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May 22, 2010

Martin Sommer, the infamous “hangman of Buchenwald”

Filed under: Buchenwald, Dachau, Germany, Holocaust, World War II — furtherglory @ 10:37 am

Martin Sommer was the SS man who was in charge of the bunker, which was the camp prison at Buchenwald. Sommer is famous as the alleged innovator of the hanging punishment in which prisoners were hung by their arms from the trees in the forest surrounding the Buchenwald camp. In 1942 Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, the man in charge of all the Nazi concentration camps, had decreed that the guards were forbidden to “lay violent hands on the prisoners.”

Martin Sommer was put on trial by SS judge Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen in a Nazi court in 1943 at the same time that Buchenwald Commandant Karl Otto Koch and his wife Ilse were put on trial for embezzlement and abuse of the prisoners at Buchenwald. Karl Otto Koch was convicted and executed, but his wife was acquitted of all charges. Martin Sommer was transferred to  the Russian front after the trial.

Martin Sommer escaped punishment for his alleged crimes until 1958, when he was put on trial in Bayreuth district court in West Germany and convicted of the murder of 25 prisoners by injection.  Sommer received a life sentence; the case was upheld in May 1959 by the Federal Court. 

On July 14, 1958, Time magazine published an article about the trial of Martin Sommer, which you can read on the Time web site.  I have quoted the article below:

In other circumstances the man in the wheelchair would have seemed a pathetic figure. He had been at Buchenwald concentration camp. His face was pale and craggy, his left arm a stump, his right leg missing. Sick and shattered, he looked older than his 43 years. But in Bayreuth Circuit Court last week spectators hissed as the man was carried past. “Beast!” they cried. “Monster!”

Gerhard Martin Sommer, the man in the wheelchair, had indeed been at Buchenwald—but not as a prisoner. As the master of the punishment cellblock between 1938 and 1943, Sommer was the broad-shouldered bullyboy who, in the words of West German Prosecutor Helmut Paulik, perpetrated “probably the most hideous group of sadistic atrocities unearthed since the war.” In the camp where Use (sic) Koch, wife of the camp commandant and the “Bitch of Buchenwald.” purportedly made lampshades of human skin (she is serving a life term), SS Guardsman Gerhard Martin Sommer went so far in sadism that even his Nazi overlords were shocked. After an SS investigation they packed him off to the front “to redeem himself,” and there he lost a leg and an arm. After first declaring him unfit for trial, West German authorities changed their minds when Sommer married a blonde nurse in 1956, fathered her child and casually applied for an increase in his veterans’ pension. Sommer was haled (sic) into court. The charge: 53 murders. A psychiatrist’s finding: legally sane but flagrantly sadistic.

Sommer Specialties. For four weeks a parade of witnesses unfolded a grisly chronicle of crime that Prosecutor Paulik described as “a look into Dante’s inferno.” Sommer’s specialties:

¶ The whipping block—where prisoners were forced to count the strokes aloud as Sommer beat them with a heavy stick. When they lost count, Sommer started again. One man sentenced to 25 strokes got 60 lashes this way. He died on the spot. Sommer blandly admitted the beatings and even built a cardboard model of the whipping block to show the court. “I can’t claim to have hit the last strokes as hard as the first,” he said. “You always get a little tired.”

¶ The “singing forest”—so called because of the screams of the victims who were hung by their wrists to trees. Shown a photograph of prisoners hanging in this fashion, Sommer was asked, “Is that you standing beside the men?” Replied Sommer matter-of-factly: “No, we did not hang our prisoners so high.”

¶ Sommer’s bunker—where, according to former SS Judge Konrad Morgen, Sommer kept a secret compartment, concealed in the floor under his desk, to hide torture instruments and the needles with which he shot carbolic acid and air into his victims’ veins. Sommer often laid the bodies beneath his bed for the night.

Other testimony: Sommer beat a Weimar pastor, hung him outside, dashed buckets of water on him and left him to freeze to death. He beat a Catholic priest to death for hearing the confession of a fellow prisoner.

Tears of Pity. To keep the trial from going on indefinitely, defense and prosecution finally threw out all charges except one—23 murders by injection. Sommer denied that he had killed anyone.

Last week the three-man court and six-man jury in Bayreuth found Sommer guilty of murder, dealt to the master of punishment the maximum punishment permitted under West German law: life imprisonment. To the end Sommer was impassive. But when one German, looking at the cripple in the wheelchair, said, “You have already paid for your bestialities,” Sommer wept gratefully in pity—for himself.

The photograph that Martin Sommer was shown at his trial might have been the one shown below.

Photo of prisoners hanged from trees at Buchenwald is a fake

I took the photo shown above inside the Museum at the Dachau Memorial site in May 2001; when I returned in May 2003, this photo had been removed.  For years, Holocaust deniers had been saying that this photo was a fake, but I didn’t believe it until history professor Harold Marcuse e-mailed me and told me that this scene was created in 1958 for an East German DEFA film, which is why the photo is no longer used. Reference: H. Obenaus, “Das Foto vom Baumhängen: Ein Bild geht um die Welt,” in Stiftung Topographie des Terrors Berlin (ed.), Gedenkstätten-Rundbrief no. 68, Berlin, October 1995, pp. 3-8.

