The Execution of Dr. Sigmund Rascher
There were many mysterious executions and suicides in Nazi Germany during the last days of World War II, but none more mysterious than the execution of Dr. Sigmund Rascher, who was allegedly shot on April 26, 1945 inside a prison cell at Dachau on the direct orders of the Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. Himmler allegedly committed suicide shortly after he was captured by the British so we will never know if or how Dr. Rascher was executed.
Dr. Sigmund Rascher had conducted medical experiments for the Luftwaffe at Dachau, starting in May 1942, with the consent and approval of Himmler. Then in May 1944, Dr. Rascher and his wife were arrested because they had illegally adopted a child and registered it as their own, according to an affidavit signed by Dr. Friedrich Karl Rascher, the uncle of Dr. Sigmund Rascher, which was entered into the proceedings of the Nuremberg IMT.
During the Nuremberg Doctors Trial conducted by American prosecutors in 1946 to 1947, in which Nazi doctors were accused of committing war crimes while doing medical experiments, the following testimony was given by Freiherr Von Eberstein, the SS officer and Police President of Munich, who had arrested Dr. Rascher:
VON EBERSTEIN: Yes. In the spring of 1944, in the course of Criminal Police investigations against an SS Hauptsturmführer, Dr. Rascher, a physician, and his wife. The Raschers were accused of Kindesunterschiebung. That is a word which is very difficult to translate. In our law it means the illegal appropriation of other people's children.
Secondly, Rascher was accused of financial irregularities in connection with the research station at Dachau, where these biological experiments were carried on. This research station was directly subordinate to Himmler, without any intermediate authority.
The following quote is from the book entitled "The SS, Alibi of a Nation, 1922 - 1945" by Gerald Reitlinger:
Rascher remained at work in Dachau til May 1944, when Freiherr von Eberstein, higher SS and police leader for Munich, came to arrest him -- but not for his experiments. It had been discovered that the children whom Frau Rascher had borne after the age of forty-eight had in reality been kidnapped from orphanages. The camp commandant and the chief medical officer at Dachau thereupon discharged a flood of complaints against Rascher, whom they described as a dangerous, incredible person who had been under Himmler's personal protection for years, performing unspeakable horrors. Himmler naturally refused to have the Raschers tried, but they were confined in the political bunkers of Dachau and Ravensbrueck, the fate under the Third Reich of people who knew too much. Captain Payne-Best met Sigmund Rascher during the southward evacuation of the Dachau political bunker at the beginning of May 1945. He found Rascher garrulous and sympathetic. One of Rascher's boasts to Captain Payne-Best was that he had invented the gas chamber. Perhaps that was why Sigmund Rascher disappeared soon afterwards, and likewise Frau Rascher who was last seen in Ravensbrueck.
According to British intelligence agent Captain Sigismund Payne Best, who had been arrested on November 9, 1939 as a suspect in an alleged British plot to kill Hitler, Dr. Rascher was imprisoned in a cell next to his at the Buchenwald concentration camp. Before he was moved to Buchenwald in August 1944, Captain Payne Best had previously been a prisoner at Sachsenhausen where Georg Elser, the man who had tried to kill Hitler with a bomb planted at the Bürgerbräukeller in Munich on November 8, 1939, was also a prisoner. Both Elser and Captain Payne Best were awaiting a trial during which Hitler expected to prove that the British intelligence service (MI6) was involved in Elser's failed assassination attempt.
After his arrest, Dr. Rascher and his wife were not put on trial. At some point, Dr. Rascher was imprisoned in the Dachau bunker which had private cells for the VIP prisoners. Captain Payne Best was transferred from Buchenwald to Dachau on April 9, 1945 and also imprisoned in the bunker.
Dr. Rascher's wife was Karoline "Nini" Diehl, a Munich concert singer, who was a good friend of Heinrich Himmler and possibly his mistress before she married Dr. Rascher. Nini Rascher recommended Dr. Rascher to Himmler, "as early as April 1939," according to Himmler's biographer Peter Padfield who wrote: "Rascher was enrolled in Ahnenerbe, given the honorary rank of SS-Untersturmführer and assisted with funds for private cancer research."
