1943: Julius Fučík, Notes from the Gallows

Add comment September 8th, 2020 Headsman

Czechoslovakian journalist Julius Fučík was executed by the Third Reich on this date in 1943.

Nephew of a great composer of the same name, our Julius Fučík was an 18-year-old left-wing activist when the Social Democrat party he was a part of founded the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Fučík and his pen grew up in this world, together generating a substantial corpus of essays and analysis on pregnant years.

Hitler’s occupation of Czechoslovakia drove his party and his work underground, which eventually resulted in his arrest.

He’d eventually be deported to Germany and hanged at Berlin’s Plötzensee Prison, but Fučík made his lasting fame to posterity through the clandestine diary notes, bursting with anticipation for a bright Communist future, that he scribbled during his initial detention at Prague’s Pankrác Prison from 1942-1943.

After the war, these would be published as Notes from the Gallows — a text so scriptural in Communist Czechoslovakia that it weighed like manacles.

In Milan Kundera‘s The Joke, one of the characters standing trial is browbeaten by a prosecutor using Fučík’s words, while Fučík’s “fervent, pure” portrait gazes in judgment. (Consonant with the stature of Notes from the Gallows, its author was saluted via many street names, public monuments, and so forth. Quite few still remain today, in Germany as well as the former Czechoslovakia.)

“‘Death, you have been long in coming. And yet it was my hope to postpone our meeting until many years hence. To go on living the life of a free man, to work more, love more, sing more, and wander the world over …'” I recognized Fucik’s Notes from the Gallows.

“‘I loved life, and for the sake of its beauty I went to war. I loved you, good people, rejoicing when you returned my love, suffering when you failed to understand me …'”

That text, written clandestinely in prison, then published after the war in a million copies, broadcast over the radio, studied in schools as required reading, was the sacred book of the era. Zemanek read out the most famous passages, the ones everyone knew by heart.

“‘Let sadness never be linked with my name. That is my testament to you, Papa, Mama, and sisters, to you, my Gustina, to you, Comrades, to everyone I have loved …'” The drawing of Fucik on the wall was a reproduction of the famous sketch by Max Svabinsky, the old Jugendstil painter, the virtuoso of allegories, plump women, butterflies, and everything delightful; after the war, or so the story goes, Svabinsky had a visit from the Comrades, who asked him to do a portrait of Fucik from a photograph, and Svabinsky had drawn him (in profile) in graceful lines in accord with his own taste: almost girlish, fervent, pure, and so handsome that people who had known him personally preferred Svabinsky’s sublime drawing to their memories of the living face.

Fučík, and the idealized Max Švabinský portrait of him — one of several times it’s been used on postage stamps.

Meanwhile Zemanek read on, everyone in the hall silent and attentive and the fat girl at the table unable to tear her eyes away from him; suddenly his voice grew firm, almost menacing; he had come to the passage about Mirek the traitor: “‘And to think that he was no coward, a man who did not take flight when bullets rained down on him at the Spanish front, who did not knuckle under when he ran the gauntlet of cruelties in a concentration camp in France. Now he pales under the club of a Gestapo agent and turns informer to save his skin. How superficial was his bravery if so few blows could shake it. As superficial as his convictions … He lost everything the moment he began to think of himself. To save his own life, he sacrificed the lives of his friends. He succumbed to cowardice and through cowardice betrayed them …'” Fucik’s handsome face hung on the wall as it hung in a thousand other public places in our country, and it was so handsome, with the radiant expression of a young girl in love, that when I looked at it I felt inferior not just because of my guilt, but because of my appearance as well. And Zemanek read on: “‘They can take our lives, can’t they, Gustina, but they cannot take our honor and love. Can you imagine, good people, the life we might have led if we had met again after all this suffering, met again in a free life, a life made beautiful by freedom and creation? The life we shall lead when we finally achieve everything we’ve longed for and fought for and I now die for?'” After the pathos of these last sentences Zemanek was silent.

In the post-Communist era Fučík has had a critical re-examination, with an updated version of Notes published now including for the first time the bits his widow had judiciously excised, wherein Fučík admits to breaking under torture — although he also records that he “confessed” only inaccurate information that would not endanger comrades. He’s also been knocked for failing to use his firearms on either his captors or himself at the time of his arrest.

