1945: Heinz Eck, U-Boat commander

5 comments November 30th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Heinz-Wilhelm Eck and two of his former subordinates on the Unterseeboot U-852 were shot in Hamburg for killing the survivors of a sunk target.


The defendants in the U-852 trial. From left to right: Eck, August Hoffmann, Walter Weisspfennig, Hans Lenz, Wolfgang Schwender. The leftmost three were executed.

On March 13, 1944, in the South Atlantic en route to the Indian Ocean, U-852 torpedoed the Greek-flagged Peleus.

The submarine commander Eck feared the steamer’s debris would be observed by a passing airplane, and give enough information to Allied reconnaissance to enable it to find his ship. He therefore surfaced and attempted to have the debris field eliminated by machine-gunning and grenading it into the watery deep.

This seems a rather curious expedient, but evidently it was a common one.

U-Boat ace Adalbert Schnee was called (German link) to testify that blasting away at ship wreckage actually was an effective practice. But on prosecution’s cross-examination, Schnee was deftly trapped — lest he incriminate himself in a potential war crime — into disavowing (pdf) the killing of survivors who happened to be clinging to that debris.*

Q. What would you have done if you had been in Eck’s position?

A. I would under all circumstances have tried my best to save lives, as that is a measure which was taken by all U-boat commanders; but when I hear of this case, then I can only explain it as this, that Captain Eck, through the terrific experience he had been through, lost his nerve.

Q. Does that mean that you would not have done what Captain Eck did if you had kept your nerve?

A. I would not have done it.

Survivors of torpedo attacks usually had problems enough without the sub crew taking pains to attack them. Eck claimed that he worried that the survivors’ rafts might have communications equipment that would call out the sub-hunters tout de suite, but a standing German directive forbade U-boat captains assisting their prey.

No attempt of any kind should be made at rescuing members of ships sunk, and this includes picking up persons in the water and putting them in lifeboats, righting capsized lifeboats and handing over food and water. Rescue runs counter to the rudimentary demands of warfare for the destruction of enemy ships and crews … Be harsh, having in mind that the enemy takes no regard of women and children in his bombing attacks of German cities.

An unpleasant reality of sub warfare, as depicted in the classic submarine film Das Boot:

But in this case, some of the Peleus crew managed to survive the mop-up operation, and then the open ocean, long enough to tell their tale.

The British military tribunal sentenced Eck to death, his plea of “operational necessity” (i.e., “I had to shoot the survivors to sink the debris to save my ship”) rejected; also condemned were the ship’s doctor Walter Weisspfennig, who wasn’t supposed to be involved in gunplay at all, and August Hoffmann. Both of them had taken the “only following [Eck’s] orders” line.

Hans Lenz, who had opposed Eck’s order but ultimately complied with it, drew a life sentence. Wolfgang Schwender, who seems to have shot generally at debris but not (he said) at human beings, and then got bumped off his gun by the reluctant Lenz, got off the easiest at 15 years.

Despite the predictable “victor’s justice” dynamic — American and British sub personnel, and even Japanese I-boat officers, evidently skated on similar conduct — Eck was the only U-boat commander in World War II to draw a war crimes conviction. That was surely due in part to the overwhelming majority of them having simply failed to survive the perilous undersea campaign long enough to see the inside of a war crimes court.

* Part of the past-is-prologue contest for this case was the World War I sinking of the Llandovery Castle by a German submarine, which had then proceeded to hunt down the lifeboats. It resulted in (non-death penalty) war crimes convictions for some of the U-boat officers involved. The existence of this precedent helped to defeat the “superior orders” defense of the junior officers, since they could be held to have known that Eck’s command was illegal.

Part of the Daily Double: Lesser War Criminals.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Germany,History,Notable Jurisprudence,Shot,Soldiers,War Crimes

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1945: Max Schlichting, for realism

4 comments March 24th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1945, a Hamburg coal worker was executed for an excessively realistic take on the war effort.

Although — or because — Germany’s administrative infrastructure was falling apart under the Allied onslaught late in World War II, its judiciary had no compunction about doling out death sentences.

While the overall number of cases dealt with by most special courts was much lower than in previous years, due to the gradual collapse of the court system, in these last months of the war some judges passed proportionally more death sentences than ever before. Legal officials continued to justify their brutal sentencing by claiming that this would prevent another ‘stab in the back’.

In other words: Clap louder!

Poor Max Schlichting, a coal worker with an unfortunate communist past, was sentenced to death for Wehrkraftzersetzung — “subversion” or “undermining the war effort,” the same thing they got Remarque’s sister on.

Specifically: he remarked to a soldier, in the aftermath of the American landing at Normandy, that Germany was going to lose the war. An undercover Gestapo spy overheard him.

Although hard evidence of Germany’s situation (German link) would have been difficult for a Hamburger to overlook, Schlichting received no clemency and was executed — six weeks before Hamburg surrendered to the Allies.

His sentence and (banal) last letter are recounted here, in German.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,Hanged,History,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1936: Edgar André

3 comments November 4th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1936, communist politician Edgar Andre was beheaded in Fuhlsbüttel Prison for treasonous complicity in the Reichstag Fire.

This 1936 German pamphlet denouncing Andre’s execution concludes: “Edgar André lives. In his spirit, we march: Despite all.”

A politician raised in Belgium, Andre had bolted the Socialist Party of Germany for the Communist Party in the early 1920’s, becoming a major labor leader in Hamburg. Andre was arrested within days of the 1933 Reichstag Fire as Adolf Hitler crushed official leftist opposition.

But Andre was not brought to trial for over three years — by which time torture had crippled and deafened him, and the political climate made the doubtful nature of the evidence against him scant protection in the courts. His conviction and sentence were a foregone conclusion.

The Spanish Civil War, which erupted over the summer of 1936 between Andre’s trial and execution, saw the service of a battalion in the International Brigades named for Edgar Andre.

Just days after Andre was beheaded, that battalion entered its first action — with German volunteers helping stave off fascist capture of Madrid. The unit’s hymn commemorated their namesake:

[audio:Das_Batallion_Edgar_Andre.mp3]

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arson,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Politicians,Power,Torture,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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