1951: The Einsatzgruppen Trial war criminals

Add comment June 7th, 2020 Headsman

A batch of Nazi war criminals highlighted by four condemned at the Einsatzgruppen trial hanged at Germany’s Landsberg Prison on this date in 1951.

Formed initially to decapitate Polish intelligentsia when Germany invaded that country in 1939, these notorious paramilitaries were deployed by Reinhard Heydrich behind the advancing German line of battle to pacify occupied territory. “Pacify” in the event meant slaying Communists, partisans, and of course, the Reich’s innumerable racial inferiors. Einsatzgruppen authored many mass executions like the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar outside Kiev, each local atrocity a self-conscious contribution to the wholesale genocide. All told these units might have killed upwards of 2 million human beings; they were also used to gather Eastern European Jews into urban ghettos, which subsequently became the staging points for deportations to the camps.

Postwar, the big Nuremberg war crimes tribunal against the major names in the German hierarchy unfolded from late 1945 in a multinational courtroom: American, British, French, and Russian judges and prosecutors working jointly.

But the emerging superpower rivalry soon narrowed the window for similar cooperation in successor trials, leading the rival powers to try cases on their own.* Accordingly, United States military tribunals unfolded 12 additional mass trials, known as the subsequent Nuremberg trials — each exploring particular nodes of the Nazi project — such as the Doctors’ trial and the IG Farben trial.

The Einsatzgruppen trial was one of these — 24 Einsatzgruppen officers prosecuted at the Palace of Justice from September 29, 1947 to April 10, 1948.

Twenty-two of the 24 were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and 14 sentenced to death. However, ten of the fourteen prospective hangings were commuted, and all surviving prisoners had been released by 1958. The four who actually went to the gallows at Landsburg Prison on June 7, 1951 were:

    Out of the total number of the persons designated for the execution, 15 men were led in each case to the brink of the mass grave where they had to kneel down, their faces turned toward the grave. At that time, clothes and valuables were not yet collected. Later on this was changed …

    When the men were ready for the execution one of my leaders who was in charge of this execution squad gave the order to shoot. Since they were kneeling on the brink of the mass grave, the victims fell, as a rule, at once into the mass grave.

    I have always used rather large execution squads, since I declined to use men who were specialists for shots in the neck (Genickschusspezialisten). Each squad shot for about one hour and was then replaced. The persons which still had to be shot were assembled near the place of execution, and were guarded by members of those squads, which at that moment did not take part in the executions.

    -Paul Blobel on his mass-execution process

  • Otto Ohlendorf, an economist tapped as commander of Einsatzgruppe D (educated and ideologically reliable administrator were intentionally sought for leadership positions in these gangs). Together with Ukrainian and Romanian auxiliaries, this unit killed 90,000 people in southern Ukraine and Crimea which the good functionary strove to render “military in character and humane under the circumstances.”
  • Werner Braune, a former Gestapo man who became chief of one of Einsatzgruppe D’s units, called Einsatzkommando 11b.
  • Erich Naumann, a former brownshirt turned commander of Einsatzgruppe B who frankly acknowledged to the tribunal that “I was ordered to Heydrich and I received clear orders from him for Russia. Now, first of all, I received the Fuehrer-Order concerning the killing of Jews, Gypsies and Soviet officials” and “considered the decree to be right because it was part of our aim of the war and, therefore, it was necessary.”
  • Paul Blobel, a World War I veteran become architect who was into his late forties when he helped organize the Babi Yar massacre. Afterwards, he had charge of Sonderaktion 1005, a 1942-1944 project to destroy evidence of such massacres by, e.g., digging up mass graves to pulverize and dynamite the remains into unrecognizability. “The mission was constituted after it first became apparent that Germany would not be able to hold all the territory occupied in the East and it was considered necessary to remove all traces of the criminal executions that had been committed,” according to Adolf Eichmann aide Dieter Wisliceny. Blobel “gave a lecture before Eichmann’s staff of specialists on the Jewish question from the occupied territories. He spoke of the special incinerators he had personally constructed for use in the work of Kommando 1005. It was their particular assignment to open the graves and remove and cremate the bodies of persons who had been previously executed. Kommando 1005 operated in Russia, Poland and through the Baltic area.”

In a concession to efficiency or spectacle, they were joined by the three other condemned men from other installments of the Nuremberg trials, the , against the directorate that ran Germany’s concentration camps.

  • Oswald Pohl, the head of he directorate that ran Germany’s concentration camps. He was the only person executed from his own particular installment of the war crimes trials, called thePohl trial
  • Georg Schallermair, an SS sergeant convicted for murders he’d personally committed at Dachau.
  • Hans Schmidt, the former adjutant of the Buchenwald concentration camp who carried his implausible insistence of ignorance as to the camp’s deaths all the way to the end. Schmidt’s name in the news might have inspired an American wrestling promoter to assign it in 1951, along with a boffo Nazi persona, to one of pro wrestling’s great heels.

* Here’s some information about Soviet war crimes trials.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crimes Against Humanity,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Soldiers,U.S. Military,USA,War Crimes

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1948: Hans Karl Möser, for rocketry

Add comment November 26th, 2014 Headsman

In 1943, punishing Allied bombing had chased Germany’s brilliant rocket scientist Wernher von Braun and his team away from the Baltic port of Peenemünde where their pioneering work on the V-2 rocket had taken such a heavy toll on London.

Casting about the Third Reich for a suitable spot to base the missile team, the rocketeers settled on the Kohnstein, a hill in Thuringia already hollowed out by gypsum mines. This tunnel network was readily adapted into a subterranean munitions factory called Mittelwerk — difficult for the Allies to find, and once they found it, difficult to bomb.


