When the Nazis Came to Medicine Hat
The last mass execution in Canada saw five men hanged in the early morning hours of December 18, 1946, in the provincial jail in Lethbridge, Alberta. One was a Canadian Army veteran, who had sexually assaulted and murdered two young boys and, after being convicted in Calgary, was sent to Lethbridge to join the other four. The executioner, known by his pseudonym Camille Branchaud, was really there for them. They were German POWs convicted of killing another World War II POW, Karl Lehmann, at Prisoner of War Camp 132 in Medicine Hat, Alberta in July 1944.
Their executions, and that of a fifth German POW six months earlier for the murder of Camp 132 inmate August Plaszek, are the latest pages in a story that was considered relatively commonplace 76 years ago. Or even good news as the Nuremberg war crimes trials laid bare Nazi atrocities: “Huns To Be Hanged” was the cheery headline of the Calgary Herald after the prisoners of war appeal was rejected.
But today, their story has a completely different resonance. As stated in Nathan Greenfield’s superb social history book, « Hanged in Medicine Hat » – the title refers to the site of the murders and the deaths of the victims – raises the very real possibility that the killers’ deaths were a miscarriage of justice. , morally and legally.
Each part of the story told by the historian is full of striking details. The Geneva Convention on the Rights of Prisoners of War granted POW leaders considerable internal sovereignty. And so senior officers, completely Nazified, essentially ran a miniature Nazi state on Canadian soil in Camp 132. Gestapo among the lower ranks and controlling letters from home. Without forgetting a direct channel to their superiors, thanks to homemade radio receivers, which picked up shortwave radio from Berlin. (The PoW coms, in fact, were so good that the camp guards first learned of the Canadian Dieppe disaster from their prisoners.)
Camp leaders imposed harsh discipline on ordinary soldiers – beatings and « degradation » ceremonies – for defeatists, anti-Nazis, those suspected of passing information to Canadians, and for homosexual activity, while guards at the camp closed their eyes. Whether the violently imposed repression inside the camps – in particular the denigration of homosexuals, which was simply ignored by an equally homophobic Canadian army – was condoned by Canada later became a thorny legal issue in the trials. for murder.
At the same time, this Reich of 12,000 men on the prairie led a (relatively) comfortable material life, which included Eaton’s own catalog of prisoners of war. They could order chocolate, stockings and lingerie there to be shipped to their wives and girlfriends via neutral Turkey. For anyone unsure what to make of such wartime treatment of enemies, Greenfield sums it up perfectly: “Yeah, well…that’s Canada.
The two deaths in the camps show striking differences. The first, Plaszek, occurred in riot-like conditions in 1943. Many prisoners of war were former French legionnaires who, after the fall of France, had joined Erwin Rommel’s famous Afrika Korps . The original members of the Korps – prominent at Camp 132 – viewed the ex-legionnaires with suspicion and contempt.
The camp leadership was interrogating four of them, one after the other, for disloyalty, when one of them broke away from his escort and fled into a guard tower to put himself in security. A hundred men, inflamed by rumors of treachery, pursued him, sparking a tense confrontation that kept the guards busy. During the uproar, a few POWs grabbed Plaszek, one of four awaiting interrogation, and dragged him to a barracks. When the situation was calm enough for the Canadians to enter this building, they found Plaszek dead, hanging by a rope tied so tightly that it had cut an inch deep in his throat.
Lehmann’s hanging was much more deliberate and took place in September 1944. Two months earlier, a failed assassination attempt on Hitler had seen the Führer call on his loyal followers to hunt down and eliminate all traitors, an order known in Medicine Hat via clandestine radio stations. The camp leadership, who despised Lehmann for his leftist politics, branded him a traitor and made it clear that they wanted him dead.
The two sets of trials – each defendant was tried alone – proceeded in the same way. Despite the Geneva Convention requiring the application of military law, they went through the criminal court. Despite a vigorous defense that continually pointed out how Canadian authorities, turning a blind eye to the violence, had set the stage for the dead, the perpetrators were found guilty of murder. They were sentenced to hang, although a South African appeals court set a commutation precedent; a judge there recognized the persuasion and threats camp leaders could apply to lower ranks. There is evidence that Justice Minister (and future Prime Minister) Louis St. Laurent planned to intervene. But somehow that directive never reached the Governor General after St. Laurent was sent to New York to help the fledgling United Nations take shape.
Then there is the most astonishing fact related in “Hanged in Medicine Hat”. By the end of the war, the First Canadian Army in Holland was (loosely) in control of tens of thousands of unarmed German soldiers. The Dutch Resistance returned to the Canadians two German deserters they had kept. Within hours, the Canadians turned them over to the Wehrmacht, who welcomed them by holding a court-martial and sentencing them to death for desertion. The Canadians could have stopped this, but instead they obligingly acceded to the German request for eight rifles and 16 rounds to carry out the executions.
In short, in 1945, the Canadian Army recognized the right of the defeated and disarmed German army to punish its soldiers as it saw fit. And, in an act of courtesy between brothers in arms, he even helped him. A year later, during the Medicine Hat trials, Canadian justice hypocritically sentenced German soldiers to death for the same acts, committed under the same authority. “You look at all of this,” says Greenfield, “the trials and the sentencing, and you have to say, ‘This isn’t fair. ‘The trials were illegitimate because they should have taken place before a military tribunal’, the only place where German prisoners of war in Canada could have found a jury of their peers. « And the sentences should have been commuted. »
In 1946 in Canada, the judicial process inexorably came to a conclusion once prisoners of war found a place on Camille Branchaud’s to-do list. The Germans, Greenfield notes, were angry that they were not to die by firing squad like soldiers, but hanged like common criminals. They were further insulted by the forced company of child killers from their final hours, three of the four attempted suicide the previous night, using contraband razor blades. They were found in time and patched up enough to be deemed well enough to die and be buried in graves they had dug themselves. Their last words are unknown, unlike those of the only prisoner of war who was hanged for the murder of Plaszek: “My Führer, I follow you.
Brian Bethune has written extensively on books, ideas, religion, culture and business for Maclean’s and other publications. He received his doctorate in medieval studies from the University of Toronto.