Posts filed under 'Germany'

1573: Lippold ben Chluchim, scapegoat

Add comment January 28th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Jewish courtier Lippold ben Chluchim was broken on the wheel and cut into quarters.

Most of the readily available information about poor Lippold is in German; his was a fate similar to the 18th century “Jud Süß”, minus the worldwide notoriety conferred by a Nazi propaganda film.

Though born in Prague, Lippold would live a life, and die a death, in the orbit of the Elector of Brandenburg — a principality where Jews endured precipitous reversals of fortune over the centuries.

Elector Joachim I had actually expelled Jews from the territory in 1510* after riots incited by rumors of desecrating the Host; Lippold and his family would benefit when Joachim’s son, also named Joachim, rescinded some of the old man’s harsh ordinances and invited Jews to return. Lippold was about 12 years old when his family took advantage of the liberalization and relocated to Berlin in 1542.

By adulthood, the able Lippold had plugged into Joachim II’s court and become a trusted favorite. While Joachim’s dad must have been turning in the grave, one imagines the son appreciated the loyalty of an aide whose prestige depended entirely upon the prince himself.

Events would underscore painfully Lippold’s vulnerability to the turning wheel of fortune.

As Brandenburg’s master of the mint, it fell to Lippold to implement a wide-ranging currency debasement program required by Joachim to finance his spendthrift government — basically passing on the cost to merchants who were required by edict to accept the local coinage at its fanciful face value.

Despite this hated policy, plus additions to the state’s rounds of direct taxation, Joachim was 2.5 million guilders in debt when he died suddenly during a hunting trip on the third of January in 1571. Things immediately turned grim for Brandenburg’s Jewry after the liberal Joachim fils was in the earth; a pogrom sacked Berlin’s synagogue and rampaged through the Jewish quarter.

Joachim’s son and successor Johann Georg likewise found in his father’s Jewish henchman — a man who had naturally waxed very wealthy and very unpopular doing the previous sovereign’s dirty work — a ready scapegoat for Brandenburg’s financial woes. Johann Georg accused Lippold of using black magic and poison to assassinate his benefactor and persuaded Lippold in the usual way to confirm it. Jews beheld the reinstatement of that old proscription, little more than 30 years after Joachim II had canceled it — and they were once again expelled from Berlin en masse.

* Complete with a mass execution.

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1630: Christina Plum, at the stake, in Cologne

1 comment January 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1630, the city of Cologne burned Christina Plum.

This aptly-named fruit vendor was a real peach. During Cologne’s 1627-1630 witch hunt, Plum in 1629 denounced a bushel of Cologne’s leading citizens for devilry. While threatening established elites with torture and the stake certainly seems downright bananas with benefit of hindsight, the free city had in 1627 burned an influential woman — and possibly Germany’s first female postmaster — named Katharina Henot. Indeed, it was Plum’s contention that such varied characters as the wife of the Burgermeister, the pastor of St. Alban’s Church, and Katharina Henot’s brother had all been keeping regular dates at the late Katharina’s Black Sabbath orgies.

The city was at that moment facing intense pressure by the Archbishop of Cologne Ferdinand of Bavaria — an imperial elector and enthusiastic hammer of witches — to root out Satan’s earthly minions. It was not at all past thinking that Plum’s accusations could have cut a swath through the city’s upper crust.

Instead, they destroyed the credibility of the witch hunts.

After unsuccessfully pressuring Plum to just pipe down and go away, the city had her arrested as a witch. After all, how did she know so much about who was going to the orgies? And, as was almost inevitable in such cases, the consequent interrogation proved sufficiently vigorous to force a confession from the woman’s lips.

In 1631, as the witch fever abated in Cologne, and elsewhere throughout Germany, the Cologne-educated jurist Friedrich Spee published one of the seminal takedowns of witch-hunting, Cautio Criminalis. (Spee himself lost a kinswoman to the Hexenprozesse.)

