Posts filed under 'Germany'

1942: Ewald Schlitt, performative cruelty

Add comment April 2nd, 2019 Headsman

From Hitler’s Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany:

Despite the unprecedented legal terror [inside Germany], he [Hitler] continued to attack the legal apparatus as slow and formalistic, comparing it unfavourably with the unrestrained actions of the police. … In the autumn of 1941, he complained repeatedly in his private circle that the German judges passed too lenient sentences … In May 1941, he complained to Goebbels that inmates could emerge from prison ‘fresh and unused’, ready to act once more against the state — a statement which showed Hitler’s disregard for the brutal realities inside penal institutions. He had made a similar point a few months earlier to Himmler, telling him that criminals knew that inside penitentiaries ‘everything is nice, hygienic, nobody will do one any harm, the Minister of Justice vouches for that’.

Hitler’s simmering hostility towards the legal system blew up in spectacular fashion in the spring of 1941. The spark was yet another supposedly lenient court sentence. On 14 March 1942, the district court in Oldenburg found the engineer Ewald Schlitt guilty of having abused his wife so badly that she eventually died. However, the judges decided that Schlitt had not acted in cold blood but was liable to sudden violent fits of temper. Rather than condemning him to death as a ‘violent criminal’, the court sentenced Schlitt to five years in a penitentiary. When Hitler heard about this case, he exploded with rage. Ignorant of the details, he demanded that Schlitt be executed and took the court’s sentence as confirmation of the impotence of the judiciary. If there were any more such sentences, Hitler fumed in his private circle on Sunday 22 March 1942, he would ‘send the Justice Ministry to hell through a Reichstag law’. Hitler made no secret of his fury. On the very same day, he berated the acting Minister of Justice Schlegelberger on the telephone. Highly agitated, Hitler exclaimed that he could not understand why criminals were treated so leniently at a time when the ‘best’ German soldiers were dying at the front. Hitler threatened Schlegelberger with very serious consequences should the legal system fail to change.

The Reich Ministry of Justice immediately engaged in damage limitation, following Hitler’s outburst. Two days after his phone call, Schlegelberger wrote to Hitler to reassure him about the ruthlessness of the legal system: ‘My Fuhrer, I share your desire for the harshest punishment of criminal elements with the greatest conviction.’ To prove his point, Schlegelberger informed Hitler that the Schlitt case would be taken up by the Reich Court. The court duly delivered the desired result. On 31 March 1942, it quashed the original sentence against Schlitt and instead sentenced him to death, a decision which was immediately relayed to Hitler. Ewald Schlitt was guillotined two days later. Schlegelberger did not let the case rest here. He was concerned enough to inform the general state prosecutors, in a meeting on the day of Schlitt’s retrial, about Hitler’s threats. …

In previous protests by Hitler against court sentence he considered too ‘mild’, the file had been closed after the execution of the offender. But not this time. One of the reasons why Hitler did not let matters rest was his growing concern about the home front. In March 1942, the Nazi leadership knew that rations would have to be cut and evidently feared a backlash among the population … The Nazi leaders were convinced that the legal system would be unable to deal with any unrest. Thus, after Hitler had discussed the forthcoming cuts in rations with Goebbels on 19 March 1942, the two men went on to complain about the failures of the judiciary and to talk about the need for tougher measures on the home front. It was at this point that Hitler floated the idea of convening the Reichstag to give himself special powers against ‘evil-doers’, an idea he returned to after the Schlitt case. The cut in rations, the most serious during the entire war, was finally introduced on 6 April 1942, and caused great disquiet. Hitler’s apparent concern about this was betrayed in an extraordinary outburst at dinner on the very next day. Inevitably, his thoughts circled around the 1918 revolution and, with unprecedented ferocity, he vented his homicidal determination to prevent another ‘stab in the back’:

If a mutiny broke out somewhere in the Reich today, then he would answer it with immediate measures. To start with, he would:

a) have all leading men of an oppositional tendency … arrested at home and executed, on the day of the first report;

b) he would have all inmates in concentration camps shot dead within three days;

c) he would also have all criminal elements rounded up for execution within three days on the basis of the available lists, irrespective of whether they were in prison or at liberty at the time.

