Atoning for the Murder of Millions? The Execution of High-Ranking Nazis after the Second World War

Nicolas Patin. Journal of Genocide Research. Volume 20, Issue 2. June 2018.

At the end of the Second World War, the Nazi atrocities raised some very tangible problems. How should those responsible for crimes on this scale be judged? What means should be employed to execute those criminals who were sentenced to death? What should be done subsequently with their bodies? Those high-ranking Nazis who stood trial were for the most part executed in public, despite this form of public spectacle having largely disappeared in Europe. Taking Foucault’s notion of the “political technology of bodies” as its main starting-point, this article analyses the mechanisms put in place after 1945 that were intended to create the feeling that a new order had been founded and the crimes of these perpetrators atoned for.


On 11 October 2013 former SS Captain Erich Priebke died in Rome at the age of 100. His death was followed by a wide-ranging debate in the Italian and European press on the topic of his burial. It seems that nobody was prepared to receive the body of a man who was responsible, in 1944, for the deaths of 335 civilians, including 75 Jews. Some suggested that he be buried anonymously. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre put forward the idea that he be cremated in Germany. Although no explicit allusion was made in the different press articles published on this issue, the terms of the debate were the same as those surrounding the interment of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, one of the two men responsible for the attacks in Boston a few months earlier in the United States. The body of the young jihadi was similarly turned away by all institutions before being buried in a still-secret location by an anonymous individual. In 2011, the question was posed in even more difficult terms for the more complicated case of two other bodies: that of Osama Bin Laden, thrown into the sea in May, and that of Muammar Gaddafi. After his mutilated corpse had been put on public display in the cold room of a meat store, it was buried in a secret place in October.

The recurrence of this debate on what should become of the war criminal’s corpse might almost lead us to forget that this is a very old topic. It was posed with very particular sharpness at the end of the Second World War when all over Europe hundreds of Nazi war criminals who had built “Hitler’s Europe”—a Europe of colonial domination and endless massacres—were put on trial. Many of them were condemned to death, but neither the methods of their executions nor the fate of their corpses have really been discussed up to now. It is true that from 1943 onwards the Allies were in agreement about the certain death awaiting those holding high office in the Third Reich but the technical nature (and therefore the symbolic arrangements for these executions and their consequences) was not considered. This, in turn, gave rise to intense debates, which this article will attempt to recount.

This question will involve fields which traditionally rarely meet: the history of the arrangements set up by criminal justice as well as the historic role and function of the death sentence and the anthropology of the body and of death; the history of Nazi war criminals, known in German as Täterforschung; and, finally, the literature on the major postwar trials. The issue of the execution of war criminals and its meaning in terms of “the political technology of the body” and the associated subject of the fate of the corpses belong to the domain of the unconsidered. All biographies of Nazis, whatever their rank, finish with a few lines on their deaths, with no questioning either about the significance of the execution or on the “fate of the corpse,” if we may express it thus. The archives on these issues are also mostly silent.

In his classic work The King’s Two Bodies, Ernst Kantorowicz pondered on the manner in which the dual body of the sovereign, for the “the King has in him two Bodies, viz., a Body natural, and a Body politic,” faces his own disunion, at the moment of his own end. This is the case for Shakespeare’s Richard III, who is divested of his political body and returned to just his natural body. Kantorowicz does not raise the question of tyrannicide, or even less that of the execution of kings. While placing himself in line with Kantorowicz, Michel Foucault was well aware that his reflection on the policies of penal execution formed a strange diptych with the work of the German historian. In the introduction to his seminal work he underlined the fact that “in the darkest region of the political field the condemned man represents the symmetrical, inverted figure of the king,” while he analyses at some length public execution as a mechanism “of a power which … does not hide the fact that it acts directly upon the body.” Like Kantorowicz, he does not discuss the extreme case where, on the scaffold, a crowned head replaces a criminal. It is far from being the case that the question of the death of the king disappeared with the end of monarchies. Max Weber’s thinking on charisma demonstrated clearly that in new regimes—a fortiori in dictatorships based on the cult of the leader and charismatic domination—the death of the sovereign and the destiny of his body were central questions, linked to his living incarnation. Otherwise how can the degradation and exhibition of Mussolini’s corpse be understood at the point of his execution by the mob? All throughout his fascist dictatorship, his bodily, media-focussed omnipresence would mean that his “demiurgic qualities” would be subject to destruction “in the public space” since he was still the duce at the time of his death.

