The Aug. 28, 1955 lynching of Emmett Till and the subsequent acquittal of his murderers by an all-white Mississippi jury were among the American civil rights movement’s pivotal events.
For a certain indecent number of people, however, the passion of the 14-year-old youth — alleged to have flirted with a white woman — was to be mourned only insofar as it confirmed the menace that insatiable Negro libidos posed to southern way of life.
Further to that end, the months following Emmett Till’s death brought to the headlines the formerly obscure* July 2, 1945 hanging of an American G.I. in Italy: Emmett’s father, Louis Till.
The violent Louis Till ruined his marriage to Emmett’s mother Mamie shortly after his son’s birth. Repeatedly violating her restraining order eventually landed Till pere before a judge, who gave him a choice between hard time and enlistment. Till joined the U.S. Army.
In 1945, he was court-martialed for murdering an Italian woman and raping two others. His execution near Pisa — he’s buried in Europe in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, the same final resting place as Eddie Slovik — was the no-account end of a no-account man for many years thereafter. Mamie Till said that she wasn’t even told what happened to her ex-husband, and was stonewalled when she sought information.
By the end of 1955, everyone knew.
In Jim Crow’s backlash against nationwide condemnation of the Till lynching, Louis Till came back to life in newsprint all that autumn to visit the sins of the father upon his late son: here was the mirror of the young predator all grown up, violating Italian women. Mississippi’s white supremacistsenators used their rank to obtain his army file, and leaked it to reporters.
According to Davis Houck and Matthew Grindy’s study of the Mississippi media’s conflicting reactions to the events of 1955, “Louis Till became a most important rhetorical pawn in the high-stakes game of north versus south, black versus white, NAACP versus White Citizens’ Councils.”
The pawn’s sacrifice did not figure in the endgame.
Crude attempts to impose blood guilt for Louis Till’s crimes aside, Clenora Hudson-Weems argues in her Emmett Till: The Sacrificial Lamb of the Civil Rights Movement that it was Emmett Till’s shocking death that catalyzed the civil rights movement — that the horrifyingly mutilated face at his open-casket funeral and the insouciant confession of his killers once they had been acquitted shook southern blacks and northern whites alike so profoundly as to dispel any confidence that legal briefs or political incrementalism could grapple with America’s race problem. Civil rights lion Joyce Ladner was an 11-year-old Mississippi girl when Emmett Till was lynched; she would tell Hudson-Weems of the shock it delivered in her world coming on the heels of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling desegregating schools.
A very important thing is that it followed the Supreme Court decision in 1954. It’s like the Whites said that they don’t care what rights we were given … So when the spark came in Mississippi to sit in the public library, for example, people who participated had been incensed by the Till incident and were just waiting for the spark to come. The Till incident was the catalyst.
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus, launching the famous bus boycott. “I thought of Emmett Till and I just couldn’t go back,” Parks said later.
Emmett Till’s body was exhumed for autopsy and DNA testing in 2005, in part to dispel the old story first promulgated by the attorneys who defended Till’s murderers — that the body wasn’t Emmett Till’s at all. On the corpse’s finger was a ring inscribed with the initials of his father: L.T.
* Louis Till did have one small claim to fame prior to his son’s murder: the fascist poet Ezra Pound chanced to be imprisoned with Till; he mentions the later-famous execution in his Pisan Cantos:
Till was hung yesterday
for murder and rape with trimmings
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!
On this date in 1945, as Adolf Hitler celebrated his 56th birthday within a Red Army cordon, one of the Second World War’s more tear-jerking little crimes against humanity happened in Hamburg.
Bullenhuser Damm — still to be found today — was a former Hamburg school which fell out of use as World War II progressed, owing to the devastation Allied bombings wrought on the surrounding area.
The school itself sustained little damage, however, which eventually facilitated its appropriation as a satellite building for the nearby Neuengamme concentration camp.
Over at Neuengamme, the SS doctor Kurt Heissmeyer had been conducting a litany of horror medical experiments on 20 Jewish children — mostly from Poland — culled from the concentration camps, seeking medical evidence for Nazi racial theories further to a cushy professorship. But as April 1945 was obviously endgame for the Third Reich, thoughts naturally turned to disposing of evidence of indictable offenses.
Photos of the eventual Bullenhuser Damm victims showing their surgical scars after Heissmeyer injected them with tuberculosis.
Bullenhuser Damm was just the place for disposal.
