How the death of a Nazi war criminal inspired a Viking human sacrifice

Writers are magpies. We take shiny stuff from everywhere and anywhere and use it in our books. But today I thought I would tell you how a dramatic scene in King of the North, my new epic Viking novel, which is published by Canelo on September 28, 2023, was inspired by an old photograph on Twitter/X.

The photograph above show the last few moments on earth of General Anton Doestler, a WW2 German infantry officer who was captured by the Allies and sentenced to death for the murder of a 15 American POWs. He was tied to the stake in Aversa, in southern Italy, and executed by firing squad on December 1st, 1945. His death was captured in several black and white photographs (the image above has been colourised). And when I first saw the picture, I was mesmerised by its raw emotional power.

The US soldiers executed at the order of General Doestler had been engaged in a commando raid behind enemy lines when they were captured, trying to blow up a tunnel on an important railway line. The men were, crucially, dressed in they US Army uniforms. According to the Geneva Conventions, they should have been treated as POWs. But Hitler had ordered that all enemy personnel captured undertaking commando raids were to be executed as saboteurs. So Doestler, a career soldier who had fought in both world wars, issued the order for them to die. At his trial, he pleaded that he was just following orders from above – which he certainly was – but the American tribunal ruled that this was not a viable defence.

He wasn’t a very nice man, a Nazi, and a cold-blooded killer. But there was something about the photograph that I saw on Twitter (as it then was) that arrested my attention. It is the look in his eyes as he stared at the camera. He knows he is going to die. He knows there is nothing he can do about it. But he is trying, trying so hard, not to show his fear that I was deeply moved. Here, I thought is the warrior ethos, here is courage, captured in the eyes of a man facing certain death. I have written about mortal danger, and characters facing certain death many times in my novels. But this was the first time I had actually seen it in a photograph.

His eyes are bright and filled with so much self-pity, they look almost soft. His jaw is clenched, his lips pursed, as if he is physically trying to stop himself from crying out. He knows that in a few moments he will be no more. And then there are the people around him, there is a certain tenderness about the lance corporal with his hand on the prisoner’s belly. The priest looks furious – he either hates the prisoner or perhaps he hates being part of this macabre ritual of death. And it was the priest who gave me the idea for a scene early on in King of the North, my fourth Fire Born novel, in which a victim is sacrificed to the Norse gods.

The ritual element of this WW2 episode struck me. Doestler was tried and found guilty by a military court of his enemies. He was kept in a prison cell until the appointed time, then he was taken out and tied to a wooden stake, then he was hooded, then on the order of an officer, he was shot to death. He was a Nazi, so, well, he got what was coming to him. But I like to think that he died well. Like a soldier. Like a warrior.

Anyway, that was the picture that inspired the dramatic human sacrifice scene in Chapter One of King of the North. In a way, you might argue that General Doestler was just as much a human sacrifice as the Viking in my book. A sacrifice to Justice, perhaps, or the Gods of War. But maybe that is pushing it too far. Maybe it was just revenge for the 15 POWs he ordered killed in cold blood. The Vikings in my Fire Born series – and all the men-at-arms in my many other books – would have understood that motive too.

King of the North (Fire Born 4) is out on September 28, 2023, but you can pre-order here. The series begins with The Last Berserker (Fire Born 1) but each book can be read as a standalone novel.

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Tony Estabrookp
7 months ago

It shows that in reality there have been really evil people in the world, but it takes a lot to face death in the face.An author translating that into writing,in there work,I should imagine it’s not easy to translate into words, praise to our dedicated scribes.

Alistair Tosh
Alistair Tosh
7 months ago

A really interesting take, Angus and an unusual subject to cover in a blog post.