WINSTON CHURCHILL wanted to execute Hitler in an electric chair borrowed from America if the German dictator was captured, wartime cabinet documents reveal, writes John Crossland.
Churchill believed that putting Nazi leaders on trial after the war would be a “farce” and that they should instead be treated as “outlaws”.
The former prime minister’s views are made public today after more than 60 years as another alleged war criminal, Saddam Hussein, continues to frustrate prosecutors with his antics in a courtroom in Iraq.
Churchill’s thoughts about Hitler’s fate are recorded in handwritten notes taken by Sir Norman Brook, the deputy cabinet secretary in 1942-43 and 1945-46.
The notes, released by the National Archives in Kew, London, differ from the official minutes of war cabinet meetings because they record the words of individual ministers.
In December 1942, on one of the first occasions when the cabinet discussed what to do with the Führer, Churchill said: “If Hitler falls into our hands we shall certainly put him to death . . . This man is the mainspring of evil. Instrument — electric chair, for gangsters, no doubt available on Lease-Lend.” He was referring to the agreement with America that had helped to fund the British war effort.
Brook’s notes show that Churchill’s opposition to a war crimes tribunal “which could only be a mock trial — a farce” remained resolute towards the end of the war. “Execute the principal criminals as outlaws,” Churchill said in April 1945, less than three weeks before Hitler committed suicide.
The prime minister supported an idea put forward by Viscount Swinton, the civil aviation minister, to circumvent the allies’ commitment to a trial. The proposal was to send the Russians and Americans written reasons for summary justice and kill Hitler before they had a chance to reply.
Churchill made it clear he would counter any legal outcry by introducing an Act of Attainder in parliament, a procedure that allows politicians rather than a court of law to pass judgment on an accused person.
The cabinet notes also show that Churchill called for a list to be drawn up of “(Nazi) grand criminals, who may be shot when taken in the field”.
Sir Stafford Cripps, minister for aircraft production, supported this. “Hand it to any captured: give them two weeks to reply, then shoot,” he said.
However, by May 3, four days before the formal German surrender, the British case for summary execution had fallen “as the leaders were being liquidated anyway”.
Nevertheless, Churchill asked his colleagues: “Could you negotiate with, for example, Himmler and bump him off later?”
Richard Law, who was involved in negotiations leading to the Nuremberg tribunals, told the cabinet that the other allies remained intent on trials.
This appears to have made Churchill finally back down. “Don’t make a big fight with the United States and Russia on this,” he said. “We are in a weak position.”
Brook’s notebooks also show that Churchill at one stage favoured “wiping out German villages by air attack on a three-for-one basis”. The prime minister’s remarks came five days after the SS massacred the menfolk of Lidice, in Czechoslovakia, and razed the village, provoking a wave of revulsion across Europe in June 1942.
However, Sir Archibald Sinclair, secretary of state for air, pointed out that such a strategy would be a diversion from military objectives and needlessly risk aircraft and crews.
Sinclair was backed by Clement Attlee, the dominions secretary, who said: “I doubt if it is useful to enter into competition in frightfulness with the Germans.”
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