A more civilized era, depicted in The Surrender of Breda by Valasquez  

From Advance to Barbarism

The Trial of Field Marshal Kesselring

Civilized warfare: The Surrender of Breda by Valasquez

When the Nuremberg Trials commenced on the 20th November 1945, all the manifold resources of propaganda were mobilised to focus public attention on this great Spectacular War-crimes Trial. In consequence the numerous Routine War-crimes Trials which were taking place contemporaneously were allowed to pass unnoticed. Only occasionally was space on the back pages of the newspapers spared for a brief announcement that some war-criminal had been tried and executed somewhere or other. After a few months however the British public became heartily bored by the slow progress of the mass war-crimes trials going on at Nuremberg. When desperate efforts to retain public interest in these proceedings had failed the promoters wisely decided to discontinue their intensive propaganda campaign. Finally when after some eleven months it could be announced proudly that the Nazi war-criminals had been at last convicted, it was decided in deference to the growing public distaste to withdraw unobtrusively the subject of the disposal of the prisoners taken in the late war behind an Iron Curtain of Discreet Silence. War-crimes tribunals continued to function as briskly as ever but no details of their doings were published and the British public gradually forgot what was going on and turned its attention to more pleasant subjects.

The Iron Curtain of Discreet Silence remained unbroken in Britain until May 1947, when it was casually disclosed in the Press that Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, the commander-in-chief of the German forces in Italy, had been sentenced to death by a British military court in Venice, after a hearing lasting three months, for being responsible for the shooting of certain hostages and various Italian partisans and bandits who had been caught operating behind the German lines.

The storm of protests which this unobtrusive announcement aroused seems to have filled the British authorities with genuine surprise. Other generals of equal standing to Field Marshal Kesselring had been quietly liquidated by courts having no more jurisdiction to enquire into their doings than the court in Venice which had condemned this particular prisoner of war. Field Marshal Kesselring was unquestionably a general on the defeated side. Why then, it was asked plaintively, should he, contrary to all democratic principles, be treated as an exception? Why should he alone be allowed to enjoy the rights of a prisoner of war?

Certainly no fault can be found in this reasoning. Besides, it was pointed out, into this particular case political considerations entered; it was known that Italian public opinion would be favourably influenced if the German general who had defended Italian soil so long and so gallantly were hanged. The fact was overlooked that many people in Great Britain, both influential and obscure, were extremely proud of the campaign in Italy, a campaign waged by both sides with but few lapses from the highest standards of civilized warfare – apart, of course, from the numerous outrages committed on prisoners and wounded by the Italian partisans and the ruthless reprisals of the German security police, similar to those of the Black-and-Tans in Ireland, in 1920. In fact, apart from that one “tragic mistake”, the wanton destruction of the Monte Cassino Monastery – the blame for which still remains a subject of dispute between the American, General Mark Clark, and the New Zealander, Lieut.-General Bernard Freyberg – the campaign in Italy was one of which both sides might be justly proud. It was felt in wide circles in Great Britain that if Field Marshal Kesselring were hanged, the laurels of his victorious opponents would be irredeemably sullied. It was realised that, in the eyes of posterity, so monstrous an act of barbarism would cast a shadow over the whole allied campaign in Italy.

As the result of a single official indiscretion there collapsed that Iron Curtain of Discreet Silence behind which Britain’s enemies in Germany were being quietly liquidated without too great a strain being placed upon the famed British love of justice and fair play. Lieut.-General Sir Oliver Leese, the commander of the Eighth Army, declared in an interview in the Press that had it been his fate to have been on the defeated side, the same charges as those brought against Field Marshal Kesselring could have been established against himself. “Kesselring was a very gallant soldier who fought his battles well and squarely,” General Leese declared. “With regard to the treatment of prisoners, I think that Kesselring, like Rommel, set a very good example – a far better example than the Italians.” In support of this opinion, the General quoted Viscount Alexander as saying, “I think that the warfare in Italy was carried out fairly, and from a soldierly point of view, as well as it could have been done.”5

These and similar protests were from persons so eminent and influential that it was impossible to dismiss them summarily by neither publishing nor commenting on them. The British authorities had brought this storm on themselves by their own blunder but it must be admitted that they succeeded in extricating themselves from an awkward situation with considerable skill. No attempt was made to justify the trial of the German field marshal; no attempt was made to defend the unfortunate military court at Venice which, after all, had only administered what they were assured was the new law governing the matter before them. The unanswerable denunciations of Field Marshal Kesselring’s tribal at Venice applied equally, of course, to war-crimes trials generally, but few of those who denounced this particular war-crimes trial were in the least interested in Kesselring personally, still less in abstract questions of justice. British public opinion had been roused simply because the honour and reputation of the Eighth Army had been made dependent on the saving of Field Marshal Kesselring from the hangman.

