On August 8, 1945, in London, the governments of the USA, France, Britain, and the USSR resolved to punish “those German officers and men and members of the Nazi party who have been responsible for or have taken a consenting part in atrocities and crimes. . . .” in accordance with the laws of the liberated countries and of the “free governments that will be created therein.” After consultation, there was established an International Military Tribunal for the trial of war criminals whose crimes had no particular geographical location. Nineteen nations expressed their adherence to this agreement, and the trials were conducted by quadripartite tribunals at Nuremberg in 1946 and 1947.
To give effect to the London Protocol, the four powers occupying Germany adopted a charter on December 20, 1945, establishing a uniform legal basis in Germany for the prosecution of war criminals other than those dealt with by the International Military Tribunal. The charter defined as crimes the following acts:
- Crimes against peace: participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of invasions, aggressive wars, etc.;
- War crimes: atrocities committed against persons or property constituting violations of the customs of war; murder, ill treatment, deportation to slave labor camps, plunder of public or private property, killing of hostages, wanton destruction of towns, devastation “not justified by military necessity,” etc.;
- Crimes against humanity: extermination, enslavement, rape, persecution on political, racial, or religious grounds whether or not such persecution violated the laws of the country in which it was perpetrated; membership in organizations declared criminal by the International Military Tribunal (that a man had acted “pursuant to the order of his government or of a superior does not free him from responsibility for a crime, but may be considered in mitigation”).
The United States Military Government in Germany, on October 18, 1946, enacted an ordinance under which military tribunals were established in the American Zone of Occupation, with the purpose of trying and punishing criminals within that zone who had escaped prosecution at Nuremberg. Fourteen of the thirty-two men who served as judges in these tribunals had sat in the highest courts of their home states, eleven had sat in state appellate or trial courts, and the others included a law school dean and several eminent bar association members.
The first of a series of indictments was filed on October 25, 1946, and the trial opened on December 9 of that year. Judgment was finally rendered more than two years later, on April 14, 1949 (in United States vs. Weizaecker et al.), condemning a total of twenty-six men to death, fifteen under the jurisdiction of the High Commissioner and eleven under the jurisdiction of the army.
According to the ordinance of October 18, 1946, these judgments were final and not subject to review. However, the U. S. Military Governor (General Lucius Clay), and his successor (High Commissioner John J. McCloy) felt that the right of appeal should not be denied the convicted men. The High Commissioner therefore undertook a review of the sentences with the help of an Advisory Board on Clemency which began work in Washington early in 1950, and continued in Munich in July 1950.
This Board, consisting of New York State Supreme Court Justice David Peck, Commissioner Frederick A. Moran (the chairman of the New York Board of Parole), and Brigadier General Conrad E. Snow, was not empowered to review the decisions of the Military Tribunals on questions of law or fact, but to consider disparities among the sentences for comparable crimes and other matters which tended to show that the sentences imposed were “excessive.” The Board was directed to consider anything that might warrant “mitigation of sentences.”
Interest in the condemned men in Landsberg prison—the so-called Lands-berg men—began to mount in Germany around mid-December of 1950 when it became known that High Commissioner McCloy and his colleague, General Handy, had the cases under study. Mr. McCloy’s mail was marked by an increasingly large number of appeals for clemency, both signed and anonymous, and soon these appeals assumed the proportions of an avalanche. There were pleas from churchmen and politicians, university men and students, former soldiers, disinherited royalty. They came from every state in West Germany, and even from the United States. There were threats, too, against McCloy’s life. Apart from all this, illustrated weeklies went in for special feature stories denouncing the “cruelty” of the American authorities in keeping the condemned men waiting so long for a final verdict. Articles describing the fine personal qualities of the war criminals were published by their wives, and a few mass-circulation magazines took to printing similar pieces by the families or former associates of top-rung Nazi leaders who had been executed long before. Pamphlets and leaflets attacking American “injustice” were circulated by unknown and unidentified organizations. Oswald Pohl, who received more support than any of his fellow prisoners, although his crimes (i.e., the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto) were among the worst, had great success with a booklet called The Way to God in which he explained his reason for converting to the Catholic faith. Another popular leaflet was a catalogue of the “good deeds” of Otto Ohlendorf who, by his own uncontroverted testimony, was responsible for slaughtering 60,000 Jews and Gypsies.