The shooting of this scum, which comprised a few hundred thousand people, would make other measures appear unnecessary, as the mutiny would break down by itself due to a lack of mutinous elements and fellow-travellers.

Only two weeks later, Hitler rang Goebbels and instructed him to take the very unusual step of summoning the Reichstag.

I also expect that the German jurisprudence understands that the nation is not there for them but they for the nation. That not the entire world is allowed to perish, in which also Germany is included, so that there is a formal right, but that Germany has to live, notwithstanding the formal interpretation of justice.

I have no understanding for it, just to mention an example, that for instance a criminal who married in 1937 and then mistreated his wife that she became mentally deranged and who then died of the results of his last mistreatment, is sentenced to 5 years of hard labor in a moment when 10,000 brave German men have to die in order to save the homeland from Bolshevism, that means to protect their wives and children.

I will take a hand in these cases from now on and direct the order to the judges that they recognize that as right what I order.

What German soldiers, German workers, peasants, our women in city and country and millions of our middle-class etc. do and sacrifice all only with the one thought of victory in their minds, then one can ask a congenial attitude for them who have been called by the people themselves to take care of their interests.

At present there are no self-styled saints with well-earned rights, but we all are only obedient servants in the interests of our people.

-From Hitler’s April 26, 1942 address to the Reichstag

On 26 April 1942, the Reichstag deputies assembled in Berlin, curious as to the purpose of the meeting. … The legal system, Hitler warned [in his address], must have only one thought: German victory. It was high time, he continued, that the legal system realised that it did not exist for its own sake, but for the nation. As an illustration of the inane approach of the judiciary, Hitler pointed to the Schlitt case. … The deputies cheered loudly, broke into chants of ‘Heil’ and then passed a resolution that explicitly exempted Hitler from ‘existing statutes of law’, giving him the right to remove from office and punish anyone ‘failing their duties’. Hitler was officially above the law.

Hitler’s attack in the Reichstag on 26 April 1942 received a mixed reception from the German public. Many Germans, it seems, supported Hitler’s views. But conservatives and members of the bourgeoisie started to voice some concerns about the threat to the rule of law. The German legal officials themselves were stunned … One senior judge exclaimed in private: ‘Out of shame, each judge has to hide his face from the public’. The officials feared that the attack would destroy public confidence int he independence of the judiciary and provide further incentives for the police to interfere in the legal process. To discuss measures which would increase Hitler’s confidence in the judiciary, the Reich Ministry of Justice held two meetings with senior regional officials in early May 1942 in Berlin. The meeting on 6 May was chaired by State Secretary Freisler. Hitler’s speech, he acknowledged, had hit the legal system like a ‘thunderstorm’. Freisler reminded the officials of the lessons which needed to be drawn: the legal officials had to become harder, focusing even more on retribution …

Hitler continued to complain in private about the weakness of the legal system. On 22 July, for example, he once more ranted at length about the judiciary, concluding that nobody resembled the jurist more closely than the criminal.

The Nazi leaders made sure that legal officials knew that Hitler was still unhappy. On the same day as Hitler’s latest private outburst, on 22 July 1942, Goebbels made an explicit speech to the officials at the People’s Courtk outlining the Nazi leaders’ criticism of the judiciary. Goebbels’s comments had special significance because, as he informed his listeners, Hitler had personally approved them. Goebbels began by complaining that many judges still had the wrong attitude, derived in large measure from their legalistic training. After referring in detail to several ‘unbearable’ sentences, Goebbels made crystal clear what was required from the judiciary. During the war, it was not important whether a judgment was fair or unfair; rather, it had to protect the state by eradicating the ‘inner enemies’: ‘The starting point is not the law, but the decision [that] this man has to disappear’.

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

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1940: The Sass Brothers, Weimar burglars

Add comment March 27th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1940, the Sass Brothers — notorious scofflaw thieves from the Weimar Germany era — were extrajudicially executed by the Nazis at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Pioneers of the then-novel art of blowtorching their way into bank safes, die Brüder Sass — Erich and Franz — became public celebrities after their arrest in 1929, especially when the state failed to stick the case against them and the lads remained as free men, publicly flaunting their stolen wealth.

