On either September 12 or (as we’re going with here) the early hours of September 13* in 1944, 30-year-old French spy Noor Inayat Khan (also known as Nora Baker, or by her code name Madeleine) was executed at Dachau for her activities on the behalf of the Resistance in Nazi-occupied France.
Noor, the first woman radio operator to be sent into France, came from a rather unusual background: her father was a Sufi religious leader descended from Indian royalty, and her mother an American from New Mexico.
Although Noor had strong pacifist leanings, she decided to join in against Nazi Germany. Because she was fluent in French and English and was a good radio operator, they decided to send her to France. She went in June 1943.
Many of those who had trained her had grave doubts about her suitability as a spy. As part of her Sufi upbringing she had been taught that lying was the worst of all sins. Leo Marks, who taught her cryptography, later wrote his initial impressions of her in his book Between Silk and Cyanide:
She was cycling towards her ‘safe-house’ to practice transmitting when a policeman stopped her and asked what she was doing.
“I’m training to be an agent,” she said, “here’s my radio — want me to show it to you?” She then removed it from its hiding place and invited him to try it. […]
She’d been so startled by an unexpected pistol-shot that she’d gone into a Sufi-like trance for several hours, and finally emerged from it to consult a Bible.
Once in France, however, she displayed lion-like courage.
Even when the Nazis were making mass arrests of the French agents she associated with and the British forces offered to let her come home, she refused to desert her post.
After three and a half months she was betrayed, and pacifism notwithstanding she fought so furiously on arrest that her Nazi guards were afraid of her. In spite of considerable pressure (and we know what that means) she refused to provide them with any information about herself or her Resistance colleagues. On top of all that, she also made two escape attempts.
They decided to send her to Germany to better keep an eye on her.
After her death she was awarded with the French Croix De Guerre and the British George Cross, and made a Member of the Order of the British Empire. Shrabani Basu published her biography, Spy Princess, in 2007 … and there’s a memorial in the works for her for London’s Gordon Square.
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.
This doctor made his Nazi bones by forging a relationship with Heinrich Himmler (he married Himmler’s ex-mistress), and joining Himmler’s SS.
Rascher was doing cancer-cure experiments on animals, but once he had Himmler in his Rolodex he graduated to research on homo sapiens.
From 1941 to 1944, Rascher conducted some of the textbook ethical trespasses of Berlin’s human experimentation regime, using Dachau prisoners in:
high-altitude experiments to help fighter pilots, tested by subjecting prisoners to rapid de- and re-pressurization;
freezing experiments, tested by subjecting prisoners to freezing water or outdoor exposure, and then attempting by various methods to restore body warmth;
blood clotting experiments, tested by giving prisoners major gunshot wounds or other grievous bodily injuries, then monitoring how well a new drug slowed the bleeding.
Class act all the way. Rascher did publish some papers and deliver some conference presentations on aspects of his horrifying science, but in one of those little contradictions of the evil security state, the man was foiled in his bid for an advanced academic credential because much of the research was too secret for his peers to review.
In the end it was a much more mundane breach of ethics that did him in: Rascher and wife were arrested in 1944 for having actually kidnapped the children they claimed were their own.
They were stashed away in separate camps. For unclear reasons — perhaps because Rascher connected all this atrocious research back to Himmler, who was vainly trying to cut a peace deal with the West at this point, or maybe simply because Himmler was annoyed at the embarrassment his protege’s misconduct had given him — the bad doctor was summarily shot in his cell as the Allies bore down on Dachau.
(We will note in passing this argument, and this, disputing that story as well as this execution date. Executed Today is not in a position to contribute to that conversation.)
Caption: Polish and Russian forced laborers shot by the SS after they had collapsed from exhaustion during a death march. Wisenfeld, Germany, April 26, 1945.
On this date in 1945, in the dying days of the Third Reich, 42-year-old Johann Georg Elser was executed by gunshot in the German concentration camp Dachau. He died for a failed attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life more than five years before.
It goes without saying that, had he been successful, he would have changed history immeasurably.
Elser, who went by his middle name, didn’t fit the profile of someone who would try to kill Hitler. He wasn’t a Jew, a Communist or a member of any of the other minority groups the Nazis persecuted. He wasn’t political at all, in fact.
A carpenter by trade, with one illegitimate son, his hobbies included playing the zither and the double bass. He was the kind of ordinary, working-class German the National Socialists tried to reach out to. But from the very start, he made it clear how much he despised them and all that they stood for.
He was a practical man at heart and was not interested in political discussions. He had no desire to change other people’s minds, but he steadfastly refused to make any accommodation to the new regime. When Hitler’s speeches were broadcast, he would silently leave the room… In May 1938, a Nazi parade threaded its way through his hometown of Königsbronn. Elser, like many others, turned out to watch, but as those around him gave the Hitler salute, he refused to do likewise. When a colleague reminded him that it might be sensible to conform, he replied curtly, “You can kiss my ass.” He then ostentatiously turned about and started whistling to himself.
How Elser’s silent, passive resistance turned into action is unclear, but by the autumn of 1938 he had made up his mind to kill the Führer.