Little or nothing was said in print or on the air about the crimes committed by these men. The Bundestag adopted a unanimous resolution condemning the execution of any of the prisoners.
This upsurge of public feeling reached a climax on January 9, when High Commissioner McCloy agreed to receive a six-man Bundestag delegation representing the leading political parties, to ask for amnesty for the war criminals. The meeting took place in McCloy’s offices in a Frankfort building that had once been the headquarters of the I. G. Farben empire.
It was clear from the moment Dr. Herman Ehlers (Bundestag president) delivered his opening address, that the delegates had made elaborate preparations for the meeting. Ehlers declared that while they held no brief for many individual war criminals, yet at a time when West Germany was being called upon to make a military contribution to Western defense, they felt bound to call for modification of the death sentence on the ground of political and psychological factors. The High Commissioner listened intently, eyes fixed on his scratch pad. His liaison man translated sentence by sentence.
Ehlers called on the next speaker, Dr. Walter Strauss, of the Ministry of Justice. Strauss argued that it was the tradition in West Germany to carry out a death sentence within four weeks after such sentence was imposed. The tradition dated back to the 19th century. He said that the Landsberg men had been imprisoned between two and three years ago, and were still waiting for the final verdict. It was, he argued, almost inhuman to keep men, regardless of the crimes they might have committed, in a state of terrible uncertainty as to whether they were going to live or die. Moreover, West Germany had abolished the death penalty in the new constitution, and for the U. S. authorities to carry out capital punishment would show lack of respect for this constitution, “with far-reaching consequences for American-German relations.”
Heinrich Hoefler, a founder of the Christian Democratic party, based his appeal on humanitarian grounds. The German people did not wish to see any more blood spilled in Germany, especially in the name of a false idea of justice. They felt strongly that the so-called war crimes allegedly committed by the Landsberg prisoners could be atoned for by life sentences in cases where warranted, and did not call for draconic measures. Carlo Schmid, vice-president of the Bundestag, one of the principal Socialist party leaders, and a highly regarded anti-Nazi and enemy of anti-Semitism, then added that “We wish to create a new moral climate in Germany.” He said that if the U.S. and the other occupying powers in West Germany granted clemency, the Soviet Military Administration in Eastern Germany would in all probability follow suit. And, he went on, American-German relations would improve greatly if the Landsberg death sentences were commuted. Schmid also made the argument that in view of West Germany’s abolishing of capital punishment, it would be ill advised for the U. S., although the occupying power, to act in violation of German law.
After a talk by Hans Joachim Von Merkatz, a functionary of an influential right-wing political group, Ehlers introduced Bundestag Deputy Jakob Altmeier, a Socialist party member. Altmeier’s opening words came as a shock to the High Commissioner who, for the first time in the meeting, kept his eyes glued to the speaker. “I am a Jew,” said Altmeier in English. “I have suffered grievously at the hands of the Nazis. I have lost my parents, my relatives and friends in the concentration camps. I was there myself, Excellency.
“It is three times as difficult for me as it is for my colleagues,” he continued, “to plead with you for commutation of the death sentences. But I should like to emphasize that if you execute these men, their lives will be wasted! It would be far better to keep them in prison as an example to future generations.
“An act of grace from you, Mr. McCloy, would be a great gesture of reconciliation between the American and the German people, and it will never be forgotten.”
The High Commissioner thanked the delegation for traveling from Bonn to Frankfort to present their ideas. He said that reviewing the sentences of the Landsberg prisoners was the most difficult task he had been charged with since coming to Germany. He had had no previous experience as a governor in such problems, although he was, as a lawyer, trained in legal procedures. In Germany he was serving his country not only as supreme representative of the United States government, but as the exponent of certain international agreements to which the U. S. government was a signatory. The Military Tribunals, Mr. McCloy went on, had been set up by men of peace, good will, and great character. The crimes for which punishment was being meted out were the worst known in history, and they had to be atoned for in order to prevent their recurrence. He had studied the cases not with any political considerations in mind but purely in judicial terms. His only criterion was that justice must be done.
