The execution of women by the Nazis during World War II

This is a tribute to the amazing courage of so many young women during World War II who were put to death for plotting and fighting against the Nazis, as resistance fighters, partisans and activists in towns and concentration camps.
It is estimated that more than 4,000 women of various ages were hanged by Nazi forces between 1939 and 1945. Many more were shot or guillotined and many were tortured before minimal or non-existent trials. They could be sentenced to death by People's Courts and executed within prisons, by the commandants of concentration camps or by military commanders in the field and summarily executed, usually in public. Some of these "field" executions were documented and photographed. A lot of the photographs were private snaps taken by individual soldiers and discovered after they had been captured or killed. Hanging was the preferred method for the execution for partisans as it produced more of a public spectacle than shooting and was used to terrorise the local populace as well as entertain the troops. Guillotining within prisons was used for German citizens convicted of treason and other offences after trial by the People's Courts.

Executions in the field.
A gallows was used when the Nazis wanted to make a particular example of the prisoner and these were usually crude and simple structures that did not have a trapdoor or drop. They typically consisted of just a post with a short beam projecting from the top cross braced to the upright. Trees or balconies were also used as was any other structure that was available, e.g. the roof beams of a barn.

Prisoners were never hooded and rarely blindfolded. Their hands were normally tied behind their backs with cord but their legs usually left free. They were given little or no drop, partially to prolong the pleasure of the soldiers and because their cruel and slow deaths would act as a stronger deterrent to the local people who were often made to witness the event. Typically a thin rope was used, fashioned into a simple slip knot. It was not unusual for prisoners to kick and struggle after suspension and to lose control of their bladders and bowels. The bodies could be left hanging for several days as a grim reminder to others. In cold weather, they were sometimes left hanging for a week while in summer they would be taken down sooner, perhaps two to three hours after the hanging.

Masha Bruskina.
Masha Bruskina was a Russian teenage female partisan. She was a 17 year old Jewish high school graduate and was the first teenage girl to be publicly hanged by the Nazis in Belorussia (Belarus), since the German invasion of Soviet Union on the 22nd of June 1941. Her execution and that of the two men hanged with her took place on the 26th of October 1941 in the city of Minsk. In the photos of her, you will see that she has blond hair, but her natural colour was dark. She dyed her hair when she started to work for the underground. Witnesses to her hanging, testified that Masha struggled hard and lost control of her bladder and bowels. After hanging for three days, she and the men were taken down and only when her body was traditionally washed before her burial by local people and members of her family, did her dark hair show up. She worked as a nurse in a military hospital and was a member of an underground cell which aided Soviet officers hospitalised there to escape and join the partisans. The members of this cell were informed on and quickly rounded up. Masha and two of her male comrades, Volodya Sherbateivich and Krill Trous, were sentenced to death. They were led through the streets with Masha wearing a large placard proclaiming that they were partisans and hanged one at a time, Masha first, by the 707 Infanteriedivision, who meticulously filmed the proceedings. Click here for photographs.

Zoya Anatolyevna Kosmodemyanskaya & Vera Voloshina.
Zoya Kosmodemjanskaja was another Russian partisan. She was born on the 14th of September 1923 and belonged to the Diversionsabteilung no. 9903 of the Soviet secret police (NKVD), which ran some 400 agents.
On the night of
the 27th of November 1941, Zoya, together with two comrades, set fire to a building in the village of Petrischtschewo near Moscow. German soldiers quickly caught one of them - Wassilij Klubkow. Under interrogation he betrayed Zoya. She was arrested and tortured before being sentenced to hang. 
Eighteen year old Zoya was executed near
Moscow, on the 29th of November 1941. Round her neck was hung a sign describing the reason for her execution. Just before she was pushed off the stack of boxes they had placed under the simple gallows, she told the soldiers, "You can’t hang all 190 million of us." Her partly clothed body was left to rot in the snow. Click here for photographs.
During Zoya's interrogation, she used the name of Tanya (a popular Russian first name) as an alias and her real name was only discovered much later. Even in the newspaper article, where her execution was described in full detail, the author calls her Tanya. Zoya adopted this name from a woman called Tanya (last name unknown) who was one of the heroes of Civil War in
Russia (1918-1922) and had been hanged by the White Guards.  Zoya was posthumously decorated a Hero of the Soviet Union as was her brother, Shura, for his service in the Red Army tank corps.  Vera Voloshina served in the same partisan group as Zoya and was described as a pretty 23 year old blonde. She had been wounded in the shoulder during a gun fight with German soldiers and captured. After torture, Vera Voloshina was also publicly hanged, later the same day.

