder of the men — ten in number — fired. The prisoner fell backward, and the Provost Marshal went up to him. He struggled for an instant, and then all was over.
An additional detail from the Pioneer corps were called up and began to dig the grave, and the division marched off in perfect order, much impressed by the solemn scene which they had witnessed.
On this date in 1945, five days after the Germans had surrendered to the Allies in World War II, two deserting sailors were shot at Amsterdam.
Dorfer (top) and Beck.
The strangest thing: Bruno Dorfer and Rainer Beck were deserters of the Wehrmacht’s Kriegsmarine … and they were shot by a court-martial conducted by the Wehrmacht itself.
This surprising and shameful story is told in full by Chris Madsen in “Victims of Circumstance: The Execution of German Deserters by Surrendered German Troops Under Canadian Control in Amsterdam, May 1945,” a 1993 Canadian Military History journal article available online in pdf form.
Basically, a pocket of fortified German resistance remained hunkered down in the Netherlands as the war approached its close. That force of 150,000 surrendered to a much smaller number of Canadians on May 5 on terms that maintained German responsibility for administering its armed forces and the civilian areas under its control — a highly anomalous situation in an occupied country as the Third Reich winked out of existence altogether.
Canadians and Germans, according to Madsen, enjoyed a collegial relationship as the Canadians gradually took German forces into custody … or received German forces who helpfully marched themselves into custody. But even under guard, these “imprisoned” Germans still retained significant autonomy and a German command structure that Canadians were loath to interfere with — an arrangement so expedient that it severely tested the bounds of propriety. So invested were the Canadians in maintaining their opposite numbers’ unit cohesion* that they handed some deserters (and plenty of men were deserting the German army) back over to the nominal prisoners!
Rainer Beck had been deserted for the best part of a year: the son of a Social Democratic father and a Jewish mother, he’d ditched harbor defense the previous September and had been laying low with his sister in Amsterdam. Bruno Dorfer was a more recent deserter. They naturally assumed that with the Canadian takeover, they’d be good to go: they turned themselves in to Canadian soldiers with an eye towards regularizing their status.
They were in for quite a surprise, as Madsen relates:
Major Oliver Mace, acting commanding officer of the Canadian regiment, ordered Major J. Dennis Pierce, the company commander in charge of the former factory [where the German prisoners were being held], to place the two deserters inside the compound because “they were certainly Germans and we had no other place to put them.” …
At 1005 hours on 13 May 1945, Pierce informed 2 Canadian Infantry Brigade of the intended German course of action: “German Marine deserters being tried this morning. German Commander intends [to] shoot them.” The German camp leadership established a Standgericht or a court martial within the camp … [and] brought Dorfer and Beck before three officers, a team of military lawyers “whom Pierce himself had ‘put in the bag’ in the streets of Amsterdam earlier in the week.” [Fregattenkapitan Alexander] Stein regarded the proceedings as a show trial for his authority. At the insistence of the German naval commander, the entire camp population witnessed the event. A parade state, taken earlier that morning, counted 1,817 German marines inside the camp. The two accused, represented by a German military lawyer, underwent rigorous cross-examination before this large staring crowd … Oberleutnantnginieur Frank Trmal, a young German officer present at the fifteen-minute trial, remembered Beck’s defense:
For some reason Beck, who was older, decided to defend himself and told the court that we (the Germans) all knew several weeks ago the war was all over for us and that it was a matter of time before we surrendered. He told the captain and the court that any further fighting by us against the Canadians would be senseless bloodshed. With this the captain jumped to his feet in a rage, screaming at Beck that he was calling all ofus, his comrades, and his officers, murderers. It is something that I will never forget.
After the inevitable-yet-incredible conviction, Stein appealed to his Canadian guards for a bit of comradely assistance in carrying out the court-martial’s order.