Mr. McCloy then took up the specific arguments which had been advanced by the delegation. Referring first to the charge that the delay in carrying out the death sentences was “inhuman,” he said that if they had been carried out within four weeks after the final verdict, many men might have been unjustly executed: a good number of war criminals had already been released, after reviews of their sentences and their trials. The four-week tradition invoked by Dr. Strauss obviously applied to ordinary criminal cases, and the cases at Landsberg were not ordinary criminal cases: they had been heard in courts designed to meet “an extraordinary spasm of criminality.” Moreover, the Landsberg murderers had committed their crimes on non-German soil against non-German victims; that the prison happened to be situated in Germany was only a geographical accident. It was a fine point of law, Mr. McCloy insisted, to claim that traditional German legal methods should be applied to cases such as these.
Mr. McCloy emphasized that the cause for delay was a humane one: “There are probably no prisoners anywhere in the world whose cases have received the same painstaking attention given to the Landsberg cases. I refuse to accept the suggestion made by the delegation that humanity breeds inhumanity. In some of these cases, I found that the defendants could establish their resistance to superior orders, which resulted in no instance of the individuals being punished by their Nazi masters. This type of evidence I have accepted in mitigation of the original sentence.”
The High Commissioner said that he had been struck by the extent of the misinformation in the letters and petitions which were being sent to him. Ninety-nine out of one hundred of these communications showed “as much understanding of the cases as your dog, Professor Schmid.”
It would be bad for the soul of the German people, McCloy went on, to put these things under the carpet. Bishops, lawyers, the man on the street, all felt the same impulse—to hide things under the carpet. The Germans knew what had happened to them—but they did not know, they did not want to know what had happened to other people.
Mr. McCloy invited the delegation to advise him on some of the difficult cases he had to review. He cited examples from the Medical Case in which the defendants were charged with and convicted of performing medical experiments on concentration camp inmates—high altitude tests, freezing tests, tests with typhus and malaria germs, artificially induced infections, salt water tests, etc.
He also cited examples from other cases, including the High Command Case in which military commanders carried out the so-called “Fuehrer Order” calling for the murder of “undesirable elements such as Jews and Gypsies—women, men, and children alike who were offensive to the Germans.” And he further noted that a great number of terrible and terrifying crimes had been committed in the name of maintaining the “ethnic purity” of the German people.
“I cannot understand,” he continued, “how human beings can commit such crimes. There was one case in which the criminal admitted to having killed 60,000. There was another who admitted responsibility for the massacre of 30,000 Jews (in Kiev). In this particular instance, the defendant expressed regret that there weren’t more to be killed! There was one ordained minister who renounced the cloth to become a Sonderkommando leader. After he had started his blood bath, he was asked whether he would say something for the survivors. The defendant answered: ‘You can’t cast pearls before swine.’”
High Commissioner McCloy indicated that in certain cases at Landsberg, new evidence had made it possible to reduce the death sentence to time served. He then concluded: “If I can find one honest man in Sodom, I’ll save the city!”
On the 31st of January, the High Commissioner’s final decisions were promulgated and published. The sentences were reduced in a number of cases where there appeared a basis for clemency.
Ten of the fifteen death cases under McCloy’s jurisdiction were commuted, five confirmed; two of the eleven death cases under General Handy’s jurisdiction were confirmed, nine commuted. A total of seven men, then, were to be executed at Landsberg. Their names were Paul Blobel, Werner Braune, Erich Naumann, Otto Ohlendorf, Oswald Pohl, Georg Schallermair, and Hans Schmidt.
Blobel, Braune, Naumann, and Ohlendorf had all been leaders of the Extermination Squads (Einsatzgruppen), which were the chief instruments devised by the Nazis for wiping out the Jews of Europe.
Pohl had been the head of an organization, the WVHA (Wirtschafts-und Verwaltungshauptamt), Economic and Administrative Department of the Nazi government, which, as an adjunct of the SS, had administered the concentration camps. Millions were killed in these camps, and hundreds of thousands died from malnutrition, overwork, and other excesses.
Schallermair had been directly in charge of prisoners in a sub-camp of Dachau named Muehldorf where large numbers of beatings were personally administered by him. He visited the morgue daily with an inmate dentist to extract gold teeth from the mouths of the corpses. Of three hundred people brought to Muehldorf in the fall of 1944, only 72 survived.
Schmidt had been in charge of Buchenwald for three years. During this period, 5,000 prisoners died each month as a result of cruelties inflicted upon them by the SS. Schmidt had participated actively in these atrocities and it had been necessary to restrain him because he frequently assumed greater authority than he actually possessed.
