1935: Benita von Falkenhayn and Renate von Natzmer, Germany’s last beheadings by axe

Add comment February 18th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1935, Germany conducted its last axe-beheadings.

The axees were impecunious noblewomen Benita von Falkenhayn (English Wikipedia entry | German) and Renate von Natzmer (English | German), spies for Poland recruited via society love affairs with Polish envoy Jerzy Sosnowski.*


Benita von Falkenhayn (left) and Renate von Natzmer.

At 6:00 a.m. on February 18th, Benita von Falkenhayn was brought in a state of near-collapse to a courtyard of Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison. There a red-clad prosecutor read out her condemnation espionage and treason and gave her over to longtime Prussian headsman Carl Gröpler.** The old Scharfrichter bent van Falkenhayn over a rude block and crashed his heavy blade cleanly through her neck, dropping her head into a basket. After a hurried clean-up, they repeated the same ritual for Renate von Natzmer.

The Reich had within living memory to folks of Herr Gröpler’s age still remained a quiltwork confederation of small states; one artifact of its unification was penal codes that used beheading for executions yet no further specificity on the manner of beheading. The most usual means was the fallbeil, a small guillotine, but it was ultimately a matter for the jurisdiction where the sentencing took place — and antiquated manual cleavers were still sometimes deployed by the state of Prussia, which included Berlin.

In October 1936, Nazi Justice Minister Franz Gürtner successfully prevailed upon Adolf Hitler to codify the fallbeil as the explicit means of beheading throughout the Reich, putting an end to the archaic reliance on Gröpler’s brawn and aim.

* Sosnowski was released back to Poland in a prisoner exchange and there tried for treason on grounds of getting too friendly with Germany. After the 1939 invasion of Poland by the Third Reich and the USSR, he appears to have come into Soviet custody and pressed into cooperation; various reports have him thereafter dying in custody, being executed by the NKVD, or returning to the field and dying in action or after capture by the Polish Home Army.

** Four days shy of his 67th birthday at this moment, Gröpler was coming into a pension windfall courtesy of the Third Reich’s liberal expansion of capital punishment. He retired in 1937 with 144 documented executions to his name; he died in Soviet custody in January 1946.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Germany,History,Milestones,Nobility,Prussia,Spies,Treason,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1935: Kemal Syed, assassin

Add comment January 14th, 2020 Headsman

A 28-year-old Afghan nationalist was executed in Berlin’s Ploetzensee Prison on this date in 1935.

“During a heated argument” with Sardar Mohammed Aziz Khan* on June 6, 1933, Kemal (or Kamal) Syed on June 6, 1933 “accused the minister of treason and of selling out his country to the British. He then pulled a revolver and shot him fatally.” (UP wire report via the redoubtable pages of the Oshkosh (Wisc.) Northwestern, Jan. 14, 1935)

His punishment was delayed by diplomatic wrangling between Germany and Afghanistan over possible extradition. In the end, Berlin handled matters directly.

* This man also happened to be the brother to the late (and likewise assassinated) King of Afghanistan. In time, the assassinated diplomat’s son would overthrow the assassinated king’s son and rule from 1973 to 1978 as Afghanistan’s first president. (Although if you like, you could also consider him the last of the Musahiban dynasty.) That diplomat’s son in turn was deposed in a palace coup by the ham-handed Communist who would set off the catastrophic Soviet-Afghan War.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Afghanistan,Assassins,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Racial and Ethnic Minorities

Tags: , , , , ,

1943: Jarmila Zivcova, correspondent

1 comment September 9th, 2018 Headsman

In the early morning hours on this date in 1943, Jarmila Zivcova, her husband Vaclav Zivec, and their friend Ruzena Kodadova were beheaded in Berlin. These Czechoslovakians had been condemned for complicity in the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

Their deaths were part of the mass of executions ordered by the Reich after Allied bombing damaged Berlin’s Plotzensee Prison, but we notice them via this thread on the information-dense Axis History Forum, thanks to the unusual circumstance of having their “last letters to their families” — a palliative exercise whose product was often destroyed rather than delivered — rescued by Karel Rameš. In his Zaluji: Pankracka Kalvarie, he gives the text of Jarmila Zivcova’s heartbreaking last missives, as translated by a forum poster:

