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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1934: Otto Planetta and Franz Holzweber, for the Juliputsch

Add comment July 31st, 2017 Headsman

German-Austria must return to the great German mother country, and not because of any economic considerations. No, and again no: even if such a union were unimportant from an economic point of view; yes, even if it were harmful, it must nevertheless take place. One blood demands one Reich. Never will the German nation possess the moral right to engage in colonial politics until, at least, it embraces its own sons within a single state …

The elemental cry of the German-Austrian people for union with the German mother country, that arose in the days when the Habsburg state was collapsing, was the result of a longing that slumbered in the heart of the entire people — a longing to return to the never-forgotten ancestral home. But this would be inexplicable if the historical education of the individual German-Austrian had not given rise to so general a longing. In it lies a well which never grows dry; which, especially in times of forgetfulness, transcends all momentary prosperity and by constant reminders of the past whispers softly of a new future

-Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf

On this date in 1934, two Nazis were hanged for their part in a failed Austrian coup.

From his political ascent in 1933 — and well before, as the quote above indicates — the Reich’s unification with his native land of Austria had been a cherished goal for Adolf Hitler. To that end, Berlin had fostered a clandestine network of Austrian Nazis branded as “SS Standarte 89” and allowed exiles to broadcast seditious propaganda from German soil.

Their “July Putsch” (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a year or so in the making, and commenced when four truckloads of SS Standarte 89 men in military attire suddenly stormed the federal chancellery in Vienna, murdering chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss in the process.

“Hitler received the tidings while listening to a performance of Das Rheingold at the annal Wagner Festival at Bayreuth,” Shirer noted in The Rise And Fall Of The Third Reich — and Wagner’s granddaughter, also in attendance, could not help observing his “excitement” and “delight” and simultaneous anxiety to feign uninvolvement.

The last of these impulses showed the emerging tyrant’s wisdom, for the coup swiftly collapsed — exposing, to Hitler’s fury, the inept organization of the plot. Basically no other coordinated actions took place to complete the coup and the Austrian army remained loyal to the existing government, leaving to the lonely SS Standarte 89 nothing but a feeble surrender.

The first targets of the resulting courts-martial were Otto Planetta (cursory English Wikipedia entry | more detailed German), who actually pulled the trigger to kill the chancellor, and Franz Holzweber, the apparent leader of the attack on the chancellery. They would be tried and condemned in a two-day hearing July 30-31 and hanged within three hours of conviction. In time, both the Planetta and the Holzweber name would adorn many city streets in the Third Reich as patriot-martyrs.

Both prisoners, when asked whether they had anything to say before hearing their sentences, addressed the Court. Planetta said: —

I do not know how many hours I have to live. But one thing I would like to say, I am no cowardly murderer. It was not my intention to kill. One thing more. As a human being I am sorry for my deed, and I beg the wife of the late Chancellor to forgive me.

Holzweber said: —

I was assured that there would be no bloodshed. I was told also that I should find Herr Rintelen at the Chancery,, that the new Government was already formed. Not meeting the leader of the operation at the Chancery, I disclosed myself at once to Major Fey. I told him, here I stand, and I do not know what I should do. More or less spontaneously I took over the responsibility for our men because no one was there to take charge of the matter.

Holzweber, who was executed first, cried out on the gallows: “We die for Germany. Heil Hitler.” Planetta said simply, “Heil Hitler.”

London Times, Aug. 1, 1934

The time was not yet ripe — and Hitler, no matter how heiled by his would-be subjects, was required by the diplomatic blowback to forswear ambitions on unifying with Austria.

But the Fuhrer’s soft whispers of a new future would grow ever more insistent in the months to come, and not four years later the Reich accomplished the Anschluss.

That July 25, in 1938, in a Vienna now successfully absorbed to greater Germany,

the fourth anniversary [of the Juliputsch] was celebrated as an heroic act comparable with the Rathenau and Erzberger murders. The survivors of ‘SS Standarte 89’ marched to the federal Austrian Chancellery, which had been renamed the Reichstatthalterei. Here the bereaved families of thirteen men were addressed by Rudolf Hess. A tablet was unveiled which proclaimed that:

154 German men of the 89th SS Standarte stood up here for Germany on 25 July, 1934. Seven found death at the hands of the hangman.

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1806: Johann Philipp Palm, press martyr

Add comment August 26th, 2014 Headsman

Gentlemen, you must not mistake me. I admit that the French Emperor is a tyrant. I admit that he is a monster. I admit that he is the sworn foe of our nation, and, if you will, of the whole human race. But, gentlemen, we must be just to our great enemy. We must not forget that he once shot a bookseller.

Thomas Campbell

Nuremberg bookseller Johann Philipp Palm was shot on this date in 1806 for publishing a manifesto against the French occupation.

For centuries a proud Free Imperial City, Nuremberg had over the few months preceding Palm’s martyrdom been smushed up by the conquering Grande Armee into an amalgamated French client, the Confederation of the Rhine.