The public reaction to McCloy’s announcement was exactly as anticipated. In the United States, there was sharp criticism of the decisions as having been too “lenient,” while in Germany, McCloy was attacked for having been too severe. Attorneys for the defense of the condemned men (including counsel engaged in Washington, D.C., and paid for by the federal government) made plans to appeal to the Supreme Court.
On February 1, a special messenger delivered an urgent dispatch from the Federal Minister of Justice, Thomas Dehler, in Bonn. The letter cited alleged mistakes in the biographical section of the document, “Landsberg, A Documentary Report,” which had been published in connection with the final announcement of McCloy’s decisions. Dehler indicated that an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would be based on these alleged mistakes. He objected to the sentence: “The destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, including the deportation or extermination of more than 56,000 Jews, was personally committed by him [Oswald Pohl].” According to Dehler, Pohl destroyed the ghetto but not its inhabitants. Second mistake: “He personally selected prisoners for medical experiments. . . .” According to Dehler, Pohl did not select them personally; he had delegated this authority to someone else. Third mistake: “Pohl was a man of many titles . . . as adjutant general and quartermaster general,” etc. According to Dehler, someone else was adjutant general.
Of course, the biographical matter issued in connection with the final announcements was not part of the official documentation and was intended simply to help people remember Pohl’s crimes. However, Dehler’s letter contributed to delaying the executions four more months, until the 7th of June, 1951. There had been three last-minute reprieves prior to June 7—the most recent on May 24, ninety minutes before the actual hangings were due to take place. Three times the gallows had been prepared, three times the official army executioner was instructed to have his gear ready, three times the wives of the condemned men visited their husbands for the “last time.” Three times the prisoners ate their “last meal.”
As chief of the Public Relations Division for the High Commissioner’s Office, I was sent to Landsberg to handle the two hundred or so newspaper men covering the story of the hanging. It was purely accidental that I, an American, and a Jew, became the official witness for the U.S. High Commissioner to the execution of the condemned men. With Alexander Bickel of the Office of the General Counsel, I motored to Landsberg-on-the-Lech, in Bavaria, on Tuesday the 6th, in an army staff car with a GI driver, arriving at 7 P.M. An attorney from McCloy’s office was detailed to remain in the Frankfort headquarters of the High Commissioner, where he was in radio-telephone communication with the General Counsel’s office in the State Department in Washington. His job was to wait for a possible last-minute reprieve by the Supreme Court. The army set up a parallel line of communication with the Pentagon, via General Handy’s Heidelberg head-quarters. Radio cars were in the prison compound in anticipation of a possible breakdown of telephone communications. The following diary records events of that night and of the following morning, Wednesday, June 7, on a 24-hour clock (7 P.M. is equivalent to “1900 hours,” etc.).
June 6, 1951
1900: Arrive with Bickel in army staff car. There are no newspapermen around prison grounds. GI alert units are much in evidence, tommy guns at the ready. Seven towers around the prison compound are manned by Polish guards, all heavily armed.
1905: We are admitted to the admissions office. A tall, gray-faced woman is signing out. She has red-rimmed eyes, is dressed in plain calico dress, carries nothing, not even a pocketbook. A handsome Negro captain, Artillery, a huge bunch of keys dangling from his belt, tells me in answer to a question that she is Mrs. Oswald Pohl. “She’s a nuisance,” he says. “Has been making a lot of trouble for us.”
1910: We enter office of prison commandant, Colonel Walter Graham. We shake hands with him and members of his staff. He suggests that we settle down in an adjoining office for the long wait. The executions are scheduled to start at three minutes past midnight.
1915: I look through Graham’s window at the prison compound. The apple trees are in full blossom. It is quiet and orderly; beautifully manicured grounds with only a knoll of American soldiers near the big gates to destroy the illusion of a rest camp.
In this same prison Adolf Hitler wrote Mein Kampf, and was released for political reasons.
I think of the evil conspiracies which have been hatched within these high walls. I watch a woman pushing a baby carriage across the street and well outside the range of the prison gates.
1920: Bickel reports to Fred Hulse, in McCloy’s office in Frankfort. He says: “Do you know me by any other name?” (code word was used for security reasons). Then: “Any news?” Hulse tells him that counsel for the criminals in Washington has brought the case before the Supreme Court, in session at this moment—3 P.M. Washington time—asking for another stay of execution. If the Justices agree, there will be another two month delay, since the Court goes into summer recess.