9 September 1943:

Dear Mrs Taskova:

We are here with Ruzena in the preparation cell and at 4:30 we will be executed – us two, and my husband. We believed till the last moment that this would not happen, but unfortunately this morning we had to hear the awful truth that we must die. You were deceived if they promised you that we will be saved. Ruzena is very devastated, her hands shake, so she cannot even…

… and, scrawled on the back of a photograph of Vaclav and Jarmila’s son:

9/9/43, from your mom and dad:

My dear Jiri, keep this picture, kissed thousand times, in memory of your mother who found solace in it even in the saddest moments.

These aren’t names rich with search hits, but a German volume called Berufswunsch Henker contributes this letter from friends on the harrowing experience of proximity to the fallbeil:

We have seen our best friends go — Rosa Kodakova, Jarmila Zivcova, and many others. We can hear the severed heads crash onto the floor. We hear every detail in the vicinity of our cell. We hear the gate of the preparation cell open, then the executioner’s footsteps to the door; we hear his helpers grab the victim, shove her on the wooden bench, and cut off the head. Then they carry the body away without a head. They place the body in a rough coffin, their chopped-off head thrown between the dead man’s legs. The whole thing is then transported away somewhere for burning. By now we all know the whole story by heart.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Terrorists,Wartime Executions,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1943: Thirteen Red Orchestra members

Add comment May 13th, 2018 Headsman

Thirteen anti-fascist resistance members of the “Red Orchestra” ring(s) were efficiently beheaded by the Plötzensee Prison fallbeil on this date in 1943.


Let no one say that I wept and trembled and clung to life. I want to end my life laughing, laughing the way I loved and still love life.

Erika von Brockdorff

They were:

German Wikipedia’s list of executions in the Reich has only the above 11 listed for this day; via … @KrasnojKapelle on Twitter and this Bundesarchiv page, the others were

* A psychoanalyst, Rittmeister contributed through his correspondence the whimsical/ominous title of a volume about the history of his field — “Here Life Goes on in a Most Peculiar Way”: Psychoanalysis before and after 1933.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1943: Mildred Fish-Harnack, an American in the German Resistance

1 comment February 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1943, the Milwaukee-born translator and historian Mildred Fish-Harnack was beheaded at Plotzensee Prison — the only American woman executed by Hitler’s order.

A graduate student at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee,* she met German jurist Arvid Harnack when the latter was a visiting scholar at the university’s sister campus in Madison.

In 1929, the couple moved to Germany where they worked as academics: Mildred, a teacher of language and literature; Arvid, of economics and foreign policy.

Both watched the rise of Third Reich with growing horror, and soon began converting their circles of academics, artists, and expats into a hive of opposition doing what they could to aid the many classes of excommunicate humans Berlin was busily proscribing. As the Nazi enterprise intensified, that opposition demanded ever more dangerous — more treasonable — extremities.

Good friends with American diplomats, the Harnacks for a time used Arvid’s placement in the Reich economic ministry to pass information to the United States. In 1940, they made contact with Soviet intelligence and from that time until the Gestapo snatched them in September 1942 the so-called** Red Orchestra sent furtive coded radio transmissions to Moscow reporting war preparations, economic data, and whatever else their circle could lay hands on among their various posts.

We have treated the fate of the Red Orchestra elsewhere in these pages; Mildred Harnack did not go to the meathook-nooses with her husband Arvid and others on December 22 because she was sentenced initially only to a term of years. These judgments came down at just the same time as the USSR was drowning the Wehrmacht in blood at Stalingrad, so there might have been a bit of personal pique when the Fuhrer personally quashed Mildred’s lenient sentence and demanded a, ah, reconsideration.

“And I have loved Germany so much,” she murmured as she was thrown under the fallbeil.

