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Already layed Stumbling Stones

Herbert Klein und Mutter Agnes Martha
Herbert Klein und Mutter Agnes Martha, auf der Rückseite handschriftlich: "Deine Mutter – 1944 – Vergiß mich nie"
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Herbert Klein * 1922

Neuer Höltigbaum (Wandsbek, Rahlstedt)

JG. 1922
VERHAFTET 18.12.1944

further stumbling stones in Neuer Höltigbaum :
Willi Dittmann, Fritz Freitag, Hans Müller, Erwin Pepper

Herbert Klein, born on 8 Feb. 1922 in Hamburg, executed on 10 Mar. 1945

Herbert Klein, born on 8 Feb. 1922 in Altona, was 17 years old when the Second World War began. Two years later, on 3 Dec. 1941, he became a soldier. He did not live to see the end of the war. On 10 Mar. 1945, at 10:12 a.m., a few weeks before the end of the war, Herbert Klein, just 23 years old at the time, stood together with three other soldiers on the place of execution at the Höltigbaum garrison shooting range in front of a firing squad under the command of lieutenant commander Maurer, Military District Command (Wehrbereichskommando – WBK) 4 to 6 in Altona (WBK. 4 to 6, WBK.V).

The Chief Judge of the Court of the Hamburg Military Headquarters, Heinrich (?) Suhr, read out the sentence formula, "The accused is punished with death for desertion,” and the confirmation order of the Reichsführer SS and Commander-in-Chief of the Reserve Army, Heinrich Himmler, dated 23 Feb. 1945: "I refuse a pardon. The sentence shall be enforced.”

Herbert Klein waived his entitlement to a last word. A clergyman present had the opportunity for final consolation before the firing command was given at 10:15 a.m. This was the end of Herbert Klein’s life. It was destroyed because the military justice system in the National Socialist German Reich and its merciless executors considered the death penalty to be indispensable for "upholding manly discipline.”

Herbert Klein’s mother was informed by the court of Division No. 490 in Neumünster on 21 Mar. 1945 that her son had been sentenced to death – and was informed that death notices or obituaries in newspapers and the like were prohibited.

Everything we know about Herbert Klein and the last days and hours of his short life is based on documents in the military court file of the death sentence handed down against him on 30 Jan. 1945 for "desertion.” It contains his personal statements and recorded statements in interrogations as well as information from his mother Agnes Martha Klein, née Kwidzinski, born on 31 Jan. 1893 in Hamburg.

Herbert Klein was initially considered an illegitimate child. His father, the mill worker Wilderich Joseph Klein, born on 25 Aug. 1883 in Grossleinungen in today’s Saxony-Anhalt, had worked as a streetcar conductor in Hamburg. He had already died on 17 Mar. 1923 at the age of 39 in what was then the couple’s home in Altona, at Gustavstrasse 18 (today Gilbertstrasse). A note on the death register entry indicates a possible suicide. Herbert Klein, just one year of age then, grew up without a father. He had no brothers or sisters.

His mother, Martha Klein, was only married to Joseph Klein for about six months when she lost her husband. As she later explained at the Hamburg headquarters of the criminal investigation department on 20 Jan. 1945, the couple had married on 25 Nov. 1922 only because of their common child Herbert. At the urging of the mother, the guardianship authorities had decided on 24 May 1923 to retroactively recognize the birth of Herbert Klein as marital.

Martha Klein had learned the trade of a seamstress. At the time of the court martial proceedings against her son, however, she had already been working for several years as a kitchen assistant in Barmbek hospital at Fuhlsbüttler Strasse 33, where she had meanwhile moved into emergency accommodation after her apartment in Barmbek had been destroyed during the air raids on Hamburg (Operation "Gomorrah”) in July 1943. Almost all personal documents about her family and the history of her son were lost.

One can assume that Herbert Klein grew up in Barmbek and spent his school days and adolescence there as well. He also fled there after he had deserted, as he stated following his arrest in Dec. 1944 before the court of Division No. 190 in Neumünster on 5 Jan. 1945. He had slept in the "destroyed neighborhood of our former home” and also in the air-raid shelter there (Tiefbunker Weidestrasse 13-15). (The court of Division No. 190 in Neumünster also had a branch in Hamburg; it was renamed "Court of Division No. 490” at the end of 1944).

