Posts filed under 'Germany'

1944: Osmund Brønnum

Add comment March 3rd, 2020 Headsman

Osmund Brønnum — boxer, Communist, and anti-Nazi Resistance martyr — was executed in Quisling Norway on this date in 1944.

Brønnum (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) practice the sweet science for still-extant Oslo club Vika IF and later progressed into a municipal sports administrator.

A committed Popular Front advocate who had also studied in Moscow, Brønnum greeted the German occupation of his native soil with a turn to printing underground propaganda for the Norwegian Resistance — until, sensing danger, he attempted to escape to Sweden only to be arrested at the border.

He was shot with six other men (notably ichthyologist Iacob Dybwad Sømme) at the Trandumskogen forest execution site (and, a natural enough double role, mass grave). A granite marker unveiled there in 1954 pays tribute to “173 Norwegians, 15 Soviet subjects, and 6 Britons” executed in the forest over the course of the war.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Norway,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1903: Mathias Kneissl, Bavarian bicycle bandit

Add comment February 21st, 2020 Headsman

Bavarian bandit Mathias Kneissl was beheaded by the fallbeil guillotine in an Augsburg prison on the morning of February 21, 1903.

Kneißl/Kneissl got a juvenile start on his delinquency — the family trade, one might say; his parents were part-time thieves and fences and an uncle was a famous robber of the Munich-Augsburg roads named Johann Pascolini. He caught his first serious jail time at the tender age of 18 in an affair when his brother Alois shot dead a police officer who had come to investigate them for poaching.

Alois died of tuberculosis in prison but Kneissl emerged from his cell in 1899 — 24 years old and penniless. He soon returned to his vomit, mounting a bicycle-borne crime spree around Bavaria’s Dachau district.

Quaint though it might read in retrospect, a mobile gunslinging cyclist could be a hell of a menace in a world without cars or telephones. Kneissl proved it over the span of about a year and a half before his March 1901 arrest, raiding farms and passersby trying to accumulate a stake sufficient to vanish with his sweetheart to America.

Instead that sweetheart betrayed his hideout to authorities, who require an hourslong siege to capture the wanted outlaw. Two Altomünster gendarmes whom he had killed in a shootout supplied the requisite capital charge, notwithstanding the popular “social bandit” glow he had gained from his many months on the lam. (Folk songs celebrating him are still in circulation to this day; there have also been 1970 and 2008 cinematic treatments of this criminal legend.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,Murder,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Theft

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1803: Mathias Weber, Rhineland robber

Add comment February 19th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1803, robber Mathias Weber was guillotined.

“Fetzer” made a scintillating career in brigandage in 1790s Rhineland — whose west bank Prussia had been forced to cede to revolutionary France. (The legendary bandit Schinderhannes plied his trade in the same unsettled environs; the two men shared a ride to Mainz as prisoners.)

Fetzer’s gang robbed liberally and violently on the roads; their pinnacle capers were twice raiding the river town of Neuss.

Tried (and eventually executed) in Cologne, he was persuaded to confess — albeit not regret — his considerable career in villainy by a prosecutor named Anton Keil, who made use of his access to this notorious figure to print a little biography of his famous prey. Fetzer, for his part, amused himself by sketching guillotines on his cell wall and building a tally of the distinct robberies he could recollect, eventually cataloguing 178 of them. He wowed the standing-room crowd at his trial with his nerve in the courtroom, joking and sparring and readily revealing all without any expectation of trading admissions for leniency.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Germany,Guillotine,Murder,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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1935: Benita von Falkenhayn and Renate von Natzmer, Germany’s last beheadings by axe

Add comment February 18th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1935, Germany conducted its last axe-beheadings.

The axees were impecunious noblewomen Benita von Falkenhayn (English Wikipedia entry | German) and Renate von Natzmer (English | German), spies for Poland recruited via society love affairs with Polish envoy Jerzy Sosnowski.*


Benita von Falkenhayn (left) and Renate von Natzmer.

