1944: Max Sievers, freethinker

1 comment January 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1944, German freethinker Max Sievers was beheaded at Brandenburg Prison for “conspiracy to commit high treason along with favouring the enemy.”

A working-class Berliner, Sievers (English Wikipedia entry | German) became a prominent communist and atheist writer in the interwar years. He directed the Association of Freethinkers for Cremation from the early 1920s, and in 1927 became the chair of the German Freethinkers League.

This was not a demographic Adolph Hitler was courting. In the wake of the 1933 Reichstag Fire, the Nazis stamped out atheistic movements, even converting the Freethinkers’ building into a Protestant recruitment venue.

Briefly imprisoned, Sievers fled Germany upon his release later in 1933 and from exile in Belgium — and then, after Belgium was conquered, in hiding in France — he kept up a drumbeat of antifascist propaganda, notably the 1939 book Unser Kampf gegen das Dritte Reich: von der nazistischen Diktatur zur sozialistischen Demokratie.

He was finally arrested by the Gestapo on June 3, 1943, and condemned to death by Roland Freisler.

Sievers was posthumously exonerated in 1996, and is today — and on January 17th in particular — an honored martyr for German humanist, atheist, and freethinker groups.

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1943: Marianne Elise Kurchner condemned for a joke

Add comment June 26th, 2012 Meaghan

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

Sometime in the summer of 1943 in Nazi Germany, a young woman from Berlin named Marianne Elise Kürchner was guillotined for telling a joke.

Kürchner, who worked at an armaments factory, told the following joke to a coworker who denounced her:

Hitler and Göring are standing atop the Berlin radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on Berliners’ faces. So Göring says: “Why don’t you jump?”

Not exactly a side-splitter. More like a neck-splitter: making jokes at Hitler’s expense was, in theory at least, a capital crime.

Mind you, most people who made nasty wisecracks about the Nazis faced no consequences at all. They were rarely denounced, and if they did come before a court they were usually given a warning, or at most a few months of “re-education” in Dachau.

The Nazis did occasionally use sedition as an excuse to arrest and execute people who’d gotten on their bad side for one reason or another, but ordinary Germans initially had little to fear.

However, as the tide of war began to turn against Germany, the punishments for sedition became ever more severe.

Marianne was called up before the People’s Court, whose president, Roland Freisler, was famous for both his long raving speeches berating defendants, and his death sentences. She admitted to making the joke but said she hadn’t been herself at the time, feeling bitter about the recent loss of her husband at the front.

Freisler would have none of it. In fact, he considered Marianne’s status as a war widow to be an aggravating factor. “The People’s Court,” Rudolf Herzog said of this case in his book Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany, “made it a point of pride to take no account of individual suffering.” In his ruling, Friesler wrote:

As the widow of a fallen German soldier, Marianne Kürchner tried to undermine our will to manly defense and dedicated labor in the armaments sector toward victory by making malicious remarks about the Führer and the German people and by uttering the wish that we should lose the war … She has excluded herself from the racial community. Her honor has been permanently destroyed and therefore she shall be punished with death.

The People’s Court’s judgment was rendered on June 26, 1943. Marianne lost her head shortly thereafter.

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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.


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1945: Not Fabian von Schlabrendorff, saved by a bomb

12 comments February 3rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1945, July 20 plotter Fabian von Schlabrendorff was on his way to a certain death sentence at the hands of the German Volksgerichtshof.

Asshole jurist Roland Freisler

The outcome in the kangaroo court for anyone involved in the previous year’s near-miss bomb attack on Hitler was foreordained. Just the day before, the movement’s ineffectual but conscientious political statesman Carl Goerdeler had hanged for it.

But a funny thing happened to the lawyer and reserve officer Schlabrendorff on the way to the gallows.

As he awaited this date his tongue-lashing and inevitable condemnation at the hands of the vituperative Nazi judge Roland Freisler, a bombing raid led by Jewish future Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Rosenthal struck the People’s Court — killing not the prisoner, but the judge, who was reportedly found still clutching his prey’s file.

“It is God’s verdict” was the succinct epitaph issued by a worker at the hospital where they raced his body, and nobody cared to dispute the subversive remark.

