Richard Evans' The Third Reich at War, like most other substantial histories of the twilight years of Third Reich, paints a picture of quite startling brutality directed against its own population (let alone enemy combatants, Jews, gypsies etc).

Executions for offences such as looting, shirking, stealing and minor acts of anti-Nazi defiance seem to have become routine, and any remaining adherence by the judiciary to the rule of law exercised independently of the Nazi party seems to have collapsed towards the end of 1944.

Why then, as Evans states, were the authorities so keen, in the cases of Ernst Thalmann (leading communist) and Georg Elser (who attempted to assassinate Hitler), to cover up the fact that they'd been executed late in the war? In both cases the story went out that they'd been killed in air raids.

What did the authorities have to lose by admitting (even trumpeting) that such (in their eyes) dangerous and treacherous characters had been executed?

  • Likely there are sources in the historical literature discussing this but the articles on both En and De Wikipedia do not state what they say on this point. Speculating -- hence unsuitable for an Answer: The regime did generally insist on a "proper trial" (by their twisted standards), e.g., for Sophie Scholl and her confederates. The sentence -- death -- was a foregone conclusion but they liked the veneer of respectability. Only for "Aryan" Germans, of course; Untermenschen deserved no such consideration. One would have to dig into sources to find out the specifics in these two cases. Jun 25 '13 at 12:28

The Nazi regime had planned to stage a big show trial for Thälmann, Elser and other enemies of their rule after a victorious end to the war. That is why they kept them alive. But by 1944 even the diehards knew that the war was lost. Hitler and Himmler gave orders to have Elser and others like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Wilhelm Canaris killed. There was no time and no resources for such a trial at that late stage in the war.

A web site dedicated to the memory of Georg Elser shows a facsimile of the execution order for Elser. Dated 5 April 1945, the head of the Gestapo Heinrich Müller instructs the commandant of the Dachau concentration camp to have Elser discreetly executed and to announce his death from a "terror" (i.e., bombing) raid. Already in August 1944, they had disguised the murder of Ernst Thälmann as the casualty of an Allied bombing run.

There would have been no propaganda value from announcing Elser's summary execution after six years of imprisonment. And as mentioned, a planned show trial which was to have indicted the British as the instigators of Elser's failed assassination of Hitler was no longer feasible at that time. They were not going to allow Elser, Thälmann and other high-profile opponents to see the end of the war.

I have not been able to find any record of discussions among the Nazi leadership how their enemies should be disposed of and why they decided on the "cover story" of a bombing raid. Historian Peter Steinbach and political scientist Johannes Tuchel, probably the leading authorities on Elser and whose scholarship informs the above cited web site, do not touch on this point in their writings available online.

Two possible motivations appear plausible: one, the regime still clung to the facade of "law and order". Executions without a figleaf of legality would have undermined that facade. And two, some in the regime might have deluded themselves into thinking that they could escape facing responsibility for their crimes after the war if evidence of their worst deeds were covered up, especially if they were hoping for a negotiated capitulation and perhaps even some form of continuity for themselves in power.

  • Was Germany's plight in December 1944 really worse than that of Prussia in December 1761? While a miracle akin to the ascension of Tsar Peter III was about as likely as a "kami kaze" (Divine Wind) destroying the American fleet at anchor (as happened to Kublai Khan's), it was the occurrence of such a miracle in the recent past that kept Germany, and the leading Nazis, hopeful of a negotiated settlement. All knew Roosevelt's health was failing, and that Churchill despised Stalin almost as much as Hitler, so perhaps another miracle was possible after all. Jul 6 '13 at 2:25
  • Remember, it was not just Nazi's who saw the German people as a race destined for greatness; this was a common theme through-out German culture that the Nazi's exploited eagerly and well. Jul 6 '13 at 2:27
  • @Peter Not sure why you ask about December 1944, Thälmann was taken out and shot in August 1944, Elsner in April 1945. Yes, there was talk of a Wunderwaffe (miracle weapon) that would turn the tide in the Germans' favor right up until the end. However, D-Day in June 1944 and the parallel defeats in the East effectively ended hopes for victory and the regime then split into those secretly hoping for a negotiated settlement and the "bitter enders" determined to fight on until the last man, woman and child. Jul 6 '13 at 6:39
  • I may be able to look into the print bibliography cited by Steinbach and Tuchel next week for more info on the decision-making process regarding the cover-up stories... but please don't be disappointed if I can't find the time then :) Jul 6 '13 at 22:39
  • I was commenting on this: "And two, some in the regime might have deluded themselves into thinking that they could escape facing responsibility for their crimes after the war if evidence of their worst deeds were covered up, especially if they were hoping for a negotiated capitulation and perhaps even some form of continuity for themselves in power". The miracle in December 1761 was recent history for all of the German leadership, Nazi and other, and widely taught. Many believed the same could, and would, happen again. Jul 6 '13 at 23:08

Earlier in the war, executing "dissidents" might have brought the Nazis some sympathy. Not so in the last year, when Germany was losing, and everyone knew who the "culprits" were. The war and the Nazis were already unpopular, and publicly executing prominent dissidents would just have underlined these facts.

Nor was leaving them alive an option, because they had too much "dirt" on the regime. Much better to kill them and pretend that they had died of "natural" (for wartime) causes. Any number of people were being killed in air raids, so why not these people?

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