Daily Double: 1945, and the legacy of Valkyrie

1 comment February 2nd, 2011 Headsman

By February of 1945, Nazi Germany was in quite a fix.

Its last big offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, had been repulsed in the west to no lasting effect other than the thousands of squandered men; in the east, the Red Army was smashing its way through Poland and into the Reich itself, advancing within 70 kilometers of Berlin.* The war’s outcome was self-evident; everyone who was anyone was trying to cut the best deal possible with the soon-to-be-conquerors.

Old Adolf, though — he was determined to check out with all of Germany for his pyre. Götterdämmerung: the Twilight of the Gods. The man loved himself some Wagner.


Albert Speer said that this scene of Brunnhilde‘s immolation from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung was the last thing the Berlin Philharmonic performed before it evacuated Berlin in 1945.

Though one can’t speak for every single German, it’s safe to say that the Teutonic consensus at that moment would have trended quite a bit less pyromaniac. After all, they were the kindling.

The reason Der Fuhrer remained at liberty to enact this weird and destructive climax was his efficiency in scotching threats to his life or leadership from the upper echelons of the Reich.

And he was still at it even as the war slipped away: here, just weeks before the fall of Berlin, adherents of the previous year’s near-miss assassination attempt were still being shuffled off this mortal coil.

These next two dates are not literally the last of the Stauffenberg affair, but they’re a sort of metaphorical last — for these tragic, bumbling dissidents, and the regime they could not topple.

These dates have a fitting, entirely coincidental postscript: on February 4, 1945, the Yalta Conference opened — and Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill set about shaping the postwar world.

* Liberating Auschwitz in the process.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Daily Doubles

Tags: , , , , , ,

1945: Three German war criminals

Add comment November 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1945, three Germans were hanged by the American army at Landsberg for killing downed U.S. pilots during the late war.

Also available here.

Ernst Waldmann, a former Wehrmacht Unteroffizer, was one of the three; he shot an American pilot at Haimbuch in December 1944.

The other two were policemen Wilhelm Haffner and Albert Bury, who killed a downed pilot at Langen Sel Bold that same month — under, they protested, the coercion of the SS.

As the New York Times report noted, they died “within sight” of the cell in that same prison where Adolf Hitler (serving easy time for the Beer Hall Putsch) wrote Mein Kampf.


This was, coincidentally, also the same date that American president Harry S Truman first transmitted to Congress a national health insurance proposal. The doctors’ lobby howled it down as rank Bolshevism … leading to the bizarre ascendancy of the Rube Goldberg-esque employer-based insurance system that had sprouted during World War II as a consequence of wartime wage controls limiting employers’ ability to bid for workers’ service.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Soldiers,USA,War Crimes

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1934: Marinus van der Lubbe, for the Reichstag fire

8 comments January 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1934, Dutch bricklayer Marinus van der Lubbe was beheaded by guillotine in Leipzig for setting the Reichstag Fire.

A watershed event* in the formation of the Nazi dictatorship, the Reichstag fire days before a parliamentary election enabled Hitler to stampede voters, suspend civil liberties, suppress left-wing parties on grounds of a suspected Communist plot, and seize “emergency” powers he would never relinquish.

Heil Hitler.

This clip from an American miniseries on Hitler with the characters chattering in unaccented English portrays the fascists’ opportunistic use of the attack on a national symbol … something not exactly unknown to later generations.

Van der Lubbe, who was arrested on the scene, suffered the predictable fate. Four other Communists charged as accomplices were acquitted, in a trial with the gratifying spectacle of Hermann Goering personally testifying, and being undressed on cross-examination by one of the reds. One is reminded here that Hitler did not yet have everything in the state apparatus at his beck and call … although he did have a great deal already, inasmuch as the arson law under which van der Lubbe died was passed after the Reichstag fire and made retroactive.

If the big-picture outcome of the Reichstag fire is pretty clear-cut, its real origin and the corresponding rightness of the judicial verdicts have remained murky ever since. The fact that the scene of the crime became Nazi ground zero for the next decade sort of obscures the evidence.