1930: Graham tells us there will be no executions unless specific instructions come from both the State Department and the War Department.
Graham says the men have eaten their last supper. It consisted of fried chicken, potatoes, green peas, and carrots. For dessert they had fresh cherries. Wives have been asked to say their final goodbyes—for the fourth time.
1935: JAG1 lieutenant colonels from Heidelberg, two of them, have arrived to serve as army witnesses. One remarks that it seems “late in the day” politically to be hanging Germans even if they are war criminals.
Bickel says the criminals should have been hanged earlier. He believes that the executions will do no harm politically and will prove that we meant to carry out our war aims, regardless of the fact that we now want the Germans to oppose Communism.
Our small talk is mostly about McCloy and his amazing courage.
Graham says his “fan mail” from Nazi sympathizers has slowed down. He thinks the reason is that people no longer believe the USA will carry out the executions.
Graham shows me a letter from one of the former prison chaplains, a German who refuses to accept an invitation to administer last rites to prisoners. The letter used the terminology that has become so familiar—”inhuman to keep men waiting so long to die,” etc. We tell one another the prisoners could easily have spared themselves this “inhuman” waiting, simply by refraining from submitting petitions.
Graham says prisoners have been gaining weight on the excellent prison fare. Caloric content per man per day is the same as that of the GI, 3,600 calories.
Graham says the “last suppers” were cooked at Augsberg, some miles away from Landsberg Prison. This was done to avoid any possibility of poison or suicides. The suppers were served by GI’s. Even the drinking water was hauled in from Augsberg.
Graham gets his retirement discharge next week. He doesn’t want it delayed or snafued by a suicide, which would mean writing lengthy reports and involve him in interminable red tape. He is obsessed with fear of a suicide attempt.
1945: Dinner in the prison mess. Excellent. The waiter is a former Malmédy murderer, one of Pfeiffer’s flunkeys. I look at his rather gentle face and wonder.
2045: Hulse calls Bickel. There are new instructions now—a reversal of the previous arrangement. We are to proceed with executions unless instructions are received to the contrary.
Someone is looking for Warrant Officer Britt, the official executioner. An officer reports that he’s taking a bath. A curious time to take a bath.
Graham is amused. He says a sergeant reported finding cherry pits in one of the death cells. He didn’t know what they were for a moment, suspected a suicide attempt.
2100: Graham is excited over report from Munich newspaper to the effect that there has been another stay of execution. One of the lieutenant colonels from Heidelberg offers odds of 6 to 5 that it won’t happen tonight.
2105: A prison officer comes into Graham’s office to announce that the war criminals’ appeal to an American judge in Frankfort Military Courts has been rejected. JAG officers speculate on how any judge in Frankfort could have granted an appeal, with full knowledge of the facts. 2110: Graham shows me a letter which had been intercepted and copied before delivery to its addressee—Oswald Pohl. Writer was one Frederick Wiehl, Pohl’s counsel in Germany:
There will be no execution on Tuesday. . . . No matter what happens to our application on Monday in the District Court in Washington for a permanent injunction prohibiting the executions, there will be no executions. . . .
2120: Graham receives message from Heidelberg. The Supreme Court has rejected final appeal, Justice Robert Jackson (who served as chief prosecutor in the Nuremberg trials) abstaining after disqualifying himself.
It now appears that the hanging will take place after all, unless defense counsel can find some new loophole. Everyone present agrees that the only hope is John J. McCloy.
Graham shows me a great heap of letters and telegrams from German sympathizers offering comfort to the criminals. Most of them are biblical quotations, others enclose pressed flowers. There is a batch from German nationals offering to die in place of the condemned. One telegram to Graham pleads for the privilege of hanging in place of Pohl. Graham says: “I ought to accept this offer; that guy’s been begging to be executed.”
There are 513 prisoners in Landsberg as of 2120 hours on June 6. A total of 265 have been hanged since the end of the war.
2140: Graham receives confirmation from Heidelberg: proceed with executions.
2147: Bickel receives confirmation from Frankfort: proceed with executions.
2151: There is a lot of bustle in Graham’s office now, as uniformed officers and men come and go. Preparations are being completed. I have a sinking feeling as I realize that in all probability seven men will be hanged in a little while, and that I am to witness the spectacle. Colonel Graham, whose office is the nerve center, makes pointed reference to the possibility of suicide. “Those bastards,” he mutters, “those unmitigated bastards—if they try anything. . . .”
