by Kingsbury Smith
Nuremberg Gaol, Germany
16 October 1946
International News Service
On 1 October 1946, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg delivered its verdicts, after 216 court sessions. Of the original twenty-four defendants, twelve (including Martin Bormann, tried in absentia) were sentenced to death by hanging. The author of this account, Kingsbury Smith of the International News Service, was chosen by lot to represent the American press at the executions.
Hermann Wilhelm Goering cheated the gallows of Allied justice by committing suicide in his prison cell shortly before the ten other condemned Nazi leaders were hanged in Nuremberg gaol. He swallowed cyanide he had concealed in a copper cartridge shell, while lying on a cot in his cell.
The one-time Number Two man in the Nazi hierarchy was dead two hours before he was scheduled to have been dropped through the trap door of a gallows erected in a small, brightly lighted gymnasium in the gaol yard, 35 yards from the cell block where he spent his last days of ignominy.
Joachim von Ribbentrop, foreign minister in the ill-starred regime of Adolf Hitler, took Goering’s place as first to the scaffold.
Last to depart this life in a total span of just about two hours was Arthur Seyss-Inquart, former Gauleiter of Holland and Austria.
In between these two once-powerful leaders, the gallows claimed, in the order named, Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel; Ernst Kaltenbrunner, once head of the Nazis’ security police; Alfred Rosenberg, arch-priest of Nazi culture in foreign lands; Hans Frank; Gauleiter of Poland; Wilhem Frank, Nazi minister of the interior; Fritz Sauckel, boss of slave labor; Colonel General Alfred Jodl; and Julius Streicher, who bossed the anti-Semitism drive of the Hitler Reich.
As they went to the gallows, most of the ten endeavored to show bravery. Some were defiant and some were resigned and some begged the Almighty for mercy.
All except for Rosenberg made brief, last-minute statements on the scaffold. But the only one to make any reference to Hitler or the Nazi ideology in his final moments was Julius Streicher.
Three black-painted wooden scaffolds stood inside the gymnasium, a room approximately 33 feet wide by 80 feet long with plaster walls in which cracks showed. The gymnasium had been used only three days before by the American security guards for a basketball game. Two gallows were used alternately. The third was a spare for use if needed. The men were hanged one at a time, but to get the executions over with quickly, the military police would bring in the man while the prisoner who proceeded him still was dangling at the end of the rope.
The ten once great men in Hitler’s Reich that was to have lasted for a thousand years walked up thirteen wooden steps to a platform eight feet high which also was eight square feet.
Ropes were suspended from a crossbeam supported on two posts. A new one was used for each man.
When the trap was sprung, the victim dropped from sight in the interior of the scaffolding. The bottom of it was boarded up with wood on three sides and shielded by a dark canvas curtain on the fourth, so that no one saw the death struggles of the men dangling with broken necks.
Von Ribbentrop entered the execution chamber at 1:11 a.m. Nuremberg time.
He was stopped immediately inside the door by two Army sergeants who closed in on each side of him and held his arms, while another sergeant who had followed him in removed manacles from his hands and replaced them with a leather strap.
It was planned originally to permit the condemned men to walk from their cells to the execution chamber with their hands free, but all were manacled following Goering’s suicide.
Von Ribbentrop was able to maintain his apparent stoicism to the last. He walked steadily toward the scaffold between his two guards, but he did not answer at first when an officer standing at the foot of the gallows went through the formality of asking his name. When the query was repeated he almost shouted, ‘Joachim von Ribbentrop!’ and then mounted the steps without any sign of hesitation.
When he was turned around on the platform to face the witnesses, he seemed to clench his teeth and raise his head with the old arrogance. When asked whether he had any final message he said, ‘God protect Germany,’ in German, and then added, ‘May I say something else?’
The interpreter nodded and the former diplomatic wizard of Nazidom spoke his last words in loud, firm tones: ‘My last wish is that Germany realize its entity and that an understanding be reached between the East and the West. I wish peace to the world.’
As the black hood was placed in position on his head, Von Ribbentrop looked straight ahead.
Then the hangman adjusted the rope, pulled the lever, and Von Ribbentrop slipped away to his fate.
Field Marshall Keitel, who was immediately behind Von Ribbentrop in the order of executions, was the first military leader to be executed under the new concept of international law – the principle that professional soldiers cannot escape punishment for waging aggressive wars and permitting crimes against humanity with the claim they were dutifully carrying out orders of superiors.
Keitel entered the chamber two minutes after the trap had dropped beneath Von Ribbentrop, while the latter still was at the end of his rope. But Von Ribbentrop’s body was concealed inside the first scaffold; all that could be seen was the taut rope.
Keitel did not appear as tense as Von Ribbentrop. He held his head high while his hands were being tied and walked erect towards the gallows with a military bearing. When asked his name he responded loudly and mounted the gallows as he might have mounted a reviewing stand to take a salute from German armies.