The obvious solution of the difficulty was to grant the Field Marshal a reprieve. But an unexpected difficulty then arose. The Field Marshal declined to lodge an appeal. His resolution was only overcome by appeals from brother professionals of the highest rank among his captors not to allow the military profession to be discredited by the carrying out of the sentence. It is not known what assurances were at the same time given him that he would receive honourable treatment if he went to reside in a British military prison: if given, these assurances were certainly not carried out. In due course, the British public learned with relief that the Field Marshal had lodged an appeal and had been duly reprieved; it was cheerfully assumed, but quite erroneously as it later proved, that the faces of the British military authorities would be saved by a short detention as a nominal prisoner. The whole subject was dismissed thankfully from mind, the Iron Curtain of Discreet Silence descended once more, and the work of “putting to death our enemies in Germany”6 continued, as before. England is a land of many creeds but whatever his creed may be, every Englishman firmly believes that what is not discussed or thought about has no existence: Quod non apparet non est.

Nevertheless, it is most remarkable how easily and quickly the Kesselring war-crimes trial was completely dismissed from mind immediately after it was announced that it had been decided not to hang the Field Marshal. Unquestionably this war-crimes trial was one of the most memorable of all that long series of such trials which began after the conclusion of hostilities in 1945. The facts of this case have since attracted little or no attention and remain curiously little known. During the hearing, only brief, disconnected and generally inaccurate details were published in the Press. Only when the astonishing verdict was announced was public attention aroused. Four years later, no book giving even an outline of this war-trial had been published so that when in June, 1951, an appeal was made to Field Marshal Viscount Alexander to give his support to an agitation which had started in Germany to obtain belated justice for his gallant opponent in the campaign in Italy, Viscount Alexander was forced to admit, “I cannot make any statement on Field Marshal Kesselring’s court-martial as I don’t know the facts.” All he could do in response to this appeal was to confirm “what I have already said,” namely, “I fought against the Field Marshal for a considerable period, both in North Africa and Italy, and I never had anything to complain of in his conduct of operations. He was a very able opponent and he and his troops fought a perfectly straight-forward and fair fight against us.7

So much at least is common knowledge to those familiar with the facts of the campaign in Italy. Less well known is the fact that the “pro-Italian sentiment of Kesselring” (“italophile Gesinnung Kesselrings”) frequently aroused angry comment at the Fuhrer’s headquarters where Kesselring’s disposition to forgo military advantages rather than bring destruction upon the irreplaceable historical, architectural, arid artistic treasures of Italy was regarded with little favour by Hitler and his entourage. Thus, thanks to his express orders, Rome was evacuated without resistance, with the consequence that the Allied tanks and mechanised columns were able to sweep through the city, unhampered by ruins and broken bridges, in pursuit of his hard-pressed troops. It must be left to future historians to decide whether General Mark Clark or the jaunty General Bernard Freyberg must bear the chief responsibility for that “tragic mistake, psychologically and militarily”, which led to the destruction of the Monte Cassino Monastery, but it is at least certain that Kesselring did all in his power to prevent this “tragic mistake” by refraining from occupying this famous shrine of Christendom with his troops, having previously arranged for the removal of its most precious treasures to a place of safety in the Vatican City.

Posterity will undoubtedly acknowledge a debt of gratitude to Field Marshal Kesselring for the preservation of so much which would otherwise have been destroyed when the allied war chiefs saw fit, as Mr. Churchill cheerfully puts it, “to drag the hot rake of war up the length of the Italian peninsula.” Like Hitler and his advisers at German G.H.Q., the Allied military leaders regarded the campaign in Italy from an entirely military point of view. Had not Kesselring been one of the few who, in the general frenzy then prevailing, retained some sense of proportion, who can doubt that many other “tragic mistakes” would have taken place?8 There is one good reason for thinking that, in regard to this subject, even Italian public opinion will change in time. If only ruins could be shown to foreign tourists where Milan Cathedral, St. Peters, and the Uffizi Galleries now stand, the Italian tourist trade would suffer enduring and incalculable loss. Even future generations of Italians may thus be led to recall Kesselring’s memory with gratitude.

