“We will take up the fight until the last culprit stands before the judges of the people!” This pledge was made by survivors of Buchenwald concentration camp a few days after their liberation.
Punishing those responsible for the crimes of violence committed by the Nazis was also an important objective of the Allies who had fought against Germany. The Nuremberg Trial of Major War Criminals attracted attention all over the world and is regarded as a milestone in legal history. However, it is largely unknown that the Allies also conducted hundreds of further trials.
From 1945 to 1949, the most important court for trying war crimes in the British Zone was housed in the Curiohaus in Hamburg. In total, 188 military trials against 504 defendants took place here. Who were these defendants? What crimes were they charged for? Who were their victims? And what role did the people they had persecuted play in these trials? These are the main questions explored in this exhibition.
On 3 May 1945, British troops entered the city of Hamburg, which surrendered without a fight. In front of the City Hall, Major General Alwin Wolz handed over the Hanseatic city to the British Brigadier John Spurling. By that time, Gauleiter Karl Kaufmann, head of the Nazi party in Hamburg, and other Nazi leaders in the area had got rid of all traces of their crimes and transported the prisoners of Neuengamme concentration camp out of the city.
Spurling concentrated on ensuring public safety, providing enough food for the city’s inhabitants and arresting top-level Nazis. Gauleiter Kaufmann was arrested on 4 May 1945, followed by other high-ranking members of the Nazi party and the SS.
On 10 May, town major Colonel Hugh Armytage began to establish the British Military Government in Hamburg. After he dismissed the city’s Nazi senate, he appointed the merchant Rudolf Petersen to be the city’s mayor and commissioned him to form a new city senate. Both the senate formed by Petersen and the Hamburg Parliament which was appointed in 1946, acted under the supervision of the British Military Government.
How were the victorious Allies supposed to bring those responsible for the terrible Nazi crimes to justice? There was no precedence for this.
In the London Charter issued on 8 August 1945, the British, American, French and Soviet governments agreed to establish an international military tribunal where the main German war criminals would stand trial in accordance with the rule of law. Other crimes would be tried in the countries where they had been committed during German occupation.
In the British occupation zone, regulations for the punishment of violations of international law were established by a Royal Warrant. British military courts tried only war crimes committed against citizens of the Allied countries.
The punishment of crimes against citizens of countries that had not been in league with the Allies became the task of courts appointed by the Allied Control Council in December 1945. At first, this also included Nazi crimes against Germans. Then in August 1946, the British Military Government handed over the responsibility of punishing crimes committed by Germans against fellow Germans or stateless people to the German courts.
The search for Nazi perpetrators began immediately after British troops entered Germany. Supported by British military intelligence, War Crimes Investigation Teams were tasked with the solving of war crimes and were responsible for investigations and arrests.
Many Jewish citizens who had emigrated from Germany worked in these teams in the British occupation zone. They were often not yet aware of just how many of their relatives had been killed. The War Crimes Investigation Teams were also assisted by survivors of Nazi persecution. These survivors gave extensive statements and often provided decisive information for apprehending perpetrators.
The investigators were able to find many war criminals in POW camps as well as internment camps for Nazi functionaries and members of the SS. The Central Registry of War Criminals maintained by the Western Allies, which had 58,000 entries in the end, also helped their search.
The British prosecuting authorities only took action against Nazi crimes if the victims were citizens of the Allied countries and the crimes had been committed after Great Britain had entered the Second World War. Excluded from the investigations were all violent crimes committed before 1939, crimes against Germans, the persecution and killing of German Jews, Roma and Sinti, and the murders of sick and disabled people that was euphemistically labelled “euthanasia”.
With this in mind, the investigation teams still had an excellent overview of the extent of Nazi terror and its key institutions. This was because it was very important for the Allied trials to know about the structures of the institutions of Nazi persecution. Some of the leaders of key Nazi organisations faced charges in the Nuremberg trials. The British military courts also tried senior ranking members of the SS and the Gestapo for issuing the order for individual crimes.
More than half of the 329 military court trials of war criminals in the British occupation zone took place in Hamburg. These trials were held in the Curiohaus. This representative assembly hall is located on Rothenbaumchaussee and was built in 1911 by the teachers’ association Gesellschaft der Freunde des vaterländischen Schul-und Erziehungswesens. In May 1933, this association, which had many members, joined the Nazi teacher’s union, and the Curiohaus became its property.
After the war, the British Army chose this building, which had not been damaged by bombs, to hold the trials. The general jurisdiction courts appointed by the Allied Control Council were housed in the regular courts in Hamburg.
After the trials of war criminals were over, the building was given back to the teacher’s union. Today, the renovated, heritage-listed building can be rented as an event location.
The first trial held by a British military court in the Curiohaus was on 17 October 1945. The defendants were Lieutenant Heinz Eck, commander of the submarine U-852, and 4 of his crew. The submarine had sunk the Greek freighter Peleus in the South Atlantic on 13 March 1944. The members of the Peleus crew survived on life rafts or by clinging to floating pieces of wreckage. In order to not give up the position of the submarine because of the shipwrecked people and the debris, the commander issued the order to fire on the people waiting to be rescued. Only three men survived the detonation of hand grenades and the barrage of machine-gun fire that lasted for several hours.
