1945: Carl Goerdeler, as penance for the German people

1 comment February 2nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1945, Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, godfather of the anti-Hitler resistance that had bid unsuccessfully for his assassination, was hanged at Plotzensee Prison. With him went fellow regime foes, Johannes Popitz and Father Alfred Delp.

The monarchist pol Goerdeler enjoys pride of place as one of the first German elites to opposite Hitler, though that opposition was not quite so early as the very beginning. Goerdeler was a creature of the pre-Nazi establishment, and shared many of perspectives that prepared that world to accommodate national socialism: Goerdeler bitterly opposed the Versailles Treaty, wanted to take a bite out of Polish territory, and had the customary strictly-within-legal-bounds anti-Semitism of his class. Even lying under sentence of death late in 1944, having denounced the Holocaust to his Gestapo interrogators, his “Thoughts of a Condemned Man” reflected,

We should not attempt to minimize what has been happening, but we should also emphasize the great guilt of the Jews, who had invaded our public life in ways that lacked all customary restraint.

A German patriot, then, committed to a “a purified Germany with a government of decent people”; a humanist Liberal from a bygone age, who had no weapons to fight a terror state.

As Mayor of Leipzig, he openly opposed the Third Reich’s excesses and pushed to moderate its policy.* In 1937 he copped a principled resignation and started cultivating contacts abroad, warning of Hitler’s aggression — also managing to impress his foreign interlocutors with his incapacity to affect events himself. His many memoranda urging Hitler to moderate this or that outrage went for naught.

The resistance circle around Goerdeler, which drew in his fellow-sufferer Popitz,** would be marked throughout the war years by that incapacity — a monument to high-minded failure, eternally short of the last ounce of will or that one key resource.

Goerdeler’s name adorned the ministry of many a fanciful post-Hitler government, but he himself, according to his friend and fellow-conspirator Gerhard Ritter, “preferred to begin with a debate rather than a power stroke”.

To be sure, the man looked in vain for some decisive form of aid: within the Reich, the sympathetic Wehrmacht brass couldn’t quite see their way to something as radical as breaking their loyalty oaths; without, he got no terms short of unconditional surrender from the Allies.

But even come the summer of 1944 when all was well past lost, Goerdeler entertained delusions of persuading Hitler to give up power voluntarily, and opposed Stauffenberg‘s assassination gambit.

Indecision would be no defense when he was hailed before bloodthirsty judge Roland Freisler for treason.

Goerdeler and Popitz, both viewed as influential with Germany’s Western enemies, were kept alive for months after the judicial purges commenced: Himmler‘s hope for a back channel deal. Our man had many hours in this Gethsemane for that essential contemplation of the 20th century.

In sleepless nights I have asked myself whether a God exists who shares in the personal fate of men. It is becoming hard to believe it. For this God must for years now have allowed rivers of blood and suffering, mountains of horror and despair for mankind … He must have let millions of decent men die and suffer without moving a finger.

-Carl Goerdeler (Source)

We do not know what account Goerdeler gave of himself to the afterlife; even the account he left of himself for our terrestrial posterity is disputable.

“I ask the world to accept our martyrdom as penance for the German people,” he wrote in prison. Is it enough to accept for Goerdeler himself? His actions, intrepid by the standards of most countrymen, were fatally unequal to the heroism demanded of his circumstance. By any measure, his is a very human tragedy.

Carl Goerdeler’s brother Fritz shared the same fate a few weeks later. Other family members were imprisoned at Dachau; Carl’s son, Reinhard Goerdeler, became an accountant after the war and is the “G” in the big four firm KPMG.

* Including Berlin’s heretically expansionary economic policy. Goerdeler hated Keynes; his prescription for the capitalist crisis of the 1930s was falling wages, low deficits, a mighty Reichsmark, and free trade. (The April 1938 Foreign Affairs published a Goerdeler essay entitled “Do Government Price Controls Work?” Answer: no.)