There’s a Mildred-Harnack-Schule in Berlin (also a Mildred-Harnack-Straße); her birthday, September 16, is observed every year in Wisconsin schools — although Mildred’s red associations meant that widespread recognition in her native country had to await the end of the Cold War.


Trailer for a Wisconsin Public Television documentary that can be viewed in full here.

* Then known as the Milwaukee State Normal School.

** Though this is the name history remembers them by, Red Orchestra (Rote Kapelle) was conferred by the German intelligence working to stop them. Confusingly, the name was applied to multiple different, and unrelated, spy networks.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Spies,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions,Wisconsin

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1943: Red Orchestra members, in the Nazi Paradise

Add comment August 5th, 2014 Headsman

From 7 to 8 p.m. on the evening of August 5, 1943 the Fallbeil at Plotzensee Prison destroyed 17 members of the Berlin Red Orchestra resistance circle.

We have touched previously on Die Rote Kapelle in the context of the first 11 executions that claimed its leadership on December 22, 1942.

But the Gestapo had a much wider network than that to break up; ultimately, there would be nearly 50 death sentences associated with Red Orchestra, for activities ranging from outright espionage to merely dissident leafletting, and other rounds of executions had taken place over the preceding months.

The executions this date were more of the sad same, and noteworthy for some sincere and ordinary citizens so sympathetic that even the Reich Military Court recommended mercy for some. Adolf Hitler refused it across the board. The victims, predominantly women who had been moved to Plotzensee for execution that very morning, included

  • Cato Bontjes van Beek, an idealistic 22-year-old ceramicist.
  • Liane Berkowitz. Two days short of her 20th birthday when she was beheaded, Berkowitz had given birth to a child while awaiting execution.
  • Eva-Maria Buch, who translated propaganda leaflets destined for illicit distribution to the forced laborers employed in German munitions factories.
  • Else Imme, an anti-fascist whose sister had emigrated to the Soviet Union.
  • Ingeborg Kummerow.
  • Anna Krauss, a 58-year-old businesswoman.
  • Klara Schabbel, a Comintern agent who in her youth had fought against the French occupation of the Ruhr after World War I.
  • Rose Schlosinger.
  • Oda Schottmuller, a dancer and sculptor who used her arts-related trips to act as a courier.
  • Writer Adam Kuckhoff. His widow Greta would go on to head the East German central bank.
  • Emil Hubner, an 81-year-old retiree, along with his daughter Frida Wesolek and her husband Stanislaus.

Besides the above, at least three others among the condemned in this group paid with their lives for an arts activism attack on Das Sowjetparadies (The Soviet Paradise), a Reich exhibition in May-June 1942 that used photographs and captured artifacts from the war’s eastern front to depict “poverty, squalor and misery” in the USSR. This associated propaganda film gives a taste of the vibe:

The Orchestra orchestrated an “attack” littering the exhibition with counter-propaganda


“Permanent Exhibition
The NAZI PARADISE
War Hunger Lies Gestapo
How much longer?”

This act of wehrkraftzersetzung was a factor in the sentences of —

  • Hilde Coppi, one of the circle’s principal members and the wife of the previously executed Hans Coppi. Like Liane Berkowitz, she was spared the first rounds of executions to bear and nurse her child.
  • Maria Terwiel, a Catholic barrister with a Jewish mother.
  • Ursula Goetze.

On this day..

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

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1937: Helmut Hirsch, secret bomber

Add comment June 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the German-American Jewish terrorist Helmut “Helle” Hirsch was decapitated at Plotzensee Prison.

Hirsch (English Wikipedia entry | German) was an architecture student who had been driven from Germany by anti-Semitic laws and studied, therefore, in Prague. (Before the Reich gobbled up Czechoslovakia, of course.)

There he became involved in the Strasserite anti-Hitler “Black Front”. To Hirsch’s grief, this organization had been thoroughly penetrated by pro-Hitler spies.

In December 1936, Hirsch embarked on a train. His mission was to bomb something in Germany. The details of the plan remain murky to this day; Hirsch’s subsequent trial was held in secret and his worried family only learned the whereabouts of their son three months missing when they heard a radio broadcast in March announcing his condemnation for “preparation of high treason and criminal use of explosives endangering the public.”