This was a huge political shakeup. Even the Empire of which Nuremberg had been a Free Imperial City was no more: the 854-year-old Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806, a casualty of the Battle of Austerlitz. At just 25,000 residents and far removed from its mercantile preeminence of yesteryear,* Nuremberg wasn’t even one of the Confederation of the Rhine’s 16 constituent polities: it had been rolled up into Bavaria, in a partial cleanup of the tiny Kleinstaaten pocking the old German map.

Nuremberg’s prostration in this arrangement mirrored Germany’s as a whole vis-a-vis the Corsican. Napoleon was the official “protector” of the Confederation of the Rhine, and its end of the protection racket entailed shipping conscripts to the French army.

The Confederation of the Rhine ultimately included four kingdoms, five grand duchies, 13 duchies, 17 principalities, and the Free Hansa towns of Hamburg, Lübeck, and Bremen, and covered much of the territory of present-day Germany (sans Prussia). For some odd reason, Germans whose dreams of national unification were beginning to stir weren’t too enthusiastic about having it marshaled by France.

In July of 1806, Palm gave voice to the sentiment by publishing a 144-page treatise, Germany in its Deep Humiliation. (It’s available online in an 1877 printing at archive.org.) The identity of the seditious author(s) he resolutely kept secret, but it’s commonly attributed now to Count Friedrich Julius Heinrich von Soden.

Palm had the fortune or sense to be safely away in Prussia by the time irate Frenchmen raided his shop, but was caught after he boldly slipped back into the city against all sensible advice. He was transferred to a fortress at Braunau am Inn, and shot there.

His death made him an early national martyr (“involuntary hero”, in the words of a 2006 Braunau bicentennial remembrance), and his name is still preserved on a variety of streets in German cities. In Palm’s native Schorndorf, the Palm Pharmacy building sports plaques honoring the martyr. And a Palm Foundation awards, every two years, a Johann Philipp Palm Prize journalism prize. It’s announced on this date, each even-numbered year. (Update: Salijon Abdurakhmanov of Uzbekistan and Nazikha Saeed of Bahrain received the 2014 Palm awards.)

A publishing house, Palm und Enke, actually founded post-Napoleon by the uncle under whom our Johann Palm completed his apprenticeship, still exists today. (It is no longer in the control of any Palm relative, however.)

Braunau am Inn, now a charming little burg of 16,000 just over the border into Austria, is probably best recognized in the wider world these days as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler … and it turns out the little future Nazi was deeply stirred by Palm’s model of patriotic sacrifice, albeit less so his model of an independent press. We find out all about Hitler’s admiration of Palm in the very first stanzas of Mein Kampf.

Volume 1: A Reckoning

CHAPTER 1
IN THE HOUSE OF MY PARENTS

Today it seems to me providential that Fate should have chosen Braunau on the Inn as my birthplace. For this little town lies on the boundary between two German states which we of the younger generation at least have made it our life work to reunite by every means at our disposal.

German-Austria must return to the great German mother country, and not because of any economic considerations. No, and again no: even if such a union were unimportant from an economic point of view; yes, even if it were harmful, it must nevertheless take place. One blood demands one Reich. Never will the German nation possess the moral right to engage in colonial politics until, at least, it embraces its own sons within a single state. Only when the Reich borders include the very last German, but can no longer guarantee his daily bread, will the moral right to acquire foreign soil arise from the distress of our own people. Their sword will become our plow, and from the tears of war the daily bread of future generations will grow. And so this little city on the border seems to me the symbol of a great mission. And in another respect as well, it looms as an admonition to the present day. More than a hundred years ago, this insignificant place had the distinction of being immortalized in the annals at least of German history, for it was the scene of a tragic catastrophe which gripped the entire German nation. At the time of our fatherland’s deepest humiliation, Johannes Palm of Nuremberg, burgher, bookseller, uncompromising nationalist and French hater, died there for the Germany which he loved so passionately even in her misfortune. He had stubbornly refused to denounce his accomplices who were in fact his superiors. In thus he resembled Leo Schlageter. And like him, he was denounced to the French by a representative of his government An Augsburg police chief won this unenviable fame, thus furnishing an example for our modern German officials in Herr Severing‘s Reich.

In this little town on the Inn, gilded by the rays of German martyrdom, Bavarian by blood, technically Austrian, lived my parents in the late eighties of the past century; my father a dutiful civil servants my mother giving all her being to the household, and devoted above all to us children in eternal, loving care Little remains in my memory of this period, for after a few years my father had to leave the little border city he had learned to love, moving down the Inn to take a new position in Passau, that is, in Germany proper.

* Back when being the executioner of Nuremberg was a plum assignment.

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1945: Hermann Fegelein, Eva Braun’s brother-in-law

10 comments April 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Waffen-SS officer Hermann Fegelein was shot in the Reich Chancellery’s basement, or else its garden.

“One of the most disgusting people in Hitler’s circle,” in the estimation of Albert Speer, this rank opportunist had found his way there via Heinrich Himmler’s patronage.

On June 3, 1944, Fegelein married right into Hitler’s personal clique by tying the knot with Gretl Braun — sister of longtime Hitler mistress Eva Braun. Hitler and Himmler were both official witnesses.

They had a two-day wedding bash. Then the western allies landed at Normandy.