At 6:00 a.m. on February 18th, Benita von Falkenhayn was brought in a state of near-collapse to a courtyard of Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison. There a red-clad prosecutor read out her condemnation espionage and treason and gave her over to longtime Prussian headsman Carl Gröpler.** The old Scharfrichter bent van Falkenhayn over a rude block and crashed his heavy blade cleanly through her neck, dropping her head into a basket. After a hurried clean-up, they repeated the same ritual for Renate von Natzmer.

The Reich had within living memory to folks of Herr Gröpler’s age still remained a quiltwork confederation of small states; one artifact of its unification was penal codes that used beheading for executions yet no further specificity on the manner of beheading. The most usual means was the fallbeil, a small guillotine, but it was ultimately a matter for the jurisdiction where the sentencing took place — and antiquated manual cleavers were still sometimes deployed by the state of Prussia, which included Berlin.

In October 1936, Nazi Justice Minister Franz Gürtner successfully prevailed upon Adolf Hitler to codify the fallbeil as the explicit means of beheading throughout the Reich, putting an end to the archaic reliance on Gröpler’s brawn and aim.

* Sosnowski was released back to Poland in a prisoner exchange and there tried for treason on grounds of getting too friendly with Germany. After the 1939 invasion of Poland by the Third Reich and the USSR, he appears to have come into Soviet custody and pressed into cooperation; various reports have him thereafter dying in custody, being executed by the NKVD, or returning to the field and dying in action or after capture by the Polish Home Army.

** Four days shy of his 67th birthday at this moment, Gröpler was coming into a pension windfall courtesy of the Third Reich’s liberal expansion of capital punishment. He retired in 1937 with 144 documented executions to his name; he died in Soviet custody in January 1946.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Germany,History,Milestones,Nobility,Prussia,Spies,Treason,Women

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1943: Lepa Radic, Yugoslav Partisan

Add comment February 8th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1943, young Yugoslav partisan Lepa Svetozara Radic went to a German gallows.

A Bosnian Serb — her village today lies in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Republika Srpska, steps inside the river that forms its border with Croatia — Lepa Radic was just 15 when Europe’s Axis powers invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941. Her family’s established left-wing affiliations brought them swift arrest by the fascist Ustashe, but Lepa and her sister escaped in December and joined Tito‘s Communist partisans.

In early 1943, Nazi Germany mounted a huge offensive against the partisans. On a strategic plane, the offensive failed: the partisans were able to preserve their command structure and fall back, also decisively defeating in the field their nationalist/monarchist rivals, the Chetniks, which set them up to dominate postwar Yugoslavia.

But for those upon whom the blow fell, it was a winter of terrible suffering. The Germans claimed 11,915 partisans killed, 2,506 captured … and 616 executed.

So it was with Lepa Radic. This Serbian Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was captured during the engagement trying to defend a clutch of civilians and wounded. They publicly noosed her at Bosanska Krupa after she scorned the opportunity to preserve her life by informing on fellow guerrillas with the badass retort, “my comrades will give their names when they avenge my death.” (Various translations of this parting dagger are on offer online.)

After the war, Yugoslavia honored her posthumously with the Order of the People’s Hero.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bosnia and Herzegovina,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Germany,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Torture,Wartime Executions,Women,Yugoslavia

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1935: Kemal Syed, assassin

Add comment January 14th, 2020 Headsman

A 28-year-old Afghan nationalist was executed in Berlin’s Ploetzensee Prison on this date in 1935.

“During a heated argument” with Sardar Mohammed Aziz Khan* on June 6, 1933, Kemal (or Kamal) Syed on June 6, 1933 “accused the minister of treason and of selling out his country to the British. He then pulled a revolver and shot him fatally.” (UP wire report via the redoubtable pages of the Oshkosh (Wisc.) Northwestern, Jan. 14, 1935)

His punishment was delayed by diplomatic wrangling between Germany and Afghanistan over possible extradition. In the end, Berlin handled matters directly.

