Trial of Werner Röhde and
The Trial of Werner Röhde and 8
others in a British Military Court at Wuppertal, Germany began
on May 29, 1946 and ended on June 1, 1946. The nine men were
charged with the murder of four British SOE agents on July 6,
1944 at the Natzweiler concentration camp in Alsace. Werner Röhde
was a medical doctor who had allegedly murdered the four SOE
agents by giving them a lethal injection. It was the custom of
the Allies to strip the title of Doctor from the accused in war
The 8 others in the dock were Fritz Hartjenstein,
the Commandant at Natzweiler, Max Wochner and Wolfgang Zeuss
from the Political Department at Natzweiler, Peter Straub who
was the man in charge of executions, Franz Berg who was a prisoner
in the camp, Emil Brüttel, Emil Meier and Kurt aus dem Bruch.
Dr. Heinrich Plaza, who had also allegedly participated in the
lethal injection of the women, was not on trial because he had
not been captured.
In all of the Allied Military Tribunals,
the concept of a "common plan" or co-responsibility
for war crimes was used. This meant that anyone, who was present
when a war crime was committed, was equally guilty because the
accused should have acted to prevent the crime from taking place.
The evidence for the prosecution had
been gathered by Major Bill Barkworth of the SAS War Crimes Investigation
team and Vera Atkins, a Squadron Officer of the British SOE,
who had interrogated the Natzweiler staff and some of the Natzweiler
prisoners, who were also captured SOE agents. The four SOE agents,
who were allegedly murdered at Natzweiler, had been captured
by the German Gestapo and had not returned after the war ended.
The key prosecution witnesses, Albert Guérisse, Brian
Stonehouse and Dr. Georges Boogaerts, who were all members of
the SOE, had a motive for wanting these 4 women SOE agents to
go down in history as heroines, not as missing persons.
The first witness for the prosecution
was Vera Atkins, who testified on May 29, 1944 that Andrée
Borrel, Vera Leigh, Diana Rowden and Noor Inayat Khan had been
murdered at Natzweiler. It was not known until much later that
Noor Inayat Khan was allegedly executed at Dachau and that Sonia
Olschanezky was the fourth victim at Natzweiler. However, before
her testimony, Vera Atkins had made sure that the Court would
not allow the names of the victims to be published. Atkins herself
was referred to in the press as a "WAAF officer" and
her name was withheld.
According to Sarah Helm, who wrote a
biography of Vera Atkins, entitled "A Life in Secrets,"
Atkins did not want the SOE to be "exposed to any close
scrutiny as a result of the case." The SOE was a secret
organization, also known as Churchill's Secret Army, and it was
engaged in espionage and sabotage behind enemy lines. The four
women agents had been in the F section which operated as illegal
insurgents in France after that country had signed an Armistice
with Germany in 1940.
The attorney for the defense, Dr. Grobel,
argued in court that "international law allowed for the
execution of irregular combatants" and that the court should
"consider this case from the point of view that it was a
normal and simple execution of spies." Vera Atkins was quoted
by the press as saying that "the women were not spies."
One thing the Allied Military Tribunals
would not tolerate was any mention by the defense that the Allies
had committed similar acts. During World War II, the British
executed 15 German spies. The last person to be executed at the
famous Tower of London was Josef Jacobs who was captured after
he broke his leg during a parachute jump. He was shot on August
15, 1941. In America, 8 captured German saboteurs were sentenced
to death and 6 of them were executed in the electric chair. The
other two sentences were reduced because the men had turned against
their countrymen and cooperated with the Americans. Although
the 8 Germans were caught before they had the opportunity to
commit any acts of sabotage, 6 of them were executed because
they had violated the Laws of War by going behind enemy lines
to commit hostile acts without being in uniform.
According to Rita Kramer, who wrote a
book entitled "Flames in the Field," the proceedings
of the British Military Court were widely publicized by the press,
but the names of the women who had been allegedly executed at
Natzweiler were not published until two years later, and even
then it was not revealed that they had been the subject of a
British Military Court where nine men had been prosecuted for
their alleged execution.
In 1958, a series of articles in a British
newspaper, which was a condensed version of a book entitled "Death
be not Proud" by Elizabeth Nichols, accused the authorities
of keeping the names of the dead women secret as a "War
Office cover-up of official blunders," according to Rita
Kramer. The alleged "cover-up" was for the purpose
of keeping secret the accusation that the British SOE had deliberately
sent radio operators to France to be caught so that the British
could transmit false information to their radios after the agents
were captured by the Germans.
