Having moved to Germany to study, Levine became involved in World War I’s antiwar struggle, which in turn positioned him to be a key player in the communist movement in postwar Germany.
With the end of the Great War, Germany’s destiny was settled with bare knuckles. The now-communist Russian government, whose safety was imperiled from every direction, looked hopefully to a revolutionary proletariat in the more advanced neighboring economy of Germany to consolidate its own position as well as to meet the Marxist mandate for transnational revolution.
The Bolshevik Karl Radek urged an audience of Luxemburg and Liebknecht’s KPD that “without the socialist revolution in Germany the Russian workers’ revolution, dependent on itself, would not have sufficient strength to build a new house on the ruins left behind by capitalism.” (Source)
Nonetheless, Munich mounted a revolt breaking away an independent Bavarian state that would eventually usher in a Bavarian Soviet Republic. This state Eugen Levine seized control of on April 12, 1919, with a communist putsch against the expressionist playwright who had served as its first head of state.* Levine would be the second, and last, in that office.
In the end, the KPD in Munich — and not only there, but throughout Germany — simply lacked the organizational strength or the mass mobilization to sustain the attempted revolution(s) against its inevitable foes. By May of 1919, its threadbare forces had been overwhelmed by right-wing soldiers and paramilitaries.** Defenders of the city and actual or perceived revolutionaries were shot out of hand by the hundreds.
This obviously staged photo purports to depict a Freikorps execution of a (theatrically unfazed) Bolshevik in Munich in 1919. (Source)
Levine’s treatment was, if equally certain, at least marginally more ceremonial.
Captured in hiding a few days after the incursion, Levine was saved for a show trial† at the start of June.
We Communists are all dead men on leave. Of this I am fully aware. I do not know if you will extend my leave or whether I shall have to join [the late] Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. In any case I await your verdict with composure and inner serenity. For I know that, whatever your verdict, events cannot be stopped … Pronounce your verdict if you deem it proper. I have only striven to foil your attempt to stain my political activity, the name of the Soviet Republic with which I feel myself so closely bound up, and the good name of the workers of Munich. They — and I together with them — we have all of us tried to the best of our knowledge and conscience to do our duty towards the International, the Communist World Revolution.
Left and center parties raised a pan-Germanic outcry to stay the executioner’s hand, but Levine was shot two days after condemnation.‡
Munich transmuted, with this conquest, from an outpost of the revolutionary vanguard into a veritable far-right hothouse: just weeks after Levine’s execution, Adolf Hitler would make his fateful acquaintance with the NSDAP in Munich. Within a few years he and his germinated their own Bavarian revolution. Munich and its beer hall (which the Freikorps had used for summary executions in May 1919) were long hallowed of the Third Reich.§
* The deposed president, Ernst Toller, “hanged himself” in 1939. Auden paid him tribute in moving verse.
Dear Ernst, lie shadowless at last among
The other war-horses who existed till they’d done
Something that was an example to the young.
We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.
It is their tomorrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends; but existing is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.
** The aide-de-camp of the Freikorps Epp that marched into Munich that first week of May was the future SA chief Ernst Röhm. Also participating in this sortie: early Nazi leaders (and eventual Hitler rivals) Gregor and Otto Strasser, and future Wannsee Conference participant Wilhelm Stuckart.
† The young lawyer Max Hirschberg drew first dibs on defending the doomed Levine before his drumhead court, but faint-heartedly passed the assignment off. Hirschberg would remember the moment with shame: “I was too insecure and too cowardly to confront the scornful sneer of the reactionaries,” he wrote.
Maybe Hirschberg’s harsh self-judgment steeled his soul, for soon the “orgy of brutality, bloodthirstiness, and injustice aroused in me a decisive transformation.” He began to aggressively seek out hated revolutionaries to represent in the teeth of the political winds. Hirschberg had a notable mano-a-mano courtroom confrontation with Adolf Hitler in 1930; he had to flee Nazi Germany in 1934, but built a career in New York where he blazed trails with his work on wrongful convictions. There’s a summation of his career in this pdf; or, see the 2005 biography Justice Imperiled.
‡ Primary newspaper coverage (e.g., London Times, June 9, 1919) confirms the date; the “July 5″ widely cited in online articles is mistaken.
§ The Nazis erected a memorial to the Freikorps who crushed the Bavarian Soviet; its remains can still be seen today.
On this date in 1945, in the dying days of the Third Reich, 42-year-old Johann Georg Elser was executed by gunshot in the German concentration camp Dachau. He died for a failed attempt on Adolf Hitler’s life more than five years before.
It goes without saying that, had he been successful, he would have changed history immeasurably.