This same question is raised for leading Nazi figures—in the party or in the SS—but also, and maybe especially, for all the colonial administrators who ruled Poland, Yugoslavia, France, and Italy and who, beyond the repression and the mass killings of local populations, also organized an extermination unparalleled in human history, the death of two-thirds of Europe’s Jews. Therefore, it is a well-known theme that in order to try the Nazi criminals in Nuremberg and at other trials between 1945 and 1952, the lawyers were thus faced with something new in international law. But a theme which is much less well known is that they also had to deal with constructing a means to execute these criminals and therefore handle the question of what to do with their remains. This question is central because it not only informs us about the ending of the war in 1945 and about the leading expectations and emotions among those populations freed from the Nazi yoke but it also provides information about the status of these bodies when they were alive. What significance can be given to the execution of those who had been the self-proclaimed overlords of all of Europe, who had caused millions of deaths and who had been the leaders responsible for the destruction of the Jews in Europe?

Both the similarities between the execution methods throughout Europe and the common characteristics of the debates triggered by the question of what to do with the bodily remains lead us to rethink this question on a continent-wide scale. One of the first points concerns the nature of the living political bodies of the men who dominated Europe, and notably those administrators responsible for genocide, the police chiefs and the SS in the occupied territories. What type of political and symbolic domination did they exercise over the areas they controlled? What political body did they incarnate? Their executions were an important opportunity for publicity which could lead us to enquire into their meaning during the process of re-establishing order in Europe, moving beyond the five years of total war. Finally, the issue of their remains also raises a thorny issue linked to remembrance, which is still not resolved today.

Administrators of Genocide

Mussolini died as he lived—if we can express it thus—or, to be more specific, he died in an annulment of the manner in which he lived. He, whose charisma relied to a great extent on his bodily, athletic stature, was stripped naked and hung up by his heels on a hook in grotesque chaos. What happened to the Nazis responsible for genocide and occupation in Europe? Understanding the logic of their executions implies understanding the type of domination that they exerted over people and the type of symbolic expectation unleashed by their defeat, their downfall, their capture, their trials, and their executions. Here we need to distinguish between two kinds of actor: those in Berlin who directed politics on a central scale; and the others who, in the occupied countries, implemented the policies on a regional and local scale. The first category are relatively well-known. Those who did not commit suicide (unlike Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler) were mostly tried at Nuremberg. The other group are for the most part not as well-known. In the conquered countries, using a variety of methods, civil governors were appointed and accompanied by heads of police. These heads of the SS and of the police were the main perpetrators of genocide and perpetrated almost limitless oppression of the populations (although civil administrators were no strangers to these policies either). At the point when the invasion and therefore the occupation of Poland began to become more clearly defined, Himmler decided that posts that he had created a year earlier could serve as a testing ground to set up the security policies in occupied territories. These were the SSPF and the HSSPF. Whatever the administrative designation chosen for the occupied territory, whether it was annexed by the Reich, designated as a protectorate or a military occupation, these hundred or so men played a paramount role in the repression of partisan groups and in the extermination of Jewish populations across Europe. Outside the Reich in particular, they were Himmler’s instruments for consolidating his own power within the Nazi state apparatus.