The senior counter intelligence officer
with RSHA, the Reich Security Head Office in Berlin, was Horst
Kopkow; he was responsible for all orders pertaining to the SOE
agents captured in France. If any order was given for the execution
of four SOE agents at Natzweiler, he would have been the man
who signed it. He had not yet been captured when the trial of
Dr. Röhde and 8 others began.
By the end of 1946, Kopkow was in British
custody, but he denied any responsibility for the murder of any
female F section SOE agents, saying that it was Reichsführer-SS
Heinrich Himmler who had personally decided their fate, according
to Sarah Helm's book "A Life in Secrets." Himmler was
the head of the SS and all the concentration camps. All punishments
in all the camps had to be approved by the head office in Oranienburg
and all punishments of female prisoners had to be personally
approved by Himmler, including executions.
Sarah Helm wrote that Kopkow was taken
to England for interrogation in 1948, but when he arrived, he
was found to be running a temperature, and two days later he
died from bronchial pneumonia before any information could be
obtained from him. A death certificate was issued for him and
information was released that he had been buried in the POW section
of a Military Cemetery.
By 1948, the Allies had realized that
the real enemy was the Communist Soviet Union. Kopkow had not
died; he had been "released from custody to work for British
and American intelligence," according to the book "A
Life in Secrets," by Sarah Helm. Kopkow's death had been
faked so that he could help the Allies in fighting the Cold War
against the Soviets.
If Kopkow had authorized the execution
of the 8 women SOE agents, he would have given the order to Herman
Rösner of the Karlsruhe Gestapo to carry out. Rösner
would then have instructed Max Wassmer and Christian Ott to take
the women to Natzweiler and Dachau. Under the "common plan"
concept used by the Allies in all their war crimes trials, Rösner
would have been guilty of murder, but he was never prosecuted.
In the 1960ies, he was hired by the British to provide intelligence
for NATO, according to Sarah Helm's book.
The men who were brought before the Allied
military tribunals were called the accused, not the defendants,
because they were considered guilty until they were proven innocent.
They were guilty from the moment that they had allegedly committed
a war crime. As war criminals, rather than POWs, they were not
entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention. It could
be argued that the execution of the British spies was not legal
under international law because they had not been given a trial,
as required by the Hague Convention of 1907. However, using the
standards of the Allied war crimes trials, spies were not entitled
to a trial because they lost their protection the moment they
parachuted behind enemy lines with the intent to commit war crimes.
The procedure was to interrogate the
accused before the proceedings began and to obtain depositions
which the accused would then repeat before the Court. However,
in the British and American proceedings, the accused were allowed
to have an attorney to represent them. Their attorneys were allowed
to use any means to defend them, including the accusation that
their clients had been unduly persuaded to give incriminating
information in their depositions which they now wanted to recant
on the witness stand.
Testimony or confessions about prior
bad acts could be admitted, even though it had nothing to do
with the crime that was being prosecuted. For example, one of
the accused, Peter Straub, who had worked for a number of years
in Auschwitz before being transferred to Natzweiler, had supposedly
told Walter Schultz, a prisoner at Natzweiler, that he had "put
four million people up the chimney." What kind of a person
voluntarily confesses to such barbarity, knowing that he would
surely be executed, and uses the terminology of Auschwitz survivors
to describe his crime?
According to Rita Kramer, all of the
accused would "later deny their complicity," after
giving depositions beforehand in which they stated that they
had been involved in the execution of the four SOE agents at
Natzweiler. The fact that all of the accused wanted to change
their previous testimony, given in their depositions, indicates
that they had somehow been induced to incriminate themselves
before the proceedings began.
Peter Straub, the executioner at Natzweiler,
denied everything, claiming that he was not present when the
executions took place. Straub was the hangman; executions at
Natzweiler were normally carried out by hanging and all the prisoners
were required to watch.
The photo below shows the hangman's noose
at the Memorial site of the former Natzweiler camp.
Prisoners were normally
executed by hanging
The following quote is from "Flames
in the Field," by Rita Kramer:
During the period of their detention
together at Recklinghausen awaiting trial, several of the defendants
had second thoughts about the statements that they had made to
Barkworth and sworn to earlier. At the trial they expressed the
wish to revise some of the evidence they had given in their affidavits
implicating each other. Some lost their memories, others refreshed
theirs. This led to some retractions having to do with just exactly
who was present in the crematorium that night. But it didn't
matter. There was ample evidence to convince the court of the
guilt of those in the dock.