Hysterically badgering defenseless prisoners in farcical show trials, ostentatiously obeisant to the Reich, and personally responsible for thousands of executions, Freisler was a hard guy to admire. His role model for courtroom demeanor was supposed to be the ruthless purge trials of the Soviets.*

(Freisler also attended the Wannsee Conference, where Reinhard Heydrich organized the Final Solution. What a guy.)

In the confusion of the bomb blast, Schlabrendorff was hustled off to detention un-sentenced, and spent the last months of the war being shifted from one concentration camp to the next. The Third Reich — and admittedly, it had a few other things on its mind in those days — neglected to kill him, trial or no.

Schlabrendorff went on to become a West German constitutional court judge, though in this career he could hardly be as memorable as his onetime persecutor.

That Schlabrendorff miraculously escaped the war with his life thanks to a timely explosion was a particular irony: Hitler had once unwittingly been preserved from a Schlabrendorff assassination attempt by a bomb that failed to detonate.

In a March 1943 attempt on Hitler’s life, Schlabrendorff himself had passed one of Hitler’s entourage a package supposedly containing two bottles of cognac for delivery to another officer. In fact, the package was meant to blow up Hitler’s plane.

When [Hitler] was boarding the plane I started the mechanism of the delayed-action bomb … timed to explode within half an hour. At a sign from Tresckow, I handed the parcel to Colonel Brandt,** the member of Hitler’s escort who had promised to take it. It was a great nervous strain to remain quiet at this juncture.

After more than two hours of waiting, we got the shattering news that Hitler had landed safely …

We were stunned and could not imagine the cause of the failure … even worse would be the discovery of the bomb, which would unfailingly lead to our detection and the death of a wide circle of close collaborators.

After considerable reflection Tresckow resolved to ring up Colonel Brandt at Hitler’s headquarters and ask whether the parcel for General Stieff had already been delivered. Brandt replied that it was still in his keeping. This gave us hope that the bomb had not been discovered. Its delivery had to be prevented by all means. So Tresckow asked him to keep the parcel. He added there had been some mistake. I would call on him the following day to exchange the parcel, as I had anyway to go on official business to headquarters in East Prussia.

On some military pretext, I flew to Headquarters with the regualr messenger plane. I called on Colonel Brandt and exchanged a parcel containing two bottles of brandy for the one containing the bomb.

I can still recall my horror when the man, unaware of what he held, smilingly handed me the bomb and gave it a jerk that made me fear a belated explosion. Feigning a composure I did not feel, I took the bomb, immediately got into a car, and drove to the neighboring railway junction of Korschen. From there a sleeper train left for Berlin in the evening.

At Korschen, I got into a reserved compartment, locked the door, and … dismantled the bomb … The mechanism had worked; the small bottle had broken; the corrosive fluid had consumed the wire; the striker had hit forward; but — the detonator had not fired.

* Not the only ostpolitik admiration the Nazis showed for their battlefield foes’ ruthlessness; Hitler, similarly, applauded (sometimes envied) Stalin’s 1930s purge of the officer corps.

** This Heinz Brandt, too, has another unwitting part left to play in the story of the German resistance: it was he who, on July 20, 1944, moved Col. Stauffenberg’s deadly parcel behind an oaken table support, preserving Hitler from the bomb’s worst effects. Brandt died in that explosion.

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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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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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1944: Eight July 20 plotters

19 comments August 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1944, Nazi Germany’s juridical vengeance against Hitler’s near-assassins commenced.

Barely two weeks after Col. Stauffenberg‘s bomb had barely missed slaying the Fuhrer, eight of his principal co-conspirators stood show trials at the Volksgerichtshof (People’s Court) before hectoring prig Roland Freisler.

The outcome, of course, was foreordained.

Apparently orders had come down from on high to make the deaths as degrading as possible; this batch, convicted August 7-8, was hanged naked this day at Berlin’s Plotzensee Prison on thin cord (piano wire, say some sources, although it’s not clear to me whether this is literally true) suspended from meathooks while cameras rolled. Video and stills from the ghastly scene were shipped back to Hitler’s bomb-damaged Polish outpost for the edification of the powers that be.

The eight fitted for those nooses were:

Many hundreds more would follow, both at Plotzensee and throughout the Reich where persons distantly connected to the plotters and various miscellaneous resistance figures were swept up in the purge.

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