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Ideological Battles in Medicine Hat:
The deaths of August Plaszek and
Karl Lehmann

By Danial Duda
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Reprinted with permission of the author and publisher of For King and Country: Alberta in the Second World War

For King and CountryThe second largest mass hanging in Canadian history occurred in Lethbridge, Alberta on 18 December 1946.1 Five men were hanged for committing murder; one was a sex murderer, while the other four were members of the German Wehrmacht. These four Germans were prisoners of war, and had murdered a fellow prisoner, Karl Lehmann, on 10 September 1944 in Internment Camp No.132 Medicine Hat. Lehmann's murder was the second to happen in the Medicine Hat camp. On 22 July 1943, August Plaszek had been killed by fellow POWs, and three men were charged for it. One was hanged, another's sentence of hanging was commuted to life imprisonment, and the third man was acquitted. Both murders were a result of arguments over political ideology, and threats or perceived threats of an overthrow of the internal camp leadership.

Each POW camp had a spokesman or leader whose duty was to communicate concerns of the prisoners to the camp authorities. A large camp like Medicine Hat was very efficient financially, but its size prevented the Commandant and his staff from getting to know many prisoners; the camp leader and his staff had greater control over fellow POWs. In the case of the two murders, the camp authorities were ignorant of what was happening until it was too late.2 It was also a long and arduous process for the RCMP to bring the guilty parties to trial. Plaszek's murderers were charged 26 months after the incident and Lehmann's were charged 19 months later.3 Major E.H.J. Barber later reported that "[to] prevent further such breaches of the law an order was issued that any P.W. having any knowledge of an attack or intended attack on any other P.W. would be held guilty of an offence unless he reported the matter to the Military Authorities.4 The prisoners did not like this order, but there were no more murders. It would have helped the Canadian authorities if they had told the paws that they were subject to Canadian law while detained in Canada as stipulated in Article 45 of the Geneva Convention.5 Perhaps it might have saved the lives of Plaszek and Lehmann.

August Plaszek was born 30 January 1903. Before he joined the French Foreign Legion, he was a farmer near Nordlunen, Germany. He was Roman Catholic. He was 5' 5 1/4" tall and weighed 150 lbs. In the 1930s, Legionnaires who returned to Germany were re-educated in Nazi ideology and then inducted into the army. Plaszek was in the 361st African Regiment that was brought into the North African campaign by Erwin Rommel, the infamous leader of the Afrika Korps. The troops in this regiment were ex-Legionnaires and Rommel believed that their previous experience in Africa would be an asset. In 1943 the 361st was almost wiped out at Tobruk, where Plaszek was captured by the British. He, along with the remnants of his regiment, would eventually be interned at Medicine Hat. The irony of the situation was that had Plaszek stayed with the French Foreign Legion, he would have been fighting his home nation.6

These ex-Legionnaires would meet in an open area by the soccer field in the Medicine Hat compound. They would reminisce about their past and discuss what their future might hold. The leading Nazi elements despised this group, thinking that they could have fought better for the Fatherland. They were also believed to be the leaders of the communist sympathizers. Those men who were outspoken against the Nazis were at first terrorized; notes, excrement in their food, and a death's head drawn on their pillow were just the beginning of the terror process. The next step would be isolation from the main body of prisoners, and the last step was torture.7

On 2 July 1943, Camp Leader Eilsterman called a meeting of his hut leaders. They believed that this group of men met regularly to plan an overthrow of the camp leadership. It was intended to have the leaders of the group transferred to another camp. Four men were to be interrogated the next day: Christian Schultz, Max Weidhauer, Afonse Burkhardt, and August Plaszek.8 The first to be questioned was Weidhauer and the next man was Schultz. After his interrogation, Schultz was being escorted back to a detention hut to await further questions. Before they reached the hut, Schultz made a dash for the warning wire and reached it before the mob of prisoners caught him. He begged to be let across the wire and a guard in the closest tower fired a warning shot that stopped the mob. Four guards then entered the compound, two helping Schultz climb the wire as the mob of six to eight hundred men blocked the way to the main gate. They then took two of the guards hostage until the Camp Leader ordered the men to let the guards go.9

Losing Schultz raised the ire of the mob to a fever pitch. The prisoners returned to the interrogation hut and a small group entered it and dragged out August Plaszek. The surprised victim was then beaten and taken to the recreation hall where he was hanged.10 It took 26 months for the RCMP to obtain enough evidence to lay charges. With a mob action, who was responsible? No one would speak out until well after the war was over and the threat of reprisals was gone. The investigation was carried out in four camps: Kananaskis, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Neys, Ontario. Three men were charged with the murder: Werner Schwalb, Adolf Kratz, and Johannes Wittinger.11

Werner Schwalb was born on 11 June 1915 at Sausenheirn Pfalz, a county in the French occupied zone 20 miles west of the Rhine. He was single and a baker and cook in civilian life, living in Rheinphaiz. He joined the German army on 2 November 1937 and received the Iron Cross, First Class in the French campaign. In North Africa, Schwalb was captured at Solemn in Egypt by a South African unit attached to the British Eighth Army. Before arriving at Medicine Hat, he was interned at Ozada and Lethbridge.12

