Nazi General Anton Dostler is tied to a stake before his execution by a firing squad, Italy

German General Anton Dostler is tied to a stake before his execution by a firing squad, Italy, 1945 color

General Dostler ordered and oversaw the unlawful execution of fifteen captured US Soldiers. The soldiers were sent behind the German lines with orders to demolish a tunnel that was being used by the German army as a supply route to the front lines. They were captured and upon learning of their mission, Dostler ordered their execution without trial. The US soldiers were wearing proper military uniforms and carried no civilian or enemy clothing and were in compliance with Hague Convention to be considered non-combatants after their surrender. Under the 1907 Hague Convention on Land Warfare, it was legal to execute “spies and saboteurs” disguised in civilian clothes or enemy uniforms but excluded those who were captured in proper uniforms. Since fifteen U.S. soldiers were properly dressed in U.S. uniforms behind enemy lines and not disguised in civilian clothes or enemy uniforms, they were not to be treated as spies but prisoners of war, which Dostler violated. They shot the Americans and buried them in a ditch by their field headquarters.

The general was convicted and sentenced to death by an American Military Tribunal. The trial found General Dostler guilty of war crimes, rejecting the defense of superior orders. He was sentenced to death and shot by a firing squad on December 1, 1945 in Aversa. The execution was photographed on black and white still and movie cameras.

From Wikipedia:
Later that day, Dostler sent a telegram to the 135th Fortress Brigade ordering that the captured soldiers be executed. This order was an implementation of Hitler’s secret Commando Order of 1942 which required the immediate execution without trial of commandos and saboteurs. German officers at the 135th Fortress Brigade contacted Dostler in an attempt to achieve a stay of execution. Dostler then sent another telegram ordering Almers to carry out the execution. Two last attempts were made by the officers at the 135th to stop the execution, including some by telephone, because they knew that executing uniformed prisoners of war was a direct violation of the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War. These efforts were unsuccessful and the fifteen Americans were executed on the morning of March 26, 1944, at Punta Bianca south of La Spezia, in the municipality of Ameglia. Their bodies were buried in a mass grave that was then camouflaged. Alexander zu Dohna-Schlobitten, a member of Dostler’s staff who was unaware of the secret Commando Order and who had refused to sign the execution order, was dismissed from the Wehrmacht for insubordination.

Many people taking part in firing squads intentionally miss their target, as they do not want to be the one responsible for the individuals death. Often times, they would even aim for non-vital areas of the body for the same reasons, knowing that the person was going to die regardless, and didn’t want the kill-shot on their conscious. Another reason is that a lot of soldiers feel that it is immoral to execute a defenseless or captured prisoner, despite any crimes the person has committed. This is why there are so many people used in a firing squad. To ensure a quick death. The fewer participants, the more likely it is to cause mental trauma to the gunmen. There is something relieving about knowing that others are there to share the burden of having just taken a life. It’s related to diffusion of responsibility.

One method used to alleviate such burden is to have some of the weapons loaded with blank rounds, so that none of the participants are absolutely sure they are responsible for the kill. Although loading a weapon with a blank round does not alleviate the shooters from a sense of responsibility. The person who has the blank knows who fired the blank, due to the night-and-day difference in felt recoil. Blanks do not create recoil as there is no mass in front of the propellant charge. The purpose of loading a blank is so that none of the other soldiers in the squad know which one of them had the blank in their rifle. This creates a communal sense of knowing that at least one of the shooters had no hand in the execution, but no one knows who except for the man with the blank loaded in his rifle, thereby allowing any of them to psychologically alleviate themselves of any guilt they may have, since as far as their comrades know; they did not fire a lethal shot.

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