On this date in 1942,* a middle-aged man was hanged in the Lodz Ghetto in front of an audience of twenty thousand. His name was Max Hertz, son of Salli Hertz and Helena Hertz née Abraham. He was from Germany.
His death was recorded in heartbreaking detail by Oskar Rosenfeld, a resident of the ghetto. Rosenfeld was an Austrian-Jewish writer and translator who’d published six novels before the war. After the Anschulss in 1938, he and his wife emigrated to Prague in Czechoslovkia to escape Nazi aggression. Nazi aggression followed them, however, and the couple made plans to move to England.
Mrs. Rosenfeld left in 1939 and her husband was supposed to come later, but the war started and Rosenfeld found himself trapped in Prague.
Deported to the Lodz Ghetto in 1941, within a few months he secured a relatively cushy position as an archivist with the ghetto administration. He helped write the official Lodz Ghetto Chronicle, a diary of the day-to-day events of the ghetto.
Behind closed doors, Oskar Rosenfeld was keeping his own, personal diary, accumulating twenty-one notebooks in all. Sixty years later, the director of the Yad Vashem libraries described his style as “riveting. At times he is philosophical and literary, at others he is spare and raw. Often instead of full sentences, Rosenfeld writes strings of words words so packed with meaning that normal sentence structure is superfluous.”
The diary was mostly in German, with occasional parts in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.
Rosenfeld employed a simple, fairly transparent code to avoid trouble if his notebooks should come into the wrong hands. He refered to the Nazis, for example, as “Ashkenes.” When he wrote “Germans,” he meant only German Jews. The Ghetto Chairman, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, designated Eldest of the Jews, was often called “Praeses.” The words “Gestapo” and “Kripo” were written using the Greek alphabet.
His entries described in painstaking detail the grotesque land in which he was imprisoned: the religious and cultural life of the ghetto, the residents’ attitude toward the administration, the rumors flying around about the war front, the deportations, and above all everyone’s struggle to survive from day to day.
Starvation, overwork, disease and despair wore away at the Lodz Jews, like sand castles crumbling. The Nazis’ Jewish problem, Rosenfeld noted wryly, was being solved “in installments.”
During the frigid Polish winters—unusually harsh in those years—the coal ration was pitiful, and people chopped up their own furniture for firewood. When that was gone, they turned to the streets and stole whatever they could get their hands on: fences, even sheds and outhouses were dismantled for burning. In spite of this hundreds of people froze to death.
A bigger problem was food. Or rather, lack of food.
“According to German scientific findings,” Rosenfeld wrote,
the consumption of calories in normal times was 3,640 calories with 93 grams of albumen per person. The allocated ration in the fall of 1941 was 1,300 calories and 36 grams of albumen. Since the fall of 1941, the ghetto — with the minor exception of the workers in the factories — received a mere 900 calories and 25 grams of albumen per person. Not taking into account the lack of vitamins. This was no longer nutrition, this was a prescription for a slow death.
People traded everything they had, literally the clothes off their backs, for a few turnips or some sausage. During times when food was particularly scarce, a diamond necklace or a good pair of shoes might fetch a single loaf of bread. And sometimes one loaf was all a person could expect to get for an entire week.
When someone died — and there were deaths in nearly every family — their surviving relatives would often wait several days to report it, so they could claim the dead person’s rations. There were even reports of cannibalism, which Rosenfeld dutifully recorded.
The Lodz Ghetto was a work camp, not a death camp, and was designed to squeeze all the labor it could out of the inhabitants. People who were just too sick or weak to keep up were likely to find themselves on the next list for deportation to mysterious “labor camps in the East.”
Nobody knew for sure where the deportees were going, but the ghetto residents had reason to be suspicious and fearful and most of them did everything they could to stay out of the transports. No one who was deported ever returned to the ghetto. These were supposed to be long journeys and deportees were advised to pack several days’ worth of food, but like as not, the trains would come back empty the very next day.
In fact, the deportation transports usually traveled no more than forty miles outside of Lodz.