The lieutenant colonel from the Judge Advocate General’s Office in Heidelberg, has reversed himself and is now offering 6 to 5 that there will be no stay of execution.
2200: CIC2 agents come in from the town of Landsberg-on-the-Lech. They report to the commandant, Colonel Graham. The town is tense with excitement but no real trouble is expected. Some 20 newspaper-men have converged on the Hotel Goggol, the town’s leading hotel, where they are waiting for news and filing “background” and “human interest” stories.
No newsmen will be admitted to the executions, by unanimous decision of the High Commissioner’s staff and General Handy’s advisers. Although preparations have been a strictly guarded secret, the news that the seven will be hanged has leaked out—principally via the wives of the condemned, their defense counsel, and the prison grapevine.
The CIC agents tell us that the newspaper reporters, some of them Germans, have been interviewing the wives of the seven. The latter have invented stories about how their husbands are being mistreated. In fact, Landsberg is one of the best operated prisons in Europe, and its inmates receive civilized treatment.
2205: A German newspaper calls from Ulm to advise Graham there has been a stay of execution. He refuses to comment. Another newspaper calls to inquire whether it is true that the executions will go forward. Graham is noncommital.
2210: We wait, smoking and looking uneasily at the clock.
2215: Graham exhibits his petitions and telegrams again. Someone asks about the 650,000 signatures appended to a petition for clemency sent to President Truman from Germany. Graham remarks acidly that the postage on this petition alone must have cost about 120 Deutsche Mark, or $30. Someone suggests that the prisoners must be well heeled to have been able to lay out the money it cost to circulate the petition.
2226: Graham reports that the prisoners have had their teeth examined once more, and that false teeth have been removed. He is determined to prevent suicide.
2229: A German Evangelical chaplain named Ermann, employed for two years by the prison, was intercepted smuggling mail out for the prisoners, and was sacked. Graham shakes his head. “Those damned Germans. And the way we treat them.”
2235: Graham is discussing the business of last rites. He says this takes considerable time. Each chaplain is allowed all the time he needs in the cell with the condemned man before he is led to the gallows. “You can’t hurry them, you know,” says the Colonel philosophically.
2240: Bickel has telephoned Hulse in Frankfort confirming receipt of cable from Washington. One hour and some 25 minutes are left now. Army still awaiting receipt of confirming cable. JAG officer observes that they can’t do a thing until Graham has “a piece of paper” from the Department of the Army in the Pentagon. Doubts begin to stir in us again. Graham mutters something to the effect that they’ve “got to get started” on the final arrangements NOW if they are to meet their schedule. I wonder what other arrangements are necessary at this point.
2242: Big clock is ticking. I have a queasy feeling in my stomach. I visit the latrine. I stare out into the lovely June night, watch the big searchlights swinging around the heavily guarded compound. I return to Graham’s office. The medical officer has arrived, Lieutenant Colonel Huff. He is a small, slight man with soft, kindly eyes. I ask him if he will pronounce the men dead. He nods. Have you ever done this before? I ask. No, he says rather unhappily.
The army executioner, Mr. Britt, suddenly puts in an appearance, trim and neat in his tight-fitting uniform. How are you feeling? I ask. Fine, he says. His hand is moist, clammy. He shakes hands also with Bickel when I introduce them. Bickel studies Britt’s face. For some reason, Warrant Officer Britt seems just right for his job. Though short, he is athletic, wiry and powerful. I wonder how he can sleep with himself. He has executed scores of criminals and has been flown from Texas to perform his job again.
2244: Graham hangs up the telephone. He says the big brass has conferred, McCloy has talked with General Handy. No one knows what they said, but they’ve talked. That’s enough.
Army officers and GI’s, with enormous keys on their belts, are moving in and out of the office. They are moving faster than before, and the keys make a not inappropriate noise.
2246: The sergeant has announced coffee and doughnuts. They are brought in on huge trays by a young prisoner whose face could be that of a friendly, smiling Kansas farmer. I learn that he was sent up for shooting captured paratroopers.
2249: Graham answers the telephone. He makes notes on a piece of paper. He says, yes, yes, yes, right, OK, O’Neill, thanks, OK. He hangs up. He says: “That’s it, boys. The cable has come from Washington.”
