Nuremberg Trials




Methods of Execution

How were the executions conducted? What was the modus operandi? On this subject history need not remain in the dark. Several of the executioners have themselves cleared away all mystery as to just how they accomplished their extraordinary deeds. Defendant Paul Blobel, who stated that his sonderkommando killed between 10,000 and 15,000 people, described in some detail one performance he personally directed. Specifying that from 700 to 1,000 persons were involved in this execution, he related how he divided his unit into shooting squads of 30 men each. Then, the mass graves were prepared --

"Out of the total number of the persons designated for the execution, 15 men were led in each case to the brink of the mass grave where they had to kneel down, their faces turned toward the grave. At that time, clothes and valuables were not yet collected. Later on this was changed.....

When the men were ready for the execution on of my leaders who was in charge of this execution squad gave the order to shoot. Since they were kneeling on the brink of the mass grave, the victims fell, as a rule, at once into the mass grave.

I have always used rather large execution squads, since I declined to use men who were specialists for shots in the neck (Genickschusspezialisten). Each squad shot for about one hour and was then replaced. The persons which still had to be shot were assembled near the place of execution, and were guarded by members of those squads, which at that moment did not take part in the executions."


In some instances, the slain persons did not fall into the graves, and the executioners were then compelled to exert themselves to complete the job of interment. A method, however, was found to avoid this additional exertion by simply having the victims enter the ditch or grave while still alive. An SS eye-witness explained the procedure:

"The people were executed by a shot in the neck. The corpses were buried in a large tank ditch. The candidates for execution were already standing or kneeling in the ditch. One group had scarcely been shot before the next came and laid themselves on the corpses there."


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The defendant Biberstein also verified this with his statement:

"The shootings took place in a sand pit, in which the bodies afterwards were buried."

The defendant Ott, who stated his kommando conducted 80 to 100 executions, told of one winter execution where the corpses were temporarily buried in the snow.

The business of executions was apparently a very efficient business-like procedure, illustrated by Report No. 24, dated 16 July 1941, which succinctly stated:

"The arrested Jewish men are shot without ceremony and interred in already prepared graves, the EK 1b having shot 1,150 Jews at Duenaburg up to now."


Some of the kommando leaders, however, were a little more ceremonious. These executioners called off the names of the victims before they were loaded on to the truck which was to take them to their death. This was their whole judicial trial -- the indictment, the evidence, and the sentence -- a roll call of death.

There were different techniques in execution. There were Einsatz commanders who lined up their victims kneeling or standing on the edge of the grave, facing the grave, others who had the executees stand with their backs to the grave, and still others, as indicated, who had their victims stand in the grave itself. One defendant described how the victims lined up at the edge of the ditch and, as they fell, another row stepped into position so that, file after file, the bodies dropped into the pit on to the bleeding corpses beneath.

Hardly ever was a doctor present at the executions. The responsibility of the squad leader to make certain the victims were dead before burying them was simply discharged by a glance to determine whether the bullet-ridden bodies moved or not. Since in most cases the huddled and contorted bodies were strewn and piled in a trench at least six feet deep, only one

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more horror is added in contemplating the inadequacy of an inspection made from the rim of a ditch as to whether life in the dark ground below was extinct or not.

In fact, one defendant did not exclude the possibility that an executee could only seem to be dead because of shock or temporary unconsciousness. In such case it was inevitable he would be buried alive.

The defendant Blobel testified that his firing squad always aimed at the heads of the victims. If, he explains, the victim was not hit, then one member of the firing squad approached with his rifle to a distance of three paces and shot again. The scene of the victim watching the head-hunter approaching with his rifle and shooting at him at three paces represents a horror for which there is no language.

Some kommando leaders, as we have seen, made their victims lie down on the ground, and they were shot in the back of the neck. But, whatever the method, it was always considered honorable, as it was always done in a humane and military manner. Defendant after defendant emphasized before the Tribunal that the requirements of militariness and humaneness were meticulously met in all executions. Of course, occasionally, as one defendant described it, "the manner in which the executions were carried out caused excitement and disobedience among the victims, so that the kommandos were forced to restore order by means of violence", that is to say, the victims were beaten. Undoubtedly always, of course, in a humane and military manner.

