In December 1943 the Soviet Union held the first Nazi War Crimes Trial in the recaptured Ukrainian city of Kharkov. Three members of the Wehrmacht, German SS and Security Police, as well as a Russian collaborator who were captured by the Red Army, now stood accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The former Soviet citizen was declared a traitor to the motherland by the Russian press and the Germans branded invaders who had pillaged their way into Soviet territory. The trial focused on the crimes committed in Kharkov during the two German occupations, and specifically the use of gas vans to exterminate the population, whom the Nazis deemed as undesirables. This trial would be the first of many to pass judgement on captured Nazi war criminals who would face harsh Soviet justice for the brutal crimes they had committed in the occupied eastern territory.
The Ukrainian city of Kharkov suffered greatly during World War II, and was first captured by the Germany Army on 23/24 October 1941 as part of Operation Barbarossa, and following closely behind the Wehrmacht units were the dreaded Einsatzgruppen. These SS death squads were sent to the East to liquidate undesirables amongst the population through mass executions, and were responsible for the mass shooting of tens of thousands of Jews, Soviet Commissars, prisoners of war and others deemed racial inferior to the Nazis. One such incident resulted in the deaths of over fifteen thousand who were shot at the Drobytsky Yar ravine in Karkhov. It was reported the children were thrown into the pit alive to save on ammunition, on the understanding they would freeze to death. The Germans also experimented with the use of "gas vans", as a precursor to the wholesale slaughter of Jews in the gas chambers of the death camps.
Battle of Kharkov
The City of Kharkov
The Soviet Red Army made a disastrous attempt that failed to recapture the city in May 1942, and launched another successful counter-attack that briefly reclaimed the city on 16 February 1943, but were soon forced to retreat in the face of an advance by the Wehrmacht on 15 March 1943. During the temporary occupation of the city in the spring, the Soviet authorities uncovered evidence of mass graves containing the bodies of executed victims, mostly Jews. On 23 August 1943, the Red Army launched another offensive that finally retook the city from the Germans, who were forced to retreat deeper into the Reich. Kharkov was the third largest city in the Soviet Union and over seventy percent of the city was destroyed and thousands of the inhabitants had been killed during the fighting. Kharkov once had a significant Jewish population, and boasted the second largest synagogue in Europe, however by August 1943 there were almost no Jews left in the city.
During the chaos of the German retreat, the Red Army had managed to capture some of the Nazi officials who were held responsible for the murders. On 19 December 1943, the press department of the diplomatic service distributed a communication by Reuters from Moscow with a report about a trial. It mentioned three Germans, one of whom was described as the deputy commander of the Kharkov Gestapo, and one Russian. It also made reference to the crimes the men were accused of; "The accusation against the three Germans was that during the temporary occupation of the city of Kharkov this year, they had taken part in the brutal mass extermination of peaceful Soviet citizens by means of gas vans and other methods." The men were named as Hans Ritz; an SS-Untersturmführer and the deputy commander of the Kharkov Gestapo, Wilhelm Langheld; a Hauptmann with the Wehrmacht's counter-espionage department, Reinhard Retzlaw; an Obergrefreiter/senior-lance corporal of the Secret Field Police and Mikhail Petrovich Bulanov; who worked as a chauffeur at the Kharkov SD Headquarters.
The open trial took place in Kharkov from 15 December until 18 December 1943 and was presided over by Major-General A. N. Myasnikov who acted as the chairman of the Military Tribunal of the 4th Ukrainian Front and was assisted by Judges; Colonel M. A. Kharchev, Major S. S. Zapolsky and secretary; Captain N. M. Kandybin in cooperation with the State Prosecutor Colonel N. K. Dunayev. The court appointed defence counsel were Soviet lawyers N. V. Kommodov, S. K Kaznacheyev and N. P. Belov. The case against the defendants charged them with having committed atrocities in the city of Kharkov and the Kharkov region and described them as "German-fascist invaders".
During the initial German occupation of the city in October 1941, the Nazis began their implementation of punitive measures against the civilian population. Some 30,000 Soviet citizens, including men, women and children were murdered through various means, including being shot, hung, poisoned by carbon monoxide gas and burned alive during the temporary German invasion. The court heard that in November 1941, the Gestapo had moved 20,000 civilians from their apartments in the city and relocated them to barracks on the territory of the Kharkov Tractor Plant. There they were taken to the nearest ravine at Drobytsky Yar in groups of 200-300 and shot.