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1951: The Einsatzgruppen Trial war criminals

Add comment June 7th, 2020 Headsman

A batch of Nazi war criminals highlighted by four condemned at the Einsatzgruppen trial hanged at Germany’s Landsberg Prison on this date in 1951.

Formed initially to decapitate Polish intelligentsia when Germany invaded that country in 1939, these notorious paramilitaries were deployed by Reinhard Heydrich behind the advancing German line of battle to pacify occupied territory. “Pacify” in the event meant slaying Communists, partisans, and of course, the Reich’s innumerable racial inferiors. Einsatzgruppen authored many mass executions like the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar outside Kiev, each local atrocity a self-conscious contribution to the wholesale genocide. All told these units might have killed upwards of 2 million human beings; they were also used to gather Eastern European Jews into urban ghettos, which subsequently became the staging points for deportations to the camps.

Postwar, the big Nuremberg war crimes tribunal against the major names in the German hierarchy unfolded from late 1945 in a multinational courtroom: American, British, French, and Russian judges and prosecutors working jointly.

But the emerging superpower rivalry soon narrowed the window for similar cooperation in successor trials, leading the rival powers to try cases on their own.* Accordingly, United States military tribunals unfolded 12 additional mass trials, known as the subsequent Nuremberg trials — each exploring particular nodes of the Nazi project — such as the Doctors’ trial and the IG Farben trial.

The Einsatzgruppen trial was one of these — 24 Einsatzgruppen officers prosecuted at the Palace of Justice from September 29, 1947 to April 10, 1948.

Twenty-two of the 24 were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and 14 sentenced to death. However, ten of the fourteen prospective hangings were commuted, and all surviving prisoners had been released by 1958. The four who actually went to the gallows at Landsburg Prison on June 7, 1951 were:

    Out of the total number of the persons designated for the execution, 15 men were led in each case to the brink of the mass grave where they had to kneel down, their faces turned toward the grave. At that time, clothes and valuables were not yet collected. Later on this was changed …

    When the men were ready for the execution one of my leaders who was in charge of this execution squad gave the order to shoot. Since they were kneeling on the brink of the mass grave, the victims fell, as a rule, at once into the mass grave.

    I have always used rather large execution squads, since I declined to use men who were specialists for shots in the neck (Genickschusspezialisten). Each squad shot for about one hour and was then replaced. The persons which still had to be shot were assembled near the place of execution, and were guarded by members of those squads, which at that moment did not take part in the executions.

    -Paul Blobel on his mass-execution process

  • Otto Ohlendorf, an economist tapped as commander of Einsatzgruppe D (educated and ideologically reliable administrator were intentionally sought for leadership positions in these gangs). Together with Ukrainian and Romanian auxiliaries, this unit killed 90,000 people in southern Ukraine and Crimea which the good functionary strove to render “military in character and humane under the circumstances.”
  • Werner Braune, a former Gestapo man who became chief of one of Einsatzgruppe D’s units, called Einsatzkommando 11b.
  • Erich Naumann, a former brownshirt turned commander of Einsatzgruppe B who frankly acknowledged to the tribunal that “I was ordered to Heydrich and I received clear orders from him for Russia. Now, first of all, I received the Fuehrer-Order concerning the killing of Jews, Gypsies and Soviet officials” and “considered the decree to be right because it was part of our aim of the war and, therefore, it was necessary.”
  • Paul Blobel, a World War I veteran become architect who was into his late forties when he helped organize the Babi Yar massacre. Afterwards, he had charge of Sonderaktion 1005, a 1942-1944 project to destroy evidence of such massacres by, e.g., digging up mass graves to pulverize and dynamite the remains into unrecognizability. “The mission was constituted after it first became apparent that Germany would not be able to hold all the territory occupied in the East and it was considered necessary to remove all traces of the criminal executions that had been committed,” according to Adolf Eichmann aide Dieter Wisliceny. Blobel “gave a lecture before Eichmann’s staff of specialists on the Jewish question from the occupied territories. He spoke of the special incinerators he had personally constructed for use in the work of Kommando 1005. It was their particular assignment to open the graves and remove and cremate the bodies of persons who had been previously executed. Kommando 1005 operated in Russia, Poland and through the Baltic area.”

In a concession to efficiency or spectacle, they were joined by the three other condemned men from other installments of the Nuremberg trials, the , against the directorate that ran Germany’s concentration camps.

