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Nazi Saboteurs Trial

Washington, D.C., 1942


Nazi Saboteurs Trial Nazi Saboteur Trial Nazi Saboteur Trial Eight German saboteurs
To view the courtroom photographs, click either of the two end images above.

In mid-June 1942, eight German saboteurs — Ernest Peter Burger, George John Dasch, Herbert Hans Haupt, Henry Harm Heinck, Edward John Kerling, Hermann Otto Neubauer, Richard Quirin, and Werner Thiel — entered the United States by submarine in two groups, one landing on the coast of Long Island, New York, and the other at Ponte Vedra, near Jacksonville, Florida. Per the instructions of the German High Command, both groups of men carried a supply of explosives, fuses and incendiary and timing devices, to be used to destroy vital infrastructure, war-related industries, and various commercial locations in the United States. Within two weeks, George John Dasch turned himself in to the Federal Bureau of Investigation and divulged critical information that led to the arrest of the other seven saboteurs in New York City and Chicago. On July 2, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as commander in chief of the army and navy, issued two orders that empowered a military commission to prosecute the eight saboteurs. The first, Proclamation No. 2561 — “Denying Certain Enemies Access to the Courts of the United States” — states at the outset that all enemies of the United States who commit certain acts “should be promptly tried in accordance with the law of war.” Specifically, citizens and residents of nations at war with the United States “who during time of war enter or attempt to enter the United States … through coastal or boundary defenses, and are charged with committing or attempting or preparing to commit sabotage, espionage, hostile or warlike acts, or violations of the law of war,” were to be “subject to the law of war and to the jurisdiction of military tribunals” and prohibited from seeking remedy in the federal or state courts. The second order, issued by President Roosevelt under authority of Article of War 38, appointed a military commission to try the eight Germans “for offenses against the law of war and the Articles of War.” The commission was given “power to make such rules for the conduct of the proceeding, consistent with the powers of military commissions under the Articles of War, as it shall deem necessary for a full and fair trial of the matters before it.” The order also prescribed regulations for review of the record of the trial and of any judgment or sentence of the commission.

The commission was convened on July 8, 1942. The eight saboteurs sought to file a writ of habeas corpus with the U.S District Court for the District of Columbia, but their motion was denied. In late July, while the military commission was in session, defense counsel persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to hear oral arguments on defense challenges to the commission. The Supreme Court’s decision, Ex parte Quirin, issued on July 31, 1942, considered the petitioners’ “contention that the President is without any statutory or constitutional authority to order the petitioners to be tried by military tribunal for offenses with which they are charged” — violation of the law of war, violation of Articles 81 and 82 of the Articles of War, and conspiracy to commit these violations — and that they are consequently entitled to be tried in civil courts. The Court rejected these arguments, and ruled that the German saboteurs were “plainly within the ultimate boundaries of the jurisdiction of military tribunals, and were held in good faith for trial by military commission, charged with being enemies who, with the purpose of destroying war materials and utilities, entered or after entry remained in our territory without uniform — an offense against the law of war. Those particular acts constitute an offense against the law of war which the Constitution authorizes to be tried by military commission.” The military tribunal concluded on August 1, with a guilty verdict for all eight defendants. On August 8, 1942 Haupt, Heinck, Kerling, Neubauer, Quirin, and Thiel were executed. Burger and Dasch received prison sentences. The full text of Ex parte Quirin, linked below, is the electronic version of the final, official opinion of the Supreme Court, which is printed in the bound volumes of the United States Reports. As other documents related to the Nazi saboteurs case are converted to digital format, they will be added to this site.

Ex parte Quirin, 1942
Cases Adjudged in the Supreme Court of the United States . . Ex parte Quirin, 317 U.S. 1 (1942) (PDF)
(OCLC Number 456682605)

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  August 15, 2014
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