Only rarely, however, did the victims react to their fate. Commenting on this phase of the executions, one defendant related how some victims, destined to be shot in the back, turned around and bravely faced their executioners but said nothing. Almost invariably they went to their end silently, and some of the defendants commented on this. The silence of the doomed was mysterious, it was frightening. What did the

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executioners expect the victims to say? Who could find the words to speak to this unspeakable assault on humanity, this monstrous violence upon the dignity of life and being? They were silent. There was nothing to say.

It was apparently a standing order that executions should not be performed publicly, but should always take place far removed from the centers of population. A wooded area was usually selected for this grim business. Sometimes these rules were not observed. Document NOKW-641 relates an execution which took place near houses whose occupants became unwilling witnesses to the macabre scene. The narrative states: "A heavy supply traffic for the soldiers was also going on in the main street, as well as traffic of evacuated civilians. All events could be followed from the window of the battalion's office, the moaning of the people to be shot could be heard too. The following morning, a lot of clothing was lying about the place concerned [and] surrounded by inquisitive civilians and soldiers. An order to destroy the clothing was given immediately."

The business man, Friedrich Graebe, already quoted before, has left a moving account of a mass execution witnessed by him in October 1942 near Dubno, an account which because of its authoritative description deserves recording in its entirety in this Opinion:

"Moennikos and I went direct to the pits. Nobody bothered us. Now I heard rifle shots in quick succession, from behind one of the earth mounds. The people who had got off the trucks -- men, women and children of all ages -- had to undress upon the orders of an SS-man, who carried a riding or dog whip.

They had to put down their clothes in fixed places, sorted according to shoes, top clothing and underclothing. I saw a heap of shoes of about 800 to 1,000 pairs, great piles of underlinen and clothing. Without screaming or weeping these people undressed, stood around in family groups, kissed each other, said farewells and waited for a sign from another SS-man, who stood near the pit, also with a whip in his hand.

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During the 15 minutes that I stood near the pit I heard no complaint or plea for mercy. I watched a family of about 8 persons, a man and woman, both about 50 with their children of about 1, 8 and 10, and two grown up daughters of about 20 to 24. An old woman with snow-white hair was holding the one year old child in her arms and singing to it, tickling it. The child was cooing with delight. The couple were looking on with tears in their eyes. The father was holding the hand of a boy about ten years old and speaking to him softly; the boy was fighting his tears. The father pointed to the sky, stroked his head, and seemed to explain something to him. At that moment the SS-man at the pit shouted something to his comrade. The latter counted off about 20 persons and instructed them to go behind the earth mound. Among them was the family which I have mentioned.

I well remember a girl, slim and with black hair, who, as she passed close to me, pointed to herself and said '23'. I walked around the mound and found myself confronted by a tremendous grave. People were closely wedged together and lying on top of each other so that only their heads were visible. Nearly all had blood running over their shoulders from their heads. Some of the people shot were still moving. Some were lifting their arms and turning their heads to show that they were still alive. The pit was already 2/3 full. I estimate that it already contained about 1,000 people. I looked for the man who did the shooting. He was an SS-man who sat at the edge of the narrow end of the pit, his feet dangling into the pit. He had a tommy gun on his knees and was smoking a cigarette. The people, completely naked, went down some steps which were cut in the clay wall of the pit and clambered over the heads of the people lying there, to the place to which the SS-men directed them. They lay down in front of the dead or injured people; some caressed those who were still alive and spoke to them in a low voice. Then I heard a series of shots.

I looked into the pit and saw that the bodies were twitching or the heads lying already motionless on top of the bodies that lay before them. Blood was running from their necks. I was surprised that I was not ordered away, but I saw that there were two or three postmen in uniform nearby. The next batch was approaching already. They went down into the pit, lined themselves up against the previous victims and were shot. When I walked back, round the mound, I noticed another truckload of people which had just arrived. This time it included sick and infirm persons. An old, very thin woman with terribly thin legs was undressed by others who were already naked,

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while two people held her up. The woman appeared to be paralyzed. The naked people carried the woman around the mound. I left with Moennikes and drove my car back to Dubno.

On the morning of the next day, when I again visited the site, I saw about 30 naked people lying near the pit -- about 30 to 50 meters away from it. Some of them were still alive; they looked straight in front of them with a fixed stare and seemed to notice neither the chilliness of the morning nor the workers of my firm who stood around. A girl of about 20 spoke to me and asked me to give her clothes and help her escape. At that moment we heard a fast car approach, and I noticed that it was an SS detail. I moved away to my site. Ten minutes later we heard shots from the vicinity of the pit. The Jews still alive had been ordered to throw the corpses into the pit; -- then they had themselves to lie down in this to be shot in the neck."