On April 20, the 20 kids were loaded up on trucks with their four adult caretakers — two French, two Dutch — plus six Soviet prisoners of war.
At Bullenhuser Damm, the kids were parked in a room and hung out, blissfully ignorant of their danger. “They had all their things with them — some food, some toys they had made themselves, etc,” physician Alfred Trzebinski later recalled at his own trial. “They sat on the benches and were happy that they had gotten out. They didn’t suspect a thing.”
In the next room, the 10 adults were being hanged.
According to Admitting the Holocaust, Trzebinski was impressed with his own compassionate use of this bit of down time: he generously gave the children morphine shots to sedate them before their own executions. Or rather, their murders … since the doctor could not but agree that “you cannot execute children, you can only murder them.”
I must say that in general the children’s condition was very good, except for one twelve-year-old boy who was in bad shape; he therefore fell asleep very quickly. Six or eight of the children were still awake — the others were already sleeping … Frahm [an orderly] lifted the twelve-year-old boy and said to the others that he was taking him to bed. He took him to a room that was maybe six or eight yards away, and there I saw a rope already attached to a hook. Frahm put the sleeping boy into the noose and with all his weight pulled down on the body of the boy so that the noose would tighten. (Trzebinski, again)
The other 19 children were disposed of in like manner, and then all 30 corpses cremated overnight … just in time for what must have been a much-needed 5 a.m. coffee.
Trzebinski’s take on his conduct this horrible night might have been good enough for his conscience, but it didn’t pass muster with his judges: he was hanged on a war crimes rap prominently including Bullenhuser Damm on October 8, 1946. Kurt Heissmeyer, however, avoided detection until 1959 and only received a long prison sentence in 1966, shortly before his death.
For Orwell, the “great period” elapsed in part because the 20th century’s monumental destruction of human life dwarfed the meaning of individual homicides, and in part because the crimes themselves (and even their frequent medium, arsenic) connected to frustrated (usually domestic) Victorian passions and imbued “dramatic and even tragic qualities which make [them] memorable and excite pity for both victim and murderer.”
But that was then. Orwell wants these newfangled atavistic hoodlums and their crummy American films to get off his damn terrace.
Sure, but where’s the heart? (London Times, Jan. 24, 1945)
Now compare the Cleft Chin Murder. There is no depth of feeling in it. It was almost chance that the two people concerned committed that particular murder, and it was only by good luck that they did not commit several others. The background was not domesticity, but the anonymous life of the dance-halls and the false values of the American film. The two culprits were an eighteen-year-old ex-waitress named Elizabeth Jones, and an American army deserter, posing as an officer, named Karl Hulten. They were only together for six days, and it seems doubtful whether, until they were arrested, they even learned one another’s true names. They met casually in a teashop, and that night went out for a ride in a stolen army truck. Jones described herself as a strip-tease artist, which was not strictly true (she had given one unsuccessful performance in this line); and declared that she wanted to do something dangerous, “like being a gun-moll.” Hulten described himself as a big-time Chicago gangster, which was also untrue. They met a girl bicycling along the road, and to show how tough he was Hulten ran over her with his truck, after which the pair robbed her of the few shillings that were on her. On another occasion they knocked out a girl to whom they had offered a lift, took her coat and handbag and threw her into a river. Finally, in the most wanton way, they murdered a taxi-driver who happened to have £8 in his pocket. Soon afterwards they parted. Hulten was caught because he had foolishly kept the dead man’s car, and Jones made spontaneous confessions to the police. In court each prisoner incriminated the other. In between crimes, both of them seem to have behaved with the utmost callousness: they spent the dead taxi-driver’s £8 at the dog races.
Judging from her letters, the girl’s case has a certain amount of psychological interest, but this murder probably captured the headlines because it provided distraction amid the doodle-bugs and the anxieties of the Battle of France. Jones and Hulten committed their murder to the tune of V1, and were convicted to the tune of V2. There was also considerable excitement because — as has become usual in England — the man was sentenced to death and the girl to imprisonment. According to Mr. Raymond, the reprieving of Jones caused widespread indignation and streams of telegrams to the Home Secretary: in her native town, “SHE SHOULD HANG” was chalked on the walls beside pictures of a figure dangling from a gallows. Considering that only ten women have been hanged in Britain this century, and that the practice has gone out largely because of popular feeling against it, it is difficult not to feel that this clamour to hang an eighteen-year-old girl was due partly to the brutalizing effects of war. Indeed, the whole meaningless story, with its atmosphere of dance-halls, movie-palaces, cheap perfume, false names and stolen cars, belongs essentially to a war period.
