1943: Willi Graf, anti-Nazi medic

1 comment October 12th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1943, anti-Nazi student activist Willi Graf was beheaded at Munich’s Stadelheim Prison.

Graf was a conscientious Catholic whose disaffinity for Naziism manifested in an early refusal to join the Hitler Youth: he did a short stint in prison in 1938 for having continued associating with a banned Catholic youth league.

This subversive fellow might have been destined for the chop regardless in the black years to come, but for a thoroughgoing radicalization, he was drafted into the army as a medic and got a front-row seat on the Holocaust and the horrors of the eastern front.

During a 1942 study leave back in Munich, Graf met White Rose resistance figures Hans and Sophie Scholl and began participating in that circle’s distribution of illicit anti-Nazi leaflets.

He was arrested within months and condemned on April 19, 1943 to die as a traitor — though actual execution of the sentence waited several months on the Gestapo’s vain exertions to extract from their prey actionable information on other collaborators.

A number of schools around Germany are named in Graf’s honor.

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1934: Ernst Roehm, SA chief

1 comment July 2nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1934, in the coda to Hitler’s Night of the Long Knives purge of the Nazi party, the emerging dictator had his longtime ally shot.

Bavarian World War I veteran Ernst Röhm (Roehm) had been a National Socialist brawler of the earliest vintage: after the armistice, he was among the Freikorps paramilitaries to topple the short-lived Munich Soviet. He joined the NSDAP’s predecessor, the German Workers’ Party, before Hitler himself, and he stood trial with the future Fuhrer after helping Hitler attempt the Beer Hall Putsch. They were so tight, Hitler politely ignored Röhm’s open homosexuality.

But most importantly, Röhm was the energetic organizer of the Sturmabteilung, or SA — the party’s private army ready at arms for street battles with Communists, roughing up Jews, Praetorian Guard duty for party brass, and various and sundry other unpleasantries.


An SA brownshirt tosses a book on the pyre at a May 10, 1933 book burning.

Röhm grew the SA like a weed. At well over 4 million men by the time of Hitler’s Chancellorship, it greatly outnumbered the army itself.

This gave Röhm personal designs on absorbing the army into his paramilitary instead of the other way around, and it gave Röhm the literal boots on the ground to manifest his own commitment to the “Socialist” bits of the “National Socialist” project. His noises about the “second revolution” to come after the Nazis had already obtained state power were most unwelcome.

“One often hears voices in the bourgeois camp to the effect that the SA have lost any reason for existence, but I will tell these gentlemen that the old bureaucratic spirit must yet be changed in a gentle or, if need be, an ungentle manner.”

-Röhm, Nov. 5, 1933 (Source)

Well, those gentlemen weren’t about to wait around to be changed in an ungentle manner. Hitler was induced to sacrifice the man who raised him to power in favor of those who could keep him there, personally arrested his old friend and aide-de-camp as the June 30 purge got underway.

A sucker for nostalgia, Hitler didn’t have Röhm killed outright — the fate of many others in those terrible hours — but instead shipped him to Stadelheim Prison in Munich.* After due consideration, though, the treacherous chancellor did what he was always going to do.

Alan Bullock, in Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, described the final scene.

Hitler ordered a revolver to be left in his cell, but Röhm refused to use it: “If I am to be killed, let Adolf do it himself.” According to an eyewitness at the 1957 Munich trial of those involved, he was shot by two S.S. officers who emptied their revolvers into him at point blank range. “Röhm wanted to say something but the S.S. officer told him to shut up. Then Röhm stood at attention — he was stripped to the waist — with his face full of contempt.”

A nice twist of the Long Knife by its wielders: they justified the purge on the grounds of an imminent coup attempt by the dead SA boss,** branding the murders of Röhm and his comrades … the Röhm-putsch.

* The same prison where the White Rose resistance members were later executed.

** Reinhard Heydrich supplied a dossier implausibly alleging Röhm was on the take from the French.

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1934: Night of the Long Knives

3 comments June 30th, 2011 Headsman

In the dark hours this date in 1934, a bargain with the devil was sealed in blood.

Months before, even mere hours before, it was still possible for longstanding adherents of the National Socialist Workers’ Party to demand the “Socialist” part of the program.

The SA and the SS will not tolerate the German revolution going to sleep and being betrayed at the half-way stage by non-combatants. … It is in fact high time the national revolution stopped and became the National Socialist one. Whether [the bourgeoisie] like it or not, we will continue our struggle — if they understand at last what it is about — with them; if they are unwilling — without them; and if necessary — against them.