The position of being well-known unpunished crooks became a good deal less comfortable after the 1933 rise of the Nazis, so the Sasses (wisely) moved to Denmark and (less wisely) did some crimes there, too. They copped a short Danish sentence, and after its expiration in 1938 the Danes transferred Erich and Franz Sass back the Third Reich. But even the severity of 13- and 11-year sentences for bank robbery back home, according to Nikolaus Wachsmann,

did not satisfy Heinrich Himmler, who ordered the brothers’ execution. On 27 March 1940, Erich and Franz Sass were taken from penal institutions to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Here, they were murdered by SS men under the command of Rudolf Hoess, who recalled the execution after the war: ‘They [the brothers] refused resolutely to stand against the post, and I had to let them be tied up. They resisted with all their strength. I was extremely relieved when I was able to give the order to shoot.’ Their murder was promptly reported in the Nazi press. This case demonstrates clearly the difference between punishment in the Weimar and the Nazi period. In the Weimar Republic, the two brothers had walked free because there was not sufficient evidence to convict them. In Nazi Germany, they were murdered, irrespective of legal regulations.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Concentration Camps,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Shot,Theft,Wrongful Executions

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1540: Hans Kohlhase, horse wild

Add comment March 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1540, the legendary outlaw Hans Kohlhase — a crime victim turned revengeful crime lord — executed* in Berlin. It’s a classic case of stubborn cusses escalating a minor property dispute.

En route to the Leipzig fair in 1532, Kohlhase (English Wikipedia entry | German) was stopped by a Saxon nobleman who confiscated some of his horses. In dueling publications years later, Kohlhase would charge that Guenther von Zaschwitz accused him of stealing the horses; von Zaschwitz countered that Kohlhase looked suspicious and got uppity with his retainers when questioned.

Proceeding to Leipzig in a huff, Kohlhase obtained the commendations necessary to confirm his identity and then demanded his property back from von Zaschwitz. The lord agreed … if Kohlhase would pay for the horses’ days of upkeep in his stables. Just a little crap sandwich from the neighborhood bully. Kohlhase didn’t feel like having a bite of it.

Fast forward a couple of years. Suits in the courts bogging down, Kohlhase at his wit’s end resorted to an older form of redress, one consecrated by centuries of tradition but now forbidden by a landmark 1495 legal reform: he declared a feud. Kohlhase really vented his spleen in this one, not bothering as a plausibly wronged party to play for hearts and minds but rather pronouncing his vendetta against the whole Electorate of Saxony.

Thus “justified,” he turned out-and-out bandit, gathering a crew of desperados to his banner and robbing with opportunistic promiscuity while staying a step ahead of a bounty issued against him by Elector Johann Frederick I. To repeat: this is all over a question of who foots the bill for a feedbag. Even Martin Luther tried to talk this vengeful fury off his grudge.

What is just, you will do justly, says Moses; wrong is not justified by other injustice … What you rightly do, you do well; if you can not obtain justice, there is no other advice than that you suffer injustice … Therefore, if you desire my council (as you write), I advise, accept peace.

Kohlhase accepted only the peace of the grave.

The German romanticist Heinrich von Kleist immortalized (and renamed) this uncompromising litigant in the novella Michael Kohlhaas; the same story has been re-adapted for cinema several times more.

* No surviving document specifies whether the execution was by breaking wheel or beheading.

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1943: Martial Van Schelle, Belgian Olympian

Add comment March 15th, 2019 Headsman

Former Olympian Martial Van Schelle was executed by the Nazi occupation on this date in 1943.

American-born, Van Schelle (English Wikipedia entry | Dutch) was orphaned by the sinking of the Lusitania and got his licks in on the Reich as a member of the American Expeditionary Force.

He later represented Belgium as a multifaceted sportsmen, competing in three summer Olympics, one winter Olympics, and the Gordon Bennett Cup balloon race. (No medals.)

Afterwards, he went into business as a Brussels sporting goods merchant. Dutch Wikipedia credits him with building the first ice rink in his country and numerous others thereafter.