Perhaps it is significant that the most talked-of English murder of recent years should have been committed by an American and an English girl who had become partly Americanized. But it is difficult to believe that this case will be so long remembered as the old domestic poisoning dramas, product of a stable society where the all-prevailing hypocrisy did at least ensure that crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them.
On this day in 1945, twenty-year-old Henry William Hagert died in Ohio’s electric chair for the murders of thirteen-year-old twins James and Charles Collins two years earlier.
Hagert, who was only seventeen at the time of the crime, had shot the boys in cold blood and for no reason at all.
The young murderer was from Lakewood, a suburb of Cleveland. He was a bit of a bad seed; those who knew him said he started to go bad when he was about seven years old, after a bout with double pneumonia and “brain fever.” After his recovery from the illness, he became unstable and aggressive. In 1942, after a high-speed police chase, he was arrested on multiple charges of auto theft and sent to the Boys’ Industrial School for a year.
Typically, this experience in reform school failed to reform him, and he returned home worse than ever.
Hagert’s mother, unable to handle him, had him committed to the psychiatric ward in Cleveland City Hospital in early July 1943. There he was diagnosed as having a “psychopathic personality” and released on August 9. (Just why is unclear; Hagert’s mother claims she begged the chief staff physician not to release him, and the doctor denied this and said, on the contrary, she had begged for him to let her son go.)
Just two days later, Hagert was driving his blue Chevy around when he picked up a nine-year-old boy, the son of a city aide. His plan had to been to sexually assault and murder the child, but he later claimed he was moved by the boy’s crying and pleas and decided to spare his life. This didn’t stop him from keeping his victim in the car overnight, torturing and sexually abusing him. The next day, Hagert drove the boy to a wooded area, tied him to a tree, and placed a series of anonymous calls to the child’s parents with clues as to his whereabouts. The police found the little boy where his abductor had left him.
The following afternoon, for reasons best known to himself, Hagert returned to the spot where he’d left the abduction victim and encountered a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter and a photographer.
As Hagert made small talk with the photographer, the reporter became suspicious of his behavior and remembered the old cliché about the killer returning to the scene of his crime. He scribbled down a physical description of Hagert and took note of the license plate number on his Chevy. Later, he turned his notes over to the police.
A compliant Hagert was taken in for questioning. Unaccountably, two hours passed before anyone realized he had a loaded gun under his shirt. When an officer removed Hagert’s shirt, the gun fell to the floor. As the officer picked it up, the young man said casually, “The gun you have in your hand is the one I shot the other two with.”
James and Charles Collins had been missing since noon the previous day and law enforcement agents were frantically searching for them. They were last seen hitchhiking to their jobs as caddies at a local golf course. Hagert calmly confessed to killing the Collins twins and lead authorities to their bodies. The dead boys were about 300 feet apart and each had been shot at the base of the skull — that is, “execution style.”
If anyone doubted by now that Hagert was a monster, they would have been convinced by what he had to say about the double murder:
It’s pretty serious, you know. I kidnapped one kid and killed two others … I just felt like killing them, so I killed them. Now it all seems like a bad dream … I had the urge to kill before but I always managed to suppress it by running. I’d run down the street because I felt I had too much energy. The Collins boys were just victims of circumstance. I would have killed anyone at that time. It just happened to be them … I’m not especially sorry for any of those folks I have hurt … The whole thing is just like a smashed fender … When it’s done, it’s done — that’s all.
An initial panel of three psychiatrists unanimously agreed that Hagert was insane. This would not do: the state could not risk the possibility that this incredibly dangerous psychopath would be committed to a hospital, only to escape later on, or be released like before, to walk the streets again.
Five more psychiatrists were appointed to examine the defendant and this group said he was sane. In spite of this, the defense went with an insanity plea anyway. There wasn’t much of an alternative, given the evidence against their client.
Testifying before the jury, one of the doctors described Hagert as “a petulant, cruel, ruthless, determined, egotistical young man with no respect for God, man or the Devil.” Another said Hagert had told him that, if he were set free, the first thing he would do was track down and kill the newspaper reporter whose tip had led to his arrest.
The tearful testimony of his mother, who said Hagert had often complained of seeing “little midgets” who mocked him, carried little weight.
The jury took only two hours to find Henry Hagert guilty without a recommendation of mercy. In his book, Bellamy opines, “Most of the jurors, one suspects, thought Henry was insane by any imaginable standard of common sense, but they knew not what else to do with such an incorrigible monster.”