It would be too much to say that Berlin’s profligacy outraged him as much as the fact that it was being squandered on dishonorable war, but said profligacy was definitely on the bill of attainder.

** Father Delp, the other man hanged this date, was involved in the resistance but even Freisler’s court decided he wasn’t in on the July 20 plot.

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1942: Eleven members of the Red Orchestra

Add comment 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.

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1943: Blessed Franz Jagerstatter, conscientious objector

1 comment August 9th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1943, an Austrian farmer was beheaded in Berlin’s Plotzensee Prison for refusing to fight for the Third Reich.

Franz Jägerstätter, who lost his own father in World War I, was anschlussed right into the Third Reich when Germany absorbed Austria in 1938.

In Solitary Witness is the aptly-titled biography of the man; though his fatal refusal of mandatory military service (and his critique of Nazi Germany) sprang from his deep-rooted Catholicism, it was far from the norm for his German-Catholic neighbors.

“We must go courageously on the way of suffering,” he wrote, “whether we begin sooner or later.” Somewhat oddly neglected as a martyr figure in the immediate postwar period, Jagerstatter was recently beatified by Pope Benedict XVI — a German himself, of course, who did not refuse his tiny measure of youthful service to the Wehrmacht in those years, and who assuredly grasps the untapped public relations potential of this compelling figure.


An icon of Franz Jagerstatter, and a naked Nazi imp.

Jagerstatter’s widow is still alive; she and her children movingly keep Franz’s memory to this day — and his example continues to inspire Catholics who go the way of suffering today against war and injustice.

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1941: Paul Ogorzow, the S-Bahn Murderer

1 comment July 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1941, Nazi Berlin disposed of its railway killer.

Roger Moorhouse, author of a forthcoming book about Ogorzow, tells the story of this unjustly neglected homicidal maniac on his blog, and in a BBC History Magazine interview:

[audio:http://content.bbcmagazinesbristol.com/bbchistory/audio/BBC_History_May09_Pt2.mp3]

Paul Ogorzow (German link) plied his trade in a city blacked-out against British bombing, but he provides an illuminating glimpse at criminal investigation.

While Ogorzow benefited from Berlin’s preternatural darkness, he didn’t go greatly out of his way to cover his tracks otherwise. At least four of his eight murders were within a mile of his house; one woman who survived his attack reported the assailant was wearing German Railways kit.

The police, prone then as now to (sometimes hastily) settle on a theory and seek evidence to confirm it, remained blind to the seemingly obvious possibility that a railway worker was the culprit … even if he also happened to be a Nazi party member in good standing.

The official fixation on Untermenschen may not be surprising given the ideological climate, but Germany had had its share of noteworthy murderers in the interwar years who were neither Jews nor foreign laborers nor British agents — the suspect profiles favored by German investigators while Ogorzow continued his killing spree.

With the slightest measure of care, the S-Bahn Murderer might have plied his hobby unmolested until the wartime manpower shortages started making him look like an attractive bit of cannon-fodder for the eastern front. Alas for him, his voracious appetite for murder — eight victims with similar m.o. in just a few months — eventually made him so obvious that even the police could no longer overlook him.

Although the government kept the crime and its unedifying investigation fairly quiet, it was known. There was even a 1944 true crime potboiler by Wilhelm Ihde (pseudonymously writing as “Axel Alt”), Der Tod fuhr im Zug (Death Rode the Train). According to Todd Herzog,

Alt’s novel is representative of the dominant tendency of the period to celebrate the work of the criminal police while avoiding any portrayal of the totalitarian apparatus that surrounded criminal politics in the Third Reich.

Little surprise there.

Alt’s novel ultimately aligns itself with [Fritz] Lang’s film [M] in showing the methodical work of professional detectives to be ineffective in capturing the modern killer and explicitly calling for … recruitment of the public to aid the police in fighting crime.

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1943: Elfriede Scholz, Erich Maria Remarque’s sister

10 comments December 16th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1943, pacifist novelist Erich Maria Remarque lost his youngest sister to the Nazi regime — beheaded because her “brother is beyond our reach.”

