During the First World War, German doctors did their best to treat the thousands of soldiers broken mentally, rather than physically, by the horrors in which they were obliged to live, fight and die.
The Nazis showed no such mercy to either soldiers or civilians. Hitler was a fervent proponent of the death penalty. Goering insisting that killings were carried by axe rather than the guillotine.
A MURDEROUS TYRANNY
During the Weimar Republic (1919 to 1932), 1,141 prisoners were sentenced to death. Only 184 were executed.
In the years of Depression, between 1929 and 1933, fewer than 10 % of death sentences were carried out. That despite public concerns of a crime wave.
Once the National Socialists came to power, however, both death sentences and the percentage of executions increased sharply. Between 1933 and 1939 over 80 % were executed.
THE PEOPLE’S COURT
The Volksgerichtshof (People’s Court) was set-up in 1934, on the personal order of Hitler. He had been angered by the outcome of the Reichstag fire trial at which all but one of the defendants was acquitted.
This ‘Special Court’ had jurisdiction over a wide range of ‘political offences’. They included black marketeering, defeatism, and treason. All were subject to the death penalty. This was especially likely under the Judge-President Roland Freisler. His trials often lasted less than an hour with no evidence presented or arguments made by either side
Freisler acted as both judge and prosecutor. He abused, vilified, denounced and sentenced defendants without any objections from defence counsel. Knowing what was good for them, they usually remained silent throughout.
Judge-President Roland Freisler (centre) who ran a ‘kangaroo court’ Special Court on behalf of the Nazis. He is believed to have been killed by an Allied air-raid towards the end of the war.
Among those Roland Freisler condemned to death in less than an hour, were young students belonging to the White Rose resistance movement. I will tell their tragic story in a future blog.
When the war started only three offences were punishable by death. By its end, there were some 46. Death penalties passed by civilian courts in 1939 amounted to 36. Five years later they had risen to 2,097 out of a total of 4,379 sentenced. These figures do not take into account the scores murdered without trial on order of Hitler, Himmler or the Police. During the war the number of military trials rose from 12,853 in December 1939 to 44,955 in October 1944. Death sentences increased from 519, between 1939 and 1940, to 4,118 between 1943 and 1944.
Military courts were even more brutal than the civilian ones. Over the same period they sentenced between 13,000 and 15,000 men to death. Around 85 % of the sentences were carried out. Even when the war was coming to an end and defeat certain, this murderous tyrant continued.
In February 1945, for example, four German soldiers were shot by firing squads.Two on the 21st and two on the 26th. According to the death notice, they were ‘deserters from the colours and shirkers’ who had ‘funked a hero’s death in the face of the enemy, and died in disgrace and shame.’ (Die Hingerichteten sind als Fahnenflüchtige und Drückeberger… Sie scheuten den Heldentod vor dem Feinde und starben den Tod in Schimpf und Schande.)
Their masters, needless to say, also ‘funked a hero’s death’ whenever possible. They chose suicide rather than facing the enemy in the streets as they urged their followers to do – on pain of execution.