Hagert’s conviction was overturned on a technicality in December 1944, but his second trial, held before a three-judge panel in March 1945, resulted in the same inevitable guilty verdict. Hagert himself didn’t seem to care much. His last words were, “Do a good job of it now. Give me a good dose — it’s good for what ails for me.” He did donate his corneas, possibly the only contribution he ever made to society.
On this date in 1945, Japanese forces occupying Indonesia cut off Dr. Achmad Mochtar’s head for a medical experiment gone horribly awry.
Officially, Dr. Mochtar had been responsible for a supposed vaccine whose administration killed hundreds of Indonesian foced laborers.
Latter-day research, however, indicates that it was the Japanese military who administered the vaccine (Indonesian link), an experimental tetanus-cholera-typhoid-dysentery combination shot, getting a trial run before it was administered to Japan’s own soldiers. When this drug proved lethal to most of its recipients, Mochtar and his staff at the Eijkman Institute were arrested in 1944 and subjected to harrowing torture.
According to Jakarta-based British researcher Kevin Baird, Mochtar agreed to take the fall for the experiment in exchange for the release of his colleagues.
“We think of this sort of heroism as the reserve of military men and not learned intellectuals,” Baird told the Guardian. “Achmad Mochtar was not only a hero of Indonesia, but a hero of science and humanity.”
On this date in 1945 — morning after a devastating U.S. air raid that destroyed much of Fukuoka — eight previously-captured American airmen* were summarily executed there in retaliation.
In a precedent that dated back to the Doolittle raids, Japan officially considered as a prospective war criminal any enemy airman who could be connected to indiscriminate bombing. Tokyo didn’t follow this logic to the point of executing all downed Americans — indeed, late in the war, beleaguered Japanese civilians became increasingly hostile towards the government for allowing excess legalism to stand in the way of exacting some satisfying revenge for the cities burning under American bombs — but it did execute some, and it had sanctioned legal theorems that could have accommodated quite a bit more bloodletting.
Finding Tokyo short of prison space, the government ordered on May 1, 1945, that the various armies should no longer send to the capital any downed airmen they captured. In the chaos of the war’s last months, this would create the context for local commanders at the Western Military District in Fukuoka to put those legal theorems to seriously nasty use.
Four captured airmen held in Fukuoka were stuck in an indeterminate judicial process which the army realized was going nowhere slowly. The others were just plain underfoot. Over the period of May-June, between a couple of ambiguously-worded orders and the officers’ annoyance at having to divert scarce resources to these captives, an understanding formed if “the air raids increased and conditions became more chaotic, the prisoners would be executed without a trial.”
About 3,000 tons of … incendiary bombs … were released by the B-24s from low level starting about three a.m. … The three cities [Fukuoka, Toyotashi and Shizuoka] were tasting for the first time the bitter flames of war, roaring over factories, shops and thousands of congested homes.
Timothy Lang Francis, whose “‘To Dispose of the Prisoners’: The Japanese Executions of American Aircrew at Fukuoka, Japan, during 1945″ from the November 1997 Pacific Historical Review traces the confluence of factors that made possible this day’s executions, describes the fate that was unfolding for Fukuoka’s eight captive airmen at about the same time those words were going to press.
All were blindfolded and had their hands tied in front. Several swords were obtained from the Legal Section. [Yusei] Wako** then told the twenty or so assembled Japanese that, “in compliance with the Commanding General†’s orders, we were going to execute the plane crash survivors.” One officer, Lt. Michio Ikeda of the Medical Section, volunteered himself, and Wako ordered Probationary Officer Tamotsu Onishi, since he was skilled in kendo, to assist him as a third executioner. Sato watched the proceedings from one side.
The first flyer was brought to the edge of the pit and made to sit on his haunches. Wako then ritually washed one of the swords and stood behind the prisoner, slightly to the left. Raising the sword above his right shoulder with both hands, Wako brought it down on the flyer’s neck. “Both the body and head fell into the pit,” remembered Wako; “I washed my sword and ordered the guard to bring another flyer to the pit. I killed this flyer exactly the same way I had killed the first one.” Onishi then executed a third prisoner in the same manner.
In the pause that followed, Lt. Kentaro Toji, an officer attached to Western Army Headquarters, approached Sato. According to his pretrial affidavit, Toji said to Sato, “My mother was killed in the air raid on Fukuoka this morning, and I think it would be fitting that I be the one who execute these American flyers.” Sato told him to wait while Wako ordered Ikeda to execute the fourth flyer. Toji, after borrowing a sword from Onishi, beheaded the last four prisoners. The pit was then filled with dirt.