Van der Lubbe confessed, so his participation is generally taken as a given.

Whether he was really able to start the blaze acting alone, as he insisted, and the Nazis “only” exploited this fortuitous calamity; whether he was part of a larger leftist plot, as his prosecutors claimed; or whether, as Shirer and many others since have viewed him, he was a patsy in a false flag operation set up by the Nazis with an eye towards creating a politically advantageous national emergency — these possibilities remain very much up for debate.

For what it’s worth, postwar West German courts reversed and un-reversed the sentence before officially rehabilitating van der Lubbe last year on the non-specifically indisputable grounds that the legal machinery brought to bear on the Reichstag fire “enabled breaches of basic conceptions of justice.”

* From Defying Hitler: A Memoir by a writer who would soon emigrate:

I do not see that one can blame the majority of Germans who, in 1933, believed that the Reichstag fire was the work of the Communists. What one can blame them for, and what shows their terrible collective weakness of character … is that this settled the matter. With sheepish submissiveness, the German people accepted that, as a result of the fire, each one of them lost what little personal freedom and dignity was guaranteed by the constitution, as though it followed as a necessary consequence. If the Communists had burned down the Reichstag, it was perfectly in order that the government took “decisive measures”!

Next morning I discussed these matters with a few other Referendars. All of them were very interested in the question of who had committed the crime, and more than one of them hinted that they had doubts about the official version; but none of them saw anything out of the ordinary in the fact that, from now on, one’s telephone would be tapped, one’s letters opened, and one’s desk might be broken into. “I consider it a personal insult,” I said, “that I should be prevented from reading whichever newspaper I wish, because allegedly a Communist set light to the Reichstag. Don’t you?” One of them cheerfully and harmlessly said, “No. Why should I? Did you read Forwards and The Red Flag up to now?”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arson,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Language,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Power

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1943: Elfriede Scholz, Erich Maria Remarque’s sister

10 comments December 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1943, pacifist novelist Erich Maria Remarque lost his youngest sister to the Nazi regime — beheaded because her “brother is beyond our reach.”

Actually, Elfriede Scholz was convicted (upon the denunciation of her landlady a few weeks before) by the kangaroo People’s Court for undermining the war effort. (“Wehrkraftzersetzung” — German has a word for everything.)

Like her brother, Elfriede was a staunch opponent of the Nazi government, and in 1943 that could certainly have sufficed to get her a one-way trip to Plotzensee Prison.

But Roland Freisler‘s verdict explicitly referenced (German link) her more famous brother — upon whom the Nazis would have poured out an interwar era’s worth of fury had they been able to get to him in America.

Ihr Bruder ist uns entwischt, aber Sie werden uns nicht entwischen! (Your brother is beyond our reach, but you will not escape us!

Though Erich Maria Remarque and Adolf Hitler had served together at the Third Battle of Ypres, they didn’t quite see eye to eye after the Great War.

Remarque’s immortal anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front was banned and burned by war-glorifying Nazis (they also said Remarque was of Jewish descent, apparently without any factual basis).

Erna, Elfriede and Erich Remark — the author later restored an ancestral spelling of his name that had been Germanized in the 19th century — in happier times.

Remarque left Germany, an intellectual celebrity and man-about-town who rubbed shoulders with the likes of Marlene Dietrich (with whom he had a passionate affair) and Ernest Hemingway (with whom he did not).

The Nazis stripped his citizenship, and fumed that they couldn’t get their jackboots on him. (At one point, Goebbels invited Remarque to return. Sly.)

But Elfriede, they could get. She had stayed in her native Germany with her husband and family.

Not content with taking her head off, Berlin added a particularly vicious twist by billing the expatriate author 90 marks for the executioner’s trouble.