Herbert Klein was enrolled in a Catholic eight-grade elementary school (Volksschule) at the age of six in 1928. According to his mother, however, he lagged behind the performance of his classmates and then, with her consent, switched to what was then "special school” in the second grade. It is possible that Herbert had difficulty keeping up with his classmates in his learning development because of a speech impediment that his mother suspected was caused by an accident in early childhood. He left school with the general qualification of grade 8 in 1936 after his fourteenth birthday. Herbert Klein was not a member of the Hitler Youth.

When Herbert Klein was examined in Jan. 1945 in the Reserve Military Hospital V in Hamburg Wandsbek (today’s Wandsbek Federal Armed Forces Hospital) to determine whether he was guilty or not, he described that he had found learning difficult and that he had not been counted among the good students at the special school. Because of his stuttering, he was often teased by his classmates. He had always avoided fights; he was timid, "soft,” cried quickly, and was easily influenced. He often skipped school when he had work and assignments to do that he feared.

Herbert Klein further reported that after school he worked first as a messenger, then as a glass washer, and finally as an innkeeper’s assistant. He said he had enjoyed his last job, especially because he had earned quite a bit of money. Possibly, one factor was that at the age of 17, under the influence of his homosexual uncle, he began having sexual contacts with other men and had them pay for these encounters. Thus, he was eventually caught into the clutches of the Nazis’ anti-homosexual persecution quite quickly. The Hamburg District Court (Amtsgericht) sentenced him to six months in prison for sexual offenses in four cases, in some instances repeated, a sentence Herbert Klein eventually finished serving on 21 June 1940. What had obviously been only an episode in his life, the judges, before whom he later stood, subsequently turned against him, denigrated him as a person, and sentenced him to death.

Probably only a short time after serving his prison sentence, Herbert Klein, at the age of 18, met a 37-year-old female innkeeper, with whom he then entered into a love affair quite quickly and – as he stated – under the influence of alcohol. Anna Theresia Ruech, born on 15 June 1903 in Murnau, ran a restaurant in Hamburg-Neustadt, at Dovestrasse 10 (today’s area around the intersection of Kuhberg/Venusberg), while her husband was at the front. They had taken a liking to each other and Herbert Klein could not completely detach himself from her even after he was drafted into the Wehrmacht. This may also explain his repeated unauthorized "removal from the unit.”

According to Herbert Klein, it was not least because of this relationship that he been remiss in his jobs at the Cafe Schircks in Blankenese and the "Berliner Hof” (St. Georg), losing these positions. Around the second half of 1941 (August/September), Herbert Klein was then placed by the employment office as a worker in what was then the Heidenreich & Harbeck armaments company. However, there is every indication that it was a mandatory allocation to the company. There Herbert Klein came into conflict shortly after starting work. Herbert Klein later mentioned that he had been unable to perform the work in the armaments factory and that he had therefore called in sick. At the same time, however, he had used a replacement tax card, which he had obtained with false information, to carry out his usual work as an assistant in an inn. Because of this "breach of employment contract,” which was a punishable offense in the years between 1933 and 1945, on 17 Oct. 1941 Herbert Klein was sentenced by the Hamburg District Court to six weeks in prison, which he served.

Shortly before this, he had been called up for military service in Neumünster. There he began his service with the Grenadier-Ersatzbataillon 46 [Gren.Ers.Batl.46], a grenadier reserve battalion, on 3 Dec. 1941. Still during his training period in the Hindenburg Barracks in Neumünster, he left his unit without permission for the first time in Jan. 1942 with the support of Anna Theresia Ruech, who apparently also visited him at his location. According to him, he had not been given leave "despite repeated requests.” Anna Theresia Ruech therefore sent him a fabricated telegram with news of his mother’s illness and the request to come "to Hamburg immediately.” His mother obviously knew nothing about it. This "sham” was discovered after Herbert Klein had returned to the barracks late after the fraudulent leave.