A U.S. Army soldier poses with a half-assembled V-2, one of about 250 such rockets found in the Mittelwerk labyrinth when the facility was captured.

With the facilities and the big brains in place, only one thing was missing: millions of man-hours of labor.

Nazi Germany had that in plentiful supply.

Beginning in late 1943, concentration camp inmates at Buchenwald began to be funneled out to a new facility, Mittelbau-Dora. Initially just a Buchenwald sub-camp, Dora grew over the course of 1944 into an immense facility holding 50,000 prisoners — a handful of German undesirables, but mostly captured foreign nationals: French, Dutch, Polish, Czech, and Russian. Short of food, sleep, and clothing for the 1944-1945 German winter, they were systematically worked to death in the Mittelwerk shafts to build a better bomb.

Our day’s principal, Hans Möser/Moeser (English Wikipedia entry | German) was an SS-Obersturmführer who made a living throughout the war years pulling guard detail in a number of concentration camps.

On May 1, 1944, Möser was transferred from Auschwitz to Mittelbau-Dora. It was the last job he would ever hold, but were Möser on the market today his C.V. would laud his team-player orientation and project management skills on a high-priority initiative. No doubt he was just the sort of reliable agent who understands how things are done that the world’s mad bombers need at their back.

“Ninety percent of the prisoners lived and worked in the tunnel of the mine,” testified one German who worked at Dora as a secretary and doctor’s aide.

As a result of the uninterrupted work in the mines and the absence of any installation for forced draft and ventilation, there prevailed a stuffy cold atmosphere, which made breathing difficult. The prisoners also slept in the subterranean tunnel in big chambers hewed out of the rocks, in five beds on top of each other. Already in 1944 3,500 prisoners used to sleep in such a room. In the tunnel of the mine there was no ater, the prisoners got absolutely insufficient quantities of tea for drinking purposes. But for weeks they were not able to wash themselves. As a result of the heavy work in the mines and of the bad food numerous prisoners died from exhaustion during their work.

According to that same testimony, the camp received a frightful order on Good Friday, which fell on March 30 in 1945: drive every last prisoner into those tunnels and bring down the caves around them. “No prisoner should be allowed to fall into Allied hands alive.”

The speedy arrival of the American 3rd Armored Division and 104th Infantry Division just days later prevented that order from taking effect.

The facilities themselves, too, were to be destroyed as part of Hitler’s scorched-earth “Nero Decree” intended to deny the benefit of German industry and infrastructure to the arriving conquerors. But Hitler’s War Production Minister Albert Speer was intentionally ignoring that order, a decision that might well have helped him avoid hanging at the Nuremberg trials.

Mittelwerk was a valuable capture indeed for the Allies. The Americans who first occupied it, and then the Russians who took it over a few months later, ransacked it for parts and technical specifications. The V-2 was the first man-made object to reach space, blasting at the speed of sound to the edge of orbit before plummeting back with its payload into the heart of London or wherever. It’s the ancestor of the long-range, intercontinental ballistic missiles that would come later, as well as the space programs of the countries who could build such missiles.

And of course, it wasn’t just the parts.

Wernher von Braun himself was the top prize of all — the young genius (he was just 33 when World War II ended) with the weapons of the future in his skull. As Germany collapsed in 1945, von Braun and his team of engineers had resolved to surrender themselves to the Americans rather than the Russians, but they too were subject to an order given the SS to execute the scientists if their capture appeared imminent. The Fuhrerbunker knew as well as the Allies how valuable this asset was.

In the event, von Braun managed to give himself up to a surprised American private. He disappeared into American custody, the crown jewel of “Operation Paperclip” that grabbed some 1,500 scientists from Germany and helpfully whitewashed their past misdeeds — misdeeds like Nazi party affiliation, and participating in slave labor camps.

Firing guided rockets into space was one thing. Unfortunately for our man Möser, his own skill set of bullying subordinates was not in short supply for either of the Cold War antagonists.

Möser was the one defendant (among 15) condemned to death at the resulting trial of Dora camp personnel. Rocket scientists, naturally, were not present for the occasion; Wernher von Braun and his team were hard at work at this time at Fort Bliss, Texas adapting the V-2 to the American Hermes program.

But at Dora, it had been Möser’s job to oversee camp discipline and labor strength for the slaves doing the grunt work manufacturing von Braun’s brainchild. Testimony convinced the court that the SS man had done this far too brutally, and perhaps with sadistic pleasure.

Several witnesses testified Möser frequently beat prisoners and participated in executions, often shooting at the men who were hanged for camp infractions — while they were hanging, or after they were taken off the gallows. (And of the latter, some already dead and some still alive.) “The accused told the twelfth witness that it was a pleasure to give the mercy shots, like shooting a deer.”

Möser for his part countered that he took no joy himself in the beatings and killings that he had to conduct as part of his job — and that the camp commandant had early on reprimanded him for leniency, threatening that “in view of the importance of the V-weapons operation, this could be interpreted as sabotage because it reduced the work efficiency.” How’s that for a hostile work environment?

(There’s a large .pdf of the entire trial summary here. Möser’s section begins on page 36 of the pdf (page 68 per the numbering in the scanned book pages).)

His presence on this here site betrays the outcome. On this date in 1948, Hans Möser was hanged at Landsberg Prison along with several other (unrelated) convicted war criminals.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Soldiers,War Crimes

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1946: Franz Strasser

2 comments January 2nd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1946, former Nazi Kreisleiter Franz Strasser was hanged at Landsberg Prison for war crimes.

Strasser was condemned for shooting five downed American airmen in Czechoslovakia in December 1944, an American tribunal dismissing the defense: “There is not a scintilla of evidence to support STRASSER’s contention that he shot the prisoners to prevent their escape.” (A pdf scan of the entire verdict is here.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,War Crimes

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