The Seaforth Highlanders obligingly delivered up eight captured German rifles with ammunition, plus a heavy truck to help their “prisoners” execute their deserters. A Canadian military cable testifies in its clipped and plaintive language to the egregious moral vacuum afflicting the chummy occupation: “German marines in Amsterdam have picked up some of their own deserters. They have been tried by military law and sentenced to be shot. May they do this.”
The answer was determined not by any senior Canadian officer, but by the German high commander who had surrendered the Dutch pocket the week before, Johannes Blaskowitz. It was on his approval that Dorfer and Beck were shot against an air raid shelter wall at 1740, not eight hours after their bizarre public trial.
When the story surfaced publicly in 1966 as a result of Der Spiegel investigations, Stein was unrepentant. “Beck would never have been a credit to Germany anyway,” he told the Globe and Mail (Oct. 28, 1966). “Deserters only turn into criminals in civil life too.”
This execution is dramatized in the 1969 Italian-Yugoslav film Dio è con noi (The Fifth Day of Peace, also released as Gott mit Uns and The Firing Squad).
it is a fact that many captured German units were secretly kept in readiness for possible use against the Red Army. Churchill, who not without reason had a high opinion of the fighting quality of the German soldiers, gave Field Marshall Montgomery an order to that effect during the last days of the war, as he was to acknowledge publicly much later in November 1954. He arranged for Wehrmacht troops who had surrendered in northwest Germany and in Norway to retain their uniforms and even their weapons, and to remain under the command of their own officers, because he thought of their potential use in hostilities against the Soviets. In the Netherlands, German units that had surrendered to the Canadians were even allowed to use their own weapons on May 13, 1945, to execute two of their own deserters!
But it was for what Pickett did on this date in 1864 — much less well-recalled today but to the 1864 New York Times correspondent exemplifying “the madness of rebel leaders” — that he had to flee to Canada after the war, for fear of being prosecuted for committing a war crime.
North Carolina men in particular had a reputation (of arguable veracity) for absenting themselves; and, as the state as a whole was the most reluctant (and last) seceder, no small number of those deserters were ducking out for ideological reasons. Plenty of onetime Confederate conscripts who conceived greater loyalty to the Union than to their state shed gray uniforms for blue.
Licking his wounds from the New Bern sortie down the road at Kinston, Pickett recognized a couple of his prisoners as his own former soldiers. They had a testy exchange with the beaten general, and Pickett had them up for a summary court martial in a flash. On February 5, Joe Haskett and David Jones were hanged for desertion.
There followed an interesting exchange between the rival commanders.
Intending to forestall any tit-for-tat killings of POWs, the Union general warned Pickett to treat them humanely.
Dept. of Virginia and North Carolina, Confederate Army:
General: I have the honor to include a list of 53 soldiers of the U. S. Government who are supposed to have fallen into your hands on your late hasty retreat from before New Berne. They are the loyal and true North Carolinians and duly enlisted in the Second North Carolina Infantry. I ask for them the same treatment in all respects as you will mete out to other prisoners of war.
I am, very respectfully, your obedient servant, JOHN J PECK
Pickett must not have appreciated having his martial prowess busted on by his opposite number, because he returned a sarcastic reply promising to use Peck’s list to identify deserters. (In a subsequent letter, he threatened to meet retaliations with 10-for-1 hangings. Pickett showed an “imperious and vaunting temper” in the postwar judgment of Attorney General Holt. Or more directly put, he comes off as an asshole.)
GENERAL: Your communication of the 13th instant is at hand. I have the honor to state in my reply that you have made a slight mistake in regard to numbers, 325 having “fallen into your(our) hands in your (our) late hasty retreat from before New Berne,” instead of the list of 53 with which you have so kindly furnished me, and which will enable me to bring to justice many who have up to this time escaped their just deserts. I herewith return you the names of those who have been tried and convicted by court-martial for desertion from the Confederate service and taken with arms in hand, “duly enlisted in the Second North Carolina Infantry, U S Army.” They have been duly executed according to law and the custom of war.
Your letter and list will, of course, prevent any mercy being shown any of the remaining number, should proper and just proof be brought of their having deserted the Confederate colors, many of these men pleading in extenuation that they have been forced into the ranks of the Federal Government.
