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Ernst Kaltenbrunner

Ernst Kaltenbrunner Austrian-born senior official of Nazi Germany executed for war crimes

Austrian-born senior official of Nazi Germany executed for war crimes
The basics
Quick Facts
Intro Austrian-born senior official of Nazi Germany executed for war crimes
A.K.A. 恩斯特·卡尔滕布龙纳
Countries Austria German Reich
Occupations Politician Lawyer Military officer
Gender male
Birth 4 October 1903 (Ried im Innkreis)
Death 16 October 1946 (Nuremberg)
Star sign LibraLibra
Politics Nazi Party
Education University of Graz
Ernst Kaltenbrunner
The details

Ernst Kaltenbrunner (4 October 1903 – 16 October 1946) was an Austrian-born senior official of Nazi Germany during World War II. An Obergruppenführer (general) in the Schutzstaffel (SS), between January 1943 and May 1945 he held the offices of Chief of the Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt; RSHA). He was the highest-ranking member of the SS to face trial at the first Nuremberg trials. He was found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and executed by hanging.


Born in Ried im Innkreis, Austria, Kaltenbrunner was the son of a lawyer, and was educated at the Realgymnasium in Linz. Raised in a nationalist family, Kaltenbrunner was childhood friends with Adolf Eichmann, the infamous SS officer who played a key role in implementing the Nazis' Final Solution against Europe's Jews. After Gymnasium, Kaltenbrunner went on to obtain his doctorate degree in law at Graz University in 1926. He worked at a law firm in Salzburg for a year before opening his own law office in Linz. He had deep scars on his face from dueling in his student days, although some sources attribute them to an automobile accident.

On 14 January 1934, Kaltenbrunner married Elisabeth Eder (b. 1908) who was from Linz and a Nazi Party member. They had three children. In addition to the children from his marriage, Kaltenbrunner had twins, Ursula and Wolfgang, (b. 1945) with his long-time mistress Gisela Gräfin von Westarp (née Wolf). All the children survived the war.

SS career

On 18 October 1930, Kaltenbrunner joined the Nazi Party with NSDAP member number 300,179. In 1931, he was the Bezirksredner (district speaker) for the Nazi Party in Oberösterreich. Kaltenbrunner went on to join the SS on 31 August 1931, his SS number was 13,039. He first became a Rechtsberater (legal consultant) for the party in 1929 and later held this same position for SS Abschnitt VIII beginning in 1932. That same year, he began working at his father's law practice and by 1933 was head of the National-Socialist Lawyers' League in Linz.

In January 1934, Kaltenbrunner was briefly jailed at the Kaisersteinbruch detention camp with other National Socialists for conspiracy by the Engelbert Dollfuss government. While there he led a hunger strike which forced the government to release 490 of the party members. In 1935, he was jailed again on suspicion of high treason. This charge was dropped, but he was sentenced to six months imprisonment for conspiracy and he lost his license to practice law.

From mid-1935 Kaltenbrunner was head of the illegal SS Abschnitt VIII in Linz and was considered a leader of the Austrian SS. To provide Heinrich Himmler, Reinhard Heydrich and Heinz Jost with new information, Kaltenbrunner repeatedly made trips to Bavaria. Hiding on a train and on a ship that traveled to Passau, he would return with money and orders for Austrian comrades. Kaltenbrunner was arrested again in 1937, by Austrian authorities on charges of being head of the illegal Nazi Party organisation in Oberösterreich. He was released in September.

Kaltenbrunner (on the far left), Heinrich Himmler and August Eigruber inspect Mauthausen concentration camp in 1941, in the company of camp commander Franz Ziereis.

Acting on orders from Hermann Göring, Kaltenbrunner assisted in the Anschluss with Germany in March 1938, and was awarded the role as the state secretary for public security in the Seyss-Inquart cabinet. Controlled from behind the scenes by Himmler, Kaltenbrunner still led, albeit clandestinely, the Austrian SS as part of his duty to 'coordinate' and manage the Austrian population. Then on 21 March 1938, he was promoted to SS-Brigadeführer. He was a member of the Reichstag from 10 April 1938 until 8 May 1945. Amid this activity, he helped establish the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp near Linz. Mauthausen was the first Nazi concentration camp opened in Austria following the Anschluss. On 11 September 1938, Kaltenbrunner was promoted to the rank of SS-Gruppenführer, equivalent to a lieutenant general in the army while holding the position of Führer of SS-Oberabschnitt Österreich (re-designated SS-Oberabschnitt Donau in November 1938). Also in 1938, he was appointed High SS and police leader (Höherer SS- und Polizeiführer; HSSPF) for Donau, which was the primary SS command in Austria (he held that post until 30 January 1943).