Their destination was Chelmno, the Germans’ first death camp. There they used gas vans to asphyxiate their victims. These were relatively primitive and inefficient; it wasn’t until later that they came up with the idea of gas chambers instead of vehicles.
The Lodz Ghetto had its own police force staffed by Jewish volunteers (who were universally despised as collaborators by the others) and a court that presided over criminal trials.
Violent crime, and for that matter most crimes against other persons, was rare: most of the court cases involved crime against the ghetto community as a whole. (Demolishing public fences and buildings for fuel, for example. See above.)
The rules were harsh. Kitchen workers caught sneaking even a spoonful of soup or some half-rotted beets were subject to prosecution. A carpenter could be brought up on charges of sabotage if he took some scrap wood home to burn. Jozef Zelkowicz, another employee in the Ghetto Archives, wrote about one case where a tailor forgot he’d draped a length of of thread over his shoulder for easy access during his work. After leaving at the end of his shift, he was arrested for “stealing” the thread.
Offenders usually got a short jail term of a few weeks or months. That was the least of the punishment, however: when they got out, they were often banned from working again and their families were banned from receiving welfare, essentially a death sentence. Convicted criminals and their families also had priority for deportation, however, and tended to get shipped out before they starved to death.
Not this time, however. For whatever reason, the Nazis decided to make a public example of Max Hertz.
It was the very first public execution in the ghetto. In fact, Rosenfeld said, they’d constructed the gallows just for this occasion:
At 5 p.m. on Friday, the building department had received the order for a gallows to be erected on Fischplatz by 7 a.m. the next morning. Precise specifications were given: wooden beams, heavy iron hooks, bent to a shape just this long and that wide. A man from Germany was entrusted with the job. He worked hard and long, and got it done on time. This worker was, it turned out, an intimate friend of the condemned man.
The Nazis were so pleased with the craftsmanship that they placed another for a set of gallows designed to hang twelve people at once.
Rosenfeld’s description of the execution is worth of being quoted almost in full:
Friday, collective, six o’clock in the evening, impersonal declaration to all members of the collective… Meet at nine o’clock at the Fish Market. Rumors: military parade, directives from the German military, the Eldest to speak. –Afterward some reported that they knew… The sick had express dispensation from attending the meeting. Shabbat from nine o’clock on a queue of men and women being led by room commandant through the almost empty streets across the “little bridge” at the Old Market Place between the ghetto and the city, past Hamburgerstrasse to the Fish Market. Along the way local passersby asked what was going on… Nobody had the answer. Frost. Clear. Biting wind. Terribly uncomfortable in the open air. The closerto the square, the clearer that something terrible was about to happen. The streets usually teeming with people on Shabbat — empty…
The rumor of the true drama seems to have gained credence in the ghetto, none of the local inhabitants want to risk being forced to participate and therefore remained at home.
Goaded by the sharp commands of the Jewish police, took their places, men in the front, women in the back, similar queues were streaming toward the square from other directions. It didn’t take long. Shortly before nine o’clock, Fish Square was filled with a human wall, was encircled, a horrifying silence, a few locals out of curiosity.
Finally the masses begin to understand. Sense of foreboding during the march that they were to attend an execution scene (or a witch burning); in the square, many for the first time, gallows. It had been erected early in the morning by the Jewish police. Several women fainted at the sight, others fell into convulsive sobbing; several of the men managed to send some of the women back home or took them (secretly!) to nearby apartments. Those who wanted to go back later found the street blocked off; then order to seal off the surrounding area of Fish Square.
Quite low on three steps, small podium, to the left across from the post office for newly settled rectangular trapdoor; above the trapdoor a vertical balcony, at the upper end a horizontal beam with a hemp cord.
A cold shudder went through the onlookers… No more ilusions, no dream, raw reality, for everybody knew who was Ashkenes.
Several well-fed, field-gray SS officers. At the corner of the square, soldiers with mounted machine guns to keep the crowd in check. Nobody had the courage to flee. The transport leader warned of the most severe consequence for anybody who tried to leave. A few managed to get to the collective. An Ashkenes car was parked not far from the square.