The author never said or wrote much about Elfriede, even his diaries. But years later, Erich Remarque dedicated his novel about life in a concentration camp, Spark of Life, to his late sister. Today, there’s a street named for Elfriede in the Remarques’ native Osnabruck.

More about Remarque at the German (but the site is multilingual) Erich Maria Remarque-Friedenszentrum and this online exhibit from New York University.

Better still, here’s the 1930 film version of All Quiet on the Western Front — that year’s Academy Award winner as Best Picture.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,Murder,Notably Survived By,Wartime Executions,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1944: Eight July 20 plotters

21 comments August 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Nazi Germany’s juridical vengeance against Hitler’s near-assassins commenced.

Barely two weeks after Col. Stauffenberg‘s bomb had barely missed slaying the Fuhrer, eight of his principal co-conspirators stood show trials at the Volksgerichtshof (People’s Court) before hectoring prig Roland Freisler.

The outcome, of course, was foreordained.

Apparently orders had come down from on high to make the deaths as degrading as possible; this batch, convicted August 7-8, was hanged naked this day at Berlin’s Plotzensee Prison on thin cord (piano wire, say some sources, although it’s not clear to me whether this is literally true) suspended from meathooks while cameras rolled. Video and stills from the ghastly scene were shipped back to Hitler’s bomb-damaged Polish outpost for the edification of the powers that be.

The eight fitted for those nooses were:

Many hundreds more would follow, both at Plotzensee and throughout the Reich where persons distantly connected to the plotters and various miscellaneous resistance figures were swept up in the purge.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Politicians,Soldiers,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1944: Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, for the plot to kill Hitler

27 comments July 21st, 2008 Headsman

Minutes after midnight this date in 1944, four senior Wehrmacht officers who had come within an ace of murdering Adolf Hitler less than 12 hours earlier were summarily shot in Berlin — the first of thousands executed for the most famous assassination attempt on the Fuhrer.

One of those rare moments where historical epochs (arguably) turn on the minutest exigencies of chance, the so-called July 20 plot had seen Col. Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg insinuate a bomb into Hitler’s conference room in modern-day eastern Poland, then fly back to Berlin to mount a coup d’etat.

Blam

Stauffenberg had every reason as he left Wolfsschanze to believe the devastating blast at 12:42 p.m. must have killed the Nazi dictator. Little did he know that another officer at the table where the high command was plotting strategy for the eastern front had, in the name of legroom, shifted the deadly satchel to the other side of a heavy oak table support — shielding Hitler from the brunt of the explosion.

Four men died. Hitler had hearing loss, an injury to his right arm, and one hell of a grudge.

Stauffenberg weaseled out of the confused bunker and flew back to Berlin, expecting that his confederates were even then launching Operation Valkyrie — a contingency plan for martial law in the case of civic disturbance that the conspirators intended to use to mount a coup.

Failure to Communicate

Control and distribution of information was not the least of the many threads in the tapestry of July 20, 1944. Hitler had risen to power on his artful grasp of propaganda; today, his headquarters’ mastery of communications would overpower the putschists’ rank amateurism.

While en route, Stauffenberg had no ability to communicate to the wider world. Landing in Berlin three hours after the not-quite-deadly-enough blast at Wolfsschanze, he must have been stunned to find that Valkyrie had not been launched. Apparently, fragmentary reports from the east were unclear as to whether Hitler had survived; everyone was reluctant about committing himself.

Frantically, Stauffenberg — already deeply committed — rallied his comrades and set the treasonable gears into motion. But by this time, communications with Hitler’s headquarters had been re-established and contradictory reports of the assassination attempt’s success were flying in Berlin. Stauffenberg’s sincere but incorrect eyewitness testimony of Hitler’s death became increasingly untenable. Compounded by the sluggish and ill-coordinated action of the conspirators, officers of a more opportunist bent soon began lining up with the bad guys.

Joseph Goebbels, the senior Nazi in Berlin and Hitler’s wizard of public relations, was inexplicably left unmolested for hours — long enough to phone the radio station (also never seized) an announcement of Hitler’s survival. “To think that these revolutionaries weren’t even smart enough to cut the telephone wires! My little daughter would have thought of that.”

