1892: Jens Nielsen, the last in Denmark

2 comments November 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1892, serial arsonist Jens Nielsen was beheaded with an axe in the courtyard of Horsens prison — the last civil execution ever conducted in Denmark.

According to this Danish biography, Nielsen had incurred a long prison sentence for burning several farms in July 1883.

(He’d just returned from a fruitless stint in the New World, torching a warehouse in England on the return voyage.)

Apprehended immediately and sentenced to a long prison term, Jens confronted an age-old dilemma which was evidently noticeably acute among melancholy Danes: effecting state-assisted suicide on the scaffold.

These cases must have once been fairly frequent because Denmark, by an ordinance of December 18, 1767, deliberately abandoned the death penalty in cases where “melancholy and other dismal persons [committed murder] for the exclusive purpose of losing their lives.” The background for the provision was, in the words of Orste, “the thinking that was then current among the unenlightened that by murdering another person and thereby being sentenced to death, one might still attain salvation, whereas if one were to take one’s own life, one would be plunged into eternal damnation.”

The ordinance was ineffective in one case, at least, that of Jens Nielsen, who was born in 1862 and spent a most unhappy and unfortunate childhood. In 1884 he was sentenced to 16 years of hard labor for theft and arson. The following year he tried to kill a prison guard. He was tried, sentenced to death and received a commutation to life. He was then placed in solitary confinement. A year later he tried again to kill a guard, “realizing that he could not stand solitary confinement, did not have the nerve to commit suicide and wanted to force his execution.” He was again tried, sentenced to death and the sentence commuted. In 1892, having remained in solitary confinement all that time, he tried again to kill a guard. This time he got his wish, was sentenced to death and executed. (Source.)

He even managed to crack wise, “Thank you!” to the mayor who wished him God’s help on the way to the scaffold — envoy of the powers both temporal and ethereal that would finally loose his shackles.

Denmark’s death penalty law lingered into the 1930’s, but even the occasional death sentences were no longer carried out. Apart from a brief revival after World War II to punish war crimes committed the Nazi occupation, nobody has been put to death in Denmark in — as of today — 116 years.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Attempted Murder,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Gallows Humor,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Pardons and Clemencies

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1946: Amon Göth, Schindler’s List villain

September 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1946, Plaszow concentration camp commandante Amon Göth was hanged near the camp site by Poland’s postwar Communist government.

Göth is most widely recognizable as Ralph Fiennes’ fiendish character in Schindler’s List, one of the American Film Institute’s top movie villains of all time. (And, naturally, a first-class bastard in real life, too.)

A short-drop strangulation is not the way you’d want to go. It turns out, though, that Steven Spielberg (ever the sentimentalist) seriously tidied up the proceedings.

As you watch the video of the real Amon Goeth’s exit below — and it’s a snuff film, so proceed advisedly — consider the following:

  • Amon Goeth does bear a passing fair resemblance to Ralph Fiennes.

  • To judge by their getup — dig the masks! — the executioners might have been Batman and Robin.
  • To judge by the discharge of their duties, the executioners might have been Larry, Moe and Curly. Goeth survived two drops (notice the executioner on the right gesticulating in frustration as the second try fails) before they finally got it right:

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Infamous,Mature Content,Poland,Popular Culture,Soldiers,The Worm Turns

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1943: 186 prisoners at Plotzensee Prison

1 comment September 7th, 2008 Headsman

As dark fell on the evening of September 7, 1943, a mass execution of 186 death row prisoners — including six with unresolved clemency appeals — began at Berlin’s bomb-damaged Plotzensee Prison, continuing by candlelight until the following morning.

An Allied air raid the night of September 3-4 had struck the facility, allowing four prisoners to escape and damaging the guillotine and execution shed where sentences were normally carried out. Coincidentally, that had come hours after Hitler had (as was his wont, in common with many a politician to the present day) castigated the judiciary for the dilatory rigmarole that allowed the condemned to delay their fate with legal appeals.

Converging circumstances generated sensible elite consensus:

That is the last thing we need, that after the air raids a few hundred condemned to death would be let loose on the population in the Reich capital.
-Goebbels

Instead, at the order of Reich Minister of Justice Otto George Thierack, cases were quickly tied up for a night of mass hangings.

Protestant pastor Harold Poelchau described (pdf) what he witnessed.

As darkness fell on September 7 the mass murders began. The night was cold. Every now and then the darkness was lit up by exploding bombs. The beams of the searchlights danced across the sky. The men were assembled in several columns one behind the other. They stood there, at first uncertain about what was going to happen to them. Then they realized. Eight men at a time were called by name and led away. Those remaining hardly moved at all. Only an occasional whisper with my Catholic colleague and myself … Once the executioners interrupted their work because bombs thundered down nearby. The five rows of eight men already lined up had to be confined to their cells again for a while. Then the murdering continued. All these men were hanged. … The executions had to be carried out by candlelight because the electric light had failed. It was only in the early morning at about eight o’clock that the exhausted executioners paused in their work, only to continue with renewed strength in the evening.

And as Poelchau intimates, the fearful harvest of September 7-8 was not the end of the massacre. Dozens more followed over the ensuing days, for a total of more than 250 executions at Plotzensee September 7-12.

Notable among the victims was 27-year-old German-Dutch concert pianist Karlrobert Kreiten, memorialized at this German page. He’d been a little too loose with his distaste for Hitler and been arrested on the eve of a concert a few months before.

