Posts filed under 'East Germany'

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

4 comments 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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