When World War II started, Dr. Sigmund Rascher joined the Luftwaffe (German air force) where he became involved with high altitude research in which animals were being used as experimental subjects. Dr. Rascher wrote to Himmler and asked if he could be provided with "two or three professional criminals" to be used as subjects and Himmler agreed. The experiments were conducted at the Dachau concentration camp where there were German prisoners who were in the category of "professional criminal."
According to Himmler's biographer Peter Padfield, the information that Dr. Sigmund Rascher and his wife were both executed on the direct orders of Heinrich Himmler came from Dr. Leo Alexander who wrote a paper entitled "Miscellaneous Aviation Medical Matters," SHAEF 1945, subtitled "The Treatment of Shock from Prolonged Exposure to Cold," SHAEF 1945.
Dr. Leo Alexander, a native of Austria who fled to China and then to America when the Nazis came to power, worked as an investigator for the prosecution in the War Crimes Commission at Nuremberg from 1946 to 1947, gathering information for the Nuremberg Doctors Trial. If Dr. Sigmund Rascher had lived, he would have been put on trial as a war criminal for his work on medical experiments. Dr. Alexander's papers are kept in the Guide to the 65th General Hospital Collection in the Archives and Memorabilia Department at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina.
Dr. Alexander's report on the Prolonged Exposure to Cold evaluated the Nazi hypothermia experiments conducted by Dr. Rascher at Dachau; he found inconsistencies in Dr. Rascher's lab notes which led him to believe that Dr. Rascher had deceived Himmler about his results. According to Dr. Alexander, Rascher reported to Himmler that it took from 53 minutes to 100 minutes for the prisoners to die in the freezing water. However, Dr. Alexander's inspection of Dr. Rascher's personal lab notes revealed that some of the subjects had suffered from 80 minutes to five or six hours before they died. According to Dr. Alexander, Himmler had discovered that Dr. Rascher lied in his reports and Dr. Rascher's deception was the reason that Himmler ordered the execution of both Dr. Rascher and his wife. Nini Rascher had helped with the experiments by taking color photographs during the autopsies of the subjects.
Regarding the execution of Dr. Rascher's wife Nini, the following information was obtained from the staff at the Dachau Museum on 11 July 2006:
Sigmund Rascher's wife, Nini Rascher, was imprisoned in a jail in Munich at first. After attacking a female warder, she was brought to Ravensbrück Concentration Camp. There she once again attacked a female warder and was shot a few days before the camp's liberation.
In his book entitled "The Venlo Incident," Captain Sigismund Payne Best wrote the following regarding a conversation he had with Dr. Rascher while both were prisoners at Buchenwald:
Next morning when I went to wash, there was a little man with a ginger moustache in the lavatory who introduced himself as Dr. Rascher saying that he was half English and that his mother was related to the Chamberlain family. When I told him my name he was much interested saying that he knew about my case and that he had also met Stevens (R. H. Stevens was another British intelligence agent who had been arrested along with Payne Best.) when he was medical officer in Dachau. ... He was a queer fellow; possibly the queerest character which has ever come my way.
Almost at our first meeting he told me that he had belonged to Himmler's personal staff, and that it was he who had planned and supervised the construction of the gas chambers and was responsible for the use of prisoners as guinea pigs in medical research. Obviously he saw nothing wrong in this and considered it merely a matter of expediency. As regards the gas chambers he said that Himmler, a very kind-hearted man, was most anxious that prisoners should be exterminated in a manner which caused them least anxiety and suffering, and the greatest trouble had been taken to design a gas chamber so camouflaged that its purpose would not be apparent, and to regulate the flow of the lethal gas so that the patients might fall asleep without recognizing that they would never wake. Unfortunately, Rascher said, they had never quite succeeded in solving the problem caused by the varying resistance of different people to the effects of poison gases, and always there had been a few who lived longer than others and recognized where they were and what was happening. Rascher said that the main difficulty was that the numbers to be killed were so great that it was impossible to prevent the gas chambers being overfilled, which greatly impeded any attempts to ensure a regular and simultaneous death-rate.
