Monday, 21 November 2016

Hitler’s executions of his victims                                           

The first two volumes of my memoirs are titled, WHISTLING IN THE FACE OF ROBBERS which includes approximately 450 words each. There are six volumes of my memoirs altogether beginning in January 1933 and ending in the first decade of the Twenty-first century. In two thirds of the text in each of my volumes of my memoirs, I describe historical events beginning in January 1933 and ending in the first decade of the Twenty-first Century. The other one third of the text in my books is about my own life. In this article that I am submitting to you, is an excerpt of the true story of the executions relating to criminals and the conspirators who attempted to kill Hitler on July 20, 1944. Their executions were pretty gruesome but then, Hitler was also pretty gruesome. In the book there is no space between the paragraphs but in this article, I have spaced the paragraphs. And now, the excerpt of the story taken from Volume Two.

In Plötzensee, (a prison located in a suburb northwest of downtown Berlin, the prison  named after the suburb) as in other prisons, executions were usually carried out in the early mornings. The condemned person had to be informed of the impending execution the evening before by a public prosecutor in the presence of other officials. An official report of this meeting was recorded. After this, the condemned prisoners were transferred to a special wing in House III, called the House of the Dead, where they were closely guarded and later bound and could only be visited by their attorney and the prison chaplain. At dawn, prison guards led the condemned persons, their hands tied behind their backs, one by one to the execution shed (one story brick building divided into two large rooms) next to House III. (a wing of the prison). There the verdict was pronounced in front of the assembled persons and the prison chaplain was given the opportunity to say a short prayer. Next, the executioner's helpers grabbed the victim and placed him on a bench and his or her head secured in a hole of the guillotine Then the executioner did his work. An official report of the proceedings was recorded and the body released to the Institute of Anatomy and Biology of the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. In 1933, Adolf Hitler had a guillotine constructed and tested on a condemned man. He was impressed enough to order 20 more constructed and which were then pressed into immediate service. National Socialist records indicate that between 1933 and 1945, 16,500 people were executed by guillotine in Germany and Austria.

The actual act of beheading the prisoner took only a few seconds. The falling blade would take approximately a 70th of a second to fall. It would take approximately 2/100th of a second to slice through the neck of the victim. The precise post-execution lifespan of the human brain will depend on how much oxygen, and other chemicals were in the brain at the point of decapitation; however, eyes could certainly move and blink. A person could in theory remain self-aware of what has happened to him or her for several seconds. There is no consistency in this answer, as the precise length of both actual and practical survival will vary depending on the victim and how fast the oxygen in the blood in the brain of the victim is used up.                                                

 On February 17, 1937, the guillotine arrived in Plötzensee Prison from Bruchsal prison, where executions had previously been performed, and was erected in the execution shed. Beheadings nevertheless still took place prior to that date. On June 14, 1934, Richard Hüttig, age 26, was beheaded with an axe in the prison yard of Plötzensee Prison. He belonged to the Communist group, Rotfrontkämpferbund (Alliance of Red Front Fighters) and was tried before the Special Court in Berlin for having allegedly shot and killed an SS leader during a penal expedition by the SA and SS in his residential district. The Special Court admitted as its grounds for its decision that it could not be proven that Hüttig, who had been unarmed, had committed the deed. In spite of this, Richard Hüttig was sentenced to death on February 16th 1934, for ‘severe breach of the public peace and attempted murder, which in those days was a capital offence.                                                                                                                   

From February 17, 1937 on, the number of executions in Plötzensee and elsewhere increased rapidly. By March 1940, Plötzensee had already seen 277 executions since 1933. Three years later, the executioner in Berlin no longer submitted invoices for these ‘services’ annually but every month. For example, there were 114 executions in March and 124 in May of 1943.                                                                                         

In late 1942, facilities were provided for hanging up to eight people simultaneously in the execution shed. The first victims executed in this manner were members of the Harnack/ Schulze-Boysen resistance group.                                                               

