The Nazi Hunters
CHAPTER ONE The Hangman’s Handiwork
My husband was a military man all his life. He was entitled to a soldier’s death. He asked for that. I tried to get that for him. Just that. That he should die with some honor.”
The widow of a hanged German general speaking to an American judge at Nuremberg, from the 2001 Broadway production of Judgment at Nuremberg written by Abby Mann
On October 16, 1946, ten of the twelve top Nazis whom the International Military Tribunal had condemned to death by hanging were sent to the gallows, which had been hastily constructed in the Nuremberg prison gym where American security guards had played a basketball game only three days earlier.
Martin Bormann, Adolf Hitler’s right-hand man, who had escaped from his bunker in Berlin during the final days of the war and then seemingly vanished, was the only one of the twelve convicted and sentenced in absentia.
As the highest ranking Nazi in Nuremberg, Hermann Göring—who had served Hitler in a variety of functions, including president of the Reichstag and commander in chief of the air force, and aspired to succeed der Führer—was due to be hanged first. The court’s verdict spelled
out his unambiguous role: “
There is nothing to be said in mitigation. For Göring was often, indeed almost always, the moving force, second only to his leader. He was the leading war aggressor, both as political and military leader; he was the director of the slave labor program and the creator of the oppressive program against the Jews and other races at home and abroad. All of these crimes he has frankly admitted.”
But Göring eluded the hangman by biting into a cyanide pill shortly before the executions were to begin. Two weeks earlier he had returned to his cell after the verdicts were read, “
his face pale and frozen, his eyes popping,” according to G. M. Gilbert, the prison psychiatrist who was there to meet the condemned men. “His hands were trembling in spite of his attempt to appear nonchalant,” Gilbert reported. “His eyes were moist and he was panting, fighting back an emotional breakdown.”
What particularly incensed Göring and some of the others was the planned method of execution. Corporal Harold Burson, a twenty-four-year-old from Memphis who was given the assignment to report on the trial and write the daily scripts for the Armed Forces Network, recalled: “
The one thing that Göring wanted to protect above everything else was his military honor. He made the statement more than once that they could take him out and shoot him, give him a soldier’s death, and he would have no problem with that. His problem was that he thought that hanging was the worst thing they could do to a soldier.”
Fritz Sauckel, who had overseen the slave labor apparatus, shared those sentiments. “
Death by hanging—that, at least, I did not deserve,” he protested. “The death part—all right—but that—That I did not deserve.”
Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and his deputy General Alfred Jodl pleaded to be spared the noose. Instead, they asked for a firing squad, which would offer them, in Keitel’s words, “
a death which is granted to a soldier in all armies of the world should he incur the supreme penalty.” Admiral Erich Raeder had been sentenced to life imprisonment, but he requested the Allied Control Council “to commute this sentence to death by shooting, by way of mercy.” Emily Göring reportedly later claimed that her husband only planned to use the cyanide capsule if “
his application to be shot was refused.”
That left ten men to face the hangman, U.S. Army Master Sergeant John C. Woods.
Herman Obermayer, a young Jewish GI who had worked with Woods at the end of the war, providing him with basic materials such as wood and rope for scaffolds for earlier hangings, recalled that the beefy thirty-five-year-old Kansan “defied all the rules, didn’t shine his shoes and didn’t get shaved.”
There was nothing accidental about the way Woods looked. “His dress was always sloppy,” Obermayer added. “His dirty pants were always unpressed, his jacket looked as though he slept in it for weeks, his M/Sgt. stripes were attached to his sleeve by a single stitch of yellow thread at each corner, and his crumpled hat was always worn at an improper angle.”
The only American hangman in the European theater, Woods claimed to have dispatched
347 people during his fifteen-year career up to that point; his earlier victims in Europe had included several American servicemen convicted of murder and rape, along with Germans accused of killing downed Allied pilots and other wartime offenses. This “alcoholic, ex-bum” with “crooked yellow teeth, foul breath, and dirty neck,” as Obermayer put it, knew he could flaunt his slovenly appearance since his superiors needed his services.