The facts which led up to this war-crimes trial are not in dispute and make the attitude of the British authorities even more inexplicable. Italy had entered the war, in 1940, with no more justification or excuse than when, in 1915, she had declared war on her ally, Austria. On both occasions, she was undeniably guilty of embarking on a war of aggression, defined by Lord Justice Lawrence as “the supreme international crime.” In 1940, as in 1915, her motive was simply to be found among the victors at the end of the war. In 1915, her guess as to which side would be victorious proved right, and she was rewarded by being permitted to annex the Austrian Tyson; in 1940 her guess proved wrong and, with a naïveté not lacking a certain charm, Italy then set about doing her best to change sides. Unfortunately, large forces of German troops had already entered Italy as allies, at the invitation and request of the Italian Government. This circumstance was, however, turned to account since it provided an opportunity to demonstrate by acts of violence to the men who had recently been allies and who had now become unwelcome guests, that Italy had changed, or desired to change, sides.

The spectacle of German troops defending Italian soil from invasion, a task from which he and the Italian Army had ingloriously retired, seems to have filled Marshal Badoglio with violent emotions, among which was possibly shame. At all events, from the security of Brandish, this Italian “warrior” occupied himself sending forth wireless appeals to the Italian civilian population, calling upon them to murder every German within reach whenever possible and without mercy. When the probability that Germany would ultimately be defeated became a certainty, the response to these appeals, at first timid, rapidly gathered strength, although less, apparently, among Badoglio’s own political supporters than among his bitterest opponents, the Italian Communists. Thousands of German soldiers were stabbed or shot in the back, bombed or blown up by land-mines. All the time-honoured practices of the Spanish guerillas in their campaign against Napoleonic armies were adopted by the Italian partisans, together with such innovations as the construction of grim booby-traps consisting of the severed heads of slaughtered prisoners fixed on stakes in such a way that if touched a hidden land-mine would be exploded. The German regular forces reacted to this campaign in precisely the same way as regular forces in the past had reacted when subjected to similar attacks by a civilian population. As in Spain during the Peninsulas War and in Ireland during “the Troubles” of 1920, the troops frequently got out of hand, in modern terminology, “saw red”, and savage reprisals unquestionably took place. At the same time, the German authorities carried out official reprisals: hostages were taken and, after each outrage, a number were shot.

Two charges were made against Field Marshal Kesselring. First, he was accused of supporting drastic measures by his subordinates, and against him was quoted a general order issued by him authorising local commanders to take such measures as, at their discretion, they might consider necessary to protect the lives of their men. Secondly – and this seems to have been regarded as the main charge against him – he was accused of approving an order from Hitler himself that, following the explosion of a land-mine in the Via Rosella in Rome, by which 32 German soldiers were killed and 68 wounded, besides ten Italian civilians killed, including six children, a number of Italian hostages, held in custody as supporters of Badoglio, should be shot in the ratio of ten for every soldier murdered.

Had the court which tried Kesselring been composed of civilians, it would be easy to understand why it should appear outrageous in any circumstances that an innocent person should be executed for the crime of another. But the court was composed of experienced soldiers and the execution of hostages is unanimously upheld by the military authorities of all civilized countries as a coercive measure. Articles 453 and 454 of the British Manual of Military Law are explicit on the subject. Article 454 explains that “the coercive force of reprisals arises from the fact that in most cases they inflict suffering on innocent individuals.” Article 358 of the American Military Manual also authorises the execution of hostages as a necessary measure to safeguard the lives of combatant forces. If it be thought that Kesselring was condemned because the tribunal considered the ratio of 10 to 1 excessive, it becomes necessary to state that, when the French occupied Stuttgart in April, 1945, it was announced that hostages would be shot in the ratio of 25 to 1 for every French soldier murdered by the German civilian population; and that when the Americans entered the Harz district, execution was threatened in the ratio of 200 to 1 for every American soldier murdered.

The reason why it was considered so desirable to hush up the facts of this war-crimes trial are sufficiently obvious. The verdict was quite indefensible. The reason why it was possible to keep the facts from the public so long is also open to a very simple explanation. At his war-crimes trial at Manila in the previous year, General Tomoyuki Yamashita was provided with a team of American lawyers who not only ably defended him but carried his appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States. While they failed to save his life, one of his lawyers, Mr. A. Frank Reel, cleared his memory by writing a classic study of the case in which the full facts are set forth.9 Similarly two years later, Field Marshal Fritz Erich von Manstein was provided with English Counsel to defend him at his trial at Hamburg in 1949; to their efforts he owed his life, and one of them, Mr. R. T. Paget, Q.C., has since written an account of the proceedings which leaves in no doubt the grounds upon which and the methods by which, a conviction was obtained.10

Field Marshal Kesselring, in contrast, was denied the services of English lawyers to defend him before the English military court instructed to try him. He was forced to rely on German lawyers quite unfamiliar with English legal conceptions and English military legal procedure. As citizens of a defeated state, his defenders were not free, like Mr. Reel and Mr. Paget, to carry on the struggle for justice after their professional services were completed. Victimisation for what the occupying authorities might consider excessive zeal was an ever-present possibility. It is, of course, a characteristic of all war-crimes trials that, usually, only those concerned with the defence show any disposition to dwell afterwards on the facts. In the Kesselring war-crimes trial, those concerned with the defence lacked the means to make known the facts, at least to the world outside Germany; and those concerned otherwise than with the defence have ever since rigidly preserved a prudent silence.