Word making the round: cause and candidate. Cause: Jewish star; another variant: a Communist wanted for a long time, flight only a pretext. Left wife and child to take better care of them from Germany (name: Herz [sic], Cologne). The wife is said to be among the onlookers, unaware of what’s happening.
Men quite numb. Some of the women somewhat worried. The Ashkenes men are in a good mood, well fed, smoking, looking cheerfully at the crowd.
Almost an hour and a half. Cold is intensifying…rubbing to generate warmth, with hands on the knees. About ten-thirty suddenly complete silences. From the direction of Zgierz, probably from the Baluter Ring (Gestapo Headquarters, office of the Praeses — government square), appears a man without a hat, flanked right and left by field-gray soldiers, his gray hair in the wind, no collar, open neck, moving closer slowly, in a short winter jacket…directly to the gallows. Most onlookers, especially the women, avert their eyes, others turn their backs to the square; many look nevertheless sideways to the spot where the scene is to unfold. (Tragic irony…joke, perhaps to be released again!!!) Most of them after all witnessing for the first time such business and desire for sensationalism. Since none had ever attended a witch burning or torture or pillory, they didn’t know how to behave, didn’t find the right style; tugged embarrassed on their clothing, clenched the fists, and waited for a sign that was to tell them what it was they should do. Suddenly the silence was so horrifying that the healthy voices of the field-gray Ashkenes could clearly be heard in the square. A man of more than eighty suddenly remembered hearing from his room a strong voice by the wire around midnight, a song that began with la-la and ended with “and if the world were full of devils,” and began to make, quite unexpectedly, his own observations about this. Yes, this old man even rolled up the torn gloves for a moment to make sure that his fingernails were clean. A women her lipstick —
Not a word was heard. Silence. The candidate shivered in the cold. The field-grays in furs. His overcoat was taken from him. He folded his hands. Saw the entire scene, the crowd. Implacable. Mounted the steps to the podium. There was met by two Jewish policemen and a third man who busied himself callously with the cord.
It was said that a Jewish policeman, a well-known Communist, had been ordered to assist in this execution — as a deterrent. Completely dull expression of the crowd, who didn’t like to see Ben Israel [son of Israel] under the gallows. Sensationalism won out over disgust, women there with handkerchiefs over their faces but peering nevertheless, men completely dispassionate. The symbolism — a people pilloried — did not enter their conciousness. The bareheaded man shivered, folded his hands. Something was wrong with the cord. The Jewish policeman handled it very clumsily. The field gray standing next to him straightened it out, busied himself; the Jewish policemen in their excitement had made a wrong move, not well familiar with the executioner’s tool, more used to tefellin [phylacteries] (observation of an onlooker). The moment came when the crowd thought something was going to happen, a declaration or reading of the sentence or some other matter. But nothing. Continued silence. When the man saw that there was no escape, he again folded his hands and suddenly, with a lamenting voice: “Why don’t you let me live…”
A hanging (not necessarily this one) in Lodz Ghetto.
Many expected instead of this plea some kind of demonstration as a legacy from the crowd, some inspiring motto. But nothing of the sort. He was no hero in our sense. Now eyes averted from the gallows, dull thumping was heard of heavy material and wood, a few seconds for the convulsing body, dangling. The crowd was even able to look at it for some time—seconds (counting to thirteen). The corpse softly in the wind. Rigid features, rigid limbs.
The field grays gave a sign, Jewish police gave a sign, and the crowd quickly began to disperse, going home, the wife of the delinquent was present…
The body remained hanging the entire Shabbat. The Jews avoided the place.
The Lodz Ghetto Chronicle includes an entry on this execution, noting it took place in a large square at Bazarna and Lutomierska Streets. According to the chronicle, Max Hertz had escaped the ghetto and spent several days in Lodz proper. He was arrested at the train station when he tried to buy a ticket to Cologne. This was about three weeks before his execution.
The Polish writer and child Holocaust survivor Henryk Grynberg later honored him in a fragment of poetry:
Max Hertz brought from Cologne
on October 23, 1941
went back to the station
but when paying for his ticket
a star fell out of his pocket
right into the ticket clerk’s eye
and he hung over the bazaar
showing the shortest way back
The spectacle of Max Hertz’s death had indeed left an unforgettable impression on its audience, just as the Nazis intended.