Conspirators’ orders to military units around Berlin went out late, piecemeal, and far too often fell on ears already deaf to the appeals. In some cases, the proclamations that should have been queued up for inundating the airwaves instantaneously were with some other officer not on the scene, and consequently were haphazardly redrafted on the fly — for telex operators who had caught the day’s drift themselves and intentionally delayed or ignored them.

From the perspective of a radio editor it was tragic. Tragic because the way in which details were handled made it obvious that this revolt had had very lithe chance of succeeding. (Source)

The coup fell apart almost as soon as it began.

Fromm Here to Eternity

Most decisively of all, timely information had prevented any participation by Gen. Friedrich Fromm, Stauffenberg’s commanding officer and the head of the Reserve Army — it was that position that allowed his aide access to Hitler’s person, and it was under his authority that the putschists were issuing their Valkyrie orders.

Fromm fell in the “opportunist” camp, and would have been ready to strike had the Fuhrer been demonstrably killed. But a telephone connection straight from the scene of the crime assured him that Hitler had survived … and that his adjutant was a wanted man.

Fromm the potential collaborator quickly turned the tables on Stauffenberg and company late on the night of the 20th.

The Schwein Abides

Before advancing to our heroes’ foreordained fate, take a moment to appreciate this newsreel rushed into production to assure the German public that everything was under control. It’s an impressive advance on statist slick-talking from Germany’s World War I clunkers (like this):

Notice Hitler greeting Mussolini — the two had been scheduled to meet that day; it would be their last encounter in this world. His maimed right arm hanging concealed beneath a greatcoat, Hitler shakes left-handed.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Now that Fromm saw which way the wind was blowing, he acted with alacrity: many executions in the days to come were the product of Hitler’s vengeance, but this night, Claus von Stauffenberg, Albrecht Mertz von Quirnheim, Friedrich Olbricht, and Werner von Haeften were shot on Fromm’s orders for Fromm’s benefit. Here’s Shirer’s description of the fatal scene:

Fromm … had quickly made up his mind to eliminate these men and not only to cover up the traces — for though he had refused to engage actively in the plot, he had known of it for months, sheltering the assassins and not reporting their plans — but to curry favor with Hitler as the man who put down the revolt. In the world of the Nazi gangsters it was much too late for this, but Fromm did not realize it.

He … announce[d] that “in the name of the Fuehrer” he had called a session of a “court-martial” (there is no evidence that he had) and that it had pronounced death sentences on four officers: “Colonel of the Genera Staff Mertz, General Olbricht, this colonel whose name I no longer know [Stauffenberg, his aide], and this lieutenant [Haeften].”

In the courtyard below in the dim rays of the blackout-hooded headlights of an Army car the four officers were quickly dispatched by a firing squad. Eyewitnesses say there was much tumult and shouting, mostly by the guards, who were in a hurry because of the danger of a bombing attack — British planes had been over Berlin almost every night that summer. Stauffenberg died crying, “Long live our sacred Germany!”

The courtyard of the Bendlerblock on modern-day Stauffenbergstrasse in Berlin, where Col. Stauffenberg and three compatriots were shot. Photo by Daniel Ullrich, licensed by CC-by-sa.

Minutes after they died, the SS arrived on the scene and forbade any further executions of potential witnesses.

Fromm’s gambit didn’t work any better than Stauffenberg’s had: he was arrested right away, and was himself later shot.

What If?

While the afternoon’s theatrics may have been doomed from the moment Hitler arose unkilled from the bomb’s debris, his miraculous escape from death — “confirmation of the task imposed upon me by Providence,” he told the nation in a radio address an hour after Stauffenberg’s execution — is an inexhaustible mine for historical hypothesizing.