Populist, not Bolshevik. (In fact, stridently anti-communist.) Nevertheless, a distinct menace by the have-nots against the haves.*

Especially so because they were the words not of some impotent scribbler but of Ernst Roehm, commander of the the Nazis’ paramilitary brownshirts. And threatening, too, for Adolf Hitler for this same reason: his ascension the previous year to the Chancellorship had entailed terms with a German elite who needed but mistrusted the man’s mass party. Something was going to have to give.

The Communist exile Leon Trotsky’s 1933 analysis of the infant Nazi Germany’s dynamics proved prescient.

The banner of National Socialism was raised by upstarts from the lower and middle commanding ranks of the old army. Decorated with medals for distinguished service, commissioned and noncommissioned officers could not believe that their heroism and sufferings for the Fatherland had not only come to naught, but also gave them no special claims to gratitude. Hence their hatred of the revolution and the proletariat. At the same time, they did not want to reconcile themselves to being sent by the bankers, industrialists, and ministers back to the modest posts of bookkeepers, engineers, postal clerks, and schoolteachers. Hence their “socialism.”

German fascism, like Italian fascism, raised itself to power on the backs of the petty bourgeoisie, which it turned into a battering ram against the organizations of the working class and the institutions of democracy. But fascism in power is least of all the rule of the petty bourgeoisie. On the contrary, it is the most ruthless dictatorship of monopoly capital. … The “socialist” revolution pictured by the petty-bourgeois masses as a necessary supplement to the national revolution is officially liquidated and condemned.

The Night of the Long Knives this date took those blades to the “socialists”, to the men like Roehm whose dreams of redistribution were reckless enough to picture his working-class militia supplanting the German army proper.

As its price of power, the Nazi leadership purged these dangerous elements.

At 2 a.m. this date, Hitler flew to Munich to personally arrest Roehm on the pretext of averting an imminent coup by Roehm’s SA.** Elsewhere in the Reich, coordinated arrests and summary executions destroyed the Nazi party’s “left”, and throughout this date, and continuing into the next, did not scruple to sweep up whatever other conservative elements Hitler considered unreliable.

It was a dangerous but ultimately decisive move. Albert Speer saw Hitler on July 1, and remembered him ebullient at the triumph.

Hitler was extremely excited and, as I believe to this day, inwardly convinced that he had come through a great danger. … Evidently he believed that his personal action had averted a disaster at the last minute: “I alone was able to solve this problem. No one else!”

The final death toll is uncertain. Hitler copped to 77 in a speech to the Reichstag two weeks later which chillingly claimed that “in this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge”; it is likely that the true number is much higher. But its effect went far beyond those immediately killed: it tamed the SA’s independence, and permanently subordinated it to the military; and, it brought Adolf Hitler the dictatorial power that would make the succeeding years so fruitful for this blog.

Among those known to have been seized and executed and/or murdered this date:

Roehm himself died on July 2, initially spared for his many good offices for the Nazi cause before Hitler realized he could not leave him alive.

The armed forces, apparently the day’s big winner, would pay a price of their own for the arrangement.

“In making common cause with” the murderous purge, observed William Shirer in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, “the generals were putting themselves in a position in which they could never oppose future acts of Nazi terrorism.” As the quid for the quo, soldiers were soon required to swear “unconditional obedience” to Adolf Hitler, and this oath would give countless Wehrmacht officers sufficient reason or excuse to eschew resistance to their leader until much too late.

Barely a month after the Night of the Long Knives, the ancient German President Hindenburg died in office. Hitler, who now commanded the clear allegiance of his nation’s elites and had savagely mastered his own party besides, succeeded the powers of Hindenburg’s vacant office along with those of his own Chancellorship and became the German Fuehrer.

* When the Nazis were knee high to the Weimar Republic, their party program sought such radical stuff as abolition of rentier income, generous old-age pensions, and nationalizing trusts.

** The historicity of any actual coup plot is generally dismissed, although the event is still known in German by the expedient sobriquet the Nazi leadership gave it, Roehm-putsch.

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1941: Mirjam Sara P., T4 victim

2 comments May 27th, 2011 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On or about this day in 1941, a twenty-two-year-old woman known only as Mirjam Sara P. was executed/murdered by means unknown, probably gassing.