Klava Nazarova.
Klava Nazarova was hanged in 1942 and is one of the three women who were later made Heroes of Soviet Union. The other two were Zoya (above) and Maria Kislyak (see below).
Klava was born in 1918 and was 24 when she died. She was said to be quite an attractive girl. Klava was a Komsomol member and when the Germans occupied her town of
Ostrov in Russia in 1941, she and her friends organised an underground resistance squad. On November the 7th 1942, Klava and another girl, Nura Ivanova with two young men, Nikolai Mikhailov and Konstantin Dmitriev, and the parents of another organisation member, husband and wife Nadezhda and Ivan Kozlovskiy, were all arrested. After torture, they were each sentenced to death.
The Nazis made a big show of the hangings to intimidate the town's people. On
December the 12th 1942, a wooden gallows was erected in the town square of Ostrov and the townsfolk were forced to watch the proceedings. The executions were carried out in three parts.
Klava and Nura were first to suffer. The girls were led out and the soldiers hoisted Klava onto a stool beneath the beam. She was wearing a light grey coat without a hat or scarf and her hands were tied behind her back. The executioner put the noose around her neck and one of the officers took pictures of her. A moment before the stool was removed from under her feet, Klava, screamed to the crowd: - Farewell! We'll win! We... The next moment she was hanging. Nura was then hanged beside her.
From Ostrov a procession of soldiers went to the next village, Nogino. The executioners stopped at a barn in Nogino and put up two nooses on a crossbeam. Here they hanged Ivan and Nadezhda Kozlovskiy. Nadezhda was said to have been almost unconscious before she hanged.
The final pair of this series of executions took place in the
village of Ryadobzha where Nikolai Mikhailov and Konstantin Dmitriev were hanged together.

Maria Kislyak.
Maria Kislyak was born in March 1925, in the village of Lednoe in the Kharkov region of the Ukraine. The village had been occupied by the Germans during 1943. Maria and her school friend, Fedor Rudenko, who were both Komsomol members, hatched a plan to murder a German officer as an act of revenge for the cruelty inflicted by the Nazis on the local people. The plan was for 18 year old Maria, who was very pretty, to make friends with a German Lieutenant. She suggested to this man that they went for a walk in the countryside to which he naturally agreed. Outside the village, Fedor was waiting for them and came up behind the soldier and hit him over the head with an iron crowbar. Maria was arrested the next day and violently beaten during her interrogations but maintained her innocence throughout. As they could not prove anything, they finally let her go.
Several months later, Maria and her friends murdered another officer in the same way. This time the Germans arrested nearly 100 inhabitants as hostages and declared that they would execute them all if the murderers didn't come forward. The following day Maria and her friends gave themselves up to the Gestapo and confessed to the murder. Maria claimed that she was the leader of the group.
June the 18th, 1943, Maria, Fedor Rudenko and their comrade Vasiliy Bugrimenko (both 19) were publicly hanged on the branch of an ash tree.
Three nooses dangled from the branch each with a box under it. The prisoners were made to step up onto the boxes, the executioner noosed them and then boxes were kicked out from under their feet leaving them to slowly strangle to death.
Click here for photograph.

Lepa Radic.
Seventeen year old Lepa Radic was also publicly hanged from the branch of a tree, in Bosanska Krupa in Bosnia in January 1943, for shooting at German soldiers. She was made to stand on a large chest, her hands were tied behind her and she was noosed with a thin cord. The chest was pulled away leaving her suspended. Click here for photographs.