* This man also happened to be the brother to the late (and likewise assassinated) King of Afghanistan. In time, the assassinated diplomat’s son would overthrow the assassinated king’s son and rule from 1973 to 1978 as Afghanistan’s first president. (Although if you like, you could also consider him the last of the Musahiban dynasty.) That diplomat’s son in turn was deposed in a palace coup by the ham-handed Communist who would set off the catastrophic Soviet-Afghan War.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Afghanistan,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Racial and Ethnic Minorities

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1940: Carl Heinrich Meier and Jose Waldberg, the first hanged under the Treachery Act

Add comment December 10th, 2019 Headsman

I went into this with both my eyes open, telling myself that a man who has an ideal must be willing to sacrifice everything for it or else the ideal isn’t an ideal at all, or the man isn’t a man at all, but a humble creature who deserves only pity.

-Carl Heinrich Meier, last letter to his fiancee (Source)

On this date in 1940, Great Britain carried out the first two executions under its brand-new-for-wartime Treachery Act of 1940.

Raced into the books in May of 1940 amid Nazi Germany’s onslaught on France, the Treachery Act made it a capital crime if, “with intent to help the enemy, any person does, or attempts or conspires with any other person to do any act which is designed or likely to give assistance to the naval, military or air operations of the enemy, to impede such operations of His Majesty’s forces, or to endanger life.” Naturally the realm had centuries of treason statutes to fall back on; the intent in creating this new capital crime of treachery was to target spies and saboteurs who might not themselves be British citizens — and therefore evade “treason” charges on grounds of not owing loyalty to the British Crown. Instead, the Treachery Act explicitly governed “any person in the United Kingdom, or in any British ship or aircraft.”

Carl/Karl Heinrich Meier and Jose Waldberg were textbook cases. They had rowed ashore at Dungeness on September 3 intending to pose as Dutch refugees while reconnoitering ahead of a potential German cross-channel invasion. With them were two other Abwehr agents with the same intent, Charles Albert van der Kieboom and Sjoerd Pons.

While his comrades were noticed by routine coastal patrols and picked up near the beach, Meier picturesquely showed up that morning at a public house in Lydd where his clumsy command of contextual slang and etiquette led the proprietress to turn him in.

They were tried in camera weeks later, by which time the Luftwaffe was systematically bombing the jurors; despite this radically prejudicial context, Sjoerd Pons was actually acquitted — successfully persuading the court that he’d been forced into the mission on pain of a concentration camp sentence for smuggling. (Pons was detained as an enemy alien despite the acquittal.)

The other three men were not so fortunate. Perhaps most to be pitied was “Waldberg” who was really a Belgian named Henri Lassudry: although he had not presented Pons’s same defense to the court it appeared that he also had been coerced into the operation, in his case by Gestapo threats against his family. But none of the three death sentences was to be abated. A week after Meier and Waldberg/Lassudry hanged at Pentonville Prison, van der Kieboom followed them to the gallows.


“Jose Waldberg” aka Henri Lassudry.

The Treachery Act would be used against German agents repeatedly through the war years and in time had the distinction of noosing the last person hanged in Britain for a crime other than murder.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Milestones,Spies,Wartime Executions

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1900: A day in the death penalty around the world

Add comment December 7th, 2019 Headsman

… courtesy of the Foreign News dispatch in the pages of the Boston (U.S.) Daily Advertiser, Dec. 8, 1900:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Canada,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,Murder

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1663: Volkmar Limprecht

Add comment November 20th, 2019 Headsman

Volkmar Limprecht, a pedagogue and city councilor of Erfurt in Thuringia, was beheaded on this date in 1663. Almost all the links in this post are in German.

“A Mephistophelian mixture of reckless egoistic ambition and restless energy, worldly agility, and unfettered frivolity,” our man Limprecht was a pedagogue turned demagogue who won election to the city council and briefly rode his acumen to control of the city and the absurd prospect of asserting leadership of the Electorate of Mainz.

The Elector, Johann Philipp von Schoenborn, dispatched an army to Erfurt to put it in its place, leading the city’s other grandees to overthrow Limprecht for self-preservation and have him condemned a traitor. He was beheaded the day after his sentence, and his head mounted on a spike as a gesture of submission to the Elector.

Google Books has digitized a public domain blackletter summary of the man’s fall here.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Holy Roman Empire,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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1925: Fritz Angerstein, crime without criminal

Add comment November 17th, 2019 Headsman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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