Extending to you my thanks for your opportune list,
I remain, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
G. E. PICKETT
He did it, too.
The Confederate chaplain John Paris recounted for his side’s press the scene, a baker’s dozen of men on a large platform, heads sacked, an unknown cross-eyed executioner waiting to strip the bodies of their clothes as payment. Most were local boys, dying shockingly under the eyes of their own family and acquaintances. Reportedly, a number of shaken Confederate soldiers deserted to New Bern after witnessing the scene.
The thirteen marched to the gallows with apparent resignation. Some of them I hope were prepared for their doom. Others I fear were not. On the scaffold they were all arranged in one row. At a given signal, the trap fell, and they were in eternity in a few moments. The scene was truly appalling. But it was as truly the deserters doom. Many of them said I never expected to come to such a end as this. But yet were deserters, and as such they ought to have expected such a doom. The names of these misguided men were, John I Brock, Wm. Haddock, Jesse Summerlin, A I Brittain, Wm. Jones, Lewis Freeman, Calvin Huffman, Stephen Jones, Joseph Brock, Lewis Taylor, Charles Cuthrell, W. C. Daughtry and John Freeman.
The knell of vengeance has sounded. … deserters in North Carolina must now open their eyes, from the mountain to the seaboard. Desertion has become in our army a desperate disease, and desperate cases require desperate remedies. Let fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and wives, exhort their friends at all times to be faithful to their country under all circumstances.
In all, 22 alleged deserters hanged over the course of February in this affair, the 13 executed together on February 15 obviously accounting for the lion’s share. The incident is the likely inspiration for the novella published later in 1864 by a Confederate North Carolina cavalryman: The Deserter’s Daughter; most certainly, Kinston made the rounds in the North to great indignation.
And an event so notorious was bound to draw attention with the end of the war: even in 1864, the New York Times had editorialized demanding “instant and relentless retaliation … there could be no such thing as acquiescence or empty protest. Even if the Government could bring itself to this abject mood, the public indignation would not tolerate it.” Officers who had been stationed at New Bern did not neglect to keep this sentiment alive in the chain of command, pushing for punitive action to avenge their former comrades.
In the end, there would be none.
Playing it safe, Pickett skipped out for Canada (and even changed his appearance) in 1865 as a board appointed by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton opined that he and other parties to the hangings were “guilty of crimes too heinous to be excused by the United States government … there should be a military commission immediately appointed for [their] trial … to inflict upon [them] their just punishment.” That was especially so as it emerged that some of the hanged had “deserted” from stuff like bridge guards and state militias — not (in the view of prosecution-minded Unionists) the Confederate army proper.
But as the investigations continued into 1866, they zeroed in on Pickett as their specific target. And, they ran out of steam — or into a stone wall.
In 1866, Pickett appealed from exile to Ulysses S. Grant, who just so happened to be an old West Point chum of Pickett’s.* “Certain evil disposed persons,” Pickett wrote, “are attempting to re-open the troubles of the past.” With the Supreme Court’s Ex parte Milligan ruling, the prospect of a military tribunal evaporated.
Grant had the case shelved, even against Congressional appeals, until everybody just gave up and dropped it. “I do not see how good, either to the friends of the deceased, or by fixing an example for the future, can be secured by his trial now,” Grant said once of his old associate. Plus ça change.
* In fairness to U.S. Grant, we are bound to report his stated reason for opposing any prosecution of Pickett: it would violate the grant of clemency he himself had made to secure General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox.