The reasons for executing young girls in public were several fold. They were viewed as terrorists by the Germans (which in a sense they were), the hangings served as a grim example to the local population - if the Germans would hang a teenage girl then they would hang any adult, and finally that the executions provided a morbid entertainment for the soldiers.

Lots of men were hanged too and many men and women were shot. But hanging was always preferred for young girls for the reasons above. Many of these young people met their deaths with amazing courage. They were very brave anyway to do the things they did against the Nazis. Many of them also demonstrated a strong streak of defiance - they were not going to let the hated enemy soldiers see them cry or break down. I am sure they were very frightened - knowing that they would have a cruel and degrading death in public but they resolved to hide their fear. The last words of several of them indicate this defiance.  I think there may well also have been a sense of martyrdom. They would have seen the appalling treatment of their people by the Nazis and decided to avenge it and didn't mind dying for what they believed in, having done so.

Executions in the concentration camps.
Every concentration camp had a gallows and these were used to make an example of prisoners who had tried to escape or committed certain offences against the camp rules or members of staff. It was normal for all the camp inmates to be paraded and made to watch the hangings. In addition to hangings, many prisoners were shot and Auschwitz had a "death wall" where these executions were carried out. Click here for photographs. Guillotining was not used in the camps and the gas chambers were not seen as a method of execution but rather as a method of extermination.

Roza Robota & Ala Gertner.
Roza Robota was a Polish Jew who was an underground activist in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp. She was a member of the Birkenau Sonderkommando. In 1944, this group planned an uprising in the women’s camp at Auschwitz. The plan was to blow up one of the crematoria which it was hoped would lead to a general uprising in the camp.
Using dynamite that had been smuggled in stick by stick by girls who worked in the ammunition factory, they managed to blow up Krema IV (Crematorium 4) on
October the 7th, 1944.
Ala Gertner, was a 32 year old married woman, who also became part of the resistance movement in the camp and recruited Estera Wajcblum and Regina Safirsztajn because they had access to explosives. They passed whatever they could steal to
Ala, who transferred it to Roza, who in turn, gave it to other members of the Sonderkommando in preparation for the operation.
Roza and her three comrades,
Ala, Regina Saperstein and Estera Wajcblum were arrested, interrogated and condemned for the theft of the explosives. All four went to the gallows on January 6th, 1945. They were led out and made to stand on folding chairs placed under the beam. Once they had been noosed and their death sentences read out to the assembled inmates, the chairs were taken away and they were left suspended. Roza's last word prior to her execution was, "Nekama!" Revenge! She enjoined the other inmates to "Be strong, have courage".

Mala Zimetbaum.
Twenty two year old Mala Zimetbaum was another Polish Jew who been interned at Auschwitz. She was the first woman to escape from the camp but she and a young soldier named Edek, who absconded with her, were soon caught and returned to Auschwitz. Both were sentenced to hang in front of the assembled inmates. She was led out and mounted the gallows but while her sentence was being read out, she slashed her wrists with a razor blade she had concealed up her sleeve. As the guards tried to take the blade from her, Mala slapped one across the face with her bloodied hand and yelled, "I fall a heroine and you will die as a dog." She was not hanged but bled to death, dying on her way to the crematorium on a handcart pulled by women prisoners. Mala's story became a legend at Auschwitz as a symbol of courage and defiance.
Click here for photographs of these brave women.

Child hanged.
There is eyewitness testimony of how a female guard named Braunsteiner ordered a 14 year old girl to be hanged in one concentration camp. An SS man was told to get a stool so the girl could step up into the noose dangling from a simple crossbeam gallows. She had the man ask the girl in her own language if she understood that she was going to be hanged. The girl said she understood it but didn't cry or scream. Moments later the stool was removed leaving her hanging.

Executions in Berlin's Plötzensee prison.
Plötzensee prison in Berlin was designed by architect, Ludwig Alexander Herrmann, and was constructed between 1869 and 1879 to serve as the new state prison. It occupied a plot of 62 acres with a six meter high perimeter wall. Within the walls were five three story prison buildings which were originally designed to hold 1,400 prisoners. These buildings, together with the workshops, other smaller buildings and a church, were separated by open courtyards creating a totally self-contained environment for the inmates.  It can still be visited and there is a memorial centre to those who died there.