During World War II, Van Schelle bankrolled an underground traffic of refugees off the continent to Great Britain, until the Gestapo arrested him on January 15, 1943. He was eventually shot at Fort Breendonk prison.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Belgium,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1616: Vincenz Fettmilch

Add comment February 28th, 2019 Headsman

Among the ancient remains, that which, from my childhood, had been remarkable to me, was the skull of a State criminal, fastened up on the tower of the bridge, who, out of three or four, as the naked iron spikes showed, bad, since 1616, been preserved in spite of the encroachments of time and weather. Whenever one returned from Sachsenhansen to Frankfort, one had this tower before one; and the skull was directly in view. As a boy, 1 liked to hear related the history of these rebels, — Fettmilch and his confederates, — how they had become dissatisfied with the government of the city, had risen up against it, plotted a mutiny, plundered the Jews’ quarter, and excited a fearful riot, but were at last captured, and condemned to death by a deputy of the emperor. Afterwards I fc!t anxious to know the most minute circumstance, and to hear what sort of people they were. When from an old contemporary book, ornamented with wood-cuts, I learned, that, while these men had indeed been condemned to death, many councillors had at the same time been deposed, becanse various kinds of disorder and very much that was unwarrantable was then going on; when I heard the nearer particulars how all took place, — I pitied the unfortunate persons who might be regarded as sacrifices made for a future better constitution. For from that time was dated the regulation which allows the noble old house of Limpurg, the Fiauenstein-honsc. sprung from a club, besides lawyers, tradespeople, and artisans, to take part in a goverument, which, completed by a system of ballot, complicated in the Venetian fashion, and restricted by the civil colleges, was called to do right, without acquiring any special privilege to do wrong.

Goethe

On this date* in 1616 the muffin man Vincenz Fettmilch was executed for a Frankfurt guild revolt that became a notorious anti-Jewish pogrom.

One of the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, Frankfurt am Main was at this time a predominantly Lutheran city of some 20,000 souls, governed by a council comprising the city’s wealthy patricians to the exclusion of her merchants and artisans. The city also boasted one of Germany’s largest Jewish communities, consisting of well over 1,000 people concentrated in a quarter known as the Judengasse (“Jew Lane”); living in Frankfurt under imperial protection, Jews of course were subject at any given time to varying degrees of community anti-Semitism.

The small and almost accidental spark to light the Fettmilch conflagration began in 1612 when the accession of Emperor Matthias led to citizen petitions for an enumeration of civic rights and the patricianate suspiciously refused to supply the charters. The ensuing conflict brought a growing popular movement that “commanded support from a large cross-section of the city’s inhabitants,” writes Christopher Friedrichs.** “But from the outset a dominant role was assumed by one man: Vincenz Fettmilch, a citizen who had experimented with a number of occupations before becoming a pastry-baker. There is no question that Fettmilch was a dynamic and articulate leader — and a passionate foe of patricians and Jews alike.”

For many months did Fettmilch (the cursory English Wikipedia entry | the much better German) and the patricianate maneuver but the long and short of it was that the latter’s credibility to rule deteriorated fatally with damaging revelations of financial malfeasance. By 1614 the popular movement achieved the outright conquest of municipal power, forcing Frankfurt’s much-resented oligarchs to yield their governing posts to guildsmen.

Which also positioned Vincenz Fettmilch to effect his demand for rousting that huge Jewish population.

On August 22, 1614, a popular riot invaded and ransacked the Judengasse. Fettmilch himself issued the expulsion order the very next day. This event is one of the best known and most studied anti-Jewish pogroms in German history; it’s also recalled as one of the last such incidents before the Third Reich — for Fettmilchs did not commonly get the run of a city, and our Fettmilch did not enjoy his run for very long.

As imperial soldiers gathered for an order-restoring incursion that rebellious Frankfurt would be powerless to resist, Vincenz Fettmilch was summarily arrested later in 1614 by other Frankfurters, sparing the city a good deal of destruction and speedily collapsing the new order he had created. Fettmilch had over a year as a ward of the empire’s torturers before he with three associates was beheaded and quartered on February 28, 1616 — the same day that Frankfurt’s Jewish refugees were officially re-admitted back to the Judengasse.