Each black soldier resolved for himself the quandary caused by service against the insurrectos. Some, like Lieutenant David Gilmer, believed their unswerving dedication would ultimately improve the lot of all black people. Others simply reasserted their faith in America: “all the enemies of the U.S. government look alike … hence we go along with the killing, just as with other people.” But the Filipinos recognized the existence of the black soldier’s dilemma by advocating racial solidarity against white oppressors and by offering commissions to defectors.**
Here’s an example appeal the Philippine resistance made to black U.S. troopers (source):
It is without honor that you are spilling your costly blood. Your masters have thrown you into the most iniquitous fight with double purpose — to make you the instrument of their ambition and also your hard work will soon make the extinction of your race. Your friends, the Filipinos, give you this good warning. You must consider your situation and your history; and take charge that the blood of … Sam Hose [a recent lynch mob victim] proclaims vengeance.
It was very small numbers actually induced by such messages to go so far as desertion. Leave hearth and home behind forever to fight a guerrilla resistance on the far side of the world against an overwhelming empire liable to kill you on sight? That’s a difficult sell.
But there were some buyers. Some 29 known African-American deserters are known, according to E. San Juan, Jr., most famously David Fagen, an enlisted man in the U.S. Army commissioned a captain in the Filipino resistance. And others not prepared to go all the way over nonetheless understood the appeal. One African-American soldier wrote to a Filipino friend lamenting the sight of white Americans “establish[ing] their diabolical race hatred in all its home rancor in Manila … the future of the Filipino, I fear, is that of the Negro in the South.”
When the letter was found, its author, Sgt. Major John W. Galloway, was demonstratively busted to private and dishonorably discharged.
“One ever feels his twoness,” W.E.B. DuBois mused of the black American experience at about this time in The Souls of Black Folk. “An American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body.”
Soldiers of the 9th Cavalry on Luzon Island.
Edmond† Dubose and Lewis Russell, whose firsthand voice we do not have, must have felt those unreconciled strivings, too. These two enlisted men slipped out of the 9th Cavalry‡ in August 1901 while that regiment was conducting anti-insurgency operations in Albay, and were next seen fighting with those same insurgents.
Captured, they were among approximately 20 U.S. soldiers death-sentenced for desertion.
General Adna Chaffee, a veteran of the U.S. Indian Wars and latterly fresh from crushing China’s Boxer Rebellion, approved the hangings — as did the U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt. (Roosevelt later announced that future desertion cases would not be capitally punished, so Dubose and Russell were the only two executed for that crime during the U.S. war against Philippine independence.)
* Army and Navy Journal, XXXVII (Nov. 11, 1899)
** Michael C. Robinson and Frank N. Schubert, “David Fagen, An Afro-American Rebel in the Philippines, 1899-1901,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 44, No. 1 (Feb., 1975)
This account of an incident during the 1727 Spanish siege of Gibraltar, where the British army garrisoned, comes from an unknown soldier who signed himself only
December 9th. Last night a deserter clambered up within a little of Willis’s battery and was assisted by a ladder of ropes by our men. When the officers came to examine his face, they found him to have deserted out of the Royal Irish two months ago. Asking the reason of his return, he said he chose rather to be hanged than continue in the Spanish service, so is to have his choice.
It is not positively stated that the hanging itself did take place on this date. Since we concern ourselves in these doleful pages with the circumstances under which life becomes dispensable, an assortment of other anecdotes from this same soldier’s journal helpfully illustrate the life of British soldiery at the Pillars of Hercules.
March 9th. Came a deserter who reports that while our guns were firing at them an officer pulled off his hat, huzzaed and called God to damn us all, when one of our balls with unerring justice took off the miserable man’s head and left him a wretched example of the Divine justice.
April 12th. A recruit refused to work, carry arms, eat or drink was whipped for the fifth time, after which being asked by the officer he said he was now ready to do his duty.May 7th. This morning Ensign Stubbs of Colonel Egerton’s regiment retired a little out of camp and shot himself.
June 17th. Today two corporals of the Guards boxed over a rail until both expired, nobody can tell for what reason.
October 11th. One of Pearce’s regiment went into the belfry of a very high steeple, threw himself into the street, and broke his skull to pieces.
October 16th. Will Garen, who broke his back, was hanged.