World War II

In June 1940, Kaltenbrunner was appointed Police President of Vienna and held that additional post for a year. In July 1940, he was commissioned as a SS-Untersturmführer in the Waffen-SS Reserve. Throughout the course of his many duties, Kaltenbrunner also developed an impressive intelligence network across Austria moving south eastwards, which eventually brought him to Himmler's attention for the assignment as chief of the RSHA in January 1943. The RSHA was composed of the SiPo (Sicherheitspolizei; the combined forces of the Gestapo and Kripo) along with the SD (Sicherheitsdienst, Security Service). He replaced Heydrich, who was assassinated in June 1942. Kaltenbrunner held this position until the end of the war. Hardly anyone knew Kaltenbrunner and upon his appointment, Himmler transferred responsibility for both SS personnel and economics from the RSHA to the SS Main Economic and Administrative Office. Nonetheless, he was promoted to SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Polizei on 21 June 1943. He also replaced Heydrich as President of the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC), the organization today known as Interpol.

Fear of a collapsing home-front due to the Allied bombing campaigns and that another "stab-in-the-back" at home could arise as a result, caused Kaltenbrunner to immediately tighten the Nazi grip within Germany. From what historian Anthony Read relates, Kaltenbrunner's appointment as RSHA chief came as a surprise given the other possible candidates like head of the Gestapo, Heinrich Müller, or even SD foreign intelligence chief, Walter Schellenberg. Historian Richard Grunberger also added the name of Dr. Wilhelm Stuckart, the future minister of the German Interior as another potential candidate for head of the RSHA; however, he suggests that Kaltenbrunner was most likely selected since he was a comparative "newcomer" who would be more "pliable" in Himmler's hands.

Like many of the ideological fanatics in the regime, Kaltenbrunner was a committed anti-Semite. According to former SS-Sturmbannführer Hans Georg Mayer, Kaltenbrunner was present at a December 1940 meeting between Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, and Heydrich, where it was decided to gas all Jews incapable of heavy physical work. Under Kaltenbrunner's command, the persecution of Jews picked up pace as "the process of extermination was to be expedited and the concentration of the Jews in the Reich itself and the occupied countries were to be liquidated as soon as possible." Kaltenbrunner stayed constantly informed over the status of concentration camp activities, receiving periodic reports at his office in the RSHA.

In an effort to combat homosexuality across the greater Reich, Kaltenbrunner pushed the Ministry of Justice in July 1943 for an edict mandating compulsory castration for anyone found guilty of this offense. While this was rejected, he still took steps to get the army to review some 6,000 cases to prosecute homosexuals.

Kaltenbrunner with Himmler and Ziereis at Mauthausen in April 1941

During the summer of 1943, Kaltenbrunner conducted his second inspection of the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp. While he was there, 15 prisoners were selected to demonstrate for Kaltenbrunner three methods of killing; by gunshot to the neck, hanging and gassing. After the killings were performed, Kaltenbrunner inspected the crematorium and later the quarry. In October 1943, he told Herbert Kappler, the head of German police and security services in Rome, that the "eradication of the Jews in Italy" was of "special interest" for "general security". Four days later, Kappler's SS and police units began rounding up and deporting Jews by train to Auschwitz concentration camp.

In 1944 when Hitler was in the process of strong-arming Admiral Horthy into submitting Hungary to the Nazis during an arranged meeting in Klessheim Castle in Salzburg, Kaltenbrunner was present for the negotiations and escorted him out once they were over. Accompanying Horthy and Kaltenbrunner on the journey back to Hungary was Adolf Eichmann who brought with him a special Einsatzkommando unit to begin the process of "rounding up and deporting Hungary's 750,000 Jews."

It was said that even Himmler feared him, as Kaltenbrunner was an intimidating figure with his 1.94 metres (6 ft 4 in) height, facial scars and volatile temper. Kaltenbrunner was also a longtime friend of Otto Skorzeny and recommended him for many secret missions, allowing Skorzeny to become one of Hitler's favorite agents. Kaltenbrunner was also responsible for heading Operation Long Jump, a plan to assassinate Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt in Tehran.

