Sixteen-year-old Rudolf Merkel was the youngest war criminal in the Dachau trials and, at 19, the youngest inmate of Landsberg prison. He was tried before the US military tribunal at Dachau in 1947, along with 14 other German civilians, for the murder of three American flyers whose planes were shot down in August 1944 in the vicinity of Gernsbach, a German village near the French border. All of the flyers had surrendered, and according to international law, should have been treated as Prisoners of War by the civilians who were at the scene. But these German villagers were seeking vengeance because American and British planes had been bombing civilian targets and killing innocent people. The British and American policy of deliberately bombing civilians was designed to destroy the morale of the German people and force them to surrender. An estimated 600,000 German civilians were killed in the Allied bombing and virtually every city in Germany suffered bomb damage.
In three separate incidents near Gernsbach in August 1944, a group of local men brutally beat a downed American flyer, then deliberately killed him, and buried the body in the local cemetery. Merkel was a 16-year-old farm boy at the time, and like all German boys his age, a member of the Hitler Youth. He was 6 months too young to be in the German Army, and all the others in the case were too old to fight on the battlefield. One of the downed pilots had parachuted to earth and landed on a hill near Merkel's home in the village of Weisenbach. Merkel was one of three villagers who found the wounded pilot under a bush and started to carry him down the hill. They were interrupted by another villager, Adolf Eiermann, who ordered them to beat the pilot, later identified as Sgt. Robert A. McDonough. According to testimony at the trial, Merkel was urged by one of the participants, Hermann Krieg, to strike the flyer twice with a stick after the man was most likely already dead. For their crimes, Merkel was sentenced by the American military tribunal to hard labor at Landsberg prison for life, and Krieg received the death sentence.
In his final statement to the court, before the verdict was handed down, Merkel indicated that he had not known that he was participating in a "common design" to commit war crimes, the first charge in the Charge Sheet. As quoted by Joseph Halow in "Innocent at Dachau," his statement was as follows:
Yes. I must tell the High Court here that I didn't know anything about the first charge as it is in the Charge Sheet. The first charge accuses me, but I must say that at that time I was only 16 years old and I didn't know anything about that; I didn't know what was being done, and later on, in order to prevent anything like that from happening, I carried the flyer down there; and I must mention here I never have had any previous conviction and my parents never had any, either. And I would like to say also, that we have a small farm at home. My mother and father live there alone with two small children, the house is broken down and everything has gone to the dogs, and I beg the High Court to pass a just verdict.
When the Gernsbach case came up for review, three of the 14 convictions were overturned, and 2 of the death sentences were reduced, including Krieg's sentence which was reduced to 10 years. The guilty verdict for Rudolf Merkel was upheld, but his sentence was reduced to 15 years at hard labor. In the opinion of the review counsel, the evidence against Merkel was sufficient to establish that "he participated in and acted in furtherance of the common design embraced in the particulars of Charge I." However, the review counsel also said that "Notice should be taken of this accused's tender years at the time he committed these offenses."
Note the use of the word "accused," rather than the usual term "defendant." All the German war criminals were called "the accused" because they were presumed guilty and the burden of proof was upon them. Note also the use of the plural "offenses" although Merkel had only struck one of the flyers and was not even present when the other two were killed. Under the "common design" of the charges, all the accused were guilty in all three incidents because they were carrying out a common plan to deliberately kill downed American pilots. Nevertheless, because of his young age at the time of his crime, the review board considered his life sentence at hard labor to be too harsh.
Merkel hired a German lawyer and petitioned for clemency. The man who had urged Merkel to participate in beating the downed flyer, Hermann Krieg, had been originally sentenced to death by hanging, but the review board had reduced his sentence to 10 years in prison. For some inexplicable reason, the review board had ruled that Merkel's punishment should be more severe than Krieg's. Because of this, Merkel's German lawyer asked for his client's sentence to be further reduced.
According to court reporter Joseph Halow, in his book "Innocent at Dachau," Merkel's petition for clemency contained an accusation against Harry Thon, a Jewish interrogator for the Dachau trials. He quotes Merkel's statement to the court as follows:
"During the interrogation on August 1946, the interrogator, allegedly Mr. THOM (sic), who spoke German well, laid a pistol on the table and said to me I could choose now; if I told the truth they would turn me loose, otherwise there would be the pistol. I understood this to mean that he would shoot me if I did not testify how he wanted me to. I kept stating what is true."
Rudolf Merkel was finally released from Landsberg prison on September 18, 1951 after his sentence was commuted. He was 23 years old. Krieg was released 5 months later. Four of the other accused civilians in the Gernsbach downed flyers case were executed by hanging, including Adolf Eiermann, the instigator in the beating of McDonough. All the others were released from prison within ten years.