Ms. Kramer used the expression "ample
evidence," when what she obviously meant was "ample
testimony." There were four women SOE agents missing and
presumed dead. There was no hard evidence whatsoever that these
four women had been executed at Natzweiler: no death records,
no execution order, no autopsy report, no bodies, not even the
correct name of one of the alleged victims. Vera Atkins had to
prevail upon Dr. Röhde to sign death certificates for the
four women because there were no official records of their deaths.
Emil Brüttel was a medical orderly
in the dispensary at Natzweiler. Under interrogation by British
investigators before the trail, Brüttel said that, on the
evening that the women were executed, he had received a phone
call from Dr. Heinrich Plaza, who was having dinner in the officer's
mess outside the camp. Dr. Plaza inquired about how many capsules
of Evipan were available, then called again and asked how much
phenol was on hand. When Dr. Plaza called a third time, he instructed
Brüttel and Eugen Foster to be ready for duty and to bring
the phenol and a 10cc syringe and one or two larger-gauge needles.
Dr. Plaza escaped justice because he was never captured after
One of the accused at the proceedings
of the British Military Court was Franz Berg, who was a Kapo
or one of the prisoners who assisted the guards in the camp;
it was his job to stoke the crematorium furnace.
During the proceedings, Berg told the
incredible story that he had been ordered by Peter Straub, who
was in charge of executions, to heat up the oven in the crematorium
and then to disappear. At 9:30 p.m. Berg was still stoking the
oven when Dr. Werner Röhde and the camp Commandant, SS-Obersturmbanführer
Friedrich "Fritz" Hartjenstein, came into the crematorium.
Both Dr. Röhde and Hartjenstein had previously worked at
the Auschwitz II camp, also known as Birkenau, before being transferred
to Natzweiler. Dr. Röhde had just arrived at Natzweiler;
he was replacing Dr. Heinrich Plaza, who was already wearing
civilian clothes in preparation for his departure.
Accompanying them were Obersturmführer
Johannes Otto, the adjutant to the Commandant, and Wolfgang Zeuss,
who worked in the Political Department. A medical orderly named
Emil Brüttel and Robert Nietsch were also in the group.
Berg was ordered by Dr. Röhde to
go to his quarters in a dormitory room in the crematorium. He
pretended to be asleep when Commandant Hartjenstein and his adjutant,
Johannes Otto, came to check on him a few minutes later. They
locked the door from the outside to keep Berg from witnessing
the secret execution of the four women. However, Georg Fuhrmann,
a prisoner in the top bunk of the dorm room, was able to see
through the transom over the door into the corridor. The dormitory
room in the crematorium is shown in the photo below.
Dormitory room in Natzweiler
Berg testified that Fuhrmann whispered
to him, giving him a running commentary on what was happening
in the corridor. There was the noise of bodies being dragged
across the floor and the sounds of heavy breathing and low groaning
combined. The fourth woman resisted and Dr. Röhde told her
that she was being given an injection for typhus, according to
Part of Berg's deposition was quoted
by Rita Kramer in "Flames in the Field":
From the noise of the crematorium
oven doors which I heard, I can state definitely that in each
case the groaning women were placed immediately in the crematorium
oven. When [the officials] had gone, we went to the crematorium
oven, opened the door and saw that there were four blackened
bodies within. Next morning in the course of my duties I had
to clear the ashes out of the crematorium oven. I found a pink
woman's stocking garter on the floor near the oven.
Oven where bodies were
burned at Natzweiler-Struthof
As the photo of the oven at Natzweiler
shows, the bodies were put inside by means of a stretcher. Berg
testified that afterwards, he had seen four blackened bodies
inside, apparently not completely burned. The bodies had been
undressed before they were cremated, and Berg had found a tell-tale
piece of feminine clothing right beside the oven.
Berg referred to the women as "Jewish"
in his testimony, according to Rita Kramer, but only one of the
four women, Sonia Olschanezky, was Jewish. There were 29 Jewish
women who had been brought to Natzweiler from Auschwitz in the
Summer of 1943 to be gassed, but their bodies had not been cremated.
There were medical experiments being
done at Natzweiler, including experiments done on Gypsy women.