People who were shipwrecked were protected by the international law of war, and killing them was considered a war crime. The court consisted of 3 officers of the British army along with 2 officers of the British Navy and 2 officers of the Greek Navy. Eck, who had ordered the killing, was sentenced by the court to death. The 4 other defendants were accused of executing an unlawful order. Two of the officers were also sentenced to death, and the other two defendants received prison terms.
The first British trial against concentration camp guards began on 17 September 1945 in Lüneburg. British troops had arrested the 44 defendants during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp five months earlier. Because many of the defendants had served in Auschwitz concentration camp prior to Bergen-Belsen, the court investigated crimes committed in both camps. In addition to the verifiable individual crimes, the prosecution also charged the defendants with the joint responsibility for the horrible conditions in the Bergen-Belsen camp. The trial lasted two months and was highly publicised all over the world. The court sentenced 11 defendants to death, while 19 were sentenced to prison terms and 14 were acquitted.
In the second Belsen trial, in May 1946, which took place in Celle, another five SS men and three female guards were tried. The court sentenced 3 defendants to death and 5 to prison terms.
The third Belsen trial took place in the Curiohaus in Hamburg in April 1948. Curt Meyer, the leader of the guard forces in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, was sentenced to life in prison for mistreating prisoners.
Almost all of those sentenced to prison terms in the Belsen trials were released early. The last prisoner was released in 1955.
More than 100,000 men and women from all over Europe were imprisoned from 1938 to 1945 in the Neuengamme concentration camp, which consisted of a main camp and more than 85 satellite camps all over northern Germany. These people were imprisoned under horrific conditions. More than half of them did not survive.
The trials of 14 of those responsible for crimes committed in the main camp began on 18 March 1946. Former prisoners from 6 different countries in Europe testified in court about the inhumane conditions of their imprisonment, the severe mistreatment, the killing of Soviet POWs with poisonous gas, the experiments conducted on humans, and the executions carried out in the concentration camp.
After 39 days of trial, the court sentenced 11 defendants to death and 3 to prison terms on 3 May 1946.
The Neuengamme Camp Case No. 1 marked the beginning of the prosecution of the Neuengamme camp staff. Altogether 33 trials concerning the main Neuengamme concentration camp and its satellite camps were brought by the British occupation authorities against 99 men and 19 women over a period of 2 years.
As witnesses for the prosecution, 17 former concentration camp prisoners from 5 European countries described the horrific conditions of the Neuengamme concentration camp and the crimes committed there. The prosecution had carefully selected these people from a large group of possible witnesses. Many of them had a deeper insight into the organisation of the camp because of the functions they had performed in the concentration camp, or because they had been eyewitnesses to the murderous deeds of the SS. One of the witnesses for the prosecution was an SS man.
The defendants were called to the stand by the defence because, according to British law, they could only testify on their own behalf. Camp commandant Max Pauly called on more than 20 witnesses for his defence, including foreign officials who had visited the Neuengamme concentration camp, as well as SS officers from the concentration camp leadership and senior Nazis from Hamburg. Twelve of the witnesses were tracked down by the British authorities and summoned. However, several testimonies actually incriminated Pauly, instead of absolving him. The defence counsel of the other defendants primarily summoned former members of the camp SS. Family members of the defendants and two former prisoners also testified as witnesses for the defence.
The judges in the British military courts were military officers without legal training as judges. They were not required to present the grounds for their judgement. However, their verdicts did not come into effect until they were approved by the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army of the Rhine. It was not possible to appeal a decision, but the person convicted could request a pardon.
A trained lawyer ensured that the trials were conducted correctly and acted as the Judge Advocate. He was an assessor and counsellor to the judges, but he did not have his own vote. Under certain conditions, he was not required to be present for the trials.
The prosecutors were members of the War Crimes Group. There was no strict separation between the investigative and prosecuting authorities; all prosecutors were also involved in the investigations. Many members of the prosecuting counsel had some legal background, and some were students of law or were just beginning their legal careers.
The 14 defendants in the main Neuengamme concentration camp trial were counselled by 9 German lawyers who acted as public defenders. Each of these lawyers represented as many as 3 clients. One of the defendants also chose his own barrister for his defence.
In 1946, the British military government in Hamburg approved altogether 100 lawyers in Hamburg to be defence counsellors in the military courts, although some of them had not completed denazification. Dr Curt Wessig, who had been persecuted by the Nazis and was the chairman of the expert committee on legal matters at the State Commissary for the Denazification of Hamburg, took over the defence of the camp commandant Max Pauly. At least 4 of the 10 lawyers involved in the main trial were former members of the Nazi party, while another 4 had been part of the National Socialist Association of Legal Professionals (Nationalsozialistischer Rechtswahrerbund), at the very least. In all cases, the defence counsel argued that the defendants had been victims of the Nazi system and had only carried out their official duty.
Almost half of the defendants in the trial were SS officers who had been members of the camp leadership. In addition to the camp commandant, his adjutant, the Schutzhaftlagerführer (commander of the prisoners’ compound), the SS garrison physician, a camp physician, and the leader of the guards were also charged for crimes committed in the Neuengamme concentration camp. While the prosecution focused on their position within the camp hierarchy, it charged 8 other lower-ranking defendants with personally committing killings and other violent crimes.
