Murder in Medicine Hat: A Nearly Forgotten Episode in WW2

Medicine HatSource: CBC Digital Archives

[Canada operated camps for 34,000 combatant German prisoners of war during WW2. One of them was located in Medicine Hat, Alberta.]

Medicine Hat camp opened July 1, 1943, and quickly became home to a number of Britain’s most dangerous wartime prisoners. The Canadian government decided to allow the Nazi Party members to control the power structure within the camp.

Within days of its opening, Camp 132 became a hotbed of suspicion between the dominant Nazis and German Communists PoWs who opposed their countrymen. The accusations came to a head on July 22 when the Nazis convened a kangaroo court for four prisoners who they believed were trying to wrest away control of the camp.

An angry mob descended on a building where the suspect prisoners were being questioned. One of the suspects, August Plazek, was dragged outside by the mob where he was kicked and beaten with a rock. He was already dead when his body was hung in a nearby exercise hall. The guards, who were outnumbered by at least 10 to 1, were ill-equipped to deal with the riot and stayed in their towers.

The incident sparked an undercover RCMP investigation that attempted to send officers inside the camp to infiltrate the Nazi leadership. The investigation was stymied by a strict code of silence enforced by high-ranking Nazi officers.

On September 10, violence reared its head again when Karl Lehmann, a teacher and committed Communist, was accused of undermining the German government. Lehmann had been translating Canadian newspaper reports about the war in his classroom and had mused about the possibility of Germany losing.

Concerned about morale, a gang of prisoners lured Lehmann to his classroom after hours under the pretence of signing release papers for some of his students. Once there, Lehmann was questioned and then beaten by four men, including a boxing instructor. A rag was stuffed in his mouth and he was hung from his neck from a nearby gas pipe.

The resulting criminal investigation and trial took more than three years to complete. In December 1946 four German soldiers were convicted of murder in the deaths of Plazek and Lehmann. Their hangings, along with a Canadian convicted of an unrelated murder, stand as the largest mass execution in modern Canadian history.


5 responses to “Murder in Medicine Hat: A Nearly Forgotten Episode in WW2

  1. Jeffrey Dvorkin

    Fascinating. Thanks for sharing this Eric.

  2. Elisabeth Ecker

    It does not seem to me very smart to put committed Communists and committed Nazis into the same camp and give one group control of the power structure. This obviously was a recipe for trouble. Somebody was not thinking. A very interesting story.

    • The Canadians were bound by the Geneva Convention. As soon as the war was over the Canadian military assumed authority.

      • Eric, can you elaborate a bit on what you mean here? My understanding is that the Canadian military exercised authority throughout the war (except possibly very soon after the first POWs and internees arrived in Canada) in respect of POW camps. The Geneva Convention relating to the treatment of POWs applied at all times, including after the cessation of hostilities.

  3. You know more about it than I do, Fred. I looked up the Geneva Convention and found that matters of discipline were to be under the jurisdiction of the POWs. The RCMP infiltrated the camp during the war but met with total resistance. After the war the Canadian military separated hard-core Nazis from others.