That the bomb could have, and would have with the least change in the principle variables, slain the dictator is widely accepted; a 2005 reconstruction of the blast scene by the Discovery Channel supports that belief in the context of the cable-documentary-friendly format* of Adolf Hitler plus slow-mo explosives. (Parts 1, 2 and 3 of this series set up the episodes excerpted here with the plot’s historical background and the crew’s investigation into the precise dimensions of the blast space — a combination of file footage, modern recreation shots, talking heads, and tromping about the forest in the modern remains of Wolfsschanze.)

But that’s the easy what-if.

More problematic — and well into the realm of bar-stool dickering — are the questions of what would have happened if the explosive had hit its target.

Stauffenberg enjoys latter-day popularity in Germany — the street where he was shot bears his name — in no small measure because of the confessedly quixotic nature of the attempted murder. Indeed, he probably died at the height of his potential popularity for history.

But it’s not for nothing that this attempt (though it did have many botched antecedents) took place in the weeks when Germany’s military position went from desperate to disastrous. Over the preceding two months, Soviet offenses had pushed the front back to the prewar Polish border, and the Normandy landing had opened a rapidly expanding western front. The assassination had a healthy dose of self-interest … and therefore was at least potentially antithetical to other interests at play in the great conflagration.

The motivation of sparing the Fatherland the ravages of war on its own soil is not ignoble of itself, of course. But given this opposition circle’s years-long failure to take effective action against Hitler while he went from successful crime to successful crime, one might ask a little more than a late-breaking suicidal gambit for unreserved historical vindication.

The German military’s deal with the devil had seen Europe’s greatest armed forces squandered by its dumbest commander. The end result would bleed the Nazi state white at unspeakable human cost … but also, arguably, towards one of the better postwar outcomes imaginable.

And would the coup even have achieved the goal of leaving Germany unoccupied? It seems impossible to think that any outcome would have been worse than Hitler, and the last year of the war was also its bloodiest … but among the spectrum of counterfactual alternatives, the appealing possibilities mostly seem to work out in spite of the plotters, rather than because of them.

1. Civil War?

Countercoups, or even outright civil war, might very likely have erupted between rivals for succession. This might have worked out as the best-case situation — fragmenting German resistance and hastening the inevitable — but it might also have given Germany a leaner, meaner fascism with a path to enduring long-term. Predicting any particular arrangement of players to emerge from this black box is a just-so story, and any of them probably leads to one of the other three alternatives; certainly the plotters weren’t banking on their own subsequent overthrow.

2. Status Quo Ante?

The coup might have utterly failed to obtain peace. German was close to defeat; the Allies were demanding unconditional surrender, and the entire point of the plot was to surrender on better terms than that. Had no quarter been offered, the putschist government might then have fought on (either by choice, or by the compulsion of internal politics) to much the same end, although quite plausibly with much less gratuitous bloodletting in the camps. Accidentally abating the Holocaust would be a very significant plus, of course, but probably not what posterity has in mind when it goes naming streets for the man.

3. World War Against Russia?

The new government might have successfully made peace with the western Allies, which was its fervent hope. Under the circumstances of the summer of 1944, that practically implied the continuation of the global war with the capitalist and fascist powers aligning against the USSR. The horrors of the eastern front up to the summer of 1944 then would likely pale in comparison to what followed. You could tell the story so that it all works out in the end, but replacing the long Cold War with an immediate hot war, especially with the United States less than a year away from its first successful A-bomb test, isn’t exactly a presumptive improvement.

4. 1918 Redux?

In the all but unimaginable case that the post-Hitler government successfully sued for peace on both its fronts (or accepted unconditional surrender), it would have had to give up to a Soviet buffer zone much of what the Soviets ultimately conquered. Millions who died fighting for it, and millions more who died in concentration camps while the fighting played out, and millions of women raped by the conquering Red Army, would have considered that arrangement an improvement; still, the peace itself could have ensconced a less crazy and therefore more durable military dictatorship in central Europe, which wouldn’t necessarily seem like an altogether positive outcome vis-a-vis the actual postwar history. More worryingly, this might have horribly recapitulated the post-World War I scenario in which the liberal politicians who accepted defeat, and not the crazed reactionaries who caused it, were blamed for the loss, fueling the subsequent rise of some unattractive revanchist successor state. Precisely because that example would have been uppermost in the officers’ own minds, it’s hard to believe this least-bloodthirsty path would have been the actual consequence of the coup.