The above-mentioned court of Division No. 190 in Neumünster subsequently sentenced him on 28 Feb. 1942 to nine months in prison for unauthorized removal from the unit and for obtaining a train ticket by fraud. Herbert Klein finished serving his sentence in the Wehrmacht prison in Torgau on 8 Dec. 1942.

Anna Theresia Ruech’s involvement also had criminal consequences. She was sentenced by the Hamburg District Court (with legal effect as of 30 Mar. 1942) "for undermining the military strength in conjunction with forgery of documents in accordance with Sec. 5 par. 1 item 3, par. 2 of the War Special Criminal Law Ordinance (Kriegssonderstrafrechtsverordnung) dated 17 Aug. 1938, Secs. 267, 73 Criminal Code (Strafgesetzbuch – StGB), to six weeks in prison and she had to bear the legal costs.” The court decided on a less severe case of undermining military strength and credited the defendant with her previous integrity in term of criminal liability. "However, such an offense cannot be trivialized in times of war. Six weeks in prison seemed reasonable.” In Nov. 1945, the sentence against Anna Theresia Ruech was then waived by way of pardon.

After serving his sentence in Torgau, Herbert Klein returned to his unit in Neumünster. Only a few months later, once more he left the barracks without permission and went to Hamburg. According to his own statement, again he spent two days with Anna Theresia Ruech. He was again brought before the court of Division 190 and this time was sentenced on 23 Mar. 1943 to two years in prison. Six months after the start of the sentence, on 4 Sept. 1943, the execution of the two-year prison sentence was interrupted and the placement in a "field penal prisoner section” on the Eastern Front (Kiev) was ordered. In early summer 1943, Herbert Klein was sentenced there by the court of the city commandant’s office of Kiev to three weeks of "tightened detention” because of military theft. Later in the course of 1944, he was sent "to frontline deployment in the fight against partisans.” In May 1944, Herbert Klein was wounded and transferred to a reserve hospital in Posen (today Poznan in Poland) for convalescence. In the subsequent court-martial trial, he admitted that he did not suffer the gunshot wounds in the frontline operations, but in a failed escape attempt on 30 Apr. 1944.

In July 1944, he was ordered from the military hospital in Posen via a patient collection point back to Schleswig. However, Herbert Klein did not choose the direct route to the unit in Schleswig, but a detour via Hamburg. He stayed there for four days until 31 July 1944, and disciplinary proceedings were again initiated against him once he reached his unit. However, the result of this, the disciplinary sentence of two weeks of "tightened detention” on 22 Aug. 1944, no longer reached him, because he had already left for Hamburg again without permission a few days earlier, on 18 Aug. 1944.

Four months later, on 18 Dec. 1944, Herbert Klein was then picked up in civilian clothing during an inspection by a Wehrmacht patrol in a pub in Hamburg-St. Pauli, arrested, and transferred to the Wehrmacht pretrial detention facility in Hamburg-Altona at Gerichtsstrasse 2. Before the Hamburg patrol headquarters, he claimed to have wandered about aimlessly in Hamburg and the surrounding area and to have hidden his Wehrmacht uniform in a cave/forest hut in Wellingsbüttel (probably in the area along the course of the Alster). Prior to that, he had been able to obtain civilian clothes on the black market.

When Herbert Klein was to be taken back to his unit, the Convalescent Company of the Infantry Replacement Battalion 26 [Füs.Ers.Btl.26] in Schleswig, he tried to escape despite his shackles on the railway station premises in Altona, but this failed after only a few meters.

The subsequent sequence of events is clearly documented:
After the arrest warrant was issued on 12 Jan. 1945, Herbert Klein was placed in pretrial detention at the detention center of the Infantry Replacement Battalion 26 in Schleswig. He had previously asked to have his state of mind examined, as he "had not managed to have a clear thought during the whole time he was away (from the unit)” and he was unable to understand why he had run away at all.

In a brief statement, his company commander stated, "Klein, who lacked the firm hand of a father in his youth, has completely lost his way, especially because of his profession, which he carried out in restaurants in a large city. Since the serious misdemeanors have been repeated constantly despite the severe punishment of Klein, the company believes that he is an incorrigible person. His complete unreliability rules out any further use in the Wehrmacht.”