In court, many defendants denied having known about the crimes described. They testified that they had not been involved, or claimed they had acted on orders. Their testimonies only rarely incriminated the other defendants.
The court found all 14 defendants guilty and issued the death sentence in all but three cases. Despite having been given prison sentences of 10-20 years, all 3 of those sentenced to prison were set free before 1955. The 11 defendants who were sentenced to death were executed on 8 October 1946.
The school on Bullenhuser Damm in the Rothenburgsort district of Hamburg served as a satellite camp of the Neuengamme concentration camp. After it had been evacuated, a mass murder took place there in the night of 20 April 1945. SS men hanged 20 Jewish children, who had been used by Dr Kurt Heißmeyer for medical experiments in the Neuengamme concentration camp, in the school’s basement. That same night, the SS also killed 4 concentration camp prisoners who had been the children’s caretakers and at least 24 Soviet prisoners whose names we still do not know today.
In the main Neuengamme concentration camp trial, three defendants were sentenced to death for their involvement in these murders. Johann Frahm, who was a witness for the prosecution against the SS garrison physician Dr Alfred Trzebinski, admitted that he had hung the nooses around the children’s necks.
His confession resulted in another trial that ran from 24 to 31 July 1946 in which Frahm, Ewald Jauch and Wilhelm Brake were tried for their involvement in the murders. The judges issued two death sentences and one prison sentence.
In the seventh trial surrounding the main camp of Neuengamme concentration camp, the defendant was a former prisoner. The locksmith Wilhelm Leers had been detailed by the SS first as the camp elder (Lagerältester) in the satellite camp in Osnabrück and later as a prisoner functionary (Kapo) in several work details at Neuengamme concentration camp. In both capacities, he guarded his fellow prisoners for the SS and pushed them to work harder. Former prisoners said that Leers was a notorious sadist and a thug.
On 22 and 23 August 1946, Leers was tried for killing and mistreating his fellow prisoners. Three former prisoners of the camp testified on the stand that Leers had severely mistreated other prisoners. At least two of his victims had died from his beatings. Based on these testimonies and the evidence brought against him, the court sentenced Leers to death. The sentence was later changed to 20 years in prison. Leers was released early in 1954. He died in Cologne in 1979. Altogether 11 prisoner functionaries at Neuengamme concentration camp were tried in the British military courts. Three of them were executed.
There were more than 85 satellite camps of the Neuengamme concentration camp spread over north-western Germany. After liberation, most of these camps became part of the British occupation zone. The crimes committed against Allied prisoners in these camps thus fell under the jurisdiction of the British investigation Teams.
In the 18 trials held in the Curiohaus, 53 men and 19 women were charged for the killing and mistreatment of prisoners in the satellite camps of the Neuengamme concentration camp. These 18 trials made up almost 10 percent of all the cases in the British military courts in Hamburg. The trials concerned crimes committed in the satellite camps in Helmstedt-Beendorf, Salzgitter-Drütte, Wilhelmshaven and Husum-Schwesing as well as in the women’s satellite camps in the districts of Neugraben, Tiefstack, Sasel and Wandsbek in Hamburg.
SS men, male members of the German Wehrmacht (armed forces) and customs officials who had been employed as camp administrators or guards in the satellite camps were charged in these trials, as were female guards of women prisoners. Several male prisoner functionaries and employees of companies who had exploited prisoners as forced labourers had to stand trial as well.
In September 1945, British investigators arrested Dr Bruno Tesch, who was the CEO of the pesticide company Tesch & Stabenow in Hamburg. An employee had reported Tesch to the authorities, saying that Tesch had been aware that Zyklon B, a pesticide sold by the company, had been used by the SS used for killing people.
The company, which was founded by Bruno Tesch and Paul Stabenow in 1924, specialised in pest control using Zyklon B, which is hydrogen cyanide. This gas was employed to fumigate ship’s holds and warehouses in the Hamburg harbour.
Tesch & Stabenow had a monopoly over the sale of the pesticide Zyklon B in parts of Germany. The Wehrmacht, Waffen SS and the Reich Labour Service (Reichsarbeitsdienst) ranked among its most important customers during the war.
Initially, the SS used Zyklon B in concentration camps to delouse barracks and prisoners’ clothing. It was used to kill prisoners for the first time in Auschwitz concentration camp in September 1941. Altogether, the SS killed more than one million people with Zyklon B.
In early March 1946, Bruno Tesch, the owner and CEO of the company Tesch & Stabenow, his deputy Karl Weinbacher and the head engineer Joachim Drosihn were brought to trial in a British military court in the Curiohaus in Hamburg.
The prosecution accused them of delivering Zyklon B to concentration camps, although they knew that the SS was using the poisonous gas to carry out mass killings of prisoners. Tesch and his employees denied this. They claimed that they had believed the gas was being used only for delousing and disinfecting the camps. Several employees testified, however, that the management had known that Zyklon B was being used for killing humans.
