Posts filed under 'East Germany'

1954: Ernst Jennrich, for 17 June 1953

Add comment March 20th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1954, East Germany beheaded Ernst Jennrich for the previous June’s short-lived popular protests.

A Magdeburg gardener of socialist proclivities, Jennrich was nothing more than an enthusiast who got swept up in events when metalworkers at the Ernst-Thälmann factory struck for better pay and lower food prices — a protest that quickly metastasized into what looked to the Communist authorities like a treasonable movement calling for liberalization, a release of political prisoners, and reunification with West Germany.

The movement was crushed within a day by Russian tanks — although some Soviet soldiers notably (and sacrificially) refused to fire on protesting workers. But before events played out, Jennrich had disarmed a guard at the prison in nearby Sudenburg. He fired the guard’s carbine twice, then destroyed the weapon.

It’s not certain how many people lost their lives in the suppression of this affair — hostile western estimates ran into the thousands — but two policemen were killed at Sudenburg prison, and in a cruel show of official impunity Jennrich got tapped to answer for their deaths. He said he’d just fired the carbine into a wall or the air in order to empty it … but the state said he’d emptied it into those two luckless officers.

On scant evidence, Jennrich harshly received a life sentence that August. But even this did not suffice for officials racing to manifest their righteous indignation against the late subversion. “The protection of our peaceful state requires the death penalty for the crimes committed by the defendant,” huffed the prosecutor, and appealed the sentence to Germany’s high court … which accordingly upgraded the sentence to “the extermination of the defendant from our society, and therefore the death penalty.”

Jennrich was beheaded on the fallbeil at Dresden still protesting his innocence. A post-unification court finally vindicated that protest in 1991, posthumously rehabilitating Jennrich as having been condemned without evidence even by the terms of East Germany’s 1950s laws.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Wrongful Executions

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1952: Wolfgang Kaiser

Add comment September 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1952, chemistry student Wolfgang Kaiser was guillotined at Dresden as a saboteur.

Back in the years before the Berlin Wall closed East Berlin the Communist half-city’s accessibility to its NATO-aligned western half constantly nettled the security state.

Our man Wolfgang Kaiser (English Wikipedia entry | German) lived in West Berlin but studied in East Berlin — or he did until he lost the spot when trying and failing to transfer to a West Berlin university.

That left Kaiser plenty of time on his hand to vent his political disaffection by working for the anti-communist resistance organization Kampfgruppe gegen Unmenschlichkeit — the “Combat Group Against Inhumanity”. When all was said and done, inhumanity got the best of its combat with Kaiser.

His chemistry background was a welcome skill set for the KgU activists, who put Kaiser to work building fuses for balloons that rained anti-Soviet propaganda leaflets in the east, as well as putting together incendiaries and the like with which to perpetrate nuisance-level harassment. The Stasi had him under surveillance immediately, although his old college buddy was such an amateurish snoop that he flat-out told Kaiser that he was watching him for the East Germans.

Eventually, however, that buddy persuaded Kaiser to turn himself in and become a collaborator himself — with a chance to resume his university career as one of the plums. Instead Kaiser found himself charged up as a saboteur “endangering the peace of the world.” The young man’s fighting spirit was also sabotaged by some sort of misleading representations made to him in his detention, because he entered the show trial believing it to be exactly that: just a show. So mistakenly confident was he that his death sentence was strictly ceremonial that he reportedly bragged about his penthouse accommodations behind bars.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Terrorists

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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. 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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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Spies

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1962: Gottfried Strympe, purported terrorist

Add comment June 21st, 2014 Headsman

The novel East German polity was coming in the late 1950s to a crossroads that saw security paranoia ratchet up dramatically.

Emigration to West Germany accelerated considerably as the 1960s began, eventually giving rise to the infamous Berlin Wall.

In the countryside, forced collectivization implemented in 1960 produced resistance all its own. Agricultural output plummeted (the knock-on effects of a 1959 drought helped too); according to Patrick Major’s Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power, groceries and everyday household items became markedly more difficult to procure in the early 1960s, sapping productivity throughout the economy as city workers queued for hours and black-market exchanges proliferated.

Following the Soviet Union’s great tradition of attributing economic trouble to running-dog wreckers, East Germany introduced the death penalty for politically motivated economic sabotage* — for example, the 206 cases of arson it attributed among 862 rural fires in 1960. (Figures as per Major.)

Our figure today, Gottfried Strympe, fell foul of these laws. In reality, he was no cackling secret agent but a disturbed loner.

He lurked about the eastern city of Bautzen opportunistically by turns the petty thief or the peeping tom.

Unfortunately for Strympe, who did some spells in psychiatric wards, his deviance extended past the titillation of spying a Hausfrau in her bustier to the much more menacing diversions of pyromania.

The poor man needed a social worker; what he got was the executioner. The charge sheet dramatically attributed his 28 acts of arson (crimes that each caused only minor property damage, and no human casualties) to the inspiration of “West German and American imperialists.”