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1528: Leonhard Schiemer, Anabaptist pacifist

Add comment January 14th, 2016 Headsman

Forasmuch then as Christ hath suffered for us in the flesh, arm yourselves likewise with the same mind: for he that hath suffered in the flesh hath ceased from sin.

-1 Peter 4:1, a verse very dear to this date’s principal*

Anabaptist Leonhard Schiemer was beheaded on this date in 1528 at Rattenberg.

Schiemer abandoned a Franciscan monastery, preferring to set his table with honest labor as a tailor, and to succor his soul with that that new heresy minting martyrs in northern Europe.

In 1527, Schiemer was both a vigorous missionary and an eloquent proponent of the pacificism for which the sect would eventually become known. In Schiemer’s time, before the catastrophe of Münster’s Anabaptist theocracy, this was quite naturally a hot dispute among the persecuted adherents trying to determine how to make their way in a world where they were considered heretical even by the other heretics: turn the other cheek, or come like Christ with a sword?

Schiemer’s answer was for the true Christian to give himself to the ordeal of Christ’s cross.

[The Holy Spirit] teaches no one, however, unless he despaired of all human comforting and wisdom first. He does not comfort or strengthen anyone unless he feels a horror and turns away from all comforting and power of man. This is why the Lord says, “Do not be called masters.” But this master, Christ, does not accept anyone as His pupil or disciple, unless he renounces and hates everything that he has, and follows Him and carries his cross daily. In doing this, one has to trust in the Lord’s comforting and keep still, as the Scriptures say in many passages, particularly in the Psalms, the Prophets, most of all in Isaiah and the Lamentations of Jeremiah.

The strength of all Christians consists in keeping still, by not forsaking the words of the Lord so quickly, by not losing courage so soon, but by being patient, waiting for the comfort of the Holy Spirit, in the midst of the greatest desolation and misery. This is true weakness of which the Scriptures speak, in particular Paul when he says, “For when I am weak I am strong.”

He also says, “For as we share abundantly in Christ’s suffering, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” That is what Christ means when He says, “A little while and you will see me no more, again a little while and you will see me.” And when the apostles asked Him what He meant by this, He answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn in to joy … Indeed the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.

-The Threefold Grace

It is often suspected that Schiemer’s execution on January 14 might have inspired the Rattenberg grandee Pilgram Marpeck to convert — for he was dismissed from a post as a mining magistrate on January 28, and thereafter became an influential, itinerant Anabaptist “wandering citizen of heaven” crisscrossing southern Germany.

* According to an essay on Schiemer in The Anabaptists and Contemporary Baptists: Restoring New Testament Christianity.

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1794: Nicolas Luckner, German marshal of France

1 comment January 4th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Nicolas Luckner was guillotined in Paris.

A count with his own manor on the German-Danish frontier, Luckner (English Wikipedia entry | German, where he’s Nikolaus von Luckner) made the sort of cross-national career pivot that was still possible in the pre-revolutionary world by going from commanding hussars against France in the Seven Years’ War to serving in the Bourbon army.

Allegedly convinced that Marie Antoinette had blocked his advancement, Luckner supported the French Revolution, and by 1791 had summited his profession as Marshal of France.

He was the very commander of the Army of the Rhine to whom Rouget de Lisle dedicated the 1792 Chant de Guerre pour l’Armée du Rhin … the marchable tune which later became the Marseillaise. (Luckner’s name also appears on the Arc de Triomphe.)

Things did not go as swimmingly with the Army of the North, where he bogged down in the Low Countries — and the incriminating defection of the Marquis de Lafayette to France’s royalist enemies did him no favors in the court of Jacobin opinion. Luckner was relieved of his command by the impatient National Convention.*

This septuagenarian foreign count showed a lordly blindness to his adoptive country’s situation both fiscal and political by journeying to Paris later in 1793 to complain that his pension was not being funded in full. Other officers had already fallen under the Terror’s blade for command failure, where any shortcoming in the field could be readily conflated with treachery — and Luckner, no surprise, was soon denounced as a royalist.