The court sentenced Tesch and his deputy CEO to death. Drosihn was able to convince the court that he had no influence on the company’s business, and he was acquitted. Bruno Tesch and Karl Weinbacher were executed in Hameln on 16 May 1946.
More than 120,000 women and children from over 30 countries were imprisoned in the 44 satellite camps and main camp of the women’s concentration camp Ravensbrück, located north of Berlin. An additional 20,000 prisoners were registered in the nearby Ravensbrück men’s camp. More than 25,000 women and children and roughly 2,500 men lost their lives in the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
At the end of the war, most of the camp’s personnel fled from the Red Army to north-western Germany, where they were captured by the British. This was probably the reason why the Soviet authorities let the British organise the Ravensbrück concentration camp trials, although the scene of the crimes was now in the Soviet occupation zone.
On 5 December 1946, the first British trial of the main women’s concentration camp of the Nazi regime began in Hamburg. It was followed closely all over the world. The trial of 9 men and 7 women brought to light many of the crimes that had been committed in the women’s camp, especially the systematic selection and killing of prisoners in the last phase of the war, as well as the medical experiments that had been conducted on humans in the infirmary, where the sterilisation and killing of sick people and new-born babies had also been carried out.
In the first British Ravensbrück concentration camp trial, 3 of the 16 defendants had been directly involved in the camp leadership: Schutzhaftlagerführer (commander of the prisoners’ compound) Johann Schwarzhuber, the commander of the guards Heinrich Peters, and the SS garrison physician Dr Gerhard Schiedlausky.
Ludwig Ramdohr, the head of the interrogation office, and Gustav Binder, the foreman of the SS-owned tailor shop, had belonged to the middle ranks of the Ravensbrück concentration camp leadership.
The other male defendants had been camp physicians in the women’s concentration camp infirmary, where many of the crimes described in the trial had been committed.
Three female guards and one senior nurse were also indicted, as were three female prisoner functionaries.
One defendant died shortly before the proclamation of the sentence. On 4 February 1947, the court found all of the other defendants guilty. It issued 11 death sentences, which were carried out in May 1947. It also issued long prison sentences for the other 4 defendants. All 4 were released early by 1955.
The law student John da Cunha helped with investigations concerning the Ravensbrück concentration camp. He also assisted the prosecutor Stephen Malcolm Stewart during the main trial. The 23-year-old had been assigned to the War Crimes Group after suffering a severe war injury. He had also been a member of the British delegation at the Nuremberg Trial of Major War Criminals. He later worked as a lawyer and circuit judge in the UK.
When John da Cunha died in 2006, among his belongings was an album he had made with photographs of the main Ravensbrück concentration camp trial. He had likely assembled the album with photos taken by the press in 1947. Below the pictures, he wrote information about the British members of the court, as well as the names of the defendants and their sentences. The pages of this album can now be found in the National Archives of the UK. However, it can no longer be determined whether the selection of images presented here corresponds to the order of the original album.
The main Ravensbrück concentration camp trial was followed by 5 further British trials held in the Curiohaus. In these trials, 22 defendants were charged with crimes committed in the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp. In the second trial in November 1947, Friedrich Opitz, the plant manager of an SS company located at the Ravensbrück concentration camp, was convicted.
All other trials took place between April and July 1948. The third Ravensbrück trial addressed the crimes committed in the Uckermark camp, a fenced-off area next to the Ravensbrück concentration camp where prisoners deemed unfit for work were either killed or left to die. In the fourth trial, the concentration camp’s medical staff was charged. In the fifth trial, three SS men were convicted of being involved in the execution squad of the Ravensbrück concentration camp. Another two SS men also stood trial for the mistreatment of female prisoners. In the sixth trial, 6 female guards were charged with the mistreatment of prisoners and with having been involved in selections.
In the 5 subsequent trials, 8 death sentences and 10 prison sentences were issued and 4 defendants were acquitted.
In 1942, the Reich Criminal Investigation Department (Reichpolizeikriminalamt) established the Uckermark “youth protective custody camp”. Roughly 1,200 girls and young women were imprisoned there.
Beginning in January 1945, parts of this camp served as a death camp for prisoners of the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp. In this camp, the SS murdered roughly 5,000 prisoners who were no longer able to work by deliberately denying them food and care, by injecting them with poison and sleep-inducing drugs, or by selecting them to be transported to the gas chamber of the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
In the third Ravensbrück trial in April 1948, the leader of the “youth protective custody camp” Lotte Toberentz, her deputy Johanna Brach, and the leader of the Uckermark death camp Ruth Closius (also known by her widowed name of Ruth Neudeck), as well as two of her guards faced charges.
Although several cases of mistreatment at the “youth protective custody camp” were addressed in court, it was not authorized to prosecute these cases, because the young victims had mainly been German citizens. For this reason, Toberentz and Brach were acquitted. Instead, the prosecution concentrated on the crimes committed in the Uckermark death camp. The court thus sentenced Ruth Closius to death and two guards to prison terms.
While searching for British intelligence agents from the Special Operations Executive (SOE) who were missing in action, a British investigation team uncovered crimes committed in Gross-Rosen concentration camp. A department chief in the Reich Main Security Office reported that SOE agents had been brought there in 1944 to be shot. This was confirmed by several witnesses.
