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: Not Fabian von Schlabrendorff, saved by a bomb

12 comments February 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1945, July 20 plotter Fabian von Schlabrendorff was on his way to a certain death sentence at the hands of the German Volksgerichtshof.

Asshole jurist Roland Freisler

The outcome in the kangaroo court for anyone involved in the previous year’s near-miss bomb attack on Hitler was foreordained. Just the day before, the movement’s ineffectual but conscientious political statesman Carl Goerdeler had hanged for it.

But a funny thing happened to the lawyer and reserve officer Schlabrendorff on the way to the gallows.

As he awaited this date his tongue-lashing and inevitable condemnation at the hands of the vituperative Nazi judge Roland Freisler, a bombing raid led by Jewish future Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Rosenthal struck the People’s Court — killing not the prisoner, but the judge, who was reportedly found still clutching his prey’s file.

“It is God’s verdict” was the succinct epitaph issued by a worker at the hospital where they raced his body, and nobody cared to dispute the subversive remark.

Hysterically badgering defenseless prisoners in farcical show trials, ostentatiously obeisant to the Reich, and personally responsible for thousands of executions, Freisler was a hard guy to admire. His role model for courtroom demeanor was supposed to be the ruthless purge trials of the Soviets.*

(Freisler also attended the Wannsee Conference, where Reinhard Heydrich organized the Final Solution. What a guy.)

In the confusion of the bomb blast, Schlabrendorff was hustled off to detention un-sentenced, and spent the last months of the war being shifted from one concentration camp to the next. The Third Reich — and admittedly, it had a few other things on its mind in those days — neglected to kill him, trial or no.

Schlabrendorff went on to become a West German constitutional court judge, though in this career he could hardly be as memorable as his onetime persecutor.

That Schlabrendorff miraculously escaped the war with his life thanks to a timely explosion was a particular irony: Hitler had once unwittingly been preserved from a Schlabrendorff assassination attempt by a bomb that failed to detonate.

In a March 1943 attempt on Hitler’s life, Schlabrendorff himself had passed one of Hitler’s entourage a package supposedly containing two bottles of cognac for delivery to another officer. In fact, the package was meant to blow up Hitler’s plane.

When [Hitler] was boarding the plane I started the mechanism of the delayed-action bomb … timed to explode within half an hour. At a sign from Tresckow, I handed the parcel to Colonel Brandt,** the member of Hitler’s escort who had promised to take it. It was a great nervous strain to remain quiet at this juncture.

After more than two hours of waiting, we got the shattering news that Hitler had landed safely …

We were stunned and could not imagine the cause of the failure … even worse would be the discovery of the bomb, which would unfailingly lead to our detection and the death of a wide circle of close collaborators.

After considerable reflection Tresckow resolved to ring up Colonel Brandt at Hitler’s headquarters and ask whether the parcel for General Stieff had already been delivered. Brandt replied that it was still in his keeping. This gave us hope that the bomb had not been discovered. Its delivery had to be prevented by all means. So Tresckow asked him to keep the parcel. He added there had been some mistake. I would call on him the following day to exchange the parcel, as I had anyway to go on official business to headquarters in East Prussia.

On some military pretext, I flew to Headquarters with the regualr messenger plane. I called on Colonel Brandt and exchanged a parcel containing two bottles of brandy for the one containing the bomb.

I can still recall my horror when the man, unaware of what he held, smilingly handed me the bomb and gave it a jerk that made me fear a belated explosion. Feigning a composure I did not feel, I took the bomb, immediately got into a car, and drove to the neighboring railway junction of Korschen. From there a sleeper train left for Berlin in the evening.

At Korschen, I got into a reserved compartment, locked the door, and … dismantled the bomb … The mechanism had worked; the small bottle had broken; the corrosive fluid had consumed the wire; the striker had hit forward; but — the detonator had not fired.

* Not the only ostpolitik admiration the Nazis showed for their battlefield foes’ ruthlessness; Hitler, similarly, applauded (sometimes envied) Stalin’s 1930s purge of the officer corps.

