1945: The Rüsselsheim Massacre perpetrators

6 comments November 10th, 2018 Headsman

The U.S. Army hanged five German civilians as war criminals at Bruchsal Prison on this date in 1945. Their crime: lynching the crew of a downed American bomber, the day after Allied bombing raids devastated the manufacturing town of Rüsselsheim.

The lynching is known as the Rüsselsheim Massacre, and it claimed the lives of six of the nine flyers of a B-24 Liberator cheekily christened Wham! Bam! Thank You, Ma’m!. One of their number survived thanks to his shrapnel wounds, which saw him safely to hospital while his comrades were being transported.

The other two were simply lucky to survive the beatings administered by a mob of enraged civilians who caught sight of the Americans under the escort of only two German soldiers. On the night of August 25-26, Britain’s Royal Air Force had dumped more than 1,600 tons of explosives on Rüsselsheim to destroy the Opel factory and rail lines there. It was only the latest, and ultimately the largest, of several raids on the town dating back to July. A later U.S. study reckoned 315 Opel workers killed and 277 injured during the July-August raids, to say nothing of the devastation on other townspeople and on Opel’s slave labor.* A POW, Frenchman Pierre Cuillier, recorded of the August 25-26 attack that “a bomb fell on the dug-out for Russian women. We hear of 119 victims, a number that in reality is surely much higher.”

Under the circumstances, the good folk of Rüsselsheim were not pleased on the morning of the 26th to see Allied airmen in their town being marched to a train transfer … even if, and surely the distinction must fail to impress amid the smoldering rubble of one’s own hometown, this particular American crew had not been part of this particular British bombing. (The Americans had been shot down two days earlier en route to do a similar thing to Hanover.)

“There are the terror flyers. Tear them to pieces! Beat them to death! They have destroyed our houses!” cried Margarete Witzler and Käthe Reinhardt. As the Americans protested, the crowd overpowered the guards and took its rough revenge with whatever bludgeons were ready to hand.

At last, Joseph Hartgen, an air raid warden, finished them off with his pistol … or at least, finished off six before his chamber went empty.


Spoiler alert: it will not go well for Herr Hartgen.

Somehow the two un-shot men, Sgt. William M. Adams, and Sgt. Sidney E. Brown, still drew enough breath by the end of the ordeal to sneak away when they were being dumped into a mass grave. Captured again a few days later, they survived the war in a POW camp.**

Eleven Rüsselsheimers stood trial in Darmstadt for these Lynchmorde by July, when war was still raging in the Pacific: it was the very first war crimes proceeding under U.S. occupation.

The defendants tried out a pre-Nuremberg version of the “only following orders” defense, blaming Nazi propaganda against bomber crews for inciting the murders. The U.S. prosecutor† scoffed: “They were all grown men and women. If they are called on to commit the murder and they do, they are just as responsible as any other murderers.”

Harten and six others of the 11 caught death sentences, but the two women — Witzler and Reinhardt — both had their sentences reduced.

Warning: Although not graphic, this is a video of actual hangings.

* Quotes and figures from Working for the Enemy: Ford, General Motors, and Forced Labor in Germany During the Second World War, which is topical because Opel was a General Motors subsidiary.

** Brown lived long enough to return to Rüsselsheim at official invitation in 2001 for a formal apology. However, at the time of the trial, it was still mysterious how there came to be only six exhumed bodies from eight lynched airmen: Adams and Brown only emerged out of the mass of returning POWs after convictions had already been secured.

† The army prosecutor at the proceeding was one Lt. Col. Leon Jaworski, but he’s better known for hunting larger game later in his career as the special prosecutor during the Watergate investigations. (Jaworski is the guy embattled President Richard Nixon appointed after firing Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre.) Jaworski’s eventual legal victory over the White House in United States v. Nixon obtained the incriminating Watergate tapes in late July of 1974, forcing Nixon’s resignation just days afterwards, on August 9, 1974.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Milestones,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1969: Sirhan Sirhan condemned

4 comments April 23rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1969, Sirhan Sirhan was condemned to the California gas chamber for assassinating Robert F. Kennedy.

The aggrieved Palestinian was not marked by fate to suffer that last extremity of the law, however; instead, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when all existing death penalty statutes were invalidated in 1972.*

As a result, Sirhan Sirhan remains alive as of this writing, serving that sentence in the Golden State’s Pleasant Valley State Prison. He’ll be next up for parole in 2011.

(In a parole appeal back in 1982 — he’s been on a bit of a losing streak — the convicted assassin had the chutzpah to complain that “if Robert Kennedy were alive today, I believe he would not countenance singling me out for this kind of treatment.”)

Although the guy was seen in a crowded room pulling the trigger (onlookers tackled him) and he subsequently confessed to the deed, there has long been a conspiratorial counternarrative suggesting that other shooters were there, too. It’s pretty hard to say that the guy who emptied his chamber in front of dozens of witnesses wasn’t involved, but there are versions of this where he’s a Manchurian Candidate-style hypnotized patsy.

Politics: much more interesting in the 1960s.

Precisely because that is so, this particular man’s crime attracts retrospective interest for what followed: the charismatic Democratic frontrunner from Camelot cut down; the sinister Richard Nixon arising in his place to bomb Cambodia, burgle Watergate, and create the Environmental Protection Agency. Sirhan Sirhan “assassinated modern U.S. history.”

That really seems a bit much.

Sirhan Sirhan himself has contributed to the trippy theorizing about his case by being all over the map on it. At one point, he attempted to plead guilty and draw the death penalty; the trial judge forced him to go through with a defense. Subsequently, as noted, he’s whinged for an early release. He’s claimed to have had no memory of the attack, which certainly isn’t what he said after he got arrested.

Ultimately, the most self-evident explanation has always been the first one that he offered: “I did it for my country.”

Sirhan was a Jerusalem-born Palestinian dismayed by Israel’s success in the Six-Day War, and by America’s concomitant foreign policy tilt towards Israel.

Kennedy was a strong advocate of that policy, and his death happened to coincide with the anniversary of war.

Maybe that’s just what they want you to think. But it has to be allowed that the cause in question has claimed more lives than just RFK’s.

* People v. Anderson, decided by the California Supreme Court. Later that same year, the U.S. Supreme Court would issue Furman v. Georgia, which would have had the same effect for Sirhan Sirhan.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,California,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Gassed,History,Infamous,Murder,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,USA

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