He certainly did not appear to need the help of guards who walked alongside, holding his arms. When he turned around atop the platform he looked over the crowd with the iron-jawed haughtiness of a proud Prussian officer. His last words, uttered in a full, clear voice, were translated as ‘I call on God Almighty to have mercy on the German people. More than 2 million German soldiers went to their death for the fatherland before me. I follow now my sons – all for Germany.’
After his blackbooted, uniformed body plunged through the trap, witnesses agreed Keitel had shown more courage on the scaffold than in the courtroom, where he had tried to shift his guilt upon the ghost of Hitler, claiming that all was the Führer’s fault and that he merely carried out orders and had no responsibility.
With both von Ribbentrop and Keitel hanging at the end of their rope there was a pause in the proceedings. The American colonel directing the executions asked the American general representing the United States on the Allied Control Commission if those present could smoke. An affirmative answer brought cigarettes into the hands of almost every one of the thirty-odd persons present. Officers and GIs walked around nervously or spoke a few words to one another in hushed voices while Allied correspondents scribbled furiously their notes on this historic though ghastly event.
In a few minutes an American army doctor accompanied by a Russian army doctor and both carrying stethoscopes walked to the first scaffold, lifted the curtain and disappeared within.
They emerged at 1:30 a.m. and spoke to an American colonel. The colonel swung around and facing official witnesses snapped to attention to say, ‘The man is dead.’
Two GIs quickly appeared with a stretcher which was carried up and lifted into the interior of the scaffold. The hangman mounted the gallows steps, took a large commando-type knife out of a sheath strapped to his side and cut the rope.
Von Ribbentrop’s limp body with the black hood still over his head was removed to the far end of the room and placed behind a black canvas curtain. This had all taken less than ten minutes.
The directing colonel turned to the witnesses and said, ‘Cigarettes out, please, gentlemen.’ Another colonel went out the door and over to the condemned block to fetch the next man. This was Ernst Kaltenbrunner. He entered the execution chamber at 1:36 a.m., wearing a sweater beneath his blue double-breasted coat. With his lean haggard face furrowed by old dueling scars, this terrible successor to Reinhard Heydrick had a frightening look as he glanced around the room.
He wet his lips apparently in nervousness as he turned to mount the gallows, but he walked steadily. He answered his name in a calm, low voice. When he turned around on the gallows platform he first faced a United States Army Roman Catholic chaplain wearing a Franciscan habit. When Kaltenbrunner was invited to make a last statement, he said, ‘I have loved my German people and my fatherland with a warm heart. I have done my duty by the laws of my people and I am sorry my people were led this time by men who were not soldiers and that crimes were committed of which I had no knowledge.’
This was the man, one of whose agents – a man named Rudolf Hoess – confessed at a trial that under Kaltenbrunner’s orders he gassed 3 million human beings at the Auschwitz concentration camp!
As the black hood was raised over his head Kaltenbrunner, still speaking in a low voice, used a German phrase which translated means, ‘Germany, good luck.’
His trap was sprung at 1:39 a.m.
Field Marshal Keitel was pronounced dead at 1:44 a.m. and three minutes later guards had removed his body. The scaffold was made ready for Alfred Rosenberg.
Rosenberg was dull and sunken-cheeked as he looked around the court. His complexion was pasty-brown, but he did not appear nervous and walked with a steady step to and up the gallows.
Apart from giving his name and replying ‘no’ to a question as to whether he had anything to say, he did not utter a word. Despite his avowed atheism he was accompanied by a Protestant chaplain who followed him to the gallows and stood beside him praying.
Rosenberg looked at the chaplain once, expressionless. Ninety seconds after he was swinging from the end of a hangman’s rope. His was the swiftest execution of the ten.
There was a brief lull in the proceedings until Kaltenbrunner was pronounced dead at 1:52 a.m.
Hans Frank was next in the parade of death. He was the only one of the condemned to enter the chamber with a smile on his countenance.
Although nervous and swallowing frequently, this man, who was converted to Roman Catholicism after his arrest, gave the appearance of being relieved at the prospect of atoning for his evil deeds.
He answered to his name quietly and when asked for any last statement, he replied in a low voice that was almost a whisper, ‘I am thankful for the kind of treatment during my captivity and I ask God to accept me with mercy.’
Frank closed his eyes and swallowed as the black hood went over his head.
The sixth man to leave his prison cell and walk with handcuffed wrists to the death house was 69-year-old Wilhelm Frick. He entered the execution chamber at 2:05 a.m., six minutes after Rosenberg had been pronounced dead. He seemed the least steady of any so far and stumbled on the thirteenth step of the gallows. His only words were, ‘Long live eternal Germany,’ before he was hooded and dropped through the trap.
Julius Streicher made his melodramatic appearance at 2:12 a.m.
While his manacles were being removed and his bare hands bound, this ugly, dwarfish little man, wearing a threadbare suit and a well-worn bluish shirt buttoned to the neck but without a tie (he was notorious during his days of power for his flashy dress), glanced at the three wooden scaffolds rising menacingly in front of him. Then he glanced around the room, his eyes resting momentarily upon the small group of witnesses. By this time, his hands were tied securely behind his back. Two guards, one on each arm, directed him to Number One gallows on the left of the entrance. He walked steadily the six feet to the first wooden step but his face was twitching.