As for Oskar Rosenfeld: he continued working in the Ghetto Archives up until August 1944. His final diary entry was on July 28 of that year. He was well aware that the fate of the ghetto hung in the balance:
We are facing either apocalypse or redemption… There are plenty of skeptics, nigglers, who don’t want to believe it and still have doubts about that which they have been long and waiting for years… After so much suffering and terror, after so many disappointments, it is hardly surprising that they are not willing to give themselves over to anticipatory rejoicing. The heart is marred with scars, the brain encrusted with dashed hopes.
It turned out to be apocalypse: in August, before the Red Army liberated Lodz, the ghetto was liquidated and almost all of its inhabitants sent to Auschwitz. Like most of the others, Rosenfeld was gassed on arrival. He was sixty years old. But his notebooks survived him, and ultimately ended up in the custody of Yad Vashem. His diary was published in English for the first time in 2003, under the title In the Beginning was the Ghetto: Notebooks From Lodz.
* Rosenfeld places the date of the execution on Friday, February 20. All other sources, including the Lodz Ghetto Chronicle and Max Hertz’s Yad Vashem page of testimony, place it as Saturday, February 21, but I’m sure Rosenfeld is right. The execution seems to have taken place at the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath. The Sabbath is on Saturday, but to religious Jews it actually starts after sunset on Friday; Rosenfeld writes that the body “remained hanging the entire Sabbath” which implies it hung for some time. If it hung “for the entire Sabbath” starting Saturday night, that would have been for less than two hours.
On this date in 1942, German troops in Russia’s Pskov Oblast summarily executed 83-year-old peasant Matvey Kuzmin for leading them into an ambush.
World War II’s real-life Ivan Susanin was conscripted as a guide for the occupying Wehrmacht intending to approach a Soviet position at the village of Makino.
Kuzmin cunningly sent his son ahead to Malkino to alert his countrymen of the attack while guiding the Germans circuitously. By the time Kuzmin et al reached the outskirts, a Soviet ambush was waiting for them.
An enraged German officer shot Kuzmin during the ensuing firefight.
In response, some 100 local teens banded together into an anti-fascist underground — the Molodaya Gvardiya, or Young Guard. (English Wikipedia entry) | Russian) Most of their number would give their lives in resistance.
During the few months of occupation, the Young Guards managed an impressive record of sabotage operations and propaganda coups. It busted 90 people out of the Germans’ concentration camp, and got the hammer and sickle hung up on government buildings to mark the silver anniversary of Red October. In December, the Young Guards managed to destroy the labor bureau (and its list of intended conscripts) on the eve of a planned deportation, sparing 2,000 people that dreadful fate.
The Germans finally got their hooks into the Young Guards and started mass arrests at the start of January. They brought in most of the Young Guards for torture and execution — smashing up the organization in their very last weeks in town.
The five put to death this date were the last of those martyrs, and the more tragic in that the occupiers were even then gearing up to evacuate as the Red Army closed in. (The Soviets took the city on February 15.) They were:
Oleg Koshevoy’s interrogation. Image from MolodGuard.ru’s stupendous images collection.
In September 1943, three Soviet citizens were publicly executed in the liberated city on charges of having aided the Germans in suppressing the Young Guards.
The Young Guards’ youth and intrepidity made them extremely congenial to the Soviets’ wartime demand for martyrs. At the urging of his Ukrainian deputy Nikita Khrushchev — who himself hailed from the Donbass — Stalin approved a number of the Young Guards (including this date’s Koshevoy and Shevtsova) as Heroes of the Soviet Union.
The Guards valorized in a 1945 novel, and then a 1948 film based on that novel. (Russian links, both.)
They’ve featured in postage stamps, public artwork, and every manner of patriotic commemoration ever since. They’ve even come in for a bit of post-Soviet “ownership” conflict (over the Guards’ degree of Communist Party affiliation) between Ukraine’s Russian- and Soviet-leaning east and the nationalist-sympathizing west.