In the years 1928 to 1932, the number of executions in the whole of Germany had dropped to two or three a year but with the rise of the National Socialist party in 1933, there was a sudden increase in the application of the death penalty. Before 1933, only murder and high treason were capital crimes and in Berlin, beheading (with the axe) was the only lawful method of execution. (Other states used beheading with the axe or the guillotine). One of the last executions by the axe in Plötzensee were those of the Baroness Benita von Falkenhayn and her friend Renate von Natzner , who were convicted of spying and beheaded by the executioner, Carl Gröpler, on the 18th of February 1935.  In all, 45 people were beheaded in the prison courtyard between 1933 and 1936.  Only 36 had been beheaded here in the period 1890–1932,  all for murder.
There were 64 executions in
Germany in 1933, 79 in 1934, 94 in 1935 and 68 in 1936.
When Hitler came to total power, he decided that criminals and those who opposed his regime should suffer death by either guillotining or from 1942, hanging, and he ordered the construction of 20 guillotines. Hitler also greatly increased the list of capital crimes. Between 1933 and 1944, a total of 13,405 death sentences were passed. Of these, 11,881 were carried out. In 1940 alone, some 900 German civilians were put to death. In 1941, the minimum age for execution was reduced to just 14 years.
The execution rate had risen to over 5,000 by 1943. Between 1943 and 1945, the People's Courts sentenced around 7,000 people to death. In the first few months of 1945, some 800 people were executed, over 400 of them being German citizens. 

Condemned prisoners were kept in a large cell block building (House III) directly adjacent to the execution building. They spent their final hours shackled in special cells on the ground floor, which was known as the ”house of the dead,” before being led across a small courtyard to the execution chamber which was located in a separate two roomed brick building. Plötzensee's guillotine was delivered on the 17th of February 1937 from Bruchsal prison in Baden. In late 1942, a steel gallows beam was erected in the existing execution chamber, and originally had five, later eight hooks, for attachment of nooses.  The two execution areas were separated by curtains.
Between 1933 and 1945, some 2,891 people were decapitated or hanged in this building. Many of them were opponents of Hitler's National Socialist government. They had been sentenced to death by the People's Courts, having been found guilty of various offences against the regime. Some of them had belonged to Communist resistance groups, others to the Harnack/Schulze-Boysen Organization (the Red Orchestra), and still others to the
Kreisau Circle. On the 20th of July 1944, an attempt was made on Hitler's life by a group of army officers led by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg. The attempt failed, and between the 8th of August 1944 and the 9th of April 1945, a total of 90 people were executed in Plötzensee for their parts in the conspiracy.   For a list of their names go to

Click here for a photograph of the death house.

Initially Roettger, the executioner, normally came twice a week and carried out his work in the early evenings. Guillotinings could be carried out at three minute intervals.  Hangings were notably cruel, the prisoner was led in with their hands tied behind them and made to get up onto the two step step-up, the executioner following them and placing the thin cord slip knot around their neck. They were not hooded or blindfolded. The executioner got down and simply pulled the step-up from under them leaving them suspended with little or no drop. Second and subsequent prisoners had to witness the struggles of the first before it was their turn. On the night of the 7th–8th September 1943, 186 prisoners were hanged in groups of 8 at a time to prevent their escape from the prison following heavy damage by an Allied bombing raid in which the guillotine was destroyed. A further 60 were to be hanged over the next few nights.

Some individual cases.

Lilo Hermann.
Liselotte  “Lilo” Hermann was a 29 year old German student. She passed information she had received from Artur Göritz about Hitler’s secret rearmament program and the production of armaments in the Dornier plant in Friedrichshafen and about the construction of an underground munitions factory near Celle to the Central Committee of the German Communist Party in Switzerland. She was arrested in December 1935 and finally sentenced to death for high treason by the “People’s Court” in Berlin on the 12th of June 1937, becoming the first woman to be condemned for this offence by the Third Reich.  She was guillotined together with her accomplices, Stefan Lovasz, Josef Steidle, and Artur Göritz, on the 20th of June 1938.