Did Dr. Rascher really tell Captain Payne Best about prisoners being gassed at Dachau? With Dr. Rascher dead and gone, no one would know if this conversation had actually taken place. Or did Himmler order Rascher's execution just three days before Dachau was liberated because he didn't want Dr. Rascher to tell the Allies about the gas chamber at Dachau?
Captain Payne Best also mentioned in his book, "The Venlo Incident," that he and Dr. Rascher had discussed the attempt by Georg Elser to assassinate Adolf Hitler on November 8, 1939, and that Dr. Rascher was of the opinion that it was an inside job, staged by the Nazis.
In his book entitled "The Venlo Incident," Captain S. Payne Best wrote the following regarding Georg Elser who was brought to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp in January 1941:
Then we heard that a new and very secret prisoner had been brought to the Bunker and occupied a very large cell, which had been made by knocking Nos. 11, 12 and 13 into one. Like me, he had guards with him day and night, but they slept in his cell and were forbidden to associate with Steven's guards and mine. It was all very well to make regulations such as these, but even if the guards were not allowed to fraternize while in the Bunker, there was nothing to prevent them doing so in the canteen and elsewhere outside, so not many days passed before we knew quite a lot about No. 13 as he was called.
The first news was that, as the guards put it, he was a "Todes Kandidat", meaning a man condemned to death; next his identity was established; he was Georg Elser, the man who, according to press and radio, was guilty of the attempt to assassinate the Führer on the 8th November, 1939, by a bomb built into one of the pillars in the Bürgerbraukeller at Munich. What did this mean? Why had he not been executed? We were all greatly intrigued, particularly because, in the papers, my name had been coupled with his and the suggestion made that I had been his employer. If it were true that he had been condemned to death, what about me - was I in the same boat? Bit by bit information leaked out and my guards came to me with the story that I was to be tried for complicity in the attempt on Hitler's life, and that Elser would give evidence that he had acted on my instructions. Of course I had had nothing to do with the business at all, and all I knew about the story was limited to the short report which I had read in the Dutch paper on the morning of my capture. As for Elser, all that I knew about him was that I had seen in one of the German illustrated papers which a guard was reading, his photograph next to mine; this was at the time when I was not allowed to read, and I had only caught a glimpse of it as I passed the guard on my promenade up and down the cell.
In the course of time I was able to establish relations with Elser and although we never met or spoke to each other, a sort of friendship developed between us. From what he communicated to me himself, and from information which I picked up from a number of other sources, I was eventually able to piece together his very strange story which I will tell at the appropriate time.
Is it possible that Captain Payne Best had told Dr. Rascher that British intelligence was behind Georg Elser's attempt on the life of Adolf Hitler and that's why Dr. Rascher had to be silenced?
In any case, if illegal adoption and registration of a child was a capital offense, why did Himmler wait until April 26, 1945 to execute Dr. and Frau Rascher?
According to an article on this web site, illegal adoption was a serious crime in Nazi Germany, so why were Dr. Rascher and Frau Rascher never put on trial?
The following quote is from an article entitled "Medical experiments of the Holocaust and Nazi Medicine":
The Nordic or Aryan Race was the most important goal of the Nazis. It was the largest part of the over all plan. The blonde hair, blue eye, super men were to be the only race. The Blacks, Hispanics, Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals and anyone else that did not meet the race requirements were to by cleansed from society through genocide. Hitler and the German High command made a list of rules for the fellow Nazis to follow. The new rules required all SS before marriage must submit to general testing to insure racial purity. The rules for marriage were unbelievably complex. Thousands of marriages were denied. If the laws for marriage were broken it could mean the death penalty.
Dr. Sigmund Rascher and his wife learned what not following the marriage laws would hold for their lives. Mrs. Rascher was sterile. They were not illegally married; they adopted two children. They were later investigated by the Gestapo and executed for the crime. In this case, after his medical experimentation, it seems fitting that this killer was caught up by his own party.
In the last days of World War II, Himmler had a lot on his mind. He was desperately trying to negotiate with the Allies for a German surrender to the Americans and the British, but not to the Soviet Union. There were rumors that he planned to use the VIP prisoners, who had been transferred to Dachau in April 1945, as hostages in his negotiations.