  • Oswald Pohl, the head of he directorate that ran Germany’s concentration camps. He was the only person executed from his own particular installment of the war crimes trials, called thePohl trial
  • Georg Schallermair, an SS sergeant convicted for murders he’d personally committed at Dachau.
  • Hans Schmidt, the former adjutant of the Buchenwald concentration camp who carried his implausible insistence of ignorance as to the camp’s deaths all the way to the end. Schmidt’s name in the news might have inspired an American wrestling promoter to assign it in 1951, along with a boffo Nazi persona, to one of pro wrestling’s great heels.

* Here’s some information about Soviet war crimes trials.

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1944: Oskar Kusch, Wehrkraftzersetzung U-boat commander

Add comment May 12th, 2020 Headsman

No assignment in the Third Reich’s war machine, nay not even the fearful eastern front, was as dangerous as service in the Kriegsmarine’s U-boat fleet.

Terrors of English shipping in the early war years, these submersible predators became prey once overwhelming U.S. materiel poured into the theater, and Allied intelligence started cracking German signals. By war’s end, fully three-quarters of the wartime U-boat personnel had sunk into watery graves.

And on top of all the intrinsic perils of fighting a losing war from the inside of a submerged tin of beans, you’d better do it with enthusiasm or you’ve got the prospect of going up against the wall like Oskar Kusch did on May 12, 1944.

A submariner since 1937, Kusch come 1943 stood in command of U-154.

He fulfilled his office creditably — that’s what the official history has come to reflect via a postwar rehabilitation — but was ratted out for Wehrkraftzersetzung, a lethal polysyllable meaning “subversion of the war effort”. This capital crime classed as sedition a wide range of utterances that showed their speaker anything other than relentlessly positive about the war effort: spreading skepticism in official propaganda, showing distaste for Naziism, and most certainly entertaining doubt as to the Reich’s manifestly fading prospects for victory.

In practice, of course, not everybody who cast a gimlet eye on Berlin’s war pronouncements was so handled, but it’s the sort of law to keep everyone nervous. And if, say, one has torpedoed the promotion prospects of one’s second-in-command with a lukewarm performance evaluation, then it’s the sort of thing that First Watch Officer Ulrich Abel can wield for revenge.

Soon enough, Kusch was being informed upon for candidly assessing the Germans’ dire strategic prospects and for seditiously removing the mandatory picture of Hitler to a place less likely to oblige a lot of gratuitous obeisance. He was moreover found to have tuned into foreign radio stations, which was also a crime. The brass decided to make an example of him, overriding an initial prison sentence so that they could stand him in front of a firing squad near the Baltic Sea juncture of the Kiel Canal.


Marker honoring Oskar Kusch, on the present-day street Oskar-Kusch-Straße, near the place Kusch was executed.

For all the mean absurdity of his death, Kusch’s shit luck lay not in being denounced to a kangaroo court but in the mere fact of his enrollment in the Kriegsmarine’s U-boat service. After all, seven weeks after his own execution, his former vessel was sunk off Madeira with all hands lost. And for that matter Kusch’s enemy, Ulrich Abel, predeceased his own victim, having attained through his complaints command of a vessel of his own, his great desideratum which Executed Today hopes that he enjoyed with urgency — for Abel and his own ship were likewise sent to the bottom in April 1944.

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1948: Ruth Closius-Neudeck

Add comment July 29th, 2019 Headsman

A notoriously brutal guard at the Ravensbrück women’s concentration camp named Ruth Closius-Neudeck was hanged on this date in 1948.

With impeccable timing she exited a life of proletarian obscurity by applying for a gig as a camp warden in July 1944, right when the Third Reich’s prospects for surviving the war went terminal.

That left her scant few months to stack up fodder for the eventual war crimes tribunals but Neudeck had a knack for making hay in the twilight.

Almost immediately earning promotion to barracks overseer, she earned a reputation as one of the cruelest guards at the camp that once cultivated Irma Grese. (They didn’t overlap.) One prisoner would later describe seeing her “cut the throat of an inmate with the sharp edge of her shovel.”

She was subsequently detailed to the nearby Uckermark satellite camp, smaller and more lethal — as it was converted for the Third Reich’s final weeks into a killing center for inmates whose bodies had been broken at slave labor in Ravensbrück or elsewhere. She acknowledged sending 3,000 women to the gas chambers as Uckermark Aufseherin.

