Ernst Kaltenbrunner was born in in Ried im Innkreis near Braunau in Austria. He was the son of a lawyer and childhood friend of Adolf Eichmann. Educated at the State Realgymnasium in Linz and Graz University. He obtained a law degree in 1926. He worked as a lawyer briefly in Linz and Salzburg and from 1928 in Linz.
On January 14, 1934, Kaltenbrunner married Elisabeth Eder 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, with his long-time mistress Gisela Gräfin von Westarp (née Wolf). All the children survived the war.
In January 1934, Kaltenbrunner was briefly jailed by the Engelbert Dollfuss government with other National Socialists at the Kaisersteinbruch concentration camp. In 1934, he was jailed again on suspicion of High Treason in the assassination of Dollfuss. This accusation was dropped, but he was sentenced to six months for conspiracy and he lost his license to practice law.
From mid-1935, Kaltenbrunner was the leader of the Austrian SS. Kaltenbrunner was arrested again in 1937, by Austrian authorities on charges of being head of the illegal Nazi Party organization in Oberösterreich. He was released in September.
He assisted in the Anschluss and Hitler promoted him to SS Brigadeführer on the day the Anschluss was completed. He helped establish the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp near Linz, the first camp opened in Austria following the Anschluss.
On September 11, 1938, he was promoted to the rank of SS Gruppenführer. Also, in 1938, he was appointed High SS and police leader for Donau, which was the primary SS command in Austria (he held that post until January 30, 1943). He was also a member of the Reichstag from 1938 until May 8, 1945.
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. In his various capacities Kaltenbrunner developed an intelligence network across Austria, which eventually brought him to Heinrich Himmler’s attention for the assignment as chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) in January 1943, replacing Reinhard Heydrich, who had been assassinated in June 1942. The RSHA was composed of the Security Police (SIPO – Sicherheitspolizei; the combined forces of the Gestapo and Kripo) along with the SD. Kaltenbrunner held this position until the end of the war.
Kaltenbrunner was promoted to SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Polizei on June 21, 1943. He also replaced Heydrich as President of the International Criminal Police Commission (ICPC), the organization today known as Interpol.
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 among Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler, and Heydrich where it was decided to gas all Jews incapable of heavy physical work. Under Kaltenbrunner’s command, the genocide 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 received regular reports on the status of concentration camp activities.
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.
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 a gunshot to the neck, hanging, and gassing. Afterward, Kaltenbrunner inspected the crematorium and later the quarry.
In October 1943, Kaltenbrunner 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.
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 6-foot 4-inch 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 July 20, 1944, attempt on Hitler’s life, 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. An estimated 5,000 people were eventually executed, with many more sent to concentration camps.
On December 9, 1944, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross. By then his full title was SS Obergruppenführer and General of the Police Dr. Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Chief of the Security Police and the SD. In addition, he held the Golden Insignia of Honor and the Blutorden.
Using his authority as Chief of the RSHA, Kaltenbrunner issued a decree on February 6, 1945, that allowed policemen to shoot “disloyal” people at their discretion, without judicial review.
In mid-April 1945, three weeks before the war ended, Himmler named Kaltenbrunner commander-in-chief of the remaining German forces in Southern Europe. Kaltenbrunner attempted to organize cells for post-war sabotage in the region and Germany but accomplished little. Hitler made one of his last appearances on April 20, 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.
On May 12, 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 Altaussee, Austria, by a search party initiated by the 80th Infantry Division, Third U.S. Army. After a short standoff, all four men surrendered without a shot fired. Kaltenbrunner claimed to be a doctor and offered a false name. In 2001, Kaltenbrunner’s personal Nazi security seal engraved with the words “Chef der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD” (Chief of the Security Police and SD) was found in an Alpine lake in Styria, Austria, 56 years after he had thrown it away to hide his identity. He was identified soon after his arrest when his mistress, Countess Gisela von Westarp, and Scheidler’s wife saw the men being led away and called out to them.
At the Nuremberg Trials he was charged with conspiracy to commit crimes against peace, war-crimes and crimes against humanity. His close control over the RSHA meant that direct knowledge of and responsibility for the following crimes was ascribed to him:
- Mass murders of civilians of occupied countries by Einsatzgruppen.
- Screening of prisoner of war camps and executing racial and political undesirables.
- The taking of recaptured prisoners of war to concentration camps, where in some cases they were executed.
- Establishing concentration camps and committing racial and political undesirables to concentration and annihilation camps for slave labor and mass murder.
- Deportation of citizens of occupied countries for forced labor and disciplining of forced labor.
- The execution of captured commandos and paratroopers and protection of civilians who lynched Allied fliers.
- The taking of civilians of occupied countries to Germany for secret trial and punishment.
Punishment of citizens of occupied territories under special criminal procedure and by summary methods.
- The execution and confinement of persons in concentration camps for crimes allegedly committed by their relatives.
- Seizure and spoliation of public and private property.
- Murder of prisoners in SIPO and SD prisons.
- Persecution of Jews.
- Persecution of the churches.
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 against him. Kaltenbrunner said all decrees and legal documents that 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 many of the documents.
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 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 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.
He was found guilty of war-crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to death. He was executed at around 1.40 a.m. on October 16, 1946; his last words were “Germany, good luck.”
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.