After the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp on April 11th, Adolf Hitler had given the order to evacuate the Sachsenhausen and Dachau camps to prevent the prisoners from being released by the Americans. According to testimony given at the Nuremberg IMT, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, the head of the Security SD forces, had ordered that the prisoners should be "liquidated" in the event that it was impossible to evacuate the Dachau camp.
On April 26, 1945, the day that Dr. Sigmund Rascher was allegedly executed, there was complete chaos and confusion in the Dachau concentration camp, according to a book entitled "The Last Days of Dachau," written jointly by Arthur Haulot, a Belgian prisoner, and Dr. Ali Kuci, an Albanian prisoner. Reischführer-SS Heinrich Himmler had given the order that the Dachau camp was to be immediately evacuated and that "No prisoner should fall into the hands of the enemy alive..." This message was received in the camp in response to a query sent to Berlin by the camp commandant, according to Kuci and Haulot. At 9 a.m. on April 26th, the order was given by the camp Commandant to evacuate the entire camp, but according to Haulot and Kuci, the prisoners acted quickly to sabotage the evacuation plan.
According to the book by Haulot and Kuci, the SS had assembled 6,700 prisoners for evacuation by 8 p.m. on April 26th. At 10 p.m. that day, a total of 6,887 prisoners left the camp on foot, marching south toward the mountains of the South Tyrol. According to testimony given at the Nuremberg IMT, the march to the South Tyrol was part of a plan, devised by Ernst Kaltenbrunner, to kill all the concentration camp prisoners. A transport of 1,735 Jewish prisoners had already left that day on a train bound for the mountains in southern Germany.
With so much going on at Dachau on April 26, 1945, it would have been easy for one of the prisoners to kill Dr. Sigmund Rascher without attracting much attention. It would also have been easy for Dr. Rascher to sneak away that day from the group of VIP prisoners in the bunker, which was near the main gate at Dachau, and join the group of 6,887 prisoners who were being marched out of the camp that same day.
The death march of Jewish prisoners and Russian POWs to the South Tyrol on April 26, 1945 is shown in the photograph above. These prisoners were finally overtaken by American troops and liberated on May 2, 1945.
According to the Dachau Museum, "documents from the preliminary proceedings concerning the death of Sigmund Rascher" show that "Rascher was killed in cell No. 73; his murderer was the SS-Hauptscharführer Theodor Bongartz."
Dr. Rascher was allegedly killed in the Dachau bunker on April 26, 1945, on the very day that the other special prisoners were marched to the South Tyrol under the supervision of Edgar Stiller, the SS man in charge of the bunker. According to Captain Payne Best, all the important prisoners were being taken to the South Tyrol in order to kill them, but Edgar Stiller had turned the prisoners over to him as soon as they arrived at their destination.
The Reverend Martin Niemöller and the Catholic clergymen in the bunker were released from Dachau before the evacuation began. Is it possible that Himmler's good friend Dr. Sigmund Rascher was also released at the same time? Could he have escaped to Paraguay? Or maybe he ended up in America, working with the U.S. Air Force under a new identity.
Several of the Nazi doctors who worked on medical experiments for the German air force were brought to America after the war, including Prof. Dr. Hubertus Strunghold, the head of the Luftwaffe research department, who handed over important information about the medical experiments at Dachau to the Americans. Strunghold was not charged as a war criminal, and instead his assistants Dr. Hermann Becker-Freyseng, Dr. Georg August Weltz and Dr. Konrad Schäfer were put in the dock at the Doctors Trial. After Weltz and Schäfer were acquitted, they were brought to America to work on medical research. Dr. Becker-Freyseng was convicted and sent to prison, but he was released early so that he could come to American and do research for the U.S. Air Force.
If the plan was to kill all the prisoners in the bunker, except for the religious leaders, why was Dr. Rascher singled out to be murdered before the evacuation began? And why wasn't Dr. Rascher taken to the execution wall north of the crematorium where executions normally took place, instead of having SS-Hauptscharführer Theodor Bongartz blow Dr. Rascher's brains out in a prison cell? Why leave behind the gory evidence in a prison cell when it would have been so easy to execute Dr. Rascher at the spot in the woods behind the crematorium, shown in the photo below.