She was one of five camp guards charged in the Uckermark trial (also known as the Third Ravensbrück trial) in 1948, and the only one of those five executed.

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1942: Michael Kitzelmann

Add comment June 11th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1942, Wehrmacht lieutenant Michael Kitzelmann was executed for his stubborn conscience. The last diary entry in this post is going to show a June 12 date which I would ordinarily take as a preeminent source. Because June 11 is so universally described as the execution date, including in a public memorial plaque, I’m warily bowing to that date myself and putting the diary translation down to a botch of some kind. Whether or not this is correctly adjudicated on my part, it’s another reminder that everyone is aggravatingly slipshod when it comes to dates.

An aspiring Catholic priest, Kitzelmann (English Wikipedia entry | German) embarked his mandatory military service in 1937, foreseeing two boring years.

“For two years I must endure this terrible yoke of dreary, ridiculous military drills,” he wrote to a friend. The yoke would grow more terrible, and less ridiculous: Germany was at war before Kitzelmann’s conscription expired. Holy Orders would have to wait.

The young man proved a capable soldier (Iron Cross, second class) as well as a dutiful correspondent to parents and friends — his letters showing proud his own advancement in the ranks but also anguished by the horrors of war. Over time, he was increasingly troubled by the atrocities his own side inflicted.

By the last months of 1941, his conscience and his piety could no longer reconcile with the evil eastern front, and he made bold in both letters home and loose talk with comrades to voice his disgust with his own side. “At home they tear the crosses from the schools,” he mused of the regime’s contempt for earnest Christianity. “Here we are made to fight against godless Bolshevism.”

While convalescing from an illness in March 1942, Kitzelmann was denounced for his seditious opinions by a zealous fellow troop. He had seen enough that he should have known that his fulfillment of military obligation would not protect him.

On 11 April 1942, I walked into the military prison of the fortress of Orel. The fortress, a huge squat building, distempered pink, with massive round turrets at each corner, lies to the north of the town on the steep banks of the river Oka. There is a dark stone passage on the upper floor where the air is dank and chill; and here I was handed over to the prison guards.

My cell is in the north-east turret and is about 14 feet wide and the same height. It has a wooden floor and a vaulted brick ceiling. To the west an arched window pierces the wall, which is over three feet thick, and across the window there are strong iron bars, let into the wall. In the evening and then only, a few golden sunrays briefly penetrate to my dreary solitude. A massive oak door, reinforced by heavy iron-work, shuts out the world. Darkness and terror paralyse my being. The stillness is unbearable. Helpless and abandoned I am left to myself, alone, sentenced to death. . .! Now I know the full fury of these Military Laws. Overnight I was branded as a criminal just for making a few derogatory remarks about the government. And for that apparently I must lose my life, my honour, my friends and my place in human society. How could all this happen? I had a good enough reputation up to now, and so far as I know I was regarded as a decent man with a normal sense of duty. What are right and justice in this world? Haven’t I served my country honourably for four years? I was at the front for two years, took part in three campaigns and proved my loyalty often enough. Is this the thanks I get from my country?

Apart from all that I am beginning to be afraid for my family at home. Letters have been taken from my trunk, and others from the post, and confiscated by the Court, letters from my father and mother and from friends. What will happen to them? Will the law get on to them too? That would be terrible. But I suppose there is nothing to be done and . . . events must take their course. I am so much afraid: my fears follow me day and night like horrifying ghosts, and all the time this awful loneliness, this claustrophobia, this oppressive silence. For hours on end I pace up and down my cell, just to hear my own footsteps. I light a fire in the stove just to hear it’s crackling. I pray aloud to hear my own voice; and I call upon Heaven, asking God to help me in my agony.

He sought comfort in his faith:

I pray to Jesus the Crucified, who has led the way through the most bitter pain. And He answers me: “If you will be My disciple, take up your cross and follow me!”

But I appeal to Him: “Lord, I am still so young, too young for such a heavy cross; I have not lived my life, all my hopes, plans and aims are unfulfilled.” And he says: “Behold, I too was young, I had yet to live my life, and as a young man I carried the cross and sacrificed my young life.”

Again my soul complains: “Behold my bitter home-sickness, the sufferings of my family. Let me return to life and let me not hurt their love.”

But Jesus replies: “If you cannot leave your belongings and all your earthly love, you cannot be my disciple. Follow me!”

