1909: William Hampton, Cornwall ghost

Add comment July 20th, 2019 Headsman

The last man executed in Cornwall, William Hampton, hanged in Bodmin on this date in 1909.

Hampton was in the awkward position of making time with a 16-year-old girl whose mother he was boarding with, and then having the girl break things off with him.

Probably a change of lodgings would have suited all best, but Hampton moved to Bodmin Jail by throttling poor Emily Tredea to death one night that May. The exact trigger for the murder was never clear, as the eventual murderer had been living amicably in the house for a spell even after Tredea’s breakup. The jury recommended mercy for Hampton on account of his youth, his lack of previous criminal record, and a crime that appeared to be at least somewhat heat-of-the-moment. The judge made the contrary recommendation on account of Hampton’s having spent several minutes to choke out his ex-girlfriend, then fled from the law, showing some degree of intent and mens rea. The judge’s recommendation carried the day with the Home Office.

Apparently his revenant spirit has been captured on camera haunting Bodmin Jail.

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1934: William Bayly, bad neighbor

Add comment July 20th, 2018 Headsman

New Zealand farmer William Bayly or Bayley hanged at Auckland’s Mount Eden Prison on this date in 1934 as the world’s worst neighbor.

They never did find the body of his victim, Sam Lakey, but the two sheep farmers “hated each other. ‘You won’t see the next season out, Lakey!’ yelled Bayly, which was just one of the dozens of dire threats they exchanged.” (This according to a True Crime Library profile.)

Lots of folks make tall talk when their blood is up but Bayly had the courage of his ill-considered machismo and not only offed Sam but Sam’s wife Christobel as well — staging a wife-murder + suicide hypothesis by dumping Mrs. Lakey and the murder weapon into a swamp, while incinerating Sam Lakey in a benzine drum. Unfortunately for him, the killer was such an obvious suspect* that his property became an immediate target for search, and human remains were found before all could be disposed of. Bayly would argue his innocence all the way to the gallows, but at trial he had no defense to present.

The Lakeys had no relatives to claim their remains; they were only properly reburied in 2015.

* There were also suspicions that Bayly might have killed his cousin years earlier.

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1768: Francesco Arcangeli, Winckelmann-Mörder

Add comment July 20th, 2016 Headsman

For murdering German Enlightenment intellectual Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Habsburg Trieste on this date in 1768 inflicted a breaking-wheel execution straight out of antiquity.

A Saxon cobbler’s son, Winckelmann (German Wikipedia link) showed academic aptitude from youth and spent his twenties reading theology and medicine at the Universities of Halle and of Jena while he tutored to pay the bills. This scuffling scholar got his big break when his gifts were noticed by the visiting papal nuncio, who recruited him to court service in Rome on condition of his conversion to Catholicism — a spiritual epiphany which dovetailed perfectly with his growing interest in art and drew him to Italy. (pdf)

Winckelmann traveled and read widely in Italy. He was a great admirer of the restrained classical Grecian aesthetic whose celebrated exemplars were being unearthed throughout the Mediterranean world;* some papers he wrote during the 1760s are regarded as seminal documents in the study of art history and of archaeology, and he in turn became a celebrity intellectual sought-after in the salons of visiting art-fanciers.

Having begun so mean and climbed so very high, Winckelmann was set up for golden years savoring the view from the pinnacle — but he was never destined to receive them.

Taking ill on a trip with friend and fellow classicist Bartolomeo Cavaceppi in 1768, Winckelmann tapped out and returned alone to Trieste where he shared a room at a seaside hotel** with a chance acquaintance of the road: our post’s subject, Francesco Arcangeli. (German Wikipedia again)

Arcangeli, it turned out, was a thief who had already been expelled from Vienna and now compounded his villainy by throttling and stabbing Winckelmann. Though the wounds were mortal, Winckelmann lived on for several hours in full command of his senses, evenly providing every bit of information that would be needed to avenge his murder. The self-evident inference of robbery forms Arcangeli’s accepted motive, but alternative hypotheses have attracted attention over the years: in particular, Winckelmann is thought to have been homosexual, so it’s possible their shared lodging was really an assignation that went very bad; more exotic is the idea that Winckelmann was intentionally assassinated further to some inscrutable plot among Vatican rivals or art cognoscenti.

A Winckelmann Society in the man’s hometown of Stendal, Germany maintains its native son’s scholarly focus on classical antiquity. Readers of German might also appreciate Goethe’s essay on the man.