On 28 August 1948, the camp commandant Johannes Hassebroek and his subordinates Helmut Eschner and Edwardas Drazdauskas were charged for having been involved in the execution of these agents. Other crimes committed in Gross-Rosen concentration camp were not addressed in this trial.
The court sentenced the three defendants to death on 22 October 1948. However, the British commander in chief refused to grant the necessary confirmation of the sentences. He changed Hassebroek’s sentence to life imprisonment and released the other two convicted men. Hassebroek was released from prison in 1954.
Fuhlsbüttel concentration camp was established inside two prison buildings of the Fuhlsbüttel prison compound in 1933. It was renamed the “police prison” (Polizeigefängnis) in 1936. It was a key site of Nazi terror in Hamburg.
Three of those responsible at the police prison were tried by a military court in the Curiohaus from 2 July to 27 August 1947. The prosecution accused the higher SS and police leader Georg Henning Graf von Bassewitz-Behr, the commandant of the police prison Wilhelm Tessmann and his deputy Hans Stange of shooting five female Russian forced labourers. Tessmann and Stange had taken the women to their execution in 1943 and had watched it being carried out.
The court also investigated whether Bassewitz-Behr was responsible for the mistreatment of POW officers and for the execution of 71 prisoners from the police prison in Neuengamme concentration camp in April 1945. Despite witnesses testifying to the contrary, Bassewitz-Behr claimed he himself had never given orders for executions. The court acquitted him due to lack of evidence and sentenced Tessmann and Stange to prison terms.
Soon after the first trial for crimes committed at the Fuhlsbüttel police prison, two more trials followed. In September 1947, the commandant Willi Tessmann and his deputy Hans Stange were put on trial a second time. Together with 8 male and female guards, they were accused of mistreating foreign prisoners. Several of the defendants were also charged with the execution of 11 Soviet prisoners in Eidelstedt in the spring of 1944. A third criminal charge concerned the mistreatment and killing of prisoners during the evacuation march to Kiel-Hassee in April 1945. The court sentenced the commandant Tessmann and 2 guards who had been leading the evacuation march to death. Stange and 3 other defendants were sentenced to several years in prison.
In the third Fuhlsbüttel trial from 8 October to 3 November 1947, another 22 defendants were charged for crimes. They were accused of having committed different forms of mistreatment of prisoners, including beating, torture, withholding food, and detention in punishment cells. The court imposed 10 prison sentences.
About half a million people were imprisoned in the more than 200 so-called work education camps (Arbeitserziehungslager) of the Gestapo within the German Reich and in the German occupied areas of Europe. These penal camps were meant to discipline forced labourers from other countries who had attempted to escape or were accused of “not working hard enough”.
About 5,000 men and women were imprisoned at the Nordmark work education camp, located in Hassee on the outskirts of Kiel. Many prisoners came from Poland and the Soviet Union. At least 578 prisoners died due to the conditions of their imprisonment or because they were killed.
From October 1947 to June 1948, 24 camp personnel, 6 of whom were not German, were charged with the killing and mistreatment of prisoners at the Nordmark camp in 4 trials in the Curiohaus. The court sentenced 2 of the defendants to death and 15 to prison terms.
Other British military courts tried crimes that had been committed at the work education camps in Lahde near Minden, Bremen-Farge, Hallendorf near Salzgitter, and Hamburg- Wilhelmsburg.
The work education camp (Arbeitserziehungslager) in the Wilhelmsburg district of Hamburg had been established by the Gestapo headquarters of Hamburg on the street Langer Morgen. Roughly 5,000 prisoners altogether, of which at least 400 were women, had to do forced labour for companies at the Hamburg harbour in inhumane conditions. More than 170 prisoners died due to violence; some were also killed in air raids.
From 21 May to 28 June 1948, 15 of those responsible for these crimes were put on trial in a British military court. The defendants included the director of the Gestapo headquarters in Hamburg, 2 camp commandants and their deputies, 7 guards, a camp paramedic, the deputy director of the women’s department and one of the female prisoners who had served as a camp elder (Lagerälteste) in the women’s camp.
The prosecution accused these people of mistreating prisoners through physical violence, insufficient nourishment and catastrophic living conditions. Three of the defendants were also charged with executing 2 prisoners by gunfire.
The court sentenced 2 defendants to death and 10 to prison terms. The executions were not carried out, however, and all of those who had been convicted were released by the mid-1950s.
During the Second World War, more than 8 million men, women and children were taken against their will from German-occupied areas and exploited as forced labourers in the German Reich. By the end of the war, these forced labourers made up almost half of all farm workers and about one third of all labourers in the armaments industry.
About one tenth of the British military court trials in Hamburg took action against crimes committed against forced labourers who had been killed or mistreated.
The trial of Hans Asmussen, a farmer from Niesgrau near Flensburg, is an example of the wide range of the British prosecution activities. Asmussen had to stand trial on 31 January 1946 for the mistreatment of two male and one female Polish forced labourers who had worked on his farm from 1942 to 1945. The prosecution was based on the sworn testimonies of the former forced labourers who had since returned to Poland and therefore could not appear in court in person. After the trial which lasted one day, Asmussen was sentenced to 9 months in prison.