Actually, Elfriede Scholz was convicted (upon the denunciation of her landlady a few weeks before) by the kangaroo People’s Court for undermining the war effort. (“Wehrkraftzersetzung” — German has a word for everything.)

Like her brother, Elfriede was a staunch opponent of the Nazi government, and in 1943 that could certainly have sufficed to get her a one-way trip to Plotzensee Prison.

But Roland Freisler‘s verdict explicitly referenced (German link) her more famous brother — upon whom the Nazis would have poured out an interwar era’s worth of fury had they been able to get to him in America.

Ihr Bruder ist uns entwischt, aber Sie werden uns nicht entwischen! (Your brother is beyond our reach, but you will not escape us!

Though Erich Maria Remarque and Adolf Hitler had served together at the Third Battle of Ypres, they didn’t quite see eye to eye after the Great War.

Remarque’s immortal anti-war novel All Quiet on the Western Front was banned and burned by war-glorifying Nazis (they also said Remarque was of Jewish descent, apparently without any factual basis).

Erna, Elfriede and Erich Remark — the author later restored an ancestral spelling of his name that had been Germanized in the 19th century — in happier times.

Remarque left Germany, an intellectual celebrity and man-about-town who rubbed shoulders with the likes of Marlene Dietrich (with whom he had a passionate affair) and Ernest Hemingway (with whom he did not).

The Nazis stripped his citizenship, and fumed that they couldn’t get their jackboots on him. (At one point, Goebbels invited Remarque to return. Sly.)

But Elfriede, they could get. She had stayed in her native Germany with her husband and family.

Not content with taking her head off, Berlin added a particularly vicious twist by billing the expatriate author 90 marks for the executioner’s trouble.

The author never said or wrote much about Elfriede, even his diaries. But years later, Erich Remarque dedicated his novel about life in a concentration camp, Spark of Life, to his late sister. Today, there’s a street named for Elfriede in the Remarques’ native Osnabruck.

More about Remarque at the German (but the site is multilingual) Erich Maria Remarque-Friedenszentrum and this online exhibit from New York University.

Better still, here’s the 1930 film version of All Quiet on the Western Front — that year’s Academy Award winner as Best Picture.

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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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1941: Maurice Bavaud, who couldn’t get a shot off

3 comments May 14th, 2008 Headsman

Early this morning in 1941, a Swiss theology student had his head cut off at Berlin’s Plotzensee Prison for plotting to kill Adolph Hitler.

Maurice Bavaud, 25 at his execution, cuts one of the more quixotic (the link is French) of the many figures who schemed Hitler’s death — and also one of the more affecting, for at this early date he might have spared Europe most of the great war’s horror.

But Bavaud was also, fundamentally, a poor assassin.

Apparently motivated by pique at Germany’s repression of Catholicism — he’s most commonly cast as a lone gunmen, although there are also theories that he was affiliated with a wider network of students — Bavaud slipped into Germany in 1938 and spent the ensuing weeks knocking around Bavaria looking for a chance to do the thing.

That November, the chancellor turned up for the 15th anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch* … to which Bavaud secured VIP seating. The aspiring assassin had only a low-caliber pistol, but as the Fuhrer passed his vicinity, a copse of saluting arms from the spectators around him obstructed any chance to shoot. November 9, 1938 instead became famous for other reasons.

One can appreciate at this juncture the young man’s discouragement and desire to leave Germany. One can understand that, penniless, he felt obliged to sneak aboard a passenger train. But one will strain very hard to imagine why even the most desperate straits should impel a man to do either of these things while still carrying the incriminating pistol and notes revealing his plans. When he was nabbed for skipping the fare, his situation quickly became catastrophic, with the help of Gestapo torturers. (One can see, in Bavaud’s own hand, a 1940 letter to his family informing them of his sentence here.)