The notice of her death was postmarked “Cholm Insane Asylum.” However, as psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton notes in his book The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, there was no such place: “As far as can be determined, the Cholm Insane Asylum was a fiction.”

Yes, Mirjam was Jewish. This certainly could not have helped her case, but she was actually killed as part of another genocide: the T4 program, the Nazi policy of involuntary euthanasia on people suffering from deformities, incurable illness, mental illness or anything else that made them into “useless eaters.”

Begun in 1939 with the killing of five-month-old Gerhard Kretschmar, who’d been born blind and missing two or three limbs, the T4 program would end the lives of over 200,000 people, about two-thirds of them after the program officially ended in 1941.

T4 had six death institutions, called “state nursing homes,” which were equipped with gas chambers. The operation was supposed to be a secret, but it was too big to be concealed and before long the German people thought they had a pretty good idea what was happening to their disabled loved ones.

Open criticism of a fascist government is not advisable if you like your life, so the families were limited to publishing heavy hints in their relatives’ newspaper obituaries.

Perhaps the saddest part of Mirjam’s story is that she should have survived. Of course, none of the T4 victims should have been killed, but Mirjam had excellent odds of surviving the Nazi era … until a particularly boneheaded decision by Child Welfare Services and the immigration authorities in Palestine in October 1936.

What’s Palestine got to do with it, you ask? Mirjam P.’s story is told in Tom Lampert’s documentary history, One Life, and it begins in 1933:

This Adolf Hitler guy made Mirjam’s mother uneasy, and she decided to get her family to safety as soon as possible. Mirjam, fifteen years old, long considered a “difficult child,” had been staying in a juvenile reformatory school and sanitorium for the past eighteen months when her mother called her home. She had been sent there after she stole money from her mother and ran away from home.

Mirjam, her mother and her stepfather emigrated to the city of Tel Aviv in Palestine in September 1933, nine months after Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany.

Palestine didn’t agree with Mirjam; she hated the weather and had trouble learning Hebrew and Arabic. A year after her arrival, she went to live with her father in Haifa. She left after only a couple of days, however, returned to Tel Aviv and embarked on a spree of petty crimes. Her mother asked for help from Child and Welfare Services, who had two doctors examine Mirjam.

The first doctor pronounced that Mirjam had

… an advanced case of severe psychopathy with pronounced ethical defects. She lies, incurs debts, and has stolen repeatedly from her mother and her friends. She has run away from home multiple times … She roams the streets and is in danger of becoming morally depraved as a result of her strong sexual drives. In order to avoid further violations of the law, she must be admitted to a mental institution as quickly as possible. Since such an institution does not exist here, it is absolutely essential that she be sent back to Germany immediately.

The second doctor agreed:

P. is a psychopath with severe ethical defects and insufficiently developed powers of judgement. She tends to thievery and vagabonding, incurs debts, and has already developed the traits of a swindler … In order to avoid the threat of moral depravity, it is urgent that she be admitted to a remedial educational home … I know that no such institution exists in Palestine or in the neighboring countries. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that the patient be sent back to Europe without delay …

Child Welfare Services provided a private tutor for Mirjam, then sent her to a group home for girls, but she didn’t fit in there and was sent back to her mother. Very quickly she fell back into her old habits. She was arrested and put on probation, but she just got arrested again. In a remarkably stupid move by the authorities, she was expelled from the country and sent back to Germany in October 1936. Perhaps Palestine thought they’d given her enough chances.

Back to Germany.

The same country she had fled from to escape Hitler. The same country where by now, under Hitler’s regime, Jews had been banned from public high schools, universities, the civil service, the army and the medical field, where Jews had been deprived of their citizenship and the rights that went with it, where Jewish-owned businesses were boycotted, where things showed every sign of becoming worse and did.

To Germany Mirjam had been sent, to prevent “serious damage to … herself, to her family, and to society as a whole.” She was eighteen years old.

Mirjam spent a few weeks with her grandmother in Berlin, but she left because she was afraid (justifiably so) that the Nazis would put her in an “education camp.”

For the next several weeks she traveled around Europe, going to Luxembourg, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. She tried to find a job but she lacked the necessary papers. In March 1937, she was arrested in Zurich for borrowing money under false pretenses and not repaying it. After twelve days in jail, the Swiss dropped her off at the German border.

