Saturday 10 December 2016

Mary Kenny: Hanging 'em high?

The death penalty is dying out, but in 1946 it was thought fitting

Published 04/09/2016 | 02:30

Mary Kenny
Mary Kenny

World-wide, ever more people are against the death penalty - in America, state after state is removing execution from the statute books. But 70 years ago this autumn, the judges at Nuremberg - where 'crimes against humanity' and 'genocide' were first properly defined - unanimously decided that a dozen of the top Nazis should be sentenced to hang. Twenty four were tried, but 12, most famously the mad Rudolf Hess and Hitler's architect, Albert Speer, got custodial sentences.

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The civilised world was in agreement that the heinous crimes committed by the Nazis should merit the death penalty. And yet it was melancholy. "Though it might be right to hang these men, it was not easy," wrote the journalist Rebecca West. Several hangings were botched: Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's foreign minister, gasped and struggled at the end of a rope for 20 minutes, as did Field-Marshall Wilhelm Keitel. The American hangman, John Woods, had miscalculated the drop, and the hanged men suffered head injuries from the trap door - which was too small - as they fell.

The British executioner, Albert Pierrepoint, was appalled at the lack of professionalism. Pierrepoint took pride in his ability to hang a man, or a woman, with the swiftest despatch and the minimum of suffering. He hanged William Joyce ('Lord Haw-Haw') in eight seconds.

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