23rd February 2008
Last week I wrote about Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Sholto Douglas, later enobled as Lord Douglas of Kirtleside, who succeeded Field Marshal Montgomery in May 1946, as Military Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the British forces of occupation in Germany.
His time as Military Governor was not a success - in his own words it was "the unhappiest period of my entire official life" and, as I said last week, I failed to understand why he was offered the job in the first place.
According to his memoirs Years of Command (London: Collins, 1966), one issue which contributed to his unhappiness was his responsibility, as Military Governor, to sign death warrants of those condemned to death by British military courts.
"As Military Governor I was called upon to make the final decisions about all the death sentences which were passed by the courts of the [British] Zone, either confirming or commuting them as I saw fit; and there is in my memory a deep scar from that odious experience of having to deal with hundreds of these cases.
The range of the nature of the crimes which had led to these sentences ran all the way from more of the war criminals condemned to death to unfortunate Displaced Persons - among whom there were many Poles who had found ways of disposing of their hated German oppressors - to a Briton in the forces who had committed a murder such as strangling his German girl friend."
His personal experiences at this time led to "a strong conviction that the death penalty should be abolished."
He continued by saying that he was happy to confirm some sentences, such as those on warders of concentration camps, but "most of the cases that I had to deal with were far more difficult to assess ... For instance, what was one to do about some unfortunate dim-witted German peasant who, while serving as a private in the army, had been told by his officer to shoot one of our parachutists? Had the poor devil refused to do it he would more likely than not have been shot for not obeying orders. How was he to know that in international law the order given by his officer was illegal? Was his lack of knowledge sufficient reason to commute the sentence?"
Most of the death sentences which came before him he therefore commuted to terms of imprisonment.
"It is one thing to kill a fellow human being in the heat of battle, but these cold, judicial executions were, so far as I was concerned, an entirely different matter."