Mildred Harnack.
Mildred was born Mildred Fish in Milwaukee USA on September 16th, 1902. In 1926, she married Arvid Harnack, whom she met while studying literature at Wisconsin University. In 1929, she and her husband moved to Berlin where she was a lecturer at the university. They became friends with Martha Dodd and were often invited to receptions at the American Embassy where she met many influential Germans. When the war started, Arvid and Mildred supported the resistance movement against the Nazi regime through their friendship with Harro Schulze-Boysen and the spy ring known as "The Red Orchestra". On September 7th, 1942, she was arrested and taken to Gestapo headquarters. At her trial in December 1942, she was sentenced to six years in prison for "helping to prepare high treason and espionage". On December 21st, Hitler rejected the sentence and ordered another trial which took place in January 1943 and resulted in a death sentence. At 6.57 p.m. on February the 16th, 1943, Mildred Harnack was guillotined, becoming the only American woman to be executed for treason in World War II. (By September 1943, all 51 members of the “Red Orchestra” had died, two by suicide, eight on the gallows and 41 by guillotine, including Harro Schulze-Boysen and his wife Libertas  on the evening of the 22nd of December 1942).

Eva-Marie Buch.
Eva was a bookseller and also worked for the Schulze-Boysen-Harnack resistance group. She was arrested on
October 10th, 1942 for passing messages to French slave workers in factories. On February 3rd, 1943, she was sentenced to death by the People's Court and was reportedly hanged on August the 5th of that year.  (It is more likely that she was guillotined, however, as this was the normal method for women.)

Cato Bontjes Van Beek.
Cato was born in 1921 and grew up in Bremen, the daughter of an artist. In 1942, she joined the resistance group and spy ring "Rote Kapelle" but left after only six weeks because of disagreements within the group. When the German authorities investigated the group, her name was discovered and this was enough evidence on which to arrest her, charge her with treason and sentence her to death. She was guillotined in the early evening of August the 5th, 1943.

Elizabeth Gloeden.
Elizabeth Charlotte Lilo Gloeden was a 31 year old Berlin housewife, who with her mother and husband, helped shelter those who were persecuted by the Nazis, by hiding them for weeks at a time in their flat. Among those they took in was resistance leader, Dr. Carl Goerdeler and the Mayor of Leipzig. Elizabeth, her mother and husband, were all arrested by the Gestapo, and subjected to torture under interrogation. On November 30th, 1944, all three were guillotined at two minute intervals.

Gertrud Seele.
Gertrud was 28 years old at the time of her execution and was a nurse and social worker. She had been born in Berlin and served for a time in the Nazi Labour Corps. She was arrested in 1944 for helping Jews to escape Nazi persecution and for "defeatist statements designed to undermine the moral of the people". She was tried before the People's Court in Potsdam and executed on the 12th of January 1945.

Ilse Stöbe.
Thirty one year old Ilse Stöbe worked for the German Foreign Secretary during World War II and was also involved with "Rote Kapelle”.  In the spring of 1942, she warned the Soviets about the planned attack on Russia but was ignored by the Soviet leaders.  Her warnings were intercepted by the  Gestapo and she was arrested and charged with treason.  She was guillotined at 8.27 p.m. on the evening of  December 22nd, 1942.

Sophie Scholl – guillotined in Munich.
Sophie Scholl was a 22 year old philosophy student at Munich University and she, her older brother Hans and his friend, Christoph were members of an anti- Nazi organisation called The White Rose. They were caught helping to distribute an anti-Nazi pamphlet in the university and were taken to Wittelsbach Palais, where they were interrogated for four days by they Gestapo before coming to trial on February the 22nd, 1943. They were quickly found guilty and sentenced to death. All three were guillotined by Johann Reichhart in Munich's Stadelheim prison within hours of the verdict on that same day. Sophie was taken to the guillotine first and reportedly walked to her death "without batting an eyelash". Her last words were "Die Sonne scheint noch," which translates as "The Sun still shines." She is buried in the Perlach Cemetery next to the prison.

Click here for a photo of Sophie.

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