When the guillotine in Plötzensee was damaged in an air raid during the night of September 3-4, 1943, over three hundred people were awaiting their execution in House III, which itself was severely damaged. During the raid, three of them succeeded in escaping but were apprehended shortly thereafter. This raid seemed to affirm the circular order issued by new Reich Minister of Justice Otto Thierack on August 27, 1943, which provided for accelerated execution of death sentences due to the risk of further air raids.                                                                                              

Thus on September 7th, 1943, the Reich Ministry of Justice, acting at Hitler's personal request, resolved to shorten clemency proceedings in the manner proposed by Thierack, and to execute all condemned prisoners in Plötzensee in rapid succession. To save time in forwarding the death warrants, the names of the condemned were relayed by telephone from the Reich Ministry of Justice to Plötzensee where the responsible public prosecutor compared them with prepared lists. Sometimes there were mistakes. During the first night, the 186 persons executed included four whose clemency proceedings had not yet been completed.                                                                           

Since the guillotine could only be repaired a few weeks later, the prisoners were hanged. Protestant cleric Harald Poelchau described the executions which took place during the night of September 7-8, 1944.                                                                            

“As darkness fell on September 7th the executions began. The night was cold. Every now and then the darkness was lit up by exploding bombs. The beams of the searchlights danced across the sky. The men were assembled in several columns one behind the other. They stood there, at first uncertain about what was going to happen to them. Then they knew. Eight men at a time were called by name and led away. Those remaining men hardly moved at all. On one occasion that night, the executioners interrupted their work because bombs thundered down nearby. The five rows of eight men already lined up had to be confined to their cells again for a while. Then the executions continued. All the men were hanged. The executions had to be carried out by candlelight because the electric lights had failed. It was only in the early morning at about eight o'clock that the exhausted executioners paused in their work, only to continue with renewed strength in the following evening.” unquote                                 

The prisoners weren't hanged from scaffolds as there wasn't enough room in the execution shed for scaffolds. Instead, the victims were each made to stand under a meat hook by the windows that was screwed into an iron I-beam about 12 inches below the ceiling. There were eight such hooks in a row. Two executioners  then grabbed each victim by his or her upper legs, lifted them upwards a couple of feet while a third executioner placed the end of the loop of the thin rope or piano wire onto the hook while the larger loop at the other end of the rope or wire was placed around their victim's necks. The victims were then dropped a foot or so to strangle until they suffocated to death.  Most would be dead within eight or ten minutes.                              

A group of foreign convicts in Plötzensee included about a dozen young Belgians and Frenchmen sentenced to death for burglary. They belonged to the large contingents of slave laborers from the many occupied eastern and western European countries, some of whom were abducted to Germany and some of whom had been lured there with false promises. Most of them were about 20 years old and had been in Berlin for varying periods of time before being accused by the Gestapo of committing a series of burglaries and thefts. Two of them, the Frenchman Gaston Deflin and the Belgian Richard Havron, had not even reached the age of eighteen. Deflin had worked in Germany since the age of fifteen and, like most of the others, had no police record. He visibly suffered from malnutrition and, answering a questionnaire through his interpreter, stated that he had only stolen because of hunger. Despite this, the Special Court's prosecutor at the Regional Court, Berlin, petitioned the court to sentence Deflin and Havron to death because, “considering their precocious Latin hereditary traits, they were “obviously to be regarded as equivalent to persons over the age of eighteen.”          

On July 23rd, 1943, eleven convicted prisoners were executed in Plötzensee, among them Deflin and Havron. Deflin's mother had since heard of her son's arrest through unknown channels. She appealed to the director of the Plötzensee prison in an urgent letter, requesting information and assistance. The callous indifference of the response sent to her in August 1943 by the prison director via the German embassy in Paris requires no further comment: “The particular deterrent to the general public that the state of war dictates in the interest of preserving public security has required this sacrifice from you.” That statement was mean and cruel.                                                

After air raids had severely damaged the execution site in Plötzensee in September 1943, the penitentiary in Brandenburg-Görden was declared the new central execution site for the appellate court district of Berlin. Plötzensee was intended to serve as execution site only for sentences of the People's Court and the Special Courts in Berlin. Yet with the mass executions after the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944, Plötzensee again became a focal point of National Socialist capital punishment. Between August 1944 and April 1945, 86 death sentences against conspirators and accessories to the unsuccessful attempt were carried out, along with executions for other offenses.                                             


