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Willi Herold (11 September 1925 – 14 November 1946), also known as "the Executioner of Emsland," was a German war criminal. Near the end of World War II in Europe, Herold deserted from the German Army and, posing as a Luftwaffe captain, organized the mass execution of deserters held at a German prison camp. Herold was arrested by British forces and executed for war crimes on 14 November 1946 at Wolfenbüttel prison.
Herold was born on 11 September 1925 in Lunzenau, Saxony, the son of a roofer. He attended the Volksschule and the Technische Schule in Chemnitz, where he undertook the chimney sweep training course.
Second World War
On 30 September 1943, Herold was called up for military service. After basic training with a parachute regiment in Tangermünde, he was sent to Italy and fought at Nettuno and Monte Cassino, where he was promoted to the rank of corporal and awarded the Iron Cross First Class for the destruction of two British tanks on the beach of Salerno.
In March 1945, Herold's unit was relocated to Germany. In the chaos of the retreating German army, Herold became separated from his unit in early April 1945. Near Gronau and Bad Bentheim, Herold came across an abandoned car containing the luggage of a Luftwaffe captain. Herold put on this uniform and pretended to be the officer, gathering around him a number of equally lost soldiers.
On 11 April 1945, Herold's group arrived at the Aschendorfermoor prison camp (containing German army deserters), one of the Emslandlager camps. Herold told the German authorities at the camp that he was acting under the direct orders of Adolf Hitler and took command. Herold and his men then began to murder inmates guilty of any transgression (for example, a group who had recently attempted to escape). Within the next eight days, Herold had 90 camp inmates murdered.
Following an air raid on the camp, most of the surviving inmates managed to escape. Herold's group left the camp and committed several further war crimes; they hanged (possibly shot, but German law said hanging was the intended punishment) a farmer in Leer, East Frisia, who had hoisted a white flag, and also murdered five Dutchmen for alleged espionage.
Retreating from the advancing Allies, Herold's group arrived in Aurich where they were arrested by the local German commander. Herold confessed to his crimes and was transferred to Norden for trial by the Kriegsmarine. In the chaos of the last days of the war, Herold was released by mistake.
Arrest, trial and execution
Herold headed for Wilhelmshaven and returned to his old profession as a chimney sweeper. He was arrested by Royal Navy personnel on 23 May 1945 for the theft of a loaf of bread. Following an investigation and the questioning of witnesses, Herold was identified as a wanted war criminal. On 1 February 1946, Herold and his men were forced by the British occupying forces to dig up the remains of the inmates murdered at Aschendorfermoor camp.
A total of 195 bodies were excavated. In August 1946, Herold and 12 others were tried in Oldenburg by the British (overseen by Colonel H. Brown). They were held responsible for the murder of 125 people. On 29 August 1946, Herold and six other co-defendants (Karl Hagewald, Bernhard Meyer, Karl Schütte, Josef Euler, Hermann Brandt and Otto Paeller) were sentenced to death, while five others were acquitted. On 14 November 1946, Herold and the five other defendants were executed by guillotining by Friedrich Hehr in Wolfenbüttel prison.
- Kurt Buck: In Search of the Moor Soldier. Emslandlager 1933-1945 and the historical places today. 6th, extended edition. Documentation and Information Center Emslandlager, Papenburg 2008, ISBN 978-3926277169.
- TXH Pantcheff: The Executioner of the Emsland. Willi Herold, 19 years old. A German lesson . Bund-Verlag, Cologne 1987, ISBN 3-7663-3061-6 . (2nd edition as: The Executioner of Emsland: Documentation of a barbarism at the end of the war 1995. Schuster, Leer 1995, ISBN 3-7963-0324-2).
- Heinrich and Inge Peters: Pattjackenblut. Dying to die - in line with 5 members. The "Herold Massacre in the Emsland camp II Aschendorfermoor in April 1945". Books on Demand, Norderstedt 2014, ISBN 978-3-7357-6297-9.
- The Captain (German: Der Hauptmann) - film based on the events surrounding Herold. Directed by Robert Schwentke. Germany 2017.
- Raim, Edith (2014). Nazi Crimes against Jews and German Post-War Justice: The West German Judicial System During Allied Occupation (1945–1949). Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG. p. 122. ISBN 9783110300666.
- Brody, Richard (2018-07-24). "Two Films About Nazis Show the Difference Between Engaging with History and Exploiting It". ISSN 0028-792X. Retrieved 2019-08-10.
- Berlin, Allan Hall (14 October 2017). "Massacre by Nazi impostor Willi Herold to be retold in film Der Hauptmann (The Captain)". Thetimes.co.uk. Retrieved 14 September 2018.
- Pfaffenzeller, Martin (2017-08-14). "'Der Henker vom Emsland': Kleider machen Mörder" (in German). Retrieved 2020-06-30.
- Wöste, Hans-Christian (2015-04-26). "In falscher Uniform vom Schornsteinfeger zum Henker" (in German). Retrieved 2020-06-30.
- "'The Captain': Film Review - TIFF 2017". Hollywoodreporter.com. Retrieved 14 September 2018.