In 2003, Dutch composer Rudi Martinus van Dijk debuted his Kreiten’s Passion, an excerpt fo which can be enjoyed on the composer’s homepage.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Entertainers,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Summary Executions,Theft,Treason,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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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.

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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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1946: Eleven from the Stutthof concentration camp

15 comments July 4th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1946, officials of Soviet-occupied Poland publicly hanged eleven convicted war criminals of the Stutthof concentration camp.

Set up immediately upon Germany’s September 1, 1939 invasion of Poland and not liberated until after official German capitulation in 1945, Stutthoff handled over 100,000 prisoners during its long service.

This day’s condemned — camp commandant Johann Pauls, five male kapos, and five female guards — were the product of the first of four Stutthof trials held in 1946-1947. At a hill in Gdansk known as Biskupia Gorka (Bishop Hill), upon a specially-erected row of four T-shaped double gallows centered around a pi-shaped triple gallows, and before a crowd of thousands, the doomed eleven were noosed on the back of military trucks which then drove away to leave them strangling to death with a “short drop” hanging.

The following gut-twisting images are among a number to be found here.

Above: on one end of the gallows row, the truck has just pulled away from Jenny Wanda Barkmann — a modish Hamburg lass in her mid-20’s known to Stutthof prisoners as “the Beautiful Specter” for her cruelty. Down the row, one can see that some of the prisoners are already swinging, while others have not yet been dropped.

Upon hearing her sentence, Jenny Barkmann retorted, “Life is indeed a pleasure, and pleasures are usually short.” (More about Barkmann, including trial photos, here.) In this closer view of her, just as in the first photo, she is still alive and struggling. Next to her, Ewa Paradies, another guard, is prepared for the same fate.

The central triple gallows. Commandant Johann Pauls hangs in the middle with Gerda Steinhoff — one of the senior female guards — in the foreground. The line of five male kapos recedes behind them into the enormous crowd of onlookers.

There’s more about Stutthof’s history at the Holocaust Research Project, and at the current memorial facility’s home page.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Public Executions,Russia,USSR,War Crimes,Women

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1945: Albrecht Haushofer, German Resistance intellectual

3 comments April 23rd, 2008 Sarah Owocki

On April 23, 1945, in Nazi Germany’s Berlin-Moabit prison, with the Red Army fast approaching, the SS executed Albrecht Haushofer for his part in the previous year’s July 20 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler.

A social and political conservative and driving force behind the nascent field of “geopolitics,” which held views of the State “as a geographic organism or a spatial phenomenon” that were incorporated into the National Socialist ideology of “Lebensraum,” Haushofer was an early darling of the drive to find academic and scientific justification for Nazi beliefs and ideals — this despite his own part-Jewish parentage.

Haushofer had reservations about the intentions of the Nazi party following its rise to power in the 1930s, but he nonetheless consented to represent it in foreign affairs, having spent significant time abroad as a geopolitics student in the 1920s. Acting as chief foreign affairs adviser to Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s chief deputy, Haushofer traveled widely to promote German foreign policy. During this time, he wrote a series of historical dramas — Scipio (1934), Sulla (1938), and Augustus (1939) — containing progressively more strident symbolic criticisms of his age.

Believing that Germany must not get involved in another disastrous foreign war, Haushofer was a significant force in negotiating for peace with Britain and France. “The peoples of Europe are in a position in which they have to get on together lest they all perish,” he wrote; “and although one realises that it is not common sense but emotional urges which govern the world, one must try to control such urges.” As Hitler’s desire for war became ever more paramount, however, Haushofer lost his position with the government and returned to Germany, remaining active in secret talks to persuade the British to accept a new peace agreement.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, Haushofer remained a professor of geopolitics at the University of Berlin, but distanced himself from his Nazi past and began associating with elements of the German resistance. As the war wore on, he consistently opposed any attempt on Hitler’s life, but finally agreed to join the July plot as the only way to end the war without bringing further disaster upon Germany. With the plot’s failure, he was arrested by the Gestapo, and executed just days before the Red Army liberated Berlin.

Haushofer composed the Moabiter Sonette (pdf) while in prison, a series of poems posthumously published in 1946 regarded as among the most powerful documents of the German antiwar movement. One of his most well-known sonnets, “Schuld,” attemps to express — in sad retrospect — the weight of his moral guilt in the face of impending death:

“Schuld”

…schuldig bin ich
Anders als Ihr denkt.
Ich musste früher meine Pflicht erkennen;
Ich musste schärfer Unheil Unheil nennen;
Mein Urteil habe ich zu lang gelenkt…
Ich habe gewarnt,
Aber nicht genug, und klar;
Und heute weiß ich, was ich schuldig war.

“Guilt”

I am guilty,
But not in the way you think.
I should have earlier recognized my duty;
I should have more sharply called evil evil;
I reined in my judgment too long.
I did warn,
But not enough, and clear;
And today I know what I was guilty of.

The poem’s last line can be variously translated as “And today I know what I was guilty of” or “And today I know what my obligation had been.” Through this subtle play on words, Haushofer created a powerful poetic link between his failure to act decisively and the supposed “guilt” — “not in the way you think” — for which he had been condemned. His poems remain a testament to the power as well as the responsiblities of the individual under dictatorship, and have earned their writer a place in the annals of history as well as modern-day memorials to the German resistance movement.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Power,Shot,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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