These men were like colonial governors and police chiefs. In no way were they supposed to have any kind of specific charisma since their only relation to the local people consisted in brutal organization, either to repress, deport or assassinate them. Were they known even to the local populations? In the case of Poland, for example, their real presence on the streets of Warsaw, Krakow, Radom, and Lublin manifested itself in the shape of numerous “notices to the population” [Bekanntmachungen] which announced the execution of hundreds of Polish or Jewish detainees. The increasing awareness of the planned extermination of Jewish populations tends to designate these men as chiefly responsible for this carnage. A certain number of attacks were organized against them and these allow us to understand the symbolic importance of these officials through their power. In Krakow on 29 January 1944, for example, Polish resistance fighters attempted to kill Hans Frank, the governor general of occupied Poland. Unlike the attempt on the life of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague two years earlier, this attack was not directly organized as an international military action commanded from London, but was the work of local resistance networks. A year earlier, these same Polish networks had failed in an attempt to assassinate Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger, the supreme commander of the SS and the police, in reprisal for the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto. Jürgen Stroop, SSPF in Warsaw and responsible for the actual annihilation of the ghetto in April 1943, was himself twice the target of attacks. On the first occasion, when he was SSPF of Galicia, his car was machine-gunned by the Jewish resistance. The second time, the same modus operandi was followed when he was on his way to Hitler’s headquarters after having wiped out the ghetto and this attack killed a Wehrmacht general.

These attacks demonstrate the strength of the resistance and the fact that the Nazis never fully mastered the territories in the East, while they also show that the local populations, just like the Jewish and Polish resistance, were aware of the important role of these men that they tried to assassinate. An article in a Swiss newspaper wrongly announced the death of Krüger on 20 May 1943, whereas he actually survived his injuries. These men did not necessarily possess the charisma of Hitler or Himmler nor did they enjoy the same media exposure, and furthermore the assassination of less important Germans was a daily occurrence, but the SS leaders were identified by local populations as the ones who were responsible for the policies of repression and extermination. Karl Hermann Frank, who succeeded Reinhard Heydrich as the head of the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, was thus known to the local populations as the “butcher of Lidice.”

In 1945, when the whole of the Nazi regime collapsed within a few months, many SSPF and HSSPF were taken prisoners, sometimes in the same locations where they had carried out their murderous tasks. Some had already been assassinated in attacks organized by the resistance (Franz Kutschera, 1 February 1944 in Warsaw) or else they were killed in bombing raids or else on the front (Kurt Hintze, Theodor Eicke, Paul Moder …). Thirty-nine of them died between 1945 and 1952. The wave of suicides that occurred with the collapse of the regime (twelve, including Heinz Roch, Odilo Globočnik, Hans-Adolf Prützmann, Wilhelm Rediess, and Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger) was followed by a series of trials and then executions of these SS officers (seventeen men) throughout the territory of the former Nazi empire.

Himmler, Hitler, and Goebbels committed suicide, Heydrich was assassinated; the SSPF and the HSSPF were therefore the highest-ranking officials left alive among those responsible for the torment of occupied populations and for the murder of the Jewish people. The means of their execution and the fate of their corpses posed a problem that was all the more difficult because for five years they had been responsible for an avalanche of corpses all across Europe. Accounts of the “Final Solution” often convey the image of an industrial process. In reality, during the entire war, Europe had been transformed into a gigantic mass grave that the popular phrase “bloodlands” describes so well. The Nazis’ hesitation about what to do with the bodies of their victims contributed to making the extermination of entire populations even more macabre: Operation 1005 bears witness to this complicated fate. For example, a year and a half after having killed them, Paul Blobel was obliged to dig up the bodies of those who were assassinated during Einsatzgruppen operations in order to burn them and hide all trace of them. The legal authorities of European countries thus found themselves holding those responsible for an unprecedented genocide. They were thus faced with a challenge in terms of justice, of execution, and of the management of bodily remains.