After the Buchenwald camp was liberated on April 11, 1945, the survivors put up an exhibit for the American soldiers that were brought to see the camp and also for the civilians in the city of Weimar who were forced, at gunpoint, to walk five miles uphill to see the display of atrocities, which included shrunken heads and a lampshade allegedly made of human skin.

Display put up by the prisoners at Buchenwald

Close-up of the sign above the Buchenwald display

The words on the sign, shown in the photo above, are “Ein Strafvollzug der Nazi-Kultur: Das sogenannte an den Baum hängen.” The last two words are illegible. The English translation is “A Punishment of Nazi Culture: The so-called hanging on a tree.”

Photos of Martin Sommer, the "hangman of Buchenwald"

(Click on the photo to enlarge.)

The photo above shows Martin Sommer in his SS uniform when he was a concentration camp guard.  He doesn’t look very sadistic to me in this photo, but the Axis History Forum has a photo of him when he was older which you can see here.

I don’t know what to think about Martin Sommer.  I suspect that he might have gotten a bad rap, like Amon Göth, the man who allegedly shot prisoners from his balcony at the Plaszow camp.  The fake photo, that was in the Dachau Museum between 1965 and 2003, concerns me.  Was the whole story about Martin Sommer a lie?  Why wasn’t he convicted of abusing prisoners with the cruel hanging punishment in his trial?

At the Dachau Memorial site, the tour guides make a big deal about the hanging punishment which was also allegedly used in the shower room at Dachau, where prisoners were hung from bars, which are no longer in existence.

Prisoners were allegedly hung from a bar in the Dachau shower room

Photo of Dachau shower room, May 2007

The color photo above shows where the bars were removed from the shower room at Dachau.  This room is now part of the Dachau Museum.

Whipping block in the shower room at Dachau Museum

The whipping punishment was discontinued in 1942 by order of Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler.  Tour guides at Dachau always point out the whipping block to visitors, but neglect to mention that this punishment was not used after 1942, and rarely used at all, according to the Nuremberg IMT testimony of Auschwitz Commandant Rudolf Hoess.

10 Comments »

  1. After all the nazi’s were the most uncivilized and most beasty people on earth , no doubt ! The fool thats called hitler ( I write his name with small blocks on purpose ) said once ” I can not see someone struggle ” and ” the slaciv people are avatistic ” , only a coward like hitler was , ( he killed himself and blamed the german people for losing the war ??!! ) you can say such a nonsense .
    It’s already proven that the nazi ‘s killed so many innocent people and admitted by The other fool himmler who was a coward too ! So don ‘t bother to deny the crime facts of te nazi ‘s , or you must be a phatethic unbeliever who even deny that Napoleon ever existed ! I laugh at such people !

    Comment by Kaeso — February 24, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

  2. [...] prisoners were hung by their arms tied behind their back. This punishment was originated by SS man Martin Sommer at the Buchenwald camp. Hanging by the arms was discontinued in all the camps by Reichsführer-SS [...]

    Pingback by Scottish students learn that little children were allowed to take their toys with them into the Auschwitz gas chamber « Scrapbookpages Blog — September 9, 2012 @ 11:48 am

  3. What is worse indeed, a hollocaust liar or denier. There is no such thing as a denier. Truth is seeked and people today are well aware of the powers of manipulation, gut intuition and how many follow blindly and naively. Look how many Obama supports are quick to get angry at anyone who even remotely dislikes the president despite all his lies.

    I honestly have no doubt the more I hear that so much was blamed on the nazis and created later simply for the jact that they messed with jews.
    These people have been around for centuries , anything I say is considered anti -semistism right? So then anything book can be written? Is it not possible Anne Frank is a complete marketing scam and made up story of some person that lived that no one even cared about?