* Notably, the excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum had only just begun in 1748; Winckelmann visited the sites.

** It’s the present-day Grand Hotel Duchi d’Aosta.

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1934: Not Walter Lett, To Kill a Mockingbird inspiration

4 comments July 20th, 2015 Headsman

July 20, 1934 was the third and last of Walter Lett’s scheduled execution dates for raping a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama.

A thirty-something ex-convict, Lett’s protestations of innocence stood little chance against the word of a white woman named Naomi Lowery, herself a penniless drifter.

Lett was almost lynched but despite his certain condemnation there was something wrong about this case — something discomfiting even for Monroeville’s worthies. We have seen elsewhere in these pages that a rape accusation was a powerful weapon on the ambiguous fringes of the color line. Just three years before this story, nine black teens had been accused of a rape on an Alabama train, and the legal odyssey of these Scottsboro Boys would dominate headlines during the Depression.

“It may have been that [Lett] and Lowery were lovers, or that she was involved with another Negro man,” one author put it. “If a white woman became pregnant under those circumstances, it was not uncommon for her to claim rape, or accuse someone other than her lover.”

Records of this trial seem to have gone missing, but Lett’s claims had enough weight (and Lowery’s had little enough) to induce Monroeville’s elders to petition Gov. Benjamin Miller* against carrying out the electrocution. Miller reprieved Lett ahead of May 11 and June 20 execution dates: “I am of the opinion and conviction that there is much doubt as to the man being guilty,” Miller told the Montgomery Advertiser. Gov. Miller was so sure that Lett didn’t do it that before the man went to the chair on July 20, Miller decided instead to let him spend the rest of his life in prison for the thing he didn’t do.

We don’t have Walter Lett’s side of this story because the strain of his position drove him mad; when the sentence was commuted, he was transported from death row directly to a mental hospital, where he died of tuberculosis in 1937.

In his stead, we have a different voice: a Monroeville schoolgirl at the time of Lett’s trial named Harper Lee** would later channel the case’s undertones of racial injustice for her legendary (and, until recently, only) novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

In one of the famously retiring Lee’s few public comments on the book, she cited the Lett case as her model for the book’s fictional, and manifestly unjust, rape trial.

Lee’s father, A.C. Lee was the editor-publisher of the Monroeville Journal at the time of l’affaire Lett. But as a young lawyer, before Harper’s birth, Lee himself had once defended in court two men who wound up being hanged. An idealized† version of this man is the clear foundation for the defense attorney Atticus Finch in Lee’s book.

Charles Shields, whose 2006 biography of Harper Lee is quoted above on the indeterminate reason for the rape allegation, writes that the author “had a free hand to retell this macabre episode in her father’s life, which he always referred to in vague terms, no doubt because of the pain it caused him. (He never accepted another criminal case.) This time, under his daughter’s sensitive hand, A. C. Lee, in the character of Atticus Finch, could be made to argue in defense of Walter Lett, and his virtues as a humane, fair minded man would be honored.”

* Miller was an anti-Ku Klux Klan politician, a fact of possible relevance to his actions.

** Harper Lee’s childhood friend was Truman Capote, future author of In Cold Blood. (Lee traveled to Kansas with Capote and helped him research the murder case in question.) Alabama’s legislature has recognized Monroeville as the state’s literary capital.

† According to Shields, the real A.C. Lee was more of a gentleman, establishment segregationist: more like the warts-and-all Atticus Finch of Lee’s Go Set a Watchman than the saintly character played by Gregory Peck. In 1952-53, A.C. Lee helped to force out the pastor of the local First Methodist church over controversial pro-integration remarks from the pulpit. Rev. Ray Whatley’s post-Monroeville assignment took him to Montgomery, where he was president of a chapter of the Alabama Council on Human Relations while the young Rev. Martin Luther King was vice-president. Whatley was forced out of his Montgomery congregation, too: called “a liar, a communist, and a few other things” (Whatley’s words) for supporting the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They tried to reassign him to tiny Linden, Alabama, but townspeople there immediately rejected him and many stopped paying church tithes until he was shipped onward to Mobile.

See When the Church Bell Rang Racist by Donald Collins, who notes that Whatley’s anathema had a chilling effect on other white Methodist clergy — now clearly given to understand that there would be “a great price to be paid if a minister chose to speak out for racial justice.”