Again my soul rebels: “O Lord, the burden is too heavy; relieve me of this terrible yoke; shorten my sufferings and dry my tears!”

Lovingly He speaks: “My son, be brave and do not despair! I have suffered so greatly for humanity, and for you too; I have opened Heaven for you. And I shall remain with you until the end.”

I answer my Saviour: “Thank you a thousand times for your endless love, my Redeemer! I shall be your disciple and I will carry your cross after you. So take me by the hand and lead me to my blessed end in all eternity.”

And at last — here’s that date — he closed his diary with this momentous note:

On 11 June 1942, at 5 p.m., I was told that my petition for mercy had been rejected and that the sentence would be carried out on 12 June 1942 at 8 a.m. Lord, Thy will be done. In the evening I knew great joy. Dear, good Pastor Schmitter has come back and wants to stay with me during my last hours on earth. He was here till after midnight. I told him my final wishes, asked him to give my love to my people at home and talked over with him what would happen at the end. He has promised to return punctually at 6 a.m. Then I will confess once more, for my whole life. We shall celebrate Mass and take Communion together. . . .

God has granted me great joy, for the hour of my death is a merciful one

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1919: Seven Thule Society hostages

Add comment April 30th, 2019 Headsman

A century ago today, seven hostages taken from the German pre-Nazi Thule Society were executed by the short-lived Munich Soviet just before it was crushed by right-wing militias.

The Thule Society (logo at right) was a Bavarian volkisch club with a profound interest in stuff like crackpot race theory and Teutonic mythology; its very name alludes to a legendary territory hypothesized since antiquity to lie at the fringes of the world, often associated with Scandinavia and with the origins of the Aryan race.*

Society members figured in the founding of the German Workers’ Party (DAP), the party which became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), better known as the Nazis. Former Thuler Hans Frank was among those eventually hanged via the postwar Nuremberg trial.

One will readily imagine where this lot stood in relation to the Soviet Republic that was declared in Bavaria in early April, and the sentiment was fully returned. As right-wing Freikorps paramilitaries intent on destroying the Red Bavarian statelet surrounded Munich, the Communists seized seven Thule Society members — notably Countess Haila (or Hella) von Westarp and Gustav Franz Maria, Prince of Thurn and Taxis and held them in the basement of the Luitpold Gymnasium.

On April 30, 1919, all these seven were executed by order of the Communist sailor Rudolf Egelhofer, together with either two or three captured Freikorps prisoners, an affair known as the Münchner Geiselmorde (“Munich hostage-murder”).


Countess Haila von Westarp

The very next day, the Freikorps broke through Munich’s defenses and commenced the bloody rout that destroyed the Munich Soviet.

The Thule Society as a body survived and briefly prospered after its brush with the revolutionaries’ muzzles — the eventual Nazi party newspaper Völkischer Beobachter was previously a Thule Society-owned periodical called the Münchener Beobachter — but it fizzled out into a memory during the 1920s.

Still, this esoteric nursemaid to the infancy of national socialism features prominently in histories of Third Reich occultism; aficionados might wish to browse some of its iconography in this Pinterest gallery, or just punch their distinctive name into your search environment of choice and feel that third eye opening.

* The element Thulium is named for Thule, because it was discovered by a Scandinavian chemist; the U.S.’s Thule Air Base in Greenland developed from an Arctic Circle trading post established and named by a Scandinavian explorer. (From which he launched a series of early 20th century “Thule Expeditions”.)

More recently, the word made the news when astronomers controversially christened the most distant observed trans-Neptunian object “Ultima Thule”.

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1947: Rudolf Höss, Auschwitz commandant

2 comments April 16th, 2019 Headsman

April 16, 1947, was the hanging-date of Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss.

Not to be confused with the Rudolf Hess, the Nazi party defector held by the British in lonely confinement in Spandau until 1987, Höss was true to the swastika from beginning to end.

A World War I survivor, our guy joined the right-wing Freikorps paramilitaries and scored NSDAP party number no. 3240 in 1922 — soon thereafter proving a willingness to shed blood for the cause by murdering a teacher suspected of betraying to the French the Nazi martyr figure Albert Leo Schlageter. Höss served only a year in prison for the crime.

Come the time of the Reich, he joined the SS and was “constantly associated” (his words) with the camp networks — beginning in the very first concentration camp, Dachau, followed by a two-year turn at Sachsenhausen.