In March 1942, the 29-year-old Polish national Andrzej Szablewski, who had been accused of having sexual relations with a German woman, was hanged in front of 200 Polish forced labourers, roughly 50 police officers and members of the Gestapo and the Nazi party in the Poppenbüttel district of Hamburg. The execution was performed without a verdict by order of the Reich leader of the SS, Heinrich Himmler.
At the urging of Szablewski’s brother, who had worked with him on the Hohenbuchen farm as a forced labourer, the British authorities began their investigation in 1945 and convicted several people who had been involved in the crime.
In April 1946, the estate manager and 6 Gestapo and police officers who had participated in the execution stood trial in a British military court. In a second trial in July 1946, 2 senior Nazi functionaries who had been present and a policeman who had taken part in cordoning off the execution site were charged as well. The policeman was the only one to be acquitted; the rest received severe sentences. In all, the court issued 4 death penalties, 2 of which were carried out, as well as 6 prison sentences.
Female forced labourers from Eastern Europe were not allowed to take care of their newborn babies and small children themselves. They were regarded as a workforce that had to be completely available to the German economy at all times. In more than 400 children’s homes that had been established for this purpose, many babies died from insufficient nutrition, poor hygiene and lack of care. At least nine children aged three to twelve months died in the Home for Foreign Children in Lefitz (Ausländer-Kinderpflegestätte) in the county of Lüchow-Dannenberg.
In March 1948, Minna Grönitz, the director of the home, and her superior Magdalene Machel were charged with “letting civilians starve and mistreating them” by a British military court in Hamburg. Although many witnesses confirmed the horrible conditions in the home, the court decided that it could not be determined without doubt that the children had died as the direct result of neglect. The court sentenced Grönitz to six months in prison and acquitted Machel.
Other British military courts also tried crimes that occurred in the homes for foreign children in Rühen (Gifhorn County) and Velpke (Helmstedt County).
In the last weeks of the war, when it became obvious that Germany was going to lose, thousands of people were killed by representatives of state authorities and Nazi organisations, and by many individual perpetrators. In the beginning of March 1945, a group of Gestapo and criminal police officers shot 30 forced labourers from the Soviet Union in Burgholz. The victims had been arrested a few weeks earlier for looting in Wuppertal. They had then been mistreated during Gestapo interrogations while in custody at police headquarters.
On 22 January 1948, a British military court in Hamburg sentenced 6 of the officers involved in the execution to death and 8 others to prison terms. The death sentences were not carried out, however, and all the convicted men were set free before 1955.
In a second trial in October 1948, 3 senior Gestapo officers who had given the orders for the Burgholz Massacre as well as another mass execution in Grugapark in Essen were sentenced to prison terms.
Due to the massive air raids by the Allies on German cities, Nazi leadership encouraged the lynching of Allied airmen who had been shot down, even though they were protected as POWs by the Geneva Convention.
On 31 March 1945, 5 members of an Australian crew died when their bomber was shot down over the Billstedt district of Hamburg. Only 2 men were able to survive by jumping out with a parachute. One of them, Kevin George Clark, was arrested in Oststeinbek, after which he was brought to the army arsenal in Glinde. The head of the arsenal, Colonel Wilhelm Bernicke, handed Clark over to the leader of the local Volkssturm division, Heinrich Specht, who ordered the prisoner to be shot.
Bernicke, Specht, the executioner Heinrich Siemer and 2 other Volkssturm members who had been present at the execution were put on trial from 17 to 29 June 1946. Siemer killed himself shortly after the trial began. The court sentenced Heinrich Specht to 10 years in prison and acquitted the other defendants.
Between 22 May and 2 June 1947, the British military court in Hamburg tried a case of the lynching of an airman near Haltern in the Ruhr region. The Canadian pilot George Arnold Costello had been hit by enemy fire on 28 October 1944. The 22-year-old man had been able to survive by jumping out of his plane with a parachute. Shortly after landing, however, he was shot by the Nazi party functionary Johann Wilhelm Lütfring in a forest nearby.
In court, Lütfring claimed he had shot Costello when he tried to escape.
There were no eye-witnesses. However, a local police officer testified that before and after the crime Lütfring had stated that captured airmen were to be “finished off”. The military court found Lütfring guilty of murder and sentenced him to death. He was executed on 5 September 1947 in Hameln.
On 15 March 1945, a British bomber was hit by enemy fire over Pforzheim and caught fire. Out of the 9 crew members who jumped out with their parachutes, 7 were arrested as a group. They were taken away, and during a stopover in Huchenfeld near Pforzheim, an organised armed mob of members of the Hitler Youth and the SA attacked the POWs at night. Five were shot, two were able to escape.
This lynching became the subject of 3 British military court trials. In the first trial in Jügesheim in the summer of 1946, 22 defendants were charged. The court sentenced 3 defendants to death and 14 to prison terms.
Others who had also been involved in the crime were tried in November and December 1947 in the Curiohaus in Hamburg. In this second trial, the deputy leader of the Nazi party in the region, Friedrich Hauser, was sentenced to death. The SA Obersturmbannführer Karl Friedrich Becker and the Hitler Youth member Werner Göhring also received prison sentences. The accountant Wilhelm Maxeiner faced charges in the third trial, but he was acquitted.