Public Execution

The seventeen men who were tried and executed between 1945 and 1952 were most often extradited, from wherever they were captured, to the countries that they had subjugated during the war: Friedrich Jeckeln, HSSPF of North Russia from 1941, was tried and executed in Riga; Erwin Rösener, HSSPF of the Alps, in Ljubljana; Wilhelm Fuchs and August Meyszner, SS leaders in Serbia, in Belgrade; Jürgen Stroop and Jakob Sporrenberg in Warsaw. American authorities, among others, negotiated these extraditions. In the case of Jürgen Stroop (who, apart from the destruction of the Warsaw ghetto, was responsible for the deaths of over 1,000 American and British prisoners of war), the American military authorities wanted to be sure that, if the death sentence was handed down by an American court, Stroop would be handed over to them for the sentence to be carried out. This was so, except for those cases where Polish courts declared themselves in favour of the death sentence.

Most of these seventeen men were hanged. This was the method used for Friedrich Jeckeln on 3 February 1946, for Arthur Greiser on 14 July 1946, at Potsdam in Poland, and also for Erwin Rösener on 31 August 1946. However, this method of execution was not just reserved for leading Nazis. Whatever the occupation zone, western or Soviet, and whatever the respective importance within the Nazi regime of those accused, gallows were built all over Europe. By 13 October 1945, nearly 300 Nazis had already been condemned to death and hanged in Poland. Eleven guards from the camp at Bergen-Belsen were hanged in December 1945 in Hamelin. This rationale was also applicable to collaborators, including even the most prestigious: Dr László Bárdossy, former Prime Minister of Hungary, was hanged in the courtyard of the law courts in Budapest, and Jozef Tiso, President of the Slovak Republic, was hanged in prison. Moreover, before his execution in Nuremberg, Hans Frank chose to entitle his last thoughts Face to Face with the Gallows.

These methods of execution are not at all surprising when one considers regular justice over the long term and in the first half of the twentieth century. In Europe, hanging had remained the most common method of execution. It was inscribed in codes of Austro-Hungarian military justice in 1914. Hanging differed according to country: in Austria-Hungary, the ritual was slightly different in that the traditional form was an intermediary between the gallows and the garrotte and is known as the Austrian gallows. It must be noted that, even though hanging was widespread, it had been challenged since the industrial revolution by the large number of guns available and these were increasingly efficient. The firing squad therefore became the symbol par excellence of an honourable death reserved for the military, while hanging was perceived as dishonourable and was primarily used for criminals. Therefore this series of hangings (especially when the high-ranking military and not civilians were concerned) took place because of a certain wish to abase the victims.

However, what was different in the case of the top Nazis, i.e. those who carried out the policies of genocide and repression of local populations, was the publicity surrounding their executions, which is proof of the extraordinary character of the accused. While hanging had in fact remained the traditional method of criminal execution, its public use, common up to the twentieth century, had disappeared from nearly all the countries in Europe in 1863 for all the German kingdoms and by 1900 in all countries in western Europe (Britain, Austria, Spain, the Netherlands) except for France, where the last public execution, that of Eugène Weidmann, took place on 17 June 1939. With the end of the war, publicity surrounding certain executions was established practice throughout all the territory of Europe. Thus in the Soviet zone, seven Nazis, including an SS colonel and a general, were hanged in public at Nikolayev after being tried. The publicity surrounding these sentences comes to represent a very clear break with past practices and so in Prague on 6 September 1945 the first public execution since the First World War was held. Dr Joseph Pfitzner, who had been mayor of the city since 1939, was hanged in front of a crowd of 50,000, from which minors under the age of 18 were excluded. According to Reuters news agency, the British press described the cheering of the crowd at Pfitzner’s death. In Prague, this same ceremony was carried out on a number of occasions: the execution of Karl Hermann Frank and that of Kurt Daluege are perhaps the best examples.

