On April 12, 1945, a young man enters the north German prison camp Aschendorfermoor near the Dutch border, where thousands of forced laborers are stationed: deserters and political prisoners. The man wears the uniform of a paratrooper captain and says in a confident voice, "The Fiihrer personally gave me unlimited powers." With tribunals, he should now ensure order here.
Security guards and local NSDAP believe him - for them it is a sign of hope at a time when long since British bomber formations on the way to Bremen or Hanover fly over them and advance Canadian troops ever further through the Netherlands.
A few days later, 172 prisoners are dead, shot dead with a flak gun, tattered by hand grenades and buried in mass graves they had to dig themselves.
The man who ordered the massacres is just 19 years old - and an imposter: neither the uniform nor the order of Hitler are real. His name is Willi Herold, he will gain notoriety as "hangman from Emsland".
The story of Willi Herold is the story of a sadist who uses the opportunity to quench his thirst for blood. But it is also the story of the turmoil of the last months of the war, in which found a uniform and bold appearance enough to terrorize an entire region. And a story about the timid Germans, who yearn for authority in the face of defeat - or simply shower in front of her. How else could a 19-year-old imposter do so much harm?
Banished from the Hitler Youth
Willi Herold is born in 1925 in Lunzenau near Chemnitz. Little is known about his childhood. He is banished from the Hitler Youth because he skips events and founded his own Indian gang. At least that's what he says after his arrest. Later he begins an apprenticeship as a chimney sweep. Shortly after his 18th birthday in autumn 1943 Herold is drafted and receives a basic training as a paratrooper. A little later he fights in Italy, among other things in the battle for the monastery Montecassino.
16 picturesWilli Herold: Beast with Babyface
After the German defeat in Italy, his generals put him in a special association to the Western Front, there to stop the advance of the Allies to northern Germany. In battle in the first days of March 1945 Herold loses his unit near Gronau shortly behind the German-Dutch border.
Alone he drags himself through the cold rain north, on foot towards Bentheim. In the ditch he encounters a dented military car. Herold discovers several boxes in which he finds the almost new uniform of a Luftwaffe captain - including Iron Cross first class, a high honor. The 19-year-old puts on his uniform, puts on his cap and struts along the street.
After two kilometers he hears a voice: "Captain, Captain!" Herold looks at a young soldier who stands in front of him and reports that he has lost his unit. The false captain answers resolutely: "Follow me." Soon more scattered soldiers arrive, in Meppen there are already about 30 men who accompany Herold to the north.
"Your silly rules"
Two days before the group reaches the camp Aschendorfermoor about 150 inmates tried to escape. They were to be transferred to Celle and disappeared during the march in the fog. There are rumors circulating in the area that the escaped robbed the farmers of food and threatened to rape their daughters. The leadership of the camp and the NSDAP feel under pressure - an example would have to be made.
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Herold has now found his own car and one of his men intended for his chauffeur. In a check by the military police, he refuses to show his papers - after all, he has none that match his uniform. The 19-year-old mobs the military police and lets himself be taken to his superior. The officer of the military police is impressed by so much cutting and invites the fake captain for a schnapps. Herold realizes that he will lose the new role if he plays boldly enough.
In Papenburg he hears for the first time from the escaped prisoners and can be taken to the prison camp. With mayor and NSDAP Ortsgruppenleiter he concludes: The fugitives must be shot. Herold ironed out questions about the legality of the jury: "I have the job, but no time for endless talk and petty hick-hack about your silly regulations." He appeals to Hitler personally. Nobody wants to see a written power of attorney, neither the NSDAP Kreisleiter nor the meanwhile informed Gauleiter.
Nobody stops the wrong captain
Herold's men force the first prisoners to kneel in a row, their hands over their heads. Two are shot in the head after a confession, one in the stomach. Everyone dies. Meanwhile, eight other inmates are ordered to dig a huge pit, seven meters long, two meters wide and 1.80 meters deep. They dig more than four hours.
In the early evening of April 12, at 6 pm, the first 30 prisoners have to stand in front of the grave. Herald's men open the fire with an antiaircraft gun, the first volley hits the prisoners in the legs. Then the gun has stoppage and Herold's commando runs with submachine guns to the pit and shoots the injured. They kick the bodies in the hole and throw in a hand grenade. The following two groups of prisoners are executed with a machine gun, in the evening there are 98 dead.
Herald sends out Volkssturm troops. They should bring more escapees back to the camp - or execute directly. When no more are found, Herold's men begin to torture and execute other inmates, first foreigners, then deserters and so on. In the coming days, 74 more people will be killed. Herold is now controlling the camp - and no one is standing in his way.
Only when the Allies advance does the madness in Aschendorfermoor come to an end. Herold leaves the camp and shoots on his way five alleged Dutch spies and a farmer who has hoisted a white flag. On April 28, Herold is arrested by the German military police.
Release despite confession
While in prison, Hitler commits suicide and the Red Army conquers Berlin. The false captain confesses his actions, but before the court decides, Herold is released. He is to fight with Operation Werewolf, but flees at the first opportunity and dives.
Herold succeeds in Wilhelmshaven. There, British marines arrest him on May 23, 1945, for stealing a loaf of bread. But the British military court finds out his identity, on August 16, 1946, the war crimes trial begins in Oldenburg.
"It was often sketched out the grotesque that we would greet a mailbox with a raised arm if we had been ordered to, we often laughed at it, we should not have done it," writes a journalist of the "Nordwest Zeitung" at the start of the trial , Willi Herold is sentenced to death - on November 14, the "executioner of the Emsland" and five of his helpers in Wolfenbüttel are executed with the hatchet.
To read more:
TXH Pantcheff: The Executioner of the Emsland. Willi Herold, 19 years old. A German lesson.
More information about the camps of the National Socialists in the Emsland region is provided by the Esterwegen memorial.