City hall in the small Bavarian town of Cham, where Luckner was born in 1722, still chimes the Marseillaise every day to honor its native son … whose name also associates with Germany’s World War I naval hero Felix von Luckner, the great grandson of our man Nicolas.

* The Convention’s emissary on this occasion was Choderlos de Laclos … best known now (and then) as the author of the viperous epistolary novel of ancien regime misbehavior Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

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1591: Elisabeth von Doberschütz, Stettin witch

Add comment December 17th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1591, Elisabeth von Doberschütz was beheaded at Stettin (Szczecin) as a witch.

Elisabeth (English Wikipedia entry | German), whose husband Melchior was a lesser son of a minor noble house and (since his tiny patrimony did not afford him the ease of the great aristocrat) a somewhat favored captain of the Duke of Pomerania, was accused a sorceress on the grounds that a draught she had concoted for the duchess some years before when the latter was abed following a miscarriage had rendered the lady permanently infertile. Rumors to the effect that Elisabeth’s potionmaking ran wider still completed the customary witches’ brew.

Elisabeth being a person of consequence and not some spinster midwife or family of beggars, it is typically supposed that the “real” cause of her execution can ultimately be found in rivalries among the elites: calumnies loosed abroad by Melchior’s rivals dating from the early 1580s in a (successful) campaign to separate him from a lucrative appointment to govern Neustettin. It was under Melchior’s successor in that post that Elisabeth was ultimately brought to trial.

Melchior was not caught up in the accusation. He married another woman in 1600, then faded out of history’s annals.

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1889: Abushiri, German East Africa rebel

Add comment December 15th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1889, the Germans hanged Abushiri as a rebel.

European empires arriving to East Africa naturally entered a going history of local conflicts and accommodations. In the case of the region at hand, the archipelago of Zanzibar lying just off the coast had been absorbed by, and then spun off from, the domain of the sultan of Oman. As we lay our scene in the late 19th century, it is an independent Sultanate of Zanzibar whose dominion extended to the adjacent Swahili coast and inland, an area also known as the Zanj.

Zanzibar was a British interest here, but the islands themselves do not quite enter this fray directly; the sultanate based there actually survived until 1964.

But in the 1880s, Germans scrambling for Africa arrived to gobble up the sultanate’s mainland possessions. Germany, truth be told, was a little bit late to this game, and although it secured some noteworthy footholds like Cameroon and Namibia, the Second Reich suffered a distinct little imperial brother complex vis-a-vis the British and the French — both of whom had more extensive holdings in Africa, to say nothing of everywhere else in the world.

Certainly the German public, flush with the boom of industrialization and having only just shown the French what-for on the battlefield, clamored for its rightful share of overseas acquisition. The popular thirst for expansion dragged along reluctant chancellor Otto von Bismarck into an adventure so inimical to the good order he prized.

One such German dreaming big dreams of bigger maps was a cocksure 29-year-old doctor of history, Carl Peters. Fresh off a few post-academic years knocking about in a London astir with the white man’s burden, Peters co-founded the German East Africa Company and then put that colonial corporation literally on the map with a bold expedition to Zanzibar. Within a few weeks of arriving in November 1884, and despite the explicit dissuasion of the German consulate there, Peters had obtained via just the right mixture of largesse and menace treaty rights to 155,400 square kilometers conferred by a number of coastal chiefs in the mainland ambit of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

When Peters returned in glory to Germany brandishing these concessions, Chancellor Bismarck was practically forced to accept them as a German protectorate … and charter Peters’s corporation to start exploiting it. The mid-1880s saw a minor local race between Peters and rival British explorers to establish their respective colonial presences on the Swahili coast,* resulting in an 1886 Anglo-German agreement formally dividing the region’s spheres of influence: British to the north, German to the south. Today this line, shooting near-straight to the southeast from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean with a slight bend round Mount Kilimanjaro, forms the border between Kenya and Tanzania.