Broadside of the punishment of Fettmilch and associates by Johann Ludwig Schimmel.†

From the time of Fettmilch to this day inconclusive debate has raged among historians and other Germans about how to weigh, interpret, and reconcile those two thrusts of the rebellion — the resistance to Frankfurt’s optimates, and the chauvinism against her Jewry.

* You’ll also find the date of March 10 in various sources; this 10-day discrepancy is that commonplace calendar complication, the Julian-Gregorian split. Frankfurt am Main was a free imperial city within the Holy Roman Empire, and while the empire had gone Gregorian from its introduction in 1582, the mostly Protestant Frankfurt (along with many other German states) stayed away from this papist device until 1700. Our dating here defers to the local Julian sentiment.

** Friedrichs, “The Fettmilch Uprising in German and Jewish History,” Central European History, June 1986.

† Image from Karl Harter in From Mutual Observation to Propaganda War: Premodern Revolts in Their Transnational Representations; that author contextualizes the scene as follows:

In the middle of the picture we see the scaffold set up at the market place of Frankfurt cordoned by heavily armed soldiers and railings with posts showing the imperial eagle: The punishment of the rebels is taking place within the separated legal space of the empire, where only the delinquent, the executioner, the judge and several officials (representative of the imperial commission) and the soldiers appear. The city council and the representatives of the guilds on the two platforms in the centre of the background as well as the burghers of Frankfurt surround that space, watching from the outside. The executioner decapitates one of the delinquents, the recently severed finger of whom can be seen in front of him. The dismembering of the finger – the Schwurfinger – clearly points at the illegal conjuration or conspiracy in terms of penal law. Two more decapitated corpses of ringleaders are positioned on the scaffold. In the background on the left, outside the city three gallows are set up; one with a corpse hanged at the feet and another exposing part of quartered corpse. Both death penalties — reverse hanging and quartering — are typical of the aggravated and infamous punishment of treason. In the case of the Fettmilch-revolt, the four main ringleaders were dismembered, decapitated, quartered and parts of their corpses were exposed at the gallows outside of town. Furthermore, their heads were impaled and exposed on the gate tower on the Rhine side, which was the main entrance to the city, depicted with the four decapitated heads and a super-sized imperial eagle in the left background of the broadsheet. The symbolic implication, communicated and enhanced by the broadsheet, is quite obvious: The ringleaders and the revolt are to be commemorated as a serious political crime. This was emphasized by the total demolition of Fettmilch’s house shown in the foreground of the illustration on the right and the infamous shaving, flogging and banning of his family depicted in the background on the right: the total social disintegration and exclusion of the main ringleader — comprising his family, his name, his house — for eternal memory (“zum ewigen Gedächtnuß”). Apart from the ringleaders and their families, the punishment of other rebels (17 associates and followers) by flogging and banning, shown in the background on the left, seems almost lenient. In addition to the punishment of the rebels, the restitution of the legal and imperial order is represented by the re-entry of the Jewish community in form of a procession, just passing the scaffold.

All other broadsides dealing with the punishment of the rebels depict the same scene and make use of similar iconic elements: scaffold, armed soldiers, imperial posts and eagle, the dismembering of the Schwurfinger and decapitation, the tower with the heads, the gallows with the quartered corpses, whipping and expulsion, the demolition of the house, the re-entry of the Jews etc.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,History,Holy Roman Empire,Martyrs,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Torture,Treason

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1945: Walraven van Hall, banker to the Resistance

Add comment February 12th, 2019 Headsman

Wally van Hall, the Dutch banker, fraudster, and national hero, was executed by the Nazi occupation on this date in 1945.

Walraven — to use his proper given name — was born into a well-heeled family, the brother of eventual Amsterdam mayor Gijs van Hall.

The man’s expertise in the occult crafts of banking gained an unexpected heroic cast during World War II when Wally became the “banker to the Resistance,” quietly sluicing the funds needed to support anti-occupation movements.

Notably, he plundered the present-day equivalent of a half-billion Euro from the Dutch National Bank by swapping fraudulent bad bonds for good ones.