Immediately in the wake of the 20 July Plot on Hitler's life in 1944, Kaltenbrunner was summoned to Hitler's wartime headquarters at the Wolfsschanze (Wolf's Lair) in East Prussia to begin the investigation into who was responsible for the assassination attempt. Once it was revealed that an attempted military coup against Hitler had been launched, Himmler and Kaltenbrunner had to tread carefully as the military was not under the jurisdiction of the Gestapo or the SD. Since the attempt failed, the conspirators were soon identified. An estimated 5,000 people were eventually executed with many more sent to concentration camps.

Kaltenbrunner (front row, second from left) as spectator at a People's Court show trial following the failed 20 July plot.

Historian Heinz Höhne counted Kaltenbrunner among fanatical Hitler loyalists and described him as being committed "to the bitter end." Field reports from the SD in October 1944 about deteriorating morale in the military prompted Katenbrunner to urge the involvement of the RSHA in military court-martial proceedings, but this was rejected by Himmler who thought it unwise to interfere in Wehrmacht (army) affairs. In December 1944, Kaltenbrunner was granted the additional rank of General of the Waffen-SS. On 15 November 1944 he was awarded the Knights Cross of the War Merit Cross with Swords. In addition, he was awarded the NSDAP Golden Party Badge and the Blutorden (Blood Order). Using his authority as Chief of the RSHA, Kaltenbrunner issued a decree on 6 February 1945 that allowed policemen to shoot "disloyal" people at their discretion, without judicial review.

On 12 March 1945, a meeting took place in the Vorarlberg between Kaltenbrunner and Carl Jacob Burckhardt, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (1945–48). Just over a month later, Himmler was informed that SS-Obergruppenführer (general) Karl Wolff had been negotiating with the Allies for the capitulation of Italy. When questioned by Himmler, Wolff explained that he was operating under Hitler's orders and attempting to play the Allies against one another. Himmler believed him, but Kaltenbrunner did not and told Himmler that an informant claimed Wolff also negotiated with Cardinal Schuster of Milan and was about to surrender occupied Italy to the Allies. Himmler angrily repeated the allegations and Wolff, feigning offense, challenged Himmler to present these statements to Hitler. Unnerved by Wolff's demands, Himmler backed down, and Hitler sent Wolff back to Italy to seek better terms with the U.S. forces.

In mid-April 1945, three weeks before the war ended, Himmler named Kaltenbrunner commander-in-chief of those remaining German forces in Southern Europe. Kaltenbrunner attempted to organize cells for post-war sabotage in the region and in Germany, but accomplished little. Hitler made one of his last appearances on 20 April 1945 outside the subterranean Führerbunker in Berlin, where he pinned medals on boys from the Hitler Youth for their bravery. Kaltenbrunner was among those present, but realizing the end was near, he then fled from Berlin.

Capture and surrender

On 12 May 1945 Kaltenbrunner was apprehended along with his adjutant, Arthur Scheidler, and two SS guards in a remote cabin at the top of the Totes Gebirge mountains near Alt Aussee by a search party initiated by the 80th Infantry Division, Third U.S. Army. Information had been gained from Johann Brandauer, the assistant burgermeister of Alt Aussee, that the party was hiding out with false papers in the cabin. This was supported by an eyewitness sighting by the Alt Aussee mountain ranger five days earlier. Special Agent Robert E. Matteson from the C.I.C. Detachment organized and led a patrol consisting of Brandauer, four ex-Wehrmacht soldiers, and a squad of US soldiers to effect the arrest. The party climbed over mountainous and glacial terrain for six hours in darkness before arriving at the cabin. Matteson confronted the suspects alone and unarmed. After a short standoff, all four men exited the cabin and surrendered without a shot fired. Kaltenbrunner claimed to be a doctor and offered a false name. However, upon their arrival back to town his mistress, Countess Gisela von Westarp, chanced to spot him as he was being led away, called out his name and rushed to hug him. This action resulted in his positive identification and arrest by US troops.

Recovered evidence

In 2001, Ernst Kaltenbrunner's personal Nazi security seal was found in an Alpine lake in Styria, Austria, 56 years after he had thrown it away in an effort to hide his identity. The seal was recovered by a Dutch citizen on vacation. The seal has the words "Chef der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD" (Chief of the Security Police and SD) engraved on it. Experts have examined the seal and believe it was discarded in the final days of the war in May 1945.

Nuremberg trials

Kaltenbrunner wheeled into court during the Nuremberg trials after a brain haemorrhage during interrogation.