We are, at length, arriving at the unfortunate party whose execution occasions this post.

The problem for young Master Peters with his personal agglomeration of the fatherland was nothing but that familiar difficulty for invaders from time immemorial — and Peters was ultimately an invader, no matter what treaties he could wrangle. For his short spell as the commercial governor of this distant land, Peters earned of his Bantu subjects the sobriquet Milkono wa Damu: the man with blood on his hands.

Diplomats could partition the land in Berlin, and could even compel the supine sultan to acknowledge their arrangements. But no edict could command legitimacy for the man with blood on his hands.

Beginning in September 1888, rebels comprising both Arabs and Swahili tribesmen sacked German East Africa Company assets up and down the coast Peters had so diligently won for Germany. Rousted from most of its towns and trading posts, the Company hunkered down in its territorial capital of Bagamoyo and cabled Berlin for help. Bismarck paternally relieved the in-over-its-head company with the aid of mercenaries hired from Egypt and Mozambique, crushed the uprising with customary roughness, and ushered Peters’s firm out of the colonial administration business in favor of adult supervision. The little protectorate soon became German East Africa, administered as a proper colonial appendage of the German Empire.

This Abushiri revolt (English Wikipedia entry | German) is named for its most prominent leader, a mixed-race Arab-Oromo coastal planter named Abushiri ibh Salim al-Harthi (English Wikipedia entry | German). He would be betrayed to German hands trying to escape and promptly executed; however, resistance by others continued to 1890.


(Via)
They struck down
The flag of Islam
And now proposed
To raise their own.

They came to Pangani
Full of wrath,
They fitted up the house
And laid cannon.

And the ship at Maziwe
The whole town was humbled
And the Europeans
Strode about the streets.

The town was silent,
No one spoke,
Not a free man
Said a word.

-Swahili poet Hemedi al-Buhriy†

This new disturbance, whose suppression Britain also aided, helped lead London and Berlin back to the negotiating table for the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890 — a comprehensive African arrangement to settle up spheres of influence not only on the Swahili coast but touching Namibia and Togoland, too. Meanwhile, Germany gave up remaining claims north of the Swahili coast dividing line and ceded Zanzibar itself to British authority; in exchange, she obtained the islands of Heligoland off her northwest shoulder — closing a potential security vulnerability.**

Among the many curiosities of the years to follow for the great imperial powers concerned, few are more vexing than just why it was that England and Germany went to war in 1914. Profitable as that bloody effusion has been for these grim annals, it posed as antagonists two countries that had long been thought by keen observers to be natural allies — a belief shared by numerous British and German statesmen. Otto von Bismarck was certainly one of these; his desire for an English alliance (against France and Russia) was a pole star of the Iron Chancellor’s foreign policy. Indeed, he worked amicably with his British opposite number Lord Salisbury; Bismarck once opined of his unwillingly adopted East African holdings that they were “admirably suited to become the sacrificial ram on the altar of friendship” with Great Britain.

But that isn’t what happened.

The failure of these great powers’ flirtation with one another, and the arrangements they ultimately made with other powers instead, defined the belligerents of the Great War. And while we would scarcely propose to lay the charnel houses of Verdun and Gallipoli at the shores of Zanzibar, it has sometimes been postulated that the fatal obstacle to Britain’s arrangement with Germany might have been the paucity of horses to swap.

Thanks to far-flung colonial expansion, Britain had many borders with France all over the globe, and accordingly had frequent need to collaborate and an ample store of chips to trade. With Germany, she had but a few intersections, in Africa — and these were settled almost too comprehensively (pdf) after the Abushiri revolt.

* It goes without saying that the sultan was none too happy about this development, but he was made to get used to the idea. (Germany sent warships, and Great Britain declined to back the sultan.)