Elser, who went by his middle name, didn’t fit the profile of someone who would try to kill Hitler. He wasn’t a Jew, a Communist or a member of any of the other minority groups the Nazis persecuted. He wasn’t political at all, in fact.
A carpenter by trade, with one illegitimate son, his hobbies included playing the zither and the double bass. He was the kind of ordinary, working-class German the National Socialists tried to reach out to. But from the very start, he made it clear how much he despised them and all that they stood for.
He was a practical man at heart and was not interested in political discussions. He had no desire to change other people’s minds, but he steadfastly refused to make any accommodation to the new regime. When Hitler’s speeches were broadcast, he would silently leave the room… In May 1938, a Nazi parade threaded its way through his hometown of Königsbronn. Elser, like many others, turned out to watch, but as those around him gave the Hitler salute, he refused to do likewise. When a colleague reminded him that it might be sensible to conform, he replied curtly, “You can kiss my ass.” He then ostentatiously turned about and started whistling to himself.
How Elser’s silent, passive resistance turned into action is unclear, but by the autumn of 1938 he had made up his mind to kill the Führer.
Unsure how to accomplish this, he traveled to Munich to get some ideas. Every year on “Die Neunte Elfte”, the November 8-9 anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, Hitler came to the Bürgerbräukeller and gave a speech to the old guard.
That day in 1938, actually just hours before another would-be assassin tried to kill Hitler, Elser slipped into the beer hall pretending to be an ordinary customer and “noted the layout of the room, the position of the lectern and the patent lack of effective security measures.”
He had found his place and his time: he decided that the following year, he would plant a bomb in the Bürgerbräukeller, timed to go off right in the middle of Hitler’s big anniversary speech and kill him and as many Nazis as possble.
Elser’s meticulous planning and preparations over the next twelve months were nothing short of amazing. He stole a fuse and some gunpowder, and got a job at a quarry specifically so he could acquire some explosives. Knowing nothing about bombs, he made countless prototypes and tested them in empty fields in the countryside.
In the spring of 1939, he went back to Munich and the Bürgerbräukeller to make some detailed sketches of the building and find an appropriate place to hide the bomb. He chose a thick stone pillar behind the lectern, which supported a balcony. In August, he brought his tools and bomb-making materals to Munich to set about with his final phase of the plan.
The fastidious assassin’s modus operandi was shockingly simple, and shockingly bold.
He would visit the Bürgerbräukeller every night at around 9:00 to take his evening meal. An hour or so later, he would sneak up to the gallery of the function room, where he would hide in a storeroom until the bar closed and the building was locked.
Thereafter, he was free to work by flashlight until the bar staff returned at around 7:30 a.m., when he could sneak out of a back entrance.
His first priority was to chip out a cavity in the stone pillar to hold the bomb. But, finding the pillar was now dressed with wooden cladding, Elser was forced to spend three nights sawing a hole in the wooden surround.
Every sound had to be muffled, every speck of sawdust collected and disposed of: he could afford to leave no evidence of his presence. Even the sawn wooden panel was fashioned into a flush-fitting secret door.
Good thing he was a carpenter.
Having accessed the pillar, he could now begin to dig out a recess for the bomb. Using a hand drill and a hammer and chisel, he spent most of the following month loosening mortar and prising out bricks — all of which, of course, had to be meticulously tied and removed from the scene in a cloth sack.
Progress was painfully slow.
In the cavernous hall, every hammer blow he struck echoed like a gunshot, and to escape detection he had to time his blows to coincide with external sounds, such as the passing of a tram or the automatic flush of toilets. Working by night preparing the pillar in the Bürgerbräukeller, he labored by day putting the finishing touches to his bomb and, of course, the elaborate timing mechanism.
It all took two months.
On November 2, six days before the Big Day, Elser finally concealed his bomb, which had been put in a wooden box lined with cork to muffle the ticking sound of the timing mechanism, in its hidey-hole. Hitler’s speech was scheduled to start at 9:00 p.m. on November 8 and would last for an hour. The bomb was set to go off at 9:20.
It did so, right on time, with a spectacular explosion that smashed the stone pillar, brought down the overhead balcony and ceiling, shattered windows, blasted out doors, killed eight people and injured 67 more.
The only problem was, Hitler wasn’t among the dead or wounded. In fact, he wasn’t even there.
He had pressing business in Berlin and wanted to get back that same night, so he had rescheduled his speech for 8:00 p.m. instead of nine. He finished and left the building at 9:07, thirteen minutes before the big reception Elser had prepared for him. By the time the bomb went off, Hitler was already on the train back to Berlin.
