1940: Hans Vollenweider, the last guillotined in Switzerland

On this date in 1940, Hans Vollenweider became the last person executed in Switzerland.

The Swiss had long experience with executions by beheading and, of course, with mechanical refinements, so adoption of the guillotine was a natural fit … especially after Napoleon overran Switzerland.

Actually, Switzerland had experimented with guillotine-like machines centuries before the French introduced the device, but in the 19th century its Jacobin associations led to a running tug-of-war that saw some cantons abolish the guillotine (German link) in favor of a return to public beheading with a sword. At the same time, the pan-European move away from capital punishment saw a precipitous decline in actual executions, culminating with outright abolition in Switzerland’s 1874 constitution.

Although the death penalty was narrowly reinstated by referendum* (more German) in 1879, its use thereafter was sparing and often contested. In 1938, Switzerland adopted by referendum a new, federal criminal code abolishing the death penalty.

But that code did not take legal effect until January 1, 1942 … and in the intervening years, two people would be controversially guillotined under the outgoing statutes.

Hans Vollenweider (German link) “enjoys” the distinction of being the last of these.

He was a triple murderer, although formally condemned only for one of these homicides — and condemned by an Obwalden court not even a month before, on September 19. Vollenweider’s last legal appeal and his application mercy were disposed of in the week before he lost his head.

There’s a 2004 German-language documentary film about this milestone execution, Vollenweider – Die Geschichte eines Mörders (Vollenweider – The Story of a Murderer).

Vollenweider was the last person executed in Switzerland for an “ordinary” crime, but the death penalty did remain on the books for treason until 1992. Seventeen additional people were executed for that crime during World War II — executed by shooting, not beheading.

Switzerland today has abolished the death penalty at the constitutional level for all crimes. It does retain one single guillotine left in a warehouse somewhere as its last keepsake from an increasingly distant era.

* More precisely, the individual cantons were granted the right to introduce the death penalty in their own territories.

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