The tragedy of this scene is lost entirely on the executioner. He does his job as a job. So many persons are to be killed, just as a carpenter contemplates the construction of a shed. He must consider the material he has on hand, the possibilities of rain, etc. Only by psychologically adjusting oneself to such a state of affairs can one avoid a shock when one comes to a statement in a report very casually written, namely: "Until now, it was very difficult to carry out executions because of whether conditions." (NO-2828)

A report from Einsatzgruppe A, discussing events which occurred in the winter of 1941 - 1942, remarks:

"The Commander in White Russia is instructed to liquidate the Jewish question as soon as possible, despite the difficult situation. However, a period of about 2 months is still required -- according to the weather."


It is all this same type of studied indifference that causes another report-writer to chronicle simply: "Hostages are taken in each new place, and they are executed on the slightest reason." (NO-2948)

One of the Einsatzgruppen leaders complains that only 96 Jews were executed at Grodno and Lida during the first days. He

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manifests his displeasure and declares: "I gave orders that considerable intensification was to take place there." (NO-2937)

Adolf Ruebe, a former SS-Hauptscharfuehrer, declared in an affidavit that now and then there were executioners who devised original methods for killing their victims:

"On the occasion of an exhumation in Minsk, in November 1943, Obersturmfuehrer Heuser arrived with a kommando of Latvians. They brought eight Jews, men and women, with them. The Latvians guarded the Jews, while Harter and Heuser erected a funeral pyre with their own hands. The Jews were bound, put on the pile alive, drenched with gasoline and burnt."


It was stated in the early part of this Opinion that women and children were to be executed with the men so that Jews, Gypsies and so-called asocials would be exterminated for all time. In this respect, the Einsatzgruppen leaders encountered a difficulty they had not anticipated. Many of the enlisted men were husbands and fathers, and they winced as they pulled their triggers on those helpless creatures who reminded them of their own wives and off-spring at home. In this emotional disturbance they often aimed badly and it was necessary for the kommando leaders to go about with a revolver or carbine, firing into the moaning and writhing forms. This was hard on the executioner, personnel experts reported to the RHSA in Berlin, and to relieve their emotional sensitivity, gas vans were sent to the rescue.

These strange vehicles carried spurious windows and curtains and otherwise externally resembled family trailers. Women and children were lured into them with the announcement that they were to be resettled and that they would meet their husbands and fathers in the new place. Once inside the truck, the doors automatically and hermetically closed, the driver stepped on the accelerator, and monoxide gas from the engine streamed in. By the time the van reached its destination, which was an anti-tank ditch outside the town, the occupants were dead.

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And here they joined their husbands and fathers who had been killed by rifles and carbines in the hands of the Einsatzgruppen.

As distressing as may be to the average person the mere thought image of these murder wagons, they were simply articles of equipment so far as the Einsatzgruppen were concerned. Communications went back and forth, correspondence was written about these gas vans with the casualness which might accompany a discussion on coal trucks. For instance, on May 16, 1942, SS-Untersturmfuehrer Dr. Becker, wrote SS-Obersturmbannfuehrer Rauff, pointing out that vans could not be driven in rainy weather because of the danger of skidding. He, therefore, posed he question as to whether executions could not be accomplished with the vans in a stationary position. However, this suggestion offered a problem all its own. If the van was not actually set for mobility the victims would realize what was about to happen to them, and this, Becker said, must be avoided so far as possible. He thus recommended: "There is only one way left. To load them at the collecting point and to drive them to the spot." Becker then complained that members of the kommando should not be required to unload the corpses:

"I brought to the attention of the commanders of those S.K. concerned, the immense psychological injuries and damages to their health which that work can have for those men, even if not immediately, at least later on. The men complained to me about headaches which appeared after each unloading."

The with regard to the operation of the lethal device itself, Becker says:

"The application of gas usually is not undertaken correctly. In order to come to an end as fast as possible, the driver presses the accelerator to the fullest possible extent. By doing that the persons to be executed suffer death from suffocation and not death by dozing off as was planned. My directions have now proved that by correct adjustment of the levers death comes faster and the prisoners fall asleep peacefully."