I think: Hadn’t I better stay in Graham’s office rather than witness this thing? Another voice in my head says, No, you must see it through. The crimes they committed were crimes against you.
Bickel says he will not be a witness. He will take phone calls in Graham’s office. This leaves me the only witness for the State Department. There’s no backing out now.
2250: Warrant Officer Britt is discussing hangings with the medical officer. Describes how the neck is broken in the fall, how the stomach bulges . . . how it requires 15 to 19 minutes in some cases for final consummation. He says he once had a “case” with a bad heart—it took that one only ten minutes!
2255: Borom, the lieutenant colonel from Heidelberg, is lighting his pipe. He tells me that he always had a hard time finding matches during the invasion of Nazi-controlled France. His remarks have a refreshing banality. I look at him with astonishment. He seems calm and placid as a lake.
2300: Bickel calls Frankfort. He says, we’re all set; we’ll call you right after the first one is pronounced dead, and after the last.
2330: The time now passes swiftly. In an office across the corridor from Colonel Graham’s a few GI’s are listening to a shortwave broadcast of a big league baseball game in New York.
2335: Less than half an hour to go.
There is a telephone call. It is a report from Denmark, of all places, to the effect that the men have already been executed. Graham refuses to comment.
There is a report from Bonn that the Ministry of Justice is working frantically for a last minute reprieve. Presumably they are working on McCloy.
2346: Graham addresses us briefly. He says we must realize the seriousness of the occassion. It will be without levity, emotion, or demonstrations of any kind. We are to stand at attention during the hangings. We may be seated and smoke after each “drop.” The queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach comes back.
We follow Graham to the Death House.
2350: I look into the telephone shack to see exactly where I have to call Bickel after the first drop. There is a staff sergeant, stout and unsmiling, unarmed, standing at the door. His face is yellow in the lamplight. I tell him I will be down to make a call after the first drop. I remember that I must dial “22,” which is Bickel’s extension in Graham’s office. Will I be able to perform this simple act? I have photographs of the seven men in my hands. I am to identify them before certifying.
2353: I return to the Death House, climb up the last stairway, see the gallows for the first time. Now I don’t think I can stick it out. I seat myself next to Lieutenant Colonel Borom. He is talking in his friendly Alabama drawl, but I scarcely know what he is saying. His pipe throws off a delicious fragrance.
I look around. I see Warrant Officer Britt efficiently rubbing the noose with wax, and his assistant, a sergeant, is busying himself with the black hoods which have been stored in an ordinary army foot locker. I feel as though I am moving in a weird dream as I watch these macabre figures around me, figures in the khaki of the U.S. Army uniform. They seem collected and self-controlled, and I make an effort to get a grip on myself.
2354: Nine minutes left. I wonder what the architect Blobel is thinking down in his cell as he waits to be led out. It is cold up here in the loft of the prison workshop which has now been temporarily outfitted for this unusual purpose. I notice on the other side of the loft a neatly piled stack of white pine coffins which presumably were made for the war criminals whose sentences have been commuted. I wonder what they will be using these for now.
2355: Quite a few people are now in the loft. Holmes, the commandant of Landsberg Military sub-Post, is seated within speaking distance of me and next to the town’s civilian (German) Registrar of Vital Statistics. Holmes confides that the Registrar had refused to attend the executions for political reasons, that he had been ordered to attend, that he was a die-hard Nazi. The Registrar sits very still, his legs crossed, staring at the gallows. He is dressed in a shabby suit and spring topcoat, his shoes have been worn through the soles, his hands are those of a farmer.
2356: Seven minutes more. Holmes, of the Military Post, asks me whether I know anything about the controversial hunting law which allows GI’s to hunt in German reserves against the will of the owners. I am listening half-heartedly, reply in the negative. Holmes starts discussing the injustices of the law. He says there is to be a conference on the subject in the near future, urges me to attend.
I watch the preparations. Mr. Britt is testing the rope now; he lifts and then lowers himself on the closed trap.
2357: Hard wood benches line the sides of the loft. It is a small room; I am sitting within ten feet of the gallows. There is a fire extinguisher resting on a stone ledge at the end of the wall. There is an emergency lamp, and a field telephone within reach of Colonel Graham. A few extra folding chairs have been set up. Two cameramen, both GI noncoms, are fooling with their apparatus. The commandant, Colonel Graham, cigar between his teeth, is darting about, a sheaf of papers in one hand.