The Anglo-German agreement accordingly limited the sultan’s authority on the coast to a 10-mile strip. Although the European powers commanded whatever leases they desired from this zone, Zanzibar’s anomalous territorial claims on the mainland would not be extinguished until the post-colonial era. When that day came, the 10-mile strip made for quite a sticky wicket during negotiations for Kenyan independence in the 1960s. The whole situation lies very far from the scope of this post, but the connosseur of diplomatic Gordian knots should pause to enjoy this pdf exploring the whole mess.

** Each party valued the thing it received quite a bit more than the thing it traded away in this treaty. From Britain’s perspective, Heligoland would be nigh-indefensible in the event of war with Germany; from Germany’s perspective, the claims it gave up outside of German East Africa were little better than phantasmal.

† via Charles Pike’s “History and Imagination: Swahili Literature and Resistance to German Language Imperialism in Tanzania, 1885-1910,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1986)

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1613: Matthäus Enzlin, fallen favorite

Add comment November 22nd, 2015 Headsman

German jurist Matthäus Enzlin was beheaded in Urach on this date in 1613.

Way back in 1514, a need of funds and political support to crush a popular rebellion had forced the Duke of Wurttemberg to conclude with his realm’s patrician class the Treaty of Turbingen — a sort of Magna Carta delineating for elite Wurttembergers a formal role in governance and protection of their rights.*

It was at the University of Tübingen many decades later that Enzlin (German Wikipedia link; most of the succeeding links in this post are to German pages) matriculated as a brilliant young lawyer.†

The new Duke of Wurttemberg from 1593, Friedrich I, elevated Enzlin to his Chancellor. This worldly and well-traveled** Friedrich sported a cutting-edge appreciation for the dawning Age of Absolutism and chafed at the shackles that his predecessor’s treaty had weighted him with. Whatever was a prince for, if not to rule?

Enzlin was game to do this prince’s will.

Enzlin’s legal expertise had been of service to Friedrich since the latter’s pre-Wurttemberg position as Count of Montbeliard, and Friedrich trusted him as his Kammersekretar — a sort of personal privy councilor who could advise the prince and help to work his will upon the annoying (to Friedrich) Wurttemberg polity. He became openly referred to as cor et os principis: the heart and the mouth of the prince.

This also meant that Enzlin gained the enemies of the prince who, since Friedrich was an overweening and aggressive ruler, numered not a few. For instance, according to Ronald Asch in The World of the Favourite (much of the research in this post derives from his essay), Enzlin when he fell copped a corruption charge because

Duke Friedrich had begun to channel an increasingly large share of his revenues not through the Treasury but through his privy purse. Large sums of money from this source were devoted to the purchase of manors, villages and whole lordships from the impoverished nobility living beyond the borders of the duchy or were used to provide these noblemen with loans and mortgages in the hope that they would have to cede their property to the duke, should they fail to repay the money. Enzlin was apparently the duke’s principal agent in these rather complicated and somewhat shady financial transactions, in which Jewish moneylenders and merchants were frequently employed as brokers. Thus large sums of money went through Enzlin’s hands.

Hungry for power as well as real estate, the duke was also able to attain with Enzlin’s help a modification of that obnoxious Treaty of Turbingen in 1607: this required dissolving the Diet, manipulating the election of the next one, and all kinds of arm-twisting.

It was, Asch says, “another triumph for Enzlin, who had been responsible for the negotiations” … but the triumph was mitigated by Friedrich’s death months later.

Inheriting power was a 26-year-old named Johann Friedrich who sympathized with the traditional prerogatives of his subjects (in his time, he voluntarily gave back to the Estates some of the powers his father had wrested from them). To the policy side of his Oedipal complex, add the personal: dad kept many mistresses for himself, and kept tight purse-strings for his boy. How many times must Johann Friedrich have seen or imagined Enzlin at his father’s elbow, counseling some fresh humiliation for the whelp? How many incensed Wurttemberg grandees must have whispered the picture in his ear?