In the subsequent days, Hitler's police rounded up the remaining conspirators, many of whom were tortured by the Gestapo to reveal their confederates and then hauled before the Volksgericht (People's Court) to be screamed at by the dreaded Nazi judge, Roland Freisler. The sound film tells no lies, and this entire court scene was filmed and exhibited.  Hoepner later explained his account of how he had objected to his court-martial sentence and had demanded that he be given a chance to be heard. He could justify himself, he had said; “I am not a Schweinehund.” (pig dog) as Freisler screamed that he was. “You are not a Schweinehund?" Roland Freisler wearing his bright red robes stretched in his judge's seat and spitefully barked at the defendant: “Well, then, if you don't want to be a Schweinehund, tell us what zoological class you consider to be your proper category?” Hoepner hesitated briefly. With the sound camera grinding away, Freisler pursued his point. "Well, what are you? An ass?” Nowadays, a judge who acted like that during a trial would be benched permanently.         

One day the camera people of the Deutsche Wochenschau (German newsreel) received an order from the then Reich film superintendent, Hans Hinkel, to make films of the court proceeding of July 20, 1944; it was allegedly to be shown in the newsreel. The camera man later said;                                                                                                        


“We were taken to the People's Court, and there we were told to make sound-film takes and close-up shots of the proceedings, as inconspicuously as possible. We installed temporary lighting, and set up our sound camera behind the doors, so as to make the shots through a hole. One camera-man was to make close-up shots and shots of the general atmosphere in the court-room.” unquote                                                             

Then the Reich film superintendent chose which of the camera-men was to do the filming. He also noted the number of feet of film used for each sequence, so that he was sure every bit of footage was handed over to him. The president of the People's Court, Dr. Freisler, consented enthusiastically to the idea of films being made and agreed that by all means everything was to be filmed.                                                      

The footage began with the defendants being led into the court. Their handcuffs being taken off and their seats assigned to them. Then the two other judges arrived including the chairman and also court president, Dr. Freisler, and the trial started. Every major defendant had to be filmed with the sound camera.                                                                 

During the first recess, the film superintendent, Hans Hinkel,and the president of the People's Court asked how the pictures had turned out. He had to inform the president that he had shouted too loud at the defendants, so that it was not possible for the sound-modulation man to get a balance between the shouting voice and the low voices of the defendants. Unfortunately, the president of the court continued his shouting at the other sessions, so that what was taken was technically inadequate                 

There were two days of proceedings before the People's Court. The defendants were visibly exhausted from the interrogations and torture. Freisler had them brought before the court in tattered clothes, accompanied every step of the way by two policemen. None of the defendants were allowed to speak without interruption, if any of them were even permitted to speak at all. The defense attorneys were not prepared to give their clients any meaningful assistance which was probably out of fear.                        

Fortunately, many bad things finally come to an end. Fate being as it is, Roland  Freisler came to a fitting end nine months later. On the 3rd of February 1945, he was conducting a Saturday session of the People's Court, when American bombers were bombing Berlin. Government and Nazi Party buildings were hit, including the Reich Chancellery, the Gestapo headquarters, the Party Chancellery, and yes, the People's Court.  According to one report, Freisler hastily adjourned court and had ordered that that day's prisoners to be taken to the nearby shelter, but he paused to gather that day's files. Freisler was then killed when an almost direct hit on the building caused him to be struck down by a beam in his own courtroom. His body was reportedly found crushed beneath a fallen masonry column, clutching the files that he had tried to retrieve. Among those files was that of Fabian von Schlabrendorff, a member of the 20 July Plot who was on trial that day and was waiting for the sentence of death to be passed onto him by Freisler. He was returned to the Plötzensee Prison. Fortunately for him, he survived the war.                                                                                                         

