A chart is definitely more valuable than a thousand words so let’s take a look at some charts on death penalty in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union (to put the former into a proper perspective).
From 1907 to 1932 (i.e. including World War I which significantly increased the number of death sentences as treason became much more dangerous), Germany (the Second Reich and the Weimar Republic) together issued 1547 death warrants, of which 393 (just over one in four and roughly sixteen a year) were executed.
In the last years of the Weimar Republic (which grew more and more lenient towards capital offenders), executions were in the single digits – and always for aggravated murder. In fact, in the latter only a murder in the first degree (i.e. with aggravating circumstances) carried a death sentence.
Nazis not only returned high treason to a list of capital crimes (which was the case in the Imperial Germany), but drastically expanded that list with the Reichstag Fire Decree.
Which now included conspiracy to commit murder of a government official of a national or state level, armed insurrection (“disturbance of the peace”), arson, acts of terrorism (even if they did not lead to a loss of life) and a political kidnapping.
Hence it is no surprise at all that the number of executions in Germany in 1933 increased tenfold compared to the previous year. Practically all death sentences were handed out for political crimes (mostly for “high treason”) by the newly established People’s Court and other special political courts.
Interestingly enough, although the laws of 1934 and 1936 further expanded the list of political crimes punishable by death, it lead to a relatively small increase in the number of executions from 1934 to 1939. Apparently the system of eliminating political opposition and prevention of resistance activities worked well enough.
The war predictably changed everything.
The next chart reflects a radical change in death sentences passed by the Nazi special political courts with the beginning of World War II. The dominant offence was “defeatism” and “undermining the war effort”.
The Nazi logic was simple and straightforward (as were their motives). They completely (and erroneously) believed that the only root cause of the defeat of Germany in World War I was the “stab in the back” by defeatists and traitors (and, of course, Jews).
Jews were dealt with by an entirely different system (of forced emigration and later by extermination by Einsatzgruppen death squads and subsequently in the death camps) and other “internal enemies” were to be deterred (i.e. stopped cold) by ruthless death sentences handed out by the special courts.
However, to put these numbers in the right perspective, it is necessary to compare them with the number of executions in the Soviet Union (just as I did with the number of inmates in concentration camps). Obviously, both before the war (in 1933-39) and in wartime.
Even without truly horrendous jump during the Great Purge (the number of executions in the USSR went up 300 times) it is evident that prior to the World War II the Communist regime was far, far more murderous than the Nazi one (in the USSR, like in Germany, the overwhelming majority of executions were for political crimes).
The Great Purge of 1937-38 was an outlier so I did not include these numbers (353,074 and 328,618 executed respectively) into this chart. Which is more than impressive even without these numbers.
Even if we adjust for the differences in population size (at that time the population of the Soviet Union was roughly 2.5 times that of the Nazi Germany), the picture will not change a bit.
The next chart is actually quite informative. The year 1939 basically continues the enormous difference between the Bolshevist and the Nazi regimes at peacetime, the former being far more murderous than the latter.
The next year the Nazi Germany is at war but the Soviet Union is not. In addition, the Great Purge in the USSR is finally over. Consequently, the number of executions in the Third Reich goes way up (by an order of magnitude) and in the USSR goes down by 35%. As the result, on a relative scale (taking into account the difference in population), in 1940 the Nazis actually carried out more executions than the Bolsheviks.
In 1941, the Soviet Union enters the war and experiences the jump in the number of executions similar to the one experienced by the Nazi Germany in 1940 (by a factor of five). The German blitzkrieg on the Eastern front fails and its victory in the World War II is in doubt for the first time; so it is not a surprise at all that the number of executions goes up almost by half (by 44%, to be more precise).
In 1942, the situation for Wehrmacht deteriorates further, the German population begins to experience wartime fatigue… and the number of executions in the Third Reich predictably increases by about 40% (about as much as it did in 1941).
The situation in the Soviet Union changes far more drastically. During the first half of 1942, the Red Army continued to suffer humiliating defeats and enormous losses of territory, personnel and military hardware.
On July 28th, 1942 Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was forced to issue an infamous (and very much draconian) Order No. 227 (aptly nicknamed “No Step Back!”).
Almost a million (!) Red Army soldiers and officers was court-martialed; 135,000 were executed by a firing squad. Half of those whose lives were spared were sent to penal battalions and penal companies (with about 50% chance to be killed in action) and half was imprisoned in the GULAG (which was not much better).
Hence it is no surprise that number of death sentences meted out by Soviet civilian courts tripled from 8011 in 1941 (half of which was the time of peace) to a whopping 23,278 in 1942.
After the Battle for Stalingrad the situation on the Eastern front changed radically for both sides. For the Red Army for the best and for the Wehrmacht for the worst. Hence the number of carried out death sentences in the Third Reich predictably exceeded the number of executions in the Soviet Union (even without adjusting for the difference in the size of population). 1944 was largely the same for both sides.