Strympe, you see, had often visited a father (deceased in 1958) in West Berlin, back before the Wall sealed that city. Of course on those trips, Strympe picked over a Whitman’s sampler of western decadences, from pornography to Social Democracy. On this basis, the Stasi attributed his incendiarism to “terrorism” rooted in “an antisocial attitude strengthened by his stays in West Berlin.”

Strympe had a public show trial, the better that “the population of Bautzen will recognize the danger of communication and travel to West Berlin” (with props of said population — workers’ and civic groups — obligingly supplying the requisite demands for the traitor’s execution).

He was beheaded by Fallbeil at Leipzig on June 21, 1962.

* See Politische Strafjustiz in der Ära Ulbricht: Vom bekennenden Terror zur verdeckten Repression by Falco Werkentin.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arson,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Treason

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1955: Elli Barczatis and Karl Laurenz, East Berlin spies

Add comment November 23rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1955, the East German Prime Minister’s own chief secretary was beheaded as a spy, along with her lover.

You’ll find this affair blurbed in the Historical Dictionary of Sexspionage, so you’d figure it’s got to be good — but it wasn’t quite James Bond. (They never really are.)


Elli Barczatis (top) and Karl Laurenz

Elli Barczatis hooked up in 1949 with Karl Laurenz when both worked in the DDR Ministry of Industry. (Both these links are in German, as are most that follow.)

Their careers went in opposite directions thereafter. Barczatis scored a plum appointment as Prime Minister Otto Grotewohl‘s administrative aide while Laurenz got booted out of the Communist party altogether for political unreliability: he’d been a mere social democrat before the communist takeover.

Laurenz started scratching out a living as a freelance journalist in both East and West Berlin, prior to Berlin Wall days, and was recruited by West Germany’s intelligence service to brief them on the goings-on in the East.

In December 1950, a former coworker saw Barczatis and Laurenz at a cafe rendezvous — and saw Barczatis pass the reporter a sheaf of papers. The coworker reported it to East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi.

Because of Barczatis’s proximity to the head of government, the Stasi had to investigate the tip with great delicacy. But no matter; the East German spooks could be patient as death when the occasion demanded. So over the course of four-plus years, they cautiously surveilled, and eventually entrapped, the lovers.

At last, on March 4, 1955, those grim security men arrested Barczatis at her apartment in the suburb of Kopenick. Laurenz, returning laster that day to the East from a West Berlin meeting with intelligence officers, was nabbed as well.

Laurenz confessed to espionage right away; it might have been a cathartic experience for him. “The accused became provocative, comparing the State Secretariat for State Security of the German Democratic Republic with the fascist Gestapo and the Nazi SD,” a Stasi officer reported after marathon interrogation sessions. “He remarked that the treatment of prisoners by the State Secretariat for State Security is worse than the treatment by the SD and the Gestapo.” But the doomed spy still stubbornly protected his contacts, sources — and Elli Barczatis. He insisted that she was more leaker than spy, and gave him information thinking only that it was background for his reporting.

According to John Koehler’s Stasi: The Untold Story of the German Secret Police, there might have been something to that.

What was the extent of Elli Barczatis’s espionage? What did she betray that justified her execution? Incredibly, the interrogation record reveals not a single instance in which she furnished Laurenz with material so sensitive that it could be interpreted as having endangered the security of the communist state. She betrayed no military or defense secrets. She merely told her friend about letters her office received from the populace complaining about food shortages; mismanagement that created problems in industry; government personnel changes; and Westerners who visited Prime Minister Grotewohl. The absurdity of all communist regimes was that such tidbits of information were considered state secrets.

Baczatis’s and Laurenz’s beheading on the fallbeil was the culmination of a mid-Fifties security crackdown by East Germany that also eliminated (although not by execution) at least two other highly-placed West German assets, Hermann Kastner and Walter Grosch. (Source.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Spies,Women

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1960: Manfred Smolka, East German border guard

12 comments July 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1960, Manfred Smolka was guillotined in Leipzig.

Smolka was among three million East Germans or more who escaped over the border to West Germany in the 16 years after the defeat of the Nazis divided the country.

In the earliest years, people sluiced over the long border just anywhere. By Smolka’s time, that perimeter was buffered by an “internal border” that made it difficult for ordinary people to approach near enough to West Germany to escape. Consequently, most emigration by the the late 1950s occurred in the divided city of Berlin — a flow that East Germany would finally stanch in 1961 with the ultimate in immigration reform, the Berlin Wall.


One of the Cold War’s iconic photographs: East Berlin border guard Conrad Schumann leaps over the barbed-wire barrier into West Berlin on Aug. 15, 1961, just days after construction of the Berlin Wall began.

Like that more famous later escapee, Manfred Smolka (German link, as are most that follow) was a border guard; indeed, he was an officer. That gave him the ability, in 1958, to be far enough within the “internal border” to defect into West Germany

The very next year, he arranged to meet his abandoned wife and daughter on the Bavaria-Thuringia frontier to smuggle them over, too. Alas, it was a trap (pdf) laid by the feared East German secret police, the Stasi.