That Elser failed was through no fault of his own: it was just sheer, terrible, rotten luck.
British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Assassination has never changed the history of the world.” Perhaps he is right in most cases, but it’s hard to believe that statement is true when it comes to Hitler. In this case, thirteen minutes substantially altered the history of Europe for the rest of the century.
Getting back to Elser: ever the careful planner, he knew what to do to protect himself once the bomb went off. He was miles away from Munich at the time, trying to sneak over the border into Switzerland. Unfortunately, he was caught by German border guards.
At first they thought it was a routine arrest, but then they saw the contents of his pockets, which included a postcard of the Bürgerbräukeller and sketches of his bomb design. The guards didn’t yet know about the assassination attempt, of course, but what they saw made them suspicious and they turned him over to the Gestapo.
On November 13, Elser confessed everything. When a flabbergasted Hitler read the preliminary investigative report which supported Elser’s lone-bomber story, he demanded, “What idiot conducted this investigation?”
He couldn’t wrap his mind around it, and neither could anyone else.
In the wake of the assassination, mass arrests were made: anyone who seemed unusually interested in the Munich speech, or didn’t express sufficient enthusiasm for the Nazi Party, could fall under suspicion of being part of the plot.
At Munich’s Feldherrnhalle on Nov. 11, Hitler conducts a memorial ceremony for the victims of Elser’s assassination bid.
As Moorhouse explains,
To many Nazis, Elser was simply an enigma. He was an ordinary German. He exhibited none of the typical signs of “degeneracy” that they claimed to be combating: apart from his brief flirtation with Communism, he was a virtual teetotaler, not promiscuous, did not consort with Jews, and was not close to the Church. In fact, he was exactly the sort of solid, upstanding, working-class German that they thought they had won over — and, indeed, that had become the backbone of the Nazi Party.
Unable to believe Elser’s claims of full responsibility, the Nazis concluded he must have been “led astray” at the very least, perhaps by agents of British intelligence. In spite of beatings, torture, and other coercion, however, Elser stuck to his story, even building another bomb, identical to the first, right in front of his interrogators to prove he could do it by himself.
He never managed to fully convince them; in fact, for decades after the war, historians and other scholars theorized about who else was in on his plan. Some speculated that the attack was even engineered by Hitler himself, to gain support for his cause and to create an excuse to crack down on dissidents.
It wasn’t until 1970 that two German historians who studied the matter announced there was no evidence that Elser had acted in concert with anyone else or even told anyone about his plans.
It may seem surprising that Elser managed to live for four and a half years after his attempt on Hitler’s life, but there was a explanation perfectly reasonable from the standpoint of a totalitarian bureaucracy.
After his confession, Elser was sent to the the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. He was given enough to eat, and two rooms, and even allowed to play the zither again, but he was kept in solitary confinement all those years. The Nazis — still operating on the theory that the British were ultimately behind the assassination attempt — stashed Elser away as a witness in a show trial against British leaders after the German invasion of the British Isles. Talk about hubris.
Of course, this invasion never happened, and as the tide of war turned against the Germans it became clear that Elser had outlived whatever usefulness he might have had. In February 1945, he was transferred from Sachsenhausen to Dachau.
He met his end quietly, taken outside his cell by a young SS officer and shot in the back of the neck. A week later, it was reported that he had been killed in an Allied bombing. By the end of the month, Dachau was in Allied hands.
At least six cities in Germany, including Königsbronn and Stuttgart, have places named after him, or monuments or plaques erected in his memory.
10- or 11-year-old Hansel Pappenheimer was made to provide some of the testimony that condemned his parents and older siblings to a torturous public death. Then, he was made to watch.
This child was being monitored by the authorities for any sign of infernal possession himself, so his heartbreaking exclamations as the butchery unfolded — “Look how they’re thumping my father’s arms!” as the man was broken on the wheel; “My mother is squirming!” as she burned alive — were recorded.
That’s just about as horrible as the annals of execution get.
The only thing that would make it more horrible would be the coda the Bavarian duchy added this date in 1600, when it burned little Hansel Pappenheimer too.
On this date in 1600, Bavarians thronged to a half-mile-long procession in Munich for the horrific execution of the Pappenheimer family.
They were marginal, itinerant types: the father, Paulus Pappenheimer, cleaned privies (“Pappenheimer” would remain as Nuremberg slang for a garbageman into the 20th century, according to Robert Butts); the mother, Anna, was the daughter of a gravedigger. They wandered, begged, did odd jobs. They were Lutherans in a Catholic duchy.