Fegelein still found plenty of time to party and womanize for the eleven remaining months that he and national socialism had a run of the place. But as a rank opportunist, he also had his antenna up for a post-Nazi arrangement by the spring of 1945. Here, his proximity to power did him no favors.

Posted directly to Hitler’s bunker as Himmler’s personal representative, the guy would have a harder time than some anonymous bureaucrat in slipping out of besieged Berlin.* When he absented himself from the bunker for two full days, Hitler himself noticed.

The guy sent to retrieve Fegelein found him drunk in a Berlin flat, hurriedly stuffing valuables into suitcases with a mystery woman who promptly disappeared out the window.

Having obviously been attempting to desert, Fegelein was in a fix when he was hauled back to the bunker.

Unluckily for Fegelein, this was also the date that Reuters reported news that his patron Himmler had attempted to surrender Nazi Germany to the U.S. and Britain — news that made its way into the hands of a livid Hitler. You’ve got Fegelein trying to defect (incidentally inviting Eva Braun to come with), his boss is selling right out, and he’s consorting with a potential mole.

According to James O’Donnell, Hitler and his loyal satrap Martin Bormann were obsessed with leaks in the last days of the war, and the circumstances of Fegelein’s capture conspired to make him look like a potential source of those leaks.

As the Fuhrerbunker consumed itself in paranoia, Fegelein — only slowly sobering up — disappeared into the hands of the Gestapo, and was shot. His body, presumably abandoned with other casualties of little interest to Berlin’s conquerors, was never recovered.

Hundreds of kilometers to the south on the same day, Hitler’s longtime Italianate partner Benito Mussolini was getting his. It would be a stark warning to Germany’s fading dictator not to let the same fate befall him.

Hours after Hermann Fegelein’s execution, his sister-in-law Eva finally wed Adolf Hitler … and on April 30, those two took their lives together.

A week after Hermann Fegelein’s execution, on May 5, his widow bore him a posthumous daughter: Eva Barbara Fegelein, named after the child’s late famous aunt.

* Fegelein had actually been out in Bavaria with Himmler — “safe”, relative to what happened to him — but taken a hazardous flight back into besieged Berlin just a couple of weeks before his death. He was either trying to be Himmler’s dutiful personal plant in the bunker, or trying to use his posting as a pretext to retrieve for the perilous postwar years the many valuables he had cached in Berlin.

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1945: Wilhelm Cauer, but not Helmuth Weidling

1 comment April 22nd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1945, the brilliant scientist Wilhelm Cauer was summarily executed by Red Army soldiers advancing into besieged Berlin.

Cauer hailed from a rich lineage of academics.

Although his career prospects in Nazi Germany were ultimately limited owing to that lineage’s kinship to Frederick the Great’s Jewish banker, they were not so limited that he was not able to become a university professor and one of the founding figures in the field of engineering network synthesis filters. The elliptical filter is known as the “Cauer filter” in his honor.*

By the end of World War II, he was, like millions of less-distinguished countrymen and -women, merely a person in the way of a terrible conflagration.

Cauer succeeded in evacuating his family west, where the American and not the Soviet army would overtake it — but for reasons unclear he then returned himself to Berlin. His son Emil remembered (pdf) the sad result.

The last time I saw my father was two days before the American Forces occupied the small town of Witzenhausen in Hesse, about 30 km from Gottingen. We children were staying there with relatives in order to protect us from air raids. Because rail travel was already impossible, my father was using a bicycle. Military Police was patrolling the streets stopping people and checking their documents. By that time, all men over 16 were forbidden to leave towns without a permit, and on the mere suspicion of being deserters, many were hung summarily in the market places. Given this atmosphere of terror and the terrible outrages which Germans had inflicted on the peoples of the Soviet Union, I passionately tried to persuade my father to hide rather than return to Berlin, since it was understandable that the Red Army would take its revenge. But he decided to go back, perhaps out of solidarity with his colleagues still in Berlin, or just due to his sense of duty, or out of sheer determination to carry out what he had decided to do.

Seven months after the ending of that war, my mother succeeded in reaching Berlin and found the ruins of our house in a southern suburb of the city. None of the neighbors knew about my father’s fate. But someone gave identification papers to my mother which were found in a garden of the neighborhood. The track led to a mass grave with eight bodies where my mother could identify her husband and another man who used to live in our house. By April 22, 1945, the Red Army had crossed the city limits of Berlin at several points. Although he was a civilian and not a member of the Nazi Party, my father and other civilians were executed by soldiers of the Red Army. The people who witnessed the executions were taken into Soviet captivity, and it was not possible to obtain details of the exact circumstances of my father’s death.

Cauer’s name was actually on a list of scientists the Soviets were looking to recruit, not eliminate. Presumably he and those other civilians who shared his nameless grave fell foul of the occupying army in some incidental way and were shot out of hand in the fog of war.


By contrast, April 22 was the lucky day for Wehrmacht General Helmuth Weidling.

Weidling had been forced by overwhelming Russian power to withdraw from a position and an enraged Hitler ordered him summarily shot.**

Fortunately, it was not effected so “summarily” that Weidling wasn’t able to get his side of the story in and have the execution order revoked. Lucky Helmuth was within hours, uh, “promoted” to commander of the Berlin Defence Area, which is supposed to have led him to remark, “I’d rather be shot than have this honour.”