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On June 15, 1942, the commandant of the Security Police and Security Service Ostland wrote the RSHA in Berlin as follows:

"Subject: S-Vans
A transport of Jews, which has to be treated in a special way, arrives weekly at the office of the commandant of the Security Police and the Security Service of White Ruthenia

The three S-vans which are there are not sufficient for that purpose. I request assignment of another S-van (5 tons). At the same time I request the shipment of 20 gas hoses for the three S-vans on hand (2 Daimond, 1 Saurer), since the ones on hand are leaky already."

Ever efficient in discharging their homicidal duties, it appears that the Einsatz authorities now even set up a school in this new development of the fine art of genocide. The defendant Biberstein, describing one of these ultr-modern executions, spoke of the driver Sackenreuter of Nuremberg "who had been most carefully instructed about the handling of the gas truck, having been through special training courses." (NO-4314) Biberstein was satisfied that this method of killing was very efficient because the faces of the dead people were "in no way distorted"; death having come "without any outward signs of spasms." He added that no physician was present to certify that the people were dead because "this type of gas execution guaranteed certain death." Who it was that guaranteed this was not vouchsafed to history.

The murder-vans were constructed in Berlin and then, under their own power, driven to the field of action. The reports tell of two vans which travelled from Berlin to the Crimea, It would be interesting to know the thoughts of the drivers of these murder-vans as they rolled over half of Europe, through city and country, climbing mountains and penetrating plains, travelling 2,000 kilometers with their gaseous guillotines to kill helpless women and children. On of the drivers was none other than the chauffeur of the arch-murder Reinhardt Heydrich.

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One reads and reads these accounts of which here we can given only a few excerpts and yet there remains the instinct to disbelieve, to question, to doubt. There is less of a mental barrier in accepting the weirdest stories of supernatural phenomena, as, for instance, water running up hill and trees with roots reaching toward the sky, than in taking at face value these narratives which go beyond the frontiers of human cruelty and savagery. Only the fact the the reports from which we have quoted came from the pens of men within the accused organizations can the human mind be assured that all this actually happened. The reports and the statements of the defendants themselves verify what otherwise would be dismissed as the product of a disordered imagination. The record reveals that investigators and evidence analysts have checked and rechecked, Being human they sometimes doubted the correctness of the startling figures appearing in the reports. Thus, when one of them came across the statement of Stahlecker that Einsatzgruppe A, of which he was chief, had killed 135,000 human beings in four months, the investigator questioned Otto Ohlendorf if this were possible. Ohlendorf read the statement in question and announced:

"I have read the report of Stahlecker (Document L-180) concerning Einsatzgruppe A, in which Stahlecker asserts that his group killed 135,000 Jews and Communists in the first four months of the program. I know Stahlecker personally, and I am of the opinion that the document is authentic."


How can all this be explained? Even when Germany was retreating on all fronts, many troops sorely needed on the battlefield were diverted on this insane mission of extermination. In defiance of military and economic logic incalculable manpower was killed of, property of every description was destroyed -- all remained unconsidered as against this insanity of genocide.

Here and there a protest was raised. The SS-Commissioner General for White Ruthenia objected to the executions in his

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district -- not on the grounds of humanity, but because he believed the unbridled murder program was lowering the prestige of Germany.

"Above all, any act lowering the prestige of the German Reich and its organization in the eyes of the White Ruthenian population should be avoided.....I am submitting this report in duplicate so that one copy may be forwarded to the Reich Minister. Peace and order cannot be maintained in White Ruthenia with methods of that sort. To bury seriously wounded people alive who work their way out of their graves again, is such a base and filthy act that this incident as such should be reported to the Fuehrer and Reich Marshal. The civil administration of White Ruthenia makes very strenuous efforts to win the population over to Germany in accordance with the instructions of the Fuehrer. These efforts cannot be brought in harmony with the methods described herein."