Unlike in most Routine War-crimes Trials, those dealing with the prosecution of Kesselring seem to have regarded a conviction as a necessary formality, a mere repetition of what had already been decided. The reason for this attitude was that three months before two of Kesselring’s colleagues, General von Mackensen and General Malzer, had been sentenced to death in Rome on the same charges arising from the same facts as those now brought against Kesselring. Although the military tribunal which assembled in Venice to try Kesselring was not the same as that which had so recently adjudicated in Rome, the Advocate General, the functionary whose role it was to advise the tribunal on points of law, was the same. It was obvious, of course, to everyone in court that an acquittal of Kesselring would amount to an admission that the Rome tribunal had erred – a simply unthinkable conclusion. Having advised on the same evidence once, the Judge Advocate saw no reason to change his mind. “His prejudice” writes Kesselring, “was glaring.” Comparing him with the official prosecutor, a Swiss newspaper commented tensely, “The Judge Advocate was the second, and the better, prosecutor”

From one point of view, in particular, the Kesselring war-crimes trial is far more remarkable than the Nuremberg war-crimes trial. The tribunal which purported to adjudicate at Nuremberg was composed of lawyers sitting only six months after the termination of hostilities. Inevitably, their minds were still under the influence of wartime passions, and, if they erred deplorably in the case of Admiral Raider, it can at least be said they meted out a sort of rough justice to some of the accused. As lawyers, they had no reason for feeling any particular understanding or sympathy for sailors like Admiral Raider or Admiral Donitz, or for soldiers like Field Marshal Keitel or General Jodl.

On the other hand, the military court at Venice which tried Field Marshal Kesselring, was composed of soldiers of standing and repute, sitting two years after the conclusion of hostilities. They had before them a brother professional, not only a soldier of the highest rank but the hero of one of the greatest fighting retreats in military annals. At any other period of history, the minds of such a body would have been dominated by sympathy for a commander who, faced by an enemy superior in numbers, vastly superior in equipment, and enjoying undisputed command of the sea and air, had maintained an unbroken resistance, step by step, from the southern shores of Sicily to the foothills of the Alps, until his gallant troops, deprived of air support by lack of petrol and hampered at first by cowardly and later by treacherous allies, were engulfed, still undefeated, in the general ruin.

What is so particularly remarkable is that the charge against Field Marshal Kesselring was the one least likely to appeal to military minds the charge that he had adopted severe methods to protect his hard-pressed troops from treacherous attacks from the rear by gangs of armed civilians. Most of the members of the Court were aware from personal observation of the nature and methods of the Italian underground movement against which Kesselring had had to contend. In similar circumstances they themselves would have adopted similar measures, measures which were, in fact, adopted without hesitation by the Americans six years later in the campaign in Korea in 1950, when their lines of communication were being raided by communist irregulars.

Very different had been the reaction of British officers in the past when the same circumstances had arisen. Thus, for examples Professor Charles W. C. Oman, in his Peninsula War, complains that, as a consequence of having witnessed the atrocities of the Spanish guerillas, many of Wellington’s officers developed a distinctly pro-French bias. In particular, he complains that one of Wellington’s officers, Sir William Napier, in his military classic, War in the Peninsula, became so biased that he was “over-hard on the Spaniards and over-lenient to Bonaparte... he invariably exaggerates Spanish defeats and minimises Spanish successes.”11

There was nothing exceptional or unique in the situation which led to Field Marshal Kesselring finding himself at the disposal of the foreign enemies occupying his country. Thus, France, in 1814, was as completely at the mercy of her conquerors as was Germany in 1945, and most of the French Generals had, at one time or another, faced the task of coping with the Spanish guerillas during the Peninsulas War. But, although he had been much assisted in his operations by their activities, the Duke of Wellington felt himself under no obligation to avenge the execution of the assassins and saboteurs who had occupied themselves behind the French lines sniping isolated detachments, stabbing sentries, torturing prisoners, and mutilating the wounded. On the contrary we hear of him, only two years after the termination of hostilities, when commander-in-chief of the army of occupation in France, paying Marshal Massena a friendly visit at the house of another “war-criminal”, Marshal Sault, and exchanging with him reminiscences of the campaign in Spain. The idea that either of these famous soldiers ought to be put on trial for their handling of the Spanish “underground movement” apparently never entered Wellington’s mind. Even Marshal Suchet, who had particularly distinguished himself by the energy12 by which he had repressed the gangs of Spanish civilians which had homed his troops in Aragon, was permitted to end his days in honourable retirement in Paris without molestation by the foreign occupiers of his country.