This was not to be his fate.

Instead, after a week’s overseeing the suicidal exertions of his underaged, underarmed Volkssturm militia, it fell to Weidling on May 2 to issue the order directing remaining garrisons in Berlin to lay down their arms.

On April 30, 1945, the Führer committed suicide, and thus abandoned those who had sworn loyalty to him. According to the Führer’s order, you German soldiers would have had to go on fighting for Berlin despite the fact that our ammunition has run out and despite the general situation which makes our further resistance meaningless. I order the immediate cessation of resistance.

The devastated Berlin of the Soviet encirclement was Weidling’s last glimpse of his homeland: he was flown to the USSR as a prisoner of war and died there in captivity in 1955.

* Also working against the big brain’s career path in academia: “few people could appreciate the vast potential of Cauer’s special field of work … for mathematicians, he seemed too involved in applied sciences, and for electrical engineers his contributions included too much mathematics.” These days, Cauer’s disciplined application of mathematical principles to the field of network filtering is precisely what he’s remembered for.

** This was a notably bad day for der Fuhrer: it was also on April 22 when the impotence of the German army’s remaining shreds caused him to launch into that bunker tirade that has spawned a thousand Internet parodies.

From the Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich.

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1945: Johann Georg Elser, dogged assassin

17 comments April 9th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1945, in the dying days of the Third Reich, 42-year-old Johann Georg Elser was executed by gunshot in the German concentration camp Dachau. He died for a failed attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life more than five years before.

It goes without saying that, had he been successful, he would have changed history immeasurably.

Elser, who went by his middle name, didn’t fit the profile of someone who would try to kill Hitler.

He wasn’t a Jew, a Communist or a member of any of the other minority groups the Nazis persecuted. He wasn’t political at all, in fact.

A carpenter by trade, with one illegitimate son, his hobbies included playing the zither and the double bass.

He was the kind of ordinary, working-class German the National Socialists tried to reach out to. But from the very start, he made it clear how much he despised them and all that they stood for.

British historian Roger Moorhouse, in his book Killing Hitler: The Plots, the Assassins, and the Dictator Who Cheated Death, summed it up very nicely when he said Elser harbored a “deep and personal hatred for Hitler.”

He was a practical man at heart and was not interested in political discussions. He had no desire to change other people’s minds, but he steadfastly refused to make any accommodation to the new regime. When Hitler’s speeches were broadcast, he would silently leave the room… In May 1938, a Nazi parade threaded its way through his hometown of Königsbronn. Elser, like many others, turned out to watch, but as those around him gave the Hitler salute, he refused to do likewise. When a colleague reminded him that it might be sensible to conform, he replied curtly, “You can kiss my ass.” He then ostentatiously turned about and started whistling to himself.

How Elser’s silent, passive resistance turned into action is unclear, but by the autumn of 1938 he had made up his mind to kill the Führer.

Unsure how to accomplish this, he traveled to Munich to get some ideas. Every year on “Die Neunte Elfte”, the November 8-9 anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler came to the Bürgerbräukeller and gave a speech to the old guard.

That day in 1938, actually just hours before another would-be assassin tried to kill Hitler, Elser slipped into the beer hall pretending to be an ordinary customer and “noted the layout of the room, the position of the lectern and the patent lack of effective security measures.”

He had found his place and his time: he decided that the following year, he would plant a bomb in the Bürgerbräukeller, timed to go off right in the middle of Hitler’s big anniversary speech and kill him and as many Nazis as possble.

Elser’s meticulous planning and preparations over the next twelve months were nothing short of amazing. He stole a fuse and some gunpowder, and got a job at a quarry specifically so he could acquire some explosives. Knowing nothing about bombs, he made countless prototypes and tested them in empty fields in the countryside.

In the spring of 1939, he went back to Munich and the Bürgerbräukeller to make some detailed sketches of the building and find an appropriate place to hide the bomb. He chose a thick stone pillar behind the lectern, which supported a balcony. In August, he brought his tools and bomb-making materals to Munich to set about with his final phase of the plan.

The fastidious assassin’s modus operandi was shockingly simple, and shockingly bold.

He would visit the Bürgerbräukeller every night at around 9:00 to take his evening meal. An hour or so later, he would sneak up to the gallery of the function room, where he would hide in a storeroom until the bar closed and the building was locked.

Thereafter, he was free to work by flashlight until the bar staff returned at around 7:30 a.m., when he could sneak out of a back entrance.

His first priority was to chip out a cavity in the stone pillar to hold the bomb. But, finding the pillar was now dressed with wooden cladding, Elser was forced to spend three nights sawing a hole in the wooden surround.

Every sound had to be muffled, every speck of sawdust collected and disposed of: he could afford to leave no evidence of his presence. Even the sawn wooden panel was fashioned into a flush-fitting secret door.

Good thing he was a carpenter.