This profession was no less dangerous for being so esoteric. He was betrayed by an informer who was himself executed in revenge by the Resistance; van Hall has posthumously received his country’s Cross of Resistance as well as Israel’s recognition as Righteous Among the Nations for his aid to Dutch Jews. He’s the subject of the 2018 film The Resistance Banker.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Martyrs,Netherlands,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Shot,Theft,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1944: Franz Kutschera, by underground justice

Add comment February 1st, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the Nazi governor of Warsaw was “executed” by assassination.

The Austrian Sudeten German Franz Kutschera had parlayed his early Nazi party membership into various posts in the Third Reich after it absorbed Austria into Greater Germany.

The last of his several stations on World War II’s Eastern Front was SS and Police chief of occupied Warsaw. He did not hesitate to brandish the iron fist, intensifying arrests of perceived subversives and carrying out public executions of civilians to avenge German casualties.

We enter ambiguous territory for this here site here, for Kutschera’s punishment, while delivered by ambush, was decreed by a court — the illicit (to Germany) “Special Courts” of the Polish government in exile. Needless to say, the defendant was judged in absentia.

Such courts asserted the legitimate governance of an occupied nation but they had to shift for themselves when it came to enforcing their underground writ. An orchestrated commando hit, uncontroversially titled Operation Kutschera, was required for this one since the SS chief wasn’t a fellow that an opportunistic assassin could just catch with his guard down in some cafe. Instead, Poland’s internal Home Army units under the command of Emil Fieldorf put a 12-person team on the job.

On the morning of February 12, 1944, Kutschera’s “executioners” blocked with another car the limousine carrying the doomed SS-man to work. In an instant three men, codenamed “Lot” (Bronislaw Pietraszewicz), “Kruszynka” (Zdzislaw Poradzki) and “Mis” (Michael Issajewicz), sprang onto the street brandishing submachine guns and efficiently slaughtered Kutschera and his driver. Meanwhile, other members of the team swooped in with getaway vehicles and covering fire for the resulting shootout with surprised German guards. Though all escaped the scene, Lot and another team member both succumbed hours later to their wounds; two additional members of the backup group were trapped escaping across the Kierbedz Bridge and died hurling themselves into the Vistula under a rain of German bullets.

The Reich paid Kutschera tribute in his customary coinage with the mass execution of 300 civilian hostages the next day, but the memory of this dagger to the throat of a national enemy has lived in glory for Poles ever since.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Shot,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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1796: Jerzy Procpak

Add comment January 26th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1796 the Polish outlaw Jerzy Procpak was executed. Anticipate Polish in all links to follow.

It takes a stretch to reckon this avaricious cutthroat as a social bandit; nevertheless, he’s chanced to a fair measure of historical renown as an exemplar from the dying age of highwayman. He supposedly turned to crime after being punitively thrown in prison for shooting a grazing heifer he had mistaken for a deer. Thereafter he gathered around him a crowd of army deserters and other rough men who prowled the southern borderlands of Silesia, Moravia, and Slovakia.

The “forest Adonis” was celebrated in folk song, and in folk legend which became practically indistinguishable from his biography.

Captured in November 1795, the brigand admitted without recourse to torture to a charge sheet more than ample to take his life: some 60 highway robberies and 13 murders. We have a description of his costume preserved from those same records: “hat with band sewn on, blue caftan lined red, trousers of the same blue paint, sewn with twine, brown leather moccasins, a thin white tunic and sleeves with beautiful cuffs, a brass pin at his throat …”

Throughout January of 1796, ad hoc courts tried upwards of 200 of his alleged associates in ad hoc tribunals in the Silesian towns of Wieprz, Zywiec, and Milowka. Overall, twenty-one were condemned to death and apart from one man, Blazej Solczenski, saved by intercession of a parish priest, all these death sentences were carried into immediate execution.* Several others from the deserter demographic were returned to the hands of the Austrian army for punishment up to and including death by musketry.

* I assume that this reprieve is the source of the confusion among different texts reporting that Procpak was one of twenty robbers executed, or that those executed numbered Procpak plus twenty other robbers. The former is correct, although the executions were scattered across different days and sites; this source (Polish, like everything else) has the breakdowns with names and dates.

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1572: Johann Sylvan, Antitrinitarian

Add comment December 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Antitrinitarian Calvinist Johann Sylvan lost his head in a Heidelberg market.