At the Nuremberg trials, Kaltenbrunner was charged with conspiracy to commit crimes against peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Due to the areas over which he exercised responsibility as an SS general and as chief of the RSHA, he was acquitted of crimes against peace, but held responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Kaltenbrunner as a defendant in the Nuremberg trials

During the initial stages of the Nuremberg trials, Kaltenbrunner was absent because of two episodes of subarachnoid hemorrhage, which required several weeks of recovery time. After his health improved, the tribunal denied his request for pardon. When he was released from a military hospital he pleaded not guilty to the charges of the indictment against him. Kaltenbrunner said all decrees and legal documents which bore his signature were "rubber-stamped" and filed by his adjutant(s). He also said Gestapo Chief Heinrich Müller had illegally affixed his signature to numerous documents in question.

Kaltenbrunner argued in his defense that his position as RSHA chief existed only theoretically and said he was only active in matters of espionage and intelligence. He maintained that Himmler, as his superior, was the person actually culpable for the atrocities committed during his tenure as chief of the RSHA. Kaltenbrunner also asserted that he had no knowledge of the Final Solution before 1943 and went on to claim that he protested against the ill-treatment of the Jews to Himmler and Hitler. Further denials from Kaltenbrunner included statements that he knew nothing of the Commissar Order and that he never visited Mauthausen concentration camp, despite documentation of his visit. At one point, Kaltenbrunner went so far as to avow that he was responsible for bringing the Final Solution to an end.

On 30 September 1946, the International Military Tribunal found Kaltenbrunner not guilty of crimes against peace, but guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity (counts three and four). On 1 October 1946, the IMT sentenced him to death by hanging.


Kaltenbrunner's body after execution by hanging on 16 October 1946

Kaltenbrunner was executed on 16 October 1946, around 1:15 a.m., in Nuremberg. His body, like those of the other nine executed men and that of Hermann Göring (who committed suicide the previous day), was cremated at the Eastern Cemetery in Munich and the ashes were scattered in a tributary of the River Isar.

In popular culture

Kaltenbrunner has been portrayed by the following actors in film, television and theater productions, including:

  • Edward Underdown in the 1958 British film The Two-Headed Spy.
  • Branko Pleša in the 1971 Yugoslavian television production Nirnberški epilog.
  • Alain Nobis in the 1972 French television production La Tragédie de Vérone.
  • Mikhail Zharkovsky in the 1973 Russian T.V. mini-series Semnadtsat mgnoveniy vesny (Seventeen Moments of Spring).
  • Hans Meyer in the 1978 United States T.V. miniseries Holocaust.
  • John Moffatt in the 1981 British television series Private Schulz.
  • Hans Meyer in the 1982 United States television production Inside the Third Reich.
  • Christopher Heyerdahl in the 2000 Canadian/U.S. T.V. production Nuremberg.

The character Ernie Kaltenbrunner from the 1985 zombie film The Return of the Living Dead was named after Ernst Kaltenbrunner.

In Harry Turtldove's Colonization series Kaltenbrunner serves as the third Führer of the Greater German Reich, following the deaths of Hitler, and Himmler, respectively. He dies in a nuclear attack and is replaced by Walter Dornberger.

Dates of rank

  • SS-Mann – 31 August 1931
  • SS-Truppführer - 1931
  • SS-Sturmhauptführer – 25 September 1932
  • SS-Standartenführer – 20 April 1936
  • SS-Oberführer – 20 April 1937
  • SS-Brigadeführer – 21 March 1938
  • SS-Gruppenführer – 11 September 1938
  • SS-Untersturmführer d.R. der Waffen-SS – 1 July 1940
  • Generalleutnant der Polizei – 1 April 1941
  • SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Polizei – 21 June 1943
  • General der Waffen-SS und Polizei – 1 December 1944
Awards and decorations
  • Honour Chevron for the Old Guard (1934)
  • SS Honour Ring (1938)
  • Sword of honour of the Reichsführer-SS (1938)
  • Anschluss Medal (1938)
  • Sudetenland Medal (1938) with Prague Castle Bar (1939)
  • Golden Party Badge (1939)
  • SS Long Service Award For 4, 8, and 12 Years Service
  • Nazi Party Long Service Award in Bronze and Silver
  • Blood Order (31 May 1942)
  • German Cross in Silver (1943)
  • Knights Cross of the War Merit Cross with Swords (1944)
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