After the death of Reinhard Heydrich, Karl Hermann Frank was appointed minister for the protectorate of Bohemia-Moravia in cooperation with Kurt Daluege, Chief of the Order Police (Ordnungspolizei). After what the local press dubbed “the greatest trial in Czech history” (and was thus in a metonymic manner the Czechs putting “the whole German people” on trial), Frank was brought before a huge crowd of about 5,000, mainly made up of men. In the film of the execution one can see workmen sawing and building the gallows where Daluege would also be hanged a few months later. The court’s condemnation is read out to Frank. Onlookers, heads uncovered, try to catch a glimpse of the scene. The condemned man climbs to the scaffold dressed in a plain military jacket. His final words were as follows: “The German people will live even if some of us must die. Long live the German people, long live the German spirit.” The three uniformed executioners attached him to that gallows specific to countries of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. A rope runs the length of a thick 3-metre-high pole and the feet rest on a platform which is also on a pulley. Another, very short, rope is passed around the neck by the hangman. Then the head is guided downwards and this is simultaneous with a swift jerk and the prisoner is killed. The publicity surrounding executions was not specific to Czechoslovakia after the war. Arthur Greiser was hanged in public in front of his own villa in Poland. Friedrich Jeckeln was hanged in public in Riga, not far from the river Daugava, in front of thousands of spectators. Standing up in the back of a truck the condemned man was driven slowly towards a large wooden structure bearing six ropes.

The history of criminal justice supplies us with some elements towards understanding this method of behaviour. Foucault reckons that they “allow injured sovereignty to be reconstituted momentarily.” According to Anton Holzer, in his discussion of hangings during the First World War, “mass executions were also collective rituals. Their aim was to make the hanged man the expression of external danger” and to re-establish the living frontier “between the ordered space and the space beyond,” according to the sociologist Jean Clam.

All these logics come together, amplified and obstructed when it came to hanging those condemned in the Nuremberg trial. On one hand, this concerned leaders who were known internationally (and not just on a regional scale) and would become symbols of the regime. On the other hand, if the trial ended in hangings, these would not be public. However, the issue of publicity about executions shows that, here again, logics proper to leading Nazi officials were at work. More than any other executions, those following Nuremberg gave rise to debate on an international scale on the topic of the corpses of the condemned.

From 1943 onwards, the idea that the leaders of the Axis countries should die was a foregone conclusion for the Allied powers. Nevertheless, the question remained about whether this should be by summary execution or trial. For the Russians and the Americans preference for trials took precedence little by little after October 1943 when a War Crimes Commission was set up and then at the Moscow Conference held on 30 October 1943. After a trial (which for all its successes as well as its failures deserves its title of “the trial of the century”), the Nuremberg Tribunal gave its final verdict on 1 October 1946. Of the twenty-four accused, eleven would be hanged. The death sentence was not a foregone conclusion insofar as in international law this sentence was not necessarily implied. Besides, the choice of the gallows (instead of the firing squad) was deemed undignified by the military accused such as Wilhelm Keitel, Alfred Jodl, and Hermann Göring. The latter lodged an appeal to be shot and not hanged, he wanted to die as a soldier. But this request, and all applications for pardon, were systematically turned down. The Allied Control Council made a recommendation along these lines on 7 September 1946 without, however, specifying the choice of method “by hanging or by guillotine.”

The executions took place during the night of 16 October 1946, at which point Göring’s suicide was discovered. The condemned men arrived one by one and were hanged by John Woods, with hoods over their heads. The executions were not public and took place behind closed doors. To this end, on 17 September the Allied Control Authority had received recommendations which specified that the press must not be present and that no photos be taken, except for those destined for historical archives. However, in reality, the issue of publicity proved to be more complex.