The report referred to gave a graphic description of the extermination action. It told of the arrival of a Police Battalion with instructions to liquidate all Jews in the town of Sluzk within two days. The Commissioner for the Territory of Sluzk protested that the liquidation of all Jews, which naturally included the tradesmen, would shut down the economic life of the area. He asked, at least, for postponement of the executions. The Lieutenant in charge of the battalion refused to wait. The report continues:

"For the rest, as regards the executions of the action, I must point out to my deepest regret that the latter bordered already on sadism. The town itself offered a picture of horror during the action. With indescribable brutality on the part of both the German police officers and particularly the Lithuanian partisans, the Jewish people, but also among them White Ruthenians, were taken out of their dwellings and herded together. Everywhere in the town shots were heard, and in different streets the corpses of shot Jews accumulated.....In conclusion I find myself obliged to point out that the police battalion has looted in an unheard of manner during the action, and that not only in Jewish houses but just the same in those of the White Ruthenians. Anything of use such as boots, leather, cloth, gold and other valuables, has been taken away.

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On the basis of statements of the members of the Armed Forces, watches were torn off the arms of Jews in public, on the street, and rings were pulled of the fingers in the most brutal manner,

A major of the Finance Department reported that a Jewish girl was asked by the police to obtain immediately 5,000 rubles to have her father released. This girl is said to have actually gone everywhere to obtain the money."


For a nation at war nothing can be more important than that ammunition reach the soldiers holding the fighting frontiers. Yet, many vehicles loaded with ammunition for the armed forces were left standing in the streets of Sluzk because the Jewish drivers, already illegally forced into this service, had been liquidated by the Execution Battalion. Although the very life of the nation depended on the continued operation of every type of food-producing establishment, 15 of the 26 specialists at a cannery were shot.

The blood bath of Sluzk brought about some interesting correspondence. The Commissioner General inquired of the Reich Minister of Occupied Eastern Territories if the liquidation of Jews in the East was to take place without regard to the economic interests of the Wehrmacht and specialists in the armament industry. The Reich Minister replied:

"Clarification of the Jewish question has most likely been achieved by now through verbal discussions. Economic considerations should fundamentally remain unconsidered in the settlement of the problem."


A German inspector of armament in the Ukraine, after a thorough investigation into the Jewish Liquidation Program, reported to General of the Infantry, Thomas, Chief of the Industrial Armament Department, that the project was a big mistake from the German point of view. In the Ukraine he found that the Jews represented almost the entire trade and even a substantial part of the manpower.

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"The elimination, therefore, necessarily had far-reaching economic consequences and even direct consequences FOR THE ARMAMENT INDUSTRY. (Production for supplying the troops)."

The report goes on:

"The attitude of the Jewish population was anxious-obliging from the beginning. They tried to avoid everything that might displease the German administration. That they hated the German administration and army inwardly goes without saying and cannot be surprising. However, there is no proof that Jewry as a whole or even to a greater part was implicated in acts of sabotage. Surely, there were some terrorists or saboteurs among them just as among the Ukrainians. But it cannot be said that the Jews as such represented a danger to the German armed forces. The output produced by Jews who, of course, were prompted by nothing but the feeling of fear, was satisfactory to the troops and the German administration."


What made the program of extermination particularly satanic was that the executions invariably took place not during the stress and turmoil of fighting or defensive action, but after the fighting had ceased:

"The Jewish population remained temporarily unmolested shortly after the fighting. Only weeks sometimes months later, specially detached formations of the police (Ordnungspolizei) executed a planned shooting of Jews.....The way these actions which included men and old men, women and children of all ages were carried out was horrible. The great masses executed make this action more gigantic than any similar measure taken so far in the Soviet Union. So far about 150,000 to 200,000 Jews may have been executed in the part of the Ukraine belonging to the Reichkommissariat (RK); no consideration was given to the interests of economy."

In a final appeal to reason this German inspector cries out:

"If we shoot the Jews, let the prisoners of war perish, condemn considerable parts of the urban population to death by starvation and also lose a part of the farming population by hunger during the next year, the question remains unanswered: WHO IN ALL THE WORLD IS THEN SUPPOSED TO PRODUCE ECONOMIC VALUES HERE?"


No one answered the question of the German inspector. Nor did any one answer the question of Humanity as to why these

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oceans of blood and this burning of a continent. Reason, with its partner Conscience, had been lost long ago in the jungle of Nazi greed and arrogance, and so Madness ruled, Hate marched, the sky reddened with the flames of destruction and the world wept -- and still weeps.

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Musmanno, Michael A., U.S.N.R, Military Tribunal II, Case 9: Opinion and Judgment of the Tribunal. Nuremberg: Palace of Justice. 8 April 1948. pp. 42 - 55 (original mimeographed copy)

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Ken Lewis
March 21, 1998
Rev. 1.1