Today the “Molodaya Gvardiya” brand might be most immediately recognizable as a youth organ of Vladimir Putin’s party — no connection to the young partisans, of course.
* Not to be confused with the Russian city of Krasnodar.
On this date in 1527, apostate Catholic priest Georg Wagner went to the stake in Munich.
Called “Carpentarius”, Wagner’s renounced a comfortable pastorship in Emmeringen, espousing the unacceptable tenets that his office was not empowered by Scripture to forgive sins, nor to transubstantiate bread and wine into Christ’s own body, nor to perform baptism on infants. He’s claimed as a martyr both by Anabaptists and Lutherans.
Wagner was a worthy enough man in his time and place that the propaganda coup of his defection drew urgent efforts at re-converting him by his former co-religionists — and even, allegedly, the Duke of Bavaria himself. He spurned them all, insisting only “that, as long as I can open my mouth” in the fires that would devour him, “I will confess the name of Jesus Christ.”
The Martyrs Mirror account of Wagner’s martyrdom credits God with, hours after the execution, smiting dead the sheriff who brought Wagner to the pyre.
On this date in 1528, Anabaptist Ambrosius Spittelmayr was beheaded in Cadolzburg, Bavaria.
Baptized by Hans Hut only the year before, Spittelmayr propounded his outlaw adult-baptism creed as a wandering preacher in Upper Austria and southern Germany before his arrest.
The energetic Spittelmayr left his interrogators a 3,000-word confession of faith that has been of great value to scholars probing Hut’s own theology, which was deeply influential in southern Germany. Spittelmayr’s confession emphasizes a Godly life, including a version of primitive communism that called on the faithful to share their worldly effects — a prominent feature in much Anabaptist thought that helped certainly raised the hackles of those with property to protect.
Nobody can inherit the kingdom unless he is poor with Christ, for a Christian has nothing of his own; no place where he can lay his head. A real Christian should not even have enough property on earth to be able to stand on it with one foot. This does not mean that he should go and lie down in the woods and not have a trade, or that he should not have fields and meadows, or that he should not work, but alone that he might not think they are for his own use and be tempted to say: this house is mine, this field is mine, this dollar is mine. Rather he should say it is ours, even as we pray: Our Father. In summary, a Christian should not have anything of his own but should have all things in common with his brother, that is, not allow him to suffer need. In other words, I will not work that my house be filled, that my larder be supplied with meat, but rather I will see that my brother has enough, for a Christian looks more to his neighbor than to himself. Whoever desires to be rich in this world, who is concerned that he miss nothing when it comes to his person and property, who is honored by men and feared by them, who refuses to prostrate himself at the feet of his Lord … will be humbled. (Via)
On this date in 1905, “baby farmer” Elisabeth Wiese was beheaded in Hamburg.
In a luridly reported case “revolting in the extreme, proving the woman to be a monster of iniquity” Wiese — a former convict whose larcenous past had forced her trade away from the legitimate field of midwifery to the more shady precincts of mercenary fostering.
From scandal-averse single mothers in England as well as Germany, she collected children with maintenance fees running to US $1,000 plus a hush-money surcharge tacked on. For this donative, she represented a capacity to distribute these whelps to willing adoptive families: in reality, most of them she disposed of with morphine. (As an added inflammation to public opinion, she had also forced her own illegitimate daughter into prostitution; Paula, whose own infant was among Wiese’s victims, repaid that ill turn by appearing as a witness against her mother.)
When Wiese fell under suspicion, the neighbors’ reports of her kitchen glowing like hellfire and belching revolting stenches led police to the remains of these little ones burnt up in her stove.
Condemned for five murders — it’s thought that the true count must have run much higher — Wiese is known as the “angel-maker of St. Pauli” after the suburb where she plied her trade.
On this date in 1944, Soviet partisan Zinaida Portnova was executed by the Germans occupying Belarus.
The youngest-ever female Hero of the Soviet Union (she was posthumously decorated in 1958), the Leningrad-born Portnova had a rude start in insurgency when the German blitz swept past her summer camp in Belarus and trapped her behind lines.