So they were vulnerable to their extreme turn of bad luck. Fresh to the throne of Bavaria, young Catholic zealot Duke Maximilian I wanted a crackdown on the infernal arts, and when others accused the Pappenheimers of witchcraft, they found they had become the stars of a show trial.
they were stripped so that their flesh could be torn off by red-hot pincers. Then Anna’s breasts were cut off. The bloody breasts were forced into her mouth and then into the mouths of her two grown sons … a hideous parody of her role as mother and nurse …
Church bells pealed to celebrate this triumph of Christianity over Satan; the crowd sang hymns; vendors hawked pamphlets describing the sins of the victims.
Meanwhile, Anna’s chest cavity bled. As the carts lurched along, the injured prisoners were in agony. Nonetheless, they were forced at one point to get down from the carts and kneel before a cross, to confess their sins. Then they were offered wine to drink, a strangely humane act in the midst of this barbaric ritual.*
One can hope that between the wine and loss of blood, the Pappenheimers were losing consciousness. They had not been granted the “privilege” of being strangled before being burned, but in keeping with the extreme brutality of these proceedings, they would be forced to endure the very flames.
Further torments awaited Paulus. A heavy iron wheel was dropped on his arms until the bones snapped … [then] Paulus was impaled on a stick driven up through his anus …
The four Pappenheimers were then tied to the stakes, the brushwood pyres were set aflame, and they were burned to death. Their eleven-year-old son was forced to watch the dying agonies of his parents and brothers. We know that Anna was still alive when the flames leapt up around her, for Hansel cried out, “My mother is squirming!” The boy was executed months later.
Dr. Kunze was good enough to share his thoughts on the Pappenheimers’ milieu with Executed Today.
You present the Pappenheimers as a sort of “show trial” case; what makes a witchcraft show trial a compelling need for a German duke at the end of the 16th century? Why do you think witch persecution arises so especially in this period especially?
Towards the end of the 16th century the Middle Ages had been overcome. People no longer believed in a God taking care of every little thing in their lives. The world was no longer regarded a safe home, guarded by the Father in heaven. Religion had been replaced by reason. The kings, princes and dukes took over direct responsibility for their countries and citizens. They started to build modern states, rationally organized und fully controlled.
The main problem was that full control was difficult to achieve. The streets were in very bad condition, the countryside far stretched, the woods were dark, the villages far away. All kinds of crimes were committed, and when the police arrived the robbers, thieves and murderers had long disappeared. In time without photographs or identity papers it was difficult to trace them. The slow flow of information was also a problem.
That’s why the authorities tried to abhor criminals by show trials and spectacular executions. A witch trial was ideal, because people believed that all mischief and evil was induced by the devil. All criminals were more or less suspected of a deal with the devil.
What’s the biggest challenge we have in our time to re-imagining the world that witch prosecutors and “witches” lived in, or the biggest difference in mindset?
People in the 16th century were absolutely convinced that the devil was a real force trying to use humans to work against God’s intentions. They believed in a huge battle between good and evil, and those who changed sides and helped the devil were regarded as traitors committing High Treason.
At the same time the modern idea that everything that happens has an explainable cause made the authorities suspect the devil’s work behind every thunderstorm, not to mention deadly accidents. People were not more stupid than we are. It was the mixture of medieval superstitions and modern rationalization that led to the witch trials.
How did contemporaries of the Pappenheimers and Duke Maximilian think about this event?
It was indeed a monstrous case and quite an event at the time. The contemporaries did not doubt that 1) the Pappenheimer family had been instruments of the devil, and 2) that the brutal punishment had saved their souls. Duke Maximilian certainly regarded the execution as a means to stabilize safety in his country.
In researching the interrogations and trials in these cases, where did you get the sense that we still revert to “witch trial logic” in some modern cases? If so, when does it arise?
It’s obvious that we still interpret laws based on our beliefs and point of views. The judges involved in the witch trials thought they “knew” for certain that the devil can talk to people and make deals with them. They also believed that torture brings the truth to light. Isn’t today’s deal bargaining also a form of torture? After all the authorities tell the defendant that he will be severely punished if he does not confess. That’s what I call a forced confession. Yet it is done around the world.
Obviously, this execution is utterly horrific in its particulars. How typical would this sexualized theater — slicing off Anna Pappenheimer’s breasts, impaling Paulus Pappenheimer — have been for a witchcraft case at that time and place? How would this have been understood by witnesses, as opposed to “merely” burning or breaking on the wheel?
The point was to abhor by cruelty. People should see what horrors the criminals had to endure and tell it to everyone for years to come.
* Or, perchance, the wine was offered to revive them and protract their tortures.