War and History Fiction posted May 23, 2023

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Historical Fiction

The Nazi Executioner

by Jim Wile

The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.

                                 Plotzensee Prison
I can still hear that high-pitched laugh some fifty years after I pulled the rope to end the life of Helmuth Hubener by guillotine in late October of 1942. The laugh began before the blade fell and perhaps for some time after his severed head dropped into the waiting basket, but I’m not sure for I had averted my eyes. Maybe that was only a macabre thought that had made its way into my mind. Nevertheless, I have been haunted by the sound of that laugh almost daily since that day—my last as a Nazi executioner.

My name is Wilhelm Rottger, and I was the chief executioner at Plotzensee Prison in Berlin where Hubener and several other young German men were imprisoned awaiting trial as adults. Hubener was just 17 years old, making him the youngest man executed by the Third Reich for his crimes.

And what were his crimes? I had on several occasions talked to him in the weeks preceding his trial at the Volksgerichtshof or People’s Court—a Nazi court concerned with matters of treason. Soon after his arrival, I was curious about the young man and stopped by his cell to speak with him.

The first time I saw him, he was sitting on his cot, just staring ahead. “Tell me, Hubener, what is the reason for your incarceration here at Rottger? What can a man so young have done against the state?”

He turned to look at me with piercing blue eyes and thought for a few seconds before giving me his reply. “I suppose it is simply pointing out the truth of this insane war and the brutality of the current regime waging it. This did not sit well with the propagandists who insist that all is going well and that Germany is completely justified in its barbarous aggression against its neighbors and its own people.”

“And how does one so young as yourself, think that you know the truth?”

“I have been listening to broadcasts from the BBC, which paint a far different picture from the ones broadcast by the Third Reich who claim that Germany is on the verge of victory.”

“And what makes you think they are right, and your own country’s broadcasts are wrong?”

“Because I have seen the brutality of the Third Reich and its increasing control of my countrymen firsthand. I have observed what they have been doing to the Jews. I was witness to Kristallnacht in 1938 when I was 13 years old and was forced to be in the Hitler Youth. I have also seen how they have corrupted people from a fear of becoming victims themselves. The leader of my own church, the Mormon church, has become supportive of the Third Reich for this very reason.”

I was disquieted by this fervent young man and his passion for what he considered to be the truth, for I must admit that I, too, harbored many of the thoughts he had about the regime. While he had acted on his beliefs, I had tried to suppress my own by deferring to the presumed wisdom of my superiors. It was not until later, after the war, that I found out much of what he said was true.

I did not see myself as a brutal man then or now. A coward who did what he was assigned and refused to question it or argue against the exigencies of my job, yes. But a brutal man would not suffer the way I have during all the years following that awful time in my life, and I suppose it is only fitting that I do.

On another occasion, while talking with Hubener, I asked him what exactly he was arrested for.

He showed no hesitancy in replying, “It was against the law to listen to any non-government radio transmissions, but these transmissions from other countries were the only way I could find out the truth about the war. I decided that I would do my best to spread the word to my countrymen by detailing what I learned in pamphlets. Three of my friends and I wrote and distributed these pamphlets that called on Germans to resist Hitler. We stuck them in coat pockets, left them in phone booths, and put them on bulletin boards.”

“So, what were these truths about the war that you supposedly learned from these broadcasts?” I asked him, fearful of his answer, but at the same time desiring greatly to know.

“The state press claimed that the attack on Pearl Harbor left the American defenses in shambles, such that they would never enter the war against Germany. We disputed the accounts of American weakness, and we also disputed the regime’s account of the war in the east against Russia, which claimed that victory had already been achieved, when reports that I have heard offer proof that the battles are still raging.”

Hubener and the other boys had been incarcerated for ten weeks prior to their trial. During that time, they were tortured and intimidated along with many other dissidents housed there. I was not a party to that, only to what was to come later after the trial.

At the trial, Hubener refused to argue for his release. Instead, he confronted the judges with his arguments about the war. When one judge asked him if he really thought the war would be lost, his answer was, “Don’t you?” Another judge asked, “Do you mean to tell me that the German broadcasts are wrong, and the English ones are correct?” to which Hubener replied, “Exactly.”

It was felt by many who attended, I am told, that he was attempting to raise the judges’ ire at himself in an effort to diminish the hard feelings against his friends and so help to save their lives with less harsh sentences. His judgment was correct in this, for all of them received prison terms in labor camps, while he was convicted of conspiracy to commit high treason for furthering the enemy’s causes and was sentenced to death by beheading. When given the opportunity to speak in order to preserve the chance of a commutation of his sentence, he said to the three red-robed justices, “I have to die now for no crime at all. Your turn is next!”

And so, I relate to you now the events of his last day of life. His final meal was only a chunk of bread and a cup of water that he had to hold between his two palms, as his fingers had all been smashed, and his fingernails had been pulled out such that his hands were virtually useless.

The rest of the inmates had already been herded out to the courtyard where the guillotine was set up in order to force them to watch the beheading. When it was time to lead Hubener to the guillotine, a prison guard and I went to his cell to retrieve him. He was sitting calmly on his bunk with a wry look upon his face.

“Get up,” the guard said to him.

“I will not.”

“I said, get up, now!”

“I have done nothing wrong, and I refuse to take any part in this charade. If you want me at the guillotine, you will have to carry me or drag me.”

The guard started to raise his firearm over his head to smash down on Hubener’s head, but I put out my hand and stopped him. “You will carry him or drag him as he suggested,” I commanded the guard, who followed my orders, for I outranked him.

Grudgingly, he grabbed Hubener by the ankles, pulled him onto the floor, and dragged him out of his cell and out into the courtyard to the guillotine. It was necessary for the two of us to lift him onto the bottom platform in a prone position. He quickly rotated his body so that he was face up as we clamped the lunette around his head. Although we did not usually do this, I stepped over, bent down and spoke to him softly in his ear. “Do you have any final words you wish to say?”

He turned his head and looked at me with those piercing eyes and said, “Only this: You sorry fools may delude yourselves into thinking you are righteous, and just, and doing what is best for the advancement of your country and your race, but even your leaders are not so stupid as that. They know what thugs they are, as you will soon enough. May your souls be damned for eternity as you never forget the part you played in this.”

It was at that point that he started laughing. It began softly but grew in volume and pitch so that soon the maniacal sound of his laughter could be heard all through the prison grounds as I pulled on the rope to release the blade, and he watched it descend. I turned my head, for I could not watch.

I hear that laugh in my dreams and often in my thoughts during waking moments, as well, and have since that day. I was never the same after that, as the effect that young man had on me took all the joy out of my life. I’m not like those sociopaths who can carry on with no more thought to their past atrocities than a predatory animal feels towards its prey.

I am a miserable coward, cursed with a conscience who was somehow able to evade my deserved fate and escape Nazi Germany to America, where I live now as an American, if you can call what I do living. I’ve tried my best in the intervening years to make amends for my actions during the war, but some things are not forgivable, and I know that I am destined to hear that haunting laugh for the remainder of my days.

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Note: Although I have taken a few liberties with the details, this is a true story. All of the names in the story are real, as are the statements made during Hubener's trial.

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