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Berger was an early member of the Nazi party and the SA, who collaborated with Himmler in writing party literature. He is believed to have helped mastermind the creation of Waffen-SS, which he joined in 1936, and to which he recruited a vast membership through his noted organising abilities. Appointed supervisor of prison camps, he would later be tried for the death marches of Allied prisoners, though he was able to convince the court that he was moving them away from a combat zone in accordance with the Geneva Convention. He was however jailed for the genocide of European Jews, his sentence being reduced in acknowledgment of his rescuing of the Colditz Prominente (celebrity prisoners) and others whom Hitler had ordered executed in the last days of his life.
He was born at Gerstetten, Württemberg. Berger volunteered for military service at the beginning of World War I and rose to the rank of first lieutenant in the infantry by the time of his discharge in 1919. He received several wounds and decorations of the Iron Cross first and second class. After joining the Nazi Party in 1922, he became a member of the SA and entered SS service in 1936. He achieved the rank of major in the reserve by 1938, but his initial rank upon entering the SS was colonel, based upon his SA service through 1933. According to some historians, Berger was one of the principal masterminds behind the eventual creation of the Waffen SS.
Nazi organizational efforts
He was a co-author of Heinrich Himmler's pamphlet Der Untermensch, and also promoted the pamphlet Mit Schwert und Wiege (With Sword and Cradle) for the recruitment of non-Germans. He was the father-in-law of SS-Sturmbannführer Karl Leib, the head of the Norwegian recruitment office at Drammensveien, Oslo. In SS ranks, he was known as one of Himmler's "Twelve Apostles" and was nicknamed "der Allmaechtige Gottlob"—"the Almighty Gottlob" (a play on "The almighty God", as "Gott" is the German word for "God"). His organizational abilities contributed to the amazing expansion of the Waffen-SS in World War II, but he also became ensnared in typical in-fighting among the SS hierarchy.
He ran the main SS office in Berlin from 1940 and was involved in liaising with the so-called "Eastern Territories". In August 1944, he was sent to deal with an uprising in Slovakia and immediately after this was put in control of all prisoner of war camps. Upon the establishment of the Volkssturm in 1944 Berger was appointed one of two Chiefs of Staff along with Helmuth Friedrichs.
Trials for crimes against humanity
that between September 1944 and May 1945, hundreds of thousands of American and Allied prisoners of war were compelled to undertake forced marches in severe weather without adequate rest, shelter, food, clothing and medical supplies; and that such forced marches, conducted under the authority of the defendant Berger, chief of Prisoner-of-War Affairs, resulted in great privation and deaths to many thousands of prisoners.
Berger claimed that it was in fact the Germans' duty under the 1929 Geneva Convention to remove POWs from a potential combat zone, as long as it did not put their lives in even greater danger. He also claimed that the rapid advance of the Red Army had surprised the Germans, who had planned to transport the POWs by train. He claimed that he had protested against the decision made by Adolf Hitler. According to Berger, he was "without power or authority to countermand or avoid the order". He was acquitted due to these statements and the lack of eyewitness evidence—most ex-POWs were completely unaware of the trial taking place.
He was however convicted in 1949 for his role in the genocide of European Jews and sentenced to 25 years in prison. The sentence was reduced to 10 years in 1951 because of his refusal to kill The Prominente in Oflag IV-C at Colditz Castle, despite direct orders from Hitler. He had helped these prisoners escape by moving them to Bavaria and then to Austria, where he met up with them twice before they were returned to American forces. He claimed that he had saved the Prominente as Ernst Kaltenbrunner (head of the RSHA) had sent a group of extremists to try to kill them.
After the war, he claimed that Hitler had wanted more shootings of prisoners and more punishments, but that he had resisted this. In 1948, Berger gave details to an American judge in Nuremberg of Hitler's plans to hold 35,000 Allied prisoners hostage in a "last redoubt" in the Bavarian mountains. If a peace deal was not forthcoming, Hitler had ordered that the hostages were to be executed. Berger claimed that on 22 April 1945, Hitler had signed orders to this effect and these were passed to him by Eva Braun but he decided to stall and not carry out the order.
After World War II, Berger also claimed that there was a plan, proposed by the Luftwaffe and approved by Hitler, to set up special POW camps for captured British and American airmen in the center of large German cities to act as human shields against Allied bombing raids. Berger realized that this would contravene the 1929 Geneva Convention and argued that there was not enough barbed wire—as a result, this plan was not implemented.
Activities after release from prison
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- Weale, Adrian (2012). Army of Evil: A History of the SS. New York: NAL Caliber. pp. 246–247. ISBN 978-0-451-23791-0.
- "The Last Escape – John Nichol, Tony Rennell – 2002 Penguin UK". Penguin.co.uk. 2003-09-04. Retrieved 2013-07-23.
- Ian Dear, Michael Richard Daniell Foot (eds.), The Oxford Companion to World War II, Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 369
- Trials of War criminals before the Nuernberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No 10, Vol. XIII (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1952)
- Berger statement to Allied intelligence officers, Nuremberg, 19 October 1945