It seems that Hirsch was supposed to have disembarked in Nuremberg and there picked up some left luggage deposited by a fellow conspirator; he may have been meant to deliver this payload Nazi party headquarters in Nuremberg, or perhaps to the offices of Julius Streicher’s propaganda sheet Der Stürmer.

The young would-be terrorist would tell his family in prison letters that he had instead bypassed Nuremberg and kept going all the way to Stuttgart to meet a friend, hoping the latter would talk him out of his wavering commitment to the plot. Instead, he was arrested that night by the Gestapo.

This case made news in the United States during the spring of ’37 because Hirsch’s father, Siegfried, was a naturalized American. That made Helmut a U.S. citizen, too, even though the son had never set foot in the United States.* U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull and the American ambassador to Germany William Dodd lobbied the Nazi government to spare Hirsch** — but to no avail.

Hirsch’s sister Kaete Hirsch Sugarman later donated her brother’s papers — letters, photos, architectural drawings — to Brandeis University, which maintains them as the Helmut Hirsch Collection. They include this touching final letter the young man wrote to his family on the eve of his execution.

Dear Mother, dear Father,

I have just been told that my appeal for clemency was turned down. I must die then.

We need not say anything any more to each other. You know that in these last months I have really found the way to myself and to life. Real beauty must stand before unswerving honesty. You know that I have lived every moment fervently and that I have remained true to myself until the end. You must live on. There can be no giving up for you. No becoming soft or sentimental. In these days I have learned to say “yes” to life. Not only to endure it but to love life as it is. It is our own inner gravity, the force by which we have entered life.

It must help you in some way that I know I have finally reached my own inner image and feel complete. And in this feeling is much of our time and our world.

The only way I know how to thank you is by showing you until the last moment that I have used all your love and goodness towards becoming a whole being of my time and my heritage. Do not think of the unused possibilities, but take my life as a whole. A great search, a foolish error, but on its path to finding of final truth, final peace.

Please care for Vally [his girlfriend, Valerie Petrova] as for a child. I embrace you, dear mother and you, my father, once more for a long, long time. Only now have I realized how much I love you.

Yours forever,

Helmut.

* Siegfried Hirsch was a naturalized American who had lived in the U.S. for a decade prior to World War I. Siegfried’s U.S. citizenship had been revoked in 1926 because he had left to live abroad, but when the matter came to prominence in 1937 it was reinstated and Helmut Hirsch explicitly acknowledged as a U.S. national.

** The shoe has been on the other foot for death-sentenced German nationals in the present-day U.S.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Jews,Terrorists,Treason

Tags: , , , , , ,

1942: Helmuth Huebener, Mormon anti-Nazi

3 comments October 27th, 2012 Headsman


Poster announces Helmut Hubener’s execution.

On this date in 1942, 17-year-old Helmuth Hübener was executed at Plotzensee Prison for listening to the BBC.

Huebener was a Mormon youth with the political perspicacity to abhor fascism from a very young age: the former Boy Scout (Mormons really take to scouting) ditched the Hitler Youth after Kristallnacht, which happened when Huebener was only 10 years old.

As Germany forged ahead towards worse horrors in the years, conscientious people of all ages had moral dilemmas to resolve. Mormons in Nazi Germany weren’t persecuted per se and to keep it that way that small community generally kept its head judiciously down.

Not Huebener.

Horrified by the privations of their Jewish neighbors, Huebener with fellow Mormon teens Karl-Heinz Schnibbe and Rudi Wobbe began illegally listening to foreign radio broadcasts and using the material to compose anti-fascist pamphlets for distribution around Hamburg.

Themes like Germany’s coming defeat (a Huebener circle favorite) never went over well with the authorities; a 1939 law decreed that “Whoever willfully distributes the broadcasts of foreign stations which are designed to endanger the strength of resistance of the German people will, in particularly severe cases, be punished with death.”