Back at square one, Mirjam got into trouble again for petty crimes and served eight months in prison. Then she confessed to having sex with a German boyfriend, in violation of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. Mirjam’s boyfriend was prosecuted and claimed he hadn’t known she was Jewish; Mirjam stated she had told him shortly after she met him. He was acquitted in December 1937.

After her release from jail, Mirjam was admitted to the Heckscher Psychiatric Hospital and Research Institute in Munich. She had her intelligence tested and performed poorly. Nurses at the hospital stated Mirjam was a demanding patient, she was lazy, she left her room a mess, she would not take responsibility for her mistakes, and she didn’t have realistic expectations for the future.

After three weeks there, the hospital sent a report to the Jewish welfare office in Munich, which indicated she hadn’t changed much since she was evaluated in Palestine:

In our judgment, P. is a mediocre but normally endowed, weak-willed, unrestrained, and asocial psychopath. Predominant are her physical urges, her limited powers of judgment and insight, and above all her lack of ethical and moral inhibitions. She is incapable of leading a responsible and purposeful life … External compulsion might gradually teach her the value of regular, long-term work and an orderly, honest life.

The evaluator suggested Mirjam be sent to the work unit of the State Mental Institution and Nursing Home.

A 21st-century reading of these evaluations suggests Mirjam was suffering first from Conduct Disorder and then its adult equivalent, Antisocial Personality Disorder. Conduct Disorder is noted “by a pattern of repetitive behavior wherein the rights of others or social norms are violated. Symptoms include verbal and physical aggression, cruel behavior toward people and pets, destructive behavior, lying, truancy, vandalism, and stealing.”

Antisocial Personality Disorder is diagnosed only in adults and is defined as “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.”

Both disorders are marked by impulsivity, recurring trouble with the law, persistent stealing and lying, and lack of empathy for other people, all traits Mirjam had. These conditions, while serious, would not by themselves merit inpatient psychiatric treatment today — although, in these days of managed care, almost nothing does.

In April 1938, Mirjam escaped from the psychiatric hospital and quickly found herself in jail — petty theft again. Writing from jail during her pretrial detention in May, she asked to be expelled from Germany so she could go live with her father in Palestine, because “as a Jew it is impossible for me to amount to anything here.”

Instead she was sentenced to fourteen months in prison. After her release, in mid-June 1939, the court committed her to the Philippshospital in Goddelau. It was her next-to-last stop on the road

On February 1, 1941, the Charitable Ambulance Service (a tool of T4) picked up 29 Jewish patients from Philippshospital. On February 4, 67 Jews, including the 29 Philippshospital patients, were registered in the logbook at the T4 death institution Hadamar.

Their names were not recorded, but chances are Mirjam was among the group. At Hadamar,

Up to 100 victims arrived in post buses every day. They were falsely told to disrobe for a medical examination. Sent before a physician, instead of examining them he assigned one of a list of 60 fatal diseases to every victim, then marked them with different-colored band-aids for one of three categories: Kill; kill and remove brain for research; kill and break out gold teeth.

Ten thousand people would die there before the end of the war, through gassing, starvation and deliberate drug overdoses.

The district attorney’s office inquired as to her whereabouts and received a death notice from Cholm Insane Asylum: “We wish to inform you that the patient Mirjam Sara P. died here on May 27, 1941. Heil Hitler!”

In fact, she was probably killed earlier than this; the death dates of T4 patients were often pushed forward so the institutions could continue to charge fees for their care.

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1948: Dieter Wisliceny, Eichmann aide

Add comment May 4th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1948, SS man Dieter Wisliceny was hanged in Bratislava for his role in the destruction of European Jewry.

The Hauptsturmfuhrer joined the Nazi party in 1933 and became one of Adolf Eichmann‘s key lieutenants* implementing the Final Solution in the occupied east.

The porcine Wisliceny himself seems to have been more of an opportunist than anything else — a washout theology student who got in with the Nazis on the upswing and happily enriched himself shaking down Jews who were trying to avoid deportation from his fiefs in Slovakia, Hungary or Greece, generally without providing much substantive life-saving in return.

Arrested after the war, Wisliceny gave damning testimony to the Nuremberg court about his onetime boss.

[Eichmann] said he would leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had 5 million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.*

Wisliceny had actually been Eichmann’s superior in the 1930s, and helped to promote the man. As Eichmann surpassed him in rank, so the policy of wholesale extermination Eichmann came to symbolize surpassed Wisliceny’s Zionist emigration position.**

Notably, Wisliceny would claim that Eichmann showed him a written extermination order never recovered after the war.