It was alleged the Wehrmacht, under orders from the German High Command, also took part in the extermination of Soviet citizenry, killing patients, wounded soldiers and even children who had been hospitalised. These murders occurred in December 1941, and were also carried out by the Gestapo, who shot 435 patients that were being treated at the Kharkov Regional Hospital, amongst them many children and the elderly. Witnesses reported how hundreds of others were arrested and subjected to torture and humiliation during fatal interrogations in what were described as the "Fascist torture chambers of the Gestapo." The German High Command was also accused of using so-called "gazenwagons", large enclosed trucks used in the mass killings of Soviet citizens. These trucks were used to murder people who were forced into back compartment which was then filled with poisonous carbon-monoxide gas causing suffocation. The Germans then burnt the bodies in an attempt to cover-up all trace of these crimes.
When the Red Army launched a counter-attack which retook the city in February 1943, they uncovered some of the mass graves of the Einsatzgruppen victims. The Soviet Government then began a preliminary investigation into these crimes, but German forces recaptured the city in March 1943. The court was then presented with witness testimony that upon retaking the city, the Nazis removed 800 wounded officers and men of the Red Army who were being treated at the 1st Army Marshalling Hospital of the 69th Army, located in Kharkov on Trinkler Street, who were shot and burned alive. These measures contravened the generally accepted laws and customs of war of the Geneva Convention, which established the standards for international law for the humanitarian treatment of prisoners of war.
As described in court papers, these crimes were committed by members of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler commanded by SS-Oberstgruppenführer Sepp Dietrich, the 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf commanded by SS-Oberführer Hermann Priess, the Kharkov SD Sonderkommando led by SS-Sturmbannführer Hanebitter and the German Secret Field Police let by Police Commissioner Karkhan. The defendants were members of the Wehrmacht, SS, Secret Field Police and a Russian Hilfswilliger, meaning "voluntary assistant" who was branded a traitor to the motherland by the Soviet media. Once the defence had presented their argument for each of the defendants, the prosecution began to establish the guilt of each individual on trial. The charges pertaining to each individual defendant were that each had been part of the common design to exterminate the Soviet citizens of Kharkov, through the use of torture, murder and mass executions.
The court presented evidence that 52-year-old Wilhelm Langheld, an officer in the military counter-intelligence, had actively participated in the shootings and atrocities which were committed against Russian prisoners of war and the civilian population. It was described how he conducted interrogations against prisoners of war and attempted to extract false confessions through the use of torture, and was personally involved in the fabrication of a number of cases against civilians who were then executed. The Deputy Commander of the Kharkov Gestapo and attached to the Kharkov SD Sonderkommando, 24-year-old Hans Ritz was personally responsible for the torture and shootings of Soviet civilians in the vicinity of the Ukrainian village of Podvorki near Kharkov. It was alleged Ritz organised the mass shootings carried out by the SD Sonderkommando in the city of Taganrog and oversaw the interrogation and beating of prisoners, using rubber hoses and rods to obtain false confessions.
Reinhard Retzlaw, 36-years-old, and an offical of the German secret field police which operated in the city Kharkov had conducted investigations of cases which resulted in the arrest and torture of Soviet citizens. It was described how Retzlaw attempted to obtain these confessions by pulling out the hair of prisoners and sticking pins into them. He was responsible for gathering false confessions from 28 Soviet citizens, some of whom were later shot and the rest murdered in the gas vans. Later he participated in the unloading of bodies and the cremation of his victims. The last defendant, 26-year-old Mikhail Bulanov had been working as a chauffeur at the Kharkov SD Headquarters and was described as a traitor to the Soviet Union who had participated in the extermination of Soviet civilians. It was alleged he took Soviet citizens out to be shot and was personally involved in the executions of 60 children, through shootings and the use of gas vans.
The court then heard the testimony and explanations of each of the defendants, who presented their defence along the only lines available to their lawyers, that they were merely following the orders of their superiors. The court accepted they were indeed following superior orders, but rejected it as a valid defence. The defendants admitted to their culpability and guilt, describing their crimes in detail which included the use of mass shootings and gas vans which caused the deaths of 30,000 men, women and children. All these actions were encouraged and rewarded by their superiors. A six-man Soviet forensic team presented their expert testimony and a compiled report on the manner of the killings, which was consistent with shooting and the use of gas vans. The trial concluded on 18 December 1943, and the Military Tribunal of the 4th Ukrainian Front then passed sentence on the accused, all of whom were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. The verdict was definite and appeals were denied.
At 11:00am on 19 December 1943, the sentences were carried out on all four men in the city's main square. More than 40,000 Soviet citizens of Kharkov and the surrounding districts, officers and men of the Red Army, as well as Soviet and foreign news reporters attended the public executions. The announcement that the sentence had been carried out was greeted with prolonged applause from the assembled crowd. The Kharkov trial would prove a precedent to later trials conducted to try other German and Russian war criminals who had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity and the people of the Soviet Union.
Written by Nucleus
Written by Nucleus