In January 1943, a German execution squad shot 6 British POWs in a forest near Trandum in occupied Norway. Five of the victims had planned to sabotage a power station near Rjukan, where the German occupiers had been conducting experiments to develop a nuclear bomb. The sixth victim had tried to sink the German warship Tirpitz, but had also failed.
The execution was carried out according to Hitler’s Commando Order from 18 October 1942, which stated that all Allied commando groups involved in sabotage were “to be slaughtered to the last man”.
In August 1946, a British military court in Hamburg charged 13 former members of the security police in Oslo with having been involved in the execution. The court sentenced 9 defendants to long prison terms and acquitted the others due to lack of evidence. Two years later, another court in Hamburg sentenced the leader of the execution commando, who had since been extradited from Norway, to death, but the sentence was not carried out.
Karl-Heinz Moehle was Chief of the 5th U-Boat Flotilla in Kiel from 6 June 1941 to the end of the war. He briefed submarine commanders before their missions and also relayed the so-called Laconia Order. This order was issued on 17 September 1942 by Karl Dönitz, who was the supreme commander of the German Navy at the time. It forbade U-boat crews from saving shipwrecked survivors of sunken enemy ships or from giving them food and water.
In January 1946, Moehle testified about this order as a witness for the prosecution in the Nuremberg Trial of Major War Criminals. Based on his testimony, Moehle himself was then also charged with relaying an order that violated international law. On 16 October 1946, a British military court in Hamburg sentenced him to 5 years in prison after a two-day trial. Moehle was released early in 1949.
In the night of 24 March 1944, 76 officers of the Allied Air Forces were able to break out of the POW camp for air force personnel, Stalag Luft III, in Sagan (Silesia). All but 3 men were recaptured in the course of a large-scale manhunt. Within the following three weeks, Gestapo commandos shot 50 of the men they had recaptured.
From 11 July to 3 September 1947, Max Wielen, the director of the criminal police in Breslau, and 17 Gestapo officers stood trial for their involvement in the planning and carrying out of these executions in a court in Hamburg. With the exception of Wielen, the court accused all of them of having been personally involved in the murders. The court sentenced Wielen, who had played a decisive role in the execution and the cover-up of the killings, to a life-long prison term. The defendants who had shot the victims were sentenced to death. In this trial and the one following, the court issued 16 death sentences, of which 13 were carried out.
During the German advance in the Battle of France in May 1940, a unit of the SS Division Totenkopf suffered heavy casualties. As the British were retreating, the Royal Norfolk Regiment held a position close to the village Le Paradis near Dunkirk to secure the British retreat. When the British finally surrendered after a fierce combat, the SS Captain Fritz Knöchlein, commander of a company of the Second SS Totenkopf Infantry Regiment, ordered their execution in revenge.
On 27 May 1940, the roughly 100 POWs were shot in an abandoned farm with two machine guns. Two men survived severely injured and were able to escape. They were later captured by a Wehrmacht unit and received medical attention.
The two survivors Albert Pooley and William O’Callaghan urged investigations after the end of the war and helped to find Fritz Knöchlein. He was then tried in a British military court in Hamburg from 28 August to 25 October 1948 and was sentenced to death. He was executed on 21 January 1949.
On 6 June 1944, the Western Allies landed in Normandy. D-Day marked the beginning of the liberation of France from German occupation.
The three Canadian soldiers Harold Angel, Frederick Holness and Ernest Baskerville were severely wounded in combat. They sought medical help from a German first-aid station in the town of Le Mesnil-Patry. There, they were captured and given medical treatment from medical orderlies. On the morning of 9 June, the SS Second Lieutenant Dietrich Schnabel relayed the order for their execution.
This murder of the three POWs violated international law and the perpetrators were put on trial in a British military court in Hamburg from 21 October to 9 November 1948. The defendants were 4 former members of the 12th SS Armoured Division Hitlerjugend.
The court confirmed that the battalion commander Bernhard Siebken and his subordinate SS officer Schnabel were responsible for the execution and sentenced them to death. The sentences were carried out in 1949. The two shooters Heinrich Albers and Fritz Bundschuh were acquitted by the court.
The last trial of war criminals in Germany began shortly before the first national election in West Germany in August 1949 and was overshadowed by the Cold War. Erich von Manstein, field marshal of the Wehrmacht, was brought to trial in order to prevent him from being extradited to Poland or the Soviet Union, although the British had to carry out this trial against massive opposition in their own country. Many opponents wanted to suspend the case out of consideration for Germany as an ally against “Bolshevism”.
The prosecution accused Manstein of committing war crimes in Poland and the Soviet Union in 17 cases. As the chief of staff of Army Group South, he had participated in the attack on Poland. In September 1941, he was named the commander of the 11th Army, which was deployed in the Crimea, and in 1943/44, he served as the commander of the Army Group South in the Soviet Union. According to the prosecution, he had either ordered or tolerated shootings of POWs and civilian hostages, mass killings of Jews and “gypsies”, as well as deportations of civilians as forced labourers.