Unsure how to accomplish this, he traveled to Munich to get some ideas. Every year on “Die Neunte Elfte”, the November 8-9 anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler came to the Bürgerbräukeller and gave a speech to the old guard.
That day in 1938, actually just hours before another would-be assassin tried to kill Hitler, Elser slipped into the beer hall pretending to be an ordinary customer and “noted the layout of the room, the position of the lectern and the patent lack of effective security measures.”
He had found his place and his time: he decided that the following year, he would plant a bomb in the Bürgerbräukeller, timed to go off right in the middle of Hitler’s big anniversary speech and kill him and as many Nazis as possble.
Elser’s meticulous planning and preparations over the next twelve months were nothing short of amazing. He stole a fuse and some gunpowder, and got a job at a quarry specifically so he could acquire some explosives. Knowing nothing about bombs, he made countless prototypes and tested them in empty fields in the countryside.
In the spring of 1939, he went back to Munich and the Bürgerbräukeller to make some detailed sketches of the building and find an appropriate place to hide the bomb. He chose a thick stone pillar behind the lectern, which supported a balcony. In August, he brought his tools and bomb-making materals to Munich to set about with his final phase of the plan.
The fastidious assassin’s modus operandi was shockingly simple, and shockingly bold.
He would visit the Bürgerbräukeller every night at around 9:00 to take his evening meal. An hour or so later, he would sneak up to the gallery of the function room, where he would hide in a storeroom until the bar closed and the building was locked.
Thereafter, he was free to work by flashlight until the bar staff returned at around 7:30 a.m., when he could sneak out of a back entrance.
His first priority was to chip out a cavity in the stone pillar to hold the bomb. But, finding the pillar was now dressed with wooden cladding, Elser was forced to spend three nights sawing a hole in the wooden surround.
Every sound had to be muffled, every speck of sawdust collected and disposed of: he could afford to leave no evidence of his presence. Even the sawn wooden panel was fashioned into a flush-fitting secret door.
Good thing he was a carpenter.
Having accessed the pillar, he could now begin to dig out a recess for the bomb. Using a hand drill and a hammer and chisel, he spent most of the following month loosening mortar and prising out bricks — all of which, of course, had to be meticulously tied and removed from the scene in a cloth sack.
Progress was painfully slow.
In the cavernous hall, every hammer blow he struck echoed like a gunshot, and to escape detection he had to time his blows to coincide with external sounds, such as the passing of a tram or the automatic flush of toilets. Working by night preparing the pillar in the Bürgerbräukeller, he labored by day putting the finishing touches to his bomb and, of course, the elaborate timing mechanism.
It all took two months.
On November 2, six days before the Big Day, Elser finally concealed his bomb, which had been put in a wooden box lined with cork to muffle the ticking sound of the timing mechanism, in its hidey-hole. Hitler’s speech was scheduled to start at 9:00 p.m. on November 8 and would last for an hour. The bomb was set to go off at 9:20.
It did so, right on time, with a spectacular explosion that smashed the stone pillar, brought down the overhead balcony and ceiling, shattered windows, blasted out doors, killed eight people and injured 67 more.
The only problem was, Hitler wasn’t among the dead or wounded. In fact, he wasn’t even there.
He had pressing business in Berlin and wanted to get back that same night, so he had rescheduled his speech for 8:00 p.m. instead of nine. He finished and left the building at 9:07, thirteen minutes before the big reception Elser had prepared for him. By the time the bomb went off, Hitler was already on the train back to Berlin.
That Elser failed was through no fault of his own: it was just sheer, terrible, rotten luck.
British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Assassination has never changed the history of the world.” Perhaps he is right in most cases, but it’s hard to believe that statement is true when it comes to Hitler. In this case, thirteen minutes substantially altered the history of Europe for the rest of the century.
Getting back to Elser: ever the careful planner, he knew what to do to protect himself once the bomb went off. He was miles away from Munich at the time, trying to sneak over the border into Switzerland. Unfortunately, he was caught by German border guards.
At first they thought it was a routine arrest, but then they saw the contents of his pockets, which included a postcard of the Bürgerbräukeller and sketches of his bomb design. The guards didn’t yet know about the assassination attempt, of course, but what they saw made them suspicious and they turned him over to the Gestapo.
On November 13, Elser confessed everything. When a flabbergasted Hitler read the preliminary investigative report which supported Elser’s lone-bomber story, he demanded, “What idiot conducted this investigation?”
He couldn’t wrap his mind around it, and neither could anyone else.
In the wake of the assassination, mass arrests were made: anyone who seemed unusually interested in the Munich speech, or didn’t express sufficient enthusiasm for the Nazi Party, could fall under suspicion of being part of the plot.
At Munich’s Feldherrnhalle on Nov. 11, Hitler conducts a memorial ceremony for the victims of Elser’s assassination bid.