And so on …

Second-order effects from any of these possibilities generate a novelist’s trove of alternative histories. What would the map of eastern Europe have looked like? Whither European Jewry … and therefore the postwar state of Israel … and therefore the political chessboard in the Middle East? What would an early resolution in Europe have meant for the Pacific theater, or for the Chinese revolution? How would decolonization movements have been affected had the war concluded earlier, or had it transformed into a worldwide anti-Communist war?

Postscript

Somewhere in those alternate realities, staff at the re-education camp are bantering over happy hour about what would have happened if Stauffenberg had failed.

Who knows if “internally peacable European social democracies” are a bullet point for the pie-eyed optimists, or the incorrigible pessimists?

A few of the books about Stauffenberg and Operation Valkyrie

Poor Col. Stauffenberg is due to be played by a smirking Tom Cruise in the biopic Valkyrie, a role that has drawn some slightly overheated controversy in Germany over Cruise’s adherence to Scientology.

* And, let’s face it, blog-friendly, too.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Germany,History,No Formal Charge,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Poland,Political Expedience,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Treason,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1941: Maurice Bavaud, who couldn’t get a shot off

3 comments May 14th, 2008 Headsman

Early this morning in 1941, a Swiss theology student had his head cut off at Berlin’s Plotzensee Prison for plotting to kill Adolph Hitler.

Maurice Bavaud, 25 at his execution, cuts one of the more quixotic (the link is French) of the many figures who schemed Hitler’s death — and also one of the more affecting, for at this early date he might have spared Europe most of the great war’s horror.

But Bavaud was also, fundamentally, a poor assassin.

Apparently motivated by pique at Germany’s repression of Catholicism — he’s most commonly cast as a lone gunmen, although there are also theories that he was affiliated with a wider network of students — Bavaud slipped into Germany in 1938 and spent the ensuing weeks knocking around Bavaria looking for a chance to do the thing.

That November, the chancellor turned up for the 15th anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch* … to which Bavaud secured VIP seating. The aspiring assassin had only a low-caliber pistol, but as the Fuhrer passed his vicinity, a copse of saluting arms from the spectators around him obstructed any chance to shoot. November 9, 1938 instead became famous for other reasons.

One can appreciate at this juncture the young man’s discouragement and desire to leave Germany. One can understand that, penniless, he felt obliged to sneak aboard a passenger train. But one will strain very hard to imagine why even the most desperate straits should impel a man to do either of these things while still carrying the incriminating pistol and notes revealing his plans. When he was nabbed for skipping the fare, his situation quickly became catastrophic, with the help of Gestapo torturers. (One can see, in Bavaud’s own hand, a 1940 letter to his family informing them of his sentence here.)

Switzerland essentially exerted no diplomatic effort on behalf of their subject, and this fact informed the Swiss courts which, years after the war, posthumously reduced Bavaud’s sentence. Germany eventually paid reparations to the family of the man who tried to off their head of state.

Update: Maurice Bavaud has been officially rehabilitated by Switzerland.

* He wasn’t even the best failed Hitler assassin in the Bürgerbräukeller that day.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Notable for their Victims,Posthumous Exonerations,Ripped from the Headlines,Switzerland,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1944: Galeazzo Ciano and four other Italian Fascists

11 comments January 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Benito Mussolini had his son-in-law, the politician Galeazzo Ciano, shot for treason outside the gates of Verona along with four other fascists who had abandoned Mussolini.

A glamorous playboy in public life, Ciano was the scion of a wealthy fascist founder. The youth wed Mussolini’s eldest daughter in 1930 and quickly ascended the party’s ranks, becoming Foreign Minister at the tender age of 33.