This is all well and good, but Tokyo’s orders to its armies had been to do the juridical legwork on these cases themselves — and not just to summarily kill prisoners. So, in a bit of ex post facto bureaucratic butt-covering, the Western District Army’s legal section proceeded to close the matter by shipping the central government a report saying that all these prisoners had been killed during the previous night’s air raid. Problem solved!
No known direct connection to this particular atrocity, but there’s a recent documentary about an elderly Japanese man who used to serve at Fukuoka that looks worth the watching.
* Six of the eight were Robert J. Aspinall, Merlin R. Calvin, Jack V. Dengler, Otto W. Baumgarten, Edgar L. McElfresh, and Ralph S. Romines. The other two remain unidentified. These eight were, maybe, the lucky ones: Fukuoka had had 16 prisoners from downed bombers, but the other eight weren’t around to be beheaded because they’d previously been given over to the local hospital to suffer ghastly deaths in vivisection experiments.
** A Judge Advocate who had also been involved in the Doolittle trials.
† Gen. Isamu Yokoyama. When he’d been briefed prior to the June 19 raid that the army was fixing to just dispose of its prisoners if it came to that, Yokoyama had done the Pontius Pilate act and informed Wako, “I have decided to concern myself only with the decisive battle and hereafter do not bother me with the problem of the flyers.”
On this date in 1945, American troops liberated the Dachau concentration camp in Upper Bavaria — and then proceeded to summarily execute a number of its SS personnel.
The “Dachau massacre” involves several distinct incidents of wantonly killing defenseless POWs by American troops, who may have been set on edge by warnings of potential fake-surrender gambits, and then evidently went right off the rails with discovery of emaciated dead bodies around the place. In particular, a stranded transport that had been sent from Buchenwald, christened the “death train”, greeted the liberators with a 40-car phantasmagoria of horror.
“We had seen men in battle blown apart, burnt to death, and die many different ways, but we were never prepared for this. Several of the dead lay there with their eyes open, a picture I will never get out of my mind. It seems they were looking at us and saying, ‘What took you so long?’” -Private John Lee
“It made us sick at our stomach and so mad we could do nothing but clinch our fists. I couldn’t even talk.” -Lt. William Cowling
These stunned, outraged soldiers, some of them still teenagers, would soon have a bunch of disarmed German troops from the camp under their power. Uh-oh.
As the dry but shocking (and also marked “Secret”: nobody ever faced a court-martial for the incident*) U.S. Army investigation remarked, “The sight of these numerous victims would naturally produce strong mental reaction on the part of both officers and men. Such circumstances are extenuating, but are the only extenuating facts found.” (Read the entire report in this forum thread.)
The behaviors these facts propose to extenuate may also produce a strong mental reaction.
A Lt. William Walsh took the surrender of four SS men near one of these train cars, then forced his prisoners inside the car and shot them on the spot.
About seven Germans taken prisoner at the camp’s Tower B were lined up a few steps away from the tower preparatory to marching them elsewhere, when for sketchy reasons one of their American guards started shooting, and then others followed suit.
And the most notorious of the incidents, about 50 captured SS men were segregated from other POWs — again, by Lt. Walsh — and lined up in the camp coalyard by the wall of the hospital. There they were machine-gunned, resulting in 17 deaths before a superior officer interceded.
Another 25 to 50 guards were killed by prisoners themselves, many with the implicit blessing of American infantrymen who stood by and watched, and or the explicit blessing of Americans’ weapons on loan from sympathetic troopers.
The irony in all this was that most of the camp’s regular guards had already fled the place. The SS men whom outraged Americans were shooting down in the Dachau charnel house were Waffen-SS who had been transferred from the eastern front just days before and whose specific purpose in the camp was to surrender it to the western Allies. They probably considered this assignment far away from the vengeful Red Army a very lucky break.
It wasn’t so lucky: this is the mischance of war. But they didn’t have anything to do with Dachau’s horrors, and their deaths in a unthinking bloodlust disgraced only their executioners.
“German soldiers after their surrender as prisoners of war to American troops were summarily shot and killed by such troops.”
-Conclusion of the Army Inspector General’s report
* Court-martial charges were filed, but quashed. The whole affair remained unknown to the public until the 1980s.
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.”