The favorite was jailed within months on the corruption charges stemming from his part in the land-aggrandizement slush fund, charges that he was forced to admit under threat of torture. The ex-consigliere and his ex-duchy struck an uneasy bargain: there’d be no official charge, no death sentence, and he would stay under lock and key, disappearing like the Man in the Iron Mask.

Perhaps rating his lawyer’s wiles too highly, Enzlin broke this understanding by having his wife and children† appeal to the imperial authorities — employing the very safeguards of the Treaty of Turbingen which he had so diligently worked to abrogate. Brazenly but accurately, Enzlin pointed out that he had not been brought to trial for any charge. And he made the politically explosive argument that jailing ministers of state for the service they rendered their masters would compromise the entire authority of princes everywhere in the Holy Roman Empire.

Faced with the imminent success of the suit, Wurttemberg called his bluff and brought him immediately to trial and thence the scaffold for the peculation he had been blackmailed into admitting, enhanced now to outright treason. (This is why one should never talk to police.)

German speakers can also grab public-domain sketches of Enzlin’s career from a number of 19th century books available online, such as this and this.

* As one of Europe’s seminal constitutional contracts, the Tübinger Vertrag received 500th anniversary treatment in 2014.

** Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor was written for a 1597 Knights of the Garter investiture ceremony. Because Duke Friederich (after a 1592 visit to England) had repeatedly petitioned Queen Elizabeth for this honor, he was inducted on this occasion — but without being notified in time to attend, so that the English court “would not have to put up with him”. As a result, Merry Wives had some in-jokes for its first audience about an absent German duke. Though mostly excised from the play’s subsequent public performance versions, a few traces of them remain, such as this allusion in act 4, scene 3:

Bardolph. Sir, the Germans desire to have three of your
horses: the duke himself will be to-morrow at
court, and they are going to meet him.

Host. What duke should that be comes so secretly? I hear
not of him in the court.

† Enzlin married young and had seven children. He has a stupendous progeny down to the present day but not all have been so solicitous of the powerful as he — witness Gudrun Ensslin.

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1954: Karli Bandelow and Ewald Misera, in the Gehlen-Prozess

Add comment November 11th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1954, railway official Ewald Misera and civil engineer Karli Bandelow were beheaded in Dresden as West German spies.

They had been recruited to inform for the West German Gehlen Organization, an intelligence apparatus directed, as its name implied, by former Third Reich spymaster Reinhard Gehlen.

Gehlen had the honor to be dismissed by Hitler in the war’s closing days for his accurately defeatist reports on the overwhelming strength of the advancing Red Army, but for the western Allies — to whom he savvily surrendered — his expertise on and contacts in eastern Europe were very well worth having as the Cold War took shape.

His organization, the precursor to Germany’s present-day intelligence service, naturally set about penetrating East Germany — which was far simpler to do in those early years, before the East all but sealed the border.

East Germany, of course, was equally keen to undermine the Gehlen network’s moles and after the alarm of the June 17, 1953 rising it implemented a concerted effort to bring root out western spies known as Operation Arrow (Pfeil). Mass arrests beginning in October of 1953 swept up hundreds of suspected agents not only for Gehlen but for British, French, and American intelligence.

The consequent trials, or more particularly those targeting West German assets, are collectively known as the Gehlen-Prozess. Its We have indeed encountered some of its victims already: Elli Barczatis and Karl Laurenz, who would be executed a year after the principals in this post for their own work in Gehlen’s service.

Barczatis and Laurenz had alarmingly close access to the Prime Minister himself, and their trial was a secret one. Bandelow and Misera, by contrast, were civil servants fit for the sort of show trial that the Communist bloc was in these years raising to an art form.

In an orchestrated juridical performance piece from November 1 through 9, Communist Germany aimed “to expose the Gehlen organization as a gang of war criminals, fascists and revenge-seekers that threaten the peace of Germany and the world.”* Five other Gehlen informants besides Bandelow and Misera were convicted at the same proceedings, and sentenced to various prison terms.