On 16 Jan. 1945, the Division Court was presented with the result of the medical examination by Prof. Hans Büssow, medical officer in the Reserve Military Hospital V in Wandsbek, regarding Herbert Klein’s criminal liability. It clearly confirmed his criminal liability. Admittedly, the report began as follows: "His intellectual abilities have enabled him to work in a profession that cannot be described as entirely primitive.” However, the expert further argued along similar lines as Herbert Klein’s superior: "He is a soft, fearful, and shy person, but certainly unstable and seducible. There is nothing to suggest that he has shown any significant criminal initiative in his numerous previous convictions. A large proportion of his offenses, in particular the unauthorized removals, must be regarded as a consequence of his instability. Even if it was not the will, but rather his ‘instability’ that was decisive for the deed, Klein was fully responsible for his actions.”

On 19 Jan. 1945, the court issued an indictment against the "fusilier” (infantryman) Herbert Klein "because he is sufficiently suspected of having left his unit on 18 Aug. 1944 in Schleswig with the intention of permanently avoiding the obligation to serve in the Wehrmacht.”

On 30 Jan. 1945, the field court-martial trial against Herbert Klein took place in Neumünster, with Chief Military Judge Georg Gersdorf presiding. Captain Eggert and Lance Corporal Heermeyer served as assessors. The prosecution was represented by First Lieutenant Carius, defense counsel ex officio was the lawyer Thode, Neumünster.

After reading the indictment, Herbert Klein declared, as before, "I did not want to avoid military service forever ...” and: "Incidentally, I was rash and no longer knew what I was doing.”

The prosecutor nevertheless requested "for desertion, the death penalty, loss of worthiness to do military service, and deprivation of civic rights for life.” The public defender of Herbert Klein considered a prison sentence to be appropriate. Herbert Klein himself declared, "I regret my deed and ask for probation at the front.”

Chief Military Judge Gersdorf sentenced Klein to death. In the written judgment dated 31 Jan. 1945, he stated, "In view of the personality of the accused and the overall circumstances of the crime, the court considered the death penalty to be appropriate. The accused repeatedly absented himself from his unit and he was punished for this. He has made repeated attempts to escape. As a soldier, he conducted himself very badly. He makes an impression of being untrustworthy and mendacious in every respect. He is apparently incorrigible, as can be inferred without hesitation from his background and behavior. Under these circumstances, he constitutes merely a burden on the troops and society as a whole. Given the particular circumstances of the case, the court considered the death penalty to be indispensable in order to perpetuate the discipline of men.”

Immediately after his sentencing, Herbert Klein revoked his statements and cited his relationship with the woman as the main reason for his desertion. Therefore, on 1 Feb. 1945, his defense counsel applied for the commutation of the death penalty to a prison sentence with probation at the front, "since it cannot be considered impossible that he, subjected to particularly strict discipline, is still capable of improvement.”

However, the trial was not reopened. Major General Ernst Wisselinck, commander and at the same time judicial officer of the division in Neumünster, did not want to advocate a pardon, "since the convicted man has several previous convictions and is a completely antisocial personality, whose educability as a decent human being and soldier according to his previous life seems hopeless.” Wisselinck, as the judicial officer, had extensive powers of attorney: He was able to decide on the commencement of proceedings, appoint prosecutors and judges, had to confirm or mitigate the sentences, suspend them or even overturn them. At his own discretion, he could also appoint a new court if a verdict did not meet his expectations.

In his desperate situation, Herbert Klein then revealed in a further interrogation his relationship with Anna Theresia Ruech, her support for his illegal stay, and all the circumstances of his absence in Hamburg. Lieutenant Lau drew up a record of interrogation, two and a half pages closely written.

Afterward, he was allowed to talk to his mother for another 10 minutes. In a letter to the defense counsel, she described how her son "was so excited and could hardly speak on the subject.” The desperate mother hoped for a retrial and begged the lawyer to clarify whether her son "would get off with clemency or whether he would be sentenced to death. I would like you to tell me frankly what will happen to my son.”

On 23 Feb. 1945, however, the Reichsführer SS and Commander-in-Chief of the Reserve Army, Heinrich Himmler, confirmed the verdict: "I refuse a pardon. The sentence shall be enforced.” On 7 Mar. 1945, the court of the Hamburg Military Headquarters ordered the execution of the sentence.