Ciano’s treachery, and that of the others seated in chairs and shot from behind on this day, was to have voted with the majority of the Fascist Grand Council for deposing Mussolini as Allied attacks thrust Italy into a desperate position. This confused affair lacked the character of a coup d’etat, but Mussolini was indeed placed under arrest the next day and a separate peace concluded with the Allies in early September.

Soon after, an audacious German glider raid freed Mussolini, who was quickly re-installed as head of a Nazi puppet state in northern Italy.

Ciano’s capture by this body set in motion a final personal drama with implications for later students of the Second World War. Edda Ciano escaped to Switzerland with her husband’s diaries — potentially damaging notes on the machinations of the Axis.

These scribblings she took hostage for the life of her husband. The blackmail was not accepted — to the grief of Edda, who never spoke to her father again.

One final quixotic rescue attempt cooked up by a female SS administrator on Ciano’s guard detail — the last of many women drawn to this charismatic man — foundered; the preordained death sentence came down on January 10th, and the men were shot the next morning.* Mussolini reportedly fretted in the small hours of the night over whether his standing in Hitler’s eyes would suffer should he intervene.

Edda had the diaries published as she threatened, and if they exposed scant novel evidence against his German and Italian compatriots, they offer a window upon diplomatic intrigue and personal relationships within the Pact of Steel.

The last entries were written from prison just three weeks before his execution, and (allowing that by that time the author had reason to lay blame for policy missteps explicitly at Mussolini’s door) the protracted effort they describe to steer the impulsive Duce towards some sane foreign policy — something that might have spared Italy the devastation of war and maintained a fascist government, as Spain managed to do — reads almost farcically in retrospect. Italy could make little material contribution to the war, and probably had as much to fear from Hitler in victory as from the Allies in defeat … but at every turn, Hitler’s inspiring star pulled the Italian dictator away from realpolitik and towards romantic catastrophe.

As the invasion of Poland approached, for instance, Ciano watched Mussolini vacillate on whether to cast his lot irrevocably with Hitler.

The Duce’s reactions are varied. At first he agrees with me [not to commit to war]. Then he says that honor compels him to march with Germany. Finally, he states that he wants his part of the booty in Croatia and Dalmatia.

Like World War II’s every nook and cranny, the Italian experience bestrode by Ciano has received eager literary coverage.

Edda and Galeazzo Ciano’s son Fabrizio also wrote a personal memoir entitled Quando il nonno fece fucilare papa (“When Grandpa had Daddy Shot”).

* Four of the five were only wounded by the initial volley, and the fifth was missed altogether; all were dispatched with a coup de grace.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Famous,Famous Last Words,Germany,Italy,Mature Content,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Shot,Treason,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

1944: Lilo Gloeden, Erich Gloeden and Elisabeth Kuznitzky

2 comments November 30th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Berlin housewife Elisabeth “Lilo” Gloeden was beheaded with an axe in Plotzensee Prison, along with her husband and mother.

They had been sentenced — and intentionally made an example of — just three days before for hiding a fugitive from the July 20 Plot to assassinate Hitler.

As Martin Gilbert observes in The Second World War: A Complete History, the fury of Hitler’s domestic crackdown came in inverse proportion to Germany’s fortunes in war.

[The family’s] fate was then publicized, as a warning to anyone else who might try to shelter the enemies of the Third Reich.

The fate of that Reich could not, however, be seriously in doubt. On the day of Lilo Gloeden’s execution, American troops drove the Germans from Mackwiller, in the Saar, inside Germany’s pre-war frontier. In Hungary, the Red Army entered Eger, less than twenty-five miles from the central Slovak frontier.

Part of the Themed Set: Women Against Fascism.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Power,Treason,Wartime Executions,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Next Posts


Calendar

August 2022
M T W T F S S
« Nov    
1234567
891011121314
15161718192021
22232425262728
293031  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!