I was sent to Berlin in July or August 1942 in connection with the status of Jews from Slovakia, which mission is referred to more fully hereinafter. I was talking to Eichmann in his office in Berlin when he said that on written order of Himmler all Jews were to be exterminated. I requested to be shown the order. He took a file from the safe and showed me a top secret document with a red border, indicating immediate action. It was addressed jointly to the Chief of the Security Police and SD and to the Inspector of Concentration Camps. The letter read substantially as follows :

“The Fuehrer has decided that the final solution of the Jewish question is to start immediately. I designate the Chief of the Security Police and SD and the Inspector of Concentration Camps as responsible for the execution of this order. The particulars of the program are to be agreed upon by the Chief of the Security Police and SD and the Inspector of Concentration Camps. I am to be informed currently as to the execution of this order”.

The order was signed by Himmler and was dated some time in April 1942. Eichmann told me that the words “final solution” meant the biological extermination of the Jewish race, but that for the time being able-bodied Jews were to be spared and employed in industry to meet current requirements. I was so much impressed with this document which gave Eichmann authority to kill millions of people that I said at the time : “May God forbid that our enemies should ever do anything similar to the German people”. He replied : “Don’t be sentimental-this is a Fuehrer order”

This version of the story presents its narrator in a notably un-culpable light, as befits a man giving evidence with his own life on the line. Eichmann, the nimble bureaucratic operator, scoffed at the story.

Do you believe that he sat down in order to write to me: ‘My dear Eichmann, the Fuhrer has ordered the physical annihilation of all Jews’? The truth is that Himmler never wrote down a single line in this matter … I never received an order of any kind.†

Wisliceny’s evidence against his former associate may have been motivated by the prisoners’ dilemma, but his testimony injured Eichmann all the same when the latter finally came to trial years after the war. It was cutting.

I consider Eichmann’s character and personality important factors in carrying out measures against the Jews. He was personally a cowardly man who went to great pains to protect himself from responsibility. He never made a move without approval from higher authority and was extremely careful to keep files and records establishing the responsibility of Himmler, Heydrich and later Kaltenbrunner.

Reliable or not, this stuff didn’t do Wisliceny (enough) good, either. He was handed over to Czechoslovakian authorities after the war, and hanged for war crimes.

(Some sources give February 1948 as the execution date; I believe this may have been when Wisliceny was convicted.)

* In the version Eichmann gave at his trial in Israel, his line was “five million enemies of the Reich.”

** “A memorandum (Vermerk) of April 7, 1937, signed by Wisliceny presents an argument for the emigration of all German Jews, which could be achieved only by supporting the Zionist enterprise.” (Yehuda Bauer, Jews for Sale? Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945)

Jews for Sale? Nazi-Jewish Negotiations, 1933-1945

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1948: The condemned from the Doctors’ Trial

2 comments June 2nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1948, seven SS men were hanged at Germany’s Landsberg Prison, condemned for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the so-called Doctors Trial.

Four of the hanged were doctors; three were non-physicians who assisted them. Their trial (which included 16 others, variously acquitted or sentenced to prison terms) by an American military tribunal was a conscious attempt to establish criminal responsibility among the medical profession.

As prosecutor Telford Taylor* said in his opening statement.

To kill, to maim, and to torture is criminal under all modern systems of law. These defendants did not kill in hot blood, nor for personal enrichment. Some of them may be sadists who killed and tortured for sport, but they are not all perverts. They are not ignorant men. Most of them are trained physicians and some of them are distinguished scientists. Yet these defendants, all of whom were fully able to comprehend the nature of their acts, and most of whom were exceptionally qualified to form a moral and professional judgment in this respect, are responsible for wholesale murder and unspeakably cruel tortures.

It is our deep obligation to all peoples of the world to show why and how these things happened. It is incumbent upon us to set forth with conspicuous clarity the ideas and motives which moved these defendants to treat their fellow men as less than beasts.

One of several war crimes trials after the big Nuremberg Tribunal (and held in the same courtroom), the Doctors Trial dealt with the Third Reich’s Frankenstein lab of medical experimentation.

Some of this was combat-related. How long can a downed pilot survive in the North Sea? Throw a POW into freezing water and find out.

Some was more conventional medical advancement, shorn of any ethical sense. How can we treat malaria? Inject some untermenschen and start testing.