** This Heinz Brandt, too, has another unwitting part left to play in the story of the German resistance: it was he who, on July 20, 1944, moved Col. Stauffenberg’s deadly parcel behind an oaken table support, preserving Hitler from the bomb’s worst effects. Brandt died in that explosion.

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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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1878: Max Hödel

4 comments August 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1878, journeyman tinsmith Max Hödel was beheaded in Berlin’s New Prison for taking a potshot at Kaiser Wilhelm I.

Nothing daunted by the prospect of trading his life for an 81-year-old* man’s, this propagandist of the deed tried to kill the conservative German emperor in May of 1878. He missed his target, but killed a bystander.

(Hodel’s cover story that he was just trying to blow his own brains out, not shoot the emperor, was belied by a number of hints he had given to others prior to the attack — e.g., telling a photographer who took his picture that the photo would soon be worth thousands.)

Just weeks after Hodel’s miss, another unsuccessful attempt to kill the emperor was undertaken by Karl Nobiling. Though Nobiling died of self-inflicted injuries, Hodel had to make do with decapitation.

Reichstag fire-like, these two outrages provided the Reich sufficient pretext to outlaw the Social Democratic Party** — even though the gunmen were much more radical types than this. (Hodel himself had previously been booted from the SDP.)

Germans having taken a front-row seat to the Paris Commune just a few years before, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had no intention of allowing radical organizing of any variety to pick up any steam.

Coincidentally, our day’s protagonist shares an execution date with the next generation’s (better) anarchist assassin, Sante Geronimo Caserio — guillotined 16 Aug. 1894 for killing the French president.

* And he was right: nature didn’t take its course with Kaiser Wilhelm for nine more years; he missed outliving his own son and heir by a mere three months.

** Engels — writing polemically, of course — reckons over 11,000 political prisoners arrested from 1879 to 1880 alone.

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1942: Eleven members of the Red Orchestra

Add comment December 22nd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1942, eleven members* of a Berlin-based anti-Nazi resistance circle were executed at Plotzensee Prison — five by hanging, six by guillotine.

These members of the group organized around leftist Luftwaffe communications officer Harro Schulze-Boysen and intellectual Arvid Harnack were one of three Soviet intelligence nodes all of whom were confusingly designated Die Rote Kapelle.

That designation, assigned by Nazi intelligence rather than the networks themselves, has basically stuck and colored their postwar reputation with the anti-Communist politics of the Cold War.


Red affiliations that blackened Die Rote Kapelle’s memory west of the Berlin wall were more readily embraced by the Warsaw Pact. This East German stamp also honors John Sieg, a member of the circle who committed suicide upon his arrest.

And not only in retrospect: according to Gerald Reitlinger, the capture of known lefties misbehaving became the occasion of a McCarthyesque freakout full of internal political score-settling among the Nazis.

The affair of Burgess and Maclean will give some idea what capital can be made when someone with a leftish record enters and betrays a position of trust. The emotions roused are out of all proportion to the things that have been betrayed. [German military intelligence chief Wilhelm] Canaris declared that the conspiracy had cost the lives of 200,000 German soldiers.

While the cells in France/Belgium and Switzerland also covered by the “Red Orchestra” designation look like straight NKVD espionage operations, the Berliners were apparently more of a loose network of civilian dissidents who got pulled into (amateurish) spying as a part of their variety of quixotic protests from the very citadel of the Third Reich. When not nicking sensitive documents from Schulze-Boysen’s day job and haplessly attempting to ship them to the Russians, they made futile White Rose-like gestures of conscience, like anti-Nazi placarding under the cover of darkness, and more calculated stuff, like collecting war crimes evidence in the hopes of indicting their perpetrators after the war.

Well, what is one supposed to do as an anti-Nazi in Berlin in 1941?

And what if one is in a position to answer that question with, “provide effectual aid to the enormous army poised to destroy Hitler”?

Anne Nelson’s Red Orchestra: The Story of the Berlin Underground and the Circle of Friends Who Resisted Hitler (review | another) attempts to rehabilitate the Berlin circle from postwar red-smearing and underscore the everyday-ness of the participants (not all of them politically left) and the courage of their respective decisions to oppose Hitler actively.

Nelson’s book is new, but her argument is not unique.