In fact, once the executions had been carried out, an American lieutenant, Maurice McLaughlin, took eight photos of each corpse always in the same manner: each body was laid out on a wooden coffin, and the photographer took a series of shots of the cadavers which were naked and then dressed, and on each one a small notice was placed giving their name. The photos were classified as top secret. The initial aim was to send them to Allied medico-legal archives, but very quickly rumours began to circulate. In view of Göring’s suicide, which had raised several questions (notably about the source of the poison), there were those who doubted that the executions had been carried out properly, with suspicions about a series of errors having being made. Others even doubted that they had been carried out at all. The rumours escalated over a period of ten days. Therefore on 23 October the Control Authority decided to release eleven photographs of the bodies to the press. Britain was opposed to this. In the House of Commons on 28 October, Prime Minister Clement Attlee emphasized his disagreement and repeated that he was “strongly opposed to publication” of the photos. Despite this, just as in other countries, they were ultimately published. In France, L’Humanité only published the photo of Göring, but L’Aurore printed all of them. Le Parisien libéré justified these publications, declaring that “maybe … all those, parents, widows and orphans, who grieve for a loved one who was a victim of barbarity … might find some comfort in viewing these executioners after they have paid the price.” Raymond Millet in Le Monde was less unambiguous: “These bloodied and bruised heads, with the noose around their necks … do they give a sufficiently dignified image of human justice? So be it—for revolting crimes, a sordid punishment.” In the United States, Life Magazine published the pictures between two relatively banal articles—a child who had shut its foot in a door and a stranded whale. It argued that the publication of the photos would “help to disprove rumours that the hangings were bungled.”

As in the case of the hangings of leading Nazi officials, the publicity surrounding the Nuremberg sentences and executions was carried out with several aims in mind. On the one hand, it established that the torturers and killers were in fact dead, either by direct viewing or by photographic evidence. On the other hand it indicated that a new order had been (re-)established and that the oppressors had paid for their crimes. Public execution must be seen as the counterpoint of another process which it is difficult to quantify, namely that of wild lynching by a mob. Public execution is a ceremony which has everything to do with order, indeed it concerns “the mastery of order through violence.”

Nevertheless, the fact remains that, in European public opinion, the publicity surrounding the executions was a long way from obtaining the results that might have been expected from such a decision in the classical period. Slow developments have led to less necessity for public executions to uphold power and make the recourse to such action far less efficient, even in the turmoil of the end of the Second World War. Printing the photos of the murderers in the international press reignited a debate about the fact that when the executions took place in public, those who wished to attend could do so but once the images were displayed across the press, they were imposed on one and all.

A Guardian reader sent this thought to the paper: “… little pity can be felt for those who in the day of their power showed none. … And we ourselves may ask, after so much blood has flowed, why more?” Elsewhere, just as in the classical period, the risk of transforming the killers into martyrs was denounced because by displaying the bodies the execution created a kind of theatrical space of which these corpses were the inevitable centre. Falangists in Madrid thus held a Mass in “honour” of the Nuremberg martyrs on 26 October 1946.

Publicity therefore had to ensure re-establishment. Even though it is complicated to evaluate the impact of the public executions of local governors, especially in Eastern Europe, what Hannah Arendt has to say about Nuremberg remains uncontested: “Hanging Göring was definitely necessary but totally inadequate. Because this guilt, unlike any other guilt, surpasses and destroys all legal order.”

The Trajectory of the Bodies

The execution and the displaying of the bodies created a problem: that of the outcome for the corpses. In fact, after having reintroduced an event which had more or less disappeared from Europe for half a century or more, those in political power found themselves obliged to manage the heritance of these public corpses.

Le Monde wondered about this subject: “Will the bodies of the hanged be buried in a secret place or disposed of in water?” The Allied Control Authority issued a recommendation which was to cremate the bodies and to scatter the ashes. In Nuremberg the eleven bodies were therefore loaded onto two lorries, which were led away by an escort of jeeps at around 4 am. Waiting journalists ran after them. According to different versions, the corpses were taken either to Munich cemetery or to Dachau and apparently cremated in the “terrible ovens that had claimed so many lives.” The ashes were gathered up and secretly thrown in the Isar river. The choice of incineration does not relate to any kind of fundamental taboo, since “the culture of cremation” had widely increased in Germany between 1914 (when one per cent of the population had recourse to this technique) and 1935 (ten per cent). However—and the rumour which claimed that the corpses had been burnt at Dachau proves this—in the immediate post-war period when the news about the extermination camps, the gas chambers, and the crematoriums was officially revealed, this modus operandi had the mighty symbolic power of totally eliminating the corpse of the condemned. This must not be overstated though. Karl Hermann Frank and Kurt Daluege were buried in unmarked graves in Ďáblice cemetery in Prague. In the end, this situation resembles that of the cemeteries for the guillotined and the common graves of the classical period.