As the guards stopped him at the bottom of the steps for identification formality he uttered his piercing scream: ‘Heil Hitler!’
The shriek sent a shiver down my back.
As its echo died away an American colonel standing by the steps said sharply, ‘Ask the man his name.’ In response to the interpreter’s query Streicher shouted, ‘You know my name well.’
The interpreter repeated his request and the condemned man yelled, ‘Julius Streicher.’
As he reached the platform, Streicher cried out, ‘Now it goes to God.’ He was pushed the last two steps to the mortal spot beneath the hangman’s rope. The rope was being held back against a wooden rail by the hangman.
Streicher was swung suddenly to face the witnesses and glared at them. Suddenly he screamed, ‘Purim Fest 1946.’ [Purim is a Jewish holiday celebrated in the spring, commemorating the execution of Haman, ancient persecutor of the Jews described in the Old Testament.]
The American officer standing at the scaffold said, ‘Ask the man if he has any last words.’
When the interpreter had translated, Streicher shouted, ‘The Bolsheviks will hang you one day.’
When the black hood was raised over his head, Streicher’s muffled voice could be heard to say, ‘Adele, my dear wife.’
At that instant the trap opened with a loud bang. He went down kicking. When the rope snapped taut with the body swinging wildly, groans could be heard from within the concealed interior of the scaffold. Finally, the hangman, who had descended from the gallows platform, lifted the black canvas curtain and went inside. Something happened that put a stop to the groans and brought the rope to a standstill. After it was over I was not in the mood to ask what he did, but I assume that he grabbed the swinging body of and pulled down on it. We were all of the opinion that Streicher had strangled.
Then, following the removal of the corpse of Frick, who had been pronounced dead at 2:20 a.m., Fritz Sauckel was brought face to face with his doom.
Wearing a sweater with no coat and looking wild-eyed, Sauckel proved to be the most defiant of any except Streicher.
Here was the man who put millions into bondage on a scale unknown since the pre-Christian era. Gazing around the room from the gallows platform he suddenly screamed, ‘I am dying innocent. The sentence is wrong. God protect Germany and make Germany great again. Long live Germany! God protect my family.’
The trap was sprung at 2:26 a.m. and, as in the case of Streicher, there was a loud groan under the gallows pit as the noose snapped tightly under the weight of the body.
Ninth in the procession of death was Alfred Jodl. With the black coat-collar of his Wehrmacht uniform half turned up at the back as though hurriedly put on, Jodl entered the dismal death house with obvious signs of nervousness. He wet his lips constantly and his features were drawn and haggard as he walked, not nearly so steady as Keitel, up the gallows steps. Yet his voice was calm when he uttered his last six words on earth: ‘My greetings to you, my Germany.’
At 2:34 a.m. Jodl plunged into the black hole on the scaffold. He and Sauckel hung together until the latter was pronounced dead six minutes later and removed.
The Czechoslovak-born Seyss-Inquart, whom Hitler had made ruler of Holland and Austria, was the last actor to make his appearance in this unparalleled scene. He entered the chamber at 2:38 1/2 a.m., wearing glasses which made his face an easily remembered caricature.
He looked around with noticeable signs of unsteadiness as he limped on his left foot clubfoot to the gallows. He mounted the steps slowly, with guards helping him.
When he spoke his last words his voice was low but intense. He said, ‘I hope that this execution is the last act of the tragedy of the Second World War and that the lesson taken from this world war will be that peace and understanding should exist between peoples. I believe in Germany.’
He dropped to his death at 2:45 a.m.
With the bodies of Jodl and Seyss-Inquart still hanging, awaiting formal pronouncement of death, the gymnasium doors opened again and guards entered carrying Goering’s body on a stretcher.
He had succeeded in wrecking plans of the Allied Control Council to have him lead the parade of condemned Nazi chieftains to their death. But the council’s representatives were determined that Goering at least would take his place as a dead man beneath the shadow of the scaffold.
The guards carrying the stretcher set it down between the first and second gallows. Goering’s big bare feet stuck out from under the bottom end of a khaki-coloured United States Army blanket. One blue-silk-clad arm was hanging over the side.
The colonel in charge of the proceedings ordered the blanket removed so that witnesses and Allied correspondents could see for themselves that Goering was definitely dead. The Army did not want any legend to develop that Goering had managed to escape.
As the blanket came off it revealed Goering clad in black silk pyjamas with a blue jacket shirt over them, and this was soaking wet, apparently the results of efforts by prison doctors to revive him.
The face of this twentieth-century freebooting political racketeer was still contorted with the pain of his last agonizing moments and his final gesture of defiance.
They covered him up quickly and this Nazi warlord, who like a character out of the days of the Borgias, had wallowed in blood and beauty, passed behind a canvas curtain into the black pages of history.
Note: the “dueling scars” on Kaltenbrunner’s face were actually the result of an alcohol related driving accident.