Huebener’s friends, aged 18 and 16, were judged only sufficiently severe for hard labor sentences; both survived the war but have since died. Huebener as the ringleader got the death penalty. (The local Mormon congregation expediently excommunicated him, a judgment later reversed from church headquarters in Salt Lake City.) And clearly Huebener was failing to “support the troops”, in the present-day parlance: his own older brother Gerhard had been drafted into the Wehrmacht and was away at the front.

“My Father in heaven knows that I have done nothing wrong,” young Helmuth wrote shortly before his beheading. “I know that God lives and He will be the proper judge of this matter.”

The Latter-Day Saints church, not usually thought of as a hive of anti-authority activity, has only gradually warmed up to celebrating its appealing young resistance martyr.

In addition to a number of books, Huebener is the subject of the documentary Truth & Conviction as well as the forthcoming feature film Truth & Treason.

A few books about Helmuth Huebener

Three Against Hitler and When Truth Was Treason were written by Huebener’s un-executed confederates.

Novels inspired by Helmuth Huebener

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Treason,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

1944: Johanna Kirchner, Frankfurt antifascist

June 9th, 2012 Headsman

“Keep Goethe‘s words in mind. ‘Die and become’. Don’t cry for me. I believe in a better future for you.”

-Johanna Kirchner’s last letter to her children

On this date in 1944, former social worker Johanna (“Hanna”) Kirchner was beheaded in Plotzensee Prison for treason.

(cc) image from Fran Behnsen of a Kirchner commemoration plaque in Frankfurt’s St. Paul’s Church.

Kirchner English Wikipedia entry | German) co-founded with Marie Juchacz after World War I the still-extant Workers’ Welfare organization: Arbeiterwohlfahrt, or “the self-help of the workers.”

These self-helping workers — both members of the socialist Social Democratic Party; Juchacz was a Reichstag member — had to flee to League of Nations-administered Saarland with the rise of the Nazi dictatorship … and from there, soon enough, on to France.

There the Vichy government arrested her in 1942 (Juchacz got out to the United States), and deported Kirchner to Germany to answer as a traitor.

She had a sentence of “only” ten years at hard labor, but the case was unexpectedly reopened in 1944 so that the cartoon villain of fascist jurisprudence, Roland Freisler, could give her a spittle-flecked death sentence for having “treasonably rooted herself in the evilest Marxist high-treason propaganda.”

Kirchner’s native Frankfurt has a Johanna-Kirchner-Straße, and in the 1990s awarded a Johanna-Kirchner-Medaille to anti-fascists.


View Larger Map

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Treason,Wartime Executions,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

1893: Bertha Zillmann, completely prostrate

Add comment October 31st, 2011 Headsman

From the Birmingham (England) Daily Post, Nov. 1, 1893 (and also reproduced here)


A WOMAN BEHEADED IN GERMANY.

The Berlin correspondent of the Daily News telegraphs that on Monday, for the first time in many years, a woman was beheaded in Germany. The prisoner had murdered her husband by poisoning him, after he had brutally ill treated her and her children. At the trial the woman said she would reserve her defence, but she was sentenced to death, and the Emperor confirmed the sentence. Yesterday the woman, whose name was Zillmann, was informed that she was to die. She had hoped to be pardoned, and burst into tears.

She was on Sunday taken to Plotzensee, where the execution took place. There she asked for coffee and a well-done beefsteak, saying, “I should like to eat as much as I like once more.” To the chaplain the woman declared her innocence to the last moment. In the night she spoke continually of her miserable married life, and of her five children. On Monday morning, however, she was quite apathetic while being prepared for the execution. Her dress was cut out at the neck down to the shoulders, and her hair fastened up in a knot, her shoulders being then covered with a shawl. At eight the inspector of the prison entered Zillmann’s cell, and found her completely prostrate, and not capable of putting one foot before the other. Two warders raised her up, and led her to the block. Without a sound she removed the shawl from her shoulders, and three minutes after eight the executioner had done his work.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Murder,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Previous Posts


Calendar

November 2020
M T W T F S S
« Oct    
 1
2345678
9101112131415
16171819202122
23242526272829
30  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!