And no more so than at Nuremberg, where suddenly Woods was “one of the most important men in the world,” Obermayer noted, and yet betrayed no nervousness as he carried out his assignment.
Three wooden scaffolds, each painted black, were set up in the gym. The idea was to use two of them alternately, keeping the third in reserve if anything went wrong with the mechanism of the first two. Each scaffold had thirteen steps, and ropes were suspended from the crossbeams supported on two posts. A new rope was provided for each hanging. As Kingsbury Smith, the pool reporter at the scene, wrote: “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.”
At 1:11 a.m., Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, was the first to arrive in the gym. The original plan was for the guards to
escort the prisoners from their cells without manacles, but, following Göring’s suicide, the rules had changed. Ribbentrop’s hands were bound as he entered, and then the manacles were replaced with a leather strap.
After mounting the scaffold, “the former diplomatic wizard of Nazidom,” as Smith archly put it, proclaimed to the assembled witnesses: “God protect Germany.” Allowed to make an additional short statement, the man who had played a critical role in launching Germany’s attacks on country after country concluded: “My last wish is that Germany realize its entity and an understanding be reached between the East and West. I wish peace to the world.”
Woods then placed the black hood over his head, adjusted the rope, and pulled the lever that opened the trap, sending Ribbentrop to his death.
Two minutes later, Field Marshal Keitel entered the gym. Smith duly noted that he “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 maintained his military bearing to the last. Looking down from the scaffold before the noose was put around his neck, he spoke loudly and clearly, betraying no signs of nervousness. “I call on God Almighty to have mercy on the German people,” he declared. “More than two million German soldiers went to their death for the fatherland before me. I follow now my sons—all for Germany.”
While both Ribbentrop and Keitel were still hanging from their ropes, there was a pause in the proceedings. An American general representing the Allied Control Commission allowed the thirty or so people in the gym to smoke—and almost everyone immediately lit up.
An American and a Russian doctor, equipped with stethoscopes, ducked behind the curtains to confirm their deaths. When they emerged, Woods went back up the steps of the first scaffold, pulled out a knife that was strapped to his side, and cut the rope. Ribbentrop’s body, his head still covered by the black hood, was then carried on a stretcher to a
corner of the gym that was blocked off with a black canvas curtain. This procedure would be followed for each of the bodies.
The break over, an American colonel issued the command: “Cigarettes out, please, gentlemen.”
At 1:36, it was the turn of Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the Austrian SS leader who had succeeded the assassinated Reinhard Heydrich as the chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), the agency that oversaw mass murder, the concentration camps, and all manner of persecution. Among the people who reported to him: Adolf Eichmann, who had been in charge of RSHA’s Department of Jewish Affairs, responsible for implementing the Final Solution, and Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz.
Unlike Kaltenbrunner, whom American troops had tracked to his hideout in the Austrian Alps at the end of the war, Eichmann’s whereabouts were still unknown. Höss, who had been captured by the British in northern Germany, testified at the Nuremberg trial, but he would face a different hangman’s noose later.
Yet from the scaffold
Kaltenbrunner still insisted, as he had to the American psychiatrist Gilbert earlier, that somehow he knew nothing about the crimes he was accused of. “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.”
As Woods produced the black hood to put over his head, Kaltenbrunner added: “Germany, good luck.”
Alfred Rosenberg, one of the earliest members of the Nazi Party, who served as the de facto high priest of its deadly racist “cultural” creed, was the most speedily dispatched. Asked if he had any final words, he did not respond. Although a self-professed atheist, he was accompanied by a Protestant chaplain who prayed at his side as Woods pulled the lever.
After another short break, Hans Frank, Hitler’s gauleiter or governor general of occupied Poland, was ushered in. Unlike the others, he had told Gilbert, after his death sentence was announced: “
I deserved it and I expected it.” During his imprisonment, he had converted to Roman Catholicism. As he entered the gym, he was the only one of the ten who
had a smile on his face. He betrayed his nervousness by swallowing frequently, but, as Smith reported, he “gave the appearance of being relieved at the prospect of atoning for his evil deeds.”