In May 1940, he was appointed to direct the brand-new Auschwitz concentration camp in occupied Poland, a position that, excluding a few months when he was relieved of duties for having an affair with a camp inmate, he held until the Red Army liberated Auschwitz in January 1945.

Initially “just” a standard Reich prison camp with a mix of regular criminals, political prisoners, and Soviet POWs, Auschwitz earned its place as the Holocaust’s preeminent metonym in the subsequent years as it evolved into one of the primary killing sites of the Final Solution.

Höss himself is even “honored” as the namesake of Operation Höss, a deportation and extermination project targeting Hungarian Jewry that claimed 420,000 souls just in the last months of the war. It was one of the most efficient slaughters orchestrated by Nazi Germany, though even these were only a small portion of the crimes that stained Höss’s soul. In his postwar testimony at Nuremberg, Höss

estimate[d] that at least 2,500,000* victims were executed and exterminated there [at Auschwitz] by gassing and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total dead of about 3,000,000. This figure represents about 70% or 80% of all persons sent to Auschwitz as prisoners, the remainder having been selected and used for slave labor in the concentration camp industries. Included among the executed and burnt were approximately 20,000 Russian prisoners of war (previously screened out of Prisoner of War cages by the Gestapo) who were delivered at Auschwitz in Wehrmacht transports operated by regular Wehrmacht officers and men. The remainder of the total number of victims included about 100,000 German Jews, and great numbers of citizens (mostly Jewish) from Holland, France, Belgium, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Greece, or other countries.

It wasn’t the Nuremberg court that noosed him, however; that duty fell to Poland’s Supreme National Tribunal. It had him executed on a gallows set up adjacent to Auschwitz’s Crematorium 1.

Höss’s grandson, Rainer Höss, has been an outspoken voice for atoning his family’s role in the Holocaust.

* Höss later revised this “2.5 million” estimate down, claiming that he had that figure from Adolf Eichmann but “I myself never knew the total number, and I have nothing to help me arrive at an estimate.” After tabulating the larger extermination actions that he could recall (including the 400,000+ from Hungary), Höss came up with the lower and still incredibly monstrous figure of 1.1 million: “Even Auschwitz had limits to its destructive capabilities.”

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1942: Ewald Schlitt, performative cruelty

Add comment April 2nd, 2019 Headsman

From Hitler’s Prisons: Legal Terror in Nazi Germany:

Despite the unprecedented legal terror [inside Germany], he [Hitler] continued to attack the legal apparatus as slow and formalistic, comparing it unfavourably with the unrestrained actions of the police. … In the autumn of 1941, he complained repeatedly in his private circle that the German judges passed too lenient sentences … In May 1941, he complained to Goebbels that inmates could emerge from prison ‘fresh and unused’, ready to act once more against the state — a statement which showed Hitler’s disregard for the brutal realities inside penal institutions. He had made a similar point a few months earlier to Himmler, telling him that criminals knew that inside penitentiaries ‘everything is nice, hygienic, nobody will do one any harm, the Minister of Justice vouches for that’.

Hitler’s simmering hostility towards the legal system blew up in spectacular fashion in the spring of 1941. The spark was yet another supposedly lenient court sentence. On 14 March 1942, the district court in Oldenburg found the engineer Ewald Schlitt guilty of having abused his wife so badly that she eventually died. However, the judges decided that Schlitt had not acted in cold blood but was liable to sudden violent fits of temper. Rather than condemning him to death as a ‘violent criminal’, the court sentenced Schlitt to five years in a penitentiary. When Hitler heard about this case, he exploded with rage. Ignorant of the details, he demanded that Schlitt be executed and took the court’s sentence as confirmation of the impotence of the judiciary. If there were any more such sentences, Hitler fumed in his private circle on Sunday 22 March 1942, he would ‘send the Justice Ministry to hell through a Reichstag law’. Hitler made no secret of his fury. On the very same day, he berated the acting Minister of Justice Schlegelberger on the telephone. Highly agitated, Hitler exclaimed that he could not understand why criminals were treated so leniently at a time when the ‘best’ German soldiers were dying at the front. Hitler threatened Schlegelberger with very serious consequences should the legal system fail to change.