Manstein was indicted on 9 charges. His sentence of 18 years in prison was soon reduced to 12. He was pardoned from prison in 1952.
The military courts in the British occupation zone charged altogether 964 people for committing Nazi war crimes. More than half of them were charged in Hamburg, where the 445 men and 59 women stood trial in the Curiohaus. The majority of defendants were charged for committing violent crimes in concentration camps. Crimes against POWs were the second most common type of crime, including several lynchings of airmen from the Allied Air Forces who had been forced to make a crash landing.
Many of the defendants were members of the SS or civilian employees of the SS, while others were Gestapo officers or members of the Wehrmacht. Most death sentences were issued for men and women who had been directly involved in the murders. People who issued orders or had profited economically from the crimes were often only sentenced to prison terms.
All in all, the British judges in Hamburg issued 102 death sentences and 267 prison sentences. They also acquitted 118 defendants, and in 20 cases no judgement was passed.
The prison in the town of Hameln served the British military government as a central execution site. The majority of the death sentences issued by the military courts between 1945 and 1949 were carried out there. Most of the 201 people executed in Hameln had been sentenced as war criminals; 82 of them had stood trial in the Curiohaus in Hamburg.
The people executed were buried on the prison grounds at first; later they were buried in a field of graves at the Am Wehl cemetery. In the following decades, the cemetery became a pilgrimage site for right-wing radicals.
After the period in which the graves were not to be disturbed expired in 1974, a local initiative supported by the far-right party NPD succeeded in preventing the planned levelling of the graves. After there were vehement protests against neo-Nazi demonstrations and physical confrontations at the cemetery, the field of graves was dissolved in 1986. However, right-wing radicals continue to commemorate those executed there.
In 1948, all Nazi war criminals who had been sentenced to prison terms by the British military courts were transferred to the central prison in the British zone located in Werl near Dortmund.
The majority of inmates of this jail, which had been built in 1908 as a Prussian central prison, consisted of people who had violated the occupation law: Many former forced labourers had been sentenced to prison for stealing or looting.
Some of the Nazi war criminals were housed separately, while others were put together with the other inmates. The former generals from the Wehrmacht and Waffen SS enjoyed special privileges as prisoners. The British prison administration kept female prisoners in their own department in a separate building.
The number of Nazi war criminals imprisoned in Werl soon decreased after many prisoners were pardoned or released early. By 1950, there were 240 prisoners left, and 5 years later there were only 26. When the last prisoners were released in July 1957, the Allied National Prison in Werl was dissolved and it became a regular German prison again.
In the beginning of the 1950s, the Western Allies – the US, the United Kingdom and France – urged for the rearmament of the young German Federal Republic in the face of the Cold War. Several representatives of the former Wehrmacht and of the coalition government of the CDU, CSU, FDP and DP demanded that the war criminals who had been tried by the Western Allies’ courts be released as a condition for their approval of West Germany’s contribution to defence. They regarded the trials as an expression of the victor’s justice of the Allies and called the prisoners in the Allied prisons in Werl, Spandau, Wittlich and Landsberg “war convicts” instead of “war criminals”. A large part of German society, including the churches, showed their solidarity with the prisoners.
The Western Allies were forthcoming and organised mixed pardoning boards including Germans. As a result, all prisoners were released from the prisons of the Western Allies by 1958. Only those who had been sentenced in the Nuremberg Trial of Major War Criminals to serve time in the prison run by all four Allies in Spandau remained imprisoned because the Soviet Union vetoed their early release.
Many of the Nazi war criminals sentenced by the British military courts were later entitled to compensation after their release from prison. This was thanks to the POW Compensation Act passed by the German parliament in 1954 to support German POWs who had still been in captivity after 1946. People who had been sentenced by a German court after 8 May 1945 were excluded from these benefits, but Germans who had been convicted by the Allies were entitled.
The prisoners released from the prison in Werl received compensation, provided that they were German citizens and had been “imprisoned by a foreign power because of military or military-like service”. This was the case for convicted members of the SS and the Wehrmacht. A condition for receiving benefits was the submission of a “clearance certificate” (Unbedenklichkeitsbescheinigung) by the German Central Legal Aid Agency (Zentrale Rechtsschutzstelle), which was issued almost without exception.
In the first 4 years after the war, British military courts in Hamburg sentenced 366 people to death or to prison terms for committing Nazi crimes. Compared to the number of people who were prosecuted in West and East Germany in the following decades, the Allied effort to punish Nazi crimes was impressive.
The young country of the German Federal Republic firmly refused to pass a special criminal law modelled after the Allies to punish Nazi crimes, and the Allies’ innovations were not adopted in West German criminal legislation.
There was no consistent prosecution of Nazi crimes in West Germany for decades. Countless proceedings were stayed, and many courts issued extremely mild sentences.
Today, almost all of the men and women who were involved in these crimes are dead. Nonetheless, in the last few years, there has been a rise in the prosecution of Nazi crimes. According to a new interpretation of the law, a person's involvement in the extermination programme is enough to sentence them for aiding and abetting murder without having to prove individual deeds. This is the exact approach that the Allies had used in their court rulings.