Having accessed the pillar, he could now begin to dig out a recess for the bomb. Using a hand drill and a hammer and chisel, he spent most of the following month loosening mortar and prising out bricks — all of which, of course, had to be meticulously tied and removed from the scene in a cloth sack.

Progress was painfully slow.

In the cavernous hall, every hammer blow he struck echoed like a gunshot, and to escape detection he had to time his blows to coincide with external sounds, such as the passing of a tram or the automatic flush of toilets. Working by night preparing the pillar in the Bürgerbräukeller, he labored by day putting the finishing touches to his bomb and, of course, the elaborate timing mechanism.

It all took two months.

On November 2, six days before the Big Day, Elser finally concealed his bomb, which had been put in a wooden box lined with cork to muffle the ticking sound of the timing mechanism, in its hidey-hole. Hitler’s speech was scheduled to start at 9:00 p.m. on November 8 and would last for an hour. The bomb was set to go off at 9:20.

It did so, right on time, with a spectacular explosion that smashed the stone pillar, brought down the overhead balcony and ceiling, shattered windows, blasted out doors, killed eight people and injured 67 more.

The only problem was, Hitler wasn’t among the dead or wounded. In fact, he wasn’t even there.

He had pressing business in Berlin and wanted to get back that same night, so he had rescheduled his speech for 8:00 p.m. instead of nine. He finished and left the building at 9:07, thirteen minutes before the big reception Elser had prepared for him. By the time the bomb went off, Hitler was already on the train back to Berlin.

That Elser failed was through no fault of his own: it was just sheer, terrible, rotten luck.

British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Assassination has never changed the history of the world.” Perhaps he is right in most cases, but it’s hard to believe that statement is true when it comes to Hitler. In this case, thirteen minutes substantially altered the history of Europe for the rest of the century.

Getting back to Elser: ever the careful planner, he knew what to do to protect himself once the bomb went off. He was miles away from Munich at the time, trying to sneak over the border into Switzerland. Unfortunately, he was caught by German border guards.

At first they thought it was a routine arrest, but then they saw the contents of his pockets, which included a postcard of the Bürgerbräukeller and sketches of his bomb design. The guards didn’t yet know about the assassination attempt, of course, but what they saw made them suspicious and they turned him over to the Gestapo.

On November 13, Elser confessed everything. When a flabbergasted Hitler read the preliminary investigative report which supported Elser’s lone-bomber story, he demanded, “What idiot conducted this investigation?”

He couldn’t wrap his mind around it, and neither could anyone else.

In the wake of the assassination, mass arrests were made: anyone who seemed unusually interested in the Munich speech, or didn’t express sufficient enthusiasm for the Nazi Party, could fall under suspicion of being part of the plot.


At Munich’s Feldherrnhalle on Nov. 11, Hitler conducts a memorial ceremony for the victims of Elser’s assassination bid.

As Moorhouse explains,

To many Nazis, Elser was simply an enigma. He was an ordinary German. He exhibited none of the typical signs of “degeneracy” that they claimed to be combating: apart from his brief flirtation with Communism, he was a virtual teetotaler, not promiscuous, did not consort with Jews, and was not close to the Church. In fact, he was exactly the sort of solid, upstanding, working-class German that they thought they had won over — and, indeed, that had become the backbone of the Nazi Party.

Unable to believe Elser’s claims of full responsibility, the Nazis concluded he must have been “led astray” at the very least, perhaps by agents of British intelligence. In spite of beatings, torture, and other coercion, however, Elser stuck to his story, even building another bomb, identical to the first, right in front of his interrogators to prove he could do it by himself.

He never managed to fully convince them; in fact, for decades after the war, historians and other scholars theorized about who else was in on his plan. Some speculated that the attack was even engineered by Hitler himself, to gain support for his cause and to create an excuse to crack down on dissidents.

It wasn’t until 1970 that two German historians who studied the matter announced there was no evidence that Elser had acted in concert with anyone else or even told anyone about his plans.

It may seem surprising that Elser managed to live for four and a half years after his attempt on Hitler’s life, but there was a explanation perfectly reasonable from the standpoint of a totalitarian bureaucracy.

After his confession, Elser was sent to the the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. He was given enough to eat, and two rooms, and even allowed to play the zither again, but he was kept in solitary confinement all those years. The Nazis — still operating on the theory that the British were ultimately behind the assassination attempt — stashed Elser away as a witness in a show trial against British leaders after the German invasion of the British Isles. Talk about hubris.

Of course, this invasion never happened, and as the tide of war turned against the Germans it became clear that Elser had outlived whatever usefulness he might have had. In February 1945, he was transferred from Sachsenhausen to Dachau.

He met his end quietly, taken outside his cell by a young SS officer and shot in the back of the neck. A week later, it was reported that he had been killed in an Allied bombing. By the end of the month, Dachau was in Allied hands.

At least six cities in Germany, including Königsbronn and Stuttgart, have places named after him, or monuments or plaques erected in his memory.

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1934: Ernst Roehm, SA chief

1 comment July 2nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1934, in the coda to Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives purge of the Nazi party, the emerging dictator had his longtime ally shot.