Frank’s last words seemed to confirm that: “I am thankful for the kind treatment during my captivity and I ask God to accept me with mercy.”
Next, all that Wilhelm Frick, Hitler’s minister of interior, had to say was “Long live eternal Germany.”
At 2:12, Smith noted, the “ugly, dwarfish little man” Julius Streicher, the editor and publisher of the venomous Nazi party newspaper Der Stürmer, walked to the gallows, his face visibly twitching. Asked to identify himself, he shouted: “Heil Hitler!”
Allowing for a rare reference to his own emotions, Smith confessed: “The shriek sent a shiver down my back.”
As Streicher was pushed up the final steps on the top of the gallows to position him for Woods, he glared at the witnesses and screamed: “Purim Fest, 1946.” The reference was to the Jewish holiday that commemorates the execution of Haman, who, according to the Old Testament, was planning to kill all Jews in the Persian Empire.
Asked formally for his last words, Streicher shouted: “The Bolsheviks will hang you one day.”
While Woods was placing the black hood over his head, Streicher could be heard saying “Adele, my dear wife.”
But the drama was far from over. The trapdoor opened with a bang, with Streicher kicking as he went down. As the rope snapped taut, it swung wildly and the witnesses could hear him groaning. Woods came down from the platform and disappeared behind the black curtain that concealed the dying man. Abruptly the groans ceased and the rope stopped moving. Smith and the other witnesses were convinced that Woods had grabbed Streicher and pulled down hard, strangling him.
Had something gone wrong—or was this no accident? Lieutenant Stanley Tilles, who was charged with coordinating the Nuremberg and earlier hangings of war criminals, later claimed that Woods had deliberately placed the coils of Streicher’s noose off-center so that his neck
would not be broken during his fall; instead, he would strangle. “
Everyone in the chamber had watched Streicher’s performance and none of it was lost on Woods. I knew Woods hated Germans . . . and I watched his face become florid and his jaws clench,” he wrote, adding that Woods’s intent was clear. “I saw a small smile cross his lips as he pulled the hangman’s handle.”
The procession of the unrepentant continued—and so did the apparent mishaps. Sauckel, the man who had overseen the vast Nazi universe of slave labor, screamed defiantly: “I am dying innocent. The sentence is wrong. God protect Germany and make Germany great again. Long live Germany! God protect my family.” He, too, groaned loudly after dropping through the trapdoor.
Wearing his Wehrmacht uniform with its coat collar half turned up, Alfred Jodl only offered up the last words: “My greetings to you, my Germany.”
The last of the ten was Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who had helped install Nazi rule in his native Austria and later presided over occupied Holland. After limping to the gallows on his clubfoot, he, like Ribbentrop, presented himself as a man of peace. “I hope that this execution is the last act of the tragedy of the Second World War and that the lesson taken from the world war will be that peace and understanding should exist between peoples,” he said. “I believe in Germany.”
At 2:45, he dropped to his death.
Woods calculated that the total time from the first to the tenth hanging was 103 minutes. “
That’s quick work,” he declared later.
While the bodies of the last two condemned men were still dangling from their ropes, guards brought out an eleventh body on a stretcher. It was covered by a U.S. Army blanket, but two large bare feet protruded from it and one arm in a black silk pajama sleeve was hanging down on the side.
An Army colonel ordered the blanket removed to avoid any doubt about whose body was joining the others. Hermann Göring’s face was “still contorted with the pain of his last agonizing moments and his final gesture of defiance,” Smith reported. “They covered him up quickly and
this Nazi warlord, who like a character out of the Borgias, had wallowed in blood and beauty, passed behind a canvas curtain into the black pages of history.”
• • •
In an interview with Stars and Stripes after the hangings, Woods maintained that the operation had gone off precisely as he had planned it:
“I hanged these ten Nazis in Nuremberg and I am proud of it; I did a good job. Everything went A1. I have . . . never been to an execution which went better. I am only sorry that that fellow Göring escaped me; I’d have been at my best for him. No, I wasn’t nervous. I haven’t got any nerves. You can’t afford nerves in my job. But this Nuremberg job was just what I wanted. I wanted this job so terribly that I stayed here a bit longer, though I could have gone home earlier.”