Happier times: Manfred Smolka with his wife and child.

According to press reports, Smolka was actually on West German soil when the Stasi men captured him.* (The Stasi were often up for a bit of kidnapping.)

West Germans were outraged by Smolka’s capture and subsequent death sentence for “military espionage,” but the case was deemed an apt one for the education of East Germany’s border security agents.

Only with post-Cold War German reunification could his family examine his file. “I am innocent, I can prove it a hundred times,” they read in the last letter the onetime defector wrote to his family — a letter which had never been delivered. “You need not be ashamed of me.” In 1993, a reunified, post-Cold War Germany officially agreed and posthumously rehabilitated Manfred Smolka.

There’s a few minutes of documentary video about him, in German, here.

* By a July 5, 1960 account in the London Times, Smolka was shot at and wounded as he crossed into East Germany but still managed to “crawl” back to West Germany — where his pursuers did not fear to follow him.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Posthumous Exonerations,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1969: Joseph Blösche, Der SS-Mann

1 comment July 29th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1969, Joseph Blösche was executed in Leipzig, German Democratic Republic, for his part in the Holocaust.


Blösche (far right) chills out at the Warsaw Ghetto with, among others, Jurgen Stroop (fourth from right, in profile).

Blösche (English Wikipedia entry | German) was an SS Rottenführer and a Nazi Party member whose particular contribution to deporting Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka was fitting in some opportunistic rape, typically followed with summary murder. The ghetto’s wards called him “Frankenstein”.

Blösche was eventually captured by the Red Army, which you’d think might augur ill for his survival prospects. However, with the aid of a horrible accident he suffered in a postwar labor camp that helpfully disfigured his face, Blösche managed to fade quietly into East German society, wed, and raise a family.

He would need that facial anonymity, because the un-disfigured version is there full-frontal gazing over his submachine gun in one of the war’s most iconic and chilling images — snapped for the benefit of the Stroop report documenting the ghetto’s liquidation.


An SS trooper, eventually identified as Joseph Blösche, looms over a frightened Jewish boy in the Warsaw Ghetto. (The child might be one of Artur Dab Siemiatek, Levi Zelinwarger, Israel Rondel, or Tsvi Nussbaum)

This photo was published in the U.S. in Life magazine on November 28, 1960. The terrible image haunted Holocaust survivor Peter Fischl into writing his poem “The Little Polish Boy”.

Blösche’s luck ran out when his name came up in a West German war crimes trial in 1961; East Germany’s follow-up eventually zeroed in on the man, and he was convicted in April 1969 for directly killing up to 2,000 people, and participating in deportations that killed 300,000 more. He was executed in Leipzig with a single shot to the neck.

Joseph Blösche is the subject of the German documentary Der SS-Mann (there’s also a book of the same title).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,History,Shot,Soldiers,War Crimes

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1953: 32 merciful Soviet soldiers

7 comments June 18th, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

In June 1953, some discontented young citizens of Magdeburg, East Germany revolted and began demonstrating against the repressive Communist regime. On June 17, in the spirit of totalitarian governments everywhere, the authorities ordered a platoon of soldiers to open fire on a crowd of protesters.

Incredibly, the soldiers refused.

Every one of them vanished shortly thereafter, never to be seen again.

It was long assumed that the entire platoon had been executed for insubordination. This wasn’t confirmed until 1998, however. Four years previously, Magdeburg construction workers digging the foundation for a new building accidentally unearthed a mass grave containing 32 bullet-riddled skeletons. From the condition of the remains, authorities determined the victims — all of them young men — had died sometime between 1945 and 1960.

They could have been the missing Soviet platoon, but they could also have been prisoners executed by the Gestapo mopping up in May 1945, just before the Germans fled the city in advance of the Red Army.

As Jessica Snyder Sachs noted in her 2001 book Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, the victims all had extensive tooth decay and no sign of dental work, which was consistent with Russia but not central Europe. This was hardly conclusive, however.

To solve the mystery, investigators turned to Reinhard Szibor, a biologist at the nearby Otto von Guericke University.

Szibor had helped in criminal cases before and was famous for using pollen to link suspects to crime scenes. Pollen clings to people’s hair, skin and clothes and is, of course, also inhaled. The stuff is nearly indestructible and will remain long after human remains have disintegrated. Authorities hoped Szibor could use pollen samples from the mass grave to determine what time of year the victims died.

Discover Magazine explains how he did it: Szibor rinsed out the skulls’ nasal cavities, had a look, and found pollen from lime trees, plantains and rye, all of which release their pollen during June and July. In other words, the Magdeburg victims had died during the summer months, the time when the Soviet platoon was reportedly executed, and not in the springtime when the Nazis retreated from the city.

Though we still don’t know the precise date of their deaths, and likely never will, the soldiers who paid for their humanity with their lives had finally been identified.

Die Lösung (The Solution)

After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?

-Bertold Brecht

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,East Germany,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates,USSR

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