January 2 1728. Here is nothing to do nor any news, all things being dormant and in suspense, with the harmless diversions of drinking, dancing, revelling, whoring, gaming and other innocent debaucheries to pass the time — and really, to speak my own opinion I think and believe that Sodom and Gomorrah were not half so wicked and profane as this worthy city and garrison of Gibraltar.
Model of a soldier being flogged on present-day display in the remains of Gibraltar’s fortifications. The adjacent explanatory placard reads: “Under siege conditions, the mixture of tension, boredom, hunger and alcohol meant that discipline had to be strict if order was to be preserved. One of the most common forms of punishment was flogging with a nine tailed whip. A drummer in a regiment, which later became the Lancashire Fusiliers, achieved fame as the most flogged man in the British Army. In his first years here [in Gibraltar] he received 30,000 lashes, of which 4,000 were administered in a single year.”
On this date in 1778, Patrick McMullen was hanged on the Philadelphia commons for deserting, repeatedly, the Continental Army.
This poor fellow had started off (promisingly enough for the colonies) by deserting the British.
Such documentation as remains easily accessible isn’t very detailed about his pre-war background; the British had recently passed a Recruiting Act authorizing press gangs to shanghai Scotsmen into the royal army, but that measure was only 99 days old at this time. There were also many Scots-Irish who had already immigrated to the Pennsylvania colony or thereabouts.
This Irishman, however, enlisted pre-1775 in the British 38th Regiment of Foot, deserted, presumably served in a Continental Army unit at some point thereafter, and then by 1778 was back in British colors for the Battle of Monmouth, after which he deserted once again. Maybe he even changed teams four times, instead of twice.
“A good number of men switched sides, some several times, during the war,” said Don Hagist of the fascinating British Soldiers, American Revolution blog. “For many of them it did not impugn their reputations as soldiers; for example, many British prisoners of war escaped from captivity, joined in the American army as a means to get close to the front lines, then deserted again to rejoin the British army.
“At least, that is the story they’d give when brought to trial. Even when acquitted, sometimes these same men deserted yet again. When McMullen returned to the British army, he may have given the popular story that he was kidnapped by Bostonians and carried away from the garrison. This happened to a number of British soldiers in 1774 and early 1775; some turned up years later and gave their stories in court.”
Philadelphia’s Revolutionary military governor at this time was Benedict Arnold — still two years from his infamous betrayal, but even now finding himself stressed by the revolutionary extremism of his charges. Never a fire-eater himself, Arnold personally wrote to the Continental Congress with his own pitch for showing McMullen a bit of brotherly love, vouchsafing the view that our deserter’s culpability was “is in his [Arnold’s] opinion insufficient” to warrant execution.
A Congressional committee respectfully disagreed, judging McMullen “a person of a most atrocious character” and directed that the hanging proceed.
On this date in 1917, Romanian Lieutenant Emil Rebreanu was hanged for attempted desertion by the Austro-Hungarian army.
Here’s Rebreanu’s entry at the Enciclopedia Romaniei, which says in brief that he was one of 14 (!) brothers born in the part of present-day Romania that was then attached to the Kingdom of Hungary.
Upon the outbreak of World War I, Rebreanu was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian forces and fought on several fronts. But his removal to the lines to fight against the independent Romanian state was a front too far: he attempted to cross the lines to the Romanians on the night of May 10-11, but was captured, court-martialed, and sentenced to hang.
However, tragedy for the sizable Rebreanu family was a boon to world literature.
One of Emil’s many brothers was author Liviu Rebreanu, one of the greats of Romanian letters.
The latter’s 1922 novel Forest of the Hanged clearly draws upon his brother’s fate: in Forest, a Romanian officer uneasily serving in the Habsburg army first condemns a Czech deserter to death as part of a tribunal, then attempts himself to desert to Romania.
On this date in 1945, Waffen-SS officer Hermann Fegelein was shot in the Reich Chancellery’s basement, or else its garden.
“One of the most disgusting people in Hitler’s circle,” in the estimation of Albert Speer, this rank opportunist had found his way there via Heinrich Himmler’s patronage.