And some of it was straight from the Nazis’ racial purification theology: euthanizing the disabled, castrating and murdering Jews and Gypsies, that sort of thing. It’s all a rich tapestry.

The doctors hanged this date included

  • Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician and the co-director of the Aktion T4 euthanasia program**
  • SS hygienist Joachim Mrugowsky, for experiments with concentration camp prisoners
  • SS surgeon and German Red Cross head Karl Gebhart, who enjoyed experimenting with operations on unanaesthetized prisoners
  • Waldemar Hoven, chief doctor at Buchenwald

They kept company with three others who didn’t see the “patients” but pushed around the paper for those who did.

Many of this day’s scaffold clientele died unrepentant; Karl Brandt harangued at such length that the hood was put over his head mid-sentence to move proceedings along.

Landsberg Prison was a fitting site for their expiation. As the New York Times reported (June 3, 1948)

The men died on two black gallows erected in the courtyard of the prison where Hitler wrote “Mein Kampf” while confined after his 1923 Munich putsch.

* In 1970, Telford wrote Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy, arguing that American officials had committed war crimes in Vietnam because “we failed ourselves to learn the lessons we undertook to teach at Nuremberg.”

Telford died in 1998, so his commentary on the accountability-free torture of the modern war machine is unavailable.

** Karl Brandt was actually condemned to death by a Nazi court in the closing days of the war and only narrowly avoided execution. His crime? Moving his family out of Berlin so that they could surrender to the Americans instead of the Russians.

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1945: Friedrich Fromm, Claus von Stauffenberg’s executioner

5 comments March 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1945, Friedrich Fromm found out that you have to pick a side.

The cunning career army officer had been serving as the head of the Replacement Army.

This position provided access to the Fuhrer for Fromm — and for his chief of staff, Col. Claus von Stauffenberg. And it gave his office the authority to issue the “Valkyrie” orders for quelling civil unrest that Stauffenberg’s circle would use to attempt to seize Berlin.

Fromm realized that his underling was involved in a plot against the Nazi dictator, but neither joined it nor smashed it.

This play-it-safe approach turned out not to be safe at all. When Stauffenberg’s attempt to assassinate Hitler failed, Fromm hastily attempted to cover his tracks by summarily executing Stauffenberg and co-conspirators.

Not all that subtle, really. “You’ve been in a damned hurry to get your witnesses below ground,” Joseph Goebbels sneered.

Heinrich Himmler quickly had Fromm arrested. “Fate does not spare the man whose convictions are not matched by his readiness to give them effect,” wrote July 20th conspirator Hans Speidel. (As cited by Shirer.)

Although in Friedrich Fromm’s case, that wasn’t entirely true.

In recognition of the general’s calculated but not-unhelpful show of loyalty on the decisive date (enacted when Fromm realized the plotters had made a dog’s breakfast of everything) Hitler generously permitted the general to be “honorably” shot … rather than strangled from a meathook.

* Some sources give March 12, rather than March 19. I have been unable to establish primary documentation, but the sites for March 19 are far more numerous. (Years-later update: I probably got this wrong. I’d be better inclined to believe March 12.)

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1942: Eleven members of the Red Orchestra

2 comments December 22nd, 2009 Headsman

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Spies,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1941: Masha Bruskina, Kiril Trus, and Volodia Shcherbatsevich, partisans

21 comments October 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1941, the German occupiers of Minsk conducted an infamous public hanging of partisans — perhaps the first such salutary public execution of resistance members of the war.

Jewish* 17-year-old Maria (Masha) Bruskina was the central figure of the grim tableau, and wore the placard announcing “We are partisans and have shot at German soldiers.” Evidently, she also attracted the most attention** from the onlookers to whom the scene was addressed.

Before noon, I saw the armed German and Lithuanian soldiers appear on the street. From over the bridge they escorted three people with their arms tied behind their backs. In the middle there was a girl with a sign-board on her chest. They were led up to the yeast factory gate. I noticed how calmly these people walked. The girl did not look around … The first one led to the gallows was the girl.

She was hanged with bewhiskered World War I vet Kiril Trus and the 16-year-old Volodia Shcherbatsevich. The men were members of a partisan cell organizing anti-fascist resistance; Masha Bruskina was a nurse who had been caught aiding the partisans by providing civilian clothes and papers for wounded Red Army soldiers under her care to smuggle them back to the resistance.