The Reich Ministry of Justice immediately engaged in damage limitation, following Hitler’s outburst. Two days after his phone call, Schlegelberger wrote to Hitler to reassure him about the ruthlessness of the legal system: ‘My Fuhrer, I share your desire for the harshest punishment of criminal elements with the greatest conviction.’ To prove his point, Schlegelberger informed Hitler that the Schlitt case would be taken up by the Reich Court. The court duly delivered the desired result. On 31 March 1942, it quashed the original sentence against Schlitt and instead sentenced him to death, a decision which was immediately relayed to Hitler. Ewald Schlitt was guillotined two days later. Schlegelberger did not let the case rest here. He was concerned enough to inform the general state prosecutors, in a meeting on the day of Schlitt’s retrial, about Hitler’s threats. …

In previous protests by Hitler against court sentence he considered too ‘mild’, the file had been closed after the execution of the offender. But not this time. One of the reasons why Hitler did not let matters rest was his growing concern about the home front. In March 1942, the Nazi leadership knew that rations would have to be cut and evidently feared a backlash among the population … The Nazi leaders were convinced that the legal system would be unable to deal with any unrest. Thus, after Hitler had discussed the forthcoming cuts in rations with Goebbels on 19 March 1942, the two men went on to complain about the failures of the judiciary and to talk about the need for tougher measures on the home front. It was at this point that Hitler floated the idea of convening the Reichstag to give himself special powers against ‘evil-doers’, an idea he returned to after the Schlitt case. The cut in rations, the most serious during the entire war, was finally introduced on 6 April 1942, and caused great disquiet. Hitler’s apparent concern about this was betrayed in an extraordinary outburst at dinner on the very next day. Inevitably, his thoughts circled around the 1918 revolution and, with unprecedented ferocity, he vented his homicidal determination to prevent another ‘stab in the back’:

If a mutiny broke out somewhere in the Reich today, then he would answer it with immediate measures. To start with, he would:

a) have all leading men of an oppositional tendency … arrested at home and executed, on the day of the first report;

b) he would have all inmates in concentration camps shot dead within three days;

c) he would also have all criminal elements rounded up for execution within three days on the basis of the available lists, irrespective of whether they were in prison or at liberty at the time.

The shooting of this scum, which comprised a few hundred thousand people, would make other measures appear unnecessary, as the mutiny would break down by itself due to a lack of mutinous elements and fellow-travellers.

Only two weeks later, Hitler rang Goebbels and instructed him to take the very unusual step of summoning the Reichstag.

I also expect that the German jurisprudence understands that the nation is not there for them but they for the nation. That not the entire world is allowed to perish, in which also Germany is included, so that there is a formal right, but that Germany has to live, notwithstanding the formal interpretation of justice.

I have no understanding for it, just to mention an example, that for instance a criminal who married in 1937 and then mistreated his wife that she became mentally deranged and who then died of the results of his last mistreatment, is sentenced to 5 years of hard labor in a moment when 10,000 brave German men have to die in order to save the homeland from Bolshevism, that means to protect their wives and children.

I will take a hand in these cases from now on and direct the order to the judges that they recognize that as right what I order.

What German soldiers, German workers, peasants, our women in city and country and millions of our middle-class etc. do and sacrifice all only with the one thought of victory in their minds, then one can ask a congenial attitude for them who have been called by the people themselves to take care of their interests.

At present there are no self-styled saints with well-earned rights, but we all are only obedient servants in the interests of our people.

-From Hitler’s April 26, 1942 address to the Reichstag

On 26 April 1942, the Reichstag deputies assembled in Berlin, curious as to the purpose of the meeting. … The legal system, Hitler warned [in his address], must have only one thought: German victory. It was high time, he continued, that the legal system realised that it did not exist for its own sake, but for the nation. As an illustration of the inane approach of the judiciary, Hitler pointed to the Schlitt case. … The deputies cheered loudly, broke into chants of ‘Heil’ and then passed a resolution that explicitly exempted Hitler from ‘existing statutes of law’, giving him the right to remove from office and punish anyone ‘failing their duties’. Hitler was officially above the law.

