1594: Edward Osbaldeston 1872: Joseph Garcia, for the Llangibby Massacre

1925: Fritz Angerstein, crime without criminal

November 17th, 2019 Headsman

German spree killer Fritz Angerstein was beheaded on this date in 1925.

This tuberculotic managerial type (English Wikipedia entry | German) completes an infernal trinity of notorious mass murderers of Weimar Germany, along with Fritz Haarman and Peter Kürten.

He lived a life of moderate domestic angst, with a sickly wife Käthe whom he loved and who could not carry to term any of her six pregnancies with him; once they had contemplated committing suicide together but called it off; once (seemingly no more than that) Fritz had cheated on her, but he returned to his wife willingly and didn’t actually want to discard her. Things were frostier with the meddling mother-in-law and even known to come to blows, yet still little other than a bog-standard rocky in-law relationship.

By 1924 this family was mired in debt, living in a villa owned by the mining firm who had detected Angerstein’s peculation.

On the night of November 30 to December 1, 1924, as his wife lay coughing up blood, the man snapped and turned that company villa into a charnel house.

After wildly stabbing his wife to death with a hunting knife, Angerstein went downstairs to kill himself only to be interrupted in the act by a scream upstairs as his mother-in-law discovered her daughter’s corpse. He stalked upstairs and visited a like fate on that poor woman; when the family maid burst in, he chased her down the halls as she fled for the door of her attic chamber and hacked her down too.

In a home now with the stillness of the grave, Angerstein caught a few hours’ sleep to ready himself to continue the rampage in the morning.

His 18-year-old sister-in-law arrived overnight on a train: Angerstein butchered her with an axe. A clerk and a bookkeeper of the mining firm came later in the morning, reporting in for work: Anger axed them too. The gardener, the gardener’s assistant, even a german shepherd — all met the same fate.

One might anticipate that this slaughter would culminate in that suicide the man kept attempting but instead he gave himself some non-lethal stab wounds and attempted to set his house on fire, then summoned the police with a story about a deadly home raid by a gang of bandits. Forensics, and Angerstein’s own admissions, soon rubbished this cover story.

The out-of-nowhere senselessness of this bloodbath fascinated and perplexed observers who struggled over interpretations of the — the what? the criminal? the madman? the abyss of the modern soul? He had to be sure points of stress and provocation, ingredients that could plausibly suit the backstory of a monster, but they were also ingredients carried by numberless functionaries of state indistinguishable from Angerstein who were day by day merely quietly dissipating their pains in little hobbies or shabby love affairs, in career obsession, career neglect, alcoholism, cat-fancying, countryside rambles, newspaper perusal, games of darts down the pub, and all the million little ways that we little people pass our little days. That seemed to leave Angerstein’s own instance of these slings and arrows markedly insufficient for the extraordinary consequence, if the money troubles and ailing wife are really supposed to stand for cause. Why this explosion, from this guy, at this time? Surely it wasn’t merely because the hated mother-in-law had ruined the soup that night?

One prominent knight upon these lists was thinker-scribbler Siegfried Kracauer, who might be best-known to later generations as a film critic and a mentor of Adorno. In ruminations published as Tat ohne Täter: Der Mordfall Fritz Angerstein (Crime Without Criminal: The Murder Case of Fritz Angerstein), Kracauer decoded in Angerstein’s outrage the horror of relationships dehumanized, “become objectified, with emancipated things gaining power over people rather than people seizing hold of the things and humanizing them.” Small wonder, then that “the disfigured humanity that has been repressed into the deepest recesses of unconsciousness will reappear in hideous form in the world of things.” (Quoted in Cool Conduct: The Culture of Distance in Weimar Germany.)

A deed without a doer — that is the provocative, the incomprehensible aspect of the Angerstein case. The deed is inconceivable: an orgy of ax blows and arson. Intimidating in its mere magnitude, the crime bursts the bounds of customary statutes as only an elemental event can. It is impossible to do more than stare at it; it is not to be subsumed within existing categories. Nevertheless, there it is, an undeniable fact that, for well or ill, must be registered.

But where is the doer that belongs to the deed? Angerstein? The little, subordinate fellow with modest manners, a feeble voice, and a stunted imagination? … At bottom a mere petit bourgeois, Angerstein can be outfitted with a vicious appearance only in retrospect by overheated journalists. Had one encountered him prior to the crime on the street, one would have asked him for a light and quickly forgotten his features.

Even today, or today once again, he remains stubbornly at home in the narrow confines of inborn mediocrity. His behavior during the trial has been minimal in every respect. There have been no sudden eruption to help us chart a connection between the man and what he did, no outbursts to suggest a subterranean fiendishness, nor the kind of silence that would correspond to what happened. Instead, he has withdrawn into trivialities into a dull state of shock wholly incommensurate with its cause, a confused acceptance of what he himself does not understand.

Angerstein, in Professor Herbertz’s depiction of the events, did not commit the deed; the deed happened to him. Having transpired, it detached itself from him and now exists as a purely isolated fact for which there is no proper cause. It rose up out of nothing for the while of the murders, a dreadful “it” out there in space, unconnected with him. If the soup had not been burned — a triviality become a link in a chain of external causation — Angerstein’s victims would have gone on living and no one but his fellow citizens of Haiger would ever have heard his name. The crime looms gigantically over him; he disappears in its shadow.

In the winter of 1924, the event comes out of nowhere. Minor illegalities preceded it, a confusing swindle, no one knows how or why. Running amok, it seems that a physician’s attentions merely added to the burdens. His previously neatly bounded world was slipping through his fingers. The woman of his obsession draws him with her toward a longing for death, for an end to it all. He may have been thinking of suicide as he stabbed her — but why the frenzy with the hunting knife and the ax, why the senseless bashing of the skulls of uninvolved others? What sucked him, the minor administrator, for a night and a day into the cyclone of devastating violence?

Many details confirm the assumption that the quiet manager was caught unawares by some unknown something inside him. He admits that he himself cannot understand, cannot conceive, that the gigantic fact came out of him. His early attempts to deny it are ridiculously petit bourgeois. Now that he has acknowledged being the perpetrator, he gazes fixedly at what others designate his crime. His evasions from now on have to do with incidentals, his excuses with mere details. The actual misdeeds weigh on him like a block of lead he cannot cast off.

If he is conscious he flees into sleep, sleeping double the usual amount, because his memory wants to disappear. The fact outside there, which is undeniably related to him is completely overwhelming; he does not like to taste or feel it. Suicide is also beyond the bounds of his horizon, now narrowed to a point. His reading is the Bible, which perhaps brings him by way of detours into contact with his wife.

A deed without a doer that has nothing, but nothing, in common with those great crimes committed by people whose names live on in popular memory. Those crimes were manifestations of a will, however misguided; they were eruptions of unbridled natures, twisted minds, the expression of outsized drives and passions. They stemmed from a place in the guilty person, were not just there alongside him, existing inadequately in space.

The deeds that now go by the name of Angerstein lack a personal point of reference, without, however, that meaning that they were born of mental illness. That there is no sufficient reason for them in the consciousness of the doer is what turns them into a tormenting puzzle, what lends them the uncanny remove of mere facts. It may be that depth psychology is correct in claiming that they emerge to the light of day out of the craters of unconscious psychic life; it has not, however, solved the puzzle of how such a thing is possible.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Murder

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