The main point lies perhaps in the justification advanced for this total disappearance of the bodies and the scattering of the ashes. All the authors and actors agree. “The very last thing the Allies wanted was to provide a grave for reverent pilgrimages by unrepentant Nazis.” Göring threatened them with this during the trial. And this is the explanation that recurs time and time again in the literature: the Allies wanted to avoid any material sign which would open up the possibility for regime fanatics to honour the remains. John Woods, the Nuremberg executioner, told of how even before the executions he was offered 2,500 dollars for just one of the ropes used in Nuremberg. He subsequently burnt all the ropes and hoods “so that souvenir hunters would have nothing to regret.” The decision to burn the bodies was only taken a short time beforehand, however: a week before the execution, burial was still being considered. But the Allied Control Council had raised the threat of either pilgrimages by the faithful or the possibility of the bodies being exhumed, as in the case of Mussolini. This appraisal, although based on a simple supposition, chimed with the “dead hero cult” that existed within Nazism. In fact, those who died in the Bier Hall putsch were commemorated by the Nazis every 9 November during the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, during days of national celebrations. Those members of the SA [Sturmabteilung, assault platoon] who were killed by communists at the beginning of the 1930s became the focus of a veritable cult (especially Horst Wessel); more generally speaking, the Nazi system was organized around a true death cult. It is therefore highly probable that if the remains of top-ranking Nazi officials had been buried somewhere, they would have become a destination for mass pilgrimages, just like Mussolini’s tomb today. This fear of a killers’ cult did not take into consideration, however, the potential charisma of the slayers in question: the inherent link between living political bodies and their physical remains was not investigated and it was posited that all Nazis who had held power should also be the focus of a ritual and so consequently they should disappear.

Conclusion: The Risks of Virtualization

This total destruction of the bodies, a symbol of “the political life of corpses,” nevertheless contains a risk, just like the publicity surrounding the executions. If public execution can turn murderers into martyrs, the total disappearance of their remains opens the way to virtualization and to doubt. In fact, of the twelve condemned to death at Nuremberg, one of them, Martin Bormann, had been condemned in his absence for the plain and simple reason that he had not been caught. Different authorities searched for his body for years and the story hit the headlines during the 1960s and 1970s. When his body was scientifically identified, the myth became even stronger than the reality: it was said that it was not the right corpse, that the scientific results were false and that his survival was still plausible. Without the physical evidence of a body the threat of a cult changed into a different kind of menace: that of “ghosts” which, in the true sense of the word, continue to haunt the collective imagination. The flood of publications about Bormann bears witness to this. The questions about Hitler’s body are another example: the remains of his body were only discovered and formally identified in the 1970s and rumours about his possible survival had spread rapidly and have never really faded away. The Nuremberg authorities avoided this obstacle through the power of pictures, such as the medico-legal photos, which proved the reality of the deaths.

Burning the bodies of butchers and in so doing denying them that implicit right to a burial that they themselves had refused to millions of people might therefore have had a counterproductive effect. But on the whole, the arrangements chosen seem to have been efficient: they avoided a collective cult surrounding those who had put Europe to fire and the sword.

The executions and the publicity surrounding them followed the new authorities’ aim of consolidation. Did these occasions constitute, as was the case in the classical period, an occasion for the condemned to express their remorse before the crowd just before they died in order to atone for their crimes? Nothing is less certain. The judgements and the executions were the occasion for most of the Nazi officials to show their total lack of remorse by denouncing the “trial by the winners.” Abjuration did not take place. As judged by Hannah Arendt, in the face of the scale of the exterminations carried out, no measure could ever really be adequate.