As Moorhouse explains,
To many Nazis, Elser was simply an enigma. He was an ordinary German. He exhibited none of the typical signs of “degeneracy” that they claimed to be combating: apart from his brief flirtation with Communism, he was a virtual teetotaler, not promiscuous, did not consort with Jews, and was not close to the Church. In fact, he was exactly the sort of solid, upstanding, working-class German that they thought they had won over — and, indeed, that had become the backbone of the Nazi Party.
Unable to believe Elser’s claims of full responsibility, the Nazis concluded he must have been “led astray” at the very least, perhaps by agents of British intelligence. In spite of beatings, torture, and other coercion, however, Elser stuck to his story, even building another bomb, identical to the first, right in front of his interrogators to prove he could do it by himself.
He never managed to fully convince them; in fact, for decades after the war, historians and other scholars theorized about who else was in on his plan. Some speculated that the attack was even engineered by Hitler himself, to gain support for his cause and to create an excuse to crack down on dissidents.
It wasn’t until 1970 that two German historians who studied the matter announced there was no evidence that Elser had acted in concert with anyone else or even told anyone about his plans.
It may seem surprising that Elser managed to live for four and a half years after his attempt on Hitler’s life, but there was a explanation perfectly reasonable from the standpoint of a totalitarian bureaucracy.
After his confession, Elser was sent to the the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. He was given enough to eat, and two rooms, and even allowed to play the zither again, but he was kept in solitary confinement all those years. The Nazis — still operating on the theory that the British were ultimately behind the assassination attempt — stashed Elser away as a witness in a show trial against British leaders after the German invasion of the British Isles. Talk about hubris.
Of course, this invasion never happened, and as the tide of war turned against the Germans it became clear that Elser had outlived whatever usefulness he might have had. In February 1945, he was transferred from Sachsenhausen to Dachau.
He met his end quietly, taken outside his cell by a young SS officer and shot in the back of the neck. A week later, it was reported that he had been killed in an Allied bombing. By the end of the month, Dachau was in Allied hands.
At least six cities in Germany, including Königsbronn and Stuttgart, have places named after him, or monuments or plaques erected in his memory.
On this date in 1945, French general and Resistance figure Charles Delestraint was hastily disposed of, ten days before the liberation of Dachau.
Delestraint, who also spent the First World War as a POW, was among those who noticed the hidebound military dogmas of the past needed updating.
With de Gaulle, Delestraint was a forceful advocate in the interwar period for mechanized warfare.
He didn’t get far enough, certainly not as far as the soon-to-be-vaunted Wehrmacht.
In 1940, just months after retirement, Delestraint was recalled to lead a mechanized division against the Germans, which of course turned out to be a spectacular triumph of tank warfare … for the Germans. While the French distributed armor units throughout their forces, the Germans massed them at a schwerpunkt aiming to break through the French line and speedily conquer in the rear.
Delestraint later remarked of the doctrinal difference,
We had 3,000 tanks and so did the Germans. We used them in a thousand packs of three, the Germans in three packs of a thousand.
Recruited subsequently into the French Resistance and thence betrayed, Delestraint enjoined the hospitality of many concentration camps and the tender mercies of one of their more infamous torturers.
Uncertainty remains over exactly how the Germans killed Delestraint, or even why the Dachau commandants wanted to finish off him in particular, although he was a primo catch in the anti-Resistance operation. The body was immediately cremated, camp records of the execution order disappeared if they ever existed, and eyewitness testimony at variance.
But dying in Dachau for the French Resistance? By any standard, that’s a passport to hero status, as attested by any number of Rue General Charles Delestraints to be found in his native land.
On an uncertain date in November 1942, this photograph of an SS unit executing anti-Nazi partisans in Belarus was taken.
Behind this striking but all too typical image of brutal field executions on the eastern front lies the sordid story of one of the strangest military formations in the Nazi service.
The Dirlewanger brigade was formed under a man whose fortuitous early enrollment in the NSDAP had enabled him to pull strings to get himself out of Dachau, where he had been sent after his second molestation conviction, and where unfolding events could have easily seen him on the other end of the firing squad.
Instead, Oskar Dirlewanger formed a unit of criminals and reprobates: poachers at first, and eventually, as it grew into the SS-Sonderbatallion Dirlewanger, men culled from the camps or soldiers condemned by the army, some literally trading the likelihood of execution themselves for service under one of the most disreputable commanders in the field.
Oh, and, just incidentally — it stuck them into a lawless environment where they could probably practice and refine their pathologies unchecked. Some “rehabilitation.”
As of this relatively early date, the convict floodgates weren’t yet entirely open, and the existing German volunteers were supplemented by a goodly portion of Soviet citizens recruited in the occupied territories. From 1942 to 1944, they hung around Belarus hunting guerrillas and doing to them — well, you know. (The original notion of using poachers was to exploit their ranger-like woodsman talents for anti-partisan warfare.)
Sadly for Dr. Dirlewanger, events further south were undoing all his bloody work, for it was also in the November 1942 that the Red Army decisively turned the tide of the war with its counterattack at Stalingrad — in fact, it was this very date in 1942 that it completed its encirclement, stranding a quarter-million freezing Wehrmacht regulars on the banks of the Volga, only a handful ever to see Germany again.