    Is it possible that gas chambers were not even made available until 1948? Why would jews insist on staying in Germany and Berlin hiding in the walls and sewers forming a resistance and trying so hard to disrupt the party for kicking them out of Germany. Again clever film makers are rediculous stpries made up. Millions? That sounds outrageous. 33,000 were even freed . I know a race of being that controls everything today includiong hollywood and playing war games twould stop at nothing to insure revenge. I think jews are terrible vengeful mosters. If anything the nazis really shyould have gotten rid of them all. Lastly if you look up Dachaue on wikipedia it shows photos of people waving and happy caliming to be after the camp was seized…Truth?? Those were taken during thier stay. I also see photos of box cars.. It is more than obvious a collection of bodies was collected, either from the battlefield or starved people in russian camps and thrown into piles for effect. The nazis would not make skins, or be around rotting bodies like that the smell would have been unbearable yet not many documentations even mention smell. Hell even Jeffrey dahmer’s apartment stunk up the whole floor and building. What makes you think that many rotting bodies could not be smeeled miles away? and what 6 million could be controlled by the limited guards of the camps who were even women. No one questions anything because people want to belive this was all real. Now adays being insecure is encouraged and having low self esteem. They had no right to execute all the comanders of the camps either…clearly to get rid of anyone who had something to say . Hitler had very good intensions . Auchwitz was not a death camp it was a place to work and later have a chance to either be germanized or remain an inmate. Some misfortunate happenings did occur to political prisoners. Hitler nor Himmler could account for the action of every person in the 3rd reich and many were told not to abuse prisoners. Its also scary to know that a lot of Germans and poles were starved by Stalin and torchered. The footage also encorporated and edited into fabrications and claims. Technology and story telling is the one of the jews greatest assetts. Today 9/11 staged. Puppeteering, spreading arabs . Continuring war, destroying economies. Conspiracies to suppress aryans. Stalin’s war crimes and footage used after the war and during accounts for more than the jews claims. Not to mention the sudden millions in population? What happened to the entire 3rd reich? most dissapeared in russia. I would not be suprised if all those body collections are soldiers among many children the jews used for more footage. I hope some truth is found and history re-written. This is not right.

    Comment by Karl — March 10, 2012 @ 3:27 am

  4. [...] I previously blogged about Martin Sommer here. [...]

    Pingback by the strange case of Martin Sommer, the “Hangman of Buchenwald” « Scrapbookpages Blog — March 31, 2011 @ 9:29 am

  5. Berg above, is a well-known Holocaust denier. I don’t know anything about Sommer, and I’m glad of that, as it helps me sleep better. However, I agree, that the photo looks very clearly faked.

    Which of course, does not prove he did not do these acts.

    Comment by paolosilv — May 22, 2010 @ 9:39 pm

    • If Sommer did hang prisoners by their arms, then he was violating the rule made by Heinrich Himmler in 1942 that the SS men were not allowed to “lay violent hands on the prisoners.” Sommer was put on trial by Dr. Konrad Morgen, but not sentenced to prison or executed. Instead, he was just sent to the Eastern front. In the trial in Germany, he was not convicted of hanging prisoners by the arms. So there is some doubt that this actually happened.

      Comment by furtherglory — May 23, 2010 @ 7:56 am

    • Is it worse to be a “holocaust denier” than to be a “holocaust liar? You obviously prefer the liars since you say you don’t know anything and are glad of it.

      Sleep well.

      Comment by Sceptic — May 23, 2010 @ 2:46 pm

    • Dr. Konrad Morgen arrested 5 concentration camp commandants and put them on trial. Two commandants (Karl Otto Koch and Hermann Florstedt) were executed after being convicted in Dr. Morgen’s court. If Martin Sommer had actually killed 25 prisoners or hung prisoners by their arms, he would have been convicted and probably executed. That’s why the stories about him are suspicious. When Dr. Morgen investigated Buchenwald, the prisoners told them about Ilse Koch making lampshades out of human skin; Dr. Morgen spent 8 months at Buchenwald and came to the conclusion that no lampshades were made out of human skin. Maybe the prisoners also lied about Martin Sommer, but Dr. Morgen determined that this story wasn’t true.

      Comment by furtherglory — May 23, 2010 @ 3:20 pm

  6. The Nazis prosecuted their own criminals whereas America praised its war criminals and made them into national heroes.The Nazis really were the “Good Guys.” Their heroism and sacrifice saved western civilization even though Germany was in ruins and defeated at the end of the war.

    The Americans were and still are the worst war criminals in all of human history–worse even than the communists. America deliberately r-o-a-s-t-e-d to death more than a million totally innocent women, children and babies during WW2. During the Korean War, America roasted to death even more civilians–women, children, and babies–from North and South Korea. AMERICA is a luxury lunatic asylum for the criminally insane.

    But worse even than all of that, America is a continuing menace to the entire world and will, no doubt, in a short time achieve a new war against Iran in order to secure the Jewish vote for supposedly preventing “another holocaust.” That war, which has nothing at all to do with American security, will lead to a thermo-nuclear world war and disaster for all mankind.

    Friedrich Paul Berg

    Comment by Friedrich Paul Berg — May 22, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    • I rank the Russians Number One among the war criminals of World War II. The British rank Second and Americans are a distant Third in the war criminal rankings. American soldiers killed POWs but they didn’t sodomize them and then eat chucks of their flesh the way the Russians did. American soldiers raped a few German girls, but not like the Russians who gang raped women and young girls until they died.

      I rank the British as Number Two due to all their propaganda lies, and their torture of captured Germans until they confessed to the British lies.

      The Germans did reprisals which were legal under the Geneva Convention of 1929. The Allies considered these legal reprisals to be war crimes. The German Army was the most disciplined and committed the fewest war crimes in World War II.

      Fortunately, America cannot afford another war at this time, so we won’t be starting World War III. Israel might start a war with Iran and America will be forced to fight.

      Comment by furtherglory — May 22, 2010 @ 5:33 pm


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