Hitler’s attack in the Reichstag on 26 April 1942 received a mixed reception from the German public. Many Germans, it seems, supported Hitler’s views. But conservatives and members of the bourgeoisie started to voice some concerns about the threat to the rule of law. The German legal officials themselves were stunned … One senior judge exclaimed in private: ‘Out of shame, each judge has to hide his face from the public’. The officials feared that the attack would destroy public confidence int he independence of the judiciary and provide further incentives for the police to interfere in the legal process. To discuss measures which would increase Hitler’s confidence in the judiciary, the Reich Ministry of Justice held two meetings with senior regional officials in early May 1942 in Berlin. The meeting on 6 May was chaired by State Secretary Freisler. Hitler’s speech, he acknowledged, had hit the legal system like a ‘thunderstorm’. Freisler reminded the officials of the lessons which needed to be drawn: the legal officials had to become harder, focusing even more on retribution …

Hitler continued to complain in private about the weakness of the legal system. On 22 July, for example, he once more ranted at length about the judiciary, concluding that nobody resembled the jurist more closely than the criminal.

The Nazi leaders made sure that legal officials knew that Hitler was still unhappy. On the same day as Hitler’s latest private outburst, on 22 July 1942, Goebbels made an explicit speech to the officials at the People’s Courtk outlining the Nazi leaders’ criticism of the judiciary. Goebbels’s comments had special significance because, as he informed his listeners, Hitler had personally approved them. Goebbels began by complaining that many judges still had the wrong attitude, derived in large measure from their legalistic training. After referring in detail to several ‘unbearable’ sentences, Goebbels made crystal clear what was required from the judiciary. During the war, it was not important whether a judgment was fair or unfair; rather, it had to protect the state by eradicating the ‘inner enemies’: ‘The starting point is not the law, but the decision [that] this man has to disappear’.

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1944: Werner Seelenbinder, communist grappler

Add comment October 24th, 2018 Headsman

Left-wing athlete Werner Seelenbinder was executed by the Third Reich on this date in 1944.

An Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler, Seelenbinder’s plan to scandalize patriots by refusing to make the Nazi salute from the podium at the 1936 Berlin games was scratched when he came in fourth in the event.

Nevertheless, Seelenbinder (English Wikipedia entry | German) had already by then given more material aid to Hitler’s foes by using his sportsman’s travel itinerary as cover to act the courier for the banned Communist party.

Arrested in 1942 during the smash-up of the Robert Uhrig resistance ring, Seelenbinder was tortured horrifically in prison but died with courage — as he had pledged in a last letter to his father.

The time has now come for me to say goodbye. In the time of my imprisonment I must have gone through every type of torture a man can possibly endure. Ill health and physical and mental agony, I have been spared nothing. I would have liked to have experienced the delights and comforts of life, which I now appreciate twice as much, with you all, with my friends and fellow sportsmen, after the war. The times I had with you were great, and I lived on them during my incarceration, and wished back that wonderful time. Sadly fate has now decided differently, after a long time of suffering. But I know that I have found a place in all your hearts and in the hearts of many sports followers, a place where I will always hold my ground. This knowledge makes me proud and strong and will not let me be weak in my last moments.

As a visible public person who died in resistance to fascism, Seelenbinder made for ready national-icon material in postwar Germany … but because of his red affiliations he was honored in this fashion mostly in East Germany. (Indeed, even a sports club that had been named for him weeks after the war’s end, in the American-occupied sector, stripped his name right off a few years later to keep with the times. The stadium was reverted to its Seelenbinder christening in 2004.)


East Berlin’s Werner-Seelenbinder-Halle was demolished in 1993 and replaced by the Velodrom.

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1942: Georges Politzer and Jacques Solomon, academics in resistance

Add comment May 23rd, 2018 Headsman

Left-wing intellectuals Georges Politzer and Jacques Solomon were shot at Fort Mont-Valerien on this date in 1942 for their exertions in the French Resistance.

Both numbered among interwar France’s great radical intellectuals: Politzer, a Hungarian Jew nicknamed the “red-headed philosopher” and and Solomon, a Parisian physicist, both numbered among interwar France’s great radical scholars.

The red-headed philosopher hung with the likes of Sartre, taught Marxism at the Workers University of Paris, and critiqued psychology. (A few of his works can be perused here.) Solomon, son-in-law of physicist Paul Langevin, made early contributions to the emerging field of quantum mechanics.

Politically both were Communists and supporters of the anti-fascist Popular Front; with the onset of German occupation, they carried their activism into the French Resistance.

They were arrested (separately) in March 1942 and executed (together) with other Resistance hostages on the outskirts of Paris.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Germany,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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