The first official execution

On 13 May 1938, Emil Bargatzky and a fellow prisoner escaped from Buchenwald. During their escape, they killed an SS guard. Bargatzky was soon recaptured and sentenced to death by a German court. Normally, such a sentence would have been carried out in a prison. But SS leader Heinrich Himmler asked Adolf Hitler to move the execution to Buchenwald, in order to deter the other inmates. Bargatzky was hanged in Buchenwald on 4 June 1938. One of the witnesses, the Communist prisoner Ernst Frommhold, later described the events.

067 – Eyewitness account of 1938 prisoner execution in Buchenwald

We stood together in front of the barracks, herded into a small area, in tight ranks, man on man, block on block. The SS was on parade. Column after column standing in horse shoe formation round the roll call square. In the centre of these four blocks stood the gallows. On the top of the towers three machine guns were pointing in our direction. B[argatzky] walked between two lines of SS men impassive, apathetic. His steps were puppet-like; he seemed like a doll. People whispered to each other that his will power must have been taken from him by injections or similar methods. The judge in a black robe pronounced the sentence and broke a white stick and threw it behind him. The delinquent’s chains were then removed and he was led to the gallows. […]

B[argatzky] was left on the gallows for 24 hours. But the gallows remained. For months on end it was the emblem of Buchenwald […]. The gallows had become the centre of the roll call.

Source: Buchenwald Memorial, Archive, 31/450, Bericht Frommhold, pp. 41–2

Translation: Lesley Sharpe and Jeremy Noakes