But in the aftermath of the hangings, Woods’s claims were fiercely disputed. Smith’s pool report left no doubt that something had gone wrong with Streicher’s execution, and probably also with Sauckel’s. A report in The Star of London claimed that the drop had been too short and the condemned men were not properly tied, which meant they hit their heads as they plunged through the trapdoor and “
died of slow strangulation.” In his memoirs, General Telford Taylor, who helped prepare the International Military Tribunal’s case against the top Nazis and then became the chief prosecutor in the subsequent twelve Nuremberg trials, pointed out that the photographs of the bodies laid out in the gym seemed to confirm such suspicions. Some of the faces appeared to be bloodied.
This prompted speculation that Woods had bungled some parts of the job. Albert Pierrepoint, the British Army’s highly experienced hangman, did not want to criticize his American counterpart directly, but he did refer to newspaper reports of “
indications of clumsiness . . . arising from the unalterable five-foot drop and the, to me, old-fashioned four-coiled cowboy knot.” In his account of the Nuremberg trial,
German historian Werner Maser asserted that Jodl took eighteen minutes to die, and Keitel “as much as twenty-four minutes.”
Those claims did not tally with Smith’s pool report, and some of the
subsequent accounts of the hangings may have deliberately exaggerated or sensationalized what went wrong. Still, the hangings were hardly the smooth operation that Woods insisted he had carried out.
He tried to deflect the criticism prompted by the photographs by saying that sometimes victims bit their tongues during hangings, which would account for the blood on their faces.
The debate about Woods’s performance only underscores the issue that several of the condemned men raised in the first place: why was hanging chosen over the firing squad? Woods was genuinely convinced about the virtues of his trade. Obermayer, the young GI who had known Woods when he carried out earlier executions, recalled “
a more-or-less drunken moment” when one soldier asked the hangman whether he would like to die at the end of a rope or by some other means. “You know, I think it’s a damn good way to die; as a matter of fact, I’ll probably die that way myself.”
“Aw, for Christ’s sake, be serious, that’s nothing to kid about,” another soldier interjected.
Woods wasn’t laughing. “I’m damn serious,” he said. “It’s clean and it’s painless, and it’s traditional.” He added: “It’s traditional with hangmen to hang themselves when they get old.”
Obermayer was not persuaded about the putative advantages of hanging over other forms of execution. “Hanging is a special kind of humiliating experience,” he said, looking back at those encounters with Woods. “Why so humiliating? Because when you die, all your sphincters lose their elasticity. You become a shitty mess.” In his view, it was hardly surprising that the top Nazi officials at Nuremberg pleaded so desperately for the firing squad instead.
Nonetheless, Obermayer was convinced that Woods was sincere in his belief that he was carrying out a job that needed to be done with maximum efficiency and decency. Pierrepoint, his British counterpart, whose father and uncle had plied the same trade, made a similar claim at the end of his career: “
I operated, on behalf of the State, what I am convinced was the most humane and dignified method of meting out death to a delinquent,” he wrote. Among Pierrepoint’s victims during his tour in
Germany were the “Beasts of Belsen,” including the former commandant of Bergen-Belsen Josef Kramer and the infamously sadistic guard Irma Grese, who was only twenty-one when she went to the gallows.
Unlike Woods, Pierrepoint lived to an old age, and eventually turned against the death penalty. “Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge,” he concluded.
Obermayer, who had returned to the United States before the hangings at Nuremberg, remained convinced that Woods approached all of his assignments, including his most famous one, with professional detachment. It was “just another job for him,” he wrote. “I’m sure his approach to it was much more like that of the union workman who stands on the slaughtering block in a Kansas City packing house than that of the proud French fanatic who guillotined Marie Antoinette in the Place de la Concorde.”
But in the aftermath of the war and the Holocaust, it was hardly surprising that the notions of revenge and justice were often intermingled, whatever the motives of the executioners themselves.
As for Woods, he was proved wrong in his prediction about how he would die. In 1950, he accidentally electrocuted himself while repairing a power line in the Marshall Islands.