Bavarian World War I veteran Ernst Röhm (Roehm) had been a National Socialist brawler of the earliest vintage: after the armistice, he was among the Freikorps paramilitaries to topple the short-lived Munich Soviet. He joined the NSDAP’s predecessor, the German Workers’ Party, before Hitler himself, and he stood trial with the future Fuhrer after helping Hitler attempt the Beer Hall Putsch. They were so tight, Hitler politely ignored Röhm’s open homosexuality.

But most importantly, Röhm was the energetic organizer of the Sturmabteilung, or SA — the party’s private army ready at arms for street battles with Communists, roughing up Jews, Praetorian Guard duty for party brass, and various and sundry other unpleasantries.


An SA brownshirt tosses a book on the pyre at a May 10, 1933 book burning.

Röhm grew the SA like a weed. At well over 4 million men by the time of Hitler’s Chancellorship, it greatly outnumbered the army itself.

This gave Röhm personal designs on absorbing the army into his paramilitary instead of the other way around, and it gave Röhm the literal boots on the ground to manifest his own commitment to the “Socialist” bits of the “National Socialist” project. His noises about the “second revolution” to come after the Nazis had already obtained state power were most unwelcome.

“One often hears voices in the bourgeois camp to the effect that the SA have lost any reason for existence, but I will tell these gentlemen that the old bureaucratic spirit must yet be changed in a gentle or, if need be, an ungentle manner.”

-Röhm, Nov. 5, 1933 (Source)

Well, those gentlemen weren’t about to wait around to be changed in an ungentle manner. Hitler was induced to sacrifice the man who raised him to power in favor of those who could keep him there, personally arrested his old friend and aide-de-camp as the June 30 purge got underway.

A sucker for nostalgia, Hitler didn’t have Röhm killed outright — the fate of many others in those terrible hours — but instead shipped him to Stadelheim Prison in Munich.* After due consideration, though, the treacherous chancellor did what he was always going to do.

Alan Bullock, in Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, described the final scene.

Hitler ordered a revolver to be left in his cell, but Röhm refused to use it: “If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself.” According to an eyewitness at the 1957 Munich trial of those involved, he was shot by two S.S. officers who emptied their revolvers into him at point blank range. “Röhm wanted to say something but the S.S. officer told him to shut up. Then Röhm stood at attention — he was stripped to the waist — with his face full of contempt.”

A nice twist of the Long Knife by its wielders: they justified the purge on the grounds of an imminent coup attempt by the dead SA boss,** branding the murders of Röhm and his comrades … the Röhm-putsch.

* The same prison where the White Rose resistance members were later executed.

** Reinhard Heydrich supplied a dossier implausibly alleging Röhm was on the take from the French.

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1934: Night of the Long Knives

2 comments June 30th, 2011 Headsman

In the dark hours this date in 1934, a bargain with the devil was sealed in blood.

Months before, even mere hours before, it was still possible for longstanding adherents of the National Socialist Workers’ Party to demand the “Socialist” part of the program.

The SA and the SS will not tolerate the German revolution going to sleep and being betrayed at the half-way stage by non-combatants. … It is in fact high time the national revolution stopped and became the National Socialist one. Whether [the bourgeoisie] like it or not, we will continue our struggle — if they understand at last what it is about — with them; if they are unwilling — without them; and if necessary — against them.

Populist, not Bolshevik. (In fact, stridently anti-communist.) Nevertheless, a distinct menace by the have-nots against the haves.*

Especially so because they were the words not of some impotent scribbler but of Ernst Roehm, commander of the the Nazis’ paramilitary brownshirts. And threatening, too, for Adolf Hitler for this same reason: his ascension the previous year to the Chancellorship had entailed terms with a German elite who needed but mistrusted the man’s mass party. Something was going to have to give.

The Communist exile Leon Trotsky’s 1933 analysis of the infant Nazi Germany’s dynamics proved prescient.

The banner of National Socialism was raised by upstarts from the lower and middle commanding ranks of the old army. Decorated with medals for distinguished service, commissioned and noncommissioned officers could not believe that their heroism and sufferings for the Fatherland had not only come to naught, but also gave them no special claims to gratitude. Hence their hatred of the revolution and the proletariat. At the same time, they did not want to reconcile themselves to being sent by the bankers, industrialists, and ministers back to the modest posts of bookkeepers, engineers, postal clerks, and schoolteachers. Hence their “socialism.”

German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organizations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital. … The “socialist” revolution pictured by the petty-bourgeois masses as a necessary supplement to the national revolution is officially liquidated and condemned.

The Night of the Long Knives this date took those blades to the “socialists”, to the men like Roehm whose dreams of redistribution were reckless enough to picture his working-class militia supplanting the German army proper.

As its price of power, the Nazi leadership purged these dangerous elements.

At 2 a.m. this date, Hitler flew to Munich to personally arrest Roehm on the pretext of averting an imminent coup by Roehm’s SA.** Elsewhere in the Reich, coordinated arrests and summary executions destroyed the Nazi party’s “left”, and throughout this date, and continuing into the next, did not scruple to sweep up whatever other conservative elements Hitler considered unreliable.

It was a dangerous but ultimately decisive move. Albert Speer saw Hitler on July 1, and remembered him ebullient at the triumph.