Vainly playing for the mercy of the court, Bandelow offered to the spectacle that classic Stalinist flourish, the auto-denunciation of the doomed.

My Judge! I do not wish to speak a last word on my behalf … only to remark that I deeply regret my actions and I am ready for the harshest punishment. …

I call upon all those who like me have betrayed the nation and state to put an end to their criminal activity which threatens to unleash an insane war — call upon them to accept the leniency offered by the government and turn themselves in at once. I wish to cry out to them, take this generous offer so it does not go for you like has gone for me! (Source, in German)

Having done their last duty by the state, Bandelow’s frightened, penitent lips were closed by the fallbeil within 48 hours.

* The words of Anton Plenikowski.

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1944: Thirteen from the Ehrenfeld Group and the Edelweiss Pirates

Add comment November 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the Gestapo publicly hanged 13 men without trial at an S-Bahn station near Cologne.

Heavily bombed by the Allies in World War II, the Rhineland industrial center had spawned two overlapping anti-Nazi movements both represented in this evil baker’s dozen. Their purchase on posterity’s laurels of anti-Nazi “resistance” has been debated ever since.

The first of these were the Edelweiss Pirates (English Wikipedia entry | German), a thousands-strong network of dissident young people dating back to the 1930s after Berlin made youth membership in the Sieg Heiling Hitler Youth (HJ) mandatory.

Often derogated as mere “delinquents”* — who failed to articulate “a positive view of goals”** — the heavily working-class Edelweißpiraten were expressly delinquent from the Third Reich’s project of youth indoctrination.

“Our banding together occurred primarily because the HJ was dominated by a certain compulsion to which we did not want to submit,” one “pirate” declared to Gestapo interrogators. Another said that his clique simply wanted “to spend our leisure time going on trips as free boys and to do and act as we pleased.”†

Many looked longingly back on the Bündische Jugend, romantic and far less authoritarian traditions of youth outdoorsmanship that the new regime had suppressed.‡ These pirates shirked their Hitler Youth “responsibilities” and did their rambling without odious political officers, repurposing old hiking tunes into confrontational subversive songs that they backed up with a penchant for fistfights with the HJ. A song of one band, the Navajos, ran:

Hitler’s power may lay us low,
And keep us locked in chains.
But we will smash the chains one day.
We’ll be free again.
For hard are our fists,
Yes! And knives at our wrists,
For the freedom of youth
The Navajos fight.

We march by the banks of the Ruhr and the Rhine
And smash the Hitler Youth in twain.
Our song is freedom, love, and life.
We’re Pirates of the Edelweiss.

Maybe one ought to see these as a totalitarian state’s edition of nascent 20th century youth counterculture, rejecting the stultifying ideology imposed upon them but not yet sure of their own project.

The discourse parsing the degree of “criminality” in youth defying a criminal society strikes the author as an all too precious critique from the security of the postwar world. These pirates might make for less congenial martyr figures than the likes of Sophie Scholl but in the end, they took desperate risks to maintain a sphere of freedom in circumstances of inconceivable peril. Not much adult opposition to Hitlerism with proper manifestos did better than they.

And the Pirates had a handle on larger stakes than their own jollity. Many gangs listened to outlawed foreign broadcasts, committed acts of politically charged vandalism and sabotage, and hid army deserters or Jews. Certainly the authorities viewed them politically when they were subjected to Gestapo torture.

Some current and former Edelweiss Pirates were among the young people in increasingly war-ravaged Cologne who in 1943-44 came under the sway of an escaped concentration camp prisoner named Hans Steinbrück. His “Steinbrück Group” (or “Ehrenfeld Group”, for the suburb where they had their headquarters and, eventually, gallows), the second faction represented in the November 10 hangings, had a more distinctly criminal cast — stealing food and trading it on the black market.

