Friday 16 October 2015

Closure 1946

<distress warning>don't read this one if you're squeamish about hanging</distress warning>
On this day 16th October in 1946 it was the end of the road for Ribbentrop, Keitel, Kaltenbrunner, Rosenberg, Franck, Frick, Streicher, Seyss-Inquart, Sauckel and Jodl.  They were people at the top of the NSDAP tree who were deemed to deserve death by the  International Military Tribunal (IMT) generally known as the Nuremberg Trials. N=10, because Hermann Göring finished himself off in his cell the night before and Martin Bormann was either a) already dead trying to escape from Berlin or b) safely on his way to Paraguay under an assumed name. We've met the human side of Göring, and particularly that of his brother Albert, before. The trials were set up so that it wouldn't seem that summary justice had been performed: evidence was marshalled, witnesses were called, there were lawyers for both prosecution and defense and the public theatre went on for nearly eleven months, having started on 20th November the previous year. It was by no means the only trial and certainly not the only executions that were meted out on the losing side of WWII.  The niceties of protocol were observed: the military officers among the condemned were denied the option of a firing-squad because they were deemed to have dishonoured their uniform by the actions.  Accordingly between 0100hrs and 0300hrs in the morning all ten men were hanged by the neck until dead.
The man in charge of the actual operations was Sergeant John C Woods [L posing for the press with the tool of his trade], who had risen from the ranks when the US Army asked for a volunteer to train as a military hangman. 16 Oct 1946 was by no means his first job. He had helped to off a substantial proportion of the 140+ US soldiers who had been condemned to death between 1942 and 1945 under authority of the 1920 Articles of War. The number who died on his watch has been variously reported as 34, 60-70 and 340. Hanging was the mechanism of choice to achieve a humane killing and Woods followed the standard operating procedure SOP established by Irishman <huzzah> Samuel Haughton who applied science to the problem and calculated a formula for doing the job right.  It's a balance between allowing a lingering death by strangulation, which is very distressing for the spectators and a longer drop where the head is completely separated from the body, which really frightens the horses. Although the trial was public, the Allied authorities drew the line at a public hanging á la Révolution française.  It was a rather delicate line because they were trying to hold the high moral ground and distance their questionable wartime actions [indiscriminate bombing of civilians or unleashing the very first weapon of mass destruction etc.] from those of the opposition. At another trial at about the same time, for example, the Soviets tried to foist the NKVD murders in the Katyn Forest onto NSDAP shoulders.

Despite his extensive training hanging US squaddies, Woods is widely believed to have miscalculated the length of drop for several of his Nuremberg victims who took between 10 and 25 minutes to be pronounced dead. The military had constructed 2 gallows which were designed to get through the grisly business as efficiently as possible. It is claimed that Woods or his assistants were obliged to swing on the legs of the dying Keitel and Ribbentrop to finish them off and keep things to schedule. One of the consequences of destroying the brain-stem is that the sphincters down below open up so the legs are no longer clean. As Sherwin Nuland asserts, death is usually both grim and messy but there is something peculiarly repellent about judicial executions when they try to be humane. Closure? au contraire.

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