Said to have been radicalized when occupying soldiers struck her grandmother, the girl joined the youth arm of the local resistance, dubbed the “Young Avengers”.
From surveilling enemy troop deployments and assembling weapons caches, Zinaida Portnova graduated to sabotage and ambushes … and capture. Even then she pulled off an action hero escape by snatching a gun and shooting her way out of custody, only to be re-arrested shortly thereafter.
On this date in 1945, Polish Gentile Karolina Juszczykowska was executed at the prison in Frankfurt am Main for her attempt to save two Jewish men in Tomaschow, Poland, the previous year. She was 46 years old.
The people she tried to rescue have never been identified; only their first names, Paul and Janek, are known. According to Karolina, she met them on the street and they offered her 300 zloty a week to hide them. She kept them in her home and locked them inside when she went off to work during the day; they slept on the floor at night.
The arrangement lasted only about six weeks before they were betrayed.
The Gestapo raided Karolina’s home on July 23, 1944 and found Janek and Paul hiding in the cellar. Karolina was arrested and the two men were summarily executed.
Karolina emphasized that she only took them in because she needed the money to support herself. The judges who presided over her case seemed to believe her and, although they issued the mandatory death sentence, recommended clemency, writing, “The accused is in a difficult financial situation and succumbed to the temptation to improve her life.”
Karolina was indeed poor. “I have no assets,” she said in her statement to the police, “and don’t expect to have any in the future.” She’d worked menial jobs her whole life: farm work, construction, domestic service, and most recently in the kitchens of Organization Todt, the Third Reich’s civil and military engineering division. She had never been to school and was completely illiterate; she signed her police statement with three crosses.
But, as Yad Vashem points out when writing of her case, no matter what she said, it’s highly unlikely that Karolina Juszczykowska’s reasons for hiding Jews were primarily mercenary.
The wartime Polish economy had shattered, inflation had soared, and 300 zlotys wouldn’t have even been enough to cover the costs of feeding two extra people. No rational person would risk her life for that — the sentence for a Pole caught helping Jews was nearly always death.
found it impossible to explain to anyone who did not live through those times why they acted as they did. In war, there were no rules. The familiar seemed strange, and the bizarre seemed normal. In retrospect, rescuers’ behavior, in some instances, was not understandable even to them. How could they have endangered their families? How could they have done what they did or said what they said?
In Fogelman’s estimation, many rescuers were motivated by simple morality, either of a religious or purely personal kind.
Moral rescuers had a strong sense of who they were and what they were about. Their values were self-sustaining, not dependent on the approval of others. To them, what mattered most was behaving in a way that maintained their integrity. The bystanders who ultimately became rescuers knew that unless they took action, people would die …moral rescuers typically launched their rescuing activity only after being asked to help or after an encounter with suffering and death that awakened their consciences. Scenes of Nazi brutality touched their inner core and activated their moral values … For the most part, when asked for help, moral rescuers could not say no.
We will never know for sure, but it could have happened like this: In 1943, Karolina, while working for Todt, either witnessed or heard about the liquidation of the Tomaschow Ghetto and the accompanying violence and brutality. Most of the ghetto’s Jews were sent to Treblinka in January 1943; the last few hundred were taken away in May. Janek and Paul went into hiding and managed to stay off the radar for a year or so, but by the time they met Karolina they’d been run to ground and were desperate. They asked for her help. She couldn’t say no.
Although Karolina’s judges recommended she be pardoned, the death sentence was carried out anyway. There were no survivors and all we know about this case comes from court documents. But her sacrifice did not go unnoticed.
On May 17, 2011, over 65 years after her death, Israel recognized Karolina Juszczykowska as Righteous Among the Nations, its official honorific for Gentiles who aided Jews during the Holocaust.
AP caption: “The expression on the face of this Hun posing for the camera standing by the gallows from which a woman is hanging, Jan. 3, 1945 shows a lack of concern. The name and nationality of the unfortunate woman is unknown. One of the many victims of Nazi terror. The German soldiers seem to be quite used to this kind of sights for them a picture like this is just a souvenir.” (Via)
On this date in 1757, Catholic priest Andreas Faulhaber was hanged at the order of Frederick the Great to defend the seal of the confessional.