When the Nuremberg Doctors Trial started on December 9, 1946, it was apparently not yet known for sure that Dr. Rascher had been executed. In his opening statement for the prosecution at the Doctors Trial, General Telford Taylor said the following:
There were many co-conspirators who are not in the dock. Among the planners and leaders of this plot were Conti and Grawitz, and Hippke whose whereabouts is unknown. Among the actual executioners, Dr. Ding is dead and Rascher is thought to be dead. There were many others.
Taylor was referring to the Doctors who were involved as "co-conspirators" in the Nazi "plot" to do experiments, but were not on trial for one reason or another. The defendants in the Doctors Trial were accused of committing crimes under the guise of scientific research. The "executioners" were the Doctors who did the actual experiments, including Dr. Rascher. They were called "executioners" because the subjects had been prisoners who were classified as "professional criminals," but instead of having a humane execution, they had been tortured to death.
Curiously, it was not known for certain by the American prosecutors at the Doctors Trial, whether Dr. Sigmund Rascher was alive or dead, 18 months after his alleged demise, even though Dr. Leo Alexander had supposedly deduced the reason for Dr. Rascher's execution during the course of his investigation prior to the start of the trial.
The following testimony was given at the Doctors Trial by a member of the German nobility, Freiherr von Eberstein, who was the Police President in Munich, when he was asked about Dr. Rascher by prosecution attorney, Herr Pelckmann:
VON EBERSTEIN: Yes. Rascher remained under arrest in the detention house of the SS barracks, Munich-Freimann, to all appearances until the barracks, at least the detention house, was evacuated because of the approach of the American troops. He was then sent to Dachau and I learned from the press that he must have been shot during the last few days. I cannot give any further information about this, since I was relieved of my post on 20 April 1945."
He was "sent to Dachau?" "Because of the approach of the American troops?" What about Dr. Rascher's time in Buchenwald when he supposedly had incriminating conversations with Captain Payne Best?
Did Captain Payne Best actually meet Dr. Rascher for the first time on the march from Dachau to the South Tyrol, as reported by Gerald Reitlinger, a highly respected historian? Shortly after he arrived at Dachau, Captain Payne Best was transferred from the Dachau bunker to the barrack building that was formerly used as a brothel, and it is possible that he didn't meet Dr. Rascher until the bunker was evacuated on April 26, 1945. It is possible that Dr. Rascher was never a prisoner at Buchenwald, and Captain Payne Best just assumed that he was, since Dr. Rascher was brought to Dachau around the same time that the VIP prisoners at Buchenwald were transferred to Dachau.
In his 1143-page book entitled "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," William L. Shirer wrote this about Dr. and Frau Rascher: "Neither survived, and it is believed that Himmler himself, in one of the last acts of his life, ordered their execution." In other words, no one knows for certain who ordered the murder of Dr. Sigmund Rascher.
Dr. Rascher's execution had been ordered by Himmler, according to the Dachau Museum, and carried out by Theodor Bongartz, the man in charge of the crematorium where the bodies were disposed of. The execution had taken place, not at the usual place at the execution wall in the woods, but in the bunker in the presence of witnesses who would have heard the shot fired in Cell #73 and seen the brains spattered on the wall of the cell. A prisoner, who had been sent to Dachau because he was a Jehovah's Witness, was in charge of cleaning the bunker and he would have been a witness to the aftermath of the shooting.
If Himmler had given an execution order, it would normally have been given to the Gestapo chief in Berlin and the order would then have been sent by telegram to Johann Kick, the Gestapo department head at Dachau, who would have given the order to Wilhelm Ruppert, the officer in charge of executions at Dachau who would have then ordered Theodor Bongartz to shoot Dr. Rascher at the execution wall. Apparently none of this happened and there is no record of an execution order.
Theodor Bongartz, who allegedly executed Dr. Rascher, died on May 15, 1945 in an American POW camp at Heilbronn-Böckingen, according to author Hellmut G. Haasis, who wrote a book entitled "Den Hitler jag' ich in die Luft: Der Attentäter Georg Elser, Eine Biografie" published in Berlin in 1999. Haasis wrote that Bongartz had the rank of SS-Oberscharführer. Bongartz was also credited with the murder of Georg Elser around the time that an Allied bomb hit Dachau on April 9, 1945. Elser had been arrested as a suspect in the alleged British plot to kill Hitler on November 8, 1938.