Adolf Kratz was born on 9 July 1921 in Koblenz, Germany. Before he entered the army in 1940, he was a carpenter in Cologne. In 1941, he was transferred to the Russian Front for six months, after which he fought in North Africa. Kratz was captured by the Free French Forces at Tobruk on 29 May 1942 and eventually arrived in Canada in August of that year as a POW. His first camp was Ozada, then Lethbridge and finally Medicine Hat. He participated in the Department of Labour work projects working in the sugar beet fields of southern Alberta.13

Johannes Wittinger was captured by the same unit that captured Kratz at Tobruk. Wittinger was born on 6 June 1915 in Kratz, Austria and worked as a truck driver in Grafendorf, Austria before being drafted in 1940. He had been wounded in the arm in what action he saw, and he was awarded the Iron Cross, Second Class for this. He was married and had a five-year-old daughter.14

Each man was tried separately. Schwalb's trial began on 25 February 1946, with Kratz's trial next and Wittinger's finishing on 21 June 1946. The details of the event unfolded between the three trials. The key witness that saved Kratz and Wittinger was Schwalb, who testified at Wittinger's trial that they were nowhere near the murder scene when it happened. Because of this evidence, Wittinger was found not guilty and two days before he was to hang, Kratz's sentence was reduced to life imprisonment.

Schwalb's sentence of hanging was carried out on 26 June 1946, although he was willing to testify in the Lehmann murder trials that had begun in May 1946. Schwalb died as a German soldier, his last words being "My Fuhrer, I follow thee."15

The motive behind the Lehmann murder was similar to that of Plaszek's; however, the goal was to eliminate one man and not to cause the breakup of a group. Karl Lehmann was a professor of languages at the University of Erlangen, a stout middle-aged man, 5' 9" and 195 lbs. The Tunisian campaign was his last before he was captured and shipped to an English POW camp before being sent to Canada. In Camp Oldham, Lehmann began to speak out against the Nazi regime and to forecast that Germany would lose the war. During his stay in Oldham, the Roman Catholics in the camp asked the local priest, who was German speaking, if he would come and say mass and hear confessions. An altar and confessional were set up in a recreational hall; but, the Gestapo element in the camp made sure that one of the walls of the confessional was a fake wall.

The Gestapo clique then listened in on the confessions and used this information for blackmail. During Lehmann's confession, a man by the name of Perzonowsky was behind the fake wall. He would be one of the men charged and found guilty of murdering Lehmann.16

Lehmann was sent to Canada by the British authorities to protect him from the Nazis because of his political views. In 1942, he came to Canada with another shipment of paws that was also carrying Perzonowsky. Both men ended up in Medicine Hat.17 It would be two years before the murder took place, and during that time Lehmann carried on with his speeches forecasting German defeat to whomever wanted to listen. For his anti-Nazi views, Lehmann was labeled as the leader of the communists in the camp. He encouraged anyone who would want to discuss this to come and listen to him, including the ex-Legionnaires. This did not bode well for him with the Nazi leadership in the camp.18

The event that gave the Nazis permission to act was a speech that Hitler made after the failed assassination attempt on his life which occurred on 20 July 1944. In his broadcast speech he told all the Nazi faithful throughout the world to do their duty and get rid of any traitor in their midst. The paws in Medicine Hat heard the speech by short wave radio. It also became known that one of the perpetrators of the assassination plot was none other than Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the Afrika Korps commander greatly admired by the ex-Legionnaires.19 With this order from the Fuhrer, and the evidence of his outspoken views back in Oldham which continued at Medicine Hat, Lehmann became an automatic target for the Nazis; the one who gave the order to get rid of him was Perzonowsky.20

Notes

1. Douglas Sagi, My Fuhrer, I Follow Thee in The Canadian Magazine/The Calgary Herald, 4 January 1975, pp. 2,6.

2. Major E.H.J. Barber, Memorandum on Internment Operations 27 June 1947, File 382.013(01); Department of National Defence, Directorate of History [Ottawa], pp. 14-15.

3. David J. Carter, Behind Canadian Barbed Wire: Alien, Refugee, and Prisoner of War Camps in Canada 1914-1946, [Calgary: Tumbleweed Press Ltd., 1980], pp. 220, 260.

4. Major E.H.J. Barber, op. cit., p. 15.

5. Ibid. See also Dietrich Schindler and Jiri Toman, eds., Chapter 36 "Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Signed at Geneva 27 July 1929." The Laws of Armed Conflicts: A Collection of Conventions, Resolutions and Other Documents [Geneva: Henry Dunant Insitute, 1973], pp. 261-288.

6. Department of National Defence, Directorate of History, File 113.304(D6), "POWs and Internees, Canada: Press Releases"; Sagi, op. cit., p. 4; Carter, op. cit., pp. 217-220.

7. John Melady, Escape From Canada! The Untold Story of German POWs in Canada 1939-1945 [Toronto: Macmillan, 1981], p. 168.

8. Carter, op. cit., pp. 240-246.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid. ; Melady, op. cit., pp. 168-171.

11. Carter, op. cit. p. 220.

12. Ibid., pp. 239-240.

13. Ibid., 240.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., p. 252.

16. Melady, op. cit., pp. 179-179; Carter, op. cit., pp. 257-270.

17. Melady, op. cit., pp. 178-179.

18. Ibid., pp. 180-181.

19. Carter, op. cit., p. 257; Sagi, op. cit., p. 6.

20. Carter, op. cit., pp. 257-270.

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