2359: One minute before midnight. Will there be another reprieve? It is still remotely possible. That sick feeling comes over me again. I shake it off with difficulty. The colonel takes the center of the floor. He repeats his caution against frivolity, although for the life of me I can’t imagine how or why anyone would become frivolous. He adds one thought, that none of us likes this business but we’ve got to go through with it.
2400: Now we hear footsteps and the voice of a chaplain praying in sonorous German. The footsteps have a hollow sound on the wooden stairway leading up into the loft.
June 7, 1951
0001: Two soldiers wearing neatly pressed olive drab uniforms are first to arrive in the loft. They are followed by the chaplain, wearing a white tunic and reading from his prayer book. Behind him is Paul Blobel whose Sonderkommando SS unit was involved in sixteen instances of mass murder, including the killing of 33,000 Jews in the Kiev massacre alone. Then two GI guards, unarmed, follow.
Blobel is dressed for death. He wears black shirt, black trousers, leather belt and sandals. His wrists are tied behind him. He is clean shaven now and looks older than his 57 years. I study his photograph, compare it with the man. His face is that of a storekeeper or a teacher. I look for signs of the desperate hater, the ruthless killer, but I don’t find any.
The routine, carefully prepared in advance, is followed to the letter.
Graham calls out: “Attention!” All in the room stand. Warrant Officer Britt then places the prisoner on the trap door. He straps prisoner’s ankles and steps back. The official cameramen photograph the prisoner after one of the GI assistants places the nameplate across the condemned man’s chest. The GI interpreter asks: “Have you any last words?” The prisoner replies: “Jawohl!”
0002: There is no wavering in voice or manner, never a sign of fear. Blobel speaks in a detached, remote voice. He says, whatever I have done, I did as a soldier who obeyed orders. I have committed no crime. I will be vindicated by God and history. God have mercy on those who murder me.
0003: The chaplain reads a prayer. He closes with a soft “amen.” Britt throws the black hood over Blobel’s head. There is a slight “fluff” in the air pocket. Britt adjusts the noose over the man’s hooded head. The rope doesn’t fit correctly. Britt removes it, places it back on the man’s head for the second time, tightens it with the knot at the nape of the neck. Blobel’s muffled voice is heard, but what he says is a mystery to those of us in the second circle.
0003½: Britt steps back, glances at Graham. Graham nods.
0004: Britt springs the trap. There is a slight crackle. The rope dangles slightly, then suddenly is very still.
0005: I recoil back into my seat. I light a cigarette. The others are relaxed now, smoking. The JAG lieutenant colonel seated next to me whispers, there but for the grace of God go I. His pipe is fragrant. We wait. My eyes are fixed on the rope. I am quite sick now, my hands are cold as ice. Britt is fooling with the second noose. He is amazingly efficient and cold-blooded. The sergeant aide is looking into the pit where architect Blobel is hanging. How silent it has become.
0007: Borom says he wishes there were a seven-man gallows. I agree. I am glad to talk. He talks about his law practice in Alabama, tells me how he once saved a man from the gallows. I keep my eyes away from that rope.
0014: The sergeant pulls up the body while from the floor below someone disentangles the rope. We hear a murmur, then the soft voice of the medical officer. The cameraman’s flash goes off in a sudden stab of light. Then there is another sound, the sound of the cover being nailed onto the coffin.
0015: I make my way down the steps to call Bickel. I tell him Blobel has been pronounced dead at 0014½, June 7.
0236: Seven times I have watched, compared the face of the condemned man with his official prison photograph. Seven times I have listened as they swore, in their dying words, that they had merely carried out orders; that they had been fighting for their country; that the Americans were their enemies. First Blobel, then the jurist Braune; Naumann, the SS General; Ohlendorf, the economist and lawyer who murdered 90,000; Pohl and Schallermair and Schmidt—each in his turn. Seven times I secretly murmured kaddish, the prayer for the dead, not for the executed man but in memory of their victims. We left the death chamber after Schmidt, of Buchenwald infamy, had been pronounced dead and after I had signed the affidavits as the government’s official witness.
I returned to Graham’s office. Across the corridor, the GI service unit was still listening to the ball game being broadcast from Ebbets Field, Brooklyn. I took a cup of coffee and a couple of the doughnuts being handed out by the mess sergeant, and sat down to listen to the game.
1 Judge Advocate General
2 Counter-intelligence Corps