On August 8, 1944, Erwin von Witzleben, Erich Hoepner, Hellmuth Stieff, Albrecht von Hagen, Paul von Hase, Robert Bernardis, Friedrich Karl Klausing, and Peter Graf Yorck von Wartenburg were sentenced to death by hanging immediately after Freisler pronounced his verdict. They were then taken to Plötzensee for immediate execution.When their executions began under the auspices of so-called special actions, it caused fear and unrest in the entire prison.                                                      

All told, about 180 to 200 plotters were shot or hanged at Plötzensee and those who were hanged were viciously hung from the eight great meat hooks with piano wire around their throats.                                                                                                                  

A camera-man, Sosse, one of the camera people who had to film the executions, described how the conspirators were hanged. He described this way;                                      

“The building, which must have been heavily damaged previously by air raids, had been put together again in a make-shift way. The room was about 13 feet wide and 26 feet long. A black curtain divided this room in two. Only a little daylight came in through two small windows. Immediately in front of these two windows were eight hooks in the ceiling, and from these the condemned were to be hanged. There was also a contrivance in the room for beheading. It wasn’t used then because strangling with piano wire around their necks was Hitler’s preferred method of execution for these men.                                                                                                                                            

“A former general was the first prisoner to be led through the black curtain into the small make-shift room by the windows. Two executioners brought him to the hooks. Moments earlier, the prosecutor had once more read the death sentence to each of the condemned men in the ante-room, with the words: 'Defendant, you have been sentenced by the People's Court to death by hanging. Executioner, perform your function.'                                                                                                                              

 “The defendant went to the end of the room with his head high, although urged by the hangmen to walk faster. After arriving there, he had to make an about-face. Then a piano wire loop was placed around his neck. He was then lifted upwards by two of the executioner's assistants. The upper loop of the piano wire was attached to the hook on the ceiling. The prisoner was then dropped with great force, so that the noose tightened around his neck instantly.” unquote                                                                                          

In my opinion, death came very slowly as it's unlikely that his neck was broken with such a short drop. When Saddam, the dictator of Iraq was hanged, the hangman placed a soft piece of black cloth around his neck before he placed the rope around his neck just before he was dropped to his death.                                                                         

The first sentence had been carried out and filmed, a narrow black curtain was drawn in front of the hanged man, so that the next man to be executed would not see the first one dangling at the end of the rope, possibly still twitching right after the second condemned man arrived. (I don’t think the curtain would serve its purpose since the second man while standing under his hook would see the previous man beside him still twitching.) The executions were carried out in very rapid succession. Each doomed man walked his last steps erect and manly, without a word of complaint.” unquote                 

For his participation in the 20 July plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler at the Wolf’s General Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorf who had been at the Lair Volksgerichtshof was condemned by Roland Freisler and later put to death at Plötzensee Prison. So enraged was Hitler at his participation in the plot that Hitler ordered that he be forced to watch all the others hanged before him so that he would see in advance the suffering he would have to endure.                                                                                                             

On the 20th of July, von Helldorf was in communication with the coup d'état plotters. His place was to command his Berlin police during the coup, and not interfere with the military takeover. Then he was to aid the new government.Only the most important of the remaining executions were filmed, again on order of the then Reich film superintendent. Nine camera-men took turns in making the films. This was because every camera-man disliked the assignment and didn't want to return to the execution chamber.  


The report is based on the statement of a prison warden. If the macabre details of the execution appear in my book, it is only because they typify the satanic cruelty of the man who ordered them. The prison warden first describes the place of execution; “Imagine a room with a low ceiling and white-washed walls. Below the ceiling a rail was fixed. There were several windows a short distance from the rail. From it hung eight big hooks, like those butchers use to hang their meat. In one corner stood a movie camera with reflectors casting a dazzling, blinding light; like those in a photographic studio. The camera was in the corner so that even though a black curtain covered the front of each of the condemned men hanging from the hooks, the camera filmed the areas behind the black curtains. In this strange, small room was where the Prosecutor General of the Reich, the hangman with his two assistants, two camera technicians, and I myself with a second prison warden stood. At the wall there was a small table with a bottle of cognac and glasses for the witnesses of the execution.                