On 10 Mar. 1945, Herbert Klein was transferred from the Wehrmacht pretrial facility in Altona to Höltigbaum near Rahlstedt and executed. He had previously been allowed to bid farewell to his mother.

His body was buried in the Ohlsdorf cemetery. The news of the execution was sent "by registered mail – with pay book Klein enclosed” to the court of Division No. 490 in Neumünster and there it was filed, as was the order for execution and the prepared minutes, death certificate, and burial certificate.

Herbert Klein was undoubtedly no hero, nor was he a resistance fighter with political or moral motives. In view of the penalties he had already suffered, his actions were nevertheless courageous, even if he could not assess the terrible consequences of his actions. He was a young man who had certainly not had an easy life, and the Wehrmacht justice system had done him the gravest injustice.

The shooting of Herbert Klein was not an isolated incident. For Adolf Hitler, deserters of the Wehrmacht were enemies par excellence. "The soldier may die, the deserter must die” was his directive. More than 30,000 soldiers and civilians, men and women, also residents of the occupied countries of Europe, were executed by German Wehrmacht courts during the Second World War. From March to mid-April 1945, at least 65 members of the Wehrmacht, most of whom were shot in Rahlstedt/Höltigbaum, were buried in the Ohlsdorf cemetery. In 1960, German victims of the Nazi regime, including shot deserters such as Herbert Klein, were moved to the 1939–1945 German military cemetery there.

Herbert Klein’s mother, Agnes Martha Klein, died on 28 Jan. 1966 in Hamburg. In the year of her death, convicted deserters who had survived were generally still considered traitors and dodgers. It was not until 2002 that the German Federal Parliament declared the shameful sentences passed by Nazi military judges against deserters, conscientious objectors, and "underminers of military strength” ("Wehrkraftzersetzer”) null and void. Another seven years and endless debates in the German Bundestag had to pass until finally, in Sept. 2009, the sentences against so-called "war traitors” that had not yet been covered in the 2002 decision were revoked. More than 60 years after the end of the war, the way was finally paved for the recognition and rehabilitation of this victim group of the military judiciary – among other victims of Nazi terror.

Judge Georg Gersdorf (born on 3 Apr. 1889– date of death unknown) retired on 1 Feb. 1946 at his own request on the grounds of "permanent unfitness for work” confirmed by an expert opinion. With the exception of a short-term temporary suspension of pension payments, he received his pension until the end of his life. He was never called to account for his work as a wartime judge.

Translator: Erwin Fink
Kindly supported by the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung, Hamburg.

Stand: July 2020
© Hans-Joachim Klier

Quellen: Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv, Gericht der Division Nr. 490, Akte Nr. 483 (Verfahrensakte Strafsache gegen Herbert Klein); StaH 213-11 Zivil- und Strafgerichtsbarkeit 2726/44 (Strafsache gegen Ruech, Anna Theresia, wg. Wehrkraftzersetzung, Urkundenfälschung); Claudia Bade zu Feldrichter Georg Gersdorf; Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Hamburg "Gedenken am Höltigbaum" 10.01.2013 (Detlef Garbe zu Herbert Klein und ein Gespräch mit dessen Cousin am 5. März 1988);; KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme in Zusammenarbeit mit der Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Hamburg, Januar 2013 "Deserteure und andere Verfolgte der NS-Militärjustiz: Die Wehrmachtsgerichtsbarkeit in Hamburg"; Herbert Diercks "Friedhof Ohlsdorf. Auf den Spuren von Naziherrschaft und Widerstand", Ergebnisse Verlag 1992; Standesamt Hamburg-Barmbek/Uhlenhorst Geburtsregister 299/1893, Standesamt Altona Sterberegister 509/1923, Standesamt Altona Heiratsregister 1440/1922. KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme in Zusammenarbeit mit der Landeszentrale für politische Bildung Hamburg "Rücksichten auf den einzelnen haben zurückzutreten", Hamburg 2019. Mein besonderer Dank gilt Dr. Claudia Bade für ihre Unterstützung bei der Recherche und der Bereitstellung der Militärgerichtsunterlagen.

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