Sylvan — or Johannes Slyvanus — was a pastor and theologian in the service of Calvinist Elector Frederick III.

Frederick’s own Calvinist scruples were theoretically anathema in a Holy Roman Empire whose writ of tolerance did not extend past Lutheranism.

But Sylvan gravitated towards a circle of reformers whose concept of the divine left orthodox Calvinism far behind — “a group of ministers within the Palatine church, who were not only prepared to deny the eternal divinity of Christ, but secretly aspired to promote a further reformation of received doctrine with a view to restoring the pristine monotheism of the faith,” according to this pdf volume, The Heidelberg Antitrinitarians.

This rejection of the long-canonical Christian mystery of threefold godhead formed a recurring subtheme of Europe’s Reformations, its exponents — like Michael Servetus — forever prone to martyrdoms administered by any respectable sect.

This proved to be the case for Sylvan as well; given his dubious theological position within the empire, Elector Frederick might have felt it politically necessary to come down hard on these radicals.

Still, while Sylvan was made the example, others in his Antitrinitarian circle lived to expound their heresies in other lands. Matthias Vehe fled to Transylvania — where a Unitarian Church was founded in 1568, protected by a sympathetic prince — and then to other fellow-travelers in Poland. Adam Neuser also escaped, later converting to Islam and defecting to Ottoman Istanbul, an event that did a lot of lifting for anti-Anti-trinitarian propagandists.

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1944: The massacres of Wereth and Malmedy, during the Battle of the Bulge

Add comment December 17th, 2018 Headsman

Two mass shootings of U.S. World War II infantrymen in Belgium marked this date in 1944.

It was the second day of the Battle of the Bulge, Nazi Germany’s surprise last offensive in the Ardennes. Hitler, in an inspired albeit ultimately unsuccessful gambit, intended here to burst through the thin-spread Allied line under cover of air power-negating foul weather, and still his western front enemies in time to fortify his east before the Red Army could destroy the Reich.

Needing to inflict a demoralizing lightning defeat, Hitler authorized rougher treatment of POWs than was usual on the western front, resulting in six weeks of savage no-quarter fighting and battlefield atrocities more characteristic of the eastern front. Our focus today is two such instances.

Wereth Eleven

Eleven artillerists from the all-black 333rd Field Artillery Battalion — having taken refuge at a farmhouse in the village of Wereth after their position was overrun during the German offensive — were arrested by the SS on December 17, 1944, taken to a nearby field, and summarily executed.

A monument in Wereth commemorates the massacre. (cc) image from Herald Post.

A villager named Matthias Langer had willingly taken them in, but an informer in the community made the Germans aware of their presence.

So, as dusk fell, a patrol of SS men pulled up to Langer’s home and took the black Americans into custody. They weren’t ever seen alive again.

Their bodies were recovered after Americans recaptured the position weeks later, showing the injuries of gratuitous brutalization inflicted before their murder.

However, the U.S. Army closed its investigation hastily and kept the soldiers’ families in the dark about the nature of the men’s deaths.

It only came to public light many years later thanks to Matthias Langer’s son, Hermann — who was a 12-year-old boy during the Battle of the Bulge but could never shake the haunting sight of the frightened refugees being marched away under German guns.

Malmedy Massacre

About 10 kilometers away on the same day, a column of approximately 120 American POWs was machine-gunned without warning by its German captors in a field near the village of Malmedy — which is where those who survived fled to for safety.

This Malmedy Massacre, which is much the larger and better-known atrocity compared to that of Wereth, claimed 84 lives.*

It also resulted in a postwar death sentence for the German commander Joachim Peiper — although that sentence was never carried out, at least not judicially. Controversially freed in 1956, Peiper was assassinated in 1976: an unknown group calling itself the Avengers claimed credit.


The Malmedy Massacre as depicted in the 1965 film Battle of the Bulge.

* The figure of 72 is sometimes given; this appears to describe the count of bodies initially (in January 1945) recovered in the meadow where the shooting took place. An additional 12 victims of the massacre were discovered in outlying stretches over the following weeks: men who had managed to flee some distance before they were felled. This same unit also massacred other prisoners in the surrounding days.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belgium,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Germany,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions

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