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1780: John Gamble, anti-Wilmot

Add comment July 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1780, three men were executed in London — John Gamble was hanged at Bethnal-Green, Samuel Solomons in Whitechapel, and James Jackson in the Old-Bailey — for that summer’s working-class Gordon Riots.

These three all died for pulling down houses during the riots. Our focus today is on Mr. Gamble, who helped haul down the house of Justice David Wilmot, Esq.

Crying “Let’s go to Justice Wilmot’s!” rioters on the east end of London that night of June 7 headed straight for the residence of their notorious foe, a magistrate who had made himself infamous in workers’ eyes by his zeal to bring working-class economic resistance to heel.

Gamble, a hard-drinking journeyman cabinet-maker, was among the pillagers, and by dint of recognition was designated to pay the penalty for it.

“There might be a thousand” people who mobbed the Wilmot house, one witness at Gamble’s trial estimated. “When I left the place they were pulling down the house. They had thrown down part of the lead, and were throwing down the rest.”

This one was among three witnesses who testified to seeing Gamble on the scene, hauling out wood for a merry bonfire and “chuck[ing] tiles off two or three times” from the roof.

The penniless artisan defended himself as well as he could, cross-examining witnesses in an attempt to show conflicting reports of his dress that night. He himself claimed to have simply been out for a walk while drunk. Evidently it made a favorable impression on many in the courtroom.

“The prisoner being but a lodger had no friend to appear for him, nor any counsel; he was too poor,” reported the Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (July 6, 1780). “It was hoped by many, as he was a very hard-working, ignorant man, that he would have been recommended to mercy, and several of the Jury were certainly for it, but others, with the Foreman, seemed to be of a different opinion.”

London authorities were all about making a point with these Gordon Riots cases, and Gamble’s execution was arranged on a “gallows at Bethnal-green … fixed immediately opposite to Justice Wilmot’s house.” That’s as per the General Evening Post, July 20, 1780 – July 22, 1780, which affords us this affecting description of the actual hanging:

the Ordinary got up into the cart, and prayed with him upwards of 20 minutes, in which he joined with the greatest devotion; he was then tied up, and his brother and another friend got up into the cart, and took an everlasting farewell, and kissing each other, they retired. Here the prisoner desired the Ordinary to pray some minutes longer with him, which he readily complied with; having finished, and gone to his coach, the executioner pulled his cap over his face, and at the request of the prisoner a handkerchief was tied over his cap. He put his hands together, and lifting them towards Heaven, cried out “Lord Jesus receive me,” when the cart drew away, and he was launched into eternity about half past eight o’clock, amidst a numerous crowd of spectators. After hanging upwards of an hour his body was cut down, and delivered for interment. The prisoner was about 36 years of age, a cabinet-maker, and has left a wife and three children. ‘Twas observed, that all the time he was under the gallows, he never but once turned his face towards Mr. Wilmot’s house. His time was taken up so much in prayer, that he made no speech to the populace of any kind.

Just as Gamble was turned off, two pick-pockets, dressed tolerably decent, were detected, and delivered over to the custody of the civil officers.

(After this ceremonial procession-to-hanging-site, the penal party returned to Newgate to repeat the same with Samuel Solomons, then returned to Newgate again to repeat it with James Jackson. Additional executions for other pullers-down of houses took place around London on both July 21 and July 22.)

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1813: Johann Christian Claudius Devaranne

Add comment July 20th, 2013 Headsman

Two centuries ago today, Johann Christian Claudius Devaranne got himself shot for resisting Napoleon’s draft in Germany.

The Corsican had fallen back following the debacle of occupying Moscow, but the attempts of Napoleon-allied forces to recoup dwindling numbers by conscription provoked fierce resistance in Solingen — where the draft board was driven out and recruiting materials destroyed.

This little flare-up goes by the excellent title of the “Russian Truncheon Insurgency,” but it soon ran into the bayonets of Napoleon’s German partners. On January 30, 1813, a week after draft riots first erupted, troops began suppressing it. Devaranne, a 29-year-old father of five, was seen as a leader in the resistance and a price put out on his head … a price his own maid collected when the fugitive innkeeper was reckless enough to sleep at home one night.

He was tried and shot at Dusseldorf months later, during a lull in the year’s bloody campaign season.

For the 120th anniversary of Devaranne’s execution — which was also six months into Adolf Hitler’s Chancellorship — Solingen dedicated a memorial plaque to Devaranne, claiming his nationalist martyrdom as its own.