Other books also titled Red Orchestra (Perrault, Tarrant | review of both) more strongly emphasize the commie-taskmaster dimension in what by any standard is thrilling real-life fare.

The German Resistance Memorial Center has salutes to the Red Orchestra’s members, networks and activities.

* Arvid Harnack’s American wife Mildred, initially condemned only to a prison term for her part in the Orchestra, had her sentence upgraded and followed her comrades’ fate on February 16, 1942.

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1950: Werner Gladow, teen Capone

2 comments December 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1950On November 10, 1950?, 19-year-old gangster Werner Gladow was beheaded in East Germany for his brief but scintillating criminal career terrorizing the postwar ruins of Berlin.

Werner Gladow

Young Gladow (German link) was just young enough not to get drafted as cannon-meat for the Red Army at the end of World War II, and just old enough to forge his own way as a crimelord when his conscripted dad returned from a Russian prison camp and started whaling on the family.

Evidently, the boy had charisma to burn.

Gladow soon gathered to his service a couple dozen young people doing a brisk business in black marketeering, stickup robberies, and kindred underworld phenomena, very soon to include homicide. He was a quintessential creature of the war-ravaged (but not yet wall-divided) capital, ducking between the city’s uncoordinated, rival jurisdictions for refuge.* The Gladow-bande‘s typical m.o. was a robbery in West Berlin, followed by flight to their base in the east.

There’s an interesting literature around Werner Gladow, who seems in his day to have epitomized to elders that eternal fear of the degenerate youth culture. His generation’s conception of youthful rebellion was warped by the World War it had survived, and the occupation it lived under. According to John Borneman,

Stealing had become a routinized, everyday activity; for the parents, it was a source of guilt, for the children, it was neither work nor play, but pleasure … Their economic activity led to increased autonomy and self-esteem. Adult attempts to discipline the children with a now-discredited moral authority, enforced by local civilian police or foreign occupation troops, were unlikely to have much success.

A sort of “freedom of the road,” in the old highwayman‘s sense.

Gladow, in turn, found his inspiration for this freedom in pop culture inputs like gangland movies (he’d make it to celluloid himself). Self-consciously self-styled after Chicago mobster Al Capone and resolved to become “an American-style gangster,”** Gladow would exude to a court psychologist “a psychopathological drive for freedom and unboundedness.”

Taking a Cut

Former Berlin executioner and Gladow accessory Gustav Voelpel (Ministry of Silly Masks department) served time, as did Voelpel’s wife Martha.

If our young Capone wanted a preview of his short life’s final destination, he had it readily at hand in the person of supposed assistant Berlin executioner Gustav Voelpel.

Voelpel claimed to have taken off a mere 30 heads from 1945 to 1949, a drastic falloff in business from the good old Hitler days, and

At 1,000 marks a head, I can scarcely make both ends meet.

So, he too turned to crime, with both an independent portfolio (he was nicked for robbing a woman with his mask for a disguise) and as an informant/tipster for the Gladow gang. Voelpel, papers reported,

preferred to use the axe in his executions as the guillotine was likely to jam after the second or third victim, whereas he never missed with an axe.

And Werner Gladow ought to have asked him about that, too.

German Engineering

We mentioned that Gladow’s base was in East Berlin.

Unfortunately for Gladow, this meant that when he was finally tracked down at his apartment just after his 18th birthday — his 48-year-old mother was with him, firing from the windows — he enjoyed the rough justice of the Russian administration, married to the political exigencies of using the “youth amok” trope as a club to beat the West with.

East and West German officials, like authorities in the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich, grew increasingly worried about the impact that American movies, jazz, and boogie-woogie had on German youth … East German authorities made highly publicized efforts to exploit hostilities toward American culture that existed in East and West Germany. During the 1950 trial of Werner Gladow, whose gang had engaged in a crime spree across East and West Berlin … officials and the press linked American culture directly to juvenile delinquency and political deviance.

Jazz, Rock, and Rebels: Cold War Politics and American Culture in a Divided Germany

Setting a stern example for future ne’er-do-wells, Gladow was beheaded in Frankfurt an der Oder† on the fallbeil, the German guillotine (literally “falling axe”).

According to the German Wikipedia account, the fallbeil actually failed to kill Werner Gladow the first time, and had to be re-dropped two more times. Wikipedia has the blade grotesquely lodging in the prisoner’s neck (non-fatally; he started screaming), which must have indicated some problem with the motion or lubrication of the mechanism that prevented its falling at speed, and/or an appallingly blunt blade.

Gladow’s prosecutor, present to witness the festivities, fainted dead away. Unlike Gladow, he was alive again the next morning.

* More here.

** Gladow’s own words as quoted in a press report of his trial in the Chicago Daily Tribune, March 25, 1950.

† Far to the east, near the Polish border; not to be confused with the western metropolis Frankfurt am Main.

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1943: Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, conscientious objector

1 comment August 9th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1943, an Austrian farmer was beheaded in Berlin’s Plotzensee Prison for refusing to fight for the Third Reich.

Franz Jägerstätter, who lost his own father in World War I, was anschlussed right into the Third Reich when Germany absorbed Austria in 1938.

In Solitary Witness is the aptly-titled biography of the man; though his fatal refusal of mandatory military service (and his critique of Nazi Germany) sprang from his deep-rooted Catholicism, it was far from the norm for his German-Catholic neighbors.

“We must go courageously on the way of suffering,” he wrote, “whether we begin sooner or later.” Somewhat oddly neglected as a martyr figure in the immediate postwar period, Jagerstatter was recently beatified by Pope Benedict XVI — a German himself, of course, who did not refuse his tiny measure of youthful service to the Wehrmacht in those years, and who assuredly grasps the untapped public relations potential of this compelling figure.


An icon of Franz Jagerstatter, and a naked Nazi imp.

Jagerstatter’s widow is still alive; she and her children movingly keep Franz’s memory to this day — and his example continues to inspire Catholics who go the way of suffering today against war and injustice.

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1941: Paul Ogorzow, the S-Bahn Murderer

1 comment July 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Nazi Berlin disposed of its railway killer.

Roger Moorhouse, author of a forthcoming book about Ogorzow, tells the story of this unjustly neglected homicidal maniac on his blog, and in a BBC History Magazine interview:

[audio:http://content.bbcmagazinesbristol.com/bbchistory/audio/BBC_History_May09_Pt2.mp3]

Paul Ogorzow (German link) plied his trade in a city blacked-out against British bombing, but he provides an illuminating glimpse at criminal investigation.

While Ogorzow benefited from Berlin’s preternatural darkness, he didn’t go greatly out of his way to cover his tracks otherwise. At least four of his eight murders were within a mile of his house; one woman who survived his attack reported the assailant was wearing German Railways kit.

The police, prone then as now to (sometimes hastily) settle on a theory and seek evidence to confirm it, remained blind to the seemingly obvious possibility that a railway worker was the culprit … even if he also happened to be a Nazi party member in good standing.

The official fixation on Untermenschen may not be surprising given the ideological climate, but Germany had had its share of noteworthy murderers in the interwar years who were neither Jews nor foreign laborers nor British agents — the suspect profiles favored by German investigators while Ogorzow continued his killing spree.

With the slightest measure of care, the S-Bahn Murderer might have plied his hobby unmolested until the wartime manpower shortages started making him look like an attractive bit of cannon-fodder for the eastern front. Alas for him, his voracious appetite for murder — eight victims with similar m.o. in just a few months — eventually made him so obvious that even the police could no longer overlook him.

Although the government kept the crime and its unedifying investigation fairly quiet, it was known. There was even a 1944 true crime potboiler by Wilhelm Ihde (pseudonymously writing as “Axel Alt”), Der Tod fuhr im Zug (Death Rode the Train). According to Todd Herzog,

Alt’s novel is representative of the dominant tendency of the period to celebrate the work of the criminal police while avoiding any portrayal of the totalitarian apparatus that surrounded criminal politics in the Third Reich.

Little surprise there.

Alt’s novel ultimately aligns itself with [Fritz] Lang’s film [M] in showing the methodical work of professional detectives to be ineffective in capturing the modern killer and explicitly calling for … recruitment of the public to aid the police in fighting crime.

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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

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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

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