According to Haasis, Bongartz was captured while wearing a Wehrmacht uniform and he died of natural causes in the POW camp before it became known that he was an SS man on the staff of the Dachau concentration camp. As a result of the convenient death of Bongartz by "natural causes," the world will never know for sure who killed Dr. Sigmund Rascher, Georg Elser and General Charles Delestraint, all three of whom were allegedly shot by Theodor Bongartz and burned in the ovens at Dachau.
May 6, 1945, the day that Dachau Commandant Eduard Weiter allegedly committed suicide at Schloss Itter in Austria, was the same day that the 137 Dachau VIP prisoners that had been evacuated from Dachau, were liberated by American soldiers at Innsbruck. However, Nerin E. Gun wrote in his book "The Day of the Americans" that Weiter was killed by an SS officer at Schloss Itter.
According to Nerin E. Gun, an SS man named Fritz had thrown a grenade at the American liberators in Innsbruck. Regarding the American retaliation for the grenade attack, Gun wrote the following:
The Americans were furious and shot down all the guards posted around the village. The Resistance, during this time, had not sat on its hands. The six Gestapo functionaries, the professional killers who had joined the convoy at Innsbruck, were hanging from the trees in the village square.
In a book entitled "Das Ahnenerbe der SS 1933-1945. Ein Beitrag zur Kulturpolitik des Dritten Reiches," published in Stuttgart in 1974, the author, Michael H. Kater, quoted documents from preliminary German court proceedings concerning the death of Rascher, dated 17 September 1963, which stated that Dr. Sigmund Rascher was shot in the Dachau bunker in Cell No. 73 by SS-Hauptscharführer Theodor Bongartz.
However, Nerin E. Gun, a journalist who was a prisoner at Dachau, wrote in his book "The Day of the Americans," published in 1966, that Dr. Sigmund Rascher was with the other prisoners that had been evacuated from Dachau and taken to the South Tyrol, and that Dr. Rascher was shot in Innsbruck. Upon arrival in Innsbruck, Edgar Stiller had turned the VIP prisoners over to Captain Payne Best, according to his own account in his book "The Venlo Incident."
According to Nerin E. Gun, Captain Sigismund Payne Best was the most privileged of all the privileged prisoners. The following quote is from his book entitled "The Day of the Americans":
Captain Best, who was fifty at the time of his arrest, had all the leisure he wanted in prison and was even allowed a typewriter. He was able to write a book in which he related all the tiresome details of his captivity. But he carefully avoided explaining what he was really doing in Holland at the time, or how much, if at all, he was implicated in the unfortunate affair at the Burgerbrau.
Best himself, in his book, admits that if he had remained free he would have known greater deprivation in wartime England, not to mention the risk of being buried under a German bomb.
According to Nerin E. Gun's book, Captain Payne Best was allowed to keep his monocle and his personal possessions while in prison and he was given a radio capable of receiving London broadcasts. All the prisoners in the bunker were fed from the SS kitchens, but Captain Payne Best was given "double the normal SS ration of food," according to Gun.
In his book, Nerin E. Gun wrote that when you read the memoirs of Captain Payne Best, "you feel that he had more affection for his SS guards, whom he considered to be nice everyday people who had somehow been forced to don a uniform, and worried more about what would happen to them than he did about the poor prisoners dying all around him."
The following quote is from "The Day of the Americans":
One even gets the impression that our temporarily unemployed chief of the British Intelligence served as an advisor at times to commander Keindl (Commandant of Sachsenhausen) and in a way helped him win the governing of Sachsenhausen. Perhaps there is a professional solidarity which is hard to overcome, even when you are at war.
From Nerin E. Gun's description of Captain Payne Best's close relationship with the SS guards, it is clear that he might have had the means and the opportunity to get rid of a fellow prisoner in the last chaotic days of the Dachau camp if that prisoner knew any secrets that were best kept hidden.
This page was last updated November 12, 2008