1934: Marinus van der Lubbe, for the Reichstag fire

8 comments January 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1934, Dutch bricklayer Marinus van der Lubbe was beheaded by guillotine in Leipzig for setting the Reichstag Fire.

A watershed event* in the formation of the Nazi dictatorship, the Reichstag fire days before a parliamentary election enabled Hitler to stampede voters, suspend civil liberties, suppress left-wing parties on grounds of a suspected Communist plot, and seize “emergency” powers he would never relinquish.

Heil Hitler.

This clip from an American miniseries on Hitler with the characters chattering in unaccented English portrays the fascists’ opportunistic use of the attack on a national symbol … something not exactly unknown to later generations.

Van der Lubbe, who was arrested on the scene, suffered the predictable fate. Four other Communists charged as accomplices were acquitted, in a trial with the gratifying spectacle of Hermann Goering personally testifying, and being undressed on cross-examination by one of the reds. One is reminded here that Hitler did not yet have everything in the state apparatus at his beck and call … although he did have a great deal already, inasmuch as the arson law under which van der Lubbe died was passed after the Reichstag fire and made retroactive.

If the big-picture outcome of the Reichstag fire is pretty clear-cut, its real origin and the corresponding rightness of the judicial verdicts have remained murky ever since. The fact that the scene of the crime became Nazi ground zero for the next decade sort of obscures the evidence.

Van der Lubbe confessed, so his participation is generally taken as a given.

Whether he was really able to start the blaze acting alone, as he insisted, and the Nazis “only” exploited this fortuitous calamity; whether he was part of a larger leftist plot, as his prosecutors claimed; or whether, as Shirer and many others since have viewed him, he was a patsy in a false flag operation set up by the Nazis with an eye towards creating a politically advantageous national emergency — these possibilities remain very much up for debate.

For what it’s worth, postwar West German courts reversed and un-reversed the sentence before officially rehabilitating van der Lubbe last year on the non-specifically indisputable grounds that the legal machinery brought to bear on the Reichstag fire “enabled breaches of basic conceptions of justice.”

* From Defying Hitler: A Memoir by a writer who would soon emigrate:

I do not see that one can blame the majority of Germans who, in 1933, believed that the Reichstag fire was the work of the Communists. What one can blame them for, and what shows their terrible collective weakness of character … is that this settled the matter. With sheepish submissiveness, the German people accepted that, as a result of the fire, each one of them lost what little personal freedom and dignity was guaranteed by the constitution, as though it followed as a necessary consequence. If the Communists had burned down the Reichstag, it was perfectly in order that the government took “decisive measures”!

Next morning I discussed these matters with a few other Referendars. All of them were very interested in the question of who had committed the crime, and more than one of them hinted that they had doubts about the official version; but none of them saw anything out of the ordinary in the fact that, from now on, one’s telephone would be tapped, one’s letters opened, and one’s desk might be broken into. “I consider it a personal insult,” I said, “that I should be prevented from reading whichever newspaper I wish, because allegedly a Communist set light to the Reichstag. Don’t you?” One of them cheerfully and harmlessly said, “No. Why should I? Did you read Forwards and The Red Flag up to now?”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arson,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Language,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Power

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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.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,Murder,Notably Survived By,Wartime Executions,Women

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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.

On this day..

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

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1945: Albrecht Haushofer, German Resistance intellectual

3 comments April 23rd, 2008 Sarah Owocki

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Schuld”

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

“Guilt”

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

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

On this day..

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

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