On June 3, 1944, Fegelein married right into Hitler’s personal clique by tying the knot with Gretl Braun — sister of longtime Hitler mistress Eva Braun. Hitler and Himmler were both official witnesses.
Fegelein still found plenty of time to party and womanize for the eleven remaining months that he and national socialism had a run of the place. But as a rank opportunist, he also had his antenna up for a post-Nazi arrangement by the spring of 1945. Here, his proximity to power did him no favors.
Posted directly to Hitler’s bunker as Himmler’s personal representative, the guy would have a harder time than some anonymous bureaucrat in slipping out of besieged Berlin.* When he absented himself from the bunker for two full days, Hitler himself noticed.
Having obviously been attempting to desert, Fegelein was in a fix when he was hauled back to the bunker.
Unluckily for Fegelein, this was also the date that Reuters reported news that his patron Himmler had attempted to surrender Nazi Germany to the U.S. and Britain — news that made its way into the hands of a livid Hitler. You’ve got Fegelein trying to defect (incidentally inviting Eva Braun to come with), his boss is selling right out, and he’s consorting with a potential mole.
According to James O’Donnell, Hitler and his loyal satrap Martin Bormann were obsessed with leaks in the last days of the war, and the circumstances of Fegelein’s capture conspired to make him look like a potential source of those leaks.
As the Fuhrerbunker consumed itself in paranoia, Fegelein — only slowly sobering up — disappeared into the hands of the Gestapo, and was shot. His body, presumably abandoned with other casualties of little interest to Berlin’s conquerors, was never recovered.
Hundreds of kilometers to the south on the same day, Hitler’s longtime Italianate partner Benito Mussolini was getting his. It would be a stark warning to Germany’s fading dictator not to let the same fate befall him.
Hours after Hermann Fegelein’s execution, his sister-in-law Eva finally wed Adolf Hitler … and on April 30, those two took their lives together.
A week after Hermann Fegelein’s execution, on May 5, his widow bore him a posthumous daughter: Eva Barbara Fegelein, named after the child’s late famous aunt.
* Fegelein had actually been out in Bavaria with Himmler — “safe”, relative to what happened to him — but taken a hazardous flight back into besieged Berlin just a couple of weeks before his death. He was either trying to be Himmler’s dutiful personal plant in the bunker, or trying to use his posting as a pretext to retrieve for the perilous postwar years the many valuables he had cached in Berlin.
Throughout the last days of the Third Reich, it ruthlessly forced its desperate conscripts by threat of summary execution into service to slow the overwhelming Soviet army.
Borrowing a page from Gen. Ferdinand Schoerner‘s no-mercy demonstrative hangings of any “straggler” found behind front lines without orders, Goebbels
issued a radio proclamation to the trapped troops [of Berlin]: “Any man found not doing his duty will be hanged from a lamp post after a summary judgment. Moreover, placards will be attached to the corpses stating: ‘I have been hanged here because I am too cowardly to defend the capital of the Reich. I have been hanged because I did not believe in the Fuhrer. I am a deserter and for this reason I shall not see this turning point in history.
SS members, aware that they would be in for the worst of it after the war (and that their mandatory blood-type tattoos would make them easy to identify) were the ones sufficiently motivated to impose this policy. One German in the city at the time recalled the horror of seeing
boys who were found hiding were hanged as traitors by the SS as a warning that, ‘he who was not brave enough to fight had to die.’ When trees were not available, people were strung up on lamp posts. They were hanging everywhere, military and civilian, men and women, ordinary citizens who had been executed by a small group of fanatics.
Although it’s not specifically an execution story, the horrifying consequences of this lethal paranoia under siege are the theme of the West German film Die Brücke, in which a rare veteran sergeant looking after some child-conscripts is shot by a patrol when he can’t produce orders … leaving the children alone to be butchered pointlessly defending a bridge.
“This event occurred on April 27, 1945,” the film concludes about its (fictional) plot. “It was so unimportant that it was never mentioned in any war communique.”