The scene of their deaths was captured in a series of powerful photographs taken by one of the Lithuanian Wehrmacht collaborators.

(More images here and here.)

* Phototextualities: Intersections of Photography and Narrative claims that Bruskina lightened her hair and changed her name to prevent her Jewishness affecting her resistance work; even though she was a Minsk native, her initial identification didn’t happen until 1968. The men who suffered with her were named almost immediately after the war.

** Despite the eye-catching place of the girl, she was officially unidentified for decades even after the name Masha Bruskina surfaced. In “A Historical Injustice: The Case of Masha Bruskina,” (Holocaust Genocide Studies 1997, 11:3) Nechama Tec and Daniel Weiss argued that Soviet authorities, and later Belarusian ones, found her Jewishness problematic and resisted identifying her because of it — while an ethnically Russian female partisan like Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya could be more conveniently accepted as a heroine. Maybe, but bureaucratic inertia and simple precedence (since Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya was known immediately while Masha Bruskina was not) are also plausible contributing factors.

A plaque unveiled at the Minsk yeast factory in 2009 finally called her Maria Bruskina.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Belarus,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Germany,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Jews,Martyrs,Mature Content,Milestones,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,Torture,USSR,Wartime Executions

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1942: The village of Lidice, for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich

20 comments June 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the Germans visited upon the Czechoslovakian village of Lidice one of the most notorious butcheries of World War II: the physical destruction of the town, and the execution of most of the adult population, in revenge for the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich.

Heydrich had power of life and death in Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia, and did not scruple to use it.

“The Hangman of Prague” was no mere functionary, but a Nazi grand wizard from way back, who’d had a hand in the Third Reich’s most terrifying greatest hits — the Night of the Long Knives, Kristallnacht. Just four months before this date, Heydrich had chaired the Wannsee Conference.* (Watch Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich ride herd over a gaggle of bureaucrats to get the Final Solution up and running in Conspiracy.) Hitler called him his “man with the iron heart.”

So he was a natural target for the Czechoslovakian army-in-exile and their British handlers, made more so by his lordly disdain for common-sense security safeguards.

Zipping along a predictable route in an open car, he was a sitting duck for a hit squad, who gave the Nazi bastard a mortal shrapnel wound from a grenade that had him lingering painfully at death’s door for several days before he finally died of blood poisoning.

The 1964 Czechoslovakian film Atentat (“Assassination”) chronicles the plot to kill Heydrich and its aftermath.

For this effrontery, Czechoslovakians would pay a dreadful price.

Naturally, the Nazis mercilessly hunted down and slaughtered those with any connection to the plot.

But the Reich also exacted collective reprisals to make plain that the entire “protectorate” could be considered hostage against such plots in the future.

Special transports of Jews marked “Attentat auf Heydrich” were shipped to the camps, and 152 were executed on the day Heydrich succumbed. But then, the Nazis were brutalizing Jews anyway. Something more headline-grabbing would be needed.

Enter Lidice.

After gaudy funerals for the slain Reichsprotektor, the Reich settled upon the small town of Lidice north of Prague — trumping up a few connections to resistance to “justify” collective punishment.

On this date, German troops stormed it, summarily executed all the men and boys** old enough to bear arms and a fair number of women, deported the others, and then physically destroyed and buried the town.

Lidice was intended as a demonstration — boldly published to the world as proof against a repeat,† it became the byword of Nazi cruelty towards subject nations. Though not by quantitative standards the greatest crime of the occupation, not even the greatest crime in reprisal for Heydrich, its three syllables distill all the evil of Hitler’s conquest for Czechoslovakia.

Lidice did live, and does yet, as an emblem par excellence those terrible years.

Less alive: Heydrich’s right-hand man Karl Hermann Frank, who was hanged in Prague after the war for engineering this monstrous crime. Those survivors of Lidice able to make the trip enjoyed priority seating.

* Heydrich’s aide at the Wannsee Conference, and taker of cleaned-up minutes, was Mr. Banality of Evil himself, Adolf Eichmann.

** Only three men of Lidice survived the destruction: two who were in England at that time, and one who was imprisoned in Prague for killing his son. The sentence for this crime, it turned out, was life.

† An effective proof — the calculated wholesale slaughter apparently did cool both the conquered populace and the enemies of Germany on enthusiasm for further assassinations.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Children,Chosen by Lot,Cycle of Violence,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,History,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Language,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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