Switzerland essentially exerted no diplomatic effort on behalf of their subject, and this fact informed the Swiss courts which, years after the war, posthumously reduced Bavaud’s sentence. Germany eventually paid reparations to the family of the man who tried to off their head of state.

Update: Maurice Bavaud has been officially rehabilitated by Switzerland.

* He wasn’t even the best failed Hitler assassin in the Bürgerbräukeller that day.

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1945: Nikolaus Gross, Catholic anti-Nazi labor activist

1 comment January 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1945, labor activist Nikolaus Gross entered the ranks of Catholic martyrs of Nazi Germany.

A miner turned newsman of the Catholic labor movement, Gross was a peripheral associate of the July 20 Plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He had been known and watched as a dissident and was detained shortly after the plot’s failure, but was only put to death after months of torture, along with a batch of other smaller fish in the conspiracy.

A prelate recalled a conversation he had before the dangerous venture was attempted:

I said to Nikolaus Gross on the day before the assassination attempt on Hitler of 20 July 1944: “Mr Gross, remember that you have seven children. I have no family for which I am responsible. It’s a matter of your life.” To which Gross made a really great statement to me: “If we do not risk our life today, how do we then want one day to justify ourselves before God and our people?”

Gross is notable as the first Catholic lay victim of Naziism subsequently beatified by the Church. The timing (he was beatified in 2001) is interesting to note.*

The long-running controversy over the complicated role of Catholicism writ large — if indeed such a thing could be assessed at all — during the Holocaust had surged into popular conversation with the 1999 publication of Hitler’s Pope.**

Was the Vatican’s silence during the war years complicity or powerlessness? How does one measure and weigh the behavior of the hierarchy as against individuals who risked death in resistance large and small — and they against others who collaborated for advantage, and against the vast multitude who simply went along? Can we speak of a responsibility of “the Church” for its own history of anti-Semitism, and if so, what did that mean for the live people facing real choices in the 1930s and 40s?

Bound up as they are in their respondents’ own present-day agendas, these questions seem certain to remain a point of conflict. Propagandists will always keep their own store of exemplars in either perfidy or saintliness, but let us give Nikolaus Gross no less than his due: he answered his duty unswervingly, and on this day, answered with his life.

Online accounts differ as to whether Gross was hanged or beheaded. Both methods were in use.

German-language pages on Gross are here and here. His farewell letter to his family, also in German, is here.

* Lest too grand a claim of causal relationship be inferred, note that beatification is a meandering procedure of bureaucracy rarely answering the day’s headlines; that the late Pope John Paul II elevated such legions to the choirs of heaven as to provoke complaints of debased coinage; and that in an Italian church headed by a Polish pontiff honoring a German martyr, the relationship between fascism and Catholicism was not something that, as in the English-speaking world, might have waned into forgetfulness before a timely work of popular history.

** The controversy surrounding this book, and the author’s subsequent moderation of some conclusions, is covered in a Wikipedia article. Naturally, it spawned more books — both in support of its thesis of Catholic collaboration and against.

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1944: Lilo Gloeden, Erich Gloeden and Elisabeth Kuznitzky

2 comments November 30th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Berlin housewife Elisabeth “Lilo” Gloeden was beheaded with an axe in Plotzensee Prison, along with her husband and mother.

They had been sentenced — and intentionally made an example of — just three days before for hiding a fugitive from the July 20 Plot to assassinate Hitler.

As Martin Gilbert observes in The Second World War: A Complete History, the fury of Hitler’s domestic crackdown came in inverse proportion to Germany’s fortunes in war.

[The family’s] fate was then publicized, as a warning to anyone else who might try to shelter the enemies of the Third Reich.

The fate of that Reich could not, however, be seriously in doubt. On the day of Lilo Gloeden’s execution, American troops drove the Germans from Mackwiller, in the Saar, inside Germany’s pre-war frontier. In Hungary, the Red Army entered Eger, less than twenty-five miles from the central Slovak frontier.

Part of the Themed Set: Women Against Fascism.

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