On this date in 1944, German freethinker Max Sievers was beheaded at Brandenburg Prison for “conspiracy to commit high treason along with favouring the enemy.”
A working-class Berliner, Sievers (English Wikipedia entry | German) became a prominent communist and atheist writer in the interwar years. He directed the Association of Freethinkers for Cremation from the early 1920s, and in 1927 became the chair of the German Freethinkers League.
This was not a demographic Adolph Hitler was courting. In the wake of the 1933 Reichstag Fire, the Nazis stamped out atheistic movements, even converting the Freethinkers’ building into a Protestant recruitment venue.
Briefly imprisoned, Sievers fled Germany upon his release later in 1933 and from exile in Belgium — and then, after Belgium was conquered, in hiding in France — he kept up a drumbeat of antifascist propaganda, notably the 1939 book Unser Kampf gegen das Dritte Reich: von der nazistischen Diktatur zur sozialistischen Demokratie.
He was finally arrested by the Gestapo on June 3, 1943, and condemned to death by Roland Freisler.
Sievers was posthumously exonerated in 1996, and is today — and on January 17th in particular — an honored martyr for German humanist, atheist, and freethinker groups.