“The convicted men were led in. They were wearing their prison garb, and they were hand-cuffed. They were placed in a single row while the hangman got busy. a second prison warden stood next to him.                                                                                       

“One after another, all ten took their turn. All showed the same courage. It took, in all, 25 minutes. The camera worked uninterruptedly since Hitler wanted to see and hear how his enemies had died.” unquote                                                                                 

He had had the executioner come to him at the Reich Chancellery and had personally arranged the details of the procedure: “I want them to be hanged, hung up like carcasses of meat.” Those were his words.”                                                                     

Apparently Hitler who was at that time, staying in his large apartment in an apartment building in Berlin, enjoyed himself immensely when he saw the film of the hangings of the conspirators from the meat hooks when they flailed their legs in the air as they strangled while the piano wire cut into the flesh of their necks. Goebbels on the other hand, turned his face away from the screen.                                                                     

In October 2006, while my wife and I were in Berlin, I visited the scene of those executions. The Plötzensee Prison is located on the northwest outskirts of Berlin. The bus I took from the center of Berlin headed to the suburb of Plötzensee and I arrived at the prison in about half an hour. The day was bitterly cold and raining. From the bus stop, I walked down a lane towards the large prison and after a short walk. I saw an opening on my right that led to the yard that was surrounded by a high wall where the execution shed had been built. I faced a large white wall in which the name of the execution site was named. It turned out that near the end of the war, a bomb landed very close the eastern part of the red brick building and some of the building was destroyed so years later, a wall was built at the end of the building.                                         

The building is divided into two parts. I entered the first part of the building through a large opening. No door was attached to it. At the other end of the large room were two windows at the center of the south wall that wee  round at the top and flat at the bottom. Across the ceiling at that end of the building was a large heavy iron bar. Attached to the bar were five meat iron hooks. Originally there were eight of them but as I mentioned earlier, that end of the building was destroyed. In 1944, it was from those eight hooks that the condemned were hanged by piano wire.  When I was in the building, there were flowers in planters nearby.                                                                          

Along two walls in the second part of the building were printed articles in English (behind glass) written about some of the more than 2900 people who were executed in that building. One story will remain in my mind forever. The victim was a young man who found a purse near the body of a dead woman lying on the sidewalk next to a bombed building. He picked up the purse to look inside and was spotted by the police. He was arrested and taken directly to a court. He was convicted of stealing the purse. The penalty then for taking anything from a dead body was death. He was sentenced to death and taken to the Plötzensee Prison. The next morning, he along with other five other prisoners were taken to the execution shed. The piano wire was looped around his head and the two guards who had lifted him up by his legs, placed the smaller loop at the other end of the piano wire onto the hook and then dropped him and he slowly strangled to death.                                                                                                         

Normally the executioner came twice a week to carry out the executions of the condemned waiting in the prison for their deaths. His name was Roettger. He didn't so much walk as creep when he walked about. He always wore a three-quarter length jacket. He had executed thousands of condemned persons. He was given a bonus of 80 Marks (approximately $8.00 for 80 marks) for every person he executed along with extra cigarette rations. He always had a cigarette in his mouth. His helpers were big strong men. They would bring the hog-tied victims to the gallows. Two prison wardens would lead each of the condemned from their cells to the execution shed. Each of his assistants got eight cigarettes for doing this. A man named Appelt acted as overseer in the death building. The prisoners called him 'the fox.' He loved to pop up suddenly and check their bonds that had secured them. He was always lurking around.                                 

 I entered the second half of the building and it didn’t have the hanging apparatus in that part of the building because it was in that room that the guillotine was previously used. It was no longer there. Almost 3000 people died in that two-room building.  

As I stood alone in that terrible building with the cold wind blowing through it and while thinking of the horrors that took place there, I began to shiver. The grey sky outside added to the gloom I was experiencing.                                                                       

After being invited to tour prisons in the United States as a criminologist, I sat on the electric chair in Florida and in the gas chamber in California. Those experiences weren’t as eerie as when I was in the small brick execution building in Berlin.  

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