One of the experiments was an attempt to find a vaccine for typhus,
which the Germans had not yet successfully developed. The four
women SOE agents were allegedly told that they were being given
an injection for typhus, but were instead given phenol injections.
The following quote is from "Flames
in the Field," by Rita Kramer:
The most dramatic testimony came from
Walter Schultz, who had been an interpreter in the camp's Political
Department. It was here the orders came regarding prisoners transferred
to the camp by the Gestapo for 'special treatment,' a euphemism
the meaning of which was clearly understood by all. It was not
necessary for files to be made for new arrivals accompanied,
like the four women, by requests for special treatment.
Hearsay testimony, which would not be
allowed in a normal trial, was acceptable at the Allied Military
Tribunals. Schultz claimed that Peter Straub was very drunk on
the day of the secret execution of the four women and that Straub
had told him all about the women being killed by phenol injection.
One of the women had regained consciousness after the injection
and had scratched his face, as she fought being put into the
oven alive. According to Rita Kramer, the author of "Flames
in the Field," when Straub was interrogated by Vera Atkins,
he still had scars on his face from the scratches inflicted by
Dr. Heinrich Plaza was leaving the Natzweiler
camp on the day of the alleged execution of the women, and there
was a party for him that night. This could explain why Peter
Straub was drunk, as Schultz testified at the trial. Could the
four "well-dressed" women who arrived in the camp at
3 p.m. that day have been the wives of the SS men, or perhaps
prostitutes, who were brought to the camp for the party? According
to several witnesses who saw the women when they arrived, each
of them was carrying a box or a small suitcase. Who brings a
suitcase to an execution?
It was not until 1956 that the public
learned the fate of the men who were brought before the British
Military Court at Wuppertal on May 29, 1946. The British had
kept the sentences and the execution of the accused secret.
The commandant at Natzweiler, SS-Obersturmbanführer
Friedrich "Fritz" Hartjenstein, was convicted, and
on June 1, 1946 he was sentenced to life in prison. He was tried
again for complicity in the hanging of an RAF pilot at Natzweiler;
he was convicted again, and was sentenced on June 5, 1946 to
death by firing squad. Then he was extradited to France for another
trial by a French Military Tribunal for the mass murder of prisoners
at Natzweiler. He was convicted and sentenced to death once again,
but his sentence was commuted to life in prison. He died of a
heart attack in a French prison at Metz on October 20, 1954.
Dr. Werner Röhde was sentenced to
death by hanging and was executed on October 11, 1946. The date
of his sentence was June 5, 1946 although the proceedings in
the case of the four SOE women ended on June 1, 1946. This indicates
that he might have been charged with more crimes in a subsequent
trial, along with Commandant Fritz Hartjenstein, who was sentenced
on June 1, 1946 and then sentenced a second time on June 5, 1946.
Peter Straub, the SS officer in charge
of executions, was convicted and was subsequently sentenced to
13 years in prison on June 1, 1946. This was a remarkably short
sentence, considering that Straub had told a prisoner named Walter
Schultz that he was responsible for killing 4 million people
at Auschwitz and that he had shoved a woman into a crematory
oven alive and had the scars to prove it.
Straub was tried again by another British
Military Court at Wuppertal for complicity in the hanging of
an RAF pilot who was a prisoner at Natzweiler in the Summer of
1944. He was convicted of this crime and on June 5, 1946 he was
sentenced to death. He was hanged on October 11, 1946.
Magnus Wochner was sentenced to 10 years
in prison for carrying out the alleged order from RSHA to execute
the four SOE women. He was then turned over to the French for
prosecution but was released.
Emil Brüttel was sentenced to prison
but was released by the French after he was turned over to them.
Wolfgang Zeuss and two others were acquitted.
Johannes Otto was never prosecuted because
he committed suicide after the war ended.
According to Sarah Helm's book "A
Life in Secrets," Franz Berg was sentenced to 5 years in
prison. Other sources say that Berg was sentenced to death and
hanged on October 11, 1946. He may have been tried again on other
charges for which he received the death penalty.
Max Wassmer and Christian Ott, the two
Gestapo men from Karlsruhe, who allegedly accompanied the four
women SOE agents to Natzweiler and also accompanied four other
women SOE agents to Dachau, were never charged with a crime for
their part in the alleged murders of the eight women. They were
rewarded for giving information to their interrogators by being
released from custody. Both were in their late fifties and were
highly experienced in Gestapo work; they knew how to tell investigators
what they wanted to hear.
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