Hitler was extremely excited and, as I believe to this day, inwardly convinced that he had come through a great danger. … Evidently he believed that his personal action had averted a disaster at the last minute: “I alone was able to solve this problem. No one else!”

The final death toll is uncertain. Hitler copped to 77 in a speech to the Reichstag two weeks later which chillingly claimed that “in this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge”; it is likely that the true number is much higher. But its effect went far beyond those immediately killed: it tamed the SA’s independence, and permanently subordinated it to the military; and, it brought Adolf Hitler the dictatorial power that would make the succeeding years so fruitful for this blog.

Among those known to have been seized and executed and/or murdered this date:

Roehm himself died on July 2, initially spared for his many good offices for the Nazi cause before Hitler realized he could not leave him alive.

The armed forces, apparently the day’s big winner, would pay a price of their own for the arrangement.

“In making common cause with” the murderous purge, observed William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “the generals were putting themselves in a position in which they could never oppose future acts of Nazi terrorism.” As the quid for the quo, soldiers were soon required to swear “unconditional obedience” to Adolf Hitler, and this oath would give countless Wehrmacht officers sufficient reason or excuse to eschew resistance to their leader until much too late.

Barely a month after the Night of the Long Knives, the ancient German President Hindenburg died in office. Hitler, who now commanded the clear allegiance of his nation’s elites and had savagely mastered his own party besides, succeeded the powers of Hindenburg’s vacant office along with those of his own Chancellorship and became the German Fuehrer.

* When the Nazis were knee high to the Weimar Republic, their party program sought such radical stuff as abolition of rentier income, generous old-age pensions, and nationalizing trusts.

** The historicity of any actual coup plot is generally dismissed, although the event is still known in German by the expedient sobriquet the Nazi leadership gave it, Roehm-putsch.

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1943: Wilhelm H., pensioner and vandal

2 comments May 20th, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1943, a retired transport worker known only as Wilhelm H. was executed for high treason. He was seventy-four years old and had no prior criminal history.

His crime? Writing messages in a public toilet. The story of the events that lead to his death is recorded in Tom Lampert’s work of documentary history, One Life, which is the sole source for this account. Unfortunately Mr. Lampert did not disclose Wilhelm’s last name.

The story begins in August 1942, when Wilhelm wrote the following inscription in a public toilet in Berlin:

Hitler, you mass murderer, you must be murdered, then the war will be over.

Good citizens who saw the graffito promptly reported it to the authorities and it was erased. However, the exact same message appeared in the same location twice more over the next eight weeks.


Nazis and graffiti: still a going couple. (cc) image from kejoli.

On October 28, 1942, a local resident finally caught Wilhelm H. red-handed writing the subversive message on the wall, and made a citizen’s arrest.

Wilhelm initially denied having written anything and the police couldn’t find any writing implement on his person, so they were forced to let him go for lack of evidence. Two weeks later, however, when questioned again by authorities, Wilhelm admitted he had written the message. When asked why, he replied that wartime inflation had reduced his pension to a pittance. He and his wife got only 78.80 reichsmarks a month and had to pay 34.05 of that in rent.

Wilhelm held Adolf Hitler responsible for the war and hence his own privations, and as he felt incapable of action himself he resolved to call other people to rise against the Führer. He said he believed things would be better if the Führer wasn’t there anymore.

The senior district attorney turned his case over to the People’s Court, saying, “Even if the seventy-three-year-old accused does not otherwise appear to have ever engaged in harmful political activities, the suspicion that a crime has been committed here according to paragraphs 80ff. of the Penal Code [conspiracy to commit high treason] cannot be dismissed.”

During the pretrial investigation it waslearned that Wilhelm was born in Klein-Reitz in 1869. He had an elementary school education and worked as a farm laborer until the age of twenty, after which he did military service for three years. Once his term of service ended he moved to Berlin and worked for the next thirty-five years as a transport laborer. He retired on a disability pension. He had never been politically active and his neighbors described him as quiet and reclusive.

In January 1943, Wilhelm was indicted on three counts:

  • calling for the Fuhrer to be killed;
  • treasonously attempting to alter the constitution of the German Reich through violence, whereby the crime was aimed at influencing the masses by means of the written word; and,
  • aiding and abetting the enemy during a war against the Reich and harming the military powers of the Reich.

A physician at the Plötzensee Prison certified that Wilhelm was mentally and medically fit for trial. The trial itself, on March 8, 1943, lasted only an hour. Wilhelm was convicted of all charges and sentenced to death. The court stated:

The wording of the inscription … is clear. There is nothing about the sentence or its meaning to quibble over. Given H.’s selection of a public location, the inscription must be regarded as a call on the populace to kill the Führer of the German Reich. Nor can there be any doubt about the seriousness of H.’s intentions here … as his repeated writing on the inscription demonstrates beyond any doubt.