Steinbrück, who claimed anti-fascist motives of his own, was also ready to ratchet up the associated violence past adolescent brawling. He stockpiled illegal weapons and had his gang shoot several actual or suspected gendarmes on a “Nazi hunt” shortly before their arrest. He would ultimately be accused of plotting with Eidelweiss Pirate Barthel Schink to blow up a Gestapo headquarters. The activities of the Ehrenfeld Group in particular have been controversial for many years: were they resisters, or merely gangsters who conveniently appropriated a patina of anti-fascist activism?

Under whatever label, their activities were far too much to fly as youthful transgression; Heinrich Himmler himself ordered the Ehrenfeld gang busted up in the autumn of 1944. Sixty-three in all were arrested of whom “only” the 13 were extrajudicially executed: Hans Steinbrück, Günther Schwarz, Gustav Bermel, Johann Müller, Franz Rheinberger, Adolf Schütz, Bartholomäus Schink, Roland Lorent, Peter Hüppeler, Josef Moll, Wilhelm Kratz, Heinrich Kratina, and Johann Krausen. (Via)

* They would survive the end of the war and prove defiant of the Allied occupation authorities too, which is one reason they had to fight until 2005 for political rehabilitation. Perry Biddiscombe explores this Pirates’ situation in occupied postwar Germany in “‘The Enemy of Our Enemy': A View of the Edelweiss Piraten from the British and American Archives,” Journal of Contemporary History, January 1995.

** Hans-Christian Brandenburg in The History of the Hitler Youth)

† Both quoted by Daniel Horn in “Youth Resistance in the Third Reich: A Social Portrait,” Journal of Social History, Autumn 1973.

‡ Hence the Edelweiss — a Wandervogel symbol.

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1939: Operation Tannenberg public mass executions begin

Add comment October 20th, 2015 Headsman

This photo (from the German Bundesarchiv) captures an SS execution of Poles in Kornik just weeks into the German occupation of Poland in 1939, fruit of a pre-planned Nazi project to secure the new territory as lebensraum.

Operation Tannenberg (English Wikipedia entry | German | Polish) could be seen as a vanguard for the mind-boggling exterminations to come in subsequent years, cementing the army’s commitment to a campaign that extended well beyond territorial conquest. Alexander Rossino examines this understudied segment of World War II in Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity and contends that “the unlimited, almost nihilistic violence of the Wehrmacht” emerges first in these initial weeks of the Polish campaign, which proved a “transitional conflict” pivoting towards the more notorious atrocities to come. “The invasion of Poland thus occupies a crucial place in the history of Nazi Germany’s descent into mass murder and genocide.”

Drawn up by Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich and officially authorized on August 25, a week before Germany invaded Poland, Tannenberg intended to destroy Poland’s elites — from intelligentsia and nobility down to community priests and teachers, and the politically active across the spectrum from Communist to monarchist. The hope was to leave the subject nation supine, incapable of challenging Berlin’s designs on her future. Estimates I have seen vary widely but tens of thousands of Poles (with a liberal portion of Polish Jews) were shot by SS Einsatzgruppen units under Tannenberg even by the end of 1939, and kilings continued apace thereafter. Though not the literal first Operation Tannenberg Killings, the October 20-23 period marked the first public mass executions; a Polish-language list of the incidents and victims involved is available here.

The very name Tannenberg is a nationalist allusion to Germany’s time-immemorial rivalry with Poland; the original Battle of Tannenberg saw the rising Polish-Lithuanian empire defeat the Teutonic Knights, essentially breaking the latter as a European power. This defeat resonated in 20th century German national mythology not unlike the Battle of Kosovo for Serbia; in 1914, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg made himself a household name by smashing the Russians in a battle vaguely in the vicinity, and cannily christened it, too, the Battle of Tannenberg. (The Germans put up a monument to it which they felt obliged to tear down later in the war as they were being driven out of Poland.)

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