Perhaps the most fitting concluding observation on the subject is that, although Field Marshal Kesselring was unfortunate not to have lived in earlier and more civilized times, he was, on the other hand, fortunate to have lived before the reversion to barbarism had proceeded so far that it had become a universal rule (to quote, once more, Field Marshal Montgomery): “after a war, generals on the defeated side are tried and hanged.”

In the autobiography which Field Marshal Kesselring wrote in retirement after his release in 1952, he deals with his treatment as a prisoner of war in British hands with remarkable reserve and moderation. When possible he pays tribute to the conduct of his captors, in particular to the officer to whom he surrendered, General Taylor, afterwards commander-in-chief in the Korean War 2nd to Colonel Scotland, the commandant of the notorious ‘Kensington Cage’ in London in which he was subjected to “interrogation.” He discloses that before his trial started in Venice in February 1947 he endured a period of solitary confinement lasting five months in Nuremberg waiting to be called to give evidence at the mass-trial there taking place, and refutes the comfortable belief held in Britain that after the sentence of death passed on him in Venice had been commuted to a sentence of imprisonment for life, he was detained in nominal detention for a short period as a face-saving measure to preserve the credit of the British military authorities. In fact, however, he was treated as a common criminal in Werl Prison where he spent his time, he tells us, gumming paper bags: he was not set free until the 24th October 1952 by what was called “an act of clemency.” He died on the 11th July 1960.

It must be confessed that in few respects can the Kesselring Trial be regarded as a typical Routine War-crimes Trial. Its purpose was entirely political, although it may at first be hard to see what political purpose could be served by paying attention to the complaints of the Italians against the Field Marshal. No one indeed was concerned to placate Italian public opinion but the very powerful Communist Party in Italy enjoyed the special patronage of Stalin whose menacing figure then overshadowed Europe. The trial took place during the early months of 1947 when the Stalin Myth was still almost universally believed and the British and American Governments still clung to the hope that by continued subservience to the wishes of the communist dictator he could be induced to act as a loyal and friendly ally in the crusade for the liberty and welfare of mankind. It was not until the following year that this pathetic delusion was shattered by the establishment by force of communist rule in Czechoslovakia and the blockade by the Red Army of West Berlin. When in 1948 the grim prospect had to be faced that at any time Europe might be invaded and occupied by the Red Army, the scandal of Kesselring’s conviction was quickly driven from the attention of the public and the victim soon became a forgotten prisoner, gumming paper bags, in Werl Prison. (pp. 285-296)

Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, Bundesarchiv Bild 183-2005-0103-505, 1940


5. See the interview with General Leese, reported by Major Redman in the Sunday Pictorial, May 11, 1947.

6. See the speech of Lord Justice Lawrence (then recently created Lord Oakley) in the House of Lords on the 27th April 1948, in which he said, referring to the Nuremburg Trials, “We have just been joining with other countries in putting to death our enemies in Germany.”

7. See the articles “Nicht Gnade sondern Recht” published by Der Stern. The issue of August 5, 1951 contains a photostatic copy of Viscount Alexander’s letter, dated July 26th, 1951, reproduced in the Daily Express of August 9, 1951.

8. It was no doubt in contemplation of further “tragic mistakes” being perpetrated that the Bishop of Monmouth justified the destruction of the Monte Cassino on the ground that “Jesus Christ came to save souls and not to preserve the Temple of Jerusalem.” This is, perhaps, the most perfect example of a non sequitur in the English language!

9. Frank Reel, The Case of General Yamashita, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1949.

10. R. T. Paget, Manstein, London, Collins, 1951.

11. The Peninsular War, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1902-1922, Volume I, p. XI.

12. The soldier, Sir William Napier, refers to Suchet’s methods as “vigorous and prudent measures” while the civilian, Professor Oman, refers to them as “a series of atrocities.” Quot homines, tot senteniae!

F. J. P. Veale, Advance to Barbarism: The Development of Total Warfare From Serajevo to Hiroshima. Mitre Press (London) 1968.

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