Since H. wrote his demand quite legibly in crayon on the wall, it could be read by all German comrades visiting the toilets, and this in a neighborhood made up primarily of manual laborers. In addition, the designation of the Führer as a mass murderer and the claim that the war would be over if the Führer were dead both created the appearance of oppositional movements in the Reich and stirred up visitors of the public toilets against the Führer and his Nazi regime, inciting them to acts of violence…

And all of this because H. desired greater buying power for his pension and because he himself wanted to lead an “adequate and contented” life. H.’s old Marxist views — evident in his past votes for the Social Democratic Party — resurfaced at the moment when he believed National Socialism didn’t offer him enough for his personal needs. He has placed the life of the Führer and the fate of the entire German people at risk in a reckless and wanton manner, and all this merely for his own personal well-being. In so doing, H. has expelled himself from the community of German people, who share a common destiny, and thus passed sentence on himself. He deserves to die … The People’s Court has thus sentenced H. to death, a punishment which, given the heinousness of the crime, also takes into account popular German sentiment.

Joseph Goebbels himself, Germany’s Minister of Propaganda, voiced his support for the death sentence. Wilhelm H. was calm and did not resist when he was taken to the guillotine on May 20, 1943.

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1945: Carl Goerdeler, as penance for the German people

1 comment February 2nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, godfather of the anti-Hitler resistance that had bid unsuccessfully for his assassination, was hanged at Plotzensee Prison. With him went fellow regime foes, Johannes Popitz and Father Alfred Delp.

The monarchist pol Goerdeler enjoys pride of place as one of the first German elites to opposite Hitler, though that opposition was not quite so early as the very beginning. Goerdeler was a creature of the pre-Nazi establishment, and shared many of perspectives that prepared that world to accommodate national socialism: Goerdeler bitterly opposed the Versailles Treaty, wanted to take a bite out of Polish territory, and had the customary strictly-within-legal-bounds anti-Semitism of his class. Even lying under sentence of death late in 1944, having denounced the Holocaust to his Gestapo interrogators, his “Thoughts of a Condemned Man” reflected,

We should not attempt to minimize what has been happening, but we should also emphasize the great guilt of the Jews, who had invaded our public life in ways that lacked all customary restraint.

A German patriot, then, committed to a “a purified Germany with a government of decent people”; a humanist Liberal from a bygone age, who had no weapons to fight a terror state.

As Mayor of Leipzig, he openly opposed the Third Reich’s excesses and pushed to moderate its policy.* In 1937 he copped a principled resignation and started cultivating contacts abroad, warning of Hitler’s aggression — also managing to impress his foreign interlocutors with his incapacity to affect events himself. His many memoranda urging Hitler to moderate this or that outrage went for naught.

The resistance circle around Goerdeler, which drew in his fellow-sufferer Popitz,** would be marked throughout the war years by that incapacity — a monument to high-minded failure, eternally short of the last ounce of will or that one key resource.

Goerdeler’s name adorned the ministry of many a fanciful post-Hitler government, but he himself, according to his friend and fellow-conspirator Gerhard Ritter, “preferred to begin with a debate rather than a power stroke”.

To be sure, the man looked in vain for some decisive form of aid: within the Reich, the sympathetic Wehrmacht brass couldn’t quite see their way to something as radical as breaking their loyalty oaths; without, he got no terms short of unconditional surrender from the Allies.

But even come the summer of 1944 when all was well past lost, Goerdeler entertained delusions of persuading Hitler to give up power voluntarily, and opposed Stauffenberg‘s assassination gambit.

Indecision would be no defense when he was hailed before bloodthirsty judge Roland Freisler for treason.

Goerdeler and Popitz, both viewed as influential with Germany’s Western enemies, were kept alive for months after the judicial purges commenced: Himmler‘s hope for a back channel deal. Our man had many hours in this Gethsemane for that essential contemplation of the 20th century.

In sleepless nights I have asked myself whether a God exists who shares in the personal fate of men. It is becoming hard to believe it. For this God must for years now have allowed rivers of blood and suffering, mountains of horror and despair for mankind … He must have let millions of decent men die and suffer without moving a finger.

-Carl Goerdeler (Source)

We do not know what account Goerdeler gave of himself to the afterlife; even the account he left of himself for our terrestrial posterity is disputable.

“I ask the world to accept our martyrdom as penance for the German people,” he wrote in prison. Is it enough to accept for Goerdeler himself? His actions, intrepid by the standards of most countrymen, were fatally unequal to the heroism demanded of his circumstance. By any measure, his is a very human tragedy.

Carl Goerdeler’s brother Fritz shared the same fate a few weeks later. Other family members were imprisoned at Dachau; Carl’s son, Reinhard Goerdeler, became an accountant after the war and is the “G” in the big four firm KPMG.

* Including Berlin’s heretically expansionary economic policy. Goerdeler hated Keynes; his prescription for the capitalist crisis of the 1930s was falling wages, low deficits, a mighty Reichsmark, and free trade. (The April 1938 Foreign Affairs published a Goerdeler essay entitled “Do Government Price Controls Work?” Answer: no.)

It would be too much to say that Berlin’s profligacy outraged him as much as the fact that it was being squandered on dishonorable war, but said profligacy was definitely on the bill of attainder.

** Father Delp, the other man hanged this date, was involved in the resistance but even Freisler’s court decided he wasn’t in on the July 20 plot.

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