“It is no accident that precisely the Third Reich celebrates the memory of this hero. The same spirit which animated Devaranne, animates our SA as well,” said the city’s Lord Mayor. (There was an SA honor guard on hand for the occasion.) “Then as now, we revolt against repression, then against the Corsican, today the SA’s revolution against the Marxists. We need the memory of our heroes to redirect us to their spirit in dark hours.”

The plaque went missing after the war, but Devaranne still has a street named after him in Solingen.

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1898: Choe Si-hyeong, Donghak leader

Add comment July 20th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1898,* the second patriarch of the Donghak religion was put to death in Korea.

Like neighboring Japan, Korea was ripe for “new religions” late in the 19th century and into the 20th. And to the concussive effects of modernity were added, for Korea, those of colonialism: a fading dynasty pressured by both western and Japanese empire-building.

“Donghak arose at a time when Korea was on the verge of radical transformations,” writes Kirsten Bell.**

Internally, society was stagnating under a rigid Confucian social hierarchy, which saw destitute peasants over-taxed and generally ill-used by corrupt government officials and landed gentry (yangban). External forces such as the West’s encroachment into the East were also causing considerable alarm. Donghak arose in these circumstances and was … explicitly envisioned … as a rebuttal to the growing influence of the West in Korea; further, Donghak was constructed in explicit opposition to Roman Catholicism, known as “Western Learning.”

Donghak, or Tonghak, was “Eastern Learning” (that’s its literal meaning), a sort of synretic liberation theology for the peasantry in a put-upon peninsula.

This egalitarian movement, light on the dogma beyond the notion that an omnipresent divine inheres to every person, yielded its founder up to the laurels of martyrdom in 1864. That gentleman, Choe Je-u, passed leadership to his kinsman, our day’s subject, whose proselytizing and organizing built the religion over two succeeding generations.

“Despite ongoing government persecution, Donghak proved popular with the disaffected masses,” Bell notes.

Choe Si-hyeong published the Donghak scriptures and planted countless secret Donghak societies around Korea. Rooted as they were in a lower class with an axe to grind, these burgeoning cells tended increasingly towards the revolutionary. In 1894, they tended all the way: the Donghak Peasant Revolution.

In this dramatic affair, a surging peasant-nationalist army marched on Seoul with every prospect of overturning the decrepit monarchy — which unworthily preserved itself by inviting a Chinese intervention.†

This, in turn, precipitated an (uninvited) Japanese response, which became the First Sino-Japanese War, whose titular belligerents had it out all over the Korean peninsula.

Japan, with its modern army, cleaned up in the fight, a signal of its rise as regional hegemon. (It would soon annex Korea altogether.) And just in passing, it routed that ambitious peasant army late in 1894, scattering Donghak adherents to the hills.

Choe Si-hyeong was finally captured and put to death in 1898. Still, that wasn’t the end of the line for Donghak: rebranded Cheondoism after its original moniker became unfortunately affixed to the word “revolution,” the faith is still going strong with well over one million adherents in present-day South Korea.

Choe Si-hyeong is the subjet of the 1991 Im Kwon-taek film Fly High, Run Far.

* The precise date is asserted in Buddhism in the Modern World but generally not extremely easy to come by. I’d rather have access to a clear primary source or a larger consensus of secondary sources or a pony.

** “Pilgrims and Progress: The Production of Religious Experience in a Korean Religion,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, August 2008.

† The Qing were about to be squeezed by a similar domestic movement, the Boxers.

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1998: David Wilson

Add comment July 20th, 2010 Headsman

Just after dawn this date in 1998, David Wilson was hanged for murdering a security guard in St. Kitts and Nevis.

Wilson was only the second person executed by the tiny Caribbean nation since it achieved independence in 1983, and he would be the last hanged there until 2008.

The execution of this run-of-the-mill criminal attracted particular attention as a hempen protest against death penalty skeptics on the bench of the British Privy Council. Especially in the 1990s (and since) the exercise by this high court of the commonwealth of an excessively persnickety supervision of Caribbean death sentences attracted regional backlash against colonial meddling for hampering local response to violent crime. (See also the contemporaneous Trinidad and Tobago case of Dole Chadee.)

Wilson was controversially hanged before he submitted his appeal to the Privy Council.

In a bid to shore up national sovereignty, Caribbean countries were even then hammering out a Caribbean Court of Justice to replace these distant and unaccountable magistrates. However, official adoption of the CCJ has been halting.

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1944: Eight July 20 plotters

20 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.

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

25 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

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