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.
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.
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.”
(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.
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.
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.