Penal System

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Deterrence – Retribution – Education

The National Socialist leadership began to plan for a new war immediately after coming to  power in 1933. The military judiciary they reintroduced was to play an important role: as a means to winning the war. The Wehrmacht judicature had the complex task of deterring soldiers from committing crimes by meting out harsh rulings, while at the same time not weakening the troops too much. To achieve both, the execution of sentences and the penitentiary were of crucial importance.

Desertion, »undermining the military forces« or »military treason« constituted only a fraction of the criminal cases tried by Wehrmacht courts during the war – even if most of the death sentences were meted out in those cases. Of the approximately three million verdicts, most were for »absence without leave«, insubordination, theft and minor offenses. The sentences for these ranged from three months to one year in prison; depending on the judge, the »offender personality« of the defendant, the battleground or situation on the front the verdicts could be harsher or milder, or they could even be the subject of disciplinary proceedings instead of a court trial.

The longer the war lasted, the more deadly even short prison sentences could be for those convicted. Soldiers were already told during basic training that the smallest deviation from the norm could entail the harshest forms of penitentiary; deterrence was a top priority. Court martial files reflect this, as they contain a specific category of motive for desertion: fear of punishment.

Soldiers convicted before a court martial entered a complex penal system characterized by »hard atonement«, »probation« and »education«, as it was expressed in contemporary terms. The conditions in various penal camps, prisons or penal deployment in war were relentlessly severe: undernourishment, insufficient clothing and medical supplies, unbridled use of force and particularly dangerous missions on the front. These measures were an expression of the Nazi idea of man, in which disobedient soldiers were quickly classified as »inferior«. At the same time the idea of »education« endured, giving convicted soldiers the prospect of returning to the »national (völkisch) defense community« in case of »probation«. Due to the horrific treatment they were subjected to, however, the chances of this were slim. It is not known how many soldiers lost their lives in this penal system; it is likely that there were tens of thousands of victims.

Wehrmacht Prisons and other Penitentiaries

The military leadership tried to separate »ineducable« soldiers from those deemed »corrigible« in the various military penitentiaries, in order to reintegrate the latter into the armed forces. Especially after the beginning of the war against the Soviet Union, which was causing heavy losses, sentences were increasingly served at the front, not in prisons back home. Soldiers were to be granted a chance to »prove themselves« before the enemy under exacerbated conditions. The Wehrmacht prison at Fort Zinna in Saxon Torgau was a hub of the front probation system. During the war, between 60,000 and 70,000 prisoners were interned here. They were tested for their »aptitude for the probation troops« and assigned to probation and penal units following a brutal selection process. Alternatively, they were transferred to concentration camps as »incorrigible Wehrmacht pests«. Vienna was one of the most important military bases within the German Reich. There were several so-called Wehrmacht remand prisons located here, in which soldiers served their sentences, waited for trial, for their verdicts or for transfer to another prison. The penal system in »Ostmark« has not yet been researched.

The Emsland Camps

Between 1933 and 1938, the Nazi regime established 15 camps in Emsland, in the northwestern periphery of the German Reich, in which inmates and prisoners of war from all over Europe were held captive. Since the beginning of the war, the Reich Ministry of Justice increasingly interned former German soldiers in the six northern camps. They had been declared »unworthy of military service« and removed from the Wehrmacht. They were »detained«, meaning that the time spent there would not be taken into account as part of their prison sentence, which was to officially begin only after the war was over. In total, between 25,000 and 30,000 people convicted before military courts were held in the camps as Esterwegen, Brual-Rhede, Börgermoor, Aschendorfermorr, Walchum, and Neusustrum. At least 780 of them died there during the war of hunger, diseases and abuse, were »shot fleeing« or executed. Wehrmacht military justice transferred between 5,000 and 6,000 prisoners to the Torgau Wehrmacht prison at Fort Zinna, where their further path within the penal system was decided.

Execution Sites

Wehrmacht military justice carried out most death sentences against deserters and those »undermining the military forces«, mostly by firing squad. During the course of the war, German military courts also transferred soldiers who had been sentenced to death to execution sites administered by the Reich Judicial Administration, which were usually prisons. Most convicts were beheaded; some were also hanged. Such executions were considered particularly »dishonorable«. The executioners of the Reich Ministry of Justice killed between 1,500 and 2,000 members of the Wehrmacht, who had been convicted by military courts during the war. It is not possible to determine the number of victims of summary courts held in the final stage of war; this applies to both soldiers and civilians who were shot or hanged without trial in the last months of war.

Probation Units 500

From April 1941 on, soldiers convicted by Wehrmacht courts fought in so-called probation unit 500 on »particularly dangerous sections of the front«, where they were to prove themselves by displaying »exceptional bravery«. If they succeeded, they could hope for a reduced sentence or even a pardon; otherwise their original sentences would be enforced. Around 27,000 »probation men« served in the »500« units during the war, guarded and commanded by officers, sergeants and squads selected for this purpose from the regular troops. A qualified leadership on the one hand, probation pressure and, in part, the »will to prove oneself« on the other made these units strong in battle. Yet losses were also particularly high. After an average of six months, a battalion of around 1,000 men had been »worn down«, meaning the men had been killed in action, gone missing or been wounded. The existence of these units was to deter obedient soldiers from any form of insubordination.

Probation Unit 999

Probation Unit 999 was usually formed of men who had not previously been in the military because they were considered »unworthy of military service« – especially civilians, prisoners, and concentration camp inmates. At the beginning of the fourth year of the war, however, the Wehrmacht needed every available man to fight. The Wehrmacht leadership gave members of probation unit 999 the prospect of »redeeming their honor by courageously serving as soldiers, to become fully adequate soldiers and citizens once again.« Those who did not prove themselves faced returning to prison or being transferred to a concentration camp, and the time spent on the front line would not be taken into account as part of their sentence. Close to a third of the 28,000 probation soldiers in the 999 unit were »political« prisoners, mostly communists and social democrats; the others were classified as »criminals«. These units were primarily deployed in Africa and in the Balkans. Several hundred of the »political« probation soldiers in particular defected and joined the resistance against the German occupation.

Field Penal Units

The harshest conditions of detention were to be found in field penal units and field penal camps. Wehrmacht courts frequently transferred anyone who had received a prison sentence of more than three months after the spring of 1942 to mobile field penal units instead of stationary prisons. The prisoners usually carried out their tasks unarmed, they were undernourished and subject to harsh drills, mostly on the Eastern front. Their daily lives consisted of »grueling work under dangerous conditions«, such as bunker and fortress construction, clearing mines and recovering bodies. In total, over 50,000 soldiers were forced to serve in these units. Courts transferred soldiers whom they had deemed »incorrigible Wehrmacht pests«, »carriers of an attitude hostile to military service« or those who had not »improved« in field penal units to field penal camps. The conditions in field penal camps were supposed to be even harsher. Some 4,000 to 5,000 soldiers went through these camps between May 1942 and the end of the war. Due to a lack of documentation, little is known of their fates.