Frederick had been appointed by the Heavenly Father, and a cruel earthly one, to a task far too monumental to tarry with theology: lifting the Kingdom of Prussia from the morass of German principalities and into the ranks of Europe’s great powers. Frederick was nominally a Protestant, as was the bulk of his domain, and der Alte Fritz once remarked that this profession pleasingly liberated his sovereignty from papal interference; his real doctrine was nothing but pragmatism.
Accordingly, the great enlightened absolutist sponsored Jesuit educators where schools were needed and Jewish merchants where trade was needed.
Disgusted at Frederick’s aggressive war on Austria, Voltaire scribbled to a friend,
I’ve seen his good intentions dropped
At the first trumpet blast.
They are nothing more than kings;
And live their lives with bloody things,
They take or rape a few provinces
To suit their ambitious ends
I give up, say goodbye princes
I want no one now but friends.
But Voltaire did not in fact break with his royal admirer and correspondent over Silesia.
Frederick christened his new reign in 1740-42 by ripping the wealthy* province of Silesia away from the Habsburgs.
The Habsburgs were Prussia’s Catholic rivals for preeminence in central Europe and Silesia too was heavily Catholic, so Frederick extended over that province as liberal a grant of religious toleration as he might.
But the attachments of men for the kings of their forefathers are not always so easily displaced, and neither are those of kings for the most lucrative soil of their patrimony. Austria made two subsequent attempts to retrieve Silesia; together with Frederick’s initial invasion, these are the Silesian Wars.
The last of the three was itself just one theater of the gigantic Seven Years’ War. The conflict between Prussia and Austria over Silesia, and the complex continental diplomatic entanglements** each power effected in its pursuit, were among the root causes of that entire globe-spanning conflict.
But in view of Frederick the Great’s strained situation prior to this providential deliverance, some of his Silesian subjects made free to prefer their prospective Catholic/Austrian allegiance to that of their recent conqueror.
Desertions among Silesian conscripts, some of them even escaping to Austrian lines, called down the dark side of the religious toleration policy. Frederick let people pray as they liked so that he could rule as he liked; here, when he suspected the Silesian Catholic clergy of countenancing wartime disloyalty among their flock, those religious scruples had overstepped their proper sphere.
And so at last we come to our day’s execution.
One young man caught attempting to desert Frederick’s army was captured and interrogated by his commanders. He allowed that he had undertaken the sacrament of confession before escaping, and expressed to the priest his intention to abandon the army.
The priest, Father Andreas Faulhaber, was arrested on this basis, but between his calm defense of himself and the deserter’s shifting, unreliable story, the military court found little basis to proceed. The impression one gets is that the contemplated desertion was not the main thrust of the confession and that Father Faulhaber accordingly discouraged the sin in passing but didn’t bother to dwell on the point.
The impression is difficult to substantiate because the padre rigorously kept the seal of the confessional — another imposition demanded by faith that secular authorities who had armies to field preferred not to honor.
But evidently looking to serve notice that the monarch’s religious indifference could not be used to abrogate subjects’ responsibility to the state, Frederick himself ordered Faulhaber’s sudden execution for the morning of December 30.
The unfortunate priest only discovered his impending fate moments before it was enacted, but still refused under the makeshift gallows to give up anything incriminating about his parishioner. “Hang up the Jesuit Faulhaber, but let him not have a confessor,” read the order, according to this decidedly Catholic account, which adds that Faulhaber was not actually a Jesuit at all, and the word only added to invoke the going 18th century prejudice against that order.
Prussia won this war, too. It kept Silesia in Prussian hands, and then German hands, for two centuries. The bulk of Silesia was transferred to Poland after World War II.
** For the Seven Years’ War, Austria made common cause with its traditional foe, France: one consequence of this arrangement was the betrothal of the Austrian princess Marie Antoinette to the future French king Louis XVI.