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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Germany,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Judges,Last Minute Reprieve,Lawyers,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Power,Soldiers,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1887: Parsons, Spies, Fischer and Engel, the Haymarket Martyrs

10 comments November 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1887, the Chicago political machine hanged four at Cook County Jail to defend civilization from the eight-hour day.

The Haymarket martyrs, as they would be remembered ere the hysterical atmosphere of their sentencing had passed, were four from a group of eight anarchist agitators rounded up when a never-identified person threw a bomb at Chicago police breaking up a peaceful rally. The bomb killed one cop; the indiscriminate police shooting that followed killed several more in friendly fire, plus an uncertain number of civilians.

The incident occurred just days after nationwide strikes began on May 1, 1886, in support of the eight-hour day. Nowhere were the tensions greater than Chicago, an epicenter of militant organizing. When tens of thousands poured into the streets on May 1, the Chicago Mail darkly said of high-profile radicals Albert Parsons and August Spies,

Mark them for today. Hold them responsible for any trouble that occurs. Make an example of them if trouble does occur.

Sure enough …

Most of the eight hadn’t even been present at the time the bomb was thrown, but the state put anarchism itself on trial under the capacious umbrella of “conspiracy,” in a proceeding so absurdly rigged that a relative of a slain cop was on the jury. Quoth the prosecutor,

Law is upon trial. Anarchy is on trial. These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury and indicted because they were leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousand who follow them. Gentlemen of the jury; convict these men, make examples of them, hang them and save our institutions, our society.

That was the argument for hanging them. And right-thinking burghers applauded it.

Seven of the eight were condemned to die; two had their sentences commuted, but the other five refused to ask for clemency on the grounds that, innocent, they would “demand either liberty or death.” One of those five, Louis Lingg, painfully cheated the hangman by setting off a blasting cap in his mouth the night before his execution. (Lingg might have made, though seemingly not thrown, the mysterious bomb.)

The others — Parsons and Spies, along with Adolph Fischer and George Engel — hanged together, with their epitaphs upon their lips — literally so for Parsons, whose parting remark is at the base of the Haymarket Martyrs Monument*

“The time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.”

“Throttle” was right, as the Chicago Tribune reported the next day, taking up when the trap was sprung:

Then begins a scene of horror that freezes the blood. The loosely-adjusted nooses remain behind the left ear and do not slip to the back of the neck. Not a single neck is broken, and the horrors of a death by strangulation begin.

Six years later, Illinois Gov. John Altgeld granted the free pardon the hanged men had demanded to the three surviving Haymarket anarchists. There is no institutional mechanism to determine erroneous executions in American jurisprudence — a fact that occasionally leads to smugly circular avowals that nobody recently executed has ever been “proven” innocent — and death penalty researchers Michael Radelet and Hugo Bedau believed as of this 1998 paper (pdf) that Altgeld’s executive statement flatly asserting the injustice of the Haymarket convictions was the most recent official acknowledgment of a wrongful execution in U.S. history. If true, its uniqueness would be understandable: the gesture cost Altgeld his political career.

Long gone as all these principals are, the legacy of Haymarket remains very much with us, and not just as a magnet for digital archives like this, this and this (don’t miss the brass gallows pin).

May 1, now rich with the symbolism of the Haymarket Passion, was soon selected by the international labor movement as the date to resume the eight-hour-day push — thus becoming the global workers’ holiday it remains to this day.

* Opposing interpretations of the Haymarket affair — which can be the “Haymarket riot” or the “Haymarket massacre,” depending on where you line up — were marked by opposing memorials. The police memorial was itself eventually bombed by the Weather Underground, and subsequently squirreled away from easy public view. Paradoxically, the Haymarket Martyrs Monument has been federally dignified as a National Historic Landmark.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Cheated the Hangman,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Freethinkers,Hanged,History,Illinois,Infamous,Innocent Bystanders